Gram Parsons

Gram Parsons (November 5, 1946 ??? September 19, 1973) was an American singer, songwriter, guitarist and pianist. Parsons was a member of the International Submarine Band, The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. He was later a solo artist who recorded and performed duets with Emmylou Harris.


Parsons died of a drug overdose at the age of 26 in a hotel room in Joshua Tree, California. Since his death, he has been credited with helping to found both country rock and alt-country.


In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked him #87 on their list of the 100 Most Influential Artists of All Time.


Biography


1946???1968

Parsons was born Cecil Ingram Connor III in Winter Haven, Florida, the grandson of citrus fruit magnate John A. Snively, with extensive properties both there and in Waycross, Georgia, where Parsons was raised. A sister, "Little" Avis, soon followed. His father, "Coon Dog" Connor, was a World War II flying ace who suffered mood swings and abruptly committed suicide two days before Christmas Day, 1958. Parsons' mother, Avis, subsequently married Bob Parsons, whose surname was adopted by young Ingram, the elder Parsons going as far to have new birth certificates drawn up for his stepson and stepdaughter. Henceforth he would be known as Gram Parsons. Parsons attended the prestigious Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida. For a time, the family found a stability of sorts until Avis rapidly descended into alcoholism, leading to her death from cirrhosis.


As his family disintegrated around him, Parsons developed strong musical interests, particularly after seeing Elvis Presley perform in concert in 1957. Five years later, while barely in his teens, he played in rock and roll cover bands such as the Pacers and the Legends, headlining in clubs owned by his stepfather in the Winter Haven/Polk County area. By the age of 16 he graduated to folk music, and in 1963 he teamed with his first professional outfit, the Shilos. Heavily influenced by the Kingston Trio and the Journeymen, the band played hootenannies, coffee houses and high school auditoriums. Forays into New York City's Greenwich Village included appearances at The Bitter End.


After the band folded he attended Harvard University, studying theology but departing after a semester. Despite being from the South, he did not become serious about country music until his time in Boston, Massachusetts after hearing Merle Haggard for the first time. In 1966, he and others from the Boston folk scene formed the International Submarine Band. The band relocated to Los Angeles the following year, and in 1968 released the album Safe at Home, which contains one of his best-known songs, "Luxury Liner", as well as an early version of "Do You Know How It Feels", which he would reprise on the first Flying Burrito Brothers album. But Parsons had already moved on to bigger things by the time of the album's release.


1968???1970

By 1968 Parsons had come to the attention of Chris Hillman of The Byrds, via Larry Spector (The Byrds' business manager), as a possible replacement member following the departures of David Crosby and Michael Clarke from the band in late 1967. Parsons had been acquainted with Chris Hillman since 1967 and in February 1968, he passed an audition for the band, being initially recruited as a jazz pianist but soon switching to rhythm guitar and vocals.


It should be noted that although Parsons was an equal contributor to the band, he was not a legitimate member of The Byrds in the eyes of Columbia Records (the band's record label). Consequently, when The Byrds' Columbia recording contract was renewed on February 29, 1968, it was only Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman who signed it. Parson, like fellow new recruit Kevin Kelley, was hired as a sideman and received a salary from McGuinn and Hillman. This led Hillman to state in later years that "Gram was hired. He was not a member of The Byrds, ever ??? he was on salary, that was the only way we could get him to turn up.". However, these comments overlook the fact that Parsons, like Kelley, was considered a bona fide member of the band at the time and as such, was given equal billing with McGuinn, Hillman and Kelley on the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album sleeve as well as in the press.


Sweetheart of the Rodeo was originally conceived by band leader, Roger McGuinn, as a sprawling, double album history of American popular music. It was to begin with bluegrass music, then move through country & western, jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock music, before finally ending with the most advanced (for the time) form of electronic music. Nonetheless, as recording plans were made, Parsons tried to exert a controlling influence over the group, persuading the other members to leave Los Angeles and record the album in Nashville, Tennessee. Along the way, McGuinn's original album concept was jettisoned in favor of a fully fledged country and western project which included Parsons' songs such as "One Hundred Years from Now" and "Hickory Wind", along with compositions by Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard.


