By Richie Unterberger
As Jim & Jean, the duo of Jim Glover and Jean Ray were among the first artists to record folk-rock arrangements of songs by Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Eric Andersen, and David Blue. Like so many performers in the mid-1960s, they metamorphosed over the course of only a few years and albums from traditional folkies to folk-rock interpreters to eclectic folk-rock-pop musicians who wrote most of their own material. Consistently strong close male-female vocal harmonies were hallmarks of whatever they recorded, though they weren't rewarded by commercial success, breaking up after three albums, the second and third of which make their CD debut on this release.
Jim & Jean formed in the early 1960s in New York City, where Jim Glover had moved after playing in a folk duo with Phil Ochs, the Sundowners, at Ohio State University. In New York he met drama student Jean Ray, who'd relocated from California, and the soon-to-be-married pair began singing together on the booming folk circuit. Their rare, self-titled mid-1960s Philips debut LP still found them singing and playing in an acoustic traditional folk-based style, though the traditional folk songs were interspersed with covers of songs by emerging contemporary folk singer-songwriters like Tom Paxton, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and their old friend Ochs. But by the time of their second album (and first for Verve/Forecast), 1966's Changes, the acoustic guitars, banjo, and autoharp of the Jim & Jean album would be largely replaced by electric folk-rock. Likewise, the songs would now almost wholly consist of covers of works by the new generation of contemporary folk-rock songwriters, as well as some original material of their own.
In their vocal approach, Jim & Jean were not dissimilar to another married-at-the-time, male-female folk-rooted duo of the day, Ian & Sylvia. Changes, though, was a far more comfortable adaptation to the new folk-rock sounds than Ian & Sylvia's more tentative efforts in that direction from the same era. In part that was due to the ace crew of supporting musicians, including several -- bassist Harvey Brooks, drummer Bobby Gregg, keyboardist Paul Harris, and electric guitarist and harpsichordist Al Kooper -- who'd played on some of Bob Dylan's first electric sessions. In fact Tom Wilson, who'd produced Dylan's first 1965 electric tracks (including "Like a Rolling Stone"), produced a couple cuts on Changes ("Strangers in a Strange Land" and "Changes" itself), though the rest of the numbers were produced by their manager of the time, Arthur Gorson.
Although Jim & Jean at this point were not recording much of their own material, the album was stuffed with fresh goodies from the pens of Eric Andersen ("Tonight I Need Your Lovin'"), David Blue ("Grand Hotel," "About My Love," and "Strangers in a Strange Land"), and Phil Ochs ("Changes," "Flower Lady," and a particularly intense interpretation of "Crucifixion"), as well as one of the first covers of Bob Dylan's "Lay Down Your Weary Tune." Ochs, in fact, had yet to release "Flower Lady" and "Crucifixion," which he'd put on his 1967 album Pleasures from the Harbor. Blue would never put the haunting "Strangers in a Strange Land," one of the highlights of the LP (where the songwriting credit bore his original name, David Cohen), on his own releases; Andersen would likewise not put "Tonight I Need Your Lovin'" on any of his records. Dylan had recorded "Lay Down Your Weary Tune" in late 1963 at the sessions for his third album (The Times They Are A-Changin'), but it would not be released until the mid-1980s, though the Byrds cut the song for their second album in late 1965.
As it happened Ochs, Andersen, and Blue were also managed (and in Ochs and Blue's cases, produced) by Gorson, though as Jean Ray recalls, the choice of songs had nothing to do with Arthur's involvement. "We knew these songwriters boppin' around Greenwich Village when we were all unknown and poor," she explains. "A few years later we met Gorson. The songs we chose to sing happened before Gorson, and then with Gorson we always chose the songs we sang.
"An executive at Verve wanted us to record 'Shenandoah,'" she continues. "We said no, even though it might have been a good idea, in hindsight, and recorded our own choices of tunes on our Verve/Forecast albums. And I'm glad we did the choosing. Jim and I sort of chuckled about his ideas on how to make J&J stars. We never took any of his direction-A&R, but he meant well.
