"Danny O'Keefe is one of the best songwriters, ever, anywhere, under any circumstances!"
Doug Haywood

Interview With Danny O'Keefe

Critically Acclaimed Songwriter Danny O'Keefe in Concert Oct 22nd with Doug Haywood

By Mariah Fleming

Danny O'Keefe

Many times you've heard these words: "You don't want to miss this show!" Well, there's a reason for that. There are a lot of great shows! And some are off the beaten path. This is one of those great "off the beaten path" concerts you really don't want to miss. On Saturday night October 22, Danny O'Keefe, one of the preeminent songwriters from the 1960's and beyond, appears at the intimate Fiddler's Dream Coffeehouse in Phoenix. Think "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues," "Angel Spread Your Wings" and the first O'Keefe song that made me fall in love with his songwriting, "Magdalena." O'Keefe co-wrote "Well, Well, Well" with newly announced 2016 Nobel Prizewinner Bob Dylan. O'Keefe's newest release "Light Leaves the West" is yet another masterpiece. Doors open at 7:00. The concert begins at 8:00. For ticket price and other event info go to www.fiddlersdream.org. Learn more about O'Keefe in the interview that follows this article.

Opening for O'Keefe is another superb songwriter, Doug Haywood. His wry wit is on display when calls himself "The most famous musician you've never heard of." Haywood has been part of the music of iconic artists like Jackson Browne (with whom he has toured for decades) and many more. You can find out more about him in the interview I did when he appeared solo at Fiddler's Dream. He and O'Keefe know each other. Haywood said he met O'Keefe in around 1975 when O'Keefe came to the rehearsal hall to teach "The Road" to Jackson Browne. "I'd heard Danny on the radio, of course," Haywood explained. "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues" is a great song I liked very much. Then later, maybe '77 or '78 Danny called me to sing and play in his band on a tour opening for Joan Baez."

I asked Haywood what he most liked about O'Keefe's songwriting. "What's not to like about Danny?" he asked. "There's nothing not to like. He plays very good guitar, has an excellent singing voice and writes fine songs. Danny O'Keefe is one of the best songwriters, ever, anywhere, under any circumstances." he said. "He's at least as good or better than Paul Simon, Jimmy Webb, Lennon and McCartney, Jackson Browne, James Taylor and so on!" Haywood's own music is much admired by peers and fans alike. When I asked if he was recording any new CDs he said, "Yeah, I'm writing songs for me. My enthusiasm for recording them is small." Anyone who's heard Haywood's music will hope that changes. Meanwhile, come down to Fiddlers Dream for an evening of extraordinary music by two amazing songwriters. My interview with Danny O'Keefe follows.

Danny O'Keefe Interview

Q.You are a revered songwriter with a prolific gift for the written word; one of the preeminent songwriters of the sixties and beyond. I discovered you with the early 1970's "Magdalena" and I remember exactly where and when I first heard it. And it still gives me goose bumps. Your 2015 release "Light Leaves the West" is yet another example of the particular magic of your music. How long did it take you to put it together and was any of it done live in studio? Are you working on any new songs at the moment?
A.All of the basic tracks of "Light Leaves the West" were cut live in the studio with old friends. There is overdubbing, of course, but the feel is live. Working on lots of songs, some new, some I haven't recorded. I have a new recording of old songs called "Home" that will be out in the spring of next year and I'm finally going to begin my project of Nez Perce-inspired songs that I've been working on for more than forty years. I'll play a couple of them at the Fiddlers gig.

Q.There's a big variety of styles on "Light Leaves the West" and each track is spellbinding. "Help Me Up" (in which you reference hearing your mother tell you no one stands taller than when they bend to help each other) is for me, a balm against our current socio political craziness. Generations after MLK, the March on Washington, George Wallace, the first Earth Day etc. does your writing help you deal with the pervasive cognitive dissonance in our society today?
A.Not simply in society but my own. I began by writing poetry but it wasn't satisfying enough. When I finally found the guitar I had a way of dealing with the frustration and loneliness that had been dogging me. Songs are like close friends or family and their refinement over the years is a way of getting to know them, and myself, more deeply. Topical songs tend to fade but the ones that may have seemed topical at the time but stick with you have deeper connections than the temporal.

