Gram Parsons Discography
Gram Parsons Bibliography
Folk music activity:
Cambridge had been home base for the likes of Joan Baez; her sister Mimi Fariñ&a and Mimi's husband Richard Fariña; Tom Rush; Bob Neuwirth; Eric von Schmidt; Geoff and Maria Muldaur; and Jesse Colin Young. It was also home away from home for most of the musicians headquartered in Greenwich Village.
Ian Dunlop cites two records that inspired the original foursome who comprised the International Submarine Band.
The first of these was the Ray Charles LP, Country and Western Meets Rhythm And Blues (ABC, 1965), released in the fall of '65. On his earlier and more popular forays into country, Charles had applied glossy pop arrangements to country standards, but on this album Charles arranged similar material with some R&B grit.
The second polestar for the ISB was Roll Out the Red Carpet for Buck Owens and his Buckaroos (Capitol, 1966). Owens, as usual, eschewed the countrypolitan arrangements of Nashville and played with a gutsier, nearly rock sound. On this album, he also covered R&B material like "Save the Last Dance for Me" by the Drifters, drawing the same connection between country and soul that Ray Charles had demonstrated earlier. Parsons would later incorporate this link into his theory of "Cosmic American Music."
Norman Jewison farce:
The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming, directed by Norman Jewison, was a popular comedy in 1966. The Cold War spoof was based on Nathaniel Benchley's novel, The Off-Islanders, and starred Alan Arkin, Carl Reiner, Theodore Bikel, Eva Marie Saint, Brian Keith and Jonathan Winters. It received a pair of Golden Globe Awards and two Oscar nominations.
Nancy Ross led a colorful life even before Gram Parsons entered it. Her father was a captain in the Royal Air Force; she grew up in Europe, Morocco, and Santa Barbara. There she met David Crosby, and the two became friends as teenagers.
At sixteen she married Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's grandson, Rex. That marriage lasted about two years.
She got her own apartment and began working as restaurant designer for the owner of the Whisky-A-Go-Go. Around this time, she had an affair with Steve McQueen.
David Crosby soon reentered her life, and she lived with him in his Beverly Glen house. She was "supposed to marry David in about three weeks" when Brandon de Wilde brought Gram Parsons over for a visit. Within weeks she was in New York with Parsons. Crosby's autobiography does not mention Ross, but Peter Fonda's 1998 autobiography, Don't Tell Dad, mentions that Crosby cut short a trip with Fonda around the end of 1966 because he was afraid that Gram Parsons was trying to steal his girlfriend. Fonda notes that Parsons did just that.
The Trip was a project of the young Hollywood crowd who were all friendly with the Byrds. It starred Peter Fonda, Susan Strasberg, Dennis Hopper, Bruce Dern and Peter Bogdanovich. Jack Nicholson is credited with the screenplay, although the final version bore little resemblance to his original script. In the hands of impresario Roger Corman, the film became a B-movie about the drug culture.
The International Submarine Band covered five country numbers and one rocker: "Somebody Else You've Known," by Merle Haggard; "Miller's Cave," a Jack Clement song that had been a hit for Bobby Bare in 1964; "Satisfied Mind," a country standard by Red Hayes and Jack Rhodes that had been a hit for Porter Wagoner in 1955; "I Still Miss Someone," a Johnny Cash song from his tenure at Sun Records in the '50s; and a medley featuring two other Sun hits, Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and Arthur Crudup's "That's Alright Mama," which had been Elvis Presley's first single in 1954.
To read about the Shilos and other musical projects from the formative years of Gram Parsons, see Gram Parsons: The Early Years, 1960-1965.
Gram Parsons & the Like
Cambridge, Massachusetts had been a center of folk music activity throughout the late '50s and early '60s. Coffee house folkies, jug band outfits, bluegrass combos (including the Kentucky Colonels) and blues musicians played to enthusiastic and knowledgeable listeners, many of them students. That scene had peaked before Parsons arrived, though. The British Invasion had caught the ears of the public -- and of many of the musicians. The success of the Byrds the previous spring inspired several of these artists to plug in and head west.
