“Speaking Freely” show recorded Oct. 2, 2001, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression and America. I’m Ken Paulson. Jackie DeShannon toured with the Beatles, became one of music’s first female singer/songwriters and co-wrote one of the biggest hit songs of the 1980s. Her career is a major chapter in the history of popular music and we are honored to have her here today. Please welcome Jackie DeShannon.
Jackie DeShannon: Thank you. Thank you. Thanks, Ken.
Paulson: It is great to have you here. It is particularly great to have you here because you have a new CD. It’s called You Know Me and it’s been a while since we’ve heard from you. It was 15 years or so since the last album?
DeShannon: Twenty. (Laughs)
DeShannon: A while.
Paulson: Well, I have to ask. After the kind of successful career you’ve had, why not record for twenty years?
DeShannon: I think, to make it … a long story short, during my early career I did not have leverage. I did not have the control of my work, my art, my writing. There were glimpses of it with the way … with “What the World,” with “Put A Little Love,” and I was … I just, you know, was raising a family and decided until I could come back and do it my way, I’d rather not do it at all.
Paulson: I mentioned in the introduction you had one of the biggest hits of the Eighties with “Bette Davis Eyes,” a Kim Carnes hit.
DeShannon: Yes. Great record.
Paulson: There had to be a temptation to write other songs for other people, which you’ve always done. Right.
DeShannon: Well, I … right. I’ve always kept the writing going.
Paulson: So even the twenty years, you’ve been (Overlap/Inaudible).
DeShannon: Yeah. Oh, yes. Oh, yes. But I … the kind of music that I wanted to make, there was really not a platform for me. And what’s happened over the last ten years, and especially the last five years, I’ve sort of, you know, been wanting to come back and do some things. Actually, not so much a comeback but a reconnection is what I’d like to call it, with the fans and you know, let them know that I’m still doing it.
Paulson: Well, we do want to talk about the new album because it is a departure in many ways from the work you’re best known for. But let’s begin, literally, at the beginning of your career. You got started very early. When did you first step on a stage as a professional?
DeShannon: Oh, three.
Paulson: At three. (Laughs)
DeShannon: At three. My mother looked for me and I was gone. And I was on the stage with Tex Ritter singing his hit. And you can imagine a three-year-old looking up. (Laughs) He had to put me onstage with him. But I have always wanted to sing and knew that was something that, you know, I would do forever.
Paulson: And yet when you came along and you established yourself as somebody who could write hit songs and also perform them, women weren’t really doing that. There were very few models. Who did you — was there anybody out there you looked to and said, “I want to do exactly what that woman is doing?”
DeShannon: No, because I was the first person, first woman on the West Coast to write and produce and to perform. I worked at a label that really believed in, you know, giving your songs away. They didn’t believe in nourishing artists and so whatever I would write would be given to whoever had a top song at the time. That was sort of the formula way they did it. Sort of the Brill Building West Coast kind of thing.
Paulson: What was your first hit? I mean, you had —
DeShannon: Well, the one record that I had that was sort of, you know, got me going, “Needles and Pins.”
DeShannon: And I had regional hits, but that was the one that was going for me at the time.
Paulson: “Needles and Pins” was co-written … (by) Sonny Bono.
DeShannon: Sonny Bono, Jack Nitzsche, who is a very, very close friend and we lost recently. And … you know, that’s real sad.
Paulson: Can you describe what it’s like to be a young woman in the music business at that time? You talk about the business arrangement. They expect you to write hits for others. But at the very, very beginning, what was your goal? I mean, were you trying to be, you know, Buddy Holly?
DeShannon: That was a good guess. (Laughs) I was trying to be Buddy Holly. I was a great fan of Buddy Holly’s and I wanted to be able to write and perform my own music and I didn’t know that you couldn’t do it. And as I progressed, you know, I found out it was a lot more difficult than I thought. And, you know, I was far ahead of my time, I think, and that was a — you know, it’s worked for me and against me. But I’m happy that I’m doing what I’ve always wanted to do, which is write my own music and mainly record it in the way that I think it suits the material.
Paulson: Your very first album, cleverly titled Jackie DeShannon …
DeShannon: Breaking It Up on the Beatles Tour. That was — they sort of tried to capitalize on that. And in those days and record companies would … they had, whatever they wanted to do, they did. So I would go into make a demo and they would put that along with what was called a real record, one that was, you know, with an orchestra or more elaborate in the arrangement. So I never knew what was coming out when and who or why.
Paulson: Well, we mentioned the Beatles and clearly the record company wanted to capitalize on whatever connection you had with the Beatles.
DeShannon: Yes. (Laughs) Right.
Paulson: Talk about that. I mean, that’s an experience very few people can imagine.
