By Mike Greenblatt
In 1966, Richie Furay started Buffalo Springfield with Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Bruce Palmer and Dewey Martin. Their run was only two years. Yet the music they made was so profound, influencing an entire generation, that they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1997.
Furay went on to form Poco in 1968 with Jim Messina, Rusty Young, George Grantham and Randy Meisner. Five years later, frustrated at the lack of a hit single, Furay quit the band and formed The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band with J.D. Souther and ex-Byrd Chris Hillman that resulted in one hit 1974 self-titled album (reaching #11 on the Billboard Top 200 albums chart). Things soured, though, after the release of the aptly-named 1975 follow-up, “Trouble In Paradise” when Furay’s burgeoning religiosity clashed with the sensibilities of Souther and Hillman. Plus, drummer Jim Gordon’s creeping —and undiagnosed — schizophrenia resulted in him killing his mother with a hammer in 1983 for which he rots in jail today.
Quitting the music business entirely to devote himself to his newfound Colorado ministry, Furay achieved the kind of happiness he could never quite find as a rock star.
Seemingly out of nowhere, though, “Hand In Hand” (Entertainment One) is an absolutely gorgeous and rockin’ album, the equal of any Eagles album, that encapsulates autobiography (“We Were The Dreamers”) and guest stars (“Someday” with Keb Mo, a re-recording of Poco’s “Kind Woman” with Neil Young and Kenny Loggins, and “Love At First Sight” with Jesse Furay Lynch, his daughter). In-between comes the kind of deeply introspective acoustic and electric Southern L.A. country-tinged rock ’n’ roll that he himself pioneered. And, oh yeah, his greatest song, “Good Feeling To Know,” a song that my friends and I used to strum guitars to at the stoned-out campfire, has also been re-recorded.
Most importantly, though, Richie Furay, on his first solo album in eight years, sounds, at 70, better than ever. The man hasn’t lost one iota of his voice. Meeting him backstage at The Sellersville Theater in Pennsylvania, he looked every inch the rock star. Gracious, forthcoming and worldly, he answered everything with a smile, even when I got rather inappropriate with him at interview’s end and had to be reprimanded by his manager. Through it all, Furay was ever the good sport, even when I took a joint out of my front pocket. He said he’d pray for me.
Goldmine: Why this and why now?
Richie Furay: No idea. I’ve been at it for quite a few years now. I took a 10-year hiatus in the 1980s, then through various friends, Kenny Weissberg in particular, who, in California, promoted some shows of mine at a place called Humphreys (Concerts) By The Bay. He said, “Hey Richie, would you like to come out and just do a show?” I said, “I haven’t done this in 10 years, Kenny!” I thought I was done. He said, “C’mon man, I’ll find a great show for you to open.” And my buddy Scott Sellen who’s my worship leader at Church, said to me, “We can do this! Let’s learn some of your old songs and do it!” So Kenny calls back and says, “I’ve got the act for you! Stephen Stills!” So Scott and I went out as a duo and opened for Stills! And then things just progressed until we had a four-piece before adding my daughter for a five-piece band. When I recorded “Hand In Hand,” I felt something special. I’ve never put out a piece of music I didn’t feel was really good. I felt the same way about “The Heartbeat of Love” in 2006 but I didn’t have the team behind me I do now. E-One offered me a deal after (manager) David (Spero) took this to five Nashville independents who all said they “loved it” but asked, “What am I going to do with a Richie Furay album in 2015? He’s 70 years old!” I I thought I was done. I even took a picture of the demo. I’ll never forget it. We were at B.B. King’s in New York City almost a year ago. I’m walking around shaking hands with people because I figure anyone out on a Monday night really wants to see me. I get to the last table and there’s a guy named Chuck and a guy named Alan. I said, “Hi, I’m Richie.” They said, “We know who you are. We want to sign you.” And, sure enough, they did. And that’s one of the things really making the difference right now. They believe in it as much as I do.
GM: It’s the equal of any Eagles album and why not? You were the original pioneer. Plus, you haven’t lost an inch of voice.
RF: God has been gracious to me. It’s my instrument, and if it wasn’t there, I’d be done. I haven’t lowered too many keys. Plus, I think it was smart of the label to include the re-recordings.
GM: You came out of school in Ohio and headed to Greenwich Village in 1964 to be a folksinger.
RF: Actually, I had been part of an a capella college choir touring the East Coast with a day off in Manhattan. A few of the guys wanted to go sing in the Village at the Café au Go Go. So sure enough, I go down with them and meet Nels Gustafson who lets us play. Man, we thought it was the bigtime singing while the club was being cleared out for another audience. They’re wiping up the tables but that’s the bug that bit me. I met Stills there. We played a little pass-the-basket club on West Fourth called The Four Winds together.
