Dreamers on the Rise
The post-war years were one of great financial prosperity for Americans in the 1950s but at some cultural cost. Many parents who came of age during the Depression and who were in military service or worked in support of it were conservative, in stark contrast to their privileged children. Teenagers in the late 1950s were in the comfortable position to rebel and many were fans of the new rock-and-roll music that their parents disliked. Johnny Stewart of Pomona, California was no different than many of his peers when it came to the music, finding himself under its magnetic spell. A fan of Elvis Presley, John formed his own group, The Furies, which recorded a local regional hit, “Rockin’ Anna,” in 1957. Elvis was drafted and teen idols like Fabian didn’t cut it for the genre’s aficionados like John, who looked elsewhere for pent-up musical release and, like a good part of the country, discovered folk music. Stewart formed a folk duo with high school friend John Montgomery. A fan of The Kingston Trio, the group’s manager, Frank Werber, told Stewart that Roulette Records was looking for its own similar folk trio to record. In 1958 Stewart and Montgomery enlisted bassist Gil Robbins (actor Tim Robbins’ father and John’s high school choir teacher) to form The Cumberland Three. The group signed with and released its first folk album that year for Roulette. The Cumberland Three’s last two albums would be Civil War companions released in 1960 with staged battlefield photos of its members in the colors of each side’s uniform, one for the Union on the album with songs of the North and the other for the Confederacy with songs of the South. Through personal visits that began in 1958 and the sale of songs to the Trio beginning in 1959, Stewart had kept in touch with the group. He was never far from their minds when Dave Guard decided to leave the Trio in 1961 and was considered—and eventually hired—to replace him. Walking into an established group at the height of its fame was a mixed blessing. On one hand, instant success allowed Stewart to bypass years of struggle to the top and not have to pay his dues (which Glen Campbell would remind John years later when he declined his appeal for help with his career). On the other hand, it also created a problem of having to establish a solo career when music industry executives wouldn’t consider him as the new emerging artist he was. Saddled with a reverse career trajectory John Stewart would indeed pay his dues, but it would be over the lifetime of his solo career.
Portraits of America
While in Washington, DC on tour with The Kingston Trio, Stewart met attorney general Robert Kennedy at the FBI Building. Later at a performance, he would also meet artist Jamie Wyeth who heard Stewart sing his song “Nebraska Widow” (which was inspired by Jamie’s noted painter father, Andrew, and his painting, “Christina’s World”). These meetings were fortuitous because they produced lifelong friendships with both men. John’s success with the Kingston Trio was creatively frustrating. Successful at bringing a new burst of energy to the group with his songwriting, arranging and performing abilities, he was also stymied by his inability to move the group in a new direction to evolve and remain fresh. His role in the group as manager Frank Werber saw it was as a hired hand—and, in fact, Stewart was only salaried during his six years with the group and did not share profits. Werber, oblivious to the public’s ever-changing taste in popular music, didn’t want to rock his cash cow and creatively tamper with what appeared to him a successful formula that would last forever. But a major shift in musical styles was hovering above and about to land. In April 1963 while on a Trio tour in the U.K., Stewart and fellow member Nick Reynolds experienced early Beatles magic at the yearly New Musical Express’ All-Star Poll Winners Concert. The group was too new to have been considered for that year’s poll, but its quickly rising popularity in England still secured the band a performing spot on the bill with established acts such as Cliff Richard and The Springfields. The Beatles performance at the NME Poll was dynamic and had a new raw sound that few in the U.K. at the time had heard. Stewart and Reynolds looked at each other knowingly: the writing was on the wall—the music world was about to experience a seismic change. The coming British Invasion —plus John’s Trio frustrations—motivated him to begin thinking about leaving the group.
While Stewart prepared to leave the Trio he also felt insecure about jumping into a solo career and instead considered forming new trios with various musician friends. At one point he even considered a duo with John Denver, who had recently left the Chad Mitchell Trio. The two men prepared three songs and even created a demo tape which contained two of what would become their biggest hits, “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane” (for Denver) and “Daydream Believer” (for Stewart). Things didn’t work out for them as a duo because their musical styles and personalities weren’t in synch. Still, Stewart was not yet ready to abandon finding a musical partner. With his deep, resonant baritone voice, Stewart thought that a female voice might complement his. When he saw young, Bay Area performer Buffy Ford in a local theater production he was sure he had found his woman. Later surprising her at her family home, Stewart auditioned Ford poolside where she’d been swimming. He hired her on the spot. Their magnetism together was undeniable, both professionally and personally. John and Buffy’s relationship would span forty years, ending only with his passing.
