Sunday, June 7, 2020

Skyhill Studios | Lefsetz Letter

Mad Dogs & Englishmen killed Joe Cocker’s career.

But it built Leon Russell’s.

Cocker was an FM staple before most people had an FM rock station in their market. After all, this was 1969. In the metropolis, AM faltered, everybody tuned into the FM dial, music was defining the culture and if you wanted to know which way the wind blew you turned on the radio.

At least in major markets like New York.

My father had a Thunderbird with sketchy FM reception. But most radio listening was done at home. The biggest deejays were on at night, not in drive time. And you listened and listened and listened.

We’d started with transistors. But by the late sixties you needed a “stereo.” Hopefully made out of components, for that sound separation, to hear the detail that got buried on the radio.

It was “With a Little Help from My Friends” that got initial FM play. It was almost sacrilegious, reconstructing a Beatles song, from “Sgt. Pepper” to boot, but it was so innovative it became addictive.

And then there was the cover of “Feelin’ Alright”… Cocker took a Traffic album cut out of obscurity into the mainstream, and lined Dave Mason’s pockets forever.

And not long thereafter, in the same year of ’69, Cocker put out a second LP and the track that got the most airplay, the one that stood out from the rest of the album, was entitled “Delta Lady.” The horn part put it over the top, and the credits told us it was written by one Leon Russell, someone we knew not whatsoever.

The rest of the second LP was full of songs written by household names, Dylan, Cohen, John Sebastian and…the Beatles. Yes, this was the first time the world heard “She Came In Through the Bathroom Window,” sans the songs on either side of it in the “Abbey Road” medley. It was a curio. The track that enraptured you after “Delta Lady.” But it was “Delta Lady” that reached listeners first.

And at this time the credits were a gold mine, that’s where you learned about the music, there was no Wikipedia page, no internet whatsoever, and “Rolling Stone” was a mostly unknown publication based in San Francisco. You learned the names and then cross-checked them with other LPs and that’s how you gained your knowledge. You combed the record bins to further your education. Not that everybody was in the know. But plenty were. To the point when Leon Russell released his first solo album in March of 1970, I had to buy it. And…the version of “Delta Lady” blew the roof off of Cocker’s version. There was this Okie vocal, and the production was so over the top, with everything including the kitchen sink thrown in, all you could do was turn it up and luxuriate in the sound, as the background singers echoed Leon and the horns flourished and the finale encapsulated all the power of Hollywood, of rock and roll, it was a showstopper, where did they create this sound and how could I get more of it?

At the Mad Dogs & Englishmen show.

That’s what drove me to the gig. I needed to see Leon Russell. At this point I didn’t even own any Cocker albums, but to see the Master of Space & Time!

Not that we knew he was called that yet.

So I bought tickets to see the entourage at the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York.

It was different then. There were a few rock places. The Fillmores. But most other shows were one-offs, and although they were not scarce, it’s not like today, where your favorite band can play and you’re completely unaware of it. You combed the ads in the newspaper. And a certain segment of the public had to go. And I was one of them.

This was just when Joe Cocker was in the Woodstock movie. This was just before John Belushi imitated him in National Lampoon’s “Lemmings.” This was fully five years before most people saw the act on “Saturday Night Live.” This was months before the double live album was released. This was unknown. We knew there was a troupe, but when they hit the stage in the theatre!

It made no financial sense. Twenty-odd people on stage, never mind the associated hangers-on. They were not playing stadiums. But this was long before production was a necessary part of the equation. Sound and lights, that’s all you needed.

So, Mad Dogs & Englishmen was a triumph. Upon which Leon Russell achieved fame, and Joe Cocker drank himself into a giant beer belly and nearly disappeared. When Joe put out new music at the end of ’72, it was a disappointment. One can argue Cocker didn’t really come back until 1982, when he and Jennifer Warnes duetted on “Up Where We Belong” from the soundtrack of the hit movie “An Officer and a Gentleman,” and Leon Russell was nearly completely forgotten.

At the peak of his fame, Leon Russell went country when country certainly was not cool, with “Hank Wilson’s Back Vol. 1,” but before that he burned out the fans with a TRIPLE LP live album that was not only too long, but not too good.

But before that…

While Cocker was off nursing his beer, Leon took the Mad Dogs & Englishmen concept and doubled down on it, this time calling the entourage “The Shelter People” and now…

Leon Russell was a star.

There was the cover of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall,” and a rendition of “Beware of Darkness” from George Harrison’s monstrous three album set “All Things Must Pass,” but the track that put it over the top was the opening “Stranger in a Strange Land,” a more slowed-down “Delta Lady,” but once again including seemingly everybody available to work in L.A.

There was a follow-up, not as good as what came before, but bearing a soon-to-be standard, “This Masquerade,” although “If the Shoe Fits” nailed the phenomenon of hangers-on and “Out in the Woods” was swampy and infectious, and then there came that triple live album and Leon’s career went into decline but…

We’d read all the credits in the interim, and were aware these records had been cut at Skyhill Studios.

That’s the amazing thing about coming to L.A., the songs come alive! Not only did Frank Zappa write a song referencing El Monte Legion Stadium, he also had Flo and Eddie singing about Zachary All. Hell, you couldn’t even get the references until you journeyed to SoCal.

And we knew the studio names. And assumed Skyhill was just another joint on the boulevard.

But it wasn’t.

I never read the real estate section of the newspaper. It’s just not that interesting to me. I live in my mind more than a house. But Felice kept pointing out abodes in the “Hot Property” section of the “Los Angeles Times” and now I tend to peruse the Saturday section too.

And I was reading it yesterday and I saw:

“Leon Russell’s former home and studio lists in Hollywood Hills”

All those records were cut in a home studio! I had to completely rearrange my conception of their creation. Instead of parking on a main drag in Hollywood, or maybe in back in the parking lot, the players drove up into the hills where a house had been turned into a studio…

Which almost no one did until the eighties.

And now home studios are de rigueur.

But not then.

Not only were Russell’s LPs cut there, but seemingly all of the Shelter Records product.

I had to do some research.

Willis Alan Ramsey’s debut was cut at Skyhill! Unavailable for a long time, it was a cult item, revered by insiders, it contained “Satin Sheets,” which Shawn Colvin covered so expertly.

And Albert King and Don Nix and Freddie King and…the truth is most credits don’t cover all the details. And with a home studio, you’re not paying by the hour, so your friends can come by and…

Now on “UltimateClassicRock” they’ve even got pictures:

Leon Russell’s ‘Skyhill Studios’ Home on Sale for $1.398 Million

It doesn’t look like the home of rock and roll from the outside, then again, back then your exterior was secondary to your interior, rock stars were not in the gossip pages, you spoke with your music, it didn’t matter what you looked like.

And then on another page it said that J.J. Cale was the original engineer! It was not like today, where the industry is looking to promote the barely pubescent, at this point marketing was secondary to the music, and you were in the scene, paid your dues for a long time before everybody knew your name.

So I mapped it. Skyhill was across the street from Universal Studios. Back when you didn’t have to be rich to buy property in the hills.

I can’t get over this. My mental picture of the creation of all those albums has changed. They were not cut in the sterile environment of a commercial studio, but in a home, from which they spread out to the world as if they were produced in the finest, most expensive recording palace, what did we know, Skyhill Studios, sounded like an official place to me!

Leon’s gone. J.J. Cale and Denny Cordell too.

But the records live on. It was a brief moment in time. But it lasts forever, at least in my mind.


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