This highly influential artist Gram Parsons was born Cecil Ingram Connor III in November 1946. Born into a wealthy family, his early life was spent split between Florida and Georgia. Early tragedy punctuated his life when first his farther committed suicide then his mother died following years of excessive drinking. He had by now taken the name of his stepfather and was to find solace in music.
From the age of 16 he played in local bands, mostly playing rock and roll covers but soon discovered folk music and formed his first professional band in 1963. He spent a brief, if unspectacular term at Harvard University before dropping out after meeting guitarist John Nuese who persuaded Parson’s to give up on the folk music he had been playing and to join him to play in a more country based style. Recruiting Ian Dunlop on bass and Mickey Gauvin on drums, they formed the International Submarine Band. In early 1966 the band relocated to New York and recorded a couple of singles and most of a subsequently scrapped album.
When success eluded them in New York, Parsons moved out to Los Angeles. Able to live from a substantial trust fund, Parsons soon became part of the film community, befriending Peter Fonda and starting a relationship with actress Nancy Ross. Following recommendations from Ross, the rest of the band joined Parsons in LA and soon blagged themselves a part in the psychedelic exploitation film “The Trip” Despite recording some songs for the film, music from The Electric Flag was preferred although Parsons and the band can be seen in the film, Parsons was by now convinced that the path to success lay in country music and particularly in the new Country Rock sound that was fighting to be established. Dunlop and Gauvin disagreed and left. Good fortune was just around the corner however, and duo were picked up and signed just days later to Lee Hazlewood’s label, LHI records.
With just Parsons and Nuese left from the original band, session musicians were drafted in to record the bands only album. "Safe At Home". Containing a number of Parsons original compositions, the album was due for release in early 1968 but was put on hold as just prior to this, Parsons had auditioned to replace David Crosby in the Byrds and was finally put out much later that year. Having passed the audition, he was soon to join the new band recording the album “Sweetheart Of The Rodeo” also released in 1968.
Unfortunately, Parsons was still signed to LHI and his new band mates to Columbia. This result of this was that Parsons was hired, along with Kevin Kelley, as sidemen and not full band members. Despite this, to the outside world, Parsons was a full member and was given equal billing and contributed some fine songs to the album, including the classic “Hickory Wind” Due to the contractual complications, many of Parsons vocals had to be replaced (by Roger McGuinn) and his only lead vocals appear on just three tracks. Recorded partly in the country music stronghold of Nashville, this album truly paved the way for Country Rock to take off. With this album, the Byrds left behind the frivolous world of psychedelic pop to bring country music to the masses.
Ever restless, Parsons was to quit the Byrds during a tour of England late in 1968 (a busy year!) allegedly due to the bands planned concert in the political hot potato of South Africa. Parsons spent some time in England and became friendly with The Rolling Stones, particularly Keith Richards who had his interest in country music re ignited by the American.
Following his return to the States, Parsons prised Chris Hillman away from the Byrds and the pair formed the “Flying Burrito Brothers” with Chris Ethridge and Pete Kleinow. They were soon in the studio to record their debut album, the exotically titled “The Gilded Palace Of Sin” Now acknowledged as a classic of the genre, the album mixed traditional sounds of folk, country and gospel with contemporary electric guitars. Once again, commercial success eluded them while some critics were confused and some found the conflicting styles confusing. With Michael Clarke joining on drums, the band toured across the States. Now indulging in copious amounts of drugs, Parsons live performances were inconsistent at best, a lifestyle also followed by Ethridge, who, no longer sharing the bands vision, left.
When the Stones relocated to the States in 1969, the situation worsened. Writing new songs and rehearsing with the band took second place to partying with the Stones and the bands reputation dwindled. A short set opening at the infamous Altamont Festival did little to raise the bands profile. With their record label trying to salvage something and to try to recoup some of their investment, they were ordered into the studio to record anything that might encourage commercial returns. After some sessions, with hastily written songs and using some of the out takes from “The Gilded Palace..” "Burrito Deluxe" was completed and released in April 1970. Although under par, the album was notable for the inclusion of the Jagger/Richards classic “Wild Horses” the first ever recording of the song. After again lacking any commercial success and this time also receiving some harsh criticism from the press, Parsons walked out. The band would continue for a while longer, recording two subsequent albums.
Signing immediately as a solo artist with A&M, he started work on an album with famed producer Terry Melcher. By now in the grip of the unholy trinity of cocaine, heroin and drink, Parsons was uninspired and the sessions returned little in the way of new music. Putting the album on hold, he returned to the comforting fold of the Keith Richards and the Stones where he was still considered a major talent. Following the Stones to Europe where they were working on their “Exile In Main Street” classic, he may have contributed some vocals on some tracks but, understandably, things are a bit cloudy around these sessions. Eventually, Parsons was considered a distracting influence and left the Stones compound at the insistence of Anita Pallenberg.
Now married to actress Gretchen Burrell, Parsons disposition changed. Now off heroin and revitalized, he started back again on his solo record. With the help of recently befriended Emmylou Harris, “GP” was released in 1973. In support of the album, a States wide tour commenced. While a bit ragged at first, the band, including Harris, were soon playing to enthusiastic audiences with high profile fans such as Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt leading the applause. The album however followed the same pattern as previous releases and failed to chart.
In the summer of 1973 work commenced on what was to be his final album. Now kept away from most chemical distractions, he was making a serious attempt to put his career and life back on track. Again using most of the musicians on “GP” the paucity of new, original material however, resulted in a messy collection of reworked oldies, cover songs and hastily written originals. Finally completed in September, Parsons retreated to California for some rest and recreation. Staying at the Joshua Tree Inn at the site of the national monument there, Parsons often visited and stayed in the area and described it as his favourite place.
Less than two days after arriving, he died from an overdose of alcohol and morphine aged just 26. When that final album was released in January 1974, it was much changed from the album envisaged by Parsons. His widow, Gretchen, who Parsons was due to divorce, changed the running order of the songs, removed the original title track “Sleepless Nights” completely, changed the cover photo and relegated the role Emmylou Harris had to next to nothing. Now called “Grievous Angel” the album has grown and grown in its influence and many critics believe that it achieved Parsons vision of “Cosmic American Music”
Parsons death has gone into rock folklore. Drunkenly telling his loyal manager Phil Kaufman that he wanted to be cremated and have his ashes scattered across the desert he loved, Kaufman did his bidding. “kidnapping” his body from Los Angeles airport where it was going to be taken to Louisiana for a private ceremony, Kaufman instead drove the coffin into the desert and set fire to it and although his ashes were never scattered, they at least were in the desert.
Parsons life and early death tell a tragic tale. Never successful with any of the bands he played with, he would too often jump ship in a desperate attempt for fame and acclaim. Never needing to struggle for his art like so many of his contemporaries, he could drift from one project to the next. An addictive personality, no doubt inherited from his mother, his struggle with the lack of fame must have been hard to take. As his reputation grew posthumously, coupled with the mystique of his death, so his influence grew. Regularly credited with starting the country rock genre and cited as a major influence for such bands as the Eagles, Poco and the Doobie Brothers, his importance is assured. His recordings have continued to be released to his ever faithful fans with many compliations and collections adding to his brief portfolio.
Has the reputation and critical influence been exaggerated with a tragically early death and such high profile “friends” making him the american Nick Drake. I wonder.
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