Recording sessions for Sweetheart of the Rodeo commenced at Columbia Records' recording facility in the Music Row area of Nashville on March 9, 1968. Mid-way through recording, the sessions moved to Columbia Studios, Hollywood, L.A., finally ending on May 27, 1968. However, Parsons was still under contract to Lee Hazlewood's LHI Records, who threatened legal action. As a result, Roger McGuinn ended up replacing three of Parsons' lead vocals with his own singing on the final product, although Parsons is still featured singing lead vocals on the songs "You're Still on My Mind", "Life in Prison" and "Hickory Wind".


While in England with The Byrds in the summer of 1968, Parsons left the band over his opposition toward a planned concert in South Africa, citing opposition to that country's apartheid policies. There has been some doubt expressed by McGuinn and Hillman over the sincerity of Parsons' protest. It appears that Parsons was mostly apolitical, although he did refer to one of the younger African-American butlers in the Connor household as being "like a brother" to him in an interview.


During this period, Parsons became friendly with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones. While in England, Parsons developed a close kinship with Richards and reintroduced him to country music. Sitting around for hours, the twosome would play obscure records and trade off on various songs with their guitars. They even traveled together on a few occasions to Stonehenge (along with McGuinn and Hillman, before Parsons??? departure from The Byrds) in the English countryside of Wiltshire, where Richards had a house quite near to the ancient site.


Returning to Los Angeles, Parsons sought out Hillman (both as rhythm guitarists), and the two formed the Flying Burrito Brothers with bassist Chris Ethridge and pedal steel player Sneaky Pete Kleinow. Their 1969 album The Gilded Palace Of Sin was a modernized version of the Bakersfield style of country music made popular by Buck Owens, and the band appeared on the album cover wearing Nudie suits emblazoned with all sorts of hippie accoutrements. Along with the Parsons-Hillman originals "Christine's Tune" and "Hot Burrito #2" were versions of the soul music classics "The Dark End of the Street" and "Do Right Woman", the latter featuring David Crosby on high harmony. Most of the songs on the album were composed by Hillman with Parsons in a creatively suggestive position, while the latter's drug intake noticeably increased; the atypically pronounced (for Parsons) gospel soul influence likely comes from his frequent jamming with Delaney and Bonnie and Richards.


Though not a commercial success, Gilded was measured by rock critic Robert Christgau as "an ominous, obsessive, tongue-in-cheek country-rock synthesis, absorbing rural and urban, traditional and contemporary, at point of impact." The album was recorded without a permanent drummer, but the group soon added original Byrd Michael Clarke on drums. Embarking on a cross-country tour via train, as Parsons suffered from periodic bouts of fear of flying, the group squandered most of their money in a perpetual poker game and received bewildered reactions in most cities. Parsons was frequently indulging in massive quantities of psilocybin and cocaine, so his performances were erratic at best, while much of the band's repertoire consisted of vintage honky tonk and soul standards with few originals. Perhaps the most successful appearance occurred in Philadelphia, where the group opened for the reconstituted Byrds. Midway through their set, Parsons joined the headline act and fronted his former group on renditions "Hickory Wind" and "You Don't Miss Your Water". The other Burritos surfaced with the exception of Clarke, and the joint aggregation played several songs. including "Long Black Veil" and "Goin' Back".


After returning to Los Angeles the group recorded "The Train Song", written during an increasingly infrequent songwriting session on the train and produced by 1950s R&B legends Larry Williams and Johnny "Guitar" Watson. Despite a request from the Burritos that the remnants of their publicity budget be diverted to promotion of the single, it also flopped. Ethridge, who lacked total commitment to Parsons' musical vision and often indulged in drugs and drink on a level surpassing the guitarist, departed shortly thereafter. He was replaced by lead guitarist Bernie Leadon, while Hillman reverted to bass.


