Features Zone

Jon Tiven’s American Beat – March 2019

Photo: Jason Sheldon

US-based session musician, songwriter, producer and former Rolling Stone magazine writer Jon Tiven, lifts the lid off of the business of making music…





A few noteworthy  books/films have crossed my desk lately, and  as they’re music-related I’ve decided to recommend  them here.

I have chosen these particular books/films because the information they impart is welcome, the subject matter is interesting, and they are well done.

And if you’ve written a book or made a film that you think would fit the bill, I will be doing this again soon; so feel free to send your books my way. Same goes for any music releases you want me to have a listen to.

First off is “That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound” by Daryl Sanders which is, as some of you might have deduced from the title, a Dylan book. I’ve read my share of Bob Dylan biographical material, so I was reluctant to bite, but I’m glad I did.

This one is narrow in its focus, concentrating on the recording of “Blonde On Blonde”, and is well-researched and deep. Sanders has interviewed most of those involved who still walk the face of this Earth, and those he couldn’t get to he’s found quotes from. The elusive Bob, of course, was not spoken to directly.

The Rabbi of Songwriting 

So it’s a full plate of Bob Johnston, Al Kooper, Chris Gantry, Billy Swan, Kris Kristofferson, Kenny Buttrey, Pig Robbins, Charlie McCoy, Robbie Robertson, Wayne Moss, Henry Strzelecki…..but no Joe South or Paul Griffin, unfortunately.

He runs down each session, detailing the adventures of The Rabbi of Songwriting as he gets a full taste of how Southern boys make records. It’s a fascinating process told from the inside, and more than just a series of anecdotes….you really get the flavour of how everyone contributed to one of the definitive musical masterpieces of our time.

“There Was A Light” is the biography of Chris Bell, the founder of Big Star, who left the group after the first record and never really found the fame/success in his lifetime that he so wanted.

Chris was a brilliant musician and songwriter, a compelling singer and engaging performer….and a friend of mine. It warms my heart to see forty years after his passing, a great appreciation for his work.

I was a big supporter of Big Star in my music writing, and I “sat in” with them on guitar at a Max’s Kansas City gig in 1974. I produced Alex Chilton’s first solo release when I was 20-years-old.

During his lifetime, Big Star never attracted a sizeable following, so the idea that all these years later a guy from a group that probably never got more than 10,000 in sales while they existed, should merit several releases (including a box set) of his solo recordings, a book, and participation in a film; speaks volumes about his talent.

I was hearing voices…

Rather than being a book written as a narrative, author Rich Tupica relies almost exclusively on interviews with friends of Chris’, and although initially resistant,  once I got into reading the book, I could  almost hear the voices of the interviewees.

And as most of them are people I know/knew, that works especially well for me, although I don’t know how others will receive the format.

Jon Tiven guesting with Big Star circa 1974

There’s a lot of information, and Tupica pretty much stays away from the sordid, which will be a relief to some of you and disappointment to the rest.

Great to see Chris’ work and spirit kept alive in this way– he was a deserving soul denied the career he desired in life, only to attain it posthumously. It also serves as a Big Star bio, although in slightly less detail than Chilton fans might desire.

Coming out of the same mid-Seventies time warp is the documentary film “Waiting: The Van Duren Story” – trailer can be seen here: https://www.waiting-vanduren.com/trailer – which I haven’t seen, but in which I appear (and  hopefully  come off well).

Van was one of the first artists I produced, and all who were involved thought the album we made in 1977 was unstoppable. Unfortunately the music business had other ideas. The album “Are You Serious?” has worn well and accumulated a rabid following over time.

They came from down under!

Two Australian fellas, Greg Carey and Wade Jackson discovered it and decided to make a film about Van Duren and the album Doug Snyder and I produced. It’s received good notices, won an award or two, and been reissued as part of a soundtrack album which features four of my productions (and lead guitars!).

Greg Carey and Wade Jackson

Van auditioned for Big Star, had a band with Chris Bell (which briefly included me) and has paid his dues. It’s unfortunate that he’s had to wait so long to be appreciated, but unlike Chris Bell; at least his acclaim is not posthumous.

I am a little amazed that my first productions (Alex Chilton, Prix and Van Duren) are getting so much attention over the past three years, considering the somewhat muted reception they received at the time.

At this rate, in another twenty years someone will revisit my productions of Howard Tate, Steve Kalinich/Yo Ma Ma, Ellis Hooks, and Frank Black,  to declare them definitive and brilliant -to give me something to look forward to in my golden years!

I can only hope they will skip my own band The Yankees’ record along the way. I’m not ready to go out and front a band anymore, and that one’s already received more attention than it deserves.

Who really killed Sam Cooke?

“The Two Killings of Sam Cooke” is an incredible documentary that pulls no punches. It accurately portrays Sam Cooke as not only the consummate artist/writer/businessman/visionary, but also as a socio-economic trail blazer.

It doesn’t point fingers directly at anyone in particular, as far as having been responsible  for having him killed, but it puts forth a few different theories that go into uncharted territory.

The filmmakers make a case that the same forces who precipitated the deaths of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, may have had a hand in Sam Cooke’s killing. It alternately offers that the Mob and/or Music Industry forces might have pulled the strings.

Previously all books and films about Sam were controlled by Allen Klein, who was Cooke’s manager, but Allen has since passed and obviously things have changed.  According to the film, Klein was set to be fired by Sam and had plenty of motive to have Sam killed, but then the film counters that Klein wasn’t powerful/connected enough at that time to set it up or pull it off. Amazing.

Above all else, Sam Cooke’s talent was immense/divine/one-of-a-kind, and it’s wonderful to see the performances and his huge personality. Not to be missed. Have a look at the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k5dal_AqBBc

Smarty Marty and me…

Before I close, just wanted to let you know that I have a Marty Brown album called American Highway coming out in May – the first “country” artist I’ve produced (Marty and I produced and wrote it together).


Marty is a truly unique talent, and the record we made has appeal beyond genres. The first single, “Umbrella Lovers”, can be heard  here: https://soundcloud.com/plowboyrecords/02-marty-brown-umbrella-lovers

Until next time………Tiven out!



By Jon Tiven




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