Rolling With the Punches

Welcome to my newsletter. James Taylor on the real story behind "You've Got A Friend." How bluesman Johnny Copeland changed my life. Billy Strings goes deep on the Dead. And more.

Welcome to Low Down and Dirty, my newsletter where I will be sharing thoughts on current musical and cultural events as well as some of my greatest moments from a long career writing about music, sports, culture, China, parenting and expat life - both published and unpublished.

I always welcome your feedback and questions – and will answer them in future editions. Please let me know what resonates with you most, so I can adapt going forward. This is ours together and I appreciate all of you early supporters. Welcome aboard and thanks for joining me on this journey.

A GOLDEN NUGGET…. SOMETHING OLD

I’ve been profiling musicians for The Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Confidential feature in the Saturday Review section over the past 18 months. Featured artists have included James Taylor, David Crosby, Jaimoe, Chuck Leavell, John Oates, Chris Frantz, Robbie Robertson, and, most recently, Willie Nelson. There are more in the works. One of the challenges of writing these pieces is summing up important, multi-decade careers in about 1,000 words. Another challenge is that I often do lengthy, excellent interviews and have to choose just a handful of quotes to use. A lot of great stuff gets left on the cutting room floor. I’ll continue to share some of my favorite previously unpublished parts of the interview here, in a feature I call Golden Nugget.

I’m starting this feature with Taylor, because I did a fantastic 75-minute interview with him and he was one of the most thoughtful, insightful people I’ve ever spoken with and a lot of great material got left out. I want to focus here on “You’ve Got A Friend,” the Carole King composition that was released simultaneously in 1971 on two landmark albums – King’s Tapestry and Taylor’s Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon. Both versions featured an almost identical band, including Taylor on acoustic guitar, Danny Kortchmar on guitar, Russ Kunkel on drums and Joni Mitchell on background vocals. This is not how things usually work! Taylor’s version became a number one hit and I was excited for the opportunity to ask him how this whole thing happened as it did.

His answer, shared here for the first time, about how he and King recorded different versions of “You’ve Got A Friend” at the same time:

“That was an unbelievably generous thing for Carole to have done -knowing that she had written this beautiful song that she's going into the studio to record, am I really going to have the first shot at it? I think part of it is that Carole is unbelievably generous, and felt some gratitude for me, because she said that the song was written in response to ‘Fire and Rain.’ In response to the line ‘lonely times when I could not find a friend,’ she wrote a song saying ‘you've got a friend.”’

“The first time I heard it, I just had to play it. We were in the studio recording Mud Slide Slim. and we had already recorded two tunes that day. We had two hours of studio time left on the second session that we booked. And it was often the case that we would choose a song just very much off the top of our heads and cut it without necessarily thinking we would even release it. That's how I cut 'Day Tripper.' That's how I cut 'How Sweet It Is.' It's how I cut 'Handyman.' We'd do a quick arrangement of songs that I knew and could come up with an arrangement very quickly. In the previous couple of days, I'd been playing 'You've Got A Friend' and I said, 'Let's cut that song of Carole’s.' And when we did, we were so free and careless of what we were doing that it was really loose and probably not what we would have done in a more studious environment. If you listen to Lee Sklar's bass part on that song, it's like he's crazily over-playing, like a virtuoso bass. That impossible thing the bass solo and Kootch also is just really blowing on it. And I'm trying things vocally and the harmony parts that Joni and I put on it is like a parallel fit. It doesn't really fit, yet it works really well.

“It turned out so great and we liked it so much that I sort of nervously awaited word on whether or not we could release it. We played it for Carole and afterwards I said, ‘I know we shouldn't have done it without asking you and you're completely in your right to say we shouldn’t release it. We expect you to say, “I've got to have the first crack at this one. It's such a good song.’ And instead she said, ‘No, go ahead.’ I think part of it is that Carole had been a tunesmith, she wrote commission songs, so placing songs with other people was very much in her. She wasn't really set in that singer songwriter thing like I was. She was still partially back in the Brill Building, and we benefited greatly from that.”

