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The Open Vistas of Wendy Waldman in the 1970s
Going through the buried treasure of the singer-songwriter's Warner Bros. albums
Welcome music lovers to a new edition of ‘Listening Sessions.’
This time, my essay is dedicated to the buried treasure found within the five albums Wendy Waldman recorded for Warner Bros. Records in the seventies. Waldman’s biggest claim to fame is co-writing the smash-hit ‘Save the Best for Last’ for Vanessa Williams but prior to that and also before her work in Nashville in the eighties as a songwriter and producer, she was among the most transfixing of pop singer-songwriters. The albums I feature are hard to find in the wild but are all available for streaming. If you love the seventies pop sound and haven’t stumbled upon Waldman’s music yet, I think you’ll love what you’re about to hear.
Coming up next will be an essay spotlighting the new super-deluxe edition of the Beatles’ Revolver in addition to thoughts on the Fab Four’s music as repertory—considerations brought on by a recent concert my wife and I attended and listening to jazz pianist Brad Mehldau’s latest record, Your Mother Should Know, a solo recital of mostly-Beatles music. Also in March: essays on Sonny Rollins’ soundtrack for Alife and the Beach Boys’ Sail on Sailor, a six-CD boxset of the music they made in 1972.
Until next time, may good listening be with you all!
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In the midst of music getting heavier or more preoccupied with groove or doing away with anything that reeked of perfection or polish in the seventies, the singer persisted. He or she was most likely a songwriter as well or if not, an incisive interpreter of other people’s songs. And as for the albums which he or she made, the back cover or inner sleeve was usually a testament that the outpouring of creativity was not limited simply to the songs but also included those who laid the music underneath them.
This loose collective of music makers were the back bone of an offshoot of pop that may be considered mellow pop, yacht rock or (a little derisively) soft rock. A mere moniker, however, does nothing to capture the breadth of expression found in the grooves of the records being made by Maria Muldaur, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor, Carole King, Jackson Browne, Randy Newman and Joni Mitchell—to name seven examples. But think of such musicians as bassists Leland Skyler and Wilton Felder, drummers Russ Kunkel and Jim Gordon, guitarist Hugh McCracken, pianists Don Grolnick and Joe Sample or musical polyglot Andrew Gold, who could play just about anything and there is a basic sound that comes to mind: polished yet malleable, professional yet attuned to the specific needs of who they were accompanying. Occasionally, a Los Angeles singer-songwriter would contribute—either with a song or with her voice as a singer or sometimes both.
Wendy Waldman’s biggest claim to fame was co-writing ‘Save the Best for Last,’ a blockbuster of a hit for Vanessa Williams that remains a touchstone of nineties adult contemporary. In the eighties, Waldman made a name for herself in Nashville as a country songwriter, co-penning ‘Fishin’ in the Park’ for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, ‘Baby What About You’ for Crystal Gayle and ‘In Love and Out of Danger’ for Steve Wariner as well as a producer of albums by Suzy Bogguss and the Forester Sisters. Waldman’s contributions to the seventies pop scene are more obscured, lost in the torrent of music that continues to confirm the era as a fount of creativity and collaboration.
She was among the many looking to make music in late-sixties Los Angeles. An attempt to form a band with the like-minded Andrew Gold, Karla Bonoff and Kenny Edwards (a member of the Stone Poneys, the group in which the world was introduced to the force of nature known as Linda Ronstadt) quickly fizzled. Soon after, she landed a contract at Warner Bros. Records and an ally in singer Maria Muldaur.
If there is an artist whose primary reference point in the culture is less representative than Muldaur and ‘Midnight at the Oasis,’ that list is undoubtedly small. Where ‘Midnight at the Oasis’ appears to encapsulate all that may be perceived as smarmy about seventies pop (fans of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation may recall it’s the song sung by the lounge singer with whom Bill Murray’s adrift movie star has an unsatisfying tryst), Muldaur’s music, in actuality, spanned the wide panorama of American expression: the blues, folk, country, jug band, gospel, soul, jazz, pop and beyond, confirming her status as an adventurous musicologist. After stints with Jim Kweskin & the Jug Band and as a husband-and-wife team with then-spouse Geoff Muldaur, she struck out on her own in 1973.
