Oh, the stories he could tell. JD Souther, one of the preeminent songwriters of our time, is preparing for a four-night gig in the Lone Star State. It’s a mini-homecoming for the Texas native.
“My mother’s family was from Amarillo,” Souther said during a telephone interview Wednesday. “She was a stenographer for the commanding officer where my dad was stationed at the end of World War II. He took her to his home in Detroit. She hated it.”
John Souther was a big band singer. He toured all around the Great Lakes area with The Butterfield Band.
Souther’s mother, Loty Finley, finally talked her husband into getting off the road. He took a job as an agent for MCA and moved the family, which had grown to include a young John David, to Cleveland.
Beside a serious dislike of the city and cold weather, Loty missed her big, noisy, tightly-knit family.
“They were always together,” he said with a laugh. “There were never less than 12 people in the room.”
In addition to his father’s musical gifts, the Souther side of the family included an opera-singing grandmother, an inventor grandfather, a surgeon uncle and another uncle who worked for Technicolor in California.
When John Souther was offered a job in New York City, Loty said, “That’s it. The boy and I are going home to Texas. If you want to come with us, fine.”
Souther began taking violin lessons and played a Mozart recital at the end of his fourth grade year in Amarillo.
Souther tried football, but, thankfully for the music world, it was a short-lived career.
“I was such a shrimp,” he said, laughing. “I would trudge to football practice at Stephen F. Austin park and had to entrust the violin my grandmother had given me to an assistant coach.”
By middle school, Souther thought, “Why am I playing football? I’m always third string. I only get in the game if we’re 30 points behind or ahead. Why am I doing this to myself?”
So, he took up jazz.
There was a “really good” band in his middle school, with players as “besotted” with the genre as he was.
“We formed a little trio and it was pretty much smooth sailing from there,” Souther explained. “I never had a Plan B.”
Souther lists Roy Orbison, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck and Stan Kenton as his early musical influences.
“My dad’s best friend booked bands for the officers’ club on the [army] air base,” Souther shared. “I was 13 when I saw Stan Kenton’s band the first time. It absolutely blew the top of my head off. That’s when I started playing drums.”
When Brubeck released “Take Five” in 1959, Souther found it “revolutionary.”
“Those guys could swing so hard in 5/4 time,” he noted. “It was a huge hit on AM radio, even though it was so long.”
Souther was also enamored with Davis.
“Miles was a perfect example of turning your limitations into an asset,” he explained. “By anybody’s standards, Miles was not a brilliant trumpet player. But he learned how to use the space and he had the incredible serendipity of meeting Bill Evans; meeting this sophisticated white counterpoint who reinvented jazz music, and Miles was there for it with these simple but dazzling melodies. They were every bit about the space as they were the notes.”
It didn’t take long after high school for Souther to head to Southern California.
Once there, he made friends with other musicians, including Glenn Frye, Don Henley, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, and the little-known, but brilliant, Judee Sill.
He and Linda Ronstadt were an item and remain close friends to this day.
Soon, he signed with David Geffen’s Asylum Records. It was through Geffen that he met Sill.
“Oh, my God,” Souther whispered when asked about Sill.
Geffen had told Souther Sill was “absolutely brilliant and she has all the things you like.”
Souther went to see Sill “at a little theater on Melrose. There were about six people in the room. She was sitting there with her gut-string guitar and an upright piano. She absolutely blew my mind.”
Souther and Sill were involved for a while. After their breakup, Sill showed up at his house early one morning, told him she had just written a song for him and wanted to sing it to him.
The song was “Jesus Was A Crossmaker.”
Although Sill had just completed her first album, Souther convinced Geffen to add it to the record.
“He sent Graham Nash into the studio to produce it,” Souther recalled.
Souther credits his best friend, Jackson Browne, and Sill, who died of an overdose in 1979, with teaching him about “precision and courage” in songwriting.
“She had an incredible and beautiful and feminine way of making music,” he said quietly. “She was very powerful, but also very fragile. She came to a bad end much too early.”
Souther realizes how lucky he was to be a part of the incredibly rich pool of talent that made Los Angeles the center of the music universe during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“The songwriting university master class was hanging out at the Troubador,” he said. “Within a year’s time, we saw James Taylor, Laura Nyro, Elton John, Kris Kristofferson, Carole King and the Burrito Brothers.”
Souther compares the competition among all the young artists to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book about Lincoln, “A Team of Rivals.”
