Through the years, one of the most fun and (at least intellectually) rewarding things I’ve done professionally is writing liner notes for albums by recording artists ranging from the Jazz Crusaders to the de Castro Sisters; from Pat Boone to the cast of “Bonanza,” and from Mel Blanc to Rick Nelson. I’ve done several dozen of them, for numerous big and small labels, and I can’t think of one I didn’t enjoy researching and writing.
The college I attended (at least the one I claim) is a “great books” school, where students rely entirely on primary sources: you don’t read “about” Euclidean geometry; you read Euclid. In Greek. And so on.
For various reasons, I only lasted two years at St. John’s, but that was enough to instill some values in me; one of which was to go to the source, wherever possible. I’m not distinguishing myself from other liner note writers, most of whom also try to deal with the artists whenever possible (some don’t bother; others, including me in a couple of cases, are warned against dealing with an artist the label doesn’t want to “meddle” in the project). And of course, some of the times, the artist is no longer available to be interviewed by anybody, being dead.
Still, there’s usually somebody available; and in many cases those on the sidelines are at least as informative as the artist.
Songwriters are my favorite; they always have interesting stories, and unless they’re household names (usually as performers), they haven’t been overburdened with interview requests through the years. I’ve also spoken with recording engineers, arrangers, producers, sidemen, label executives, and members of the act’s bands. Anybody with first-hand experience. I may not be the only person who does this, but I like to think of the use of a lot of firsthand quotes as a sort of trademark. Oddly, perhaps, nobody from a label has ever mentioned that; I wonder if they even notice, or care. Also, I will occasionally see where the writer has conducted some firsthand interviews, but uses few if any direct quotes. “What a waste,” I think.
I’ve had some exceptional fortune. When I was writing about Frankie Laine, Clint Eastwood spoke with me about “Rawhide.” I’d been trying to get to Johnny Cash to talk about himself (generally relative to an upcoming personal appearance) for decades without luck; it wasn’t until I was writing about Rick Nelson’s “Restless Kid” that Cash, who wrote the song for “Rio Bravo” (where it wasn’t used), would speak with me.
Other times, I’ve had less luck, Two musicians significantly involved in Frankie Laine’s records went on to long and distinguished careers under their own names. Laine considered them proteges; neither of them wanted to talk about their work with the singer. I went back-and-forth with one’s publicist for several months; I actually spoke with the assistant of the other, who always referred to her boss as “the maestro.” Both were said to have been “on tour,” to places, presumably, without access to telephones.
I’ve had no luck with film directors, either: Blake Edwards through his assistant wasn’t available to talk about the Frankie Laine vehicles he’d directed in the years of his career pre- “Pink Panther’ and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”; likewise Taylor Hackford, who early in his career worked on a Rick Nelson documentary. George Sidney, who’d directed three Ann-Margret vehicles including “Bye Bye Birdie” and “Viva Las Vegas”, wouldn’t speak to me on the record (he did take my call, then clammed up) until he received permission from the actress.
Speaking of whom:
I’d tried to get Ann-Margret for a year, through her management, who came up with one delay after another. And the day (literally) of my deadline, she came through. I took some quotes and plugged them into what I’d already written. And this was for an Ann-Margret box!
Another time, I’d spoken with every member of Steppenwolf except keyboardist Goldie McJohn and lead guitarist Michael Monarch, though I’d sent out missives trying to locate Monarch, especially, all over the place for some time. The day after I handed in my copy, the phone rang. “Hi, this is Michael Monarch. I hear you’ve been trying to get hold of me.”
We had to do without his input.