As published in Country Music People February 2012.
Long before the term “Americana”, there was John Stewart with his potent musical mix of folk, country and rock, usually writing about America and all bound up with that remarkable voice and its surprising vibrato.
John Stewart was born in San Diego, California in September 1939. He was part of the folk group, the Cumberland Three and then in 1961 he replaced Dave Guard in the Kingston Trio. Almost immediately, Nick Reynolds, Bob Shane and John Stewart recorded Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?”, surely one of the most telling records of the Twentieth Century. John narrated Billy Edd Wheeler’s “Rev Mr Black” so effectively that I can’t even imagine Johnny Cash doing it better. He wrote several songs for the Trio, the best known being “Chilly Winds”, but the song that became a standard was “Daydream Believer”, a multi-million selling single for the Monkees.
By 1967, it was inevitable that he would be going his own way and he made Signals Through The Glass with Buffy Ford, who became his wife. His groundbreaking album, California Bloodlines, made in Nashville in 1969, included his celebration of the American spirit “Mother Country”, the childhood memories of “The Pirates Of Stone County Road” and the travelling song, “July You’re A Woman”. “Armstrong”, a single to celebrate the achievements of the astronauts reaching the moon, made the US charts but then was withdrawn as it was considered, for some daft reason, unpatriotic.
One great album followed another including Cannons In The Rain (1973) and the extraordinary live album, The Phoenix Concerts (1974), the one place where he was regarded as a star. Its atmosphere doesn’t fall far short of Johnny Cash At Fulsom Prison. This magnificent set includes Stewart’s reflections of campaigning with Bobby Kennedy, a cycle of songs known as The Last Campaign Trilogy.
Although John Stewart had reservations about the production, Fire In The Wind (1977) is a brilliant album and the follow-up, Bombs Away Dream Babies (1979), produced by Lindsey Buckingham, included a US million-seller, “Gold”. It was a song about not making it in the music business, and such ironies abound in John Stewart’s career.
After that, everything became low-key and some albums of new songs were simply released as gig cassettes, sometimes especially for the UK. Among the more esoteric releases was The Essential John And Buffy, recorded at the Turf Inn, Dalry, Scotland, in 1994. His songwriting never faltered and Rosanne Cash topped the country charts with “Runaway Train” in 1988. Nanci Griffith and Joan Baez recorded several of John’s songs.
Around 2000, Buffy Ford was diagnosed with a brain tumour and John had the trauma of wondering how they would fund the treatment. Fortunately, Buffy made a very good recovery, although she lost the sight in one eye and became deaf in her left ear. John’s health then suffered. In 2007, his response to hearing that he had Alzheimer’s Disease was to write “I Don’t Drive Anymore”. John died in January 2008 in the very hospital where he was born.
In recent months, Buffy and Nick Reynolds’ widow, Leslie, have been helping to establish the KingstonTrio Legacy project for the Smithsonian Institute. It will be a travelling exhibition as well as a website and the interviewees include Brian Wilson (in a striped shirt), Al Jardine from the Beach Boys and Rosanne Cash.
In November 2011, Buffy Ford was in the UK collecting information for the project. She came to BBC Radio Merseyside and I used the opportunity to record a conversation with her and several John Stewart (and Buffy Ford!) enthusiasts – promoters Geoff Davies and Andy Fergus and fans Brian O’Connell and Andrew Doble. I am presenting this as straight conversation as I love the way it flows. It was not at all a sad occasion: most of the time we were laughing and I hope you will be too.
Spencer Leigh I’d like to start with the first times we saw John Stewart and obviously, Buffy, your experience will be quite different from ours.
Buffy Ford Well, I wasn’t a Kingston Trio fan at all. I was into musicals and Judy Garland, although I lived close to where John was and we had mutual friends. I knew Nick Reynolds’ first wife, Joanie Reynolds, and I would hear the Trio at art fairs in Sausalito.
In 1967 I was in a show and John had left the Trio and was looking for a girl to sing with him and somebody had said that he should see me in this show.
He had been interviewing and flying girls in from all over the country! He wanted to do a duo with a girl and he was also thinking of singing with John Denver, but then John Denver decided that he was going to sing on his own. During the show, there were maybe 800 people in the audience, but my eyes just connected with this person. I didn’t know who it was but I played to this person all night long and then afterwards, somebody said, “There’s a guy here from the Trio who wants to meet you” and it was the same guy that I had been playing to. He asked me out to coffee and I was kinda shy and said, “No”, and I went home and said, “I blew it, I blew it, I blew it.”
Then I was babysitting at this pool and my mother rang. She was like a Mae West character, and she said, “Hey, babe, you had better grab a towel because John Stewart is on his way up to see you.”
Pretty soon John came through the gate with his cowboy hat and his flowered shirt, I will never forget how he looked. He was so tall and handsome and he had his guitar. The first song that we ever sang was “Cody” and he said, “What do you think? Do you want to try singing together?” I said, “Yeah, that would be great.”
At the time I was rehearsing with Jefferson Airplane but I said to no to them and decided to sing with John. We started singing together and then I became a huge Trio fan. I met Nick and we became this amazing family and I still listen to their music and there is no sound like it, there are no harmonies like their harmonies. Not only that but the three of them were so connected as they sang on one microphone and nobody tried to outdo each other. They were all so in tune with each other. I love “Road To Freedom” and “California” but all the records are very special to me.
