GRAM PARSONS – ” The Albums “

Posted: February 7, 2022 in MUSIC

Gram Parsons, (November 5th, 1946 – September 19th, 1973) American singer, songwriter, guitarist, and pianist. Parsons recorded as a solo artist and with the International Submarine Band, the Byrds, and the Flying Burrito Brothers. He popularized what he called “Cosmic American Music”, a hybrid of country, rhythm and blues, soul, folk, and rock.

Parsons was born in Winter Haven, Florida, and developed an interest in country music while attending Harvard University. He founded the International Submarine Band in 1966, but the group disbanded prior to the 1968 release of its debut album, “Safe at Home”. Parsons joined the Byrds in early 1968 and played a pivotal role in the making of the seminal “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” album. After leaving the group in late 1968, Parsons and fellow Byrd Chris Hillman formed The Flying Burrito Brothers in 1969; the band released its debut, “The Gilded Palace of Sin“, the same year. The album was well received but failed commercially. After a sloppy cross-country tour, the band hastily recorded a second album “Burrito Deluxe”. Parsons was fired from the band before the album’s release in early 1970. 

Parsons had signed a solo deal with A&M Records and moved in with producer Terry Melcher in early 1970. Melcher, who had worked with the Byrds and the Beach Boys, was a member of the successful duo Bruce & Terry, also known as The Rip Chords. The two shared a mutual penchant for cocaine and heroin, and as a result, the sessions were largely unproductive, with Parsons eventually losing interest in the project. “Terry loved Gram and wanted to produce him … But neither of them could get anything done,”

He returned for a one-off concert with the Burritos, and at Hillman’s request went to hear Emmylou Harris sing in a small club in Washington, D.C. They befriended each other and, within a year, he asked her to join him in Los Angeles for another attempt to record his first solo album.

It came as a surprise to many when Parsons was enthusiastically signed to Reprise Records by Mo Ostin in mid-1972. The ensuing “GP” (1973) featured several members of Elvis Presley’s TCB Band, led by lead guitarist James Burton. It included six new songs from a creatively revitalized Parsons alongside several country covers, including Tompall Glaser’s “Streets of Baltimore” and George Jones’ “That’s All It Took”. At its onset, Gram had approached Merle Haggard to produce what would become the GP album. But Merle thought Gram a “hippie” lacking the salt-of-the-earth mentality. So Gram hired Merle’s recording engineer and mixer, Hugh Davies. He recorded both at country music’s favoured West Coast studio, Capital Records, and at rock’s palace of hits, the Wally Heider Studio in Hollywood. He instructed his manager to hire Elvis’ band to play on the sessions. “Gram had a real vivid impression of certain people like Elvis, Merle and others and he tried to follow in their footsteps, right down to the musicians,” commented Al Perkins. Eventually Gram was introduced to Emmylou Harris, someone he could sing harmony with in the best traditions of George Jones and Tammy Wynette.

Emmylou Harris assisted him on vocals for his first solo record, “GP”, released in 1973. Although it received enthusiastic reviews, the release failed to chart.  The musicians were guided by pianist and music director Glen D. Hardin. Al Perkins recalls Glen suggesting various parts to play on each song, with Gram seeing to it that Hardin and the band had plenty of time in the studio to construct, confer and create. “A lot of natural flow,” Perkins claimed.

Coordinating the spectacle as road manager was Phil Kaufman, who had served time with Charles Manson on Terminal Island in the mid-sixties and first met Parsons while working for the Stones in 1968. Kaufman ensured that the performer stayed away from substance abuse, limiting his alcohol intake during shows and throwing out any drugs smuggled into hotel rooms. At first, the band was under-rehearsed and played poorly; however, they improved markedly with steady gigging and received rapturous responses at several leading countercultural venues. According to a number of sources, it was Harris who forced the band to practice and work up an actual set list. Nevertheless, the tour failed to galvanize sales of “GP”.

His next solo recording album, “Grievous Angel”. His health deteriorated due to several years of drug abuse culminating in his death from a toxic combination of morphine and alcohol in 1973 at the age of 26. For his next and final album, 1974’s posthumously released “Grievous Angel“, he again used Harris and members of the TCB Band for the sessions. The record generally received more enthusiastic reviews than its predecessor, “GP“. Although Parsons only contributed two new songs to the album (“In My Hour of Darkness” and “Return of the Grievous Angel”), he was reportedly enthused with his new sound and seemed to have finally adopted a diligent mindset to his musical career, limiting his intake of alcohol and opiates during most of the sessions.

GP” was something of a triumph. Its follow-up, 1974’s “Grievous Angel”, was even better. No matter what his lifestyle was like, Parsons’ writing was at its very best, and his voice seemed fuller, more controlled and more heartfelt than ever. “Brass Buttons” could easily seem trite and sentimental – “The sun comes up without her / It just doesn’t know she’s gone” – but instead, it comes across as a truthful reflection on heartbreak. Parsons is alone, left only with “warm evenings, pale mornings, bottled blues” and he can’t help but reflect on the details of the life he has now lost, of “the tiny golden pins that she wore up in her hair”. And all along he knew, “it was a dream much too real to be leaned against too long”. All of which would count for nothing were it not to set an indelible melody: when Evan Dando – one of the best natural melodicists of the past 30 years – decided the Lemonheads were going to cover Gram Parsons on their “Lovey” album, this was the song he turned to.

