One of the most eclectic early-1960s folk singers, Judy Henske started to use band backup and even drums on some of the recordings in 1963 on her second album, High Flying Bird. The title cut in particular was influential, getting covered by various early folk-rock bands, most notably the Jefferson Airplane. She also recorded some little-known mid-1960s folk-rock with Jack Nitzsche producing, and eventually transcended folk-rock into psychedelia with her late-1960s cult classic Farewell Aldebaran, done with her then-husband Jerry Yester.
Do you see what you were doing on the High Flying Bird album as a precursor to folk-rock in a way?
I think that's true. The thing is this: I wasn't a, what I call, a dulcimer girl. (Sings in high-pitched voice) "Oh my lover is gone, lost in the war in Germany." I was a beltin' person. I was belting all the time. Therefore, I had a harder edge to what I was doing. "I Know You Rider," "Columbus Stockade," I wanted drums.
There were drums, but only on a few songs.
I know. But I wanted drums. And they said, well, you can't have drums. Judy Collins doesn't have drums (laughs). Or Joan Baez doesn't have drums. And of course, they didn't. And I said, but they're sopranos and I'm not, and I want drums. So I think that's how it started. And I had that very heavy backup rhythm that was John Forsha. You know, it was hunk-a-chunk-a, hunk-a-chunk-a, doin' a very very heavy backup kinda rhythm on it. And so when I went out on the road, I finally did have drums. And I had a band. So I wasn't just singing, you know, "The Water Is Wide."
This is like '64?
Yeah. I was out on the road with a full band. Piano, bass, drums, guitar. This is Forsha -- he could play whatever. I always really liked the sound of the twelve[-string guitar], so I had him play. I was singing that old whorehouse stuff, like "Empty Bed Blues" and that stuff, and you know, you can put drums on that any old time you want. And then I did that song that I sang with Shel Silverstein. That had drums on it. I didn't sing it with him, I wrote it with him. It was that first song that I ever wrote, called "Oh You Engineer." So that's what that was.
So people would have seen you doing stuff with a band that on the records was folk.
'Cause I liked it, 'cause it was swinging. I always liked to have stuff that was swinging, rather than -- I know that you really like that folk stuff, that's why you like Farewell Aldebaran, 'cause Jerry [Yester] really liked that. You know, it's up in the ooga-lee booga-lee atmospheres, and you can have a fantasy about all these things, and everything is like a dream. Jerry and I could really have gone really far, but Jerry wasn't weird enough. (laughs)
On "High Flying Bird," the drummer was Earl Palmer. How did that come about?
Earl Palmer was a friend of Jack Nitzsche's. Jack Nitzsche was a friend of mine. He was a big fan. And the third album I did, I did with Nitzsche. Which was The Death-Defying Judy Henske.
Actually that's your fourth album. The third was on Mercury.
Oh, yeah, right. They were trying to make me into a sparkly-dressed singer, on my third horrible album. Anybody who has that album, please get it now, throw it out the window, and let the dogs at it. I detest it.
So Palmer came through Jack.
It came through Jack Nitzsche, and through -- yeah, I would say that it came through Jack Nitzsche. 'Cause he really loved Earl Palmer, that was his favorite drummer.
Was Jack working with you that early?
Jack always wanted to be working with me. And so we became friends. And then also at that time, you know who my big fan was? Bobby Darin. (laughs)
That's actually not that surprising. He has this little-known relationship to the folk world. He did folk sets in the early 1960s with Roger McGuinn on guitar, and he did some folk-rock stuff around 1967.
He was really an amazing musical person. And just an amazing talent. I really thought he was. I had my picture taken with him, when he went and heard me in Hollywood. And it's Sandra Dee, Bobby Darin, and me. (laughs) It's one of the great pictures. He was wonderful. And very nice. Between all of those influences that I have, I would say Jack Nitzsche, Jac Holzman knew all the drummers, Bobby Darin, all those guys. So that's how Earl Palmer popped up. And then plus they thought, hey, he's black. She's singing a bunch of black songs. This'll be perfect. So that's why they did it.
Palmer actually played on the Byrds' first single, when they were called the Beefeaters.
He's just a wonderful person. He was called "Baby Earl." A fun person to be around. Unlike some drummers that I could name.
When you were on Elektra, did you have any sense that the label or Jac Holzman wanted to bring folk and rock together?
He was nothing but courtly and graceful and a real gentleman at all times. A very elegant figure in recording. He and Goddard Lieberson, I think, are similar in that way. 'Cause they never put a foot wrong, either one of those guys. Far be it from me to say that Jac didn't invent folk-rock. Now ask me my next question. I am not worthy.
But I will tell you something. Here's when stuff really began to change. When the Beach Boys -- what was their hit of 1964?
They had a bunch of hits that year. The biggest was probably "I Get Around."
John Sebastian was so swept away by the Beach Boys, so completely swept away by the Beach Boys, that it changed his complete thing. But this is before he wrote "Do You Believe In Magic." That was the coming of the Beach Boys. And Erik Jacobsen was a huge, huge, huge influence in folk-rock. I would say that Erik Jacobsen was a lot bigger influence than Jac Holzman. He's very intelligent. He was in a group called the Knob Lick Upper 10,000. But he really has wonderful taste in songs. He knows what a good song is. And time and time again, he's picked people who became stars.
