Part I of a deep appreciation of the late songwriter
IT’S ONE OF his earliest memories: He’s four years old, standing up on a box in front of his father’s big band, baton in hand, conducting. Though his dad stood behind him, doing the real work, for Dan it was a foreshadowing of what his life would be — following in his father’s footsteps to become the leader of the band.
“It was an amazing feeling,” he declared decades later during a series of converations.
“To be immersed in music. It felt both very magical and powerful. And I was fearless.”
That fearlessness has led him far, as he developed into one of popular music’s most gifted and successful singer-songwriters. With an early genius for both melody and harmony, a soulfully angelic singing voice, and a natural gift for romantic expression, Dan Fogelberg has created songs that have become so embedded in our collective consciousness that they still resound with authentic magic and beauty years after they first emerged.
I was raised by a river
Weaned upon the sky
And in the mirror of the waters
I saw myself learn to cry
from “The River”
His story starts in Illinois. In Peoria, specifically, a little town that in the words of Charles Kurault, is in the middle of the state, in the middle of the country, in the middle of the world.
Born the youngest of three sons, he was raised in a musical home. His father, Lawrence Fogelberg, was a “legitimate musician” as Dan refers to him, a bandleader who led the big bands long before Dan was born. His mother, Margaret Irvine, was born in Scotland and came to Illinois with her parents at the age of three. A gifted singer, she studied operatic singing throughout college, and it’s she who Dan points to as the source of his innate vocal prowess.
Daniel Grayling Fogelberg was born in Peoria on August 13, 1951. His father taught music in local high schools and colleges, gave private lessons, and conducted school bands. Dan’s early creativity surfaced in imaginative ways to avoid piano practice. ” I used to fake injuries,” he said proudly, “even taping up my finger and saying I jammed it playing baseball. But it wasn’t a trick you could use a lot.” Though he didn’t like lessons, he loved the instrument itself, and would spend endless happy hours at the keys, sounding out the hits of the day.
In church, he loved the music but grew restless during the sermons. To keep him occupied, his folks provided pen and paper, thus fuelling his love for drawing and painting that has extended throughout his life. He was a constructive kid quick to create his own fun — at a cub scout jamboree where boys hurled baseballs at old records as a kind of carnival sport, he collected all the unbroken ones, a great bounty of old obscure fifties pop and college fight songs.
His maternal grandfather, a steelworker from Scotland who worked at a foundry in Peoria, gave him an old Hawaiian slide guitar. It had pictures of dancing hula girls engraved on it, as well as steel strings about a half-inch from the neck, tough for anyone, but nearly impossible for an eleven year old beginner. Yet he took to it naturally, forcing him to acquire a strong left hand as he taught himself chords from his Mel Bay guitar book.
In 1963, he heard The Beatles for the first time, triggering the realization that songs are written, they don’t simply just exist. He started writing his own then, entirely in the Beatles’ pervasive thrall, while also assimilating the rock and roll riffs of Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins, as well as the delicate melodic leads of George Harrison. He started performing by lip-synching with friends to Beatles records at a variety show before forming his first real band, the Clan, who played all Beatles songs at backyard parties and street dances. Their reign extended through Dan’s junior year in high school, when the others fell away from music to get involved in the social matrix of school. While their connection with music diminished, his became more intense than ever, as did his need to express himself in other ways, from drawing and painting to acting.
By now the music that inspired him the most was the West Coast rock of bands such as the Byrds and the Buffalo Springfield, as well as the contemporary folk of Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot. Having abandoned the matching black velour pullovers favoured by the Clan, his attire now included moccasins, fringe and silver in the style of Neil Young.
When he joined a new band, the Coachmen, he did so only on the condition that they abandon the Paul Revere & the Raiders outfits they still wore. He was a valuable asset to the group, bringing his repertoire of folk-rock to their mix of R & B and soul standards, as well as possessing a great ear, a miraculous voice, and like his father, an impressive versatility on a variety of instruments. “We would be doing ‘Bluebird’ by Stephen Stills,” he remembered, “and I’d play 12-string for the whole song until the end and then launch into banjo. Pretty adventurous for kids from Illinois.”
These were his river years, as he withdrew daily to a sacred spot between two ancient pines overlooking the Illinois River.
