I was having coffee recently with a buddy who’s a singer/songwriter himself and we were discussing how music movements begin from a geographic standpoint. Liverpool brought about the British invasion, Greenwich Village in NYC gave birth to the Folk music scene, and San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury community gave rise to the trippy sounds of the Hippie movement. But what makes this more than geographical is that within these communities there are those individuals, whether through networking, sheer talent, or a combination of the two, who are in the right place at the right time with the right idea. They are the people the stars align for. This is about one such person.
Now you would think being a part of a band that’s in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, being one half of the most successful duo of the 70s, and being the founder of a group that is credited with launching an entirely new music genre would make one feel complete. But what if the plan wasn’t for any of that in the beginning? Just ask south Texas native Jim Messina. He’ll tell you that it wasn’t about achieving super stardom, it was simply about being a musician and helping others be the best they could be.
While still in high school, Jim Messina formed a locally popular band in the waning days of the surf music trend called Jim Messina & The Jesters. They produced one album that had some limited regional success, but as the surf scene began to die down, he looked towards L.A. and its musical landscape. A phone call from Glen Edwards, president of the small label Ibis Records, would start him on his path. “He asked me to come to L.A. and produce some of his artists. It wasn’t a big label. In fact, he was also a DJ at KECY which broadcast from the top of the Disneyland hotel.”
During the course of the next year, Messina realized that his musical fortunes in southern California may lie more in the behind the scenes work rather than the performance work. He began thinking about how to stay in the mix. “I started looking at the musicians getting the jobs… it was Glen Campbell, it was Leon Russell, these guys are so beyond me talentwise. I didn’t know what I could ever do to compete or cause me to become one of the gang so I chose to meet up with the engineer I was working with at Ibis Records and asked him if I could apprentice under him. He said yes so I began sweeping floors, sleeping on couches, and learned how to edit, build patch bays, and repair gear because at least I’d be around it.”
But being an apprentice means you have to get extra gigs to make rent. In one of those pick-up jobs, Mike Dourough, the engineer, brought him into a small studio called AudioArts for a project and it was there that he would first notice a tall gangly young kid hanging out around the studio by the name of Kenny. But more on that later.
After having gotten some producing experience under his belt and a bit of a track record, he was brought in to be the recording engineer on renowned folk band Buffalo Springfield’s second album, Buffalo Springfield Again. After the release of this collection, and as the band began working on new recordings for a third album, band member Bruce Palmer was arrested on a drug possession charge and deported to his native Canada. This set of circumstances set in motion a path that would take Messina’s career to unimagined heights.
It was around 10 pm one night Messina’s phone would ring with what could arguably be the call that would change his calling. On the other end of the line was the legendary founder and president of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun. “The boys (Buffalo Springfield) need a producer and they can’t really find one, they trust you, would you be willing to take on that responsibility? Long story short, I said yeah I could do that.” Now he was working not only as their recording engineer and record producer on “Last Time Around”, he was also now the bands bassist on their upcoming tour because of Palmer’s deportation.
But as so often happens in this business the bands members began to branch out on their own and Messina was soon going to be out of a job. And as luck would have it, a taxi ride to a guitar repair shop with fellow bandmate Richie Furay opened the next door in his career. “I could tell he was getting freaked out because the band was ending. While we were riding around, he said ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do’ and I told him I have an idea. Why don’t you and I consider putting another band together but instead of doing folk rock, we make it feel more country. Things are moving away from the folk scene so why not add a more country rock feeling to what we’re doing?” There wasn’t a final decision made but the seeds were planted in the back of that yellow cab that day.
It was in recording the final track, Kind Woman, for the final Buffalo Springfield album that the idea of this new sound came to fruition. While waiting for some band members to finish their work on the cut Messina thought adding a steel guitar player would make an interesting sound mix. “Our roadie at the time Miles Thomas said I know some guys who live in Colorado, namely Rusty Young, who play steel. He’s your age, he’s young. Why don’t you consider bringing him out?” So, he did. They laid down the tracks needed and afterwards realized this might be what they were in search of to lay the groundwork for the band that would become known as Poco. “That in my mind was the birth of the idea of not only doing country rock, but actually beginning the process of doing it. I think that the steel guitar was first brought into our generation with that idea around 1967.”
