Herb Cohen, the Mothers of Invention’s manager, had not always been in the rock and roll business. He’d started out representing folk acts, so when Jimmy Carl Black, working in a music shop as a day job while waiting for the Mothers to start earning enough money for him to live on, got to know a talented new folk singer-songwriter who was working in the same shop, Cohen was the first person he told.
Tim Buckley was a nineteen-year-old with an alleged four-octave vocal range. He’d started his career, like many teenagers around this time, playing in a rock band, The Bohemians, but by the time Black became aware of him he’d turned to jazz-influenced folk-rock, and was performing at It’s Boss, an LA club, with a small rhythm section of Jim Fielder on bass and Carter “C.C.” Collins on drums, sometimes with Van Dyke Parks sitting in on keyboards. With his frequent collaborator Larry Beckett, he’d written a set of introspective songs that often drew comparison with his fellow Orange County singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, but which were already stretching the boundaries of folk-rock with their incorporation of jazz tonalities and unconventional structures.
But the songs weren’t the main thing that drew people to Buckley. It was his voice, a rich baritone somewhat reminiscent of Jim Morrison of the Doors at his low end, but which could soar up to falsetto highs as full as those of Roy Orbison without a break in the range, that was his real selling point. Buckley had trained his low end by listening to Johnny Cash, and his high end attempting to sound like a trumpet. It’s said of many singers, so often that it’s a cliche, that they could sing the phone book and have it sound good, but it’s almost literally true in Buckley’s case — the majority of his songs don’t really stand up as songs, but they work as vehicles for Buckley’s vocal improvisations.
Herb Cohen immediately saw potential in Buckley’s music, and signed him to a management deal before bringing him to the attention of Jac Holzman at Elektra Records. Holzman, like Cohen, had started out in the folk music business, and like him was beginning to expand into rock, having recently signed Love, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, and the Doors. Holzman immediately heard the potential in Buckley’s voice, and not only signed Buckley to his label, but decided to co-produce his first album himself, along with Elektra staff producer Paul Rothchild.
As a result, Buckley’s first solo album was very much in the traditional folk-rock mould, sounding (with a few exceptions, such as the experimental Song Slowly Song) of a piece with the records that Love and The Byrds were putting out at the time. Buckley and his regular bass player Jim Fielder were joined in the studio by Van Dyke Parks, taking time out from his work with Brian Wilson on the Beach Boys’ new records, and Billy Mundi, a session musician who had previously been tympanist for the LA Philharmonic. The band was rounded out with guitarist Lee Underwood, who would go on to be the most important collaborator of Buckley’s career, playing on every album he ever made.
These were exceptional musicians by any standards, but here they were given little room to show off their skills. For the most part, the backing tracks on the album are straightforward replications of the sound of the Byrds or Love (a couple of songs, Grief In My Soul and Understand Your Man, sound spookily like the Monkees’ music as well), all jangly twelve-string guitar, rudimentary bass and drum parts, and harpsichord pads.
It Happens Every Time is a typical example. Under two minutes long, and with a string arrangement by Jack Nitzsche, who provided orchestrations for several songs on the album, it’s in many ways the most coherent of the songs on the album, and with a slightly tighter melody on the “oh baby” section leading up to the brief guitar solo could clearly have been a hit for the Turtles or a similar jangly pop band. But once Buckley’s vocals are on, it sounds altogether different. He sounds strange, singing in what sounds like his head voice but with a resonant baritone that would normally need to come from the depths of the chest. Vocally, it’s utterly unlike anything that came before, but utterly compelling — a mixture of Bing Crosby style crooning and Dylanesque nasal folkie, with a little blue-eyed soul thrown in for good measure.
Buckley himself thought of this album as merely “a naive first effort; a ticket into the marketplace”, and compared to his later works it is. But as a first album, it already shows a maturity far beyond most of what was on the market at the time. Tim Buckley was clearly a major talent.
It Happens Every Time
Composer: Tim Buckley
Line-up: Tim Buckley (guitar, vocals), Lee Underwood (guitar), Jim Fielder (bass guitar), Van Dyke Parks (keyboards), Billy Mundi (drums, percussion), unknown string players
Original release: Tim Buckley, Tim Buckley, EKS 74004
Currently available on: Tim Buckley: Deluxe Edition Rhino Handmade CD