Diving into the treasured closet of a music biz bon vivant
Earl McGrath was the sort of bohemian bon vivant that the decade of the 1960s seemed to create and nurture unlike any other time in our cultural history.
An art collector, screenwriter, festival organizer, publicist, scene-maker, and accidental record label exec, McGrath hung around with counter-culture luminaries like artist Andy Warhol, photographer Annie Leibovitz, actress Anjelica Huston and writer Joan Didion, among many others; pre-Star Wars fame Harrison Ford was Earl’s handyman (and pot dealer). Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun held Earl in such high esteem that he gave him his own label, Clean Records, to sign and record artists.
McGrath dabbled in the music business for much of the 1970s, discovering talents like Hall and Oates and the Jim Carroll Band, and was hired by Mick Jagger in 1977 to run Rolling Stones Records. McGrath passed away in 2016 at the age of 84 and, sometime afterwards, journalist Joe Hagan – who had interviewed McGrath previously for his critically-acclaimed tome Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine – was invited to look through some photographs taken by Earl’s late wife, the Italian countess Camilla Pecci-Blunt McGrath, and subsequently discovered a closet full of old reel-to-reel tapes that McGrath had stashed away.
It was from this discovery that an idea was born and, after spending a year sorting through literally hundreds of tapes, Hagan worked with co-producer Pat Thomas to curate the 22-song Earl’s Closet: The Lost Archive of Earl McGrath, 1970-1980. The album has been released by Light In The Attic Records as a double-LP and single CD, with an accompanying booklet featuring extensive liner notes by Hagan, including new artist interviews, as well as rare photos by the Countess. The set includes previously-unreleased tracks by artists both known (Hall & Oates, David Johansen, Delbert McClinton, Jim Carroll) and relatively unknown (Country, Norma Jean Bell, Shadow, Blood Brothers Six) that run the gamut, stylistically, from folk, rock and country to funk and R&B.
Musician, producer, and author Pat Thomas (whose Listen Whitey!: The Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 is required reading for any music fan) tells Rock & Roll Globe in an exclusive email interview, “By the time I got involved, Earl had been dead for several years … when Earl died, he had no heirs – so in his massive NYC apartment was a large closet full of vintage tapes that nobody knew what to do with. Joe was invited to an estate sale – spotted the tapes and made an offer. Buying the tapes didn’t give Joe any copyrights, but it gave him possession of the actual tapes. Joe was sort of fantasizing about doing some sort of compilation when I stepped in to help sort out the legal and logistical issues as well as offer my two cents about the music – but Joe really was the musical curator here.”
In an email interview with Rock & Roll Globe, Hagan remembers, “I met Earl personally twice, once for a lengthy interview in his apartment in 2015 for my book, another time for a chance meeting on the street with Jann Wenner. I found Earl charming and fascinating, but I had no idea of the depth of his history until later. After he had died, I began talking to his friends and realized the untapped history I had on my hands, not to mention this closet full of musical treasures. I came to think of him as the most influential and least-known cultural figure of the 1970s. He was a kind of artist whisperer, friend, and counselor to the famous at a time when rock and roll culture was at its most glamorous and fun. And when I learned his up-from-nowhere life story, I also realized he was a very lucky man.”
What did Hagan think when he discovered the tape, literally, in Earl’s closet? “I broke into a sweat the moment I realized what I was looking at, starting with the master tape to Some Girls. My heart began racing, and I immediately began worrying over the fate of the tapes. Earl’s estate was being liquidated, and the proceeds used to create a foundation, so nobody was going to look after these tapes. The people running the foundation couldn’t really envision a proper home for the tapes other than selling them to a record buyer. I immediately understood that this archive was too special to end up with people that wouldn’t know what to do with them other than sell them to collectors. And so, my adventure began.”
What process did the producers use in deciding what to include on the album? “Well,” says Thomas, “we knew we weren’t gonna get the Rolling Stones to say ‘yes’, so we aimed for a combination of artists that were famous that we could reach out to (Hall & Oates, David Johansen of the New York Dolls, etc.) – but mainly we focused on the artists (that’s at least two-thirds of the album) that NEVER got a record deal or had an album that just disappeared in the public eye. We had to do a lot of deep dive work to find some of these folks! That’s my day job in real life – but Joe really led the hunt most of the time – he’d track them down and then I’d explain and convince the musicians to work with us. That’s the other part of my day job!”
“For a few months, I had four or five boxes of tapes in my living room,” says Hagan. “And I would randomly pull a tape from the box, some labeled, others not, and put them on my reel-to-reel machine to hear what was on them. Who are ‘the Blood Brothers Six’? Let’s find out. There would always be a moment of high anticipation as the tape rolled on the opening tape hiss – what would be on this ancient tape that nobody had listened to in three, four, five decades? It was like having a keyhole into a mysterious moment in time. There was a feeling of knowing that nobody on planet earth was listening to this particular recording, nobody even knew it existed, and that what was on the tape could be gold. Some tapes were terrible or subpar, lots of ‘Grade D’ James Taylor and Joni Mitchell wannabes, but occasionally my ears would perk up, and I’d leap to my feet. And then I’d put that tape aside and start researching.”
What was the most surprising find among the tapes? Says Thomas, “There’s a lot of gems in there – the country rock of Delbert & Glen, (Delbert McClinton later become popular as a solo act); David Johansen’s long lost demos as he’s leaving the New York Dolls for a solo career; and then a slew of various unknown acts with diverse and unusual styles.
