December 19, 1997 – Jimmy Rogers was born James A. Lane on June 3, 1924 in Ruleville, Mississippi on June 3, 1924 and was raised in Atlanta and Memphis. Even though this blues singer, guitarist and harmonica player was best known for his work as a member of Muddy Waters’ band of the 1950s, he build quite a reputation as a solo act.
He learned the harmonica alongside his childhood friend Snooky Pryor, and as a teenager took up the guitar and played professionally in East St. Louis, Illinois. He then relocated to Chicago and by 1946 had recorded his first record as a harmonica player.
In 1947, Rogers, Muddy Waters and Little Walter began playing together as Muddy Waters’ first band in Chicago (sometimes referred to as “The Headcutters” or “The Headhunters” due to their practice of stealing jobs from other local bands), while the band members each recorded and released music credited to each of them as solo artists. The first Muddy Waters band defined the sound of the nascent “Chicago Blues” style (more specifically “South Side” Chicago Blues). Rogers made several more sides of his own with small labels in Chicago, but none were released at the time. He began to enjoy success as a solo artist with Chess Records in 1950, scoring a hit with “That’s All Right”, but he stayed with Muddy Waters until 1954. In the mid-1950s he had several successful releases on the Chess label, most featuring either Little Walter Jacobs or Big Walter Horton on harmonica, most notably “Walking By Myself”, but as the 1950s drew to a close and interest in the blues waned, he gradually withdrew from the music industry.
In the early 1960s Rogers briefly worked as a member of Howling Wolf’s band, before quitting the music business altogether for almost a decade. He worked as a taxicab driver and owned a clothing store that burned down in the 1968 Chicago riots that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He gradually began performing in public again, and in 1971 when fashions made him a reasonable draw in Europe, Rogers began occasionally touring and recording, including a 1977 reunion session with his old bandleader Muddy Waters. By 1982, Rogers was again a full-time solo artist. His final album was an all-star collaboration with rockers Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Stephen Stills and others paying their respects as guest participants. In 1995 Rogers was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
He died from colon cancer on December 19, 1997 at the age of 73 in Chicago Illinois.
December 19, 1997 – Jimmie Rogers was born Jay Arthur Lane in Ruleville, Mississippi on June 3, 1924. Raised in Atlanta, St.Louis and Memphis, he adopted his stepfather’s surname Rogers. He learned to play the harmonica with his childhood friend Snooky Pryor and as a teenager he took up the guitar.
Big Bill Broonzy, Joe Willie Wilkins, and Robert Lockwood all influenced him, the latter two when he passed through Helena. He started playing professionally in his late teens with Robert Lockwood Jr. in East St. Louis, Illinois .
Rogers then moved to Chicago in the mid-1940s. By 1946, he had recorded as a harmonica player and singer for the Harlem record label, run by J. Mayo Williams. Rogers’s name however did not appear on the record, which was mislabeled as the work of Memphis Slim and His Houserockers.
In that same year he began playing professionally, gigging with Sonny Boy Williamson, Sunnyland Slim, and Broonzy.
Rogers was playing harp with guitarist Blue Smitty when Muddy Waters joined them. When Smitty split, Little Walter was welcomed into the configuration and Rogers switched over to second guitar and as a direct consequence the entire post-war Chicago blues genre felt the stylistic earthquake that instantly followed.
Rogers made his recorded debut as a leader in 1947 for the tiny Ora-Nelle logo, but then saw his efforts for Regal and Apollo go unissued. Those labels’ monumental errors in judgment were the gain of Leonard Chess, who recognized the comparatively smooth-voiced Rogers’ potential as a blues star in his own right. (He first played with Muddy Waters on an Aristocrat 78 in 1949 and remained his indispensable rhythm guitarist on wax into 1955.)
With Walter and bassist Big Crawford laying down support, Rogers’ debut Chess single in 1950, “That’s All Right,” has earned standard status after countless covers, but his version still reigns supreme. Rogers’ artistic quality was remarkably high while at Chess. “The World Is in a Tangle,” “Money, Marbles and Chalk,” “Back Door Friend,” “Left Me with a Broken Heart,” “Act Like You Love Me,” and the 1954 rockers “Sloppy Drunk” and “Chicago Bound” are essential early-’50s Chicago blues.
