Southern Sounds

Long Distance Information …. Two phone calls in two days, and both were the kind most songwriters dream about. Such was the case for Michael Jarrett in May ’71. The caller told Jarrett that Elvis Presley liked the songs he had sent and would soon record them. To Jarrett, the news was like learning Publishers Clearinghouse was someone to his front door, check in hand.

Michael Jarrett

Music had been Michael Jarrett’s livelihood since the late ’50s. He loved the music but the tedium of the club scene made it too much like work. A breaking point was within reach, except Jarrett called it an epiphany. It’s late ’69. Jarrett and group are  in the middle of playing Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’,” a hit that year by Nilsson. Jarrett turns off his guitar, packs it up and walks out.

Jarrett told journalist Arjen Deelan, “I hesitated briefly outside the club and looked back through the little windows in the bar door and watched the clouds of cigarette smoke billowing up into the stage lights and said to myself, this is the end of this. I can’t handle the drunks and the smoke and the lying club owners any longer.” Needing a break from the road, Jarrett, a free agent of sorts, headed to his native Bay Area to put things in perspective.

On one head-clearing expedition, Jarrett explored the clubs in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, hoping to hear some good jazz. Above one club a marquee read “Sonny Charles Tonight.” Charles had been the lead singer of Checkmates, Ltd., which scored a Top Ten R&B hit in ’69 with “Black Pearl.” Jarrett and Charles had been friends when they both played the Vegas clubs. While catching up with each other, Charles gave Jarrett a break when he asked him to fill in for his B3 organ player, beginning with a gig in Hawaii. Charles provided Jarrett his next break when he let him stay at his home in Los Angeles.

Singing In The Shower . . . It was a great time to be in Los Angeles.  Sonny Charles’s neighbors in Laurel Canyon on one side were Three Dog Night and on the other side was Linda Ronstadt. Just across the canyon was Joni Mitchell. Creativity flowed in the neighborhood, so Michael Jarrett made himself at home. In his interview with Deelan, he recalled crafting a song Elvis Presley would one day record.

“Sonny had put me up for awhile, and it was in the fall of 1970 that I took Sonny’s 12 string into the shower (water off, of course) and shut the glass door and was getting off on the natural echo and the 12 string, it sounded huge! I just started singing the la lal la’s and was just fooling around and the first verse just happened. It was then I realized I was singing about this girl I left behind in Portland who really wasn’t supportive…. and then I said I’m leavin’ and that’s that….. I came out of the shower 10 minutes later with the first two verses and the la la hook, and played it for Sonny. He suggested I repeat the build up to the I’m leavin’ part, in other words, do it twice, ah ah ah ah, then again, ah ah ah…I’m leavin’. I felt that suggestion was the key to the build and gave the song its impact, and I gave Sonny half writers credit because of this idea he had. Then the bridge had to be written and Sonny and I started throwing out ideas, and he would say things to me and give me ideas where to take it, we brainstormed for a half hour or so when all of a sudden the words started coming out of me and they were all about my experience with this girl in Portland again. The song was complete by the end of that day. Small as Sonny’s contribution might seem to some, it was huge to me in writing “I’m Leavin’.”

Have You Heard The News . .  . In late ’70 Jarrett, preferring to stick close to Los Angeles and push his own songs, joined a band led by another former Checkmate, Bobby Stevens. The gigs were in Las Vegas, where Elvis Presley had established a concert residency. A good friend of Stevens was Joe Esposito, close friend to Elvis Presley. A friend of a friend of Elvis Presley is a friend indeed. Esposito told Stevens that Presley would be going into the studio soon. Did Stevens know of any songs Presley would like? That’s all it took. In no time, Jarrett and Stevens were off to the Gold Star Studio in Hollywood to cut some demos.

Jarrett recorded two tracks, one a bluesy Christmas song, “I’ll Be Home On Christmas Day,” and the song inspired by the Portland girl, “I’m Leavin’.” Having sung “tons of Elvis songs over the years,” Jarrett explained he used “that Elvis affectation on my voice” in “I’m Leavin’.” A friend told him Elvis “sounds just like you singing like him.”

