April 6, 2011

Elektra Records – 1973

(If you missed the first installment of this saga, you can find it here.)

(Listen to “Lover Baby Friend,” the first single from Dana Cooper’s 1973 debut LP, while reading the post that follows:

01 Lover, Baby, Friend by Dana Cooper

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I sit listening to my first album from 1973 and I am overwhelmed with emotions. They run all over the place. Always do. Looking back is not what  I want to spend my life doing. Yet, I do it everyday. Aren’t all our lives spent balancing amongst what we’ve done, what we are doing and what we hope to do? I am no different than you. Only our experiences vary.

The Entrance to the Elektra Records Studios in Hollywood, ca. 1973

The seventh decade of my own particular balancing act has already begun.  On the night of my 60th birthday (April 2)  I was fortunate enough to perform at Ebeltoft Kulturhus in Ebeltoft, Denmark with my talented young friends, The Sentimentals.  Fact is, I’ve always been fortunate even if I didn’t realize it at the time. I’ve been on the road since I was 19. That’s 41 years and counting. There I go again; then, now and someday.

I was young when I wrote the 10 songs I recorded for Elektra Records in 1973. The composition dates from the liner notes read 1971 and 1972. But I know some were written well before that. “Oklahoma Rodeo Queen” and “The Singer” reach back to 1968; “Grandpa” to 1969, and “Sweet City Man” 1970. The voice is mine but it too is very young. I was 21 when we recorded this album, and very grateful for the experience and serious about doing good work. Elektra granted me freedom to choose the musicians I wanted and with the help of my producer, Stan Farber, I got the best.

The list of musicians and engineers who worked on this album still amazes me. Playing live in the studio with these people was awe inspiring and I learned much about professionalism and dedication from each of them.

Leland Sklar

Russ Kunkel

Rather than choose one rhythm section over another, Stan and I decided to hire our two favorites. I wanted to play music with Leland Sklar and Russ Kunkel, who had earned a name for themselves as “The Section,” playing with such leading lights of the period as James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and Linda Ronstadt. Every thing I ever heard these guys play inspired me.  To this day whenever Jackson Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes” starts up, it’s as if I’m hearing it for the first time. The stripped down, raw energy of it still moves me.

Joe Osborn, first-call bassist for the famous session group The Wrecking Crew  had played for artists like The Mamas and the Papas and  Simon and Garfunkel. Now he was on board for my project! Jim Gordon, who was the drummer for The Everly Brothers, Derek and the Dominos,  Delaney and Bonnie, Joe Cocker, Traffic, Harry Nilsson, Frank Zappa — as well as co-writer of the anthemic “Layla” brought his enormous talent, no-holds-barred. These two powerful rhythm sections were the backbone of our project.

Al Perkins of The Flying Burrito Brothers played pedal steel guitar; the legendary Jim Horn played sax and flute; renowned producer/songwriter/musician/arranger Michael O’Martian played keyboards and accordion; Milt Holland, also of Wrecking Crew fame, whose dizzying discography includes Sinatra, The Beatles, Bernstein and The Rolling Stones, played tabla and showed me some of his mind boggling collection of percussion instruments from around the world; Gary Coleman whose many studio credits include Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye, played percussion; Gary Stovall (whose history I am woefully ignorant of ) played funky electric guitar on “The Singer;” Lee Holdridge, Emmy Award winning composer and orchestrator of film and television, arranged and conducted the 18 piece orchestra, none of whose names are listed. What a shame.

Engineers on the album included Bill Schnee, who had worked with Barbara Steisand and Three Dog Night and has since become a mega producer; Armin Steiner, pioneering engineer who worked with the likes of Neil Diamond and Bread;  and Bruce Morgan, engineer for fellow Elektra label mates Harry Chapin and Paul Siebel.

Looking again at the liner notes, I see a special thanks was given to Bill Barnett. This good gentleman gave me a place to stay when I arrived in Los Angeles and introduced me to Stan Farber who took me around to every record label in town and stood up for me, always looking out for my best interest. I couldn’t have made this record without these two men. Stan and I have remained in contact through the years. He is living in Austin and still singing like a pro. Bill and I have regretfully lost contact. I’d love to reconnect with him if anyone knows of his whereabouts. Most of these folks are alive and kicking and I recommend you check them all out on the internet. You will be astounded at their accomplishments, then and now.

Marlin Greene ca. 1970s

Marlin Greene was not mentioned  on the album, perhaps because he was an A&R executive working for Elektra.  I want to correct that oversight now: Marlin was the man who first heard me at Elektra and it was his dedicated effort that eventually won me my record deal. Marlin is a gifted singer songwriter and recording artist in his own right.  As a very young man he co-produced Percy Sledge’s legendary hit, “When a Man Loves a Woman” while working at the infamous Muscle Shoals Studio. Today Marlin is an accomplished photographer and web designer. He recently reissued his Elektra Records album, “Tiptoe Past the Dragon.”