“We were definitely in an intense rivalry, but we were all on the same team,” he noted. “That was our graduating class. We were determined to be better than the class before. We were all trying to say things in a way that’s never been said before.”
The lyrics to his ballad, “Sad Café,” mention the group’s efforts to write meaningful tunes.
. . . It seemed like a holy place, protected by amazing grace. We would sing right out loud the things we could not say. . . . We thought we could change this world with words like love and freedom.
He released a chart-topping single, “You’re Only Lonely” in 1979.
In the mid-1980s, Souther stepped away from perfoming, but continued to hone his songwriting skills. While he acted in several films and had a recurring role in the TV series thirtysomething, he wasn’t really into the records being released.
“I wasn’t a fan of the MTV era,” he stated. “I think the music from that era doesn’t really look that good now.”
Souther also wanted to enjoy life before it was too late.
“All the men in my family worked until they were in their 80s and then they were too tired to do anything,” he explained.
So, he took long vacations to Hawaii and Japan. He moved to Ireland for a while, finally settling in Nashville and then went underground to find musicians who loved jazz like he did.
“I got lonesome for hearing it,” he recalled. “So, I started going out and harvesting these great players like Chris Walters [piano], Jim White [drummer], Dan Immel [bass] and Jeff Coffin [saxophonist and member of Dave Matthews’ Band].”
In 1998, Souther visited Cuba on a ministry of education visa. Again, he found himself in the middle of a lot of talent.
“Our group had Bonnie Raitt, The Indigo Girls and Burt Bacharach, just to name a few,” he said. “I heard the Buena Vista Social Club play at the Charlie Chaplin Theater before any of them died. They were fabulous. To this day, it’s probably my best evening in concert.?It was dazzling.”
The ladies of Cuba inspired him to write “Rain,” from the 2008 album, “If The World Was You.”
“Those women,” he said with a sigh. “It’s like having a blindfold on and they take you to someplace mysterious and noisy and then they take the blindfold off and you’re in Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro during Carnival.”
New ballads like “I’ll Be Here at Closing Time,” one of the most plaintive love songs of all time, and “In My Arms Tonight” proved Souther had lost none of his songwriting skills.
“It’s very important to know what to leave out and when to back off the gas,” he said of songwriting. “It’s like racing. You don’t floor it every time you come off the corner.”
Souther’s voice has held up nicely, too. Unlike others of his generation, his pipes are still as smooth as silk, edged with a touch of wisdom.
“Usually the first thing I say is that I quit smoking 20 years ago,” he stated. “To tell you the truth, I think a lot of it is genetic. I remember my father singing around the house in his 70s.”
Jimmy Buffett, a “very dear, old friend and probably the smartest business man that I’ve ever known,” tapped Souther to be the narrator in the audio version of his book, “A Salty Piece of Land.”
In subsequent records, 2010’s “Natural History” and 2011’s live “Midnight in Tokyo,” Souther began to include tunes from the Great American Songbook, including “Bye, Bye, Blackbird” and “Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me.” He added “For All We Know” to the set list, too, even though he wasn’t sure how the tunes would be accepted.
“I feathered in new arrangements,” he said. “I make fairly compact, but pretty elaborate introductions, to these songs. People have really been accepting of them. Last year, when we added ‘For All We Know,’ it was like opening the door to a garden.”
Of course, Souther knows where his bread is buttered.
“I don’t leave out the big hits I know they’ve come to hear,” he stated. “But, I want to touch people with the songs that have informed my musical life.”
Between recording and playing gigs, Souther’s been spending time on prime time television.
He’s currently playing the role of Watty White in ABC’s hit, “Nashville.”
“It’s a lot of fun,” he noted. “It’s the nicest bunch of people ever gathered to do a show.”
In June Souther will be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, joining the ranks of Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Sam Cooke and John Lennon, among others.
“I’m pretty stoked,” Souther admitted. “The ones who vote are members. That makes it even sweeter. I’m going to look out there and see Burt Bacharach and Jimmy Webb and Paul Williams.”
When asked if he plans to continue to make beautiful music, Souther was quick to respond, promising to stay in the game “as long as I’m having as much fun as I am now.”
When he comes to Texas next month, Souther will bring his hits and some standards, along with pianist Chris Walters and bass player Jerry Navarro. There are a few tickets left for the Linden show. Call 903-756-9934.
Click here to watch a video of Souther performing “I’ll Be Here At Closing Time.”
Click here to watch a video of a 1997 performance with The Eagles.
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