We look back at award winning country music legend Donna Fargo’s years on Warner Brothers with her compilation That Was Yesterday, produced by her husband Stan Silver, and go beyond those years, discussing their work with record executive Steve Popovich.
By Warren Kurtz
DONNA FARGO debuted in the Top 40 in 1972 with a pair of gold singles that she wrote. “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” reached No. 11, followed by “Funny Face,” which reached No. 5, both on the Dot label, which was the home of Pat Boone’s successful run in the prior two decades. She had a half dozen more singles, most of which she wrote, in the Top 100 through 1975. In 1976 she switched labels to Warner Brothers, where she remained through 1981, and continued to have hits on the country charts through 1991.
GOLDMINE:I enjoy your latest compilation, That Was Yesterday, with songs from your Warner Brothers years of 1976 through 1981. Congratulations on the title song from the collection, an unlikely recitation to reach No. 1 on the country charts in 1977. Its flip side was “The Cricket Song,” which is a fun fable, written by Robert Thames, with the cricket and bull frog being your true friends, which leads to your “once I had a sweetheart” line, revealing more in the song. How did this unique song come to you and Stan for the Fargo Country album?
DONNA FARGO: Regarding the CD, That Was Yesterday, Cary Mansfield gets the credit for the specific songs selected for the album. He’s such a nice person, and I am grateful for his contribution to my career. It’s funny about songs that become hits. Since songs come from the creative spirit, I’ve sometimes thought they might have a mind of their own and the version of the idea becomes bound and determined to find a way to be heard and felt. I know that may be kind of out there thinking, but there must be an energy or something that reaches hearts in great numbers of listeners if a song becomes a legitimate hit. I mean, if it hadn’t been for the midnight DJs giving the feedback on the number of requests they were getting, the song “That Was Yesterday” might have been just another song in an album rather than a No. 1 single for me. I think what great songs do is touch heart strings and make music lovers want to hear them again and again, sometimes just to figure out why they mean so much, or to remind one of a certain person, or a time in the listener’s life. I think I’ve usually written each song with the idea of wanting to be proud of it and answering the call to write the idea the best I could, whether I thought it would be a single or not. Some of my favorite songs I’ve written were not singles but that didn’t make me work less hard on them. The flip side, “The Cricket Song,” was written by one of my lead guitar players for my road show. I love this song. It’s sweet, filled with metaphors of loneliness and the joy of having true friends until they’re gone. It’s simple, but it’s so cool. When I choose songs written by other songwriters, I just have to like the songs a lot and think that I could do them justice as an artist and interpret them in my own style with respect and true authenticity. Robert Thames was one of my favorite best friends and I miss him. He played in almost all my shows since 1974. He was a very good guitar player. Unfortunately, all his gigs down here on planet earth were cancelled in October 2013. Robert died from multiple myeloma, lung cancer, and ankylosing spondylitis. He was too special to describe in a few words. I still miss him calling me and my being able to call him. He was a “real true friend of mine,” as he wrote in that little song. And he will really always live on in my heart. When Robert played me “The Cricket Song,” I knew it had to be one of the songs for the Fargo Country album.
GM:“I’ve Loved You All the Way” is a wonderful confession of love with the theme centered on, “If my life should end tomorrow, I want you to know I’ve loved you all of the way,” then it continues with positive emotion. What was the inspiration for this 1976 hit single?
DF: My husband Stan Silver inspired that song. As we’ve grown up together, we say “I love you” much more often than we used to. I’m proud of this song when I hear it. It feels truthful and soulful, and it takes me back to a time when I was my normal backward, bashful self, trying to say something in writing that I didn’t say enough maybe in everyday life. I have written in one of my books, “If you’re not happy, you’re cheating yourself,” and as I analyze the song as objectively as I can, I think it’s a song about true love and happiness. It’s about telling someone that even in the middle of every struggle and down place that you’ve loved them through it all. Although a song can come from a personally inspired place, the writer always wishes it will be received and appreciated and relatable from the listener’s own life and circumstances. A writer tries to choose details that can be applied universally, if not in reality, at least in the imagination of the majority of listeners.
GM:Also, from that year, from the album On the Move, you have included “Song with No Music.” This rolls along lyrically like a Kris Kristofferson composition and has a melodic chorus which reminds me of Dr. Hook and The Medicine Show’s “Sylvia’s Mother,” that Shel Silverstein wrote. Thank you for including this album cut on the compilation.
