We spoke with Gerry Beckley of the duo America about his new solo album Five Mile Road on the Blue Elan label, songs by America from the ‘70s and ‘80s, his connection with Bill Mumy and The Bee Gees' influence.
By Warren Kurtz
AMERICA was first heard on FM radio in the U.S. as a British import with their 1971 self-titled debut album. Dewey Bunnell, Gerry Beckley and Dan Peek were the sons of American servicemen, living in England, where they started a band in the late ‘60s, and are now celebrating their 50th anniversary. In 1972, Dewey Bunnell’s song “A Horse With No Name” was released as a single, which went to No. 1 and was added to the second pressing of their debut album. Gerry Beckley’s “I Need You” followed as their next Top 10 single, also from their debut album. The trio had seven more Top 40 hits in the ‘70s including their second No. 1 single, Gerry’s “Sister Golden Hair.” Dan Peek left the trio in 1976 for contemporary Christian music, and passed away in 2011. Dewey and Gerry have continued on as a duo since 1976, including a return to the Top 40 in the early ‘80s with “You Can Do Magic” and “The Border.” Over the years, Gerry Beckley has released several solo albums including his new album, Five Mile Road, his second for the Blue Elan label.
GOLDMINE: When I heard “I Need You” and “Sandman” on an “Import Hour” FM radio show in Cleveland, I bought your debut album, before we heard “A Horse With No Name” months later on AM radio. That first pressing without “A Horse With No Name,” which I have, goes for twice the price in our Goldmine Record Album Price Guide.
GERRY BECKLEY: We still play a lot of those songs from our first album in our show, including “Riverside,” “I Need You,” “Sandman,” and we still do “Here” nightly.
Gerry Beckley center
GM:That is another great one of yours along with “Clarice” from that album.
GB: We did “Clarice” once for a “Soundstage” show out of Chicago, which was part of a very long set where we did things we normally don’t do. The song fell out of the show because there is only so much room to slow it down in a live show. There are fans who like the deep cuts, but most of the show has to be geared to the more general audience.
First pressing of the America debut album
GM:Let’s start with one deep America cut before we go into your new solo album. “Inspector Mills,” from the View from the Ground album, is such a wonderful song.
GB: Thank you. That is one that we did do on stage for quite a while. “Inspector Mills” was actually a very big single in The Philippines, of all things. It was almost mandatory to perform it there and came off surprisingly well. It starts with a phone call where I am supposedly calling a detective agency. That voice is the producer George Martin, who answers. As a songwriter, I have been a Lennon and McCartney fan since day one and to have America working with George Martin was wonderful.
Flip side: Inspector Mills
A side: Right Before Your Eyes
Top 100 debut: November 27, 1982
Peak position: No. 45
GM:In the U.S., “Inspector Mills” also served as the flip side of your version of “Right Before My Eyes,” which I already knew from Canadian radio with Ian Thomas’ 1977 single from his Goodnight Mrs. Calabash album, a favorite of mine and my friend John, who is also a big America fan.
GB: That is a beautiful song. At that point we were looking for outside material. Russ Ballard’s “You Can Do Magic” was a hit for us. We had always done the occasional cover tune. When we became a duo, we thought it would be nice to take that search just up a notch. We had a lot of confidence in our songwriting, but because one third of the group was gone, we thought it would be a good idea to just open that up a little bit more, with quality outside writers.
GM:Your version of “California Dreaming,” from that drive-in beach movie soundtrack, was your first charting single as a duo. What a rare soundtrack that is with you, Henry Small, Burton Cummings, Flo & Eddie, and Pat Upton on it, as you, Dewey and I discussed when we met in Reno at Hot August Nights a few years ago.
GB: You have to do cover songs right. I use James Taylor as an example. Nobody questions his ability to write or how prolific he is or isn’t but if and when he chooses to cover a song, he has this wonderful ability to make it his own, right from “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Up on the Roof” and all these wonderful songs he has recorded. Nobody says, “Ah, I would rather hear him play his own material.” I use that as a target for what you are after in interpreting somebody else’s material.
GM:Then there are rare cases when you write with someone else, as you do on the opening song on your new Blue Elan album Five Mile Road, with the catchy, steady, pop song “Life Lessons,” that you co-wrote with Bill Mumy, who my family knows from his child actor days of ‘60s sci-fi.
GB: Bill Mumy is somewhat of a legend. I have worked with Bill off and on over the years. I wrote all the other songs on the album alone, making that one the only co-write. Bill contributed a terrific story line in that lyric. He is a wonderful musician in his own right and a great writer. He is one of the first guys that we met when we came to L.A. and played the Whisky in ‘72. He came to almost every night there and has been a dear friend ever since.
GM:Speaking about dear, and gentleness that you often bring to songs, “Something to Remember” is certainly tender and I enjoy the arrangement. Just like me requesting our interview today, you sing, “Everyone wants a piece of me.”
GB: Yeah. That is a pretty strong opening line. We were considering it for the America Here & Now album that we released in 2007 and already had a pretty good selection of tunes already in that pile. It wasn’t rejected as much as we felt we already had enough, but I always liked it. It is really a nod to the Gibbs. We always discuss John Lennon and Paul McCartney and Brian Wilson, not only for us but for most writers from our generation, as major influences, but I was such a huge fan of The Bee Gees too. I really think that is where I was steering that ship.
