Friday, June 3, 2011

Who Was Curly Jim? (Me And My Uncle)

Curly Jim on the steps of 710 Ashbury
"Me And My Uncle" was the most-performed song in the history of the Grateful Dead, as they performed it over 600 times. They first performed the song in 1966, and performed it through 1995. This post will contemplate the odd symmetry between the odd history of the song itself and the accidental way that Bob Weir learned the song.

"Me And My Uncle"
"Me And My Uncle" was written by John Phillips, best known as the head songwriter and Svengali of the huge hit group The Mamas And The Papas. Phillips wrote, arranged  and performed such classic sixties hits for the Mamas and The Papas as "Monday, Monday" and "California Dreamin.'"  Phillips also wrote the infamously bad "San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)." Phillips, along with his producer Lou Adler, was instrumental in organizing the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, so whether or not you liked his hits he was an important 60s pop star. So no one was more surprised than me to see the songwriting credit on "Me And My Uncle" for John Phillips on the 1972 "Skull And Roses" Grateful Dead live album, and I can't have been alone. Many years later, in the liner notes to one of his solo albums, the strange saga of how John Phillips wrote a cowboy song was recalled (referenced here)
John often used to tell the story behind "Me And My Uncle." Years ago he began receiving publishing royalties from a song on a Judy Collins record [The Judy Collins Concert, released October 1964] with which he was unfamiliar. It was titled "Me And My Uncle." He called Judy to let her know of the mistake because he hadn't written any such song. She laughed and told him that about a year before, in Arizona after one of her concerts, they had a 'Tequila' night back at the hotel with Stephen Stills, Neil Young and a few others. They were running a blank cassette and John proceeded to write "Me And My Uncle" on the spot. The next day, John woke up to the tequila sunrise with no recollection of the songwriting incident. Judy kept the cassette from that evening and then, without informing John, recorded the song for her own record. Over the years the song was recorded by several people, and eventually became a standard of the Grateful Dead. John used to joke that, little by little, with each royalty check, the memory of writing the song would come back to him. 
In one sense, "Me And My Uncle" is no different than many other Grateful Dead cover versions, like "Going Down The Road" or "Deep Elem Blues," songs with misty beginnings that have been learned and passed on by a variety of musicians over time. The only difference appears to be that the author of "Me And My Uncle" was a well-known pop star whose career was well documented, so the provenance of the song could be properly unraveled after a while.

Curly Jim
In Blair Jackson's groundbreaking 80s magazine The Golden Road, he published a number of fine articles about the sources of Grateful Dead cover versions. Blair uncovered the basics of the John Phillips>Judy Collins connection, and included the interesting detail that Bob Weir said he "learned the song from a hippie named Curly Jim." Blair assumed, and I certainly concurred, that Curly Jim had to be James "Curley" Cooke, a Madison, WI musician who had moved to San Francisco in late 1966 to join the initial incarnation of The Steve Miller Band. Presumably, Curley Cooke had learned the song off the Judy Collins album and taught it to Weir. This tiny piece of the Grateful Dead puzzle appeared to have been solved, and the Curley Cooke>Bob Weir connection became a settled piece of Grateful Dead lore (Cooke, now a popular player in the Puget Sound, WA area, recently passed away at the age of 66).

Recently, however, while researching another slice of 60s Bay Area rock history, I had a lengthy email exchange with a knowledgeable person who had known Curley Cooke as well as members of the extended Grateful Dead family. When I mentioned in passing that Weir had probably learned "Me And My Uncle" from "a hippie named Curly Jim," and that I assumed it to be Curley Cooke, she in turn let me in on a remarkable fact, namely that "Curly Jim" and "Curley Cooke" were different people. She emailed Curley Cooke, who denied having taught Weir the song, so that left the "other" Curly Jim. Even more remarkably, my correspondent recognized Curly Jim in a well-known photo of the Grateful Dead's "family" on the steps of 710 Ashbury (I believe taken by Gene Sculati), and stripped his photo out for me.