Young, Foray, and Messina would form the initial core of the group Poco and go on to create two studio albums as well as a live album from their touring. It was during this band’s live performances at the fabled Troubadour that members of another group called Longbranch Pennywhistle would hear this new country rock sound and lead two of the bands members to adopt it and go on to lay the groundwork for another band you might have heard of before. They’re called The Eagles. In my interview last year with JD Souther this was confirmed when he directly attributed Poco as being a direct influence on the songs he, Glenn Frey, and Don Henley wrote for the Eagle’s first album.
But over the next few years the constant touring and the grind of producing back to back albums for these tours were taking their toll on Messina, making him consider stepping away from the stage’s limelight and getting back to his roots of producing other artists in the studio. His decision was cemented while on the final leg of the band’s tour, which they were recording to produce Poco’s first live album, when he received a phone call from an artist development friend asking him if he had time to work with a young talent. Messina agreed but it would have wait until after he wrapped up this live album.
A few months later the album was complete and Messina had time to finally the time to sit down in his home studio with this singer his friend had called him about. It turns out it was that kid he saw hanging out in the studio four years earlier I previously mentioned. His name was Kenny Loggins. “So I finally meet him in December of 1970 and he shows up at the door and here’s this tall guy, a part in his hair and funny beard, jeans hanging a little lower on the waist than they normally should. He came in, we talked and got acquainted, then I said can I hear a tape. He replied I don’t have a tape. Do you have a guitar to which he answered I don’t really own a guitar.” Messina was perplexed and thought to himself “Who is this guy? No tapes, no guitar, and I’m supposed to do what with him?”
Messina said he was feeling awkward, just as Loggins probably was, so he proceeded to set up microphones, loaned Kenny one of his personal guitars, sat him on a stool and rolled tape as Loggins belted out about 7 songs, two of which were the future hits “Danny’s Song” and “House On Pooh Corner”. Afterwards they had dinner and chatted a bit more. Once Kenny had left, Messina’s wife asked him what he thought. “I said I don’t know what to think. I kind of like the tunes but they’re mostly folk and folk music is pretty much behind us now. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with him. I like his voice but I need to think about it.” He would go on to bring Kenny back to work with him but still was questioning what to do with him.
After leaving Poco, Messina had signed a contract with Columbia records to produce records for them. This brought another artist into his orbit you may know by the name of Dan Fogelberg. While still considering whether or not to work with him, Messina asked why he wanted him to produce a Fogelberg album. Dan had a similar style and stated he loved Poco, loved Messina’s production of them, and wanted to put out a Poco-like album. This was not the right answer. Messina knew of Poco’s problems getting airplay. Sure, they sold out live shows, but they were too country for rock radio and too rock for country radio. After much thought he decided to pass on producing Fogelberg, but something else happened as well.
“It was in that moment I realized I think I’m going to try to work with Kenny. He had a voice that had that epical range that could be moved in any direction he wanted to move it in. And I wanted to work with somebody who wanted to step outside the boundaries. And I wanted someone who’d be willing to be diverse enough to try different styles of music within their own stylistic manner once we develop that. That he’d never be caught in that pigeonhole of only being a folk music artist, or a country rock artist, or a country artist, whatever the local tag would be that would suppress an artist from going further in their career. That’s why I chose to work with Kenny.”
The next few years would see that collaboration grow from one of just producer & artist into the musical dynamic duo of the 70’s with hits like “Vahevala”, “House at Pooh Corner”, and “Your Mama Don’t Dance” as Loggins & Messina. They would put out 6 studio albums as well as 2 live albums before amicably parting ways in 1976, reuniting again in 2005 with the release of “The Best: Sittin’ In Again” studio album and the “Live: Sittin’ In Again at the Santa Barbara Bowl” concert album. Another joint tour occurred again in 2009 as well. And who knows what the future may bring.
Throughout his career, Jim Messina has shown he was there to support the spotlight and not necessarily be in it, but life had much more in store for him. Decades ago, at the right place in the right time, the stars aligned over L.A.’s Laurel Canyon and the Sunset Strip lighting Jim Messina’s path to becoming a major piece of the musical tapestry of a generation.