Boston wasn't completely dead, however; the city had a growing rock scene led by the Remains. Several members of this band would play a role in the future of Gram Parsons.
Parsons wasted no time finding other musicians to play with. His first group was called the Like; its members were students at the Berklee School of Music and not a very good match for a folksinger like Parsons. Around the same time, he met John Nuese, a guitarist with a local group, the Trolls.
Nuese was a serious fan of country music, and his enthusiasm seems to have rekindled Parsons' interest in the country music he heard during his youth. "I was the only one with experience playing and listening to a lot of country music," said Nuese years later. "Gram, who had been exposed to country music during his formative years, was doing commercial folk music. It was my influence that turned [the International Submarine Band] on to country music. For instance, Gram didn't know what was going on in country music. He knew no Buck Owens, or say, no Merle Haggard. Nor had other members of the band. When I turned them on to these singers, they all liked it very much and were caught up, totally hooked by the music."*
Many people claim to have turned Parsons on to country music, but Nuese's claim seems justified, given the shift in Parsons's musical interests around this time. And Parsons confirmed his account in a 1972 bio for Warner Bros.: "...the guys in the ISB were important; they always had their ears open and they actually reintroduced me to country music after I'd forgotten about it for ten years."*
Parsons ditched the Like except for Tom Snow, a jazz pianist. Nuese knew a bassist and sax player named Ian Dunlop, with whom he had played in a group called Happy Pantaloon and the Buckles. This drummer-free foursome became Gram Parsons and the Like. Eventually they found a drummer in Mickey Gauvin, who beat the skins with a wild white-boy soul combo from Baltimore called Roger Paice. Gram Parsons and the Like played an eclectic combination of country, folk, early rock and R&B.
The International Submarine Band v. 1.0
Around this time, Parsons befriended Brandon de Wilde, a former child film star who was looking to get into music. De Wilde had a surprisingly good voice -- indeed, Nuese later claimed that de Wilde sang harmony with Parsons better than anyone besides Emmylou Harris. De Wilde left Boston for New York to work on his music career. He quickly lined up a recording session and asked the band to come down to New York and back him on the session.
When they arrived, they decided their odds looked better in New York and decided to stick around. Parsons dropped out of Harvard after four months, having spent most of his energy on music and LSD instead of school. Snow was out of the picture, but the others rented a house in the Bronx with money from the Parsons trust fund, and renamed themselves the International Submarine Band. The name came from an old Our Gang comedy in which the kids auditioned for a radio program and called themselves "The International Silver String Submarine Band." Inspired by the genre-bending efforts of Ray Charles and Buck Owens, the ISB explored country, rock, and R&B.
The band played out, toured a bit, and shopped its demos. In April of '66, they landed a job that resulted in their first single, a cheesy instrumental called "The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming." The song was composed by Johnny Mandel for the Norman Jewison farce of the same name. The B-side was more in character -- a rocking version of a Buck Owens song called "Truck Driving Man." The single came out on the small label Ascot and promptly disappeared.
A few months later, Columbia agreed to release a second single. This time, the result was more promising. "Sum Up Broke," the A-side, was a rocker with words by Parsons and music by Nuese. The flip, "One Day Week," was a more countrified number by Parsons. The band's luck was no better with the Columbia single. "We found that we had become like a computer card in the great huge file at Columbia Records," recalled Nuese. "And although they had us signed and had something in the can, they really didn't do anything with it."*
In November of '66, Parsons took a trip to Los Angeles to visit Brandon de Wilde, who was working on a film there. Through de Wilde, Parsons met a beautiful young woman named Nancy Ross who was living with David Crosby -- until Parsons swept her off her feet and back to New York.
Upon his return to the Bronx, Parsons immediately began to advocate that the band head out to LA. They didn't need much persuading -- the consensus was they had exhausted their opportunities in New York City. LA had a thriving rock music scene -- the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, the Turtles, Love, the Doors, and so on. But California was the home to a fertile country music industry as well, thanks to the steady influx of Southerners and Dust Bowl refugees since the Depression. Bakersfield in particular had become a recording center for those who liked their country music grittier than the candyfloss then dominant in Nashville -- artists like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Parsons found a house for the band in Laurel Canyon, and an apartment for himself and Nancy Ross on Sweetzer Avenue.