It was an interesting history, the Lovin' Spoonful, what happened to them. You know, the Lovin' Spoonful without Zalman was nothing. 'Cause you know what he was? The juice. Nobody else had the juice. So then they used my husband. This is nothing against Jerry. Jerry is real cute. And so they thought, well, you take away one guy, and then you put this cute guy in there who can also sing and play guitar. It'll work. But it doesn't. Zalman had this dark juice all the time, and he was just fabulous. He was a real rock'n'roller, stuck in that funny little feel-good group. He was bad, Zalman was. He's so interesting. He had all the juice, and the rest of 'em were just this cute guy group. But Zalman had the juice. His father was a famous communist cartoonist, you know that?
If you'd been able to record the way you wanted between the Elektra albums and the Jack Nitzsche album, how would it have sounded, like around the time you did the Mercury album?
Oh jesus, it was so horrible! You mean if I had done what I'd wanted to do?
Yes. What arrangements would you have wanted on the third album?
But you wanna know what? I didn't have any say in anything that I did. It was all [manager] Herbie [Cohen] saying, "Listen man, you're doing the wrong fucking kind of music. Now if you get up there and sing those songs up in the nightclubs, man, you can look so good in an evening gown. You can make nothing but millions of dollars." That's what he said. But I didn't want to sing those songs. And you want to know what? I was too weird. They tried to put me in this -- I'm trying to think of another woman who's the sparkly-dress singer, let's say, Eydie Gorme or Vicki Carr or those women that sing that kind of thing. And they wear a beautiful dress, they come out on stage and their hair is beautiful. And then they sing these things, and people are dressed up, and they sit and they think, "Nothing bad will ever happen." (laughs) That's the part of it I didn't like. Because, in a way, if you want some kind of wonderful performance on stage, it's the opposite of that. You can't say, "Nothing bad will ever happen." You have to say, "I wonder what's gonna happen." That's all. But if there's somebody getting up there, and you know exactly what's going to happen, and you know exactly what they're going to sound like....
What do you think, for your records, Jack Nitzsche's best qualities as a producer were?
He was completely courageous, and willing to try anything. And willing to try to get the money anywhere, to do whatever it was, his idea was. And he had a real vision of what he wanted to do. He was brilliantly intelligent. And he had a completely original take on the music. The thing that I'm thinking of is "Bye Bye Blackbird." I mean, that production must have cost about $50,000. It was just one record. He had about 500 voices on it, and then this immense orchestra. He was willing to really stick his neck out. And he really believed in what he did. And if you were working with him, he really believed in what you did, too. And he made you feel wonderful. His greatest quality was his enthusiasm and his talent. He was very talented, and very enthusiastic.
I still haven't been able to hear that version of "The Dolphins" that only came out as a single.
Maybe I've got it somewhere. It's another Jack Nitzsche far-out thing. It's weird and far out. Have you ever heard "Road to Nowhere"? Oh, god! It's just so out there, and so is "Dolphins." You know, it isn't anything I'm ashamed of, though. It's really neat. 'Cause it's really passionate, filled with juice and filled with orchestration and filled with anger and rage and loud singing, and it's something.
Do you think some of your stuff was influential on other musicians who went from folk to rock?
Of course it was. And if you'd listened to my first record, and then you listened to Cher, you have to say -- you know, I used to end every phrase with a descending figure? She must have listened to this record like a thousand times. It just is. And I think Janis Joplin listened to me too.
You knew Phil Ochs well. Did he ever talk about his move from acoustic folk to full-orchestration records, and what he was envisioning for his musical direction, with you?
He talked to me about that. And you know, he got that golden suit that we wore? And what Phil wanted to be, was popular. He really did. He wanted to be a big star, and he wanted to be a big popular star. And I think that he was always hoping that he'd get a record that would go on popular radio, and he'd just be a big recording star, instead of more of an obscure character, the way he was. Although he went to Carnegie Hall. What the hell else would he want?
He had a wonderful sense of humor. He wanted to be a big star. God, it sounds like anybody. He had a lot of talent. But he was really, truly, insane. And his insanity killed him. It wasn't politics that killed him -- "oh, he's all upset about this political stuff." That's bullshit. He was sick. He was mentally ill, and his mental illness killed him. And that's what happened to him. It was sad, sad, sad, 'cause he didn't have to die. But he wouldn't go to a doctor, he wouldn't take his medicine, because he had these enormous highs, and low low lows. He wouldn't give up the huge, crazed highs. No tranquilizers for him. So he died.
It didn't seem unrealistic for him to expect to get very popular, singing material that was uncompromising as he did? He never really compromised his material.
Never! Let me tell you a secret. Bob Dylan became a big hit, writing heavy songs. But at the same time that he was writing 13-minute songs, he was also writing songs that were like ear candy. This was the difference between Phil and Bob Dylan. You know, "Like a Rolling Stone"? What a song, jeez. 'Cause it was heavy, it had an edge, it dealt with history as it was and as it was happening. But it such a great record. And I think Phil thought, well, I can do this too. But you know why he couldn't? He didn't have the touch that Bob Dylan still has. It's a very common popular touch that goes from his pen to your ear, and you want to hear it again. Phil didn't have that. Phil was much more intellectual than Dylan. Dylan was just really -- he's just a great poet. That's all. And I think that Phil thought, well, I can do this too. And then he also got very crazy, where he mixed himself up with Elvis and he went to see Elvis a couple of times in Vegas. And I think it made him crazier. He always wanted to be a big star. I don't know if Bob Dylan wanted to be a big star as bad as Phil Ochs did. Probably not.
Although Dylan definitely wanted to be a big star.
And he got it.
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