In 1955, Rogers left Muddy Waters to venture out as a bandleader, cutting another gem, “You’re the One,” for Chess. He made his only appearance on Billboard’s R&B charts in early 1957 with the driving “Walking by Myself,” which boasted a stunning harp solo from Big Walter Horton (a last-second stand-in for no-show Good Rockin’ Charles). The tune itself was an adaptation of a T-Bone Walker tune, “Why Not,” that Rogers had played rhythm guitar on when Walker cut it for Atlantic.
By 1957, blues was losing favor at Chess, the label reaping the rewards of rock and roll via Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley. Rogers’ platters slowed to a trickle, though his 1959 Chess farewell, “Rock This House,” ranked with his most exciting outings (Reggie Boyd’s light-fingered guitar wasn’t the least of its charms).
In the early 1960s Rogers briefly worked as a member of Howling Wolf’s band, before quitting the music business altogether for almost a decade. He worked as a taxicab driver and owned a clothing store, which burned down in the 1968 Chicago riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Rogers gradually began performing in public again, and in 1971, when fashions made him somewhat popular in Europe, he began occasionally touring and recording, including a 1977 session with Waters. By 1982, Rogers was again a full-time solo artist. He continued touring and recording albums until his death.
He returned to the studio in 1972 for Leon Russell’s Shelter logo, cutting his first LP, Gold-Tailed Bird (with help from the Aces and Freddie King). There were a few more fine albums – notably Ludella, a 1990 set for Antone’s – but Rogers never fattened his discography as much as some of his contemporaries did.
He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1995.
Rogers died on December 19, 1997 from colon cancer. At the time of his death, he was working on an all-star project featuring contributions from Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards; upon its completion, the disc was issued posthumously in early 1999 under the title Blues, Blues, Blues.
December 16, 1997 – Nicolette Larson was born on July 17th 1952 in Helena, Montana. Her father’s employment with the U.S. Treasury Department forced frequent relocation on Larson’s family, not an easy task for a family of eight. The Larsons moved every couple of years and the young Nicolette was exposed to every genre of music from soul to pop via country. She especially liked Hank Williams and her singing was undoubtedly influenced by Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn, but her peripatetic childhood and varied taste would later be reflected in albums containing Tamla Motown material alongside songs by Sam Cooke, Burt Bacharah and Jackson Browne.
December 14, 1997 –Kurt Winter was born Kurt Frank Winter in Winnipeg, Manitoba, on April 2, 1946. He attended Daniel McIntyre Collegiate Institute. Winter commenced the development of his music career with a number of Winnipeg bands, including Gettysbyrg Address (1967, with later Guess Who bass player Bill Wallace), The Fifth (1968, with drummer Vance Masters) and Brother (late 1969, with Wallace and Masters). Brother was regarded as Winnipeg’s first supergroup, playing all original material, the live shows of which were greatly admired by vocalist Burton Cummings.
He was not involved in the writing of “American Woman”, the Guess Who’s international superhit in 1969.
November 10, 1997 – Tommy Tedesco (session guitarist) was born on July 3rd 1930 in Niagara Falls. It took him almost 30 years to make his way to the West Coast, but once there he became one of the most sought after studio musicians between the 1960s and the 1980s. Although Tedesco was primarily a guitar player, he also played the mandolin, ukulele, and the sitar as well as 28 other stringed instruments (though he played all of them in guitar tuning!).
Guitar magazine described him as the most recorded guitarist in history, having played on thousands of recordings, including the Beach Boys, Everly Brothers, The Association, Barbra Streisand, Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Zappa, Sam Cooke, Cher, and Nancy and Frank Sinatra. He recorded with most of the top acts in the Los Angeles arena. TV themes include Bonanza, The Twilight Zone, Green Acres, M*A*S*H, Batman, and Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special. Continue reading Tommy Tedesco 11/1997
October 19, 1997 – Glen Edward Buxton was born on November 10, 1947. He became an American guitarist for the original Alice Cooper band. In 2003, Rolling Stone ranked Buxton number 90 on its list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. In 2011, he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Alice Cooper band.
