Recently I asked some of my friends on facebook what they would like for me to write about in my next blog. The response was overwhelmingly in favor of hearing more about my time with Waylon & Jessi. So, what better place to start than at the beginning. This is one of the chapters from “Playin’ on the Tracks.” Enjoy!
Mr. & Mrs. Honky Tonk Hero
In the spring of 1975 Ken Mansfield opened another door for Barny and me that we stumbled through, only to have it quickly lock behind us. There would be no going back; forward was the only option. He had just finished co-producing an album with Waylon Jennings for his wife Jessi Colter on Capitol. She had a huge hit with “I’m Not Lisa” and it was breaking all kinds of records, “crossing over’ where no Country artist had gone before. Ken, knowing the way I sang and the way Barny played, felt that we’d be a good fit for her band. So when she came to town for her debut at the Santa Monica Civic, we got the gig.
I remember having more than one conversation with Ken’s wife wanting to give me an insider’s “heads up” about the margin for error that was always lurking. It was a pretty rough and rowdy world of life and music on the edge, and I was still a few weeks shy of my 21st birthday. I think she felt like a protective big sister. She wasn’t privy to some of the more dark parts of my story, and didn’t realize I wasn’t quite as green as I looked and sometimes acted, but I appreciated her intent.
A rehearsal was booked for us in one of the studios at the famous Capitol Records building on Highland Avenue. Waylon and Jessi were late, and the band, who was set up and ready to go, were standing around waiting for them to arrive so we could dive into the music. There was a lot to get done in a very short period of time, and I was beginning to wonder how this was all going to work when we were alerted to their arrival. I remember Waylon had been roarin’, and everybody was walking around on eggshells. I overheard a few of the guys saying that he wasn’t real happy about something to do with the record company. Shocker!
It’s kind of funny thinking back to first impressions. I was this little California hippie musician, wearing jeans and t-shirts with no makeup and long blond hair. Since “shy” was my default mode, especially in new situations, I was more than happy to be the invisible background singer. Barny was comfortable behind the keys, and the guitar player, Gordon Payne, was one of those guys I talked about earlier that used to come out and see us at the Palomino before he joined up with Waylon. He hadn’t been working with him all that long and was actually pretty quiet back then as well. Barny and I were more than a little guarded due to the unpredictable nature of the situation we were stepping into. Waylon’s well documented no bullshit reputation preceded him, and working as Jessi’s band was new territory for everybody.
He was the first one to enter the room, followed by an entourage of anxious looking people scurrying around to make sure the Boss was happy. He was a big man, and his swagger and energy made him seem even bigger. His hair was greasy, and he had a cigarette in his mouth. I could smell the Musk cologne he was wearing from across the room where I was standing. It took only about 30 seconds to conclude that it would be best for me to stay out of his way and not initiate any conversations. I was there to do a job, and I was going to do it. I was kind of half expecting him to look at me and fire me on the spot, just because he could.
Once he was through the door, Jessi and her people walked in, and I remember audibly taking in a big gasp of air. I don’t think I’d ever seen anyone that strikingly beautiful before, and I’m not exaggerating. It was like everyone in the room couldn’t take their eyes off of her. Where Waylon was big and commanding by his presence, Jessi was petite and incredibly glamorous and captivating in a very cool way. I’m sure you know what I mean if you’ve ever seen her in person, or looked at album covers. They both had a presence that was all their own, refusing to be diminished by a business that routinely ate up and spit out talent like a glutton at an ancient Roman feast. They were definitely a force to be reckoned with.
I hadn’t been working with women at all, and the way I looked fit well with the bands I was a part of. But in that moment, I became very conscious of what I was or was not wearing.
The introductions were brief, and I wasn’t sure either one of them could have picked me out of a line up later in the day if they had to. The pressure of success, and big success in particular, will wring you out, and it was evident in that moment that something was disturbing the force.
I had prepared myself for an intense rehearsal, knowing how very important this gig was for her, and frankly for me as well; you only debut once. We’d been working in situations where musicians and engineers would spend hours just tuning the guitar so I was resigned to a long and arduous day in the studio. I couldn’t have been more mistaken. After chatting it up with some of her friends in the room, Jessi eventually sauntered over to the piano and sat down. She played for a bit, kind of getting the feel of everything, and then the rest of the band started falling in where it felt right.
My mind was trying to make every left turn with them, holding on like a hobo catching a ride. I had memorized the background parts off the album and did my best to fit with Gordon’s vocals. At the same time I was using all of my past-learned skills to match her very challenging phrasing. It was one wild pressure cooker of a rehearsal, at least for me, anyway.
Every once in awhile, Waylon would explain things, and it was like he had his own language. The rest of the band had been with him long enough, and not only understood, but were fluent in their ability to converse. This was new to Barny and I, so we chose to listen close, absorb as much as we could, and then hope for the best.
As awkwardly as the rehearsal began, it ended. The two stars were swept up and rushed into their waiting cars for the next event of their long and demanding day. With the debut just around the corner, we went to the house and did our homework.
Interestingly for me, her big night at the Santa Monica Civic held an unexpected and truly spiritual moment. Barny and I didn’t know Jessi very well yet, but we knew there were some personal issues she was dealing with. I imagined how crushing the pressure of both her and Waylon’s careers must have been at times. She was trying to push these distractions aside and go out and give her much awaited live concert debut in hypercritical L.A. no less. I had seen her backstage earlier, and it was obvious she had an inner struggle going on.
I remember standing behind my mic and looking off stage, watching her, asking God to please help her. The crowd was ready and as the introduction finished I watched as she gracefully and confidently walked out and knelt beside her piano. It was like everyone was afraid to take a breath, not wanting to disturb this almost holy moment. She then sat down and played the single note intro to “I’m Not Lisa,” a song that put her at the top of the charts.
From the first step she took onto the stage she held that audience in the palm of her hand. Her smile and the ease in which she presented herself and her songs melted the heart of every would-be critic in the room. All the nerves and “what-ifs” of the days leading up to this crossroad in time were gone and the band as well as Jessi gave themselves permission to enjoy the music. I get chills just thinking about it. This would be one of many moments that I would witness Jessi sing her heart out for those who had ears to hear and spirits to embrace her journey.
Gordon once referred to me as a singer that sticks to an artist’s phrasing like flypaper. It was a compliment. There have been moments when rather than watching her, I would close my eyes and lose myself in the song, matching her phrasing better than I ever had with my eyes open. It’s all about the listening… I am blessed to call her “friend.”
From then on, whenever she was in town, whether it was recording or filming the “Midnight Specials” for TV, we got the call. It was a very exciting time.