It’s a Friday night at the 321 Lounge at Taix, the classic French restaurant on Sunset and Alvarado in Echo Park. The cozy, dark atmosphere, with its brick walls and comfy brown leather armchairs, is reminiscent of a 70’s lounge; it provides the perfect backdrop for Ruthann Friedman‘s style of folk music. A petite, birdlike woman in her sixties, slender and bespectacled and sporting a stylish short dark haircut, she takes to the stage (or rather, in the case of the 321 Lounge, the stage area on the floor in front of the fireplace). The small lounge is packed with adoring fans of all ages, and the singer doesn’t disappoint; she delivers her songs in a clear and strong voice, making seasoned wisecracks in between. She performs with two backing musicians for a few songs (bassist David Jenkins and keyboardist Kaitlin Wolfberg), and then continues the set backed by a full band, local L.A. pop outfit The Now People.
The leader of that band, Steve Stanley, is a 60’s music obsessive who runs his own reissue label, Now Sounds. Fortunately for fans of the 60’s folk rock scene, he convinced an initially reluctant Friedman to release her previously unexploited recordings (shelved by A & M Records at the time), and used his pop archivist research skills to locate the master tapes. The result is Windy – A Ruthann Friedman Songbook, a collection of songs recorded from 1966 to 1970. Several of L.A.’s finest musicians of the era, including Hal Blaine, Jim Gordon and Russ Titelman, perform on the tracks. Luminaries such as Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks also contribute their talents.
In 1966, Steve Clark and Curt Boettcher (of acclaimed 60’s group The Millenium) produced “Burning House,” “Please, Please, Please,” “Don’t Say No” and “There’s a Place In The Sky.” Ruthann’s heart wasn’t in these recordings; quoted in the liner notes, she admits she allowed Steve Clark to “set the tone.” “So I’m writing this pop stuff, and, I don’t know, it sounds forced . . . ” Upon listening to the songs, however, they can hardly be called pop fluff. “Please, Please, Please” addresses a clingy, needy companion; the song has a biting edge and is sung in a sneering tone: “Please, please, please, please / your need’s an endless well”; “you’re never satisfied at all / you’re making your own hell.” “Don’t Say No” is a powerful song that could pass for one of The Zombies‘ darker compositions. Boettcher’s signature production style engages a subtle use of horns, flute and percussion, used skillfully for effect and not overkill.
Naturally “Windy” is included, presented here in its demo form. According to the liner notes, Friedman wrote the song in just twenty minutes while living in David Crosby‘s house. The songwriter dispels any notions about who “Windy” was written about: “The truth is ‘Windy’ is me in my best incarnation. That’s who ‘Windy’ really is. Windy is the dream me.” The Association‘s version was a massive hit, holding the number one chart position for four weeks in July of 1967. Unlike the upbeat, pristine Association recording, with its “ba ba ba’s,” multi-layered harmonies and iconic flute solo, Friedman’s version has a laidback acoustic feel and a simple, minimal arrangement. Hers is the only voice on the track, singing in her signature folky soprano.
After the success of “Windy,” Irving Music, Inc., Ruthann’s publisher, urged her to write more hits in the same vein. Ruthann acquiesced, but less than enthusiastically. The folk singer-songwriter was hardly interested in being part of the pop hit-making machine. “Candy Apple Cotton Candy,” sung by ex-New Christy Minstrels Art Podell and Nick Woods, was Ruthann’s message to her publisher that “this was shit . . . This gooey sticky song is stuck to my fingers. It’s gooey and I don’t like writing this stuff!” Despite the catchy sing-a-long chorus and “gooey” lyrics, the verses have a somewhat dark feel; minor to major chord changes are framed by an inventive swirling guitar interlude.
“When You’re Near,” one of my personal favorites from this collection, is another post-“Windy” effort. Reminiscent of Brian Wilson (albeit more subdued), a trumpet call announces the verse; the infectious chorus of “When you’re near me, baby / the world is such a wonderful place” would have fit in easily on 60’s pop radio.
In addition to her own compositions, Friedman also recorded two songs written by contemporaries Randy Newman and Van Dyke Parks; both songs were recorded at the legendary Sunset Sound. Parks’ “High Coin” is one of the highlights of the album. Those familiar with his “Song Cycle” album will recognize a similar dreamlike Americana feel, as if one has stumbled into a dusty western bar, only to discover it’s the year 1890. Newman’s bittersweet “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today” receives a sensitive treatment; Mr. Newman himself plays piano, and Ruthann’s warm acoustic guitar makes this oft-covered song her own.
In 1968, after a break from recording, Ruthann came back to L.A., renting a house by the beach. This inspired the haunting Friedman-Kaukonen co-write “The Sky Is Moving South.” Ruthann recollects: “We had this 20-foot-long picture window that looked out onto the ocean, and that inspired a lot of songs, including ‘The Sky Is Moving South.’ It was just so beautiful; the ocean’s vastness can just draw any negativity out of you.” The song has a more loose, improvisational feel than some of her earlier, tightly-crafted pop works; like a slow-moving cloud across the sky, it doesn’t hurry along, but rather lingers and lets you drink in its beauty. “Country Song,” a wistful observation of a departing lover, is written in the same mature, introspective vein: “I had a feeling the other day / that something new was drawing you away;” “the winter will be so cold / if you’re not around to hold / but there’s not an apron string long enough to hold you.” Only two minutes long, its gorgeous simplicity and descending guitar chords leave the listener longing for more.
Fans of 60’s music will probably wonder why on earth this collection of impressive recordings was ever shelved. Even if one were to judge them only for their commercial potential, there are quite a few songs (“When You’re Near” being an obvious example) that could have easily been hits during the era. It is to our benefit that these gems have finally seen the light of day.
Ruthann Friedman performs at Taix on Friday, May 2, at 10:00 P.M. Admission is free.