Career as a folk recording artist
In spite of all the information I have obtained from various sources, John’s career in the recording industry has been quite difficult to find detailed information on. No doubt, this is largely a result of the fact that this part of his time in this part of the music industry was relatively short, and as far as notability, his career never really took off.
A number of months after my initial post on Braden, I was contacted by a gentleman named Walter Michael Harris who played drums for John on a demo back in 1967, well before he was signed to A&M Records. He said he met Braden through composer/performer John Herbert McDowell and recalls playing a "clip-clop" beat on "Carriage House Song" and brushes on "Mr. Bojangles on a group of recordings that likely helped Braden sign his record deal. While that session was largely the full extent of his time with Braden overall, he remembered him being very likeable, and further, found the release that would follow on A&M to mask some of John's "simple, sweet" sound. He went on to say that John had a "unique voice and musical sensibility," and that he felt their demo may have done better than Braden's subsequent LP in capturing certain elements of Braden's true artistry. Quite interesting finding out where some of the folks from these days end up, as Harris went on to become the youngest cast member in the original Broadway cast of HAIR in 1968 and now runs a non-profit in Seattle called Power of Hope. As a short side note, Harris's brother Hibiscus was a notable entertainer as well, and was founder of the Cockettes, whom you can read more about here.
Billboard notes the signing of Braden in the Nov. 16th, 1968 issue. While over 40 years since the release of the album, I have been fortunate enough to speak with a couple of folks who played on the record, although understandably the sessions aren't exactly crisp in everyone's memory at this point. John was signed to A&M by Michael Vosse, who also co-produced the record, and similarly served as a manager for a period for the Flying Burrito Brothers, which is well detailed in the Gram Parsons documentary Fallen Angel. (My interview/discussion with Michael Vosse can be found here.)
Conflicting reports exist regarding the album's release year, some stating it as 1968 and others as 1969. Given that Braden signed with Billboard in late 1968, it is plausible to assume that his album was released either at the very end of the year in '68 or at some point in early 1969. I expect that exact release dates are not available because they weren't quite as big of a deal in those days, as compared to today's releases, where an album is released on Tuesday and is old news by the weekend. What I do know, is that Braden’s only studio album as a recording artist utilized musicians who are this day remembered for their amazing talents and productive musical careers. The self-titled album (SP-4172) was released solely on vinyl, although such was not terribly uncommon in these days. I noted some of this in my initial blog, but just to recap, the album included famed musician and producer Ry Cooder, Sneaky Pete Kleinow and Chris Ethridge of Flying Burrito Brothers fame, Bruce Langhorne, Burrito Brothers producer Henry Lewy, Paul Horn, Richard Bell, and others. Even art direction and photography for the album were by individuals, Tom Wilkes and Guy Webster, who are now quite renowned in rock and roll history. Quite unfortunately, Lewy, Bell, Kleinow, and Wilkes have all passed on in recent years. It is this byproduct of the advancing age of all the folks involved with this album that has led to me to work to contact as many of them as possible for any information they might have. I regret that I was not able to contact Wilkes before his recent passing, although a blog acquaintance at Corduroy Mountain just so happened to have had a short correspondence with him not long before he died. The response he received from Wilkes is not uncharacteristic of what a number of folks have told me in my search, and I think is worth noting on account of it's humor and quite frankly, for the definite truth behind the statement:
I'm sorry I can't remember the man or his music.I had the great pleasure of speaking for a short while with Chris Ethridge, original bassist for the Flying Burrito Brothers, who also played bass on a number of songs on Braden's album. He recalled recording the album at A&M studios in Los Angeles, which he said was just off of La Brea and Sunset at the old Charlie Chaplin studios. While he wasn't good friends with John, Ethridge remembered him being a nice guy that everyone got along with, and he said he was quite honored that John asked him to play on his record. Ethridge has lived an amazing life, having begun playing with Gram Parsons as a teenager and going on to be a part of many albums that are now considered classics. In regard to his bass playing, I was quite taken by his philosophy, which was "anybody can play, but it takes a real musician to hold back and just play what's called for." This type of honesty really comes through in everything he says, including his great respect for the co-producer of Braden's album, Henry Lewy, whom he noted was a "zen kind of guy" and "almost like a saint." Regarding the other musicians from the album, I was able to find contact info for only a few of them, and in most cases, they either didn't remember the session or the contact info itself was outdated. Thus, I am quite grateful to Mr. Ethridge for taking the time to speak with me, even when the sessions are but a distant memory in his long musical career.