Her debut for Reprise Records, titled simply Maria Muldaur and released in August of that year, included, in addition to ‘Midnight at the Oasis,’ two songs written by Waldman: ‘Vaudeville Man’ and ‘Mad, Mad Me.’ The former is a vivid, nostalgic frolic, a fiddle and clarinet explicitly recall the days when putting on a show was the highest of callings that justified the hardships that the itinerant performer endured. Here’s a sample lyric: “Your heart may break and your world may fall. / But when you stand up there, you stand ten feet tall.” The latter, which closes the album, is chamber-like in mood and desperate in sentiment. In two songs, a sense of the range of Waldman as a songwriter was persuasively established.
A month after Muldaur’s album was released came Waldman’s debut, Love Has Got Me. Critic Stephen Holden hailed it in Rolling Stone magazine as the “singer-songwriter debut of the year,” and in 2019, it was recognized as one of 10 singer-songwriter albums from the seventies that the magazine loved but the general public was less willing to shower with affection. Love Has Got Me, as with the subsequent four albums Waldman would record for Warner Bros., never edged even into the outer reaches of the Billboard album chart and as a result, there is the allure of buried treasure to this music, an aura of ever-present freshness.
What strikes most strongly about Waldman’s first release is the difficulty of pinning the music down to one style. Perhaps the best thing to say about it is that its atmosphere of West Coast boho bonhomie is sustained from the first to the last note. There is a wide sonic space that gives room for the music to breathe, to slowly seduce the listener. If that is the wider aesthetic ambience, the specifics are more varied.
Consider the cycle that concludes side one of Love Has Got Me, starting with the Tijuana and Mariachi-soaked ‘Gringo En Mexico’ (Muldaur would cover it on her 1974 album Waitress in a Donut Shop and perfected the mood that Waldman’s version only hinted at), the swaying ‘Horse Dream’ with Waldman’s voice sliding through the melody and accompanying herself on piano, the gritty ‘Can’t Come In’ in which she digs into the beat with the same authority and bite as Ronstadt at her best and the pretty ‘Pirate Ships,’ featuring a string arrangement by her father, Fred Steiner, a composer best known for penning the swaggering theme to Perry Mason. There’s also the daring mix of sitar, played by Kenny Edwards, and fiddle on ‘Lee’s Travelling Song,’ and the hooky pop songwriting of ‘Natural Born Fool’ and the album's title track.
Waldman’s voice, light and easy but with an edge, is ear-friendly and furthers the open vistas of her music. They got wider on Gypsy Symphony, released in 1974.
Whereas Love Has Got Me featured the cream of the seventies-pop crop of studio musicians—Wilton Felder, Leland Skyler, Russ Kunkel and horn men such as Chuck Findley and Jim Horn—Waldman’s follow-up featured the band of musical brothers from Muscle Shoals whose sound ignited Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield and the Staple Singers and whom Paul Simon was stunned to discover when he headed down to Alabama to capture some of their magic that they were in fact white.
The group’s inherent adaptability—a quality that distinguished the vest best of the studio-musician collectives of the sixties and seventies—has them easily glide in to fit the versatility of Waldman’s songwriting. They bring the right dreamy sensibility, anchored by Barry Beckett’s electric piano and the stone-cold groove of Roger Hawkins’ drums, to ‘Cold Back to Me.’ There is a frostiness to how Waldman’s arranges the horns here—precise stabs by the reeds on the verse, sighs on the release—that illustrates the dilemma of the relationship at the heart of the song, one in which the protagonist wants to both “fade away” and “stay.” Her voice here is sensual and floats on top of the beat. It is one of many moods conjured on Gypsy Symphony.
There’s an expressive edge to the opener, ‘My Love Is All I Know,’ which incorporates the inflections of a Laura Nyro vocal. The acoustic, rustic feel of the song seems to presage the sound of Nyro’s Smile, to be released in 1976, that traded in the swirl of New York City for the tranquil of upstate from the Big Apple and marked her return to recording after a five-year hiatus. ‘You Got to Ride,’ with its jumped-up groove and hipster sensibility foretells the rise of another of Nyro’s musical progeny, Rickie Lee Jones, later in the decade.
