After John Stewart was dropped from Capitol Records he soon discovered he had a fan and champion in Warner Bros. Records’ Joe Smith, who quickly signed him. Smith had a great ear for musical talent. His signings during the 1960s and 70s brought fame and fortune to the label such as that of Petula Clark. Although Clark had been an international recording artist for a decade, she was little known on this side of the Atlantic. Smith’s decision to release her recording of “Downtown” in late 1964 on Warners in the U.S. even before her English label, Pye did, finally allowed her to capture and captivate the U.S. with her beautiful, optimistic vocals. She would go on to release a string of hit recordings for almost a decade on Warners. And Petula Clark was just one of many Joe Smith successes at Warners which included Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman and Emmylou Harris. At the time of John Stewart’s signing to the label in 1971, it looked like he had finally found a good home.
The two albums John recorded for Warners (“The Lonesome Picker Rides Again” and “Sunstorm”) were released within a very short period of time of each other: five months. I remember at the time of my purchasing “Sunstorm” thinking that it had been released very quickly on the heels of “Lonesome Picker” (a somewhat unusual practice at the time). I didn’t think about it too deeply because I was just excited to have another John Stewart album so quickly. But why were both albums released in such a short period of time? It’s possible Warners wanted to get another Stewart album out after the disappointing sales of “Lonesome Picker.” It’s also possible it was something else.
Both albums could be considered twins—or maybe they were meant as a double album (which might explain their close releases if the studio had more than enough material stockpiled). Not only were they recorded for the same label, but they were both produced by John’s brother Michael and featured most of the same musical personnel (based on this a double album or recording sessions for a single one that went on and on trying to get a handle on the material now appears to be likely). Among the musicians was orchestrator and conductor, Jimmie Haskell who had worked with John during his Kingston Trio days a decade earlier creating the arrangements and conducting the orchestra for the group’s “Something Special” album which included John’s song and the Trio hit, “One More Town”. On John’s two Warners’ albums, Haskell created small chamber pieces that supported the songs for which they were arranged, giving them a special ethereal quality. You can hear it particularly on “Just An Old Love Song” (also listen for Jennifer Warnes’ high background call-and-response vocal). Haskell’s arrangements added considerably to “All the Brave Horses,” “Joe,” “Bolinas,” and backed John’s father’s recollection and recitation of his “Account of Halley’s Comet”.
John said that the two albums were not favorites of his and, if at least among the reasons, because he and his brother Michael could not get a handle on the albums, it would go a long way in explaining why. Even so, John would go on to sing many of the songs live over the decades in his concert performances. And even though the Warners’ albums were transitions between better Capitol and RCA releases, they nonetheless still contain some great John Stewart recordings that expand his catalogue of epic tales cinematically with all the aural colors orchestrations brought to them. Along with John Andrew Tartaglia’s arrangements on “Willard,” Jimmie Haskell’s orchestrations on the two Warners’ albums brought us as close to a John Stewart meeting-of-the-minds with Aaron Copeland and Virgil Thomson that we will ever know. To view this medley go to to 42:04 at https://youtu.be/bEr4zy94w8I