DF: I am humbled by your comparison to Kris and Shel. Thank you for liking “Song with No Music.” This is one of my favorite songs I ever wrote. I wish it had been a single. I think it’s the kind of song that a lot of people could relate to. Sometimes I’ll want to write about a feeling you have when you meet a lot of different people and wonder what their lives are like, and then create a song totally from the imagination and put that feeling into a detailed story to illustrate it, so it feels like it really happened. I wanted to express the sadness of emptiness. This song was an imaginary conversation about someone who got lost in the shuffle over decisions that left her with consequences she hadn’t planned for. I love to tell stories about the seasons of life that bring all kinds of outcomes, even corresponding downfalls we can all be subject to if we don’t have enough foundation to get us through the hard places.
GM:Listeners were truly “on the move,” with your music in the 1970s on 8-track and cassette tapes in their cars and trucks in addition to playing your vinyl singles and albums. Another album cut that I am so pleased that you included is “The Drifter and the Dreamer” from your Dark-Eyed Lady album. What great storytelling. You describe the difficulties of a Cinderella and a rolling stone, stating it is hard to love someone just passing through. This song and album were mixed at Osmond Studios. My wife, also named Donna, was a huge Osmonds fan in the 1970s. What was it like working with the brothers in that decade?
DF: I guess “The Drifter and the Dreamer” must have been mixed at the Osmond Studios when I was doing my TV show there called “The Donna Fargo Show.” The Osmonds produced the TV show, so I was probably in the middle of writing for and recording my Dark-Eyed Lady album. We took our own engineer, Gene Eichelberger, to mix the songs I sang on the show. Stan used Gene a lot for mixing singles and albums. All the Osmonds were consummate professionals, Marie included. It was fun, fast, and exciting hard work, too, but I learned so much. They had the experience and vision about what they wanted to accomplish and knew how to get the best out of everybody. This is one talented family, all of them. Another blessing that came from the show was a long-lasting friendship with the very gifted producer and performer, Tom Beiner. I like “The Drifter and the Dreamer” because of the contrasts. I tried to tell a story about the ups and downs of a relationship between two opposites attracted to each other. It was fun to listen to it again, and still interesting.
GM:I missed hearing “Do I Love You” by Paul Anka at the time in 1971 but I did hear a version on an album by The Lettermen in 1988. In between, your version was much quieter, with whispering, drawing the listener in. No wonder this record went all the way to No. 2 in 1978. I just love it!
DF: I found “Do I Love You” on a Paul Anka album. It just seemed right for me. I like positive songs, and I love beautifully written love songs. There wasn’t anything I didn’t like about the song. Paul sent me a box of candy after it was a hit. I thought that was too cool. I was doing this song on some TV show and as I looked side-stage, Dionne Warwick, who was also on the show, was singing along with me. It’s funny how we keep those sweet memories. I mean how could you not think it was special to see the great Dionne Warwick singing along with you?
GM:Dionne Warwick is, and Dee Dee Warwick was, such a talented singer, and speaking of her, the flip side of “Do I Love You” is “Dee Dee” with a wonderful bounce in 3/4 time. What leads you to write in 3/4 versus 4/4, and what inspired “Dee Dee?”
DF: “Dee Dee” is another song I wrote that I wish had been a single’s A side. It was loosely based on a true story. Dee was a friend of mine, and her husband left her for another woman, so this song was kind of a message to her about grieving any way she needed to for the loss, doing whatever she had to do for love, and as time moved on, finally just learning to let him go because if he didn’t love her, she didn’t need him. I was trying to encourage her that someday she would love again. I don’t know if there really is a way to soften the hurt of a broken heart, but friendship is a strong bond and insists that you try to share and show you care. I don’t know what determines whether I write in 6/8, 3/4, or 4/4. I think it’s just instinctive. My melodies usually come into my heart space with the lyrics. I mean I can be wordy, you know. I’ve often thought that’s why “That Was Yesterday” needed to be a recitation. I love “Dee Dee” because it’s so sing-alongable. I can’t get this song out of my head for a while after I hear it. And to a writer, that’s really important. The marriage of the lyrics to this type of melody is really a gift to a writer.
