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An Evening with JD Souther

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If you ask John David where he’s from, he may say without hesitation; “I’m from Amarillo.” But depending on who’s asking, he may shrug and say: “I’m from everywhere, I guess.” He would be mostly right either way.

He was born in Detroit when his father, John Souther, was crooning in front of the big bands of his day, under a stage name, Johnny Warren. His mother hated the fact that “Johnny Warren” wasn’t home and so, the singing father stepped halfway out of road life by going to work for MCA as an agent: fascinating for a curious five year old John David, who met The Three Sounds, The Mills Brothers, other jazz greats, and the legendary Victor Borge, who once acted as babysitter for the lucky son. Eventually the family relocated first to Wellington, Dallas, and then to Amarillo, Texas. John David would stay until he left Amarillo College and headed west to Los Angeles.

After an off and on couple of years spent between carpentry (during suspended semesters at school) and music theory, Souther hit the road with a rival band from Texas and immediately felt at home in LA. Cut to 1969 and The Troubadour.

“Hanging out in the bar at the Troubadour with Glenn Frey and Jackson Browne and playing open mike Mondays, then opening for Poco and The Flying Burrito Brothers — it was the best study in songwriting I can imagine. So many great songwriters came through – Laura Nyro, Kris Kristofferson, Randy Newman, Elton John, James Taylor, Tim Hardin, Carole King, Rick Nelson, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Waylon Jennings, Tim Buckley, Gordon Lightfoot, Taj Mahal and more. It seems impossible now to imagine that much music in a year and a half or so, but that was my life and the Troubadour was our university. It’s also where I met Linda Ronstadt and where Don Henley and Glenn Frey met to form this little country rock band called Eagles that would go on to make musical history.”

By 1971, Souther had, in his words, “stepped into himself,” with a solo deal that gave him the venue he had been seeking. Jackson Browne had taken him to David Geffen’s house to audition for Geffen’s new label, Asylum Records: “I played David two of my best but probably not most radio friendly pieces and he just said; ‘OK. Go make a record.’ I couldn’t believe it.” The record, John David Souther (Asylum Records 1971), was a critical success and established John David Souther as a songwriter who had definitely arrived.

But the record did not reveal a hit single. Geffen had an idea. He told Souther he could speed things up by putting Chris Hillman (Byrds, Flying Burrito Bros), Richie Furay (Buffalo Springfield, Poco) and Souther together in front of great session players, including drummer Jim Gordon (Traffic, Derek and the Dominoes, Delaney & Bonnie.) Souther had rehearsed with the Eagles for a day and although they were sure to continue as a writing team, he could see in the set they played one afternoon that they were a perfect guitar band without him. This new idea of Geffen’s was intriguing and the hastily assembled band headed to Colorado to rehearse a first album, The Souther/Hillman/Furay Band (Asylum Records, 1972). SHF had one hit single and a promising first year of touring; but internal personality differences made real cohesion difficult. Unlike Henley/Frey’s successful songwriting team, SHF would find each singer leading the band through solo written songs. The band couldn’t last, and it didn’t. The appropriately named Trouble In Paradise (Elektra/Asylum, 1973) was finished in better shape than it deserved (largely due to the genius of legendary producer Tom Dowd), but there was no band there to tour. John David Souther was back on his own, which is probably where he was meant to be all along.

On his own, but certainly not alone, his songwriting flourished. By 1976, Eagles had huge hits with his music, Linda Ronstadt had made breathtaking recordings of his songs, some of them duets with him. Souther became the traveling troubadour who lived high, loved well, moved around restlessly and refused the advice of friends to “just slow it down a little”.

On the creative side, Peter Asher, a long time friend (and producer extraordinaire of James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt; including seven of Ronstadt’s ten recordings of Souther’s songs), offered encouragement, expertise, and a steady hand on the wheel. Asher produced Black Rose (Asylum/Elektra, 1976), a solo record which would bring Souther back from the disappointment of the SHF Band and into focus as an independent artist, securing John David a definitive place in the songwriting hierarchy.

But it would be 1979 before Souther registered his first really massive hit as a solo artist: “You’re Only Lonely” from the LP You’re Only Lonely (Sony/Columbia, 1979). The track hit #1 at Adult Contemporary radio that year and rose as high as #7 on the Billboard Top 100. At the same time; “Heartache Tonight” the Eagles smash single co-written by Souther, Henley, Frey, and Bob Seger topped the charts. The album from which it came, The Long Run (Elektra/Asylum, 1979), included two more Henley/Frey/Souther songs as well.

Two years later, the duet recording of James Taylor and Souther of their song “Her Town, Too” (Souther/Taylor/Wachtel), was such a big a hit in the U.S. and Japan that it gave Peter Asher the idea to produce an enormously successful stadium concert tour in Japan, billed as The California Live In Japan: James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, JD Souther, and Ronin (led by Waddy Wachtel). No matter that none of the artists were originally from California—the label had stuck. “The California Sound? Fine,” recalls Souther. “We had heard Joni and Neal and Linda and James play the Troubadour and saw Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young at the Greek Theatre in August 1969. If we were being put in the stacks with them… fantastic.”

Another moniker had also attached itself by this time. John David Souther had become JD Souther. “It started with me turning in songs as JD Souther in ’71. I had seen the J.S. Bach music, first in books and then at The British Museum and as there was no higher music for me to aspire to. I adopted the abbreviation.”

A major career accolade was received in 2013, as JD was inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. He also appeared in the ABC-TV hit drama Nashville, in the recurring role of Zen-like producer/guru Watty White. Shortly thereafter, JD Souther signed a new recording contract with Sony Music Masterworks division, now led by his old friend, Chuck Mitchell. The label is home to icons as diverse as Yo-Yo Ma, Dolly Parton, and Sonny Rollins, among many others. JD also reunited with another icon of the music industry, his old friend Irving Azoff, who had managed the artist during his turbulent early years.

This brings us to the new album, Tenderness. Produced by Larry Klein, an instant fellow traveler (Joni Mitchell, Rodney Crowell, Norah Jones, Melody Gardot, and Herbie Hancock) the new album continues Souther’s new paths in sound and style; but at the same time, it’s unlike anything he has previously recorded. Joining Souther on guitar and vocals are longtime collaborators: pianist Chris Walters and saxophonist Jeff Coffin; as well as new friends: vocalist Lizz Wright, trumpet master Till Brönner, and jazz piano legend Billy Childs, who also arranged the elegant and searing strings on half the album’s tracks.

Commenting on the contemporary trends of listener engagement in this era of individual tracks, shuffled playlists, random access, etc., Souther notes, “Now there are many ways to listen to music, and my intention is, as always, that each song tell its own story; however, Tenderness is very much designed as a set. I invite you to enjoy it this way.”

Overall, the album finds Souther stretching musically, balancing his pop and jazz sensibilities, paying particular homage to his earliest influences, the geniuses of the 20th Century Great American Songbook: Cole Porter particularly, as well as the Gershwins, Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, Fred Coots, Yip Harburg, and picking up along the way some of the modern grace of Paul Simon and Bob Dylan.

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