“There were so many surprises, it would be difficult to pick just one,” adds Hagan. “For me, the most exciting were tapes by artists nobody had ever heard of. There were the ‘what could have been’ moments listening to a group like Shadow, who never made it but whose songs and brotherly harmonies clearly had great potential. I’d say the most purely surprising was probably the Blood Brothers Six, because their tape sounded so much like a lost Delfonics rehearsal, an uncut (and frankly, unproduced) Philly soul album. And the fact that couldn’t find out anything about the group added to the mystery. I hope to discover the back story one day.”
Thomas isn’t kidding when he says that Earl’s Closet holds many “gems” among the album’s 22 tracks. Before launching a lengthy solo career that would make him an Americana legend, Delbert McClinton partnered with fellow Texan Glen Clark as the duo Delbert & Glen. Their honky-tonk jewel “Two More Bottles of Wine” – based on Clark’s real-life experiences of moving to L.A. – doesn’t appear on either of their albums, but was later a number one hit for Emmylou Harris. The unreleased “Baby Come Closer,” by the fledgling duo of Daryl Hall and John Oates (then going by the name ‘Whole Oats’) eschews the blue-eyed soul of their chart-topping 1970s singles in favor of a country-funk sound more akin to The Band.
A second Hall & Oates track, “Dry In the Sun,” evinces a similar early Americana sound, but with a little more soul in the grooves, proving that those two guys could sing in any style and make it sound great. Country-rocker (and later visual artist and painter) Terry Allen is a proto-Americana pioneer whose two songs here evince an enormous sense of humor as well as great skill as a wordsmith and storyteller. “Gonna California” is a raw, demo-quality acoustic recording with down-home charm and more than a little twang, while Allen’s “Cocaine Cowboy” is a swinging, Piedmont-blues styled rave with enough heart that it could easily fit alongside such 1970s-era “Cosmic Cowboys” as Guy Clark or Townes Van Zandt.
Before graduating from Berklee School of Music in 1969, songwriter and keyboardist Tom Snow had played in a band with Gram Parsons. After moving to California, he hooked up with singer and guitarist Michael Fondiler and performed as a duo, where they came to the attention of Atlantic’s Ertegun. Forming the band Country, they recorded a single album for McGrath’s Clean Records with guests like Matt and Mark Andes of Spirit, and Little Feat’s Lowell George. Their track “Killer” is exactly that, a dark-hued musing on life with lush instrumentation that combines country, rock, and folk sounds. Snow would go onto a successful career as a songwriter, with hits recorded by artists like Rita Coolidge, Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt.
VIDEO: Earl’s Closet mini-doc
NYC poet and punk rocker Jim Carroll is primarily known for his best-selling 1978 memoir The Basketball Diaries and the infamous “People Who Died,” from his 1980 debut album Catholic Boy, which was co-produced by McGrath. His lone track here, “Tension,” is a white-hot and raging slab of testosterone-fueled punk poetry overflowing with fierce guitars (courtesy of Terrell Winn) and menacing lyricism. Renamed “Voices” and repurposed as a synth-styled dance tune for the James Spader cinematic cult classic Tuff Turf, this superior version remained unreleased until now. New York Dolls frontman David Johansen already had one eye on the door, looking towards his solo career, when he recorded this long-lost, lo-fi rehearsal tape of “Funky But Chic,” which is rawer and more shambolic than the version on his solo debut.
It is with the largely unknown talents that Earl’s Closet really shines, providing listeners with a tantalizing taste of artists that would otherwise have been lost to the indifference of time. Former Amboy Dukes (as in “Ted Nugent and the…”) singer Dave Gilbert formed the Detroit band Shadow in 1971 with his younger brother Marc, recording a single in Nashville that was released by Clean Records. Shadow’s “Oh La La” is a cool power-pop tune with chiming guitars and soulful vocal harmonies while “I See My Days Go By” is a pop-psych ballad with lovely acoustic guitar and charming vocals. Gilbert went on to front criminally-underrated ‘70s Detroit rockers the Rockets.
Fellow Motor City native Johnny Angel (née Johnny Angelino), another Amboy Dukes alumni, moved to Los Angeles where he fell in with talented guitarist Jesse Ed Davis, co-writing songs with Davis for his 1973 album Keep Me Comin’. This demo recording of Angel’s “Invisible Woman” was produced by Davis and offers a stoned groove with mildly Latin percussion and gritty vocals that, sadly, never earned the obviously-talented singer a record deal. I agree with Hagan that the most amazing find on Earl’s Closet is a stray track by the obscure soul band Blood Brothers Six, whose soulful reading of “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” is rife with funky instrumentation, falsetto lead and harmony backing vocals, and an intoxicating groove – all of which was captured by a low-rent recording. There are plenty of other cucumber-cool tracks on Earl’s Closet, ear candy provided by worthy but largely ignored artists – too many, really, to write about in depth here and get home by dinner.
Were there any tracks that Hagan and Thomas wanted to include on the album but couldn’t (for whatever reason), and what were they? Says Thomas, “We found an early ‘70s demo tape by Ronee Blakley – who later starred in the Robert Altman film Nashville and famously sang with Bob Dylan on the epic song “Hurricane” on Desire. It just didn’t work out to include her, which we were bummed about.” Adds Hagan, “There were a couple that got away, mainly because we couldn’t license them. An Arthur Russell demo comes to mind. The estate couldn’t be inspired to contribute a track, which was disappointing. But in truth, I had such an embarrassment of riches on my hands – I could easily have made a third LP from the material I have – that I never worried for long. I focused on the story that the tapes were telling me – about Earl, about the era. That’s why I call it ‘a mixtape, a secret history, and a journey into the heart of an era’.”
With Earl’s Closet rescuing and preserving a treasure chest of unheard music, are we going to see a second volume, and what might we expect to hear? “There’s plenty for a Volume 2,” says Thomas, “but it’s up to the marketplace, the consumer – if there’s Volume 2, we need to see some serious sales on this one first!”