“I was not feeling like a part of Peoria anymore. I was off in my own trip, deep inside myself. At the same time, I was terribly excited because I was discovering this whole person I never knew could exist, and this music and this creativity.
“It was a great awakening, the beginning of a great journey. And I knew the river was a conscious metaphor for my escape from Peoria. I was just waiting to leap on its back and ride it, down to St. Louis and New Orleans and out to the Gulf and on to the world.” A Leo with Cancer rising, he understood even then the opposing astrological forces at work that left him feeling conflicted — the extroverted entertainer who exists to perform, and the introverted artist who requires solitude.
After graduation, he felt he could have gone in many directions, and eventually decided to pursue acting at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. Finding the college acting scene to be more political than theatrical, he switched majors to study art, with aspirations of becoming a serious painter.
Yet music kept calling, this time in the form of a kindred soul, musician Peter Berkow, who ran a little folk music club called The Red Herring. Berkow invited him to perform, and before long Fogelberg was a cherished part of the burgeoning coffee house scene. “I started meeting like-minded people, musicians who were bright and well read, and I realized that I was finally free of the provincialism of high school.” He started playing his own songs, and the spirit of the scene shifted from politics to music: “The Red Herring went from being a hide-out for pinko leftists who were plotting the overthrow of the government to a really creative musical scene. And it started packing people in.”
Anyone back then who heard the sophistication of his songs, and the power with which they were rendered, knew that it was only a matter of time before his break would come. That break arrived late one night when a former high school sweetheart knocked on his door, urgently awakening him from a sound sleep to say that an important music agent wanted to hear him play. Though half-asleep, Dan followed her to a frat party at a funky little bar to meet Irving Azoff, a U. of I. grad now running a local booking agency.
Azoff, who had already landed the regional band REO Speedwagon a record deal with Epic, was on the look-out for new artists. Onstage was a raucous rock band playing to a mostly drunken crowd, their songs punctuated by the rhythm of beer bottles crashing against the back wall. Azoff ignored the clamour which continued when Dan took the stage alone. Though the bar brawls failed to subside, in the soulful beauty of Fogelberg’s songs, Azoff saw his own future. “Yeah,” Irving said to him after his set. “You’re the one. I’m ready for the big time. And I think you’re ready for the big time, too.”
Dan dropped out of school. Shocking his parents by showing up at home at midday in mid-semester, he told them his plans. His father, silent for a long time, finally said quietly, “Okay, I don’t agree with this, but if this is really what you want, you go try it for a year. If it doesn’t work out, you come back and go back to school.” This support was the greatest gift his father could give him, inspiring Dan years later to write “Thank you for the freedom when it came my time to go” in his famous tribute to his father, “Leader Of The Band”.
Azoff moved to Hollywood, setting up an office on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood directly across the street from David Geffen, who was in the first stages of establishing his own Asylum Records, and signing singer-songwriters such as Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell.
Receiving $200 in travelling money from Irving, Dan rented a pickup truck in Chicago, and headed west. Running out of money in Estes Park, Colorado, he found what he felt was the most stunning place in the world. Remaining happily stranded there for a week, he befriended a local hotel owner who gave him free lodging. He spent his days hiking in the mountains, and writing such songs as the beautiful ‘Song From Half Mountain’. Azoff soon wired him enough money to move on, but he never forgot the spirit of pure inspiration he felt in those mountains, touching him as deeply as his connection with the Illinois River.
Arriving in L.A., a few days later, Dan headed directly to Sunset Boulevard to meet Azoff in front of the famous Whisky a Go Go, where his idols from Buffalo Springfield first met. Azoff drove him to a little San Fernando Valley apartment dubbed “The Alley in the Valley” because of its alley entrance. They lived there together for months as Azoff shopped his tape around town. As Dan recalled, “Irving would come home one day and say ‘Okay, the deal’s done — we’re signing with Asylum!’ Then three days later he’d come back and say, ‘It’s A&M. I got a better deal.’ This went on for months. Then he’d come home and say, ‘No, it’s Capitol!”
They eventually signed with Columbia Records, persuaded by Clive Davis in a Hollywood ritual held at a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel: “Clive had everything laid out –caviar, canapés, the whole deal. He played me Paul Simon’s first solo record, which had yet to come out, and kept talking about a kid named Springsteen and a guy named Billy Joel who he had signed. Clive said, ‘I’m signing singer-songwriters, and I think you belong here too.’ He talked us into it, gave us a nice check and we signed with Columbia.” It was 1971.