Flip side: Dee Dee
A side: Do I Love You (Yes in Every Way)
Hot Country Singles debut: January 7, 1978
Peak Position No. 2
Warner Brothers WBS 8509
GM: In the CD booklet notes, Dawn Lee Wakefield wrote, “Donna is happily described simply as a writer who loved to sing what’s on her mind and in her heart.” While most of the songs are written by you, there are others on the compilation you have chosen which are equally wonderful. “Seeing is Believing,” rolls along nicely. The flip side of that single, “Look What You’ve Done,” from your Fargo album, is a pretty delivery of Steve Gibb’s composition with such a tender vibrato.
DF: At some point, Stan and the people at Warner Brothers suggested I work with another producer, just to do something a little different. Stan had produced all of my albums and singles since the beginning of my career. Larry Butler was chosen as the producer for the next album with all songs written by other writers. Larry gave me several songs to listen to and asked me to choose from those, and they became the Fargo album. I had nothing to do with the choice of singles. I thought there were several good songs on there. I thought “Seeing Is Believing” was commercial. I thought the two Steve Gibb songs were beautiful ballads. I really liked “Change of Heart,” written by Eric Carmen.
GM:That was a personal thrill for me to hear. Eric and I are both from Cleveland and I interviewed him in 1979 when his Change of Heart album was his latest record and he told me then, “The highest honor that any songwriter can have is to have other people wish to record your songs. It is much more interesting for me to hear someone else do my material,” so thank you for recording this one. The finale on the compilation is one that was not on any of your albums, your final Warner Brothers single “Jacamo,” with a great bit of storytelling.
DF: “Jacamo” was pitched to us by one of the executives at Warner Brothers. What an unusual story song, huh? There were people who loved this song so much they had “JACAMO” put on their license plates. I thought it was interesting, dramatic, and very different.
GM:In 1978, I spent some Saturday nights with Steve Popovich as his Cleveland International label was beginning and Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell success continued. I was working at Peaches Records and Tapes in Cleveland and I remember going down the country aisle with Steve. At this time, Eric Carmen was working with him too on a side project with The Euclid Beach Band. Steve was my music mentor. You recorded “My Heart Will Always Belong to You” and a creative version of “Soldier Boy” on his label. What can you share about working with Steve in 1980s and 1990s?
DF: Stan and I both loved working with Steve Popovich. When he was with Mercury, Steve wanted us to put out an album called Winners and re-record some of the earliest hits, like “The Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.,” “Funny Face,” “Little Girl Gone,” “You Were Always There,” and “U.S. of A.” I also wrote “Woman of the 80s” for it, “Me and You,” “Winners,” and “Sign of the Times.” Steve wanted Billy Joe Royal and me to do a duet on the Bobby Blue Bland song called “Members Only,” and it became one of the singles from this album. Stan Byrd, who was a friend of ours and a friend of Steve’s, believed in the song ��My Heart Will Always Belong to You,” and he thought it was single material, so we recorded it. It was Steve’s idea for me to record “Soldier Boy,” because of the war that was going on. We got permission to add the recitation that I wrote for it. Steve was the ultimate music man. He lived, ate, and breathed music and good songs. We were so sorry when he died, too young.
GM:Thank you so much for all your music and our time together. As we wrap up, please share the story with the Goldmine readers on how Glen Campbell presented a song for you to record from a writer on his Seventh Son Music publishing company.
DF: Once, when Glen Campbell and I were performing at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas, he came to my dressing room and asked me if I’d listen to a song by one of his writers in his company. Of course, I said, “Absolutely.” He sat down with this guitar and sang me “Show Me That You Love Me,” written by Michael Smotherman. I told him I would love to record that song for my next album, and I did. It was on my Just for You album. Having Glen pitch it to me in person will always be a special memory. He was so talented. Now why didn’t I think to pitch him one of my songs? Wow and oh well, I guess that was yesterday and things are so different now. Thanks again for the opportunity to look back and listen to some of the songs that wound up playing such sweet memories in the soundtrack of my life, and thanks for sharing them with your Goldmine readers.
Photo courtesy of donnafargo.com
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine, writing the In Memoriam and Fabulous Flip Sides series. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, as part of “Moments to Remember” at wvcr.com or iHeart Radio – search WVCR.