Seeking musical inspiration to stockpile songs for his post-Trio career, Stewart sequestered himself in a room in his home with painters, Jamie and Andrew Wyeth’s prints and recordings of classical composers Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copeland. Americans all, the artists were viewed and listened to by Stewart in such an intense way they inspired him to write songs that he and Buffy eventually recorded for their album, “Signals Through the Glass” and sang on Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. It was also during this period that Stewart wrote “Daydream Believer” which was originally part of a suburban folk song trilogy. Since the Kennedy campaign crowds at the train stations were not familiar with the songs John and Buffy recorded for their album, they created sing-offs of well‑known traditional songs (competition being part of the American psyche) and the crowds were properly aroused for RFK when he made his entrances. Kennedy supporters felt like they were riding a winning race horse, but tragically, the campaign came to an abrupt end when he was assassinated. Stewart was so moved by his time on the road with Kennedy and by the assassination, he composed a group of related songs about his travels across America with the presidential candidate and the people John and Buffy met.
American Cultural Madness
In his songs written during the 1960s, John examined and commented on the madness of the Vietnam War, poverty and racial strife that were building to a cultural flashpoint in the United States. He was a patriot who loved not the government, but the land and all of its people even as the country tottered into an abyss. Like many people who questioned what they had grown up believing versus the realities that confronted them, John hit the road in search of himself and wrote about his adventures in songs such as “You Can’t Look Back,” “July You’re a Woman,” and “Road Away”; romances that wouldn’t survive his wanderlust; and, that one special woman he never lost sight of in “Julie, Judy, Angel Rain” and “All Time Woman”.
Outer Space Exploration
Stewart’s wanderlust extended beyond the road and into outer space and he developed a love of space exploration and friendships with astronauts John Glenn and Scott Carpenter. He composed songs and a musical score with singer-songwriter John Phillips for the 1962 NASA film, “With Their Eyes on the Stars” to promote the space program. Inspired by the first moon walk in 1969 Stewart wrote “Armstrong.” The song was not only about a worldwide celebration of the occasion, but a look back over the shoulder at earth and its cultural and ecological challenges that remained to ponder the fate of mankind in its final refrain:
And I wonder if a long time ago
Somewhere in the universe
They watched a man named Adam
Walk upon the earth.
In its simplicity, the song spoke volumes. “Armstrong” was recorded by Monkees’ producer Chip Douglas who also composed a beautiful, subtle string arrangement for the song. Capitol Records released the single shortly after the event in selected markets. In 1973, Stewart re‑recorded the song in Nashville with legendary guitarist and producer, Fred Carter, Jr., and with a minor tweaking of Douglas’ original arrangement, the song was included on Stewart’s “Canons in the Rain” album released that March. The song proved to be so durable over the years, it became one of Stewart’s most popular, requested by fans and covered by other performers around the globe.
John and record producer, bassist and singer Chip Douglas went way back. Douglas was also considered for Dave Guard’s replacement in the Kingston Trio but was overlooked in favor of Stewart. Two years before their “Armstrong” collaboration and one of the few times Stewart was in a large social situation, he ran into Douglas at a party in Laurel Canyon at singer‑songwriter Hoyt Axton’s home. Douglas asked if he had any new songs that might work for The Monkees which he was newly producing. Stewart offered his recently composed folk song, “Daydream Believer,” (which had been turned down by among others, Spanky and Our Gang). Douglas loved the song and sensed its hit potential, but RCA Records, Colgems distributor, would not allow the use of the word, “funky” in the recording and wanted to change it to “happy.” Stewart initially balked because it didn’t make sense in the song, but not wanting to turn down what might be a great income stream, agreed. This single decision was to give John Stewart the biggest hit recording—albeit, by someone other than himself—of a song he would ever write and a financial windfall over the next fifty years. The Monkees’ recording reached the top of the charts around the world and gave John the financial security he needed to leave The Kingston Trio and strike out on his own. Billing himself as “formerly of the Kingston Trio,” created expectations in Trio fans that he would perform the group’s songs, but Stewart refused in the face of losing that fan base to build his own career apart from the group. Initially, it proved to be tough-going building an audience as a single. But Stewart’s Trio experience did give him access to music insiders, particularly at Capitol Records which had released most of the Trio’s albums, and the label’s veteran A&R man Nik Venet signed him.
