What a gorgeous early-Autumn night it was: Skies were clear, unseasonably high temperatures had mellowed, and a packed house at the Presbyterian Church of Chatham, NJ, was in place, anticipating a memorable performance by legendary singer-songwriter John David Souther. We were at an installment of the Sanctuary Concerts, a collection of shows featuring notables from the folk-country-Americana world. And on this night, spirits were high as we waited to see and hear the award-winning Detroit-born, Texas-raised artist, who made his mark as one of the pioneers of the Southern California/Laurel Canyon country-rock sound.
When the lights dimmed for the first time — the concert took place in the actual sanctuary beneath a huge white cross — we were treated to a performance by Judy Collins protégé Amy Speace. The Baltimore native, who spent six years honing her craft on the folk circuit while living in New Jersey and now resides in Nashville, was a revelation. A Sanctuary Concerts favorite, Speace is blessed with a multi-octave vocal range, great personality, and true lyrical insight. She favored us with self-penned highlights from her 2009 release The Killer in Me plus other sonic gems. Speace also displayed a quick, entertaining wit. She was a great opener and I look forward to seeing her again (you can hear her music on GDPR). Amy Speace is a major talent on the rise. Do check out her music and look for a new album, which is due for release in March 2011.
After the ubiquitous folkie intermission featuring coffee and cookies, the main event began: JD Souther appeared in a brown suit and tie looking fit, trim, and handsome alongside pianist Chris Walters, who provided beautiful accompaniment to the songwriter’s guitar. Souther, charismatic, charming (dare I say seductive?), and surprisingly chatty, started off with an apology for being a wee bit late, thanks to Jersey traffic. The annoyance allowed him, he joked, to learn a “new” song, which he shared with us: the classic Fats Waller tune, “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” Souther and Walters presented the standard in a stripped-down fashion that elegantly framed the singer’s smoothly weathered and soulful tenor. It made for a great beginning.
Souther played other covers too — “Bye, Bye Blackbird” and the mighty Duke Ellington’s “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” — but the real treat was hearing his own classic compositions (among them, “Simple Man, Simple Dream”; an Afro-Cuban flavored “Banging My Head Against the Moon”; and the irresistible “White Rhythm and Blues”); hits he penned for The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, and others (the gut-wrenching “Faithless Love”; “Sad Cafe”; “Heartache Tonight”); and selections from his latest, the jazz-influenced If the World Was You: “I’ll Be Here at Closing Time”; “Journey Down the Nile”; the stunning and sensual “The Secret Handshake of Fate.”
He did not do what I consider his modern classic, “I Just Want to Hold You Tonight.” Early in the set, an audience member shouted out a request, “Silver Blue,” a wonderful piece from Souther’s stellar and underappreciated 1976 LP Black Rose. The artist complied, but said from the stage that requests meant a shorter show. I wonder… In any case, his rendition of “Silver Blue” was magical, with lovely interplay between Souther and Walters, so we can forgive.
Next came a song Souther co-wrote for The Eagles, a poignant version of “New Kid in Town” that gained new luster from his guitar, which sounded like a resonator. Its shimmering addition made the performance (to this biased spectator) superior to the version played by Henley, Frey, & Co. Then again, I believe firmly that John David Souther is and always has been way cooler than The Eagles.
Naturally, the encore included his big hit, the Orbison-like “You’re Only Lonely.” I half-expected to hear the story he often tells regarding the tune (which he wrote for Ronstadt years before he recorded it), but Souther told another tale that surprised me: Knowledgeable fans know that “Lonely” came about when studio guitarist Waddy Wachtel begged John David to come up with a surefire hit record for the LP under production. Souther had the song, but couldn’t come up with a third verse; Wachtel advised him to repeat the first. Boom — Souther’s first hit for himself. (The song went to number one on Billboard’s adult contemporary chart, peaked at a still-impressive number seven on the pop ranking, and even made the top country singles chart.)
But JD revealed more with this telling of the tale: Originally, the title for the 1979 LP, ultimately called You’re Only Lonely, was to be the name of “another song” that Columbia Records nixed as the album’s title for fear it would be considered racist. (The song, which he did not name at the time, was “White Rhythm and Blues.” If you know the song — and several artists, including Ronstadt, have recorded it, but Souther’s version is the definitive one — you know the record execs had their heads where the sun doesn’t shine.)
After the show, I had an opportunity to chat with (and be charmed thoroughly by) John David, and, noting that the song in question had to be “White Rhythm and Blues,” asked him again about the stupidity of the Columbia suits. “Oh yeah, that’s the song, and this is an absolutely true story. They really thought someone would consider it racist,” he said, his eyes widening at the outrageous memory.
“Shows they didn’t even listen to it,” I said.
“Shows they didn’t know me,” JD added, sounding indignant all these years later. “I mean, racist? Give me a break. Half my band wouldn’t be called ‘white.’ My girlfriend at the time was Chinese. I mean, they didn’t get the song — or me — at all.”
I’d say “their loss,” but the album was a hit for Columbia.
In the end, though, the Sanctuary Concerts audience understood the song, and the assembled certainly appreciated the artist that was and is John David Souther. I told him he needs to get to Jersey more often. He replied that he really likes the state and indicated that his spending more time in New Jersey just might happen. A girl can dream.
Hat tip to my new bud Michael Laurio for the photo of John David and me.