Interview with Michael Vosse
To preface this entry briefly, Michael Vosse was a co-producer of John Braden's sole album for A&M Records, and while long out of the music business, he was more than willing to discuss his involvement with the album. This isn't an interview in the formal sense, at least not the type where you see the format of Question, Answer, repeat. Rather, I did a lot of listening and asked a few questions here and there when appropriate. I am greatly indebted to Mr. Vosse for taking the time on a Sunday afternoon to talk about his memories of John Braden and for throwing in a few other interesting stories on the side.
Signing to A&M
Michael Vosse told me that he started working at A&M Records in the summer of 1967, and so at some point in 1968, he was looking to get his foot in the door as a producer by bringing in a new artist. He said he believes that David Anderle at Elektra told him about John Braden, as John had tried out for them recently. However, at that time Elektra had Tim Buckley and a few other artists in that vein of music, so they recommended John to Vosse. My own read into that would be that they must have thought at least somewhat positively about John to help him out in that respect. Vosse was clear to point out that he was eager to produce his first album then and that he would produce anyone he could get A&M to approve.
At that time, Braden was already working with Richard Bell, and while Vosse doesn't remember the specific circumstances, he said it was most likely that the two of them came to A&M to demo Braden's songs. It was Braden's original material that was the convincing factor in getting him signed to A&M, as they had their own publishing division and wanted to sign artists to both the label and the publishing company, so the songs could then be marketed to other artists and increase revenue for the company all around.
However, the A&R and sales people were not completely on board with signing John. They didn't really "get" his voice, Vosse said, and felt it was a turn off. However, the publishing department liked the music. Additionally, A&M co-founder Herb Alpert liked some of the songs, but all in all, publishing was their main interest. Vosse was just really trying to sell him to the label, so he said he didn't consider at the time exactly how the dynamics would play out. He noted that Herb liked John, and thought he had potential, but didn't know exactly what to do with him either. In fact, Alpert liked some of the songs well enough that he kept dubs of them as possibilities for his own band. Thus, in the end, the opinions of Herb Alpert and the A&M Publishing Dept. were enough to get John signed to the label.
When John Braden showed up at the label, A&M Records was at an in-between period between pop, Herb Alpert's style of music, and the rock and roll that was just coming in. Vosse said they still wanted milder music, which likely led to them being a bit late getting into rock and roll, although he added that they were still open to a lot. Ironically, Vosse said they put out one of their first rock records in the form of a single for Captain Beefheart. While the single did well, he said that when Captain Beefheart actually visited the label's offices, they were so frightened by him that they didn't extend his contract. However, they didn't give up on rock & roll, picking up Joe Cocker and Procol Harum not too long after, which was around the time Vosse was starting at the label.
Once A&M agreed to sign John, they told Vosse he needed to have a co-producer for the album to make sure everything stayed on track, since it would be his first time in that role. The person selected was Henry Lewy, who had produced Joni Mitchell, and all around was well known as a good engineer. Not unlike what I was told when I spoke with Chris Ethridge, Vosse said that Henry Lewy was a "wonderfully calm person." In fact, he was known for being very good at managing various meltdowns in the studio with bands or individuals, and helping people get back on track. That said, Braden's session didn't have any of those problems, so that specific skill wasn't necessarily needed. Prior to recording, Vosse recalled having numerous get-togethers with Braden and Richard Bell. He noted that Bell was very musically focused and had a big part in the arrangements that were used on the album. Braden and Bell had been working together for some time by that point and they worked well together.
Recording the Album
The sessions went very smoothly, in large part because, Vosse says, "John had his shit together always" and largely knew what he wanted. Vosse's sentiments about John echo many of the other folks I've heard from, saying that he was immensely likable, very talented, and always prepared. Most arrangements on the album were fairly formal, as they had been worked out by Bell and Braden. However, "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" was put together more on the spot with live tracks because Ry Cooder was there and was the session leader, a position he typically mandated for his studio work. Vosse noted, "we had a combination of people there that made it perfect to do something without an arrangement."
Vosse said that the John Braden album was done very efficiently, requiring limited sessions and most songs done in very few takes. Since the songs were simple and the people that played on the album didn't need a lot of takes, the album was finished with a very reasonable budget. As far as technical details go, some songs were overdubbed, although a number were played live. Vosse says that he and Lewy mixed the album, although it was mostly Lewy, and he recalls their general aim to be to make the songs sound clean. One of the main reasons that the album has such a great lineup of musicians on it was that Vosse hoped the names would bring people in for this new artist. Thus, in most cases, he knew the musicians personally and was responsible for calling them up and inviting them to play on the record, although many did only one session, as is evidenced by the diverse cast of musicians on the recording. Obviously at the time few people knew of John Braden, but they definitely knew about the Flying Burrito Brothers and Ry Cooder.
While discussing Sneaky Pete, who played on Braden's album, Vosse mentioned a side story about when he went to San Francisco with the Flying Burrito Brothers so they could open a show for the Grateful Dead. On the second of two nights, someone dosed Sneaky Pete's Coca-Cola with something and they had to take him to the hospital because he thought he had gone crazy. He said Pete he was a very straight laced guy, and so this was an extremely unpleasant experience. That terrible experience aside, he went on to detail that Pete was an amazing musician, and unlike any steel player he had ever heard. Interestingly, Vosse said as far as he knew, Pete maintained his job as an animator for Hanna Barbera during much of the time he was playing music in those years. He saw music as a passing fancy and didn't want to give up his day job, so Burrito Brothers' rehearsals were often adjusted to work around his job.