GM:You speak about The Bee Gees, and just going back for a moment to “Inspector Mills,” there is a part of it that reminds me of “New York Mining Disaster 1941.”
GB: We love that tune and used to play it on stage. “Sandman” actually came out of strumming “Mining Disaster.” It is an A minor strum as the backdrop while singing, “In the case of something happening to me,” which ultimately led to our, “Ain’t it foggy outside.” The lyric to “Sandman” is a deep and lovely story with Vietnam soldiers and their return, but the structure came from the Gibbs.
GM:In terms of writing, you use triple rhyme not only on “Something to Remember,” which we just discussed, but also on the new album’s gentle finale “Two People at Once.” To have three rhyming words is something that I just love.
GB: Well, thank you. It is interesting because in a pop song it is far easier to just boil it upward and take the obvious points. Jimmy Webb is a friend of ours and is a role model for what he does in detail. For me, more often than not, the good lines just fall out. I’m not a rhyming dictionary guy, which some of the great writers are.
GM:You mention Jimmy Webb. “Crying in My Sleep” is one of his compositions that I was so thrilled that you chose for America’s Back Pages album in 2011. I have the Art Garfunkel 45 and his Watermark ’77 album on reel to reel, and I always thought that deserved to be a hit. Your version really puts a smile on my face.
GB: That is a lovely tune. Jimmy is not unique in having big success in one era and then continuing on even digging deeper, but with less notoriety. He didn’t always have the fortune of Glen Campbell and others to keep his music going on forever on the radio but will always be one of the greatest songwriters of our generation.
GM:I agree. Now, back to your new album, “Home Again” certainly has a fun America type feel to it and has Jeff Pevar on guitar as well.
GB: Jeff is out with David Crosby at the moment and we have played with those guys for years. I started writing this song in the ‘70s. I am pretty prolific. There is always a batch going in the bucket. Sometimes it takes a while to come out. That is the oldest and newest song in the collection because I started it further back than any other song and it also became the last song recorded for this album. The bridge is new. It has a bit of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” in it to with the “la dada da da da” part, which is one of my favorite tunes too.
GM:“The Boxer” is one of my wife Donna’s favorite songs too. The bridge in the title song “Five Mile Road” really adds a lot to the song along with Rusty Young’s steel guitar.
GB: I am a big fan of the bridge in a song. It is part of the whole tunesmith thing that we were raised on and I don’t want to think of it as a dying art. For me, bridges are always a breath of air that songs very often need. I would rather go to a bridge than some of the more cliché approaches like a key change. I also like to see how quick I can make a bridge. If I can make a bridge in three bars and accomplish just as much as a longer bridge, I consider that a real success. It has to perform what it is intended to do and sometimes a good bridge can be as strong or stronger than the other main ingredients in a tune. It was good having Rusty on the song. We have recently played with Poco. We go way back. We were in the same office as Rusty in the ‘70s, so it is always a treat being with him and he added some wonderful stuff in that recording.
GM:For melody lines, “Heart of the Valley” has a repetitive melody that hooked me immediately and reminds me of “Senza Una Donna” by Zucchero. Our daughter Brianna found the U.S. release of Zucchero & Co. with that song on it for me at a Starbucks in 2005.
GB: Ha-ha, I know Zucchero! The Italian fellow! Now you are getting deep. We were in Italy for most of July. I didn’t see Zucchero this time, but he was a legend over there for many years. I haven’t heard that connection before. Far out!
GM: Five Mile Road flows nicely with that song near the end, but still as strong as songs near the beginning.
GB: Every time I wrap one of these up and put twelve songs in a basket and say, “Here we go again,” it is a little bit of a challenge because they are written and conceived over quite a bit of time. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t quite a bit of thought as to which ones go with which. You don’t want too many up-tempo, too many slow ones, and that’s the whole challenge. It is a dying art to make a listenable album. What happened unfortunately when we went into the CD phase and albums went from forty minutes to over seventy minutes it became this unfortunate new characteristic to front load them because people may not get to the end. There was no such thing as side two anymore. You had the strongest things pushed forward almost by necessity and you end up unfortunately with a pecking order of good tunes which kind of taper. I didn’t do that. I am obviously from the old school where you want to make it a listening experience. I think of side two of The Beatles’ Abbey Road and The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed and that’s the challenge and I take that quite seriously. When you have logged as many years and miles as I have it has to be about the journey. The songs better reflect what you have been through. There is an immense amount and we’re very proud of it and we are still out there performing almost nightly. I love working with Dewey. He is a great partner and one of the great voices of our generation. Staying current with your writing is the challenge to embrace. We are featuring Five Mile Road as the walk in and walk out music at America concerts, over the speakers, for the fans and you have a captive audience who may enjoy the new album, which I hope is the case also with Goldmine readers.
America: Gerry Beckley and Dewey Bunnell, courtesy of venturahighway.com
https://www.venturahighway.com/ (America’s website)
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine. “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.