By this time, Parsons's own use of drugs had increased to the extent that new songs were rare and much of his time was diverted to partying with the Stones, who briefly relocated to America in the summer of 1969 to finish their forthcoming Let It Bleed and prepare for an autumn cross country tour, their first series of regular live engagements since 1967. As they prepared to play the nation's largest sports arenas, the Burritos played to dwindling nightclub audiences; one night Jagger had to literally order Parsons to fulfill an obligation with his group.


The singer's dedication to the Rolling Stones was rewarded when the Burrito Brothers were booked as the opening act of the infamous Altamont Music Festival. Playing a short set including "Six Days on the Road" and "Bony Moronie", Parsons left on one of the final helicopters and attempted to pick up Michelle Phillips. "Six Days..." was included in Gimme Shelter, a documentary of the event.


With mounting debt incurred, A&M hoped to recoup some of their losses by marketing the Burritos as a straight country group. To this end, manager Jim Dickson instigated a loose session where the band recorded several honky tonk staples from their live act, contemporary pop covers in a countrified vein ("To Love Somebody", "Lodi", "I Shall Be Released", "Honky Tonk Women"), and Larry Williams' "Bony Moronie". This was soon scrapped in favor of a second album of originals on an extremely reduced budget. Faced with a dearth of new material, most of the material was hastily written in the studio by Leadon, Hillman, and Parsons, with two Gilded Palace of Sin outtakes thrown into the mix. The resulting album, entitled Burrito Deluxe, was released in April 1970.


The album is considered less inspired than its predecessor, but it is notable for the Parsons-Hillman-Leadon song "Older Guys" and for its take on Jagger and Richards' "Wild Horses"???the first recording released of this famous song. Parsons was inspired to cover the song after hearing an advance tape of the Sticky Fingers album sent to Kleinow, who was scheduled to overdub a part on the song (Kleinow's part was not included on the released Rolling Stones version, though it is available on bootlegs). Jagger consented to the cover version, so long as the Flying Burrito Brothers did not issue it as a single.


Burrito Deluxe, like its predecessor, underperformed commercially but faced the double whammy of being lambasted by critics. Disenchanted with the band, he left the Burritos in mutual agreement with Hillman, at his wits' end after two years of babysitting Parsons. Under his direction, the group recorded two more LPs.


1970???1972

Parsons immediately signed a solo deal with A&M Records and partnered with producer/scenester Terry Melcher, who had produced The Byrds' Mr. Tambourine Man and worked with The Beach Boys. With a mutual penchant for alcohol, cocaine, and (by this juncture) heroin, the sessions were unproductive and found the singer in a holding pattern of covering country hits and himself ("Hot Burrito #1"). Eventually losing interest altogether, he checked the master tapes out in 1971. He accompanied the Stones on their 1971 tour in the hope of being signed to the newly formed Rolling Stones Records, intending to record a duo album with Richards. Moving into Villa Nellc??te with the guitarist during the sessions for Exile on Main Street, Parsons remained in a consistently incapacitated state and frequently quarreled with his much younger girlfriend, aspiring actress Gretchen Burrell. Eventually, Parsons was asked to leave by Anita Pallenberg, Richards' longtime domestic partner. Rumors have persisted that he appears somewhere on the legendary album, and while Richards concedes that it is very likely he is among the chorus of singers on "Sweet Virginia", nothing has been substantiated to this day. Parsons attempted to rekindle his relationship with the band on their 1972 tour to no avail.


After leaving the Stones' camp, Parsons married in 1971, for the only time, to Burrell at his stepfather's New Orleans estate. Allegedly, the relationship was far from stable, with Burrell cutting a needy and jealous figure while Parsons quashed her burgeoning film career. Many of the singer's closest associates and friends claim that Parsons was preparing to commence divorce proceedings at the time of his death; the couple had already separated by this point.


1972???1973

Parsons and Burrell enjoyed the most idyllic time of their relationship, visiting old cohorts like Ian Dunlop and Family/Blind Faith/Traffic member Ric Grech in England. With the assistance of Grech and one of the bassist's friends, Hank Wangford a doctor friend who dabbled in country music, Parsons managed to kick his heroin habit once and for all (a treatment suggested by William Burroughs proved unsuccessful).


