Note: Originally posted Feb 14, 2012 at 1HeckOfAGuy.com, a predecessor of Cohencentric
On Valentine’s Day, Heck Of A Guy offers a tale of romance replete with lovers galloping through the French countryside, an idyllic auberge in Provence, danger, music, Leonard Cohen, and, believe it or not, living happily ever after (well, at least 40+ years so far).
This is the story of Susan Musmanno,1 one of Lenard Cohen’s backup singers, and Elkin “Bubba” Fowler,2 a guitarist in Cohen’s band, who met, fell in love, courted, and became a couple during the 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour.
This adventure is told here in the words of Aileen and Elkin Fowler.3 The resulting narrative is enlightening, entertaining, and often poignant. It is a wonderful gift from the Fowlers.
Update: The Fowlers have contributed much more about the 1970 Tour. That material can be found at The Picaresque 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour
Susan (aka Aileen) and Elkin (aka Bubba) Meet
Bubba Signs On: My group, the Avant-Garde was signed to Columbia Records on the basis of a song I wrote called Yellow Beads. Bob was also producing a group that Ron [Cornelius] was in. I forget the name of that group,4 but they were all from northern California. We were all working together on many of Bob’s productions, among them Flatt and Scruggs, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Marty Robbins, and others. Bob got Marty Robbins to record one of my songs, “Jolie Girl,’ which became a Top Ten song for him, and for which I still receive a modest royalty several times a year.
Somewhere along the way during that time, Bob resigned his position as head of A&R and became an independent producer. Perhaps it was Bob who suggested that Leonard tour. I don’t know, but the idea arose, and Leonard said basically that the only way he would tour would be if Bob put it together and also accompanied him on the tour.
So, Ron and Charlie and I were Bob’s core group of studio musicians, and we all were very close. Charlie and Ron were hired to join the tour. Charlie and Ron were both guitar players, so Bob asked me if I could play bass. I didn’t, but I wasn’t going to get left out of the European tour. So I said, “Sure,” and then quickly began learning all of Leonard’s songs from his first two recordings and, when we finally met in the spring to rehearse, I was probably the most prepared.
It was during that time that Charlie first started playing the fiddle, and it ended up that I brought my banjo along and played Tonight Will Be Fine and Charlie played the fiddle on that.
Susan Signs On: I was hired on April 5, 1970, and the first show was the 9th in Hartford. Not much time to learn the repertoire. Corlynn5 and I had been in a group together in L.A., where I still lived.
She got the job with Leonard and gave Bob Johnston6 my name.
He contacted me by phone and asked me to come to Nashville to audition. I had some other opportunities in California, and told him I couldn’t come.
He persisted, calling another couple times. He finally said, “I’ll send you a plane ticket. If it works out, what’ve you got to lose?” So I went.
I arrived at the airport in Nashville and was picked up by Charlie Daniels,7 one of the guys in the band. When we got to Columbia Studios, we knocked on the door to Studio B, and it was opened by Bubba. I met everyone, and needed to audition.
I looked around the room and Bubba was holding a guitar.
I asked him if he knew “Last Thing On My Mind.”8
He did, he accompanied me as I sang it, and I got the job.
In Full Gallop In Aix
Susan: As I eagerly scanned the archives at your website, I was thrilled to see the pieces about the festival in Aix. Especially the photo of Leonard on the horse.
We all rode horses onto the stage. Bubba and I rode together. I just happened to have a buckskin dress with fringe and boots to match, so we went all Native American, and it is a great memory. I remember Leonard’s horse rearing up. It was Bob Johnston’s idea. There was no way to the festival by road — traffic, roads blocked, etc. — and Bob had a flair for the dramatic, anyway — so the horses were the perfect solution.
- Susan Musmanno background from LastFM:
The Groop – A shortlived sunshine pop act, formed and disbanded in 1969. It consisted of Susan Musmanno, Corlynn Hanney [also a backup singer during the 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour], Brian Griffith and Richard Caruso. They recorded one self-titled LP in 1969, which remained an extreme obscurity until it was finally released on CD in 2007. At its best, it’s sunshine pop at its finest, with soaring harmonies and elaborate string arrangements. [↩]
- Elkin “Bubba” Fowler background from AllMusic by Jason Ankeny:
Psychedelic pop duo the Avant-Garde teamed vocalists Chuck Woolery and Elkin “Bubba” Fowler, who were backed by session musicians on each of their three singles for the Columbia label. The duo debuted in late 1967 with “Yellow Beads,” capturing a sweeping acoustic sound that crested with the follow-up, “Naturally Stoned,” a minor classic of orchestral pop that reached number 40 on the Billboard pop charts in mid-1968. The more overtly psychedelic touches that distinguished the Avant-Garde’s first two efforts were scrapped for their third and final single, “Fly With Me” — when the disc barely dented the charts, the group dissolved. Fowler then went folky and in 1970 Columbia issued his lone solo LP, And Then Came Bubba — he later played guitar on Bob Dylan’s Self-Portrait, Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate, and a handful of other sessions. Woolery, meanwhile, went on to much greater fame as a television game show host, helming Wheel of Fortune in its original daytime run as well as the long-running Love Connection, Scrabble, and Greed. He also founded MotoLures, a company that manufactured his signature line of fishing lures. In 2003, Woolery — now host of the Game Show Network program Lingo — was also the subject of the channel’s first-ever reality series; dubbed Chuck Woolery: Naturally Stoned, the show also featured the Avant-Garde’s biggest hit as its title theme.
- The content is taken from email correspondence primarily written by Aileen Fowler, with Elkin contributing, in response to questions I raised. I’ve performed minimal editing, such as correcting typos, rearranging paragraphs for reading convenience, and adding explanations (in brackets) to clarify context [↩]
- The group was called West: From CorneliusCompanies.com:
After years as a backing guitarist, Cornelius formed the group West, which would bring his first national recognition. West appeared in numerous national showcases across the country which resulted in bids from 8 major record labels. In 1967, they signed with Epic Records and appeared in Las Vegas at the CBS Convention. Two albums were cut in Nashville for the label. A single, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (a Bob Dylan composition), climbed to #17 on the national charts. The group went on to record a third and final LP for Paramount Records before dissolving. Altogether, Ron Cornelius has had 5 major record deals as an artist, others included A&M Records and Polydor Records.
In 1969, Ron found himself with Johnny Cash in San Quentin as part of the production team for Cash’s album “Live at San Quentin”. Soon after, Ron returned to backing other acts as a lead guitarist, but this time on a remarkable chain of hit albums with some of the biggest names in country and popular music, such as Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, Hoyt Axton, Loudon Wainwright III, and many others. Most notably, Cornelius supplied lead guitar work on seven multi-platinum albums for the legendary Bob Dylan. [↩]
- Corlynn Hanney was the other backup singer during the 1970 Tour [↩]
- Bob Johnston, a producer for Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Simon and Garfunkel, and others, not only produced Cohen’s Songs From a Room (1969) and Songs of Love and Hate (1971) and put together the band for the 1970 Tour but also, at Cohen’s insistence, played keyboards in the Tour band. [↩]
- Yep, that would be the fiddle-playing Charlie Daniels of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” fame. [↩]
- “Last Thing On My Mind” was written by Tom Paxton and covered by many singers, including Peter, Paul and Mary, The Kingston Trio, Johnny Cash, Marianne Faithfull, and Joan Baez. A video of Paxton singing his own composition can be viewed at Tom Paxton – Last Thing On My Mind. [↩]