Vosse also briefly talked about Chris Ethridge, who played bass on three tracks for Braden's album, noting him to be the "ultimate southern gentleman." Despite the chaos with the Burrito Brothers at the time, Ethridge was serene and never got mad about anything. In general, he said Ethridge just had a good time in what he was doing. However, this didn't affect his professionalism, as he could come in to the studio and hear a song once and know what to do. Regarding his musicianship, Vosse said that Ethridge was "right on the money."
Vosse compared Braden's session to when the Flying Burrito Brothers would come in to the studio and take forever to record a record. As has been well documented about the band's history, drugs and arguments were problems in their sessions on frequent occasions. Lewy engineered a good number of these sessions, and as Vosse noted, "Henry was very good at walking into that chaos and making people get reasonable again." Hence the reputation that Chris Ethridge summed up well, describing Lewy as a "zen kind of guy."
Once Braden's album was completed, Vosse says the A&M Records Sales department listened to the album and couldn't find a single that made any sense to promote. As a result, expectations were very low as soon as the album was done and this proved a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts because hardly anyone bought it. While he didn't stay at A&M for more than a year after the album's release, he said it was one of the lowest selling albums that A&M had had up to that point.
In addition to the album receiving little to no radio promotion, Vosse recalls that A&M never set up a showcase or any kind of a tour for John. He said it was very unfortunate that John was never given the chance of going on a promotional tour, because he was so professional and would have done very well at such a thing, not to mention that it would have been very low cost to send John on tour. However, Vosse said that the label didn't really see much in him at the time and took the attitude that some new people just wouldn't work out. Rather they seem to have cut their losses and decided not to promote him. Publishing tried initially to promote his songs, but his lack of notoriety and small song catalog didn't give them much to work off of. Vosse said he expects the A&M Sales department may have had trouble pushing John's voice, and thus didn't do much to promote him simply because they didn't know how to sell him.
Not directly related to the promotion of this album, but relevant to the story, Vosse left A&M not too long after Braden's record came out, around the time of Woodstock. Therefore, he didn't see first-hand the path that led to John and A&M parting ways. He saw John several times in the next year, but said he didn't keep up with him in the long-term.
In hindsight, Vosse said that if Braden had come to A&M 3 or 4 years later, it might have been better for his career, as they didn't exactly know how to nurture artists when he was signed. As an example, he said that when The Police were brought in [roughly 10 years later], they didn't even do an album for their first year because they didn't have enough material. A&M paid them and kept them on the label during this developmental period, which became how they dealt with new artists, and so Vosse said that John would have benefited from that system if given the chance.
Thus, the demos of Braden's that I ran across may have been his last official work with A&M, and given the sales of his previous record, I doubt that he had much of a chance of getting them released. Vosse didn't personally know of these demos, but noted that it was very likely that John would have written and brought more songs to A&M at some point for the publishing department to try to push to other artists. While John never wrote "the hit" that would have made his career, it is nice to know that at least a few people at A&M still appreciated John's work and more importantly, that he eventually did find his place in the arts writing musicals.
In conclusion, I am quite grateful to Michael Vosse for taking the time to speak with me about his time with John Braden. He cleared up a number of major gaps in the story that I had accumulated thus far, but similarly, his few years with A&M and with Braden leave a number of questions unanswered. I realized after this interview that if I had begun this search a few years earlier, I might have had the opportunity to speak with Richard Bell, who passed away in 2007, and who no doubt would have had many things to add to the story of John Braden's time in the music business. Thus, without exploring the A&M Records archives at UCLA, I have exhausted most every resource available to learn more about the music career of John Braden, and for what it's worth, I've compiled a whole lot more than existed before I started this roughly a year ago. An eventual Part III will follow, although given various work obligations, it may be some time before I am able to give that portion its due billing.
A few small additions have come up in the past few months as well, mostly involving new links I've run across relating to Braden. As I've mentioned before, the periodical archiving process that Google has undertaken will likely continue to add resources to this search over time. For example, this Google News Archive link (see the "From the Rack" section) to a periodical called The Age TV-Radio Guide contains a very small mention of Braden's album in a September 1969 edition. Further, I have found one (only my second now) mention of an actual show listing for one of John's shows. It's a pay link for the New York Times, but in short, the listing says that John played a show with Lee Guilliatt, with the two described simply as "folk singers," at Judson Church in Greenwich Village. The show took place on Friday, November 20, 1970. In addition, I found a second reference to the only other show, or set of shows, that I have confirmed he played, with the MC-5 at Ungano's. The listing is linked in this New York Magazine archive.
I wish that John's music was more readily available, either for pay or free, and Michael Vosse actually noted the same sentiment. However, given that A&M Records is basically just a back catalog now, I expect it would be difficult to get the permissions to post it. On that point, I don't plan to post it here, given Google's history of shutting down blogs with illegal downloads, so hopefully you can find a vinyl copy on ebay or elsewhere if you are really interested.
I really appreciate hearing from the few folks now and then who knew John in one capacity or another, and I encourage you to continue sending small anecdotes you wish to share, as they help give a more full picture of who John was. I continue to be impressed with his work and feel that there is still a good deal out there to learn about him.
I look away and let it pass,
Like figures scratched upon fine glass,
We will crack, we will fade,
And everything we know today will go away.
They are waiting for me,
In their house by the sea,
To come home, from my pain,
To come home, from L.A., once again.
--John Braden - "They Are Waiting"
(Top picture courtesy of Braden's family)