The ambidexterity hinted at on Waldman’s debut blooms on Gypsy Symphony. Hear how most of side two plays out: there’s the retro blues rock of ‘Baby Don’t You Go,’ the Dobro, played by Pete Carr, country of ‘Northwoods Man,’ the communal invitation of ‘Come on Down,’ Waldman’s own recording of her ‘Mad, Mad Me,’ which plumbs the interior world of romance and then the closer, the gospel of ‘The Road Song,’ with its enigmatic closing line, “and so on and so on and so on.”
That Waldman’s third album, eponymously titled, was different was made instantly apparent by the cover. While her first two albums were rich in earth-mother iconography—the cover of Gypsy Symphony has Waldman on the cover with her curly hair framing her face and upper torso and her arms folded empathetically to emphasize the flow of the fringes of her jacket—Wendy Waldman had the singer in a bandana, looking contained. The band accompanying her here was small. The core of it consisted of Kenny Edwards on guitar, Stephen Ferguson on keyboards, Peter Bernstein on bass and Elvis’ drummer Ronnie Tutt. Gone were the strings and brass colourations.
It all makes for a record that doesn’t grab the listener quite as much. ‘Wings’ is perhaps the closest to the classic sound of Waldman’s first two records while ‘Sundown’ intrigues with its use of Indigenous harmonics. ‘Secrets’ is a rush of energy with a bridge that zigs when the listener expects it to zag—Waldman is expert at avoiding cliché—and ‘Wild Bird,’ another Waldman composition that Muldaur would cover, is delicate.
The closer, an adaptation of the folk standard ‘Green Rocky Road’ most deeply illustrates how the album deviates from what the expectation may be of a Wendy Waldman performance. The arrangement, in which the refrain “tell me who do you love” is more colloquially expressed as “tell me who y’all love,” never spills over even as Waldman is joined by a small choir of singers—usual suspects Gold and Bonoff plus Jennifer Warner (soon-to-be Jennifer Warnes)—which may have, on another album, been occasion for a release of the tension into a glorious exhalation of sound. It would likely have done so if the song had been recorded for Waldman’s subsequent album, The Main Refrain.
The title, a reference to all of humanity being linked by the commonality of the human experience, also may have a more implicit meaning: that the power of Waldman’s songwriting lies in the moments, the powerful onrush of sound, the sudden appearance of a hook. It’s there in the title track, the swift appearance of Waldman, along with Gold, Edwards, Bonoff and Linda Ronstadt, singing “life goes on” with the final syllable decaying against the backbeat. It’s found as well in ‘Soft and Low’ in the authority with which the song title is sung and in ‘Prayer for You’’s refrain with its dip into a minor key.
And it also shines as Waldman, with Gold and Edwards, sing the refrain of ‘Living is Good’—there is a way in how their voices blend that just screams California; the wind in your air, a cool breeze, sun and paradise.
A companion piece to that vibe is ‘West Coast Blues,’ a modal blues jazz fusion. With Peter Bernstein slapping the bass and blues great Taj Mahal duetting with Waldman on the second verse, the groove is laid back and contagious—keep your ears peeled for a brief interlude with sighing horns that pushes the song’s hipness factor into overdrive.
The crown jewel of the album is ‘Is He Coming at All,’ an enigmatic and searching song. Who is everyone waiting for? Waldman’s imagery of fishermen, farmers and the harvest suggest it’s some sort of Messiah figure, if not the genuine article himself. Yet again, there’s a refrain that goes into an unexpected resolution and it sure does linger.
Two years after The Main Refrain came Strange Company and a single, ‘Long Hot Summer Nights,’ that edged into the Billboard Hot 100. The album rocked harder than Waldman’s previous efforts but not at the expense of what made the music she created in the seventies so special—just give a listen to ‘Train Runnin’’ and hear the drive and craft fully intact or ‘The Wind in New York City’ where the sparseness and space remain.
The five albums Wendy Waldman recorded for Warner Bros. are easily available for streaming; a little more challenging to find in the wild (I’ve only found three of them on LP while crate digging) but it’s worth the effort. Taken as a unified collection, they are the sound of seventies pop perfected.