We’re gathered here today because CA reader Skip P mentioned that a Danny O’Keefe song was a great introduction to KFAT, and he was right. But that made me think of another song I wanted to play for you, and once again we see marvels appear as intertwined relationships unravel. In a kind of a “Six Degrees” thing, I just spent an hour with a guy I never met or spoke to, and it evolved into another of those, “Hey, did you know…yeah I know him, did you know…” and thus we discussed half a dozen people. The reason I called was to clarify a couple of minor points, and it turned into another unraveled story. Thus:
One day at KFAT, a cassette came in the mail and it was from John Wade, the drummer in The Hot Band, aka Emmy Lou Harris’ band. Emmy Lou was the queen at KFAT (I understand she tried to buy it once), and so when her drummer sent a tape, attention was paid. Laura Ellen (PD/MD/GM) heard it and immediately put it into whatever passed for “rotation” at KFAT. As there was no rotation at KFAT, what happened was she recommended the cut highly to the jocks, and the jocks saw why, as the cut not only swings, it rocks! It was “Stayin’ Alive” by Robb Strandlund and the jocks and listeners loved it. I fell in love with it, too, and all these years later I never forgot it, and then I got this gig and Bob’s your uncle.
I’m glad so many of you liked last month’s post, but that was last month and this was now and I felt that I might have set a pretty high bar with Jerry Williams’ song about his conversation with God. I mean… how do you follow Jerry Williams, how do you follow that song, and how do you follow God? So I thought I’d take it down a notch—while maintaining a certain standard—and write about a song that didn’t reference anything eternal, a song that I really loved and you probably hadn’t heard, and I remembered “Stayin’ Alive.” Now, how about a song that may not be… reverential… but a song that was really, really good? I mean, isn’t good good enough? And if it is, how about one that was really, really good? And this one is at least really good, and personally I think it’s fucking great.
All I knew about it was that some guy named Robb Strandlund sent us this tape, but he never put it on an album. So as good as the song was, the only place in the world you could hear it was on KFAT, and now that KFAT was silent...
Well, that might be true, so I called Robb Strandlund.
There was a Texas band named Shiloh, whose members included Don Henley on drums and Jim Ed Norman on keys. Shiloh moved to LA, had some small success, but Henley met Glenn Frey and Bernie Leadon when they toured in Linda Ronstadt’s band, and the Eagles coalesced therefrom (other Eagles came from Rick Nelson’s band and Poco). Jim Ed became a producer, staying in touch with Don and the players, singers and songwriters in LA. He produced A LOT of the Eagles’ albums and a lot of others’. Observe: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Ed_Norman#Discography
In 1980, the film “Urban Cowboy” came out and had an immediate societal impact. Suddenly, guys everywhere were sporting cowboy boots and snap-button western shirts, and ladies loaded up on denim and gingham. A lot of us already had the jeans and didn’t have all that far to go to gear up. I’ll admit I liked some of it, but those belt buckles? Oh, please. I remember one critic back then observing that ‘the Boomers finally had what they’d always wanted: they all grew up to be cowboys.’ Kinda funny now, I guess, but y’know, kinda true.
The film’s soundtrack album had some great country music played by some of the great country stars and studio players, and it went to #1 in the country music chart and #3 in Billboard’s Top 200 chart. The album was produced by Jim Ed Norman.
The film was a success, as was the album, and soon Jim Ed heard from… wait for it… wait for it… yes, Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, who was entranced with the new country sound and wanted to turn some of his music from “Saturday Night Fever” into country music. Yes, you read that correctly. Move along.
Jim Ed’s reaction was “sure, why not?” and he called Robb Strandlund to organize the sessions. A well- respected singer and musician, Robb had worked for and with Jim Ed, who’d relied on him for input, musical and otherwise, in other sessions. Robb’s reaction was, “Well, gee, I don’t know…” Robb never sang covers. He never sang them, but Jim Ed prevailed, Robb said okay and got some of the best studio cats in LA to record the tracks. There might have been some doubt in that studio at first about what was going on: “Saturday Night Fever” was a big, big hit, on both the pop and disco charts and already almost iconic, and you wouldn’t lose money betting that no one in that studio had a good thought for disco. Then Robb took his guitar and started strumming, and— what the hell?—they fell into a groove; they all felt it, and the sessions proceeded apace with a joyful demeanor. Robb played some bass, rhythm, observed, supervised, and sang lead on some tracks, and in all, in or out, plus-or-minus eighteen musicians sat in and eight songs were cut, including “Stayin’ Alive.” And Barry Gibb loved ‘em! Loved ‘em, he said.