Born in Akron, Ohio, Buxton moved to Phoenix, Arizona and in 1964, while attending Cortez High School, made his debut in a rock band called The Earwigs. It was composed of fellow high school students Dennis Dunaway and Vincent Furnier (Alice Cooper). They were popular, and changed their name to The Spiders in 1965 and later to The Nazz in 1967. In 1968, to avoid legal entanglements with the Todd Rundgren-led Nazz, Buxton’s band changed their name to Alice Cooper.
October 12, 1997 – John Denver, was born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr in Roswell, New Mexico on December 31st 1943. At the age of 12, he received a 1910 Gibson acoustic jazz guitar from his grandmother and he taught himself to play it well enough to play locally as a teenager in groups such as the folk-music group “The Alpine Trio”.
John went on to become one of the most popular acoustic artists of the 1970s in terms of record sales, he recorded and released around 300 songs, about 200 of which he composed himself.
He was named Poet Laureate of Colorado in 1977. Songs such as “Leaving on a Jet Plane”, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”, “Rocky Mountain High”, “Sunshine on My Shoulders”, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”, “Annie’s Song” and “Calypso” attained worldwide popularity.
August 12, 1997 – Luther Allison (blues great) was born on August 17, 1939 in Widener, Arkansas. He was the 14th of 15 children, the son of cotton farmers. His parents moved to Chicago when he was in his early teens, but he had a solid awareness of blues before he left Arkansas, as he played organ in the church and learned to sing gospel in Widener as well. Allison recalled that his earliest awareness of blues came via the family radio in Arkansas, which his dad would play at night. Allison recalls listening to both the Grand Ole Opry and B.B. King on the King Biscuit Show on Memphis’ WDIA. Although he was a talented baseball player and had begun to learn the shoemaking trade in Chicago after high school, it wasn’t long before Allison began to focus more of his attention on playing blues guitar. Allison had been hanging out in blues clubs all through high school, and with his brother’s encouragement, he honed his string-bending skills and powerful, soul-filled vocal technique.
June 27, 1997 – Israel “Iz” Ka’ano’i Kamakawiwo’ole was born on May 20, 1959 in Honolulu, Hawaii, three months before the Hawaiian Islands would become America’s 50th state. In Hawaiian his last name translates to “the fearless eye, the bold face”. Notable Hawaiian musician Moe Keale was his uncle and became a major musical influence. He was raised in the community of Kaimuki, where his parents had met and married. He began playing music with his older brother Skippy and cousin Allen Thornton at the age of 11, being exposed to the music of Hawaiian entertainers of the time such as Peter Moon, Palani Vaughn and Don Ho, who frequented the establishment where Kamakawiwoʻole’s parents worked. Hawaiian musician Del Beazley spoke of the first time he heard Israel play, when, while playing for a graduation party, the whole room fell silent on hearing him. Israel continued his path as his brother Skippy entered the Army in 1971 and cousin Allen parted ways in 1976 for the mainland.
In his early teens, he studied at Upward Bound (UB) of the University of Hawaii at Hilo and his family moved to Mākaha. There he met Louis “Moon” Kauakahi, Sam Gray and Jerome Koko. Together with his brother Skippy they formed the Makaha Sons of Niʻihau. A part of the Hawaiian Renaissance, the band’s blend of contemporary and traditional styles gained in popularity as they toured Hawaii and the continental United States, releasing fifteen successful albums. Kamakawiwo’ole’s aim was to make music that stayed true to the typical sound of traditional Hawaiian music. During that time period, the songs that many people associated with Hawaii, typically, were not traditional-sounding songs.
The Makaha Sons of Niʻihau recorded No Kristo in 1976 and released four more albums, including Kahea O Keale, Keala, Makaha Sons of Niʻihau and Mahalo Ke Akua. In 1982, Kamakawiwoʻole’s brother, Skippy, died at age 28 of a heart attack related to obesity. In that same year, Kamakawiwoʻole married his childhood sweetheart Marlene. Soon after, they had a daughter whom they named Ceslie-Ann “Wehi”.
