The music we hear as teenagers is the music that becomes ours. I haven’t listened to a lot of new stuff. I know it exists. Last year with my granddaughter, she’s into electronic music. She educated me. It’s synthesizer based…resembles R&B with a synthesizer. The thing I find sort of sad about it is this sense of the beat…in a band with live musicians, it’s a shared responsibility…It’s a cooperative pulse that we’re all constantly aware of. Tapping our feet to it. Each of us has a responsibility for respecting that beat, keeping it steady, yet capable of slowing down or speeding up a little when the need for that overtakes us all. The beat is breathing, alive. It’s something we are creating together right there on the spot and in the spirit. We are co-parents of the beat.
I’m proud to say that I myself refused to ever use a drum machine or a click track on any recording session where I had something to say about it.
So says John Simon, music producer, composer, pianist in a long running Thursday night Jazz group that plays at Aroma Thyme Bistro and board of directors member for Ellenville’s Shadowland Theatre. Simon’s credits stretch wide over the music world. He produced Music From Big Pink and The Band, the first two albums from the Woodstock based group that set the music world on its ear, and his name is associated with Simon and Garfunkle’s Bookends, Cheap Thrills, Big Brother and the Holding Company, with of course, Janis Joplin; Blood Sweat and Tears’ first album Child Is Father to the Man, Songs of Leonard Cohen and Gordon Lightfoot’s Did She Mention My Name. The credits rolled on through the years, working with Taj Mahal, Eric Clapton, Jesse Ed Davis, Dave Mason, and Howlin’ Wolf. He was Musical Director for The Last Waltz. Later on, he worked with Emmylou Harris, Christine Lavin, the Kips Bay Ceili Band, Pierce Turner, and John Sebastian, as well as doing cast album work. He also was at Columbia Records in the 1960s as the industry exploded.
His venerable history and some inimitable insights in music and the music business will all be on display in a one night only “talk” he calls My Dreamjob: An Inside Look at Rock and Roll. It will be held at 8 p.m. this Saturday, April 14 ($15 admission) at Shadowland and is a benefit for the refurbishment of the Theatre. Actually Shadowland calls it An Evening With John Simon: Reminiscences of a Life in Rock & Roll.
“Beside the usual Stories-With-Famous-People-In-Them element, I was around when the Rock of the Fifties became the Rock of the Sixties and, not being one to sit idly by without thinking, I saw a lot of interesting stuff occur,” he says.
I remember one funny conversation I had with Joni Mitchell. Part of my job as Musical Director of The Last Waltz was to run the rehearsals and tell the guys in The Band what chords the guest artists were playing (since only one of the guys could read music).
Joni, as you may know, writes with some very unusual chords. So, even when I looked at her hand positions on her guitar, I couldn’t figure them out.
I knew that she was a trained, schooled musician. So I figured that the chords she was playing were some very sophisticated things that she had patiently figured out.
When I asked her what they were, she said she had no idea. She said, “Sometimes when I write a song, I tune my guitar all weird so I come up with something I don’t expect. It makes me stupid.”
The sources of The Band’s music, Bluegrass and The Blues, were deeply American. And, though the music that The Band developed was outside of any label or category at the time, it inspired many, many imitators and eventually resulted in a new radio station genre all its own that still exists today called “Americana.”
“I’m trying to get recognition that there’s this great Theatre in this county, Shadowland Theatre, and nobody knows it. It’s like some kind of nether world down there, and it’s only 40 minutes from the [Kingston Thruway] traffic circle. It’s the only professional Theatre in Ulster County. Equity only, that produces its own shows, they’re not road companies. It builds its own sets…it tries to do cutting-edge stuff…”
The 1920s art deco movie and vaudeville Theatre has been undergoing a substantial renovation in recent years. The interior has been completely rebuilt, retaining its original art-deco features. It’s now a 148-seat semi-thrust stage facility (all seats are within 25 feet of the stage), technically equipped, acoustically pure, with new lighting grid, new sound equipment, refurbished dressing rooms, restored inner lobby. Simon says that there is still work going on that visitors will be able to view in progress. The organization is now involved in a $1 million capital campaign.
One day this guy came into my windowless 10 by 10 corporate cubicle (at Columbia Records) with a demo of a band from his fraternity. The man in my office identified himself as “Brian Epstein’s American Associate.” And since Brian Epstein was the Beatles’ manager, that caught my attention. I listened to the tape and liked it. I screwed up my courage and went in to my corporate boss to ask for $3,000 to record the song. “Hell, take 5 thousand,” he said.
So I recorded the song, “Red Rubber Ball.”
People often ask, “What was the name of that group that did Red Rubber Ball?” They originally had another name but they ended up with a new one. Here’s how that happened. When Brian Epstein came to the U.S. to attend one of their recording sessions, he had promised to name the band. Everyone was excited. They were about to get a name from the guy who named The Beatles! We were all excited, looking forward to a name that would live forever in music history.
Brian sat in the corner scribbling on scraps of paper and crumpling them up, one after another. We were thinking, “Boy! He’s working hard. I’ll bet he’s gonna come up with a really great name!”
Eventually he handed a folded up slip of paper to the guys in the band saying, “Here’s your name.”
It was like God carving out the Ten Commandments on stone tablets with a lightning bolt! Well, I think I actually heard clunks as their jaws hit the floor. Talk about disappointment. Brian Epstein decreed: they shall be called “The Cyrkle,” spelled funny like “The Beatles”. C-Y-R-K-L-E.
It turned out the guy, no matter what his managerial skills were, as a namer, he was 50/50.
For Shadowland’s 28th year this year, Simon says there are three cutting-edge plays along with a couple of “crowd-pleasers” including a Noel Coward offering with actors Orson Bean and Paula Prentiss. Last season featured the Irish comedy-drama The Seafarer; Jackass Flats, a world premier written by Simon and his wife C.C. Lovehart and a psychological drama Medal of Honor Rag, dealing with problems of post-war adjustment.
Along with Simon’s evening, Shadowland will also host its $10,000 raffle party on Saturday, April 21, and Saturday Night Live alum Denny Dillon’s Improv Nation on Saturday, May 5.
Simon says he’ll play a little to demonstrate points he’ll make; he’ll talk, laugh, make you laugh and enlighten you as to how music has gotten to its current state. All to help keep the doors open.
An Evening With John Simon: Reminiscences of a Life in Rock & Roll, a benefit for the refurbishment of Shadowland Theatre will take place at at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 14 at the Theatre, 157 Canal Street, Ellenville. Tickets are $15. For reservations or for more information, call 845-647-5511, or see shadowlandtheatre.org.