Stewart’s first solo Capitol album, “California Bloodlines” was also produced by Venet. Venet wanted to bring a fresh perspective to Stewart’s recording by having seasoned studio musicians play live and he felt those in Nashville would be a great fit. Recorded February 10-14, 1969, concurrently as Bob Dylan’s historic “Nashville Skyline” and just across the street using some of the same musicians, the album was a critical success and appeared on Rolling Stone’s list of the 200 best albums of all time. It produced three songs that were covered by many artists: “California Bloodlines,” “July, You’re a Woman” (a minor hit for Stewart) and “Never Goin’ Back (to Nashville)” (a major hit for The Lovin’ Spoonful). But the album’s critical success did not produce like sales. Stewart subsequently recorded the first of two aborted albums. The first with producer Chip Douglas in July 1969 which included not only the first recording of “Armstrong,” but his first recorded (but unreleased) version of “Daydream Believer.” Capitol was not happy and it was decided that Stewart should return to Nashville that September and use the same musicians he previously had on “California Bloodlines.” This album as recorded was also never released; however, a few songs did survive to appear on Stewart’s next released album, “Willard.”
Capitol brought on producer Peter Asher in Los Angeles to start recording the album in April 1970. While the aborted Nashville album was again recorded live like “California Bloodlines,” Asher liked to control the recording process more precisely. “Willard” was recorded in the more traditional studio method of building songs instrumentally track by track. The results did not diminish the album. “Willard,” like its predecessor, “California Bloodlines” was also loved by many fans and critics and featured support from James Taylor and Carole King just as their solo careers were about to break.
Crossing the Sahara
With disappointing sales, both Capitol Records and its Stewart successor, Warner Bros. Records dropped him. But RCA was game and Stewart returned to Nashville in 1973 where he previously had good luck recording with the city’s extraordinary musicians. To produce the sessions, “California Bloodlines” album guitarist Fred Carter, Jr. was enlisted and he engaged Elvis Presley’s pianist and arranger, Bergen White, to score the subtle, sophisticated orchestral arrangements for the album, “Cannons in the Rain.” The album was admired by fans and won over many critics but, again, did not produce significant sales. Drastic action had to be taken or risk losing RCA. “Bloodlines” producer, Nik Venet, was engaged again and it was decided to play up Stewart’s enormous popularity in Arizona by recording a live album in Phoenix.
If there was one place Stewart was a star, it was in the Grand Canyon State and all because of one man. KDKB-FM disc jockey Bill Compton was a fan of Stewart’s and had been playing his recordings for several years. He also had great reach in the state: the prime afternoon drive-time hours, 3-6 pm and, conveniently for Stewart, KDKB also reached 80% of Arizona’s radio listeners. Finally, in Stewart’s favor, Compton played his songs as though they were hits, rotating them frequently, so listeners on the road or working most anywhere in Arizona between 3-6 pm, heard at least one, if not several, of Stewart’s songs on any given day. All that airplay had created a rabid Stewart fan base in the State and Venet, Stewart, and RCA decided to capitalize on it and see if couldn’t be used as a foundation to spread the word. Two shows were set to be recorded with Stewart’s band and an augmented rhythm section at Phoenix Symphony Hall in March 1974. There was little rehearsal time and the company had only two shots at getting it right. The first night was a disaster due to little rehearsal time and recording problems. There was just one night left. The grouped rehearsed a significant part of the next day and the first night’s mishaps were corrected with a lively, engaging recording of the Stewart songbook. A critical and fan favorite for capturing Stewart and band at their best, the album failed to sell in quantity. Although the “Phoenix Concerts” album was a commercial disappointment, the following year Venet was again engaged to produce what would turn out to be Stewart’s RCA swan song, “Wingless Angels.” Disappointing sales ruled once again.
Bombs Away Dream Babies
After being signed and dropped by Capitol, Warner Bros., and RCA, Stewart had a hard time getting a deal and he knew that if he got one it may be his last. In deep despair he wrote, “The Runner,” which gave him a new positive perspective on his life and he moved forward to take his career in a new direction. To motivate Al Coury of RSO Records to sign him, Stewart gambled and asked fans at Palomino Club playdates in North Hollywood, California to write Coury and he received 500 cards and letters. Coury was so moved by fans’ passion that he signed Stewart earlier than he had been contemplating. But there was a bad omen: some copies of the first RSO album, “Fire in the Wind,” were shipped with one side from an Alice Cooper album. The record, although a critical hit and loved by many of his fans, once again, did not sell well.