"Perhaps like Dylan, we wished to move, not be in only one mode, and not get stuck. We wished to explore electric folk-rock, but we never lost our acoustic roots, the tribute to great songs, as Alan Lomax also treasured going back hundreds, thousands of years. Jim admired Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and Bill Monroe, and many more as I did. Jim would practice the banjo for hours in our tiny apartment and drive me nuts practicing the same lick 60 times -- he was dedicated to the great old music traditions. So we wanted to do both, and we did so in our live performances. For a few years I played electric bass and various pianos, until Harvey Brooks joined us on the road. Maybe Gorson and Wilson thought we could make a bigger commercial success if we went electric, but we did it to explore and grow, and interweave it with the great traditional, sometimes centuries-old, folk songs -- they are always the jewels."
As for the transition to more contemporary material on their albums, "We were on a mission -- honoring and wishing to keep alive the beauty of the old folk songs. Jim and Phil were deep into political analysis and I caught that from them. We wanted to express and bring to others the great inspirations of the poets around us. Ochs, Dylan, St. Marie, Blue, Andersen, Paxton, and others had visions during a pivotal time in the views of humans about this planet and the real priorities we face. I cherish these prophet songwriters. Fred Neil, Tim Hardin, Richie Havens were great. Then Jim and Jean wrote some good songs a few years after. We were proud to sing them all, including the fine folk songs."
Assessing the songs on Changes itself, she adds, "It's amazing to me how we had unique, magical tunes mixed in with cuts I consider twinky, just speaking for myself. 'Cause I love the great cuts, [I'm] very proud of them. 'Lay Down Your Weary Tune' -- love our version, love the song. We did a soaring romantic version of 'Tonight I Need Your Lovin'' -- still gives me chills. Jim's solo on 'Grand Hotel' is tongue-in-cheek loveliness. We did 'Flower Lady' justice."
The Ochs connection was particularly strong given the years of strong friendship between the three musicians; Phil had even shared a flat with Jim & Jean for a year when he first moved to Greenwich Village. "In that small space Phil was on a roll, writing great stuff," Ray remembers. "How could we ignore the importance of these unique, provoking songs? We were hearing him night and day. Even if we didn't know him, no one could ignore Phil's songs. Phil always liked our interpretations of his stuff and told us so. We would learn 'em while he was writing 'em. Sometimes he would give his suggestions how to do it differently.
"I never liked our semi-hit [cover] of 'Changes' 'cause it was crass and hard-sounding. It's a lovely, thoughtful song, but got produced like a ton of bricks. We never did it justice, perhaps because of the pressure to make some 'commercial formula' production. We knew from the neighborhood the great players on that and some other cuts. But I don't like what any of us did to Phil's song -- a tender and profound beauty." In contrast, adds Jean, "Our version of 'Flower Lady' is pretty good. I'm extremely proud of our soul-searching interpretation of 'Crucifixion.' That's beyond great, mostly because Phil's creation is genius. It was like pulling teeth to get Jim away from practicing the banjo long enough to learn the darn thing 'cause of its massive lyrics, and how to come up with an arrangement. I pushed and we finally got it done when we were doing a gig in Boston or Cambridge."
Also on the record was "Loneliness," written by their friend Steve Baron (Ray: "the tune has soul, but I didn't like our hard-ass treatment of it"). He's perhaps better known as part of the comedy group the Hardly-Worthit Players, who had a big 1967 hit (credited to "Senator Bobby") with a cover of "Wild Thing" whose lead vocal was an obvious satire of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Of the two originals, the better known is the spooky "One Sure Thing," which Jean wrote with Harvey Brooks quickly late one night. It was covered on the 1968 debut album by Fairport Convention, who at their outset devoted much of their repertoire to covers of American folk-rock songs that were little known in their native Britain. Their original bassist, Ashley Hutchings, would even go as far as to tell Record Collector in 2003, "Anyone wanting to understand us then should realize that the Jim & Jean album [Changes] was very important to early Fairport" -- another act who relied heavily on male-female vocal harmonies.