GM: So you become part of the house band at the Café au Go Go with Stills and Gustafson with a folk album, “They Call Us The Au Go Go Singers.” Then you form Buffalo Springfield with Stills and Young for which you were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame despite the band only lasting two years.
RF: Yeah, nine people went in and out of that band in 26 months. It was one step forward and two or three steps back the whole time.
GM: Be honest. Is that because Stephen Stills and Neil Young just couldn’t get along?
RF: No. From my perspective, that wasn’t it at all. There were several things that entered into it. (Bassist) Bruce (Palmer, 1946-2004) had immigration problems. He was facing deportation back to Canada. There were three Canadians in the band. Neil always struggled over whether or not he even wanted to be in a band. Those two elements did us in. I never once saw Neil and Stephen fight. Neil’s a solo guy. Even when he was in bands. Even when we broke up, if Stephen was there, I’d be there. Buffalo Springfield was his band. He was its heart and soul. We’d sit around in the apartment we shared learning his songs. A month later, we’re goin’ down Sunset Strip to find out Neil Young was looking for Stephen. Neil was heading towards 405 on Sunset to go to San Francisco and we’re coming the other way! Right in front of Ben Frank’s (coffee shop), there’s a traffic jam, and we recognize Neil’s 1953 Hearst with Ontario license plates. Bruce was with him.
GM: And you had your band for three albums, the ’66 debut, ’67’s “Again” and ’68’s “Last Time Around.” They still sound so fresh and vital in 2015 whereas other music from that era tends to oftentimes sound dated. That’s a testament to the compositions themselves. As a teenager, I was smitten with the song “Nowadays Clancy Can’t Even Sing.”
RF: Neil taught it to me in New York. The Au Go Go Singers had broken up but I kept coming back to do auditions. Neil had met Stephen in Canada, knew we had that apartment in the Village at 171 Thompson Street. He came down to peddle some songs and, man, I still got that demo on a reel-to-reel tape somewhere where he’s playing us for the first time what eventually became Buffalo Springfield songs. I don’t where that tape is! I really should find it. I was a little bit behind those guys. I didn’t have that many songs of my own at that time. Stephen was blown away by “Clancy.”
GM: So you would leave Buffalo Springfield and start Poco.
RF: Let me back up a bit. When I was still working a day job at (aerospace manufacturer) Pratt & Whitney, Gram Parsons lived across the street from me in New York. I remember him bringing me The Byrds’ first record (“Mr. Tambourine Man,” 1965). “You have to hear this,” he said. That was the record that made me quit my job and go to Los Angeles where I called Stills and said, “What are you doing? Let’s figure something out.” Gram also turned me on to George Jones. I had no idea. I’ll never forget when Gram first played me his “She Still Thinks I Care.” It made me cry. I had never heard a voice like that. Gram ultimately put The Flying Burrito Brothers together right around the same time I put Poco together. Jimmy Messina (Loggins & Messina) did the last Buffalo Springfield tour with us as a member of the band but we knew things were winding down. We had been talking the whole tour of putting something together that would cross the bridge—fill that gap—between country and rock’n’roll. We had it in our minds. I mean, geez, whether we would even get the chance to do so was up in the air. We’d be too country for rock and too rock for country. Gram and I even talked about making one band out of the two. I loved (pedal steel guitar player) Sneaky Pete (Kleinow,) but I wasn’t about to trade Rusty Young for Sneaky Pete. I loved Chris Hillman too. He was my buddy. We played together. But I had Randy Meisner! And then Timothy B. Schmidt later on. What was I to do? I practically serviced the Eagles (with personnel).
GM: I’m amazed that you yourself were never an Eagle.
RF: (softly) Yeah, well. It’s crazy when you think about it. I mean, Glenn Frey sat in my living room when I was first rehearsing Poco. He picked up on it and took it to the limit with Randy and Don (Henley). But Gram taught me “Brass Buttons” when he was 19. [Poco’s sixth album, “Crazy Eyes,” is a tribute to Parsons, where Furay sings the title track. The album came out September 15, 1973. Gram died four days later of a drug overdose.]
GM: Poco had a long run. When did you quit?
RF: I stayed with the band for six years. I saw all my friends — Stills, Young, Messina, Meisner — go off to rock stardom. My head was not in a good place. I remember thinking, “Oh man, I’m just as talented as they are…”
GM: If not more.
