Recordially, Lou Curtiss

Songwriters and How I Came to Know Some of Them!

It used to be that Tin Pan Alley and other places like it wrote the songs and song pluggers and song publishers got them out to the folks who sang them. This whole idea of the singer-songwriter didn’t exist. Occasionally you had someone come along like Hank Williams who would write the majority of the songs he sang and become known for it but other country performers like Hank Snow, Gene Autry, Roy Acuff and others wrote a goodly part of the stuff they sang and their songwriter side was largely ignored. In the pop field you had performer songwriters ranging from Al Jolson to Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra who wrote some of their own stuff but it wasn’t until much later that anyone was billed as a singer-songwriter. That came with Bob Dylan in the early 1960s when some clever exec at Columbia Records decided that they wouldn’t have to pay out two paychecks when they could get singer and songwriter in one package.

It wasn’t long until the first San Diego singer-songwriters appeared on the scene. The first I remember was Bob LaBeau who held down Thursday nights at the old Heritage coffeehouse in North Mission Beach. A lot of his songs ran toward the humorous side of things (at least in the beginning). Bob lives up in San Jose today and he’s still writing songs but in those early days his ability to write and perform his own stuff was unique.

The next songwriter I remember called himself A Vitamin and he hung around the Heritage. I guess I’d have to say his stuff was just downright weird and I was never sure if I was being put on or not. He wasn’t with us long and I imagine most folks in San Diego have forgotten him.

Next up for me was Jack Tempchin. I remember when Jack had a 20 dollar Stella guitar and lived in an apartment on El Cajon Blvd. He didn’t perform much in those early days. I remember a song I liked about “Mama Let Me Wish on Your Diamond Ring” and a crazy diatribe about “Eating Food and Watching TV.” Someone told me he had signed a contract to write songs that other people’s names would be put on. I don’t know if that was true or not but then he did get his name on “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and the Eagles recorded it and musical history was made. And it’s still being made.

Tom Waits was the next San Diego songwriter that I got to know well. He was the doorman at the Heritage when I was running the Wednesday night Hoots (open mikes) there. Tom eventually drifted in and on stage and along to LA’s Troubadour and that first record with a whole lot to come. That was about 1970 and a whole lot of people in San Diego were in the song-writing business (Ted Staak, Kathy Larisch and Carol McComb, Robb Strandlund, Tony McCashen, and a whole lot more) some successfully and some not. By that time (the early ’70s) I was doing concerts at Folk Arts Rare Records and presenting a fair amount of singer-songwriters including Waits and Tempchin, Ted Staak, John Bosley, Gala Whitten, the Rick and Joe Show, and others.

Gala Whitten lived upstairs over the store and was a songwriting barrelhouse. The music I played in the store would often influence what came out of her pen. I’d play country music and she’d write a great number like “What’s a Mom to Do,” or I’d play a waltz and she’d write one about “An Old Fashioned Waltz from the Fair.” Gala wrote some amazing songs and I always thought she kind of heralded back to those song publisher days when someone market        The other songwriter (who’s still active in the San Diego Music Scene) who played for me at Folk Arts was John Bosley who always had a touch of 1930s swing jazz in his music.

In the late ’60s I started to put together The San Diego State Folk Festivals and along with the roots and traditional music presented were the singer-songwriters. At the first Festival in 1967 we had Dylan’s buddy Gil Turner; at the second there was Mayne Smith; at the third there was Mary McCaslin, and at the fourth U Utah Phillips and Rosalie Sorrells and Jim Ringer. From the early ’70s on there was always a contemporary contingent that included Charlie McGuire, Bodie Wagner, Priscilla Herdman, Kate Wolf, Scott Alerik, and a pile of others.

In 1994 I started booking the Adams Ave. Street Fair and the Adams Ave. Roots Festival and also a fair number of singer songwriters like Gregory Page got a little better known because of them (at least I hope that’s the case).

Today just about everyone doing contemporary music writes their own stuff and I’m not sure I totally approve of that. So many good singers and performers don’t make it because they just aren’t very good songwriters; on the other hand there are some terrific songwriters who just aren’t very good performers. In the ’20s and ’30s we had our Cole Porters, Jerome Kerns, Walter Donaldsons, Rogers and Harts, Irving Berlins writing the songs and the Bing Crosbys, Al Bowllys, Mildred Baileys, the Boswell Sisters, and Rudy Vallees were doing. Likewise songwriters like Guy Massey, Cindy Walker, and Curley Fletcher were doing the words and music that Carl T Sprague, Vernon Dahlhart, and Ernest Tubb were singing. Too bad there isn’t a song source (or much of one) for good performers who don’t write, or at least someone to tell aspiring performers that they don’t always have to write their own stuff. There are other people who have written it for them and in today’s computer age they aren’t to hard to find.

Music on Both Sides of the Border
I remember seeing Carlos Santana play in clubs in Mexico before anyone knew who he was up here. They say Jelly Roll Morton played at The Kansas City Bar in Tijuana back in 1918 (I’m not quite old enough to remember seeing him but I did see Joe Loco and his group sometime in the ’50s. In the years when I was putting together the Adams Ave. Roots Festival (1994-2007) we often talked about doing a festival that would take place on both sides of the border cele-brating the music that knows no borders. My idea then was that the music would bring us all together and make it like it was back then without the barriers that have always been the problem.

I grew up in Imperial Beach right near the border. I can remember my mother deciding she wanted some Mexican pastries and I’d get on my bike and ride down to the border and walk across with no one stopping me to a bakery near the border. I’d pick up what she wanted and ride back home (I’d park my bike near Monument Road and no one would steal it). That was the early to mid 1950s and I wasn’t the only one doing that. In the ’60s it was no longer possible to even get near the border and that has continued to today.

I still think a Roots Festival celebrating the musical heritage on both sides of the border would be a good thing for this city and would draw a lot of tourists as well. Maybe getting some of the big names who came from here like Carlos Santana, Tom Waits, and others to be a part of it and also celebrate the music of others who also made a mark here like Joe and Jimmie Liggens, Ella May Morse, Smokey Rogers, Slim Gailliard, Ferlin Husky, Rosie Hamlin (of Rosie & the Originals), Joe Loco, Irving Aaronson and his Commanders, Jack McLean Orchestra, Ervin “Big Daddy” Rucker, Los Hurracanes Del Norte, and others who also could become a part of the festival (those who are living and still performing, at least). Music should bring folks together, not drive them apart like it seems to do today. One of the main reasons I went to Mexico in the ’60s was the music (I think probably it was the main reason I went anywhere and still is), although once I got my shoes shined in the Long Bar and I didn’t notice I wasn’t wearing any shoes. I must have been concentrating on the music.

Recordially,
Lou Curtiss

  • September 2016

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