Q.In researching your extensive history it seems that serendipity played a part in your music career. I've read that your first break came because a friend in a group called "The Daily Flash" had a relationship with the managers of Buffalo Springfield, Dr John and others. And that led to one of them asking you to play a song for Ahmet Ertegun over the phone. What do you most remember about playing that song for Ahmet Ertegun? Did you know who he was then?
A. That's absolutely true. I vaguely knew who Ahmet was by name but I had no distinct impression of him other than his connection to Atlantic. He didn't say much of anything on the phone, he just listened and I gave the phone back to Charlie Greene. He came the next day to hear a band that didn't exist but that we wanted to put together if Atlantic would sign us and give us an advance. The band didn't work out and my friend in the Daily Flash overdosed.

Q.That connection eventually led to Ertegun sending you down to Muscle Shoals to cut a record. That's like magic! If you want to tell more of the story, I'd love it. But if you don't have time to do that, can you tell me what your most vivid memories are about recording at Muscle Shoals (your first version of "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues" and "Steel Guitar") and who was around the studio when you got there?
A. Ahmet didn't just send me to Muscle Shoals, he came with me. He had great charisma and the players (eventually called The Swampers) wanted to please him. It was like a buffet line there. Solomon Burke had just finished recording tracks, R.B. Greaves was up before me, and then I cut six tracks. I was very green and hadn't been in a real studio with great players so I was a little overwhelmed. I just played my songs and they played with me. I don't think the versions of "Goodtime Charlie's Got the Blues" and "Steel Guitar" were very good but that was largely because of my inability to articulate what I wanted. Ahmet wasn't really a producer; he was more like a force of life. It took the great Arif Mardin to bring "Goodtime Charlie's Got the Blues" to life.

Q.Now that A & R people aren't scouting around for talent to take a chance on and live radio stations (which used to exist for artists to take their work to in hopes it would be played) largely don't exist, do you think it's easier or harder today to break into music?
A.I don't know if I would know how to "break in" to music anymore. Essentially, you play and learn and get in front of people as much as you can until you have a following. You try to build on the following and hope that you can sell them a CD or a tee shirt or something to create a basis of support. It's a very hard business.

Q.You're an only child whose father was a jazz collector. You cite as influences early jazz along with musicians like 1950's country and honky tonk singer songwriter Lefty Frizell, along with pop music stars like Sinatra. Did your dad encourage your musical aspirations? And did he get to see you have any success in music?
A.Hank Williams and Jimmy Rodgers were probably stronger influences than Lefty. My father, as well as my mother, did encourage me in my music but I don't think they could have imagined anyone having a career in it. My father died when I was sixteen so never got to hear any of my music. My mother did and was very supportive (as least after I began making a living at it).

Q.What was the first record you bought and when did you get your first guitar?
A. The first album I bought was "Here's Little Richard". He was my favorite of the period and I got to see him and his band in a small town setting. He was from another planet but he rocked so hard. My girlfriend, who later became my wife, helped me get my first guitar, a Gibson LG3, by giving me money she'd made from packing cherries. It was a guitar I'd been coveting and one I wish I still had.

Q.Looking back on your career thus far, is there anything major that you would have done differently?
A. I would have signed with Asylum Records when I had the opportunity.

Q.You've had so many artists cover your songs like Chris Smither, Judy Collins, Bonnie Raitt and Blind Boys of Alabama, to name a few. Are there any other artists you might like to see cover some of your songs? Do you have any favorite covers?
A.I love Waylon Jennings' cover of "Goodtime Charlie's Got the Blues"; Jackson Browne's cover of "The Road", Judy Collins cover of "Angel Spread Your Wings", and many others. It's always a great honor when someone finds something of themselves in a song you've written. I would like to see any other artists cover my songs. As many as possible.

Q.Arizona favorite Doug Haywood is opening for you. According to Doug, you met each other when you came to a rehearsal hall around 1975 to teach "The Road" to Jackson Browne. And he says that a few years later you called him to sing and play in your band on a tour opening for Joan Baez. When was the last time you saw Doug and are you going to do a few songs together?
A.I haven't seen Doug for quite a while but we speak occasionally. And, yes, we're going to do as many songs together as we think we can get away with. It should be a great evening.

October 17, 2016

Contact the author of this article at Editor@MusicAndMoreAZ.com.