Here’s Taylor and King performing the song together on the BBC in 1971. This was newly remastered and cleaned up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Tapestry:

SOMETHING DOLLY

Have you all seen Dolly Parton getting her Moderna vaccine at Vanderbilt? she helped fund research with a $1 million gift. She is a national treasure.

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SOMETHING BLUE

My 28th anniversary was last week - February 27th - and every year on that day, I think not only of my wife Rebecca Blumenstein, who I’m incredibly grateful to have been able to spend my life with, but also of the late bluesman Johnny Clyde Copeland. And if that seems strange to you, I’ve got a story for you.

"The Texas Twister" was one of my favorites, an underrated singer/songwriter and guitarist who had as much heart, soul and wisdom as anyone ever. I met him in 1988, spring of my senior year at the University of Michigan. For a final project in my photography class, I had to do a photo journalism project, four or five photos that told a story. I decided to feature a musician’s gig. Johnny Copeland was coming to Rick’s American Cafe, the basement bar where I had worked my first two years of school and whre I really fell in love with the blues. It was there I saw, and served, Lonnie Brooks, Buddy Guy, KoKo Taylor, Son Seals, Albert Collins, Robert Cray and many others.

I met Johnny at the bar and took pictures of him and his band loading in and soundchecking. We went out to eat and then back at the club, we hung out for hours, as he smoked weed, sipped coffee and told tales. He also asked me a lot of questions about myself, with special interest focused on my love life. I told him that I had been in love and was in a heavy relationship that ended almost a year ago, partly because she and her family didn’t like the fact that I was Jewish.

“Was she white?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“You’re telling me white people don’t like other white people ‘ cause they Jewish?”

“Yeah, man.”

He didn’t believe me and returned to this question several times - but then I told him some happier news: I had just started dating someone who had been a friend for a few years and I really thought she might be the one. She was special. As I escorted him across campus for an interview on WCBN radio, we ran into Rebecca and a friend of ours from  The Michigan Daily, the college newspaper, in the middle of campus, just by the Diag. I introduced him and as we walked away, I told him who she was.

“That’s the one I told you about.”

“What one?”
”The girl I told you about. My new girlfriend.”
”What? You two shook hands!" he exclaimed, with disgust and bewilederment.

I explained that our relationship was a secret because we had both been seeing other people and it was a little messy. He stopped me on the street, held my arm and said, “That’s bullshit, man! If you got a girl you love, pull her close, kiss her and hug her and tell the world, ‘This is my girl!’ Nothing to be ashamed of, no matter what.And if you can’t do that for any reason, move along and find another girl.”

And so I did.  I told the world.

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Johnny died in 1997 after a valiant struggle with cardiac problems. His daughter Shemekia is a great singer and one of the main hosts on Sirius XM’s BB King Blues Channel and I recently did a great two-part interview with her for the Bluegrass Situation, which you can read here.

Thank you for everything you did for me and God knows how many others, Johnny. You were a prince. Amazingly, I found the negatives of the pictures I took that day during an early pandemic basement clean. The photo above is one of them. I’ll be sharing more here. Here’s a clip of Johnny with Stevie Ray Vaughan at the Montreux Jazz Festival. He was one of Stevie’s favorites. >>

AND SOMETHING NEW…

A recent listening highlight for me was the fabulous Billy Strings playing a series of live-streamed show in an empty Capitol Theater. If you don’t know this good and his killer acoustic guitar picking, it’s time to get acquainted. Dig in! Here’s a teaser of one set. I believe you have to pay to watch a whole show.

Alan Paul’s last two books – Texas Flood: The Inside Story of Stevie Ray Vaughan and  One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band  – debuted in the New York Times Non Fiction Hardcover Best Seller’s List. His first book was Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues and Becoming a Star in Beijing, about his experiences raising a family in Beijing and touring China with a popular original blues band. It was optioned for a movie by Ivan Reitman’s Montecito Productions.  He is also a guitarist and singer who fronts two bands, Big in China and Friends of the Brothers, the premier celebration of the Allman Brothers Band.

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