He returned to the US for a one-off concert with the Burritos, and at Hillman's instigation went to hear Emmylou Harris sing in a small club in Washington, D.C. They became friends and, within a year, he asked her to join him in Los Angeles for another attempt to record his first solo album.


Having gained thirty pounds since his Burrito days from Southern food and excessive alcohol consumption, it came as a surprise to many when Parsons was enthusiastically signed to Reprise Records by Mo Ostin in mid-1972. GP, released in 1973, used the guitar-playing of James Burton (sideman to Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson), and featured new songs from a creatively revitalized Parsons such as "Big Mouth Blues" and "Kiss the Children," as well as a cover of Tompall Glaser's "Streets of Baltimore."


Parsons, by now featuring Harris as his duet partner, played dates across the United States as Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels. Unable to afford the services of the Elvis band for a month, the band featured the talents of obscure Colorado-based rock guitarist Jock Bartley (soon to skyrocket to fame with Firefall), veteran Nashville sideman Neil Flanz on pedal steel, Kyle Tullis on bass and former Mountain drummer N.D. Smart (once described by Canadian folksinger Ian Tyson as "a psychotic redneck"). The touring party also included Gretchen Parsons???by this point extremely envious of Harris???and Harris' young daughter. Coordinating the spectacle as road manager was Phil Kaufman, who had served time with Charles Manson on Terminal Island in the mid-sixties and first met Parsons while working for the Stones in 1968. Kaufman ensured that the performer stayed away from substance abuse, limiting his alcohol intake during shows and throwing out any drugs smuggled into hotel rooms. At first, the band was under-rehearsed and played poorly, but improved markedly with steady gigging and received rapturous responses at the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas and at a filmed concert at Liberty Hall in Houston (with Neil Young and Linda Ronstadt sitting in) and Max's Kansas City in New York City. According to a number of sources, it was Emmylou who forced the band to practice and work up an actual set list. Nevertheless, the tour did absolutely nothing for record sales. While he had been in the vanguard with The Byrds and the Burrito Brothers, Parsons was now perceived as being too authentic and traditional in an era dominated by the stylings of The Eagles, whose sound Parsons disdained (although he did maintain cordial relations with Leadon, now an Eagle).


For his next and final album, 1974's Grievous Angel, he again used Harris and Burton. The record, which was released after his death, received even more enthusiastic reviews than had GP, and has since attained classic status. Among its most celebrated songs is "$1000 Wedding", a holdover from the Burrito Brothers era which was covered by one of the many groups influenced by Parsons, the Mekons, and "Brass Buttons", a 1965 opus which addresses his mother's alcoholism. Also included was a new version of "Hickory Wind" and "Ooh Las Vegas", co-written with Grech and dating from the G.P. sessions. Despite the fact that Parsons only contributed two new songs to the album ("In My Hour of Darkness", "Return of the Grievous Angel"), Parsons was highly enthused with his new sound and seemed to have finally adopted a serious, diligent mindset to his musical career, eschewing most drugs and alcohol during the sessions.


Before recording, Parsons and Harris played a preliminary three show mini tour as the headline act in a Warner Brothers country-rock package. The backing band included Clarence White, Pete Kleinow, and Chris Etheridge. On July 14, 1973, the legendary White was killed by a drunk driver while loading equipment in his car for a concert with the New Kentucky Colonels. At White's funeral, Parsons and Bernie Leadon launched into an impromptu touching rendition of "Farther Along"; that night, the distraught and drunken musician reportedly informed Phil Kaufman of his final wish: to be cremated in Joshua Tree. Despite the almost insurmountable setback, Parsons, Harris, and the other musicians decided to continue with plans for a fall tour.