Through de Wilde the band met Peter Fonda, who took a liking to Parsons. Fonda got the band a job on a psychedelics-ploitation film he was making for Roger Corman called The Trip. The Submarine Band appears in the film, performing in a nightclub. In connection with the film, the band went into the studio, with South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela producing, and recorded a Chuck Berry-styled rocker called "Lazy Days."
Unfortunately for the band, someone in charge decided (with some justification) that the ISB's music wasn't particularly lysergic, so "Lazy Days" was never released, and the nightclub scene was overdubbed with the music of the Electric Flag.
Peter Fonda, like Brandon de Wilde, entertained notions of his own music career. In 1967, he released a single on the Chisa label of the Parsons song "November Nights," a folk-styled tune dating from his pre-ISB period with The Like. The flipside was a cover of Donovan's "Catch the Wind." Fonda's musical career was no more successful than de Wilde's.
The Sub Band played out on occasion, but not often enough for some of the members. To compound their frustration, Parsons had taken to playing at honky-tonks around LA, sometimes solo and sometimes as a duo with his friend Bob Buchanan. These disagreements came to a head in May '67 when Parsons announced that he wanted the band to cut back on the rock and R&B and concentrate more on country. Country fan Nuese agreed with this agenda and stuck with Parsons, but bassist Ian Dunlop and drummer Mickey Gauvin took the opportunity to form their own band.
Dunlop and Gauvin had been hanging out with Barry Tashian and Billy Briggs of the Remains , who had followed the Sub Band west. This foursome and an amorphous line-up of musical friends and sympathizers performed country, rock and soul around Los Angeles under the name the Flying Burrito Brothers. The original Burritos deliberately eschewed the music industry -- they didn't want to get signed, they didn't want to have hits, they just wanted to play the music they liked. The ISB split was fairly amicable; Parsons actually played with the Burritos during their first gig and occasionally thereafter.
The International Submarine Band v. 2.0
Ironically, the fission of the Sub Band occurred just days before their big break. The band's manager had invited a friend over to watch rehearsals. The friend was a would-be record producer named Suzi Jane Hokom, the girlfriend of impresario Lee Hazlewood and an employee of his record company, LHI Records. Within days, the International Submarine Band -- now just Parsons and Nuese -- had an album contract with LHI.
The pair needed to get a band together to record the album. Parsons contacted one of his old drummers from the Legends, Jon Corneal. Corneal had been making a good living as a session drummer in Nashville, but he agreed to come west and join the ISB. Session musicians were hired to augment this threesome: Joe Osborn on bass, Earl "Les" Ball on piano, and Jay Dee Maness on pedal steel. In July, the group went into the studio and cut the two sides of the first Sub Band single for LHI, "Luxury Liner" and "Blue Eyes," both Parsons compositions.
The rest of the band's album, Safe at Home (LHI, 1968), was recorded in November '67. Chris Ethridge joined on bass -- Mike Bloomfield of the Electric Flag had referred him to Parsons. Bob Buchanan provided backing vocals, as did Hokom. (Some sources also say that Glen Campbell sang backing vocals as well.) Another pair of Parsons originals were recorded, "Do You Know How It Feels To Be Lonesome" and "Strong Boy," along with six covers that showed where the band's influences were (among them the standard "Satisfied Mind," which had been covered by the Byrds on Turn! Turn! Turn!). The album was finished in December of '67, but it sat in the can during several months of legal wrangling caused by the next career move of Gram Parsons.
The story of Gram Parsons continues in Gram Parsons & the Byrds: 1967-1968.
"...[H]ooked by the music" Quoted in Griffin, Gram Parsons at 48.
"The guys in the ISB..." Quoted in Griffin, Gram Parsons at 57.
"...[A] computer card" Quoted in Griffin, Gram Parsons at 48.
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