The band America had an amazing string of harmony-rich hits, including "Horse With No Name," "I Need You," "Ventura Highway," "Tin Man," "Lonely People," "Sister Golden Hair" and "You Can Do Magic." You can relive the magic when they perform at the Chumash Casino Resort on Friday. Tickets are available by clicking here.
The core of today's America are original members Gerry Beckley (vocals, guitar, keyboard) and Dewey Bunnell (vocals, guitar); the other original band member, Dan Peek, left the lineup in 1977 and passed away in 2011. Interestingly, America formed in England while their fathers were there as Air Force personnel, although Bunnell noted during their last visit to the Chumash Casino that his father also was stationed for a time in our neighborhood at Vandenberg.
Beckley talked to Noozhawk about the upcoming concert and a couple of the songs that he wrote.
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Jeff Moehlis: What can people look forward to at the upcoming concert?
Gerry Beckley: We always make sure to play all of the hits, and there's quite a few of them so it makes for a great evening of familiar tunes. But every year we go through the set and come up with some new things, some album cuts, a couple of surprises that we don't like to give away before the show.
JM: What are your reflections on the first album, which recently turned 45 years old?
GB: I just finished a book called 1971 [Never a Dull Moment: 1971 — The Year That Rock Exploded by David Hepworth], and the album was mentioned in that. But the point of the book was it was such a great year in many ways in the music business — some very pivotal work. So we're just really elated to have been a part of that generation. And I consider the first album of ours to be a pretty valid contribution to that whole time.
JM: Of course that album includes your song "I Need You," which ended up being a Top 10 hit. How did that song come together?
GB: It's one of the first songs I wrote. I wrote it when I was 16. It's just a very simple ballad. Structurally, at the risk of getting into too much detail, there's some pretty interesting stuff that goes on in that for a 16-year-old.
But another thing about that song, I think it's been our most covered tune. There's a lot of really beautiful cover versions, if you want to dive into those.
JM: Do you have a favorite of those cover versions?
GB: No, but I have a story about Harry Nilsson. The late Harry Nilsson was a dear friend of ours. He was going to record "I Need You" as his follow-up to "Without You." We knew Harry, and said we'd just be honored, that'd be great. But then it became our second single, the follow-up to "Horse [With No Name]," so he had to scrap the plans. He did eventually cut it years later, but I always felt it would've been great to hear his version at that time, in 1972. When he was working with Richard Perry, he was really on a roll.
JM: From the start, you guys had such cool vocal arrangements. How did those typically get worked out?
GB: Both Dan and I were pretty good at harmony structures, and Dewey is a fantastic singer with great pitch. First of all, to do harmonies you've got to have guys that are pretty good at pitch, so you don't start wandering into each other's areas. But we had a lot of great teachers. We studied all the music of our generation — The Beatles and The Beach Boys — and they were of course both very much into harmony.
JM: For a string of albums, you had George Martin as your producer. How did that happen, and what was it like working with him?
GB: George started with our fourth album. We had been self-producing, and were successful at it — we had quite a few hits, but it was becoming a bigger and bigger chore to fit it into the year of touring and other commitments. So we thought we should probably turn this over to somebody. Who could we use that we would really trust? And we made kind of a mental list, a very short one, with of course George at the top. It never got past the top of the list. We went to him and he said he'd love to do it. And the very first album we did in 13 days with him, and it included "Tin Man" and "Lonely People," and we were off on a pretty good roll.
JM: During the George Martin years, America recorded your song "Sister Golden Hair," which was a huge hit. How did that song come together?
GB: I had that song for quite awhile. It was written and demoed before the Holiday album, but I was happy with the songs I had selected for Holiday, and we really didn't need any more material. But clearly it was near the top of my pile for the next album [Hearts]. Because we were doing one a year. I had both "Sister Golden Hair" and "Daisy Chain" ready for that album. It was a very big album for the group, but also for myself since "Sister" was our second No. 1 record. You know, there's obviously a lot of George Harrison [influence] on that one with the 12-string opening and the slide guitar and stuff. We've never made any secret of how much we looked up to both The Beatles and The Beach Boys.
JM: It also seems to have a Jackson Browne vibe.
GB: Yeah, kind of around the same time we toured with Jackson, and there was just quite a bit of that style in how the lyrics roll. Jackson is to this day an incredible writer. Yeah, you can hear that in there, too.
JM: What are your plans, musical or otherwise? Are you writing new songs?
GB: Well, I always write. I had a studio at a previous house, so for years I was what I call "rolling tape," although I switched to a digital facility quite a few years ago. I've been slowing down on that. I recently remarried, and my wife and I now split our time between Venice, Calif., and Sydney, Australia. I've always loved Australia, but to now actually be living there is just such a treat.
It's not too far ahead to be looking around the topic of the 50th year anniversary [of America], so I'm hoping we can come up with something special, maybe a television special or something like that. That's really not that far away.
— Jeff Moehlis is a Noozhawk contributing writer and a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Santa Barbara. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his web site, music-illuminati.com. The opinions expressed are his own.