Gibb took the tracks where he took them, and we leave them here. But Jim Ed Norman never forgot one of those tracks. He loved, adored and believed in that countrified version of “Stayin’ Alive.” Determined, convinced he had a hit single, Jim Ed got together enough money to record it and, still in 1980, he called Robb Strandlund, who was hanging out with members of The Hot Band, and told him about it. Robb hired those guys to cut the tracks, and they were off to Sunset Sound. Have I mentioned that it’s Robb singing lead vocal on the track?
And that’s most of what I want to say before you go off to hear the song and I hope you don’t have some kind of chip on your shoulder like, ‘well, now this song’d better be good…’ y’know? But before you go, I have an aside for you. I love asides.
So Jim Ed wanted to record the new, country version of “Stayin’ Alive,” and release it as a single. Remember 45’s? They had two sides, and he needed a B-side song, and he asked Robb to write one. Problem, Robb? No sir, said the man who eschewed covers. He was an original, and he’d write the song. What’s that? It had to be done tonight? Tonight? Yeah, they were cutting it tomorrow, so…?
Jim Ed believed in his idea of “Stayin’ Alive” and he didn’t want some other song, some damn B-side, to take any attention away from it. He said he wanted it to be “listenable, but not a hit. Write an okay song, but not a hit.” So Robb sat down with a friend and wrote whatever was going through his mind that he could catch, and what he caught was “I Can Tell By The Way You Dance,” and he freakin’ hated it!
It was dumb and bad, but he needed a song that wasn’t a hit, and this one was here, and it wouldn’t be a hit. And it was here. So they cut it. And it became a hit.
Yeah, years later Vern Gosdin recorded it, and Robb doesn’t know who heard the song and thought this was a good idea, but someone did, and gave it to Vern, who cut it for his first Number One record. But wait! The song that Robb Strandlund hated and despaired that he’d ever be associated with, not only became a #1 hit for Vern Gosdin, it earned Robb a Country Music Award for “Single of the Year,” and he went to Nashville to collect it. And he’s still collecting royalties on it.
So that’s what I meant by unraveling, which I promised somewhere up there, but one more thing: I loved this song from the moment I heard it, and I once made a lasting friendship because of that song, and in my book about KFAT I talked about it specifically, where I said, “call it Bluegrass or call it New Grass or call it what you will…” So I wanted to ask Robb what he called it. He told me he’d never really thought about it. “Well,” I asked, remembering that he said there was some uncertainty in the studio about it, “What did the band call it when you were cutting it?” He told me that they never thought about it; at the time, it just didn’t seem to need categorization. “They were told to do a ‘countrified version’ and this was what they wanted to play, that was all.” And after extensive contemplation, cogitation, cerebration and consideration, I gave it some thought and determined that he is right. And… it just swings! And no, I didn’t use a thesaurus.
So Robb has had a secret career for himself (he has many songs that earn royalties and an excellent reputation among those I assume are the right people.) He is mostly retired, but still performing.
Below are links to Robb’s info for CDs and gigs, and to both “Stayin’ Alive” and “I Can Tell By The Way You Dance.” “Stayin’ Alive” is the second song down and ICTBTWYD is further down. Both will say they cost 99 cents, but Robb says he “put them there to be free and they are. They’re free.” Just click PLAY.
Now, this isn’t going to be a head-banging rocker, but there’ll be some toe tapping and some finger snapping out there, so you might want to have a pencil ready to keep the beat. Speaking from personal experience, some outright dancing might ensue. Ladies and gentlemen, swing away:
Here’s the song Skip P likes a lot, and I so do I. He warns you not to play this in front of any HR people, and so do I:
I couldn’t resist. Last week I went to renew my domains and found the .me option. Ergo, I am henceforth: [email protected]. Cool, isn’t it?
Did you know the Stones played the Fillmore? Yeah, they did and no one knew about it and no one came. I was there. What a show! I’ll tell you about it next month.
Gilbert Klein has too many degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.