Before recording, Parsons and Harris played a preliminary four-show mini-tour as the headline act in a June 1973 Warner Brothers country rock package with the New Kentucky Colonels and Country Gazette. A shared backing band included former Byrds lead guitarist and Kentucky Colonel Clarence White, Pete Kleinow, and Chris Ethridge. On July 14th, 1973, White was killed by a drunk driver in Palmdale, California, while loading equipment in his car for a concert with the New Kentucky Colonels.

Parsons, by now featuring Harris as his duet partner, toured across the United States as Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels through February–March 1973. Unable to afford the services of the TCB Band for a month, the group featured the talents of Colorado-based rock guitarist Jock Bartley (soon to climb to fame with the band Firefall), veteran Nashville session musician Neil Flanz on pedal steel, eclectic bassist Kyle Tullis (best known for his work with Dolly Parton and Larry Coryell) and former Mountain drummer N.D. Smart. One of the outstanding performances of that tour can be heard on Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels, Live, 1973, which was recorded before a live audience at radio station WLIR – FM in Hempstead, New York. The day after that show, Gram suggested to a friend that the previous night’s performance “might make one hell of a record.” This was the seed for the so called “Medley Live From Northern Quebec” that appears on Grievous Angel. “They wanted to record a live session with an audience but it could not be worked out” said Al Perkins. “So after we laid down the music tracks and some vocals in the studio, Hugh dug up some audience tapes, added additional sounds provided by Gram and friends.” To this day, people still think there are more ‘live’ tracks from “Northern Quebec!” In addition to music, Gram attempted to break other stereotypes. On stage for every show date of the tour, a Confederate flag was prominently displayed behind the drummer. 

The touring party also included Gretchen Parsons—by this point extremely envious of Harris—and Harris’ young daughter.

In the summer of 1973, Parsons’ Topanga Canyon home burned to the ground, the result of a stray cigarette. Nearly all of his possessions were destroyed with the exception of a guitar and a prized Jaguar automobile.

He then accompanied the Rolling Stones on their 1971 U.K. tour in the hope of being signed to the newly formed Rolling Stones Records; by this juncture, Parsons and Richards had mulled the possibility of recording a duo album. Moving into Villa Nellcôte with the guitarist during the sessions for “Exile on Main Street that commenced thereafter, Parsons remained in a consistently incapacitated state and frequently quarrelled with his girlfriend, aspiring actress Gretchen Burrell. Eventually, Parsons was asked to leave by Anita Pallenberg, Richards’ long time domestic partner.

Decades later, Richards suggested in his memoir that Jagger may have been the impetus for Parsons’ departure because Richards was spending so much time playing music with Parsons. Rumors have persisted that he appears somewhere on the legendary album, and while Richards concedes that it is very likely he is among the chorus of singers on the Stones “Sweet Virginia”, this has never been substantiated.

Gram sought to marry his love of traditional country music and his generation’s devotion to rock & roll. He felt that by affording each devoted audience the opportunity to share their love of music, maybe a move would be made toward the harmony that he believed possible. Gram Parsons’s relatively short career was described as “enormously influential” for country and rock, “blending the two genres to the point that they became indistinguishable from each other. He has been credited with helping to found the country rock and alt-country genres.

Gram Parsons

Parsons often retreated to the desert, Parsons consumed large amounts of alcohol and barbiturates. On September 18th, That night, after challenging Fisher and McElroy to drink with him (Fisher didn’t like alcohol and McElroy was recovering from a bout of hepatitis), he said, “I’ll drink for the three of us,” and proceeded to drink six double tequilas. They then returned to the Joshua Tree Inn, where Parsons purchased morphine from an unknown young woman. After being injected by her in room #1, he overdosed. Instead of moving Parsons around the room, she put him to bed in room #8 and went out to buy coffee in the hope of reviving him, leaving McElroy to stand watch. As his respirations became irregular and later ceased, McElroy attempted resuscitation. Her efforts failed and Fisher, watching from outside, was visibly alarmed. After further failed attempts, they decided to call an ambulance. Parsons was declared dead on arrival at Yucca Valley Hospital at 12:15 a.m. on September 19th, 1973, in Yucca Valley. The official cause of death was an overdose of morphine and alcohol.

The Albums:

1974Grievous AngelReprise195
1976Sleepless Nights (Gram Parsons & the Flying Burrito Brothers)A&M185
1979The Early Years (1963–1965) Folk recordings from the early 60’s of Gram’s group, The Shilohs. Sierra
1982Live 1973 (Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels) Recorded live at radio station WLIR-FM, New York with Emmylou Harris, Jock Bartley, N.D. Smart II, Neil Flanz and Kyle Tullis. Includes the Grammy-nominated duet “Love Hurts.”Sierra
1987Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud Loud Music (Flying Burrito Brothers)Edsel
1995Cosmic American Music: The Rehearsal Tapes 1972Magnum America
2001Another Side of This Life: The Lost Recordings of Gram ParsonsSundazed
2001Sacred Hearts & Fallen Angels: The Gram Parsons AnthologyRhino
2006The Complete Reprise SessionsReprise
2007Gram Parsons Archives Vol.1: Live at the Avalon Ballroom 1969
(Gram Parsons with the Flying Burrito Brothers)
2014Gram Parsons Live In New York 1973
(Gram Parsons with Emmylou Harris)

Also check out: Gram Parsons – A Music Biography – A book by Sid Griffin
Contains articles and interviews with some of Gram’s closest friends and associates including Emmylou Harris, Peter Fonda, Jim Stafford and Chris Hillman plus recently unearthed oral history from Gram himself. Over 150 photographs are featured, many previously unpublished, including Gram’s childhood, his days with Rolling Stone Keith Richards and his final tour in 1973.

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