Remembering Buzzy, an unsung hero of the folk-rock connection who passed away February 13 at age 76
Folk troubadour Buzzy Linhart, a gifted songwriter and instrumentalist, passed away on Friday, February 13th, 2020 at the age of 76.
Linhart’s death was confirmed by his son, Xeno Rasmusson, to the New York Times. No cause of death was given, but Linhart had been in declining health since suffering a heart attack in 2018 that left him unable to perform.
Born William Charles Linhart in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to musician parents, Linhart grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and was a musical prodigy as a child. By age seven he was adept at symphonic percussion; he taught himself guitar and piano; and he had begun mastering the vibraphone at ten years old. Linhart attended the historic Cleveland Music School Settlement as a teenager, and entered the U.S. Navy School of Music at 18 as a percussionist, accepted in spite of his 4-F Selective Service System classification (due to a visual defect).
“Buzzy was recruited for the Navy Band in 1961 while still a senior in High School,” Linhart’s son Xeno David Rasmusson tells the Globe.”He enlisted while he was 17 with parental permission, attained GED type diploma so they didn’t have to wait until Spring graduation. After a rocky stint, he was honorably discharged in early 1963 and by the end of 1963 he was knocking on John Sebastian’s door in The Village looking for a pad to crash and cats to work with on the advice of Fred Neil.”
Linhart’s instrumental skills made him an in-demand studio musician. His vibe playing can be heard on the 1966 Buffy Sainte-Marie song “Timeless Love,” which was arranged by Linhart’s then-bandmate Felix Pappalardi. Linhart would go on to lend his talents to recordings by artists like Richie Havens, Carly Simon, Cat Mother & the All Night Newsboys, LaBelle, John Sebastian, and Jimi Hendrix.
During this time, Linhart also began to make inroads as a songwriter, and his “The Love’s Still Growing” appeared on Simon’s self-titled 1971 debut album. Linhart’s best-known song, however, remains “(You’ve Got to Have) Friends” (co-written with Mark “Moogy” Klingman). Recorded under the title “Friends” by Bette Midler for her 1972 debut album The Divine Miss M, it would become a Top 10 Adult Contemporary chart hit and would later be recorded by Barry Manilow, the Muppets, and even by “Donkey” (a/k/a Eddie Murphy) for the 2001 hit film Shrek.
AUDIO: Buzzy Linhart buzzy, Kama Sutra 1968
Linhart made his solo debut with the 1969 album buzzy (lower-case ‘B’) for Phillips Records, an uneven affair that features an eighteen-minute, raga-oriented improvisational jam. Linhart would subsequently form the band “Music” with his friend (and future Utopia member) Moogy Klingman, the band releasing one self-titled album in 1971 that was produced by Hendrix engineer Eddie Kramer and featured songs by pals like Fred Neil and Tim Hardin alongside Linhart’s original compositions. At the same time, Linhart signed with Kama Sutra Records as a solo artist, releasing The Time To Live Is Now at roughly the same time as Music.
Kama Sutra released Buzzy (upper-case ‘B’) in 1972; known to fans as the “black album” (due to its dark-hued cover photo pf Linhart by photographer Ira Wexler) to differentiate it from Linhart’s debut, it was perhaps the least-commercial yet most influential of the artist’s major label records in that it featured the talents of future members of Utopia (Klingman), Steely Dan (Jeff “Skunk” Baxter), and Ten Wheel Drive (Luther Rix) and was mixed by Todd Rundgren.
Linhart’s final big league album was 1974’s Pussycats Can Go Far. Released by Atlantic Records on the label’s Atco imprint, the album was recorded in Muscle Shoals Sound Studios with talents like Pete Carr, Jimmy Johnson, Barry Beckett, and David Hood (i.e. The Swampers).
Featuring a more pop-oriented slate of original songs, the album still failed to chart, ending Linhart’s major label career. As the All Music Guide’s Joe Viglione writes, though, “’Pussycats Can Go Far’ deserves more than just its status as a collector’s item of great music which makes the rounds on eBay. The solid musicianship and innovative ideas deserved more chart activity and a number of follow-up albums.” In 1976, Kama Sutra released the two-album, twenty-song The Best of Buzzy Linhart set comprised of the best of his recordings for the label, including a previously-unreleased version of “Friends.”
VIDEO: Famous: The Buzzy Linhart Story
Linhart tried his hand as an actor during the mid-to-late ‘70s, appearing in the 1974 comedy The Groove Tube as a naked hippie hitchhiker while also serving as the film’s musical director, and he was a regular performer on the short-lived Bill Cosby TV series Cos.
Linhart continued to perform and record sporadically through the years, releasing the album Tornado in 1981 as well as a number of self-produced works through the 2000s, the most recent being 2015’s acoustic Peace In the Country. Buzzy was the subject of the 2006 documentary film Famous: The Buzzy Linhart Story by director Shelly Toscano.
Health issues plagued Linhart throughout his entire career, and potentially prevented him from achieving the fame commercial success enjoyed by many of his peers. During his stint in the Navy, Linhart developed chronic lung damage while fighting a fire with inadequate breathing apparatus which resulted in emphysema. The death of one of his fellow sailors during his naval service caused poorly-treated PTSD, while a late ‘70s car accident during a move to L.A. resulted in permanent hip and knee injuries. Linhart was homeless for a while during the 1980s before getting on SSI disability in 1990 and settling in the Berkeley, California area. As he got older, Linhart suffered from osteoporosis, a series of mild strokes, and several moderate heart attacks, although he continued to perform whenever possible.
VIDEO: Buzzy Linhart on Joe Vig’s Visual Radio
Linhart was one of the best, if perhaps the most obscure of 1960s-era Greenwich Village artists, the five albums he released between 1969 and 1974 featuring his unique vocals, immense songwriting skills, and remarkable instrumental talents, resulting in an often-exhilarating blend of folk, jazz, blues, and psychedelic-rock unlike anything any other artist was creating at the time. Known for his manic live shows, critic Robert Palmer wrote in a 1977 New York Times review of one of Linhart’s performances, “no sooner has he hit an opening chord than his eyes roll back in his head and he begins to bob and weave like a dervish in a trance,” the legendary critic concluding that “Mr. Linhart’s talent is genuine.”
Unfortunately, much of Linhart’s catalog of music is in disarray, his major label releases long out-of-print, with many of them never appearing on CD. Razor & Tie Records released a 15-song compilation Buzzy Linhart Loves You: Classic Recordings in 2001, which has since gone out of print and little else is available. However, original vinyl copies of Linhart’s Kama Sutra albums can often be found online or in your local record store at a reasonable price, and Linhart sold more recent recordings himself through CD Baby.
Find out more about Buzzy Linhart and his music on the web at www.buzzartinc.com
VIDEO: Buzzy Linhart performs “The Time To Live Is Now” at Paddy Reilly’s in NYC, 1996