It looks like all can do is quote the old axiom,
"If you remember the 60's, you weren't there."
Official records from the site On A&M Records report that two singles, or "45s," were released off of the album, apparently both in 1969: one in the U.S. and a second in Australia. The U.S. release (A&M 1066) contained Braden's recording of the traditional "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and his own composition "Hand Me Down Man." The Australian release contained "Carriage House Song" and "Wild Birds" (AMK-3036) and to add to the time line of that release, you'll notice that the very next 45 released by A&M was that of the Flying Burrito Brothers for "Wheels" and "Juanita." It is a bit peculiar to me that "What a Friend" was the U.S. single, given the strength of songs such as "Carriage House Song," "Baptist Funeral," and "Song to Raymondo," although maybe I don't fully understand the radio politics of the day, or what A&M might have considered the most marketable song from the album.
Beyond links to his album from various sites, about the only other reference I find (part of the link is Not Safe for Work) is to some shows he did with the MC5 at Ungano's in New York City around June 19th of 1969. I’m still looking for any concert information and/or information on his supporting musicians, if anyone finds a link, or an old poster, etc. Using a Google News archive search, I was able to find one article in the Chicago Tribune (June 29, 1969) from a column called "The Sound," by Robb Baker, that mentions a John Braden show at Ungano's, which may or may not be the shows with the MC5 given that both occurred in June 1969. The article is a music news column with a number of blurbs about various music industry happenings, and it just so happens to devote the last two segments to two "young, very good folksingers who tried to bring their music into clubs generally devoted to hard rock." I was quite blown away to find that he was talking about shows by John Braden and Townes Van Zandt. The article goes on to describe how neither songwriter was able to get the deserved attention from the audience.
While both Van Zandt and Braden found their niches in the music industry over the years, on a certain level neither found true appreciation for their songs in their respective lifetimes, although Van Zandt has been exalted to iconic status some 12 years after his death. Knowing their who they were competing against for radio play at the time may help clarify the situation though, as this issue of Billboard shows that Braden's album and Van Zandt's Our Mother the Mountain came out around the same time as Nashville Skyline by Bob Dylan. While Van Zandt's album is reviewed in the same issue, I have not been able to find any record that Billboard reviewed Braden's album, but it's not for lack of looking (in both online archives and microfilm). As a side note, I was quite amazed to find that a majority of Billboard Magazine issues are fully viewable on Google Books going back all the way to 1942. Some issues are still missing though, and thus searching is still not entirely comprehensive of all past issues.
While I digress a bit, a couple of other notes about my aforementioned archive searches. First of all, it would seem that A&M was along the lines of a mid-level label and didn't have a large advertising presence. That is, through many issues of Billboard throughout 1968 and 1969, the only A&M albums I saw advertised were for Herb Alpert, and surprisingly, I never saw an ad for the Flying Burrito Brothers Gilded Palace of Sin, an album that was charting in the Billboard 200 in mid-year 1969. Secondly, I would say that anyone interested in Braden or other relatively obscure artists from pre-internet times will likely benefit greatly from the increasing number of search-able archived magazines and newspapers. Google Books and other archive services are in the early stages of making many older periodicals available, and I think some amazing resources will emerge in coming years. Thus, while my search has felt exhaustive, I expect new details about Braden may emerge with increased archiving of old newspapers and magazines.
Regarding finding Braden's album today, a few copies are available on ebay and Amazon from time to time for between $10 and $40. For a time, a blog had the entire album up for digital download, but the whole site has been taken down recently, likely for a violation of terms of service in posting a lot of other copyrighted albums.
Since the album is not otherwise available for pay download (on Itunes or otherwise), I don’t believe Braden’s family would have any problem with you downloading this work if you can find it somewhere. In fact, I expect they would be thrilled to see his music finding new listeners today. If I can find a way to provide his music to you without getting this blog shut down in the process, I'll do what I can. Write me if you really really want to hear it and I'll try to figure something out. You can hear what I consider one of Braden's better songs, "Baptist Funeral," at the blog Corduroy Mountain, but I'm not otherwise aware of a site where you can hear more. As I noted in my original post about Braden, the only band I’m aware of that has covered John’s work is the Australian band Autumn, that covered “Song to Raymondo.” Copies of that album are available on ebay Australia from time to time, although it is relatively rare as well. (Update: Don't know how long it will stay posted, but hear two more of John's songs at this site.)