During this time I lived in a garden studio apartment on Holloway just a few blocks from the Elektra studios on La Cienega. A lovely old Russian lady named Sonia owned the apartment building built by her and her husband in the 1930’s. Sonia sort of adopted me. I rented two different apartments from her over the next two years. She gave me my first glass of fresh squeezed carrot juice and shared recollections of the old, mythical Hollywood.  She was always encouraging and patient.

I walked to all the sessions from my apartment, past eucalyptus and lemon trees, entering the big wooden front doors, stepping into the spacious Spanish tiled  offices replete with a circular fountain in the middle of the entryway. We recorded over a period of several months, booking studio time whenever it was available, waiting around anxiously when it wasn’t. All the songs were performed live with the players isolated behind baffles in one big room. This way we could see one another, keeping close contact which made for tighter, more energetic performances.

Leland Sklar, Dana, Russ Kunkel - Summer 2010

I remember Russ Kunkel and Leland Sklar were particularly enthused about the work. They were often willing to stay a while after recording to listen to playbacks or to run through ideas for the next day’s sessions. Recently I met up again with Lee and Russ while opening concerts for my friend Lyle Lovett. I was pleasantly surprised that they still remember working with me all those years ago and that they are playing stronger today than ever.

Stan mentioned that Larry Carlton was available for sessions and I was floored. I knew of his phenomenal work with Steely Dan and The Crusaders so we invited him to work his magic on what seemed an appropriate track. Funny things happen in the studio and tough calls are made. In the final mix Carlton’s part was left out simply because it didn’t work with the rest of the track. Make no mistake, what he played was amazing and I hated making that decision.

I really wanted fiddle on “Old K-10 Plus Two” and Vassar Clements was the fiddler I wanted. Stan gave Vassar a call and, to my amazement, he showed up next morning fiddle in hand. He played his heart out, we chatted a while, shook hands and exchanged thanks. By the time the mixing was done, his contribution was not included either. To this day I don’t enjoy excluding anyone’s efforts from a recording. But I even do it to myself sometimes.

Jim Gordon was a consummate professional. One hell of a drummer. Yet he kept very much to himself, leaning against a wall during playbacks, sometimes muttering inaudibly with his eyes closed. One day while we took a ten minute break Jim sat at the piano and began playing the closing passage of Layla, which he wrote with Eric Clapton. I soaked up every moment of playing music with him. It is sad to know that this gifted musician, so lauded and acclaimed would one day kill his own mother at the urging of voices only he could hear. An undiagnosed schizophrenic, he would not be able to plea insanity, was convicted of second degree murder and remains in prison to this day.

Once we finished tracking with all the musicians I added some harmonies then we began the mixing process began. I had worked in recording studios a few times before but never to this extent. It was fascinating going through the painstaking process of isolating each instrument, listening for extraneous noise, equalizing and adjusting levels then putting it all back together and readjusting again until all the pieces fit sonically. When all the ears at Elektra finally heard what we had done the response was laudatory. I was proclaimed by the execs as the best singer on their label. Where they had once told me not to be concerned about releasing a single until I had recorded another album, now it was demanded of me to choose a single for radio play. We all agreed that would be “Lover, Baby, Friend” which featured a scorching sax solo by Jim Horn.

Elektra’s visual image was as unique as it’s musical one. Renowned young photographer Ed Caraeff was chosen to shoot the album cover. I went to his home in Coldwater Canyon just down the street from where he had photographed the cover for The Byrd’s “Farther Along” LP. He, his wife and their imposing Bull Terrier were quite hospitable. We talked about cover ideas, played with the dog, he shot many rolls of film outside and inside their home. It was all relaxed, loose and creative. At 15 Ed Caraeff  had  taken one of the most iconic rock photos ever of Jimi Hendrix coaxing the flames from his guitar at Monterey Pop Festival. He had photographed Jim Morrison, Tom Waits, Carly Simon, Captain Beefheart, Tim Buckley, Elton John, Leon Russell, Rod Stewart, Dolly Parton, Tina Turner, The Everly Brothers, Janis Joplin and now he was photographing me in his own home while we listened to mixes of my soon to be released album. Surreal.

The final cover was a collage of my face imposed into a mirror frame that hung in Ed’s living room. The back cover was a full shot of me sitting beneath that same mirror surrounded by all the Caraeff’s cool shit, holding a cigarette and a glass of booze. My Gibson Heritage stands in the shadows humbly while I look cocky and a bit inebriated. I look at that guy now smiling at me from the back of that fading LP jacket and he doesn’t look ready for what’s about to happen. Now I know he wasn’t.


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