RF: It was the hit record I lacked. So we went searching for a producer who could produce music we thought would get us on the radio. We turned to Richard Podolor who produced Three Dog Night’s “Joy To The World” and Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild.” So we recorded a couple of songs on Poco’s “Deliverin’” (live) album (1971), in the studio, took ‘em to Columbia, and they turned ‘em down. I thought, “I don’t know what’s wrong. These guys just don’t get it.” Then went and got Jack Richardson who produced all those hits by The Guess Who. We were going for that radio audience and we cut “A Good Feelin’ To Know” and everybody in the studio said, “That’s a hit!” So we go off on tour. The single is released. We’re driving around the Northeast, playing in every (room) there was. We’re listening to the radio and we hear (sings) “Well, I’m runnin’ down the road tryin’ to loosen my load got seven women on my mind…”
GM: Oh no! Wrong song!
RF: Wrong song. That’s exactly right. My heart just sunk. I knew then it was never going to happen for Poco. So I came back to Los Angeles after the tour, called David Geffen and asked him, “Do you have any suggestions for me?” He said, “Yeah, I do. Chris Hillman and J.D. Souther are looking for something to do.” So we put together the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band for two albums.
GM: So after experiencing severe disappointment over the lack of a hit single, and seeing all your friends become rock stars, you chuck it all and devote yourself to God, becoming a minister.
RF: I’ve been pastor of a small church in Colorado since 1982. Funny, Hillman wanted Al Perkins in the band and I said, “No way. I want rock ’n’ roll success.” Al had this fish on his guitar that said “Jesus Is Lord.” I wasn’t about to have anything stop us on our way to stardom. Al could have been a womanizer. He could have been a Buddhist. He could have been a drug addict. But he was a Christian. And I thought for sure that that was going to stop me from being the rock star musician I so wanted to be. Chris won out. Al led me to the Lord. Then I learn my wife of seven years was planning on leaving me, and my guitar is stolen. She prays for its return. I told her, “If that guitar comes back to me, I will seriously consider changing my ways.” It was found in a pawn shop. But she left me anyway. We were separated for seven months. That’s her on the “Hand In Hand” album cover with me and we’ve now been married for 48 years with four daughters.
GM: How do you reconcile playing rock ’n’ roll and being a pastor?
RF: There were a lot of people who didn’t think I could play rock music and still be a pastor. And that brings us full circle to Kenny calling me up after 12 years in the church and getting me back into it.
GM: Do you cover “Jesus Is Just Alright” by The Byrds? That would be a natural, right?
RF: No, we only do our own music, although I play a medley from groups I’ve been in.
GM: In a career spanning half a century, didn’t you ever go through your requisite rockstar sex-drugs-rock ’n’ roll phase?
RF: Sure, I went through it.
GM: What age?
RF: During Poco. I’ll be honest with you. Some of it is hard to talk about.
GM: Groupies, cocaine and hotel room trashings?
RF: Never trashed a hotel room. But the rest of it? Uh, yeah, there were some incidents. Nancy and I almost divorced twice over it. Once when she left me after three years and again, as we’ve discussed. It wasn’t that we didn’t have our problems. We had to learn to work through them. Hey, you get on the road and you get crazy. You’re lost. When I went off, Poco was spending so much time on the road, I didn’t know what home was. All I knew was another hotel somewhere down the road. The groupie part of it was never a huge thing, but marijuana and cocaine, yes.
GM: Well, the marijuana part of it almost doesn’t count. You live in Colorado!
RF: (laughs) Don’t I know it! I like being straight as an arrow. I have nothing to prove and nothing to lose.
GM: Saturday nights you play rock ’n’ roll to heathens like me and Sunday mornings you preach.
RF: We only do one song in our set pertaining to our faith. People pay good money to hear me sing “A Good Feelin’ To Know” and the other songs we do. So that’s what I do. But I know many of them come because of my life style and all it encompasses. I’m not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s my life. If I go off on something and start talking, you don’t have to believe it.
GM: (to his manager David Spero) Does Richie proselytize on the road?
David Spero: Never. But he lives it. I’m Jewish but I live it with him.
RF: We’re good buds. There’s a prayer before every show.
GM: When I interviewed Larry Gatlin in Branson, he said he would pray for me after I told him I was a godless, smoking, drinking, gambling Jew.
RF: Then I’m gonna pray for you too.
GM: I’m agnostic.
RF: You know what agnostic means in Latin? Ignoramus!
GM: Nobody really knows, man.
RF: Yeah? If I’m wrong about what I believe, then I’m in the same boat as everybody else floating down this river of life. But if I’m right about what I believe, and you’re wrong? If I’m right and you’re wrong, then your eternity is in a whole lot different place than my eternity is.
GM: Well, I know but…
RF: No you don’t know. You just said you don’t know! And I’m telling you right now that’s the line. So you have an opportunity now while you’re still here…
GM: Uh oh, here it comes…
RF: …to think it over. And you better think twice!