The group became Hawaii’s most popular modern traditional group with breakout albums 1984’s Puana Hou Me Ke Aloha and its follow-up, 1986’s Hoʻola. Kamakawiwoʻole’s last recorded album with the group was 1991’s Hoʻoluana. It remains the group’s top-selling CD.
In 1990, Kamakawiwoʻole released his first solo album Ka ʻAnoʻi, which won awards for Contemporary Album of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year from the Hawaiʻi Academy of Recording Arts (HARA). Facing Future was released in 1993 by The Mountain Apple Company. It featured his most popular song, the medley “Somewhere over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World”, along with “Hawaiʻi 78”, “White Sandy Beach of Hawaiʻi”, “Maui Hawaiian Sup’pa Man”, and “Kaulana Kawaihae”. The decision to include a cover of Somewhere Over the Rainbow was said to be a last-minute decision by his producer Jon de Mello and him.
Facing Future debuted at #25 on Billboard magazine’s Top Pop Catalogue chart. On October 26, 2005, Facing Future became Hawaii’s first certified platinum album, selling more than a million CDs in the United States, according to figures furnished by the Recording Industry Association of America. On July 21, 2006, BBC Radio 1 announced that “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World (True Dreams)” would be released as a single in America. Facing Future became the best-selling Hawaiian album of all time.
In 1994, Iz, nicknamed Bruddah Iz was voted favorite entertainer of the year by the Hawaiʻi Academy of Recording Arts. E Ala E released in 1995, featured the political title song “ʻE Ala ʻE” and “Kaleohano”, and N Dis Life (1996) featured “In This Life” and “Starting All Over Again”.
In 1997, Kamakawiwoʻole was again honored by HARA at the Annual Nā Hōkū Hanohano awards for Male Vocalist of the Year, Favorite Entertainer of the Year, Album of the Year, and Island Contemporary Album of the Year. He watched the awards ceremony from a hospital room.
Alone in Iz World (2001) debuted at #1 on Billboard’s World Chart and #135 on Billboard’s Top 200, #13 on the Top Independent Albums Chart, and #15 on the Top Internet Album Sales charts.
Throughout his life, Kamakawiwoʻole was morbidly obese and at one point weighed 757 pounds (343 kg; 54.1 st) standing 6-foot-2-inch (1.88 m) tall (body mass index = 97.2). He endured several hospitalizations because of health problems caused by his weight. Beset with respiratory, heart, and other medical problems, he died at the age of 38 in Queen’s Medical Center at 12:18 a.m. on June 26, 1997.
The Hawaiian state flag flew at half-staff on July 10, 1997, the day of Kamakawiwoʻole’s funeral. His koa wood coffin lay in state at the state capitol building in Honolulu. He was the third person in Hawaiian history to be awarded this honor, and the only one who was not a government official. Approximately ten thousand people attended the funeral. Thousands of fans gathered as his ashes were scattered into the Pacific Ocean at Mākua Beach on July 12, 1997. Scenes from the funeral and scattering of Kamakawiwoʻole’s ashes were featured in official music videos of “Over the Rainbow” released posthumously by Mountain Apple Company. As of October 2016, the two videos as featured on YouTube have collectively received over 279 million views.
June 16, 1997 – John Christian Wolters was born on April 28th 1945 in Pompton Lakes, New Jersey.
He became part of the already established country rock band Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show in 1973, when Jay David left the band, and stayed until 1985, when the band split up.
The band had a global smash with “Sylvia’s Mother” and a top-10 hit with “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” before Wolters replaced their original drummer on Fried Face (1974). In 1976 Dr. Hook (by then they had dropped the rest of their moniker) had a top-10 hit with a cover of Sam Cooke‘s “Only Sixteen” and a #11 hit with the title track of A Little Bit More.
Dr. Hook had several more hits including, the top-10 singles “Sharing the Night Together” (1978) and “When You’re in Love With a Beautiful Woman” (1979) as well as the top-five “Sexy Eyes” (1980).
The band had more than 35 gold and platinum LPs in Australia and Scandinavia, where they toured to large crowds until their 1985 split.
He died at age 52 of liver cancer in San Francisco, California on June 16, 1997.
