You’d be hard pressed to find a more varied and interesting career in music than the one lived by Jack Nitzsche (1937-2000), or one that left more great music. People throw the word genius around as though it means something, but virtually everyone who ever got within ten yards of Jack Nitzsche uses that word, so I thought I’d get it out of the way. If there’s such a thing as a musical genius in rock’n’roll or pop, then he was one. Or as close as you can get without knowing advanced calculus.
Maybe you never heard of him. He’s best known in rock’n’roll as the arranger on all of Phil Spector’s hits, the job that first brought him to music biz prominence, or as the composer of soundtrack music (The Exorcist, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Officer and a Gentleman, Performance, Blue Collar, Hot Spot, a complete filmography can be found here), or for playing on the first four Rolling Stones albums and producing Buffalo Springfield’s Expecting To Fly and Neil Young’s debut LP, but he made all kinds of records, for all kinds of people, as a producer and arranger and to each record he adds something unique.
As unlikely as this sounds has contributed to great records by the Monkees, Miles Davis, P.J Proby, Doris Day, the Flamin’ Goovies, Ral Donner, Don & the Goodtimes, Mink DeVille, Randy Newman, Mick Jagger, Sonny Bono, Glen Cambell, Sonny & Cher, Lou Christie, Ry Cooder, Captain Beefheart, the Rolling Stones (including the horn arrangement on Have You Seen Your Mother Baby Standing In The Shadows), Soupy Sales, Ringo Starr, Them, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Young Jessie, Steve Wonder, Ronnie Spector with and without the Ronnettes, the Germs (!), and enough obscurities to drive a record collector nuts. A full discography can be found here. With this in mind, it’s amazing how little has been written about Jack Nitzsche. I can’t remember reading one major magazine piece on him except one in Crawdaddy back in ’73 (here), extremely odd since his life story would make a great book.
Ace (the U.K. re-issue label) has recently released two CD compilations of Nitzsche productions and/or arrangements: The Jack Nitzsche Story: Hearing Is Believing, you can find Vol. 1 (1962-1979) here and Vol. 2 here if you don’t want to pay for them. The scope alone of these two 26 song sets is a bit mind boggling. Surf, pop, girl groups, soul, R&B and rock’n’roll, he could handle it all. Represented are his early solo 45’s like Lonely Surfer and his TV theme music style arrangement of Link Wray’s Rumble, Marianne Faithful’s stunning Sister Morphine, Buffy St. Marie’s chilling version of Neil Young’s Helpless, the Everly Brothers’ version Young’s Mr. Soul, P.J. Proby’s You Make Me Feel Like Someone, Porpoise Song from the Monkees’ psychedelic explotation flick Head, soundtrack excerpts from Blue Collar, including the Captain Beefheart/Ry Cooder classic Hard Workin’ Man and the closing theme from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest), Miles Davis blowing over John Lee Hooker and Taj Mahal’s bluesy guitar jam from the Dennis Hopper’s movie Hot Spot, along with lots of obscurities like the previously un-issued Surf Finger, and Round Robin’s Kick That Little Foot Sally Ann. There’s even some hits here, best of all to my ears being Jackie DeShannon’s original Needles & Pins (which the Pretenders used as the blue print for their arrangement of the Kinks’ Stop Your Sobbin’, listen to the way Jackie DeShannon sings “Stop it! Stop it” as the tune fades).
Nitzche’s longest and most successful collaboration over the years was with Neil Young and Crazy Horse. It started when Young was still with the Buffalo Springfield and Nitzsche arranged Expecting To Fly, he would go on to produce most of Young’s debut LP as well as Crazy Horse’s first album without Young (a very underrated album), he later worked on Harvest and Time Fades Away. In 1970 he toured with Neil Young and Crazy Horse, playing piano, a live recording at the Filmore West has made the rounds for years but I think this tape from the Cincinnati Music Hall is better. In fact, one of the best sources on Jack Nitzsche is Jimmy McDonough’s Neil Young bio Shakey (Random House 2002), a somewhat frustrating read since Nitszsche is a much more interesting subject than Neil Young.
Another decidedly oddball Jack Nitzsche project was 1973’s St. Giles Cripplegate (Reprise), a neo-classical piece said to be a favorite of jazz arranger Gil Evans. It’s kind of like a film soundtrack to what ever movie you want to program in your own head.
I met him once in New Orleans where he was involved in recording C.C. Addcock, a south Louisiana guitar player, then playing in Warren Storm’s Little Band Of Gold. We were introduced through Taylor Hackford (ain’t I the name dropper?) and although we only talked for about a half hour, it was obvious this was a guy with a very deep knowledge of music, he seemed to know something about every cool record ever made from Slim Harpo to Link Wray. I’d heard nothing but horror stories about the guy but he was funny and very nice and nothing like I expected him to be. Then again, Chuck Berry was nice when I met him, too.
The two things that stand out in my mind was that he went ballistic at the mention of Mick Jagger. It was later explained to me that Mick had fucked Buffy St. Marie many years earlier, since she was the love of Nitzsche’s life, the subject was still a raw scab.
Of course, there’s the stories. Anyone who spent any time around Nitzsche had a wild story (at least one). I can’t confirm any of them. There was a headline making assault charge made by actress Carrie Snodgrass (she claimed he raped her with a gun), the charge was later dropped, even her common law husband Neil Young didn’t believe her.
Jack was a dope fiend. That’s the only one I can confirm, don’t ask how, I won’t tell you.
Besides for a man of means, expensive drug habits aren’t really a problem.
Well, it’s not like Nitzsche’s career went unheralded, he worked constantly, made a ton of money, even won an Oscar. As a way of ending this thing here’s some of my favorite Jack Nitzsche music, from the soundtrack of Performance— first comes Buffy St. Marie’s eerie, wordless wail on The Hashishin and some of Ry Cooder’s best guitar work can be heard here on Powis Square and Get Away . The Merry Clayton Singers’ are credited on Turner’s Murder and the other tunes here are credited to Nitzsche himself– Natural Magic, Harry Flowers, Dyed Dead and Read, Rolls Royce and Acid and the final theme Performance. It’s one of my favorite movies and one of my favorite soundtracks (and if you get a chance, try and see director Donald Camel’s other masterpiece– White Of The Eye. Once David Keith, who starred along with Cathy Moriarty, came in my bar and I tried to talk to him about the movie, he put down his beer and ran for the door).
Here’s another one I really like, from 1978, these are from the Blue Collar soundtrack. The band is Ry Cooder and Jesse Ed Davis on guitars, Tim Drummond on bass, Jim Keltner on drums and Stan Sileste on piano. Most of the tunes are re-writes of classic blues, but the vibe is beautiful. Not a bad movie either. Here are the credits. Here’s Zeke, Jerry and Smokie, Quittin’ Time, FBI, Coke Machine and the Blue Collar Main Theme and End Title. The Captain Beefheart title tune is posted above.
Someday, someone, somewhere will write the Jack Nitzsche story (sorry, but I’m not the guy for the job) and jaws will hang open, and maybe even some ears will open up too.
And a big thanks to Scott for the pic sleeves….