Saturday, November 22, 2008

A Dream Baby Mines For Chart Gold

What do The Monkees, Fleetwood Mac and The Kingston Trio all have in common? Their members all combined with the considerable talents of singer/songwriter John Stewart, to yield gold on the music charts.

After a stint with The Cumberland Three (they released one album in 1960), San Diego born John Stewart joined the high profile folk group The Kingston Trio in 1961 (replacing Dave Guard). Stewart’s tenure with the group coincided with their shift from traditional folk material to a more contemporary focus on political/social issues, including the US#21 hit ’Where Have All The Flowers Gone’ in 1962. Having been involved in no less than a dozen album releases Stewart left The Kingston Trio in 1967 to pursue a solo career as singer/songwriter. Within months of choosing his new career path, Stewart had a U.S. #1 hit on his hands, well The Monkees had one at any rate, with a Stewart penned pop classic. ‘Daydream Believer’ sat atop the American charts for the last month of 1967, and proved to be one of the biggest hits of the year. During 1968 Stewart toured with his wife Buffy Ford in support of Bobby Kennedy’s campaign, which of course ended so tragically. Stewart was inspired to later record the album ‘The Last Campaign’ reflecting his experiences and feelings during that time. His first album ‘Signals Through The Glass’ (1968) was actually credited to both himself and Buffy Ford. His next album was a truly solo effort, and 1969’s ‘California Bloodlines’ (US#193) is widely regarded as one of Stewart’s finest, and boasted much of the same backing band employed by Bob Dylan on his ‘Nashville Skyline’ album.

In September 1969 John Stewart’s solo career was launched on the U.S. singles charts with the song ‘Armstrong’ (US#74), a timely release referencing the achievements of astronaut Neil Armstrong just a couple of months earlier. The song proved to have considerable longevity, as some 25 years later a CD-single release on Homecoming Records was commissioned by Lockheed (the aeronautics firm), and was the official song for Houston’s 25th anniversary celebration of the first moon landing (who’d bet against the song making another comeback in 2019).

John Stewart continued to solidify a strong reputation as a gifted artist throughout the 1970s, and averaged an album a year during the decade, albeit across several labels. Efforts like ‘Wingless Angels’ (1975-US#150) and ‘Fire In The Wind’ (1977-US#126) continued Stewart’s steady climb both in the charts and in the pecking order of singer/songwriters.

In 1979 John Stewart finally struck gold on the charts as a solo artist with the single ‘Gold’. The catchy mid-tempo pop-rock song hit the U.S. charts during May and went on to peak at #5 mid year. Soon after ‘Gold’ replicated its American success on the Australian charts and also hit #43 in Britain. The song had a distinctly Fleetwood Mac edge to it, and with good reason. Stevie Nicks contributed her unique vocal cadence to backing Stewart on the chorus, whilst Lindsey Buckingham provided the guitar track. The track was lifted from Stewart’s album ‘Bombs Away Dream Babies’ (OZ#10/US#10), released on the R.S.O. label, and co-produced by Lindsey Buckingham (probably in between, or just after, the marathon ‘Tusk’ sessions). Two more U.S. top forty hits were yielded from the album - ‘Midnight Wind’ (US#28/OZ#97), which also featured Nicks and Buckingham, and ‘Lost Her In The Sun’ (US#34). Dave Guard, the man who Stewart replaced in The Kingston Trio, added his backing vocals to the album track ‘Comin’ Out Of Nowhere’. In recent years every time I’ve seen the album cover for ‘Bombs Away Dream Babies’, I’ve been struck with the strong resemblance between Stewart (in the cover pic) and comedian/actor Garry Shandling (of The Larry Sanders Show) - really that’s got nothing to do with music, but I occasionally enjoy offering nonsensical ramblings to people - or hadn’t you already noticed that trend in this blog?

Stewart’s next album didn’t take long to surface, and was somewhat of a sequel to the last. ‘Dream Babies Go To Hollywood’ (OZ#86/US#85) was released in April 1980, but failed to spawn any hit singles despite once again boasting an impressive support cast, with backing vocals from Linda Ronstadt, Nicolette Larson (see future post) and Phil Everly (of the Everly Brothers). The live ‘In Concert’ album followed soon after on the RCA Victor label. Stewart switched to the smaller Line Records label for 1982’s ‘Blondes’. The album once again reunited Stewart with Lindsey Buckingham, who arranged two of the album’s tracks including ‘The Queen Of Hollywood High’, which once more included backing vocals from Linda Ronstadt. For fans of trivia, Stewart’s sister appeared on the front cover for the album (to impress your friends guess which one she was).

In 1984 Stewart founded the Homecoming Records label, which in addition to his own material, also released work by The Modern Folk Quartet and Heriza & Ford. His creative output remained regular, bordering on prolific at times, throughout the rest of the 1980s, with albums such as ‘Trances’ (1984) and ‘Punch The Big Guy’ (1987) considered to be his strongest during that period. The Stewart penned song ‘Runaway Train’ became a U.S. country #1 in 1988 for Rosanne Cash. The 1990s proved no less productive for a man committed to his craft, and yielded the well received albums ‘Chilly Winds’ (1993) and ‘Rough Sketches (from Route ‘66)’ (1997), the latter highlighting Stewart’s steady allegiance to his folk music roots.

Stewart continued to have an active recording and touring schedule in the period leading up to his death from a stroke in January 2008, aged 68, with his final album ‘The Day The River Sang’ released in 2006. In a career spanning almost half a century Stewart contributed to over fifty albums, including no fewer than 29 solo recordings (including compilations). He worked with some of the best in the business, and in addition to those mentioned already, collaborated with such popular music luminaries as John Denver, James Taylor, The Jordanaires and John Phillips. But it’s John Stewart’s 1979 U.S./Australian #5 ‘Gold’ that still shines the brightest after almost thirty years.

Oh, and if you guessed Stewart’s sister was the woman wearing the hat, then you’ve struck gold, or at least some kind of shiny metallic substance, possibly aluminium foil.

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