In the summer of 1973 Parsons' Topanga Canyon home burned to the ground, the result of a stray cigarette. Nearly all of his possessions were destroyed with the exception of a guitar and a prized Jaguar automobile. The fire proved to be the last straw in the relationship between Burrell and Parsons, who moved into a spare room in Kaufman's house. While not recording, he frequently hung out and jammed with members of New Jersey???based country rockers Quacky Duck and His Barnyard Friends (whose members included Tony Bennett's sons, Danny and Dae Bennett as well as future Dylan sideman and member of the Alpha Band, multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield) and the proto-punk Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, who were being managed by Kaufman. Richman credits Parsons with introducing him to acoustic-based music. Parsons is credited as producer on Quacky Duck's only album, Media Push, released by Warner Bros. in 1974. According to the road manager of Quacky Duck, Parsons was, despite being frequently drunk, a kind soul who provided business and musical guidance to the younger band.


Before formally breaking up with Burrell, Parsons already had a woman waiting in the wings. While recording, he saw a photo of a beautiful woman at a friend's home and was instantly smitten. The woman turned out to be Margaret Fisher, a high school sweetheart of the singer from his Waycross, Georgia days. Like Parsons, Fisher had drifted west and became established in the Bay Area rock scene. A meeting was arranged and the two instantly rekindled their relationship, with Fisher dividing her weeks between Los Angeles and San Francisco at Parsons' expense.


Death

In the late 1960s, Parsons became enamored of Joshua Tree National Monument in southeastern California. Alone or with friends, he would disappear in the desert for days searching for UFOs while under the influence of psilocybin or LSD. After splitting from Burrell, Parsons would frequently spend his weekends in the area with Margaret Fisher and Phil Kaufman. Before his tour was scheduled to commence in October 1973, Parsons decided to go on one more excursion. Accompanying him were Fisher, personal assistant Michael Martin, and Dale McElory, Martin's girlfriend. Less than two days after arriving, Parsons died September 19, 1973 in Joshua Tree, California at the age of 26 from a lethal combination, purportedly of morphine and alcohol. According to Fisher in the 2005 biography Grievous Angel: An Intimate Biography of Gram Parsons, the amount of morphine consumed by Parsons would be lethal to three regular users and thus he had likely overestimated his tolerance considering his past experience with opiates. Fisher and McElroy were returned to Los Angeles by Kaufman, who dispersed the remnants of Parsons' stash in the desert.


Parsons' body disappeared from the Los Angeles International Airport where it was being readied to be shipped to Louisiana for burial. Prior to his death, Parsons stated that he wanted his body cremated at Joshua Tree and his ashes spread over Cap Rock, a prominent natural feature there; however, Parson's stepfather arranged for a private ceremony back in New Orleans and neglected to invite any of his friends from the music industry.


To fulfill Parsons' "funeral" wishes, Kaufman and a friend stole his body from the airport and in a borrowed hearse drove it to Joshua Tree where they attempted to cremate it by pouring five gallons of gasoline into the open coffin and throwing a lit match inside. What resulted was an enormous fireball. Police chased them, but according to one account they "were encumbered by sobriety," and got away. The two were arrested several days later. Since there was no law against stealing a dead body, they were only fined $750 (or $700) for stealing the coffin and were not prosecuted for leaving 35 lbs of his charred remains in the desert.


Legacy

The site of the cremation was marked by a small concrete slab and is presided over by a large rock flake known to rock climbers as 'The Gram Parsons memorial hand traverse'. The slab has since been removed by the U.S. National Park Service and was relocated to the Joshua Tree Inn which was where he was staying at the time of his death. At the site of the original memorial now are simple rock structures and writings on the rock which the park service sand blasts to remove from time to time.


The 2003 film Grand Theft Parsons stars Johnny Knoxville as Phil Kaufman and chronicles a farcical version of the theft of Parsons' corpse.


In February 2008, Gram's prot?İg?İe, Emmylou Harris, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. The Gram Parsons Petition Project (G3P) was begun in May 2008 in support of an ongoing drive to induct Parsons into the Country Music Hall of Fame. On September 19, 2008, the 35th anniversary of Parsons' death, it was presented to the Country Music Association (CMA) and Hall as a "List of Supporters" together with the official nomination proposal.


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