I have included the crop of Curly Jim, whoever he was, at the top of the post. He seems to have been the hippie who taught Bob Weir "Me And My Uncle." Presumably he learned it from the 1964 Judy Collins album, but he could have learned it from someone else, in the folk tradition. Who was he? What was his last name? Since he was a musician, did he ever record or was he in a band? Did he teach Bob Weir any other songs? Yet another piece of 'settled' Grateful Dead history has become unsettled on closer inspection.

Update: thanks to an intrepid Commenter, I am now pretty sure that "Curly Jim" was someone from Texas or thereabouts named James Staralow. Among other things, Staralow was the first manager of those other pioneers of psychedelia, Austin, TX's own 13th Floor Elevators. I think Staralow was their manager in late '65 or so, and it seems he ended up in San Francisco in mid-66. I had no idea that there was just one degree of separation between the Dead and the Elevators. I wonder if Staralow had any contact with the Elevators when they moved to the Bay Area for a few months in late 1966?

On top of that, Staralow also apparently co-wrote the song "Blind John," which appeared on Mickey Hart's Rolling Thunder album. He used the Nom Du Rock of C.J. Stetson. I had always assumed that C.J. Stetson was a pseudonym for a group effort, but I was incorrect. It does appear that Staralow went on to open a club outside of Santa Fe in the early 70s, but I think he is no longer with us. Still, "Curly Jim", aka Jim Staralow, aka CJ Stetson, seems to have been the one who taught Bob Weir the song that the Grateful Dead played the most.

8 comments:

  1. with all due respect, that guy looks like richard simmons.

    I-) ihor

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  2. Hey--what if it WAS Richard Simmons? Think about how different Grateful Dead history might have been.

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  3. My mother in law insists that it was her husband - backed up by my wife. Curly Jim was James Stalarow - damn hippies. He's dead now so can't confirm it first hand. Thats how legends go huh ?

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  4. Anon, thank you so much for this fascinating piece of information. James Staralow certainly fits: it turns out he was the first manager for Austin's 13th Floor Elevators, then he moved to San Francisco. He was definitely part of the scene, and he even wrote a song that appeared on Mickey Hart's Rolling Thunder album. He used the name CJ Stetson.

    I've gotta think that your Mother-In-Law and wife are correct: James Staralow seems to have been "Curly Jim". Thank you so much.

    is the internet great or what?

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  5. I have a slightly trivial comment regarding the Judy Collins' tequila evening with John Phillips, Stephen Still and Neil Young in 1963. In my view, his seems way too early for Neil Young.

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    1. Yeah, I just read the Neil Young book--very interesting, in that it was actually written by Neil rather than with a ghostwriter--and he says he didn't meet Stills until '65, when he (Stills) was playing with a band called The Company.

      I assume that instead of Stills and Young, it was Stills and Furay, and the story just got converted.

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  6. Robert Hunter actually mentioned this guy in his April 1980 interview with the UK magazine Dark Star - they ask him, "Who is C.J. Stetson?"
    RH: "Ah, Curly Jim - he's a guitar player and singer."
    DS: "Oh, he is a real person - people have often wondered if it was a pseudonym for Barry Melton..."
    RH: "Where did this come from?"
    DS: "He's on Rolling Thunder. He's credited with Peter Monk."
    RH: "That'll be Curly Jim then."

    It's interesting that Hunter identifies this pseudonymous guy with his other pseudonym! I wonder if Hunter or Weir would even have remembered (or known) his real name....

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    1. It's a fascinating little exchange. In the 60s there were a lot of people who were only known by a "street name," like Sunshine, Superspade or Pigpen. Many of them were avoiding the draft board or the cops, and others were just trying to get away from their parents or their boring suburban upbringing. Nonetheless it was generally not in everybody's interest to inquire too closely as to real identities.

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