"What was going on in the studio was all these people who didn't have a lot of experience coming together to try to make a record," producer Arthur Gorson told me when asked about Changes in a 2001 interview. "The goal was to make a commercial folk-rock album. [Jim & Jean] had these brilliant new songs that no one else [had] recorded and no one else could even hear how to record. They had the benefit, and the intelligence, to understand Phil Ochs songs. 'Crucifixion,' on that album, is just brilliant; Phil always thought that was the best performance of the song. The version of 'Changes' is great.
"That was the first album I did. The engineer on that album was Bill Szymczyk, who ended up producing the Eagles. He had come from the Midwest and shooting snakes in the celery patch or something. When we started mixing it, we said, 'Now, let's talk about the stereo.' And I remember Bill Szymczyk saying, 'I didn't know you wanted stereo.' As a result, when you listen to the album, the only thing that's in stereo is Jim & Jean['s vocals], left and right, and the rest of it was all thrown in the middle because even the recording techniques were naive. Everything happened in a sort of spontaneous way. It was exciting."
Gorson, incidentally, also used some of the same session musicians who played on Changes on some other early folk-rock records he produced, such as David Blue's self-titled debut album and Tom Rush's The Circle Game. According to Arthur, "We ended up using a very small group of musicians who perhaps played on a Dylan album or something like that. Harvey [Brooks] was about as much as we knew about the electric bass. Paul Harris shows up, because Al Kooper wasn't available on the first sessions we were doing. Paul was one of the only other piano players that we knew. We knew the people who played with Dylan, because they were around the same scene. We didn't know anyone else. We were the only people we knew!"
Jim & Jean's second and final album for Verve/Forecast, People World, would be as different from Changes as Changes was from their self-titled debut LP. The arrangements were much more pop-oriented, diverse, and orchestral, using a new producer (Jimmy Wisner) and no less than three arranger/conductors (Pete Dino, George Tipton, and Artie Butler). Just as notably, this time around all but three of the songs were originals. "I like all the songs Jim wrote and that I wrote," observes Jean. "I think I made a mistake playing keyboards on the new tunes I wrote. I was fair on piano, but not good enough for how good my songs were. The songs Jim wrote came out better because I don't think he let me play the piano. He wanted a great player, not a pretty good player."
Of the songs Ray penned, she reveals that "Topanga Road" was "about the Buffalo Springfield getting busted in Topanga Canyon, a totally bogus bust. Neil Young's song 'Cowgirl in the Sand' came from a visit he made to me and my family living on the beach. Neil watched me finishing up the tune, written on cheap paper with purple ink. I think he was so touched by my caring about their suffering through that awful ordeal, that his song came from mine. In it there's his lyric 'purple words on a [gray] background,' etc."
Jim & Jean didn't totally abandon outside material on People World. "Sweet Water" came from their Los Angeles friend Carole Miller; Ray isn't sure if any other of her songs have ever been recorded. There were also a couple more Phil Ochs covers, "Cross My Heart" and "Ringing of Revolution," the latter a bold interpretation that inserted excerpts of "Hang on Sloopy" and "Like a Rolling Stone" into the song. (It was also, oddly, mistitled "Rhythms of Revolution" on the back cover, though it was spelled correctly on the label.) "We never thought in terms of doing anything different from Phil," Jean elaborates. "We just did what we saw in the tune. 'Hang on Sloopy,' to us, was another cry of freedom, call for revolution and rebellion. 'Rolling Stone' has a similar black and blue story to tell. I'm glad we got off the beaten track and came up with a good montage -- it works, and I like it a lot. Also we did 'Cross My Heart' pretty good -- uplifting tune."
Issued as a
song from People World became Jim & Jean's sole chart
and although it peaked at only #94, Jean remembers it was a big hit in
Washington, DC and a few other cities. There would be no more Jim &
Jean albums, however, as the duo split up shortly afterward when their
marriage ended. Rarely written about since then other than in passing
in a couple of Phil Ochs biographies, this reissue of their two Verve
puts the spotlight back on their music, which reveals them to be
to the folk-rock revolution in their own right. -- Richie
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