April 8, 1997 – Laura Nyro was born October 18th 1947 in The Bronx, New York. Nyro was born Laura Nigro in the Bronx, the daughter of Gilda (née Mirsky) Nigro, a bookkeeper, and Louis Nigro, a piano tuner and jazz trumpeter. Laura had a younger brother, Jan Nigro, who became a well-known children’s musician. Laura was of Russian Jewish, Polish, and Italian ancestry.
As a child, Nyro taught herself piano, read poetry, and listened to her mother’s records by Leontyne Price, Billie Holiday and classical composers such as Ravel and Debussy. She composed her first songs at age eight. With her family, she spent summers in the Catskills, where her father played trumpet at resorts.
March 24, 1997 – Harold Melvin (The Blue Notes) was born on June 25, 1939 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
He became one of the driving forces behind Philadelphia soul, leading his group the Blue Notes. The group formerly known as The Charlemagnes took on the name “The Blue Notes” in 1954, with a lineup consisting of Harold as lead singer, Bernard Wilson, Roosevelt Brodie, Jesse Gillis, Jr., and Franklin Peaker.
The 1960 single “My Hero” was a minor hit and 1965’s “Get Out (and Let Me Cry)” was an R&B hit.
In 1970, Harold recruited Teddy Pendergrass as the drummer for his backing band. When that same year Teddy took over as lead singer from John Atkins, he became the undeniable superstar of the group, until his departure and subsequent death. The group had a string of hits “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, “I Miss You”, “The Love I Lost”, and “Don’t Leave Me This Way”, and socially conscious songs such as “Wake Up Everybody” and “Bad Luck” which holds the record for longest-running number-one hit on the Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart. (eleven weeks).
After Pendergrass left in 1976 for a solo career, Melvin continued to tour with various lineups of Blue Notes until suffering a stroke in 1996. Melvin died on March 24, 1997 at the age of 57. Lawrence Brown died of a respiratory condition on April 6, 2008 at age 63. In addition, three former members of the group would die during the year 2010. First, Teddy Pendergrass died of respiratory failure on January 13, 2010 at age 59, after having previously dealt with colon cancer. Six months later, original member Roosevelt Brodie, who was the second tenor for the original Blue Notes, died July 13, 2010 at age 75 due to complications of diabetes. And just five months later in that year, Bernard Wilson died on December 26, 2010 at age 64 from complications of a stroke and a heart attack. Pendergrass’ predecessor, John Atkins, died of an aneurysm in 1998. David Ebo, who succeeded Pendergrass, died of bone cancer on November 30, 1993 at age 43. Lloyd Parks is still living and is the sole survivor of the original Blue Notes.
March 10, 1997 – LaVern Baker was born Delores LaVern Baker on November 11, 1929 in Chicago. She began singing gospel as a child, but she was familiar with more secular styles, as well. Her aunt, Merline Baker, was better known as Memphis Minnie, a blues singer and guitarist. LaVern was blessed with a powerful voice, which she put to use as a teenager singing in nightclubs under the stage name Little Miss Sharecropper. She wore a straw hat and a dress made of patches.
February 9, 1997 – Brian Connolly was born on October 5th 1945 in Govanhill, Glasgow. Whilst the true identity of Brian’s father was never officially made public, his mother was a teenage waitress named Frances Connolly who left him in a Glasgow hospital as an infant whilst he was possibly suffering from meningitis. He was fostered, aged two, by Jim and Helen McManus of Blantyre and took their family name. In his earliest years Connolly was also affectionately known as “snowball” referring to his almost white blonde hair. In a radio interview, Connolly reported that singing was a large part of growing up since there was no television, and that he was regularly called upon to sing for family and friends. Connolly has credited the Everly Brothers as being his earliest musical influence. After inadvertently discovering his lineage he eventually reverted to the name Connolly. Numerous sources have incorrectly asserted that he was a half-brother of the late actor Mark McManus (who found fame in the title role of detective series “Taggart”) but they were not related ( Mark “Taggart” McManus was actually the nephew of Brian’s foster father)
January 2, 1997 – Randy Craig Wolfe aka Randy California was born on 20 February, 1951.