With his career now soundly on track, Dan got his first advance check and moved to Lookout Mountain, in the heart of Laurel Canyon, where his neighbours included the Eagles, and Mark Volman of the Turtles. He lived there for a year and a half, during which time the sunny inspiration that had touched so many of his fellow canyon dwellers began to bring forth a torrent of beautiful new songs in him. He rented a grand piano and entranced nearby neighbours, such a famed photographer Henry Diltz, who heard Dan playing til dawn. ” I remember hearing this incredibly beautiful music echoing through the trees,” Henry recalled, “and I said to my wife, ‘Who is this guy?'” They all soon became fast friends, with Henry taking famous portraits of Dan for many of his album covers.
Now it was time to record his debut album, and Azoff went off in search of the perfect producer for the project. They found him in Nashville. Norbert Putnam was the force behind Area Code 615, a group Dan loved. With Azoff, Dan flew to Nashville to meet Norbert, and instantly fell in love with the town itself: its green trees, lakes and river, and what was then a peaceful laid-back music community, worlds away from the showbiz glitz of Hollywood.
It was one of the happiest times in his life. Norbert found him a place to stay in town “up in the trees,” and the future looked bright. Thanks to Norbert, he got a profusion of session work as a guitarist and singer, perfection then the dazzling studio chops which he’s brought to all his albums since.
“I was only 21 years old and I was part of the band, these maniacs who were amazingly good players. These guys were much better than me, and they pulled me up to their level.” Often working from nine a.m. to midnight, four sessions a day, he acquired a fast and comprehensive foundation in the art of record making. “I learned that it’s not what you play, it’s what you don’t play. That has formed the core of my guitar playing ever since. It’s melodic, it’s sparse.”
The recording of Home Free for him was an easy, non-pressurized time. He and Norbert met every day at the studio, cut all the tracks live, and overdubbed the vocals. “It was great fun. There was no pressure. It wasn’t New York or L.A.” The resulting album was stunningly beautiful, opening with the now classic ‘To The Morning’, a paean to nature that still stands as one of the most timelessly inspirational songs ever written. The album immediately established that he was not only a master tunesmith, but also a purveyor of harmonies so sweetly conveyed that they seemed miraculous, a soulful blend of perfectly tuned, heartfelt vocal harmonies.
Despite its abundant appeal, Home Free failed to generate any hit singles, a setback that Clive attributed to Norbert’s Nashville production job, which he deemed “too country” for Dan’s music. So for the next album, Joe Walsh, the hard-rocking guitar-slinger from the James Gang, was enlisted. Though feeling initially that Walsh was the wrong man for the job, Dan was eventually convinced when he heard a solo album Walsh had recently recorded at Caribou Ranch in Colorado with members of Stephen Stills’ band Manassas.
Dan came to Walsh with a handful of songs he’d written in Los Angeles, as well as a new one that emerged in Nashville called ‘Part Of The Plan’. To choose players for the album, Walsh told him to write down a wish list of dream musicians. The first name he wrote down was that of the legendary Russ Kunkel, whose drumming he’d heard on James Taylor’s records. When Walsh quickly enlisted Kunkel as well as other luminaries including percussionist Joe Lala, bassist Kenny Passarelli, the Eagles’ Don Henley, Glenn Frey and Randy Meisner, and Graham Nash, Dan knew he’d arrived.
The making of Souvenirs in Hollywood was unrestrained fun as the spirit of sunny California combined with Dan’s natural Leo radiance left him feeling fearless. In the studio he always felt at home, rising easily to the level of the L.A. studio cats as he did with the pickers in Nashville. Even when Walsh was on the road, Dan continued to craft the record, adding the guitar solo on ‘Part Of The Plan’ on his own. When Joe heard what Dan had done, he loved it, and quickly convinced Graham Nash to drive over and sing harmonies. The resulting record went to the top of the charts. “That broke the whole thing open. In an instant I went from being an opening act to being a headliner.” Souvenirs, with Walsh at the helm, radiated with Dan’s melodic brilliance as well as proving, on burning tracks like ‘As The Raven Flies’, that the man also knows how to rock.
End of Part I.