Early on, in a pattern that would often emerge in his life, Gram Parsons was attacking the music biz from any angle possible, from sideman, to songwriter, to hip best friend of various celebs and musicians. From his early attempts at writing and recording to his later penchant for ‘sitting in’, Gram has quite a record for appearing on other people’s records. Yet, for a man with a well-documented, some would say ‘over-healthy’, desire for fame, Parsons’ appearances as a musical sideman are perplexingly ghostly. If his name appears, you can lay odds it will be for an ethereal organ, guitar, or piano part that adds weight to the proceedings without calling attention.
The first noticeable songwriting attempt was counter-culture hero Peter Fonda’s 1968 cover of November Nights. The song, released on Hugh Masekela’s Chisa Records, isn’t one of Gram’s more fully developed efforts, but Fonda gives it his best, despite a limited vocal range. Oddly Masekela, who produced the track and was one of the more accomplished trumpet players of the time, plays a fairly anodyne part that limps its way through the song.
A more successful outing came with Steve Young’s sublime (and bizarrely out of print) 1969 album, Rock Salt & Nails. Young’s debut record announced the Texas singer/songwriter ‘s soulful gift and holds up as one of the better ‘lost’ albums of the late Sixties. Gram happened to be recording The Flying Burrito Brothers’ Gilded Palaces of Sin at the same studio, liked what he heard, and stopped over to play organ on a version of the Otis Redding soul classic That’s How Strong My Love Is (originally recorded by the deep south soul master O.V. Wright , the song lends itself surprisingly well to this loose country soul treatment. Clearly a meeting of minds…
Gram is well known for having been a fan of Fred Neil, the Florida troubadour with the best bass/baritone in folk. He had already covered Neil’s Other Side of this Life, one in a group of early demos that were posthumously released under the title Another Side Of This Life.
During Gram’s downtime after the Burrito’s second record, Burrito Deluxe, he and Neil recorded a wonderfully lugubrious version of the William Bell track You Don’t Miss Your Water. Gram had already staked his claim on the song with The Byrds for their iconic album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. However, in this version everything slows down to live in Neil’s molasses world. This is also one of the few instances when Gram (here billed as ‘Graham Parsons’) shows off his chops, playing wonderfully laconic piano, and singing distinctly tart backing vox.
During that same break, after Burrito Deluxe, Gram contributed to Delaney & Bonnie’s Motel Shot . The extent of his participation isn’t fully known, though it’s easy to picture Parsons’ and Duane Allman feeling right at home and slapping their laps along to this rousing version of Going Down the Road Feeling Bad (as Bonnie Bramlett later recalled).
Perhaps the oddest contribution in this ‘alternate discography’ was Gram’s inclusion on a country-rock Christmas tune by the made-to-order group, The Christmas Spirit. The Turtles’ record label White Whale released this one-off single, Christmas Is My Time of Year backed with Will You Still Believe in Me. In such heady company as that of Clarence White and Linda Ronstadt, Gram and The Christmas Spirit deliver a truly whacked out pair of Country Rock tunes.
The flip side is a more sedate affair with Ronstadt possibly on backing vocals.
Another interesting anomaly occurs on Johnny Rivers’ Slim Slo Slider record. Among versions of songs by Van Morrison, John Fogerty and Tony Joe White, Rivers cut an unrecorded Parsons’ song called Apple Tree. A wistful, fairly slight, tune likely influenced by Gram’s childhood as the scion of a wealthy orchard family.
On that same album, Rivers does a cover — the first ever — of Gram’s Brass Buttons and it is surprisingly affecting.
I hope you enjoyed this trawl through Gram’s more shadowy archives.