DeShannon: It was six weeks of practically one-nighters. There were other people on the show. I fortunately knew to sing uptempo songs, (Laughs) mainly because no one wanted to hear anyone but the Beatles, me included. But it was remarkable ‘cause it was the first of its kind. It’s the first artist, the Beatles, that came along that were marketed the way Elvis Presley was. So to me, that’s when marketing of an artist really kicked off. And it’s, you know, elevated to way up there now.
Paulson: And who also was on that tour with you?
DeShannon: The Righteous Brothers, the Exciters. Just a group of people who had records that were going well at the time. But the Beatles — when I first met Paul and John, they heard my demos because I would send them over and we had the same publishing company in England at the time. So they were very familiar with the work that I had done. And they liked it, so I was very lucky.
Paulson: We occasionally have the opportunity to host someone here who has written a song with tremendous impact. Sometimes somebody’s recorded a song that has had tremendous impact, that’s become an anthem. And it’s always an interesting story. In your career, you’ve actually had two anthems, one you wrote and one you recorded, and of course you ended up having hits with both. Can we talk a little bit about what your first impression was when you heard “What the World Needs Now Is Love?”
DeShannon: Well, my first impression was I loved it immediately. Born in Kentucky and grew up with the cornfields and wheat fields, it was no stranger to me. I just loved it. And when they … you know, we were working together, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and this was just one of the songs that was played for me. But after I sang it, they were very, very excited and they said, “That’s it.” You know, “That’s the one.”
Paulson: Did it surprise you (a) that it was such a hit, and (b) that it’s had the kind of staying power it had?
DeShannon: Oh, it’s been amazing. It’s been in countless films from “Forrest Gump” on down … you know, to “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” to … it’s just a message. And I think that the emotional tie that I had to the song is from the heart all the way. And I think it’s one of the reasons it’s been around. And it’s a lovely message.
Paulson: Can you refresh our memory about what else was going on in the world during that time?
DeShannon: Well, I think we had — I was being dropped in foxholes and I went to Vietnam and I would entertain our guys. And I was probably one of the very, very few artists who would go into a foxhole by helicopter and then they’d come back and pick me up. I’d stay maybe ten minutes one place and twenty minutes the next, and we’re off. And regardless of how you feel about it, I just felt that, you know, our guys needed some entertainment and a reminder that, you know, what they’re doing and giving their lives, it — I wanted to be a part of it.
Paulson: How old were you when you were being dropped into foxholes?
DeShannon: (Whispers) I don’t … (Inaudible) Only thing I can say is, much younger than I was … than I am now. However, I have great solace in the sense that one of my great inspirations is Georgia O’Keefe, who I feel is just as beautiful at 90 as she was earlier on. And I think it’s what you feel within and your spirit within that determines, you know, how you’re perceived. And another thing I think was on my mind at the time doing the album and writing the songs is I think we should … there shouldn’t be an age limit on when you’re cool and when you’re not cool. I think if you have something to say, you believe in it, you want to do it, do it. And don’t let anybody discourage you.
Paulson: Well, I asked your age just because you had to be a very young woman …
DeShannon: Well …
Paulson: … who was being dropped in a foxhole in Vietnam.
DeShannon: (Laughs) Yes.
Paulson: What a courageous …
DeShannon: ‘Cause I couldn’t do it now. (Laughs)
Paulson: And, well, just in that — did anybody try to talk you out of that?
Paulson: And you weren’t listening?
Paulson: And then the other anthem, “Put A Little Love In Your Heart,” which again has been played everywhere. I think it played a prominent role in “Scrooged” as well, the film.
DeShannon: It did. And I was very shocked about that. I thought, well, it’s, you know, it’s in another movie and it’s, you know, I’ll just hear it and that’ll be that. And when they had the audience singing and Bill Murray was singing, it’s a great feeling. And that song is way, way over three million plays and it’s right up there with some other of the Beatles records and, I think, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” was also, you know, it’s also way up there. So it’s been recorded, I don’t know, over sixty artists. So it’s a great feeling.
Paulson: Do you remember the process of writing that song?
DeShannon: Yes, very well. My brother, Randy Meyers came to me and said, “I’ve got this, you know, little riff, what do you think?” And I said, “Oh, well, that’s pretty good.” And we just sat around. It actually was written very fast. It was one of those things that just was meant to be and happened.
Paulson: And …
DeShannon: And my mom was always saying things like, you know, “They oughta put a little love in their hearts,” or “We oughta …” I think somewhere in the back of my mind, it stuck.
Paulson: A very idealistic song. A song that appeals to the most basic emotions. It’s a very basic statement: “Put a little love in your heart.” And if you think about that era of rock and roll, there are songs that are that direct and were very successful and basically were admonitions to love your brother. “Get Together” by the Youngbloods …
Paulson: … good example of that. We don’t hear those songs today. You don’t hear those kinds of anthems today. Is it because songwriters feel like there’s no longer an audience for that kind of simple, idealistic emotion?
