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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Jimmie Spheeris - Isle Οf View / The Original Tap Dancing Kid (1971-73 us, fantastic silk rock with folk and prog tinges, 2008 remaster)

The first name of James among popular musicians of the pre-punk rock era appears in retrospect to be somewhat of a poisoned chalice. Surely everyone is familiar with the cases of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, acclaimed superstars due to their envelopepushing talents, but in the quieter world of the troubadour or singer/songwriter, both Jim Croce and Jimmie Spheeris died violent but accidental deaths, Croce in a plane crash and Spheeris when a drunken driver knocked him off his motorcycle in Santa Monica on American Independence Day, 1984. 

However, it is probably more accurate to suggest that the poisoned chalice refers to those who abbreviated their correct name of James - James Taylor, for example, is still very much with us and has enjoyed a long and distinguished career which continues today. According to the best information available, James Spheeris was born on Guy Fawkes day (that's 5th November,  for the uninitiated), 1949, in Phenix City, Alabama, a few miles west of the border with Georgia and around 200 miles north of Florida and the Gulf Of Mexico. His parents, Andrew, a Greek immigrant, and Juanita (whose nickname was Gypsy) owned and ran what Wikipedia calls "a travelling carnival called The Majick Empire", which probably inspired his often impressively poetic lyrics.

He was one of four children, arguably the best known of whom was/is his older sister Penelope, who became a film-maker, among whose credits are the 1981 punk/rock documentary feature movie, 'The Decline Of Western Civilization', and its 1988 sequel, 'The Decline Of Western Civilization II – The Metal Years', which centred on the Los Angeles heavy metal movement, and included participation by the likes of Motorhead, Ozzy Osbourne and Aerosmith. She was also a writer for almost ten years on the TV series, 'Roseanne', and directed 'Wayne's World', the 1992 feature movie starring Mike Myers which grossed over $120 million! 

A 1986 Santa Monica newspaper article on Jimmie Spheeris revealed that his father was murdered by "a belligerent carnival-goer".  after which Gypsy Spheeris moved the family to San Diego, then to Venice, California. By the late 1960s, Jimmie had left home and moved to New York, which he felt would allow him to further develop his chosen career as a songwriter. He became friendly with Richie Havens, probably after they had worked together, and Havens introduced him to Clive Davis, the big cheese at Columbia Records, who was responsible for signing Big Brother & The Holding Company (fronted by Janis Joplin), Santana, Bruce Springsteen, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Electric Flag (featuring Mike Bloomfield), Chicago, Laura Nyro (with whom Spheeris shared a New York City apartment around the time of his debut album), Billy Joel and several others - including Jimmie Spheeris, who was the beneficiary of a four album deal with Columbia/CBS. It probably didn't help Spheeris when Davis left Columbia in 1973, but subsequently Davis became the head honcho at Arista Records, to which he signed Patti Smith and Whitney Houston, among many others. Havens is one of several, also including Davis, who get "thank you" credits on 'Isle Of View', the earlier of the two albums which make up this reissue.

In 1971, Spheeris was assigned Paul Leka as producer of this debut LP. Leka was not only a producer, but also a songwriter (of 'Green Tambourine', the million-selling 1967 US chart-topper for The Lemon Pipers, and of 'Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye', the million-selling 1969 US chart-topper by Steam, a studio group of which he was a member), an arranger and an orchestrator. As a producer, his credits included The Left Banke's Too'album, the first two albums by R.E.O. Speedwagon, and after working with Spheeris, three Harry Chapin albums. His expertise as arranger/orchestrator is evident on 'Isle Of View', although the excellent arranging and conducting work of David Campbell, who also played violin and viola, was similarly significant. Campbell appeared live with Spheeris "on special occasions" throughout the 1970s, playing viola and conducting when an orchestra was used onstage. However, perhaps even more significant was guitarist Geoff Levin, who appears on both the albums here, and was also in the Jimmie Spheeris Band until 1976.   

After the two album presented here, Spheeris released two further albums, 'The Dragon Is Dancing' (Epic, 1975) and 'Ports Of The Heart' (CBS, 1976), but hindsight tells us that these would probably have been overlooked commercially because the era of the singer/ songwriter was in decline during the mid-1970s. Ultimately, Jimmie Spheeris seems likely to remain a cherished memory among those who experienced his music many years ago, when he was clearly a contender, but perhaps the timing was wrong...
by John Tobler, Washington (UK), 2008

1. The Nest - 4:04
2. For Roach - 2:48
3. Monte Luna - 3:04
4. Seeds Of Spring - 3:52
5. I Am The Mercury - 4:59
6. Long Way Down (L. Nicolai) - 4:40
7. Let It Flow - 3:22
8. Seven Virgins - 2:58
9. Come Back - 4:43
10.Esmaria - 5:48
11.Beautiful News - 2:45
12.Shirtful Of Apples - 3:17
13.Open Up - 3:03
14.Streets Of The Harbour - 2:52
15.The Original Tap Dancing Kid - 3:31
16.Sweet Wahini Mama - 2:56
17.Keeper Of The Canyon - 3:19
18.Soul Tumbleweed - 3:02
19.Long Way From China - 4:09
20.Village Vapors - 2:48
21.Moon On The Water - 2:38
All songs by Jimmie Spheeris except where indicated

Isle Οf View 1971
*Jimmie Spheeris - Guitar, Piano, Vocals
*Geoff Levin - Guitar
*David Campbell - Violin, Viola
*Lee Calvin Nicolai - Flute, Bass, Guitar, Backing Vocals
*David Harowitz - Piano On 'Monte Luna'and Tracks 6-10
*Emil Latimer - Conga
*Buddy Salzman - Drums
*Bill La Vornia – Drums
The Original Tap Dancing Kid 1973
*Jimmie Spheeris - Acoustic Guitar, Piano, Vocal
*Felix Cavaliere - Piano, Organ, Backing Vocals
*Russ Kunkel - Drums, Tambourine
*Leland Sklar - Bass
*Geoff Levin - Electric Guitar, 12-String Acoustic Guitar
*Bobby Hall - Conga
*Sneeky Pete - Pedal Steel
*Doreen Davis - Backing Vocals
*Jane Getz - Celeste, Piano, Backing Vocals
*Vinnie Johnson - Drums
*John Summers - Bass
*Jim Calgar - Flute
*Harvey Mason - Drums
*David Campbell - Fiddle
*Norma Trotter - Tap Dancing
*Charlie Larkey - Bass

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