Music

The Life And Times Of Jackie DeShannon, A Renowned ’60s Pop Star


Capitol

Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.

If you’re familiar with the name Jackie DeShannon, it’s most likely because of her uplifting, 1965 rendition of the Burt Bacharach composed hit “What The World Needs Now Is Love.” Or maybe, it’s the Top 5 single “Put A Little Love In Your Heart” that she wrote and performed in 1969? Perhaps you recognize her name amongst the writing credits for Marianne Faithful’s chart-busting single “Come And Stay With Me?” Or Kim Carnes immortal ’80s classic “Bette Davis Eyes?” Then again, you might know her as the girl who opened for the Beatles on their 1964 tour of the United States.

For all the chart success she sustained throughout the 1960s, DeShannon’s name has been somewhat lost to modern listeners, especially her later offerings, which is frankly a shame. Over the past several years, DeShannon has been on a campaign to make those recordings available to a newer audience by way of several different, refurbished compilation albums, and the latest is Stone Cold Soul: The Complete Capitol Recordings, which collects a series of southern-fried recordings she made at American Studios in Memphis around 1970 and ’71 and is available on March 2 on Real Gone Music.

“It’s so nice to have this material available in the marketplace,” she told me in a recent conversation. “Previously, there’d be one CD with a mixture of “The Weight,” “What The World Needs Now,” and so on and so forth, and rightfully so, people didn’t have any inkling of my background or what I was about.”


DeShannon was born in Hazel, Kentucky on August 21, 1941, but spent much of her youth in the suburbs surrounding Chicago, Illinois. Her given name was Sharon Lee Myers, which she changed numerous times upon entering show business, before settling on her present nom de guerre. Music was an early and important part of her life. “My Dad and his brother used to sing on the porch in Hazel,” she said. Gospel came first, “I grew up in the church basically,” before country, soul, and early rock entered the picture.

In 1960 she signed with Liberty Records and spent the next several years releasing an array of forgettable singles before tasting success for the first time with the song “Needles And Pins,” which was written by Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono. DeShannon helped shape the song, but failed to received a credit. Larger success soon followed, and in 1964 she was asked to open for the Beatles on their first tour of America. Looking to coast on some of that renown, Liberty issued the album Breakin’ It Up on The Beatles Tour! that same year, which collected some of her best material at the time.

Despite her obvious writing skill, or perhaps because of it — at the time she was racking up numerous hits for artists like The Byrds, The Searchers and Irma Thomas — Liberty didn’t push DeShannon as much as a performer as she would have liked. “Liberty Records, wanted me to feed the kitty in the publishing arena, so as a writer, I was not encouraged to go out because we were writing songs and some of them were hits and they wanted me to stay in that arena, so they never really promoted me as a performing artist.” She would eventually earn induction into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame in 2010.


Exacerbating the issue was her affinity for multiple styles of different music. “I remember certain critics were confused because they would say to me, ‘You seem to be in all directions,'” she recalled. “Well, all directions are more than popular today. You can do anything. I was a precursor, but they couldn’t get a handle on it. It was very, very difficult to explain how I could [cover The Band’s] ‘The Weight’ or [Stone Cold Soul’s opening track] ‘You Don’t Miss The Water’ and still do “What The World Needs Now.’ Nope, can’t be done.”

It didn’t help her cause that she was an outspoken woman an industry dominated by men. “Back in my day it was an uphill battle and women just didn’t have the leverage; I didn’t have the leverage to fulfill my vision of who I was,” she said. “Occasionally I did some things, but for instance, I wanted to record the first Bob Dylan album of someone else singing his songs. I came to Liberty about that and they said, ‘Oh no, no, he’s not gonna make it, he’s not commercial.’ But that’s only a tip of the iceberg.”

“So many times, I could not go in the studio without the record company’s approval of the producer,” she noted of some of the more misogynistic impediments to her career. “Some producers were great and took my vision to where it should go, and others did not, and it was really, really sad. It was the record company’s attitude that, being a woman, you couldn’t possibly make a record and have input that was that strong. You had to have a gentleman in the studio with you so that you don’t turn into a ‘Bad Girl.’ Now, it’s so nice to see all these wonderful woman with their great talents have complete control over all their music.”

She also faced much of the same inappropriate behavior that spurred the #MeTooMovement. “It wasn’t something you spoke about,” she said. “You just tried to get out of wherever you were or do it gracefully. You didn’t talk about it, you didn’t goad anybody because you would get the blame.”


Numerous unsavory experiences with record company executives aside, DeShannon has worked and forged friendships with some of the biggest and most important names in pop and rock history, including Elvis Presley, with whom she was friendly throughout the early 1960s, Van Morrison — a cover of his song “And It Stoned Me” appears on Stone Cold Soul — Randy Newman, The Everly Brothers, Eddie Cochran, and a then-unknown studio guitarist named Jimmy Page, with whom she became romantically linked.

“I was in London recording some songs in the big EMI Studio which is now Abbey Road and I asked, ‘Who is the best acoustic guitar player?'” she recalled. “And the engineers said the best guitarist, we feel, is Jimmy Page. When he did come to the session, I played him different things and they’d come back at me like Segovia had written them. I was like, ‘Did I write these? This can’t be me!’ We hung out quite a bit and usually when you hang out together, you end up writing together, so we wrote some things.” Those things included the songs “Dream Boy,” “Don’t Turn Your Back On Me” and “Keep Moving.” DeShannon also spurred Page on to release his only solo single “She Just Satisfies” in 1965.

As the years wore on, DeShannon grew increasingly aggravated with her situation as Liberty and later with Imperial Records, and in 1970 jumped over to Capitol, with the promise that she could finally record the material that she’d been craving to lay down for years. The fruit of that labor has now been fully collected on Stone Cold Soul. “With the Capitol album, there’s an opportunity to listen to many different sides of Jackie DeShannon and you’ll hear all of them mixed into one pot,” DeShannon said.

The vast number of flavors in this particular concoction are admittedly gratifying. It includes country tracks like “West Virginia Mine,” rockers like “Down By The Riverside,” quaint folk songs like “Salinas,” and soulful burners like “Live Till You Die.” The best offering however is probably the song “Now That The Desert Is Blooming,” a tender acoustic ballad bookended by a melancholy whistle intro and outro, and a superb, smokey vocal take. “It’s a small photograph or picture of America in that time,” she says of the album’s many different sonic textures.


Eventually, a chance meeting with Atlantic Records mega-producer Jerry Wexler, the man who helped shepherd the careers of Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield, enticed her away from Capitol and together with another legendary board-operator Tom Down released two albums Jackie in 1972, and Your Baby Is A Lady two years later, before moving on to Columbia Records. In subsequent years she put out a bevy of new albums, the most recent being 2011’s When You Walk In The Room.

While she still continues to write songs, including a recent offering titled “For Africa, In Africa,” DeShannon says that the effort it takes to break through in the present moment is difficult to overcome. “One needs, today, a machine,” she says. “There’s so much of everything and people have access to so much information. Since I don’t have that and I’m not going on the road, it’s hard to get that exposure.”

Through all the ups and downs, highs and lows, DeShannon remains extremely proud of the music she produced throughout her life, and is incredibly effusive about all the musicians that she collaborated with throughout her career. “It’s the honesty I appreciate,” she says. “Win, lose or draw, you have it. I think that’s what these songs, and these particular contributions from the musicians, there it is. It’s as honest as you can get. I hope you find some emotion in there that strikes a chord with you.”

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