Andrew Doble I first picked out John Stewart’s voice in the Kingston Trio in “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” and that solo verse that he sang had an edge that I hadn’t heard in the Trio before. As catchy as “Tom Dooley” and “MTA” were, there was something about “Where Have All The Flowers Gone” that was different. It is a wonderful Pete Seeger song and John’s contribution is truly inspirational.
Spencer Leigh Andy, what are your first memories of seeing John Stewart?
Andy Fergus I first saw John Stewart at Salinas in California in 1976. I was such a huge fan and also a mega-fan of Bobby Darin, which John never forgave me for. Bobby Darin died very young of a heart attack and I never got to see him. I thought I must see John Stewart in case anything happens to him. I saved up my pennies and went on a trip to Salinas.
Bruce Barsotti was putting a rodeo on in Salinas and John was the star and so I flew to LA and took a bus down and that very evening I met his bass player, Chris Whelan. I said, “No, isn’t his bass player Arnie Moore?” Chris was like six foot five and he said very dramatically, “I am the bass player.” (Laughs) He told John this and when John came in for the show the next day, they found me a front row seat and the first half-hour of the show was a total blank for me because I couldn’t believe that I was sitting in Salinas in California listening to this amazing singer-songwriter.
Buffy Ford Andy Fergus arrived at our front door with his suitcase. I said, “John, did you invite Andy to stay?” He said, “No”, but we invited Andy in and he stayed for a year! (Laughs)
Andy Fergus One night Tom Waits came round and he was writing the Small Change album. Tom and John were playing songs to each other and Tom was spending the night downstairs because I had the spare room. Being in California, they had large potted plants in the middle of the house and they were going through the roof. John told Tom that there was a snake in the potted plants. I said to John, “I didn’t know that there was a snake in there” and John said, “There isn’t.” Tom Waits had a restless night because of that.
Andrew Doble I will tell you about the first time I didn’t see John Stewart. He was due to appear in London at the Borderline and he was taken ill – I think he lost his voice – and the show was cancelled at short notice, so my wife and I sat at home and we got out The Phoenix Concerts, which is a wonderful live album as we all know, and we played that back to back, straight through twice. That gave us something of what we were missing.
Geoff Davies I first discovered John Stewart with that double-album, The Phoenix Concerts. I had recently opened my shop Probe in Liverpool and as the records were coming into the shop, I would try things that I didn’t know and I put The Phoenix Concerts on and that was it, I was with him for the rest of his life. There was nobody like him for the voice, the emotion, the quaver in that voice and the songs, there was so much there. It was the more positive, liberal side of the American Dream. There are strong right-wing politics in America but John was the opposite to all that by being this great man of the west. He was a big man with a big voice.
Brian O’Connell I was very, very thrilled to see that John Stewart was going to be appearing live in New Brighton in 1984 as I had been a fan of his since the Kingston Trio days. My wife and I went along to the concert and we were stunned. We were actually seeing in person the voice that we had known on record for so long. He didn’t disappoint us at all and he was absolutely fantastic. The concert was broadcast on BBC Radio Merseyside and it should be released as a CD as it was so excellent. I had goose pimples when he sang “The Queen Of Hollywood High” as it was so terrific.
Spencer Leigh Yes, it was a wonderful concert and I’ve still got the master tapes! I remember saying to him beforehand, “John, will you do Daydream Believer?” and he said, “For you, Spencer, anything.”
Geoff Davies In 1984, I was staying in Wales and I knew I had to get back for this show in New Brighton and it was absolutely fantastic just as I had hoped and expected. I wanted to see him again. I had been promoting concerts on and off for a number of years, and usually I was promoting people who I wouldn’t normally get a chance to see. I put him on in 1985 and then I started distributing his label, Sunstorm, with the Trancas album. And then others were rereleased and I was part of the Rough Trade cartel of independent distributors. I handled his label for a number of years. I got his records into indie shops around the country. I was always trying to turn people onto John Stewart.
Andrew Doble My first time of seeing John playing live was here on Merseyside at New Brighton when he did that show with Chuck McDermott, and Buffy was there too of course. That was a wonderful show and it was wonderful to hear that voice live.
Spencer Leigh When you were in New Brighton with John, Buffy, you did a very moving song with John, three songs really, “The Last Campaign Trilogy”.
Buffy Ford Yes, that was very emotional to perform as it had been a very emotional time for us. We had been recording Signals Through The Glass and then John was also recording “July You’re A Woman”. I had just spoken to Bobby Kennedy on the phone and he said, “Are you two coming to the hotel?” John was recording and he said, “Honey, you go on down to the hotel and I will meet you down there as soon as I have finished.” I got in the cab and the driver said, “Did you hear what has happened?” and I said, “No.” He said, “Bobby Kennedy has been shot.”
So I ran back and told John of course. He went right over to the hotel and I went to our hotel as it was just too much for me. John went to the hospital and it was a horrible time for us.
Our time with Bobby on the campaign had been so amazing because we were lucky to be so close to him. I had never been political and I didn’t ever look at Bobby as a political figure, he was a humanitarian and he never stopped talking about the things that he cared about. It was never, “Oh, the day’s over, let’s relax.” He still continued to talk about the Indian children and he would say about a problem, “It’s up to you. What are you going to do about it?” We would have chocolate ice cream with chocolate syrup every night in his room. We saw a lot of people on that campaign and John wrote songs about them. It was an amazing time and a little boy poked his head in the bus and said, “Remember my name, Ernesto Juàrez.” John always had a notebook and he wrote everything down. I have found so many notes of John’s. I am going to do a book with Henry Diltz with photographs and lyrics, and that will be fantastic.