Stewart was just about ready to burn through his fourth record company when Coury told him he must have a hit on the next album—or else. Lindsey Buckingham—who learned to play acoustic guitar licks like a banjo by listening to John on Kingston Trio records and known for his recording acumen in the studio—was enlisted by Stewart to steer the album to success. The two men worked well together, but Buckingham’s attention was diverted by Fleetwood Mac demands and he had little time to left to work on the album. Leading up to this, Stewart had written an indictment of the music industry entitled, “Gold,” and, ironically, the recording, with an assist from Mac bandmate, Stevie Nicks, did just that, climbing to number 5 when it was released in 1979. At long last, John Stewart had a hit song to drive album sales. Stewart may have had his first hit recording, but it was far from his favorite song. Nor did he enjoy the trappings of his new success which now required new touring and management expenses. Two other songs from the album, “Bombs Away Dream Babies,” “Midnight Wind” (again with Nicks) and “Lost her in the Sun” were released and charted well. Stewart was situated to repeat the success with the follow-up album, “Dream Babies Go Hollywood.” While similar in style to “Bombs Away,” “Dream Babies” failed to sell, due in part to financial and corporate problems RSO was experiencing. It was not only the last RSO album Stewart recorded, but it would also be his last album for a major record company.
This is My Life
Fleeting fame forced Stewart to examine the popularity he had been chasing for decades. Sitting in his home in Malibu and looking out over the ocean he started to write a song about his house falling into the sea, when a much more traumatic global image appeared to him and he began to write a song about those whose frivolous concerns block their view of others in the world just trying to survive. From this point on his songs were intimate expressions of Stewart’s life and the culture in which he lived. A new sobering maturity allowed him to take a long, hard incisive look at the world in beautiful, evocative songs from his next album, “Punch the Big Guy” such as “Botswana,” “Children of the New Frontier,” “Runaway Train,” and “Midnight of the World.”
Following his own advice, John, Buffy, and their son, Luke, moved from Malibu to Virginia in search of spiritual enlightenment through a local ashram. Tired of dealing with record companies, even independents, Stewart decided to create his own. He pared down his touring band, became acoustic and hit the road in a series of concerts with friend and fellow musician, Chuck McDermott. Many fans today believe this series of performances were his life’s signature. Stewart was at his peak creatively and vocally, even including a show tune, “They Call the Wind Maria” from “Paint Your Wagon” in his sets. His sharp wit, great stage presence and now musical theater cred could have added actor to his resume had he decided to move in that direction. (At one time in the early 1970s he was considered to play Billy the Kid in Sam Peckinpah’s “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid”. He was also considered as a summer replacement host for Johnny Cash’s 1970s variety show.) John, Buffy and Luke eventually returned to California—but this time instead of settling within the confines of the Hollywood hoo-ha, they decided to return to their spiritual home in the Bay Area of Northern California and bought a house in Novato.
During John’s subsequent tours it became apparent to fans that something was wrong. His deep beautiful baritone voice which reflected the dreams of so many he wrote about over the past fifty years, now took on the weaker register of a much older man in his recordings and stage performances. While this voice suited the deep, emotional content of the songs he was now writing and recording, it was also alarming to hear from a man who was still relatively young whose voice in the past was so distinctively robust. It appeared that he was rapidly aging, but why? What people didn’t know is that John Stewart was experiencing the beginning of Alzheimer’s. Over the next few years while others and Buffy (who was also experiencing her own life‑threatening health issues) spoke for and drove him to performances, John managed to maintain a fairly active touring and recording schedule. In January 2008, he had upcoming gigs scheduled in Arizona and California when he and Buffy visited former Kingston Trio mate, Nick Reynolds and his wife, Leslie in Coronado. The four had formed a close friendship over the past half century ever since the two men first met and worked together. Nick’s health was also in decline and the four of them knew it might be the last time the two men saw each other. John and Nick made the most of the visit, reminiscing about the glory days of The Kingston Trio.
After dinner John and Buffy returned to their Hotel del Coronado room. It was there that night John suffered a massive stroke or brain aneurism. Although doctors told Buffy they could operate there wouldn’t be much left of him. With the questionable outcome of surgery hanging over the family, John passed away the next day in the same hospital he had been born in 68 years earlier with family and close friends surrounding him.
The Daydream Believer’s days as a white knight on a steed had come to an end.