Not long after he recorded the demos, Jarrett’s phone was ringing with the big news. Bobby Stevens’s secretary, Judy Harris, was on the line. She asked Jarrett if he was sitting down. He said, “No, but I will.” Then she told him Elvis planned to record his Christmas song.  Jarrett was in total shock and couldn’t sleep that night for his excitement. When Jarrett’s phone rang the next day, it was Judy Harris calling again. The news was even better. Harris, all giddy, told him Elvis absolutely loved “I’m Leavin’.” It would be Presley’s next single.

Presley worked hard on “I’m Leavin’,” giving it his all and declaring “the thing is worth it.” Jarrett, of course, was thrilled over Presley’s attention to the song, saying it “must have meant a lot to him for whatever reasons.” Perhaps Presley accepted “I’m Leavin'” as a challenge.  After all, as Jarrett acknowledges, it’s a tough song to sing.

Moody, haunting, and infused by melodic shifts, “I’m Leavin'” revealed a more daring Presley at work, demonstrating an artistic flair missing on his recordings since “Suspicious Minds.” Yet the single may have proven too unorthodox for Presley’s core fans. Released in June ’71, it only made it to 36 on the Billboard Hot 100. Still, acknowledging a failing relationship was popular subject matter on the charts that summer. Reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100 June 19 and remaining there for the next 5 weeks was Carole King’s “It’s Too Late.”

Down On Lonely Street. . . Having Elvis Presley record your song can pave the way to future success, but sometimes the business itself gets in the way. In ’72, Jarrett released We’re All Goin’ Down Together on  Hugh Hefner’s newly-launched Playboy Records. Shortly after its release, Billboard, in its  May 27 issue, ran a mini-review of the album, stating, “The Playboy label has a strong chance for a Neil Diamond success story with this super creative talent….” The review may have been as over the top as Neil Diamond eventually became, but it couldn’t have hurt Jarrett’s feelings. At the time, Diamond was on quite a roll. His “Song Sung Blue” was on its way to being the number one single in the country. Both albums he released that year would go platinum. Just a bit of  chart action would have pleased Jarrett, but his album, as with many fine efforts, got lost in the shuffle.

Jarrett couldn’t look for help from those hired to promote and manage his career. He laments having  “to wait out a 7-year publishing contract from the same individual that had signed me to a management contract, and that left me completely unable to pursue any lucrative publishing deal for myself and this truly left me spiritually bankrupt as well and completely out of the business for that 7 years….the toughest 7 years of my life.”

Patch It Up . . .  “When a songwriter has a big hit with Elvis, it can be all down hill from there if one can’t match the success with more blockbusters,” Jarrett told Like The Dew recently. Blockbusters are hard to follow. Songwriters who keep the hits coming and expand on their success, like Kris Kristofferson, are the exceptions. Others, like the late Dennis Linde, who hit it big when Presley recorded his “Burning Love,” continued to churn out hit songs for nearly 4 decades, but avoided the spotlight.  Michael Jarrett had his great moment with one song, and had circumstances not weighed him down, might have seen more of his compositions climb the charts. But Jarrett is grateful to those who helped him when he was pushing his songs in L.A. and to those he works with now. He turned 73 last Saturday, happy to have made it another year, he assures us.

Acknowledging “how the cookie crumbles in this business,” Jarrett says he learned from his experiences, “both good and not so good.” He’s put the not-so-good behind him while focusing on the music that inspired him. Over the last two years Jarrett has toured with the Original Elvis Tribute in Europe, playing keyboards and taking center stage with a Texas-styled “I’m Leavin’.” The tribute shows are a source of pride for Jarrett, “totally different than the usual impersonator crap,” he says. The shows feature performers, like Jarrett, who had a connection with Presley and wish to celebrate his legacy. Jarrett is emphatic when he tells us, “No jumpsuits or copycat stuff, just kickass players and singers doing E’s music and rocking the house in his name.” It sounds like they’re taking care of business.

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran

Jeff Cochran worked in advertising at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 27 years before accepting a buy-out in the Summer of 2008. In the seventies/early eighties, he handled advertising for Peaches Records and Tapes' Southeastern and Midwestern stores. He also wrote record reviews for The Great Speckled Bird, a ground-breaking underground newspaper based in Atlanta.