Following his self-titled record, the only thing I know about further solo work from Braden is that a demo exists that I suspect was to be his follow-up album. I don’t know if it was recorded and rejected by the record label, or if it was possibly recorded with hopes of getting a new label. Nonetheless, I was able to obtain a copy of the demos from a gentleman who had an old box of reel-to-reel recordings that a friend of his at A&M gave him years ago. I have no info on it other than what was written on the outside of the box, so you can see for yourself that there isn't much clue as to when or where it was recorded (I don’t have the actual reels – just mp3s and picture of the reel to reel box).
As far as the personal interest story in all of this goes, the story behind the demo may actually be my favorite part of having taken up trying to tell John Braden's story. Before I knew anything about him, I saw the reel-to-reel demo posted on ebay, and inquired to the seller about how I would even go about getting the music off of the reels if I purchased them. Without hesitation, he offered to send me a CD of the songs for no charge. The songs are definitely in demo form, in that they are much less produced than the album, but nonetheless they are an interesting picture of Braden a few years after the first album. Months passed and I largely forgot about having the demos, including the time when I initially began corresponding with Georgia. Close to a month later, I mentioned the demo recordings in an email to her, and came to find that neither she or she and John's mother had ever heard the recordings. Thus, I sent the recordings on to her for she and her mother to hear over 20 years after John's death, and probably at least 35 years after they were recorded. The songs wouldn't likely mean much to you or me, but I can hardly comprehend what they must have been for John's family. It's along the lines of digging up a long lost letter in a way, I suppose, and as I've noted many times before, it was made possible because of the kindness of strangers and people who simply "want to keep the music alive."
Thus, unless/until I find any other substantial information on Braden's career in the music business, this is about as exhaustive a report as I can give. One entirely untapped resource at this point is the A&M Records Special Collection at the UCLA library. My expectations are that the files contain at least some interesting information on Braden, although without flying out to L.A., I have no way of knowing. The online archive only lists the basic contents of the archive, so one would have to go in person and look through the boxes of various business records files if they wanted to find anything. Quite honestly, that trip is not likely to happen any time in the near future, out of cost and sheer practicality.
The eventual next part of the blog will cover the portion of Braden's career where he found the most commercial success, that is, his work composing plays and children's albums. However, my research is admittedly lagging in this area, and it may be a number of months before I have the time to compile the information and feel like it is complete.
In conclusion (and speculation), I have to wonder what would have become of Braden's career had he been marketed differently or caught the right break at the right time. Nonetheless, his story is not unlike many others in the music industry. Like Townes Van Zandt, his talents fell on deaf ears for many years, although Braden eventually carved a new path in music following his career as a solo artist. While it is an extremely small amount of notoriety, I hope that I can introduce a few new people to Braden's music. I admit that the music didn't catch my ear immediately, but having listened to the album many times now, I've come to appreciate it a great deal. What comes through upon a few listens is the strength of Braden's songwriting and his melodies. "Carriage House Song," "Baptist Funeral" and "Song to Raymondo" are extremely well crafted songs with strong lyrics, while musically, the talents of Cooder, Ethridge and Kleinow are quite apparent, and at many points go a good deal further than one would expect from mere backing tracks on a singer/songwriter's album. Braden's voice exudes a sincerity that no doubt left a lasting on all those who took the time to listen, and it shows through on both the original tracks and the covers from the album. Ignoring entirely his album's lack of commercial success, one can still see quite clearly the talent and passion of an individual who was fortunate enough to find his true calling in music, but more importantly, who was not afraid to devote his life's work to it. If only we could all be so lucky.
It's funny how our lives, seem to slip away,
it's been 5 years, but it seems like yesterday,
but I'll shed no tears and cast no blame,
'cause after all, life's a damn good game.
John Braden - "Baptist Funeral"
Read the update, Part II.v here.
(Braden pictures courtesy of his family)