DeShannon: I can’t speak for anyone but myself. But I feel that we have cut back way too much on nourishing the children and nourishing the soul. And I think that’s the basic reason. And I don’t think people have the kind of hope that I grew up with. Maybe it’s being naïve, but I think faith and hope really played a great part and continue to play a great part in my work, anyway. I don’t know if we’re capable of — as a country — of nurturing that writer, that kind of hopeful, you know, we have a few. But I don’t see anyone coming up with that. I mean, maybe occasionally, but it’s not the mainstream. It’s very angry.
Paulson: When you were mainly writing and recording what we’d call, I mean, top 40 material and largely in the ‘60s, then came the singer/songwriter movement, the real deal where there were a lot of people who wrote their own material and could write very personal statements. And James Taylor and Carole King and many others had terrific careers. Did that also free you up? Were you then able to carve out a different career for yourself?
DeShannon: Not quite. Because I had had some persona of hits and then not having a hit, it was very inconsistent. And I think being very frustrated, it took a different direction than I really wanted. Had I been under the umbrella of a John Hammond who nurtured Dylan and Springsteen and had I been under that wing, I think that my career would have been quite different. But somehow or another, I, you know, I pulled enough out of the ashes to write this new CD. And I’m real proud of it.
Paulson: Let’s talk about it. This is an album that is very personal in a lot of ways, and has some songs where you don’t pull any punches.
Paulson: Can you talk about “Somewhere in America?”
DeShannon: “Somewhere in America” was probably the first song that I wrote all the lyrics first before I wrote the melody. And we touch base on the fact that we are responsible and we are responsible if I can keep one person from throwing a beer can in the water or maybe thinking twice before they throw something on the … ground and try to be more responsible with our lives and our contribution, because it’s no longer “they’re different, we’re different.” It’s “we’re all the same person because we’re all on one planet, and if we don’t nurture each other and take care of one another, take care of the life below us, the animals, the plants, the trees, you know, it’s gonna be gone.” And it’s up to each one of us to do whatever they can to make our world a better place, for lack of another world.
Paulson: What are you hearing from your fans about this album?
DeShannon: I’m very surprised. I didn’t know what was gonna happen. But they love it. And we’ve gotten very good response.
Paulson: Are you touring again?
DeShannon: Yes. Well, I recently I’d been doing clubs in Los Angeles and in New York, and I’m gonna go to England. And I’m gonna do some touring around Europe, which I’ve wanted to do forever and haven’t been able to. So now I will.
Paulson: Has the industry changed a lot since the early days? I mean, it’s become a much bigger industry.
DeShannon: Well, it’s, to me, a marketing thing now. And now it’s like Madison Avenue. How do we market this car? How do we market that event? And I really want to keep it close to the music. I think it’s important for me as an artist to connect directly with the audience and however I can do that, that’s what I want without, you know, all the other stuff that goes behind a show. I mean, I think there’s a valid place for that, but I would like to see more of a personal performance from different artists where they can get to know them as people and get to know them as just … like they’re sitting in the living room with the song.
Paulson: Can you talk a little bit about the mechanics of being a songwriter? How does that happen? Is there a period in which you absolutely can write a song a day? Or is it something that comes and goes?
DeShannon: Well, for me it’s time. And when I’m writing, I can’t do anything else. I have to just lock the doors and close the windows and that’s the way it is. Because it’s very freeform, and especially on this CD, I wanted not to have to edit anything. I didn’t want to have to play my music for anyone, and if it … (Inaudible) a song that I wanted to sing over and over, then it … then that’s the kind of song that made it on the CD. And then when you perform, you have to play them every night. So you have to kind of choose that way. But I really need time … the freedom of not having any responsibility for anything else but writing.
Paulson: When you began as a writer, it was a period in which the FCC was watching lyrics very closely. That continued through the early ‘70s. Were there ever times when either you or your music was censored, or you censored yourself?
DeShannon: No. No, I didn’t censor myself. And I think … I don’t know. I mean, I’m not aware if I was censored at all. But I don’t think so.
Paulson: When you look back at your career, an extraordinary number of very powerful songs and records, I like to throw a few titles out and if you can just talk about …
Paulson: … your recollection of the song and what it looks like to you today. “When You Walk In The Room.”
DeShannon: Still one of my very, very favorites. I open my show with it, can’t wait to sing it. Love it. I think it’s something that is timeless and I think we all have that spark when somebody walks in the room that we feel an emotional tie to, that’s how we feel, you know?
Paulson: And that was a hit for the Searchers.
DeShannon: It was a semi-hit for me, but a bigger record for the Searchers. Yes.