Jimi Hendrix gave him the name Randy California, to distinguish him from Randy Texas, who also played in Jimi’s backing band the Blue Flames, during his 1966 New York stint. His real name was Randy Craig Wolfe and he was lead guitarist and one of the founders of the Psychedelic Rock Band “Spirit” who gained worldwide recognition for songs like “Fresh Garabage”, “Mechanical World” and ‘Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus’ which introduced us to Mr. Skin.
January 1, 1997 –John Townes Van Zandt better known as Townes Van Zandt was born on March 7, 1944 in Fort Worth into a wealthy family. He was a third-great-grandson of Isaac Van Zandt (a prominent leader of the Republic of Texas) and a second great-grandson of Khleber Miller Van Zandt (a Confederate Major and one of the founders of Fort Worth). Van Zandt County in east Texas was named after his family in 1848. Townes’ parents were Harris Williams Van Zandt (1913–1966) and Dorothy Townes (1919–1983). He had two siblings, Bill and Donna. Harris was a corporate lawyer, and his career required the family to move several times during the 1950s and 1960s. In 1952 the family transplanted from Fort Worth to Midland, Texas, for six months before moving to Billings, Montana.
At Christmas in 1956, Townes’s father gave him a guitar, which he practiced while wandering the countryside. He would later tell an interviewer that “watching Elvis Presley’s October 28, 1956, performance on The Ed Sullivan Show was the starting point for me becoming a guitar player… I just thought that Elvis had all the money in the world, all the Cadillacs and all the girls, and all he did was play the guitar and sing. That made a big impression on me.” In 1958 the family moved to Boulder, Colorado. Van Zandt would remember his time in Colorado fondly and would often visit as an adult. He would later refer to Colorado in “My Proud Mountains”, “Colorado Girl”, and “Snowin’ On Raton”. Townes was a good student and active in team sports. In grade school, he received a high IQ score and his parents began grooming him to become a lawyer or senator.
The University of Colorado at Boulder accepted Van Zandt as a student in 1962. In the spring of his second year, his parents flew to Boulder to bring Townes back to Houston, apparently worried about his binge drinking and episodes of depression. They admitted him to the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, where he was diagnosed with manic depression. He received three months of insulin shock therapy, which erased much of his long-term memory. Later, his mother claimed her “biggest regret in life was that she had allowed that treatment to occur”. In 1965 he was accepted into the University of Houston’s pre-law program. Soon after he attempted to join the Air Force, but was rejected due to a doctor’s diagnosis that labelled him “an acute manic-depressive who has made minimal adjustments to life”. He quit school around 1967, having been inspired by his singer-songwriter heroes to pursue a career in playing music.
His music doesn’t jump up and down, wear fancy clothes, or beat around the bush. Whether he was singing a quiet, introspective country-folk song or a driving, hungry blues, Van Zandt’s lyrics and melodies were filled with the kind of haunting truth and beauty that you knew instinctively. His music came straight from his soul by way of a kind heart, an honest mind, and a keen ear for the gentle blend of words and melody. He could bring you down to a place so sad that you felt like you were scraping bottom, but just as quickly he could lift your spirits and make you smile at the sparkle of a summer morning or a loved one’s eyes — or raise a chuckle with a quick and funny talking blues. The magic of his songs is that they never leave you alone. Despite his warm, dusty-sweet voice, as a singer Van Zandt never had anything resembling a hit in his nearly 30-year recording career — he had a hard enough time simply keeping his records in print. Nonetheless, he was widely respected and admired as one of the greatest country and folk artists of his generation. The long list of singers who’ve covered his songs includes Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson (who had a number one country hit with “Pancho and Lefty” in 1983), Emmylou Harris, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Nanci Griffith, Hoyt Axton, Bobby Bare, the Tindersticks, and the Cowboy Junkies.
Van Zandt was a Texan by birth and a traveler by nature. His father was in the oil business, and the family moved around a lot — Montana, Colorado, Minnesota, Illinois, among other places — which accounted for his sometimes vague answers to questions of where he “came from.” Van Zandt spent a couple years in a military academy and a bit more time in college in Colorado before dropping out to become a folksinger. (Van Zandt often returned to Colorado in subsequent years, spending entire summers, he said, alone in the mountains on horseback.)