Paulson: And there are tales of Bruce Springsteen’s performance that …
DeShannon: (Laughs) Yes. There are. Luckily for me, he did do it in his live performances on occasion, yes.
Paulson: Have you seen that?
DeShannon: I haven’t seen it, but I have a little something that I can listen to.
Paulson: (Laughs) Okay. “Needles and Pins,” which you did not write but was your first big hit.
DeShannon: Well, it was written for me. Jack Nitzsche and I worked together very closely from the very beginning. And I needed a hit, I needed something that was really geared to me emotionally. And so he was always doing my arrangements, and he wrote that song. And I think he was working with Sonny at the time. And of course, they didn’t want to record it, so I said, “Either we record it or we don’t record, period.” You know, it was great.
Paulson: Was that the first time you actually heard yourself on the radio, or had there been earlier …
DeShannon: Uh, no, no, no. I had other regional records. I had been recording and there would be a hit in one city or another, and kind of … in those days, you needed to have it going all at once before you’d get a bullet on Billboard. So that was very different.
Paulson: And your career has been in a couple of different places at once. Somebody else along those lines who you worked with, Randy Newman.
Paulson: What was the early Randy Newman like, and did you have any idea that this guy would end up writing things like “Short People” and … ?
DeShannon: Yes. (Laughs) He’s a great writer, he’s very Randy Newman. And I didn’t know how we ended up writing together, really. We were working at the time for the same publishing company, and a mutual friend said, “Well, you guys should get together there. So-and-so’s recording, why don’t you write a song for them?” I caught him at an odd moment, I think. (Laughs) Because I don’t think he’s written with too many people.
Paulson: And he’s had some hits, but he’s not what you’d describe as a very commercial writer.
DeShannon: Well, that I hate to get into because I think that we shouldn’t all be judged by what commercial writer … I think he’s a very commercial writer. He’s done very well as a songwriter.
Paulson: Well, that’s true. “Vanilla Olay.”
DeShannon: Again, very Jackie. It’s just one of those … one of those Jackie songs that it just came out and that was it. I was doing a lot of touring at the time, so I think I was very much the club band kind of thing. And I always liked that one.
Paulson: “Boat to Sail.”
DeShannon: Well, “Boat to Sail” … I don’t know if I should get this personal or not.
Paulson: Oh, please do.
DeShannon: (Laughs) “Boat to Sail” was written for my husband, who’s Randy Edelman. And I wrote it for his birthday because I didn’t have anything really to give him, and so I wrote that song for him, which was later recorded by the beautiful Karen Carpenter, and Brian Wilson sang background. So that’s about as good as it gets.
Paulson: That’s right. It must be nice to be able to call Beach Boys in to work on your records.
DeShannon: Yes, it was. And of course, Brian has always been one of my great inspirations as well.
Paulson: And finally, “Bette Davis …”
DeShannon: But let me just say, we used to do that a lot. We used to drop in on people’s sessions and that was sort of the thing in those days.
Paulson: “Bette Davis Eyes” I first heard on your record, and it was dramatically different arrangement …
DeShannon: Very different.
Paulson: … from the hit.
Paulson: What was your reaction to that? And did it sound good to you? I’m sure after the first few million it … it sounded very good.
DeShannon: It sounded a little better. I loved Kim’s record the minute I heard it. I thought it could be a big hit. When I recorded it again, it was that miscommunication between my vision of the record. And the demo that I made for it was very much … it was more like … what Kim’s record. But he didn’t hear it that way, so he did it another way, which I was never happy with. And so grateful that Kim recorded it and made such a great record.
Paulson: It is one of the biggest hit records ever and continues to be played. Are there occasions where songs take a while to sort of find their home and find their voice?
DeShannon: Yes, that took about seven years. I sent it around. We did things with it, and it’s just … you know, timing does have a lot to do. But if you have faith in the material … I always feel they kinda … I think I’m … the type of person that follows the art, and I do the work and then go wherever it takes me.
Paulson: It’s been too long without a new Jackie DeShannon CD.
DeShannon: Well, thank you.
Paulson: And the new one is wonderful and people who have followed your work, I think, will find it to be a logical extension of what they’ve heard over the years, but also just a refreshing new sound as well. It’s an ambitious record.
DeShannon: Ooh. (Laughs) I didn’t know how ambitious.
Paulson: Are you ambitious again and are you going to record another CD?
DeShannon: Yes. I am ambitious again. I don’t think … as I have been performing and being away from it so very long, it’s really such a reward and such a great feeling to have that connection with the audience. It’s … you know, it’s just made me sparkle.
Paulson: We’re delighted you’re here. Please thank our guest, Jackie DeShannon.
DeShannon: Thank you.
Paulson: Our guest has been Jackie DeShannon. I’m Ken Paulson, back next week with another conversation about free expression, the arts, and America. I hope you can join us then for “Speaking Freely.”
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