Van Zandt moved to Houston and got his first paying gigs on the folk music circuit there in the mid-’60s. He played clubs like Sand Mountain and the Old Quarter (where in 1973 he recorded one of his finest albums, Live at the Old Quarter, released four years later), and he met singers such as Guy Clark (who became a lifelong friend and frequent road partner), Jerry Jeff Walker, and blues legend Lightnin’ Hopkins, who had a large influence on Van Zandt’s guitar playing in particular.
Another Texas songwriter, Mickey Newbury, saw Van Zandt in Houston one night and soon had him set up with a recording gig in Nashville (with Jack Clement producing). The sessions became Van Zandt’s debut album, For the Sake of the Song, released in 1968 by Poppy Records. The next five years were the most prolific ofVan Zandt’s career, as Poppy released the albums Our Mother the Mountain, Townes Van Zandt, Delta Momma Blues, High, Low and in Between, and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt. These included such gems as “For the Sake of the Song,” “To Live’s to Fly,” “Tecumseh Valley,” “Pancho and Lefty,” and many more that have made him a legend in American and European songwriting circles.
Van Zandt moved to Nashville in 1976 at the urging of his new manager, John Lomax III. He signed a new deal with Tomato Records and in 1977 released Live at the Old Quarter, a double album — and the first of several live recordings — that contained many of his finest songs. In 1978 Tomato released Flyin’ Shoes; the long list of players on that album included Chips Moman and Spooner Oldham.
Van Zandt didn’t record again for nearly a decade, but he continued to tour. He moved back to Texas briefly, returning again to Nashville in the mid-’80s. During the early ’80s, both “If I Needed You” and “Pancho and Lefty” became country radio hits. In 1987, Van Zandt was back in business with his eighth studio album, At My Window, which came out on his new label, Sugar Hill. By this time, Van Zandt’s voice had dropped to a lower register, but the weathered, somewhat road-weary edge to it was as pure and expressive as ever. Two years later, Sugar Hill released Live & Obscure(recorded in a Nashville club in 1985), and two more live albums (Rain on a Conga Drum and Rear View Mirror) appeared on European labels in the early ’90s. In 1990, Van Zandt toured with the Cowboy Junkies, and he wrote a song for them, “Cowboy Junkies Lament,” which appeared on the group’s Black Eyed Man album (along with a song the Junkies wrote for him, “Townes Blues”).
Sugar Hill released Roadsongs in 1994, on which Van Zandt covered songs by Lightnin’ Hopkins, Bruce Springsteen, the Rolling Stones, and others, all recorded off the soundboard during recent concerts. At the end of that same year, Sugar Hill released No Deeper Blue, Van Zandt’s first studio album since 1987. Van Zandt recorded it in Ireland with a group of Irish musicians. Van Zandt sang every song but only played guitar on one.
Van Zandt continued writing and performing through the 1990s, though his output slowed noticeably as time went on. He had enjoyed some sobriety during the early 1990s, but was actively abusing alcohol during the final years of his life. In 1994 he was admitted to the hospital to detox, during which time a doctor told Jeanene Van Zandt that trying to detox Townes again could potentially kill him. A year and a half after the release of No Deeper Blue,Van Zandt died unexpectedly on January 1, 1997; he was 52 years old. Posthumous releases included collections like Last Rights: The Life & Times of Townes Van Zandt and Anthology: 1968-1979, as well as albums like 1998’s Abnormal and the following year’s Far Cry From Dead, which featured previously unreleased songs.
Townes Van Zandt was 52 years 9 months 25 days old when he died on 1 January 1997. Cause; lifelong alcohol abuse.
The early 2000s saw a resurgence of interest in Van Zandt’s music and enigmatic life; three book projects and two films entered production, and features on the musician appeared in such tastemaking rags as Mojo. But perhaps the greatest gem was the discovery of a collection of Van Zandt demos dating from 1966, a full two years before his proper debut. The ten previously unreleased recordings were issued by the Houston imprint Compadre in April 2003 as In the Beginning…. Included in the release were liner notes written by John Lomax III.