Friday, February 12, 2021

Slewfoot-David Rea Columbia/Windfall Records KC 32485 (1973: Produced by David Rea and Bob Weir

David Rea's Slewfoot album, released on Columbia/Windfall in 1973, co-produced by Rea and Bob Weir

David Rea was an East Coast singer/songwriter signed to Felix Pappalardi's label, Windfall Records. Rea had also briefly been in the English folk/rock band Fairport Convention.  By a series of circumstances I will speculate about, Bob Weir ended up co-producing Rea's solo album in San Francisco in 1972. The supporting musicians for the country-rock sounding music included Keith and Donna Godchaux, various members of the New Riders of The Purple Sage,  John Kahn and other familiar suspects. The album, entitled Slewfoot, was released by Columbia Records in early 1973.

The band Slewfoot was formed to tour behind the album. As auditions were held during recording, all of the members ended up working on the record as well. Through his long association with Dave Torbert, harmonica player Matt Kelly won a spot in Rea's band. From one perspective, the significance of Slewfoot was that it triggered the professional association of Matt Kelly and Bob Weir. Both Kelly and Weir like to tell the story that they went to the same junior high school, and had played football together but not music. Left out of this story is how they connected musically. Of course, their junior high connection gave Weir and Kelly something to talk about, but it was Slewfoot that gave them their musical link. 

The Slewfoot album is enjoyable, though nothing special, and in many ways it is a typical of many record company efforts in the early 1970s. The particular outlier is that not only were the Grateful Dead heavily involved, but that Bob Weir was the outside producer for the only time in his career. Weir shared co-producer credits with David Rea. No one every really talks about Slewfoot, so in this post I will try and fit together the pieces of the puzzle.

David Rea
David Rea (1946-2011) was born in Ohio. In the early 60s, Rea moved to Toronto, working as a guitarist for Gordon Lightfoot and Ian & Sylvia. Joni Mitchell and Neil Young encouraged him to write his own songs, and some of them were recorded by Ian & Sylvia. Rea became an established sideman in Toronto and elsewhere, recording with a wide variety of of artists. Rea released two albums on Capitol Records in 1969 (Maverick Child) and 1971 (By The Grace Of God), both produced by Felix Pappalardi. Pappalardi had helped produce Cream, among other bands, and played bass and produced the band Mountain. 

Since Rea was produced by Pappalardi, he worked with the members of Mountain on his record. As it happened, Rea ended up co-writing a song with Mountain guitarist Leslie West, the immortal "Mississippi Queen." If you say "I don't know 'Mississippi Queen'" you are probably wrong. It was a classic rock tune if there ever was one, and it was in regular use for beer commercials well into the 21st century. When you hear drummer Corky Laing's ringing cowbell, and West's blazing guitar intro, you know what avalanche is coming. To my knowledge, "Mississippi Queen" was the only song West and Rea wrote together, and way out of Rea's normal range, but it confers immortality on its own.

In 1972, Rea rather unexpectedly joined Fairport Convention for a few months. Fairport was in flux (in between Babbacombe Lee and Fairport Nine), and guitarist Simon Nicol had left. Roger Hill had joined as guitarist, and Rea joined as the lead guitarist. Stalwarts Dave Swarbrick on fiddle and Dave Pegg on bass remained, along with drummer Tom Farnell. Odd as this seems--it's odd--I do know that David Rea opened for Fairport at the Troubadour in Los Angeles on September 3-6, 1970, so at least there was some connection. They recorded an album that was never released, since Rea was, essentially, "too American" for Fairport (tagged The Manor Sessions, it was ultimately released as part of disc 4 of Come All Ye: The First Ten Years 7-disc set in 2017). Rea even toured a little bit in Summer '72 (I think I heard a tape from My Father's Place in Long Island), but it just wasn't a fit. Rea left Fairport, replaced by Jerry Donahue.

Come late 1972, and Columbia Records had signed Rea. Since Slewfoot was released as a "Columbia/Windfall" imprint, that tells us that Pappalardi was in the picture. Pappalardi still had clout as a producer, and all the Mountain albums were on Windfall. Windfall had been distributed by Bell Records, but after 1972, Windfall was distributed by Columbia. So even though Pappalardi's name does not appear on the record, he lay behind the signing. The metadata tells us that Columbia Records head Clive Davis was financing the David Rea album as part of a collaboration with Felix Pappalardi.

Bob Weir is credited with co-producer of Slewfoot, along with David Rea. Weir's credit was not only unprecedented, but never repeated. The strangeness of the credit is magnified by the fact that Weir and Rea clearly did not know each other prior to the album. Although Weir received the occasional producing credit or co-credit for his own work over the years, his solo studio work was largely produced by others. We can only assume that the effort to produce Slewfoot was unsatisfying enough that Weir never wished to repeat it. How did Weir end up in the producer's chair?

The only hypothesis that makes sense for Weir's production is that Columbia Records head Clive Davis was trying to curry favor with Weir. Remember, in July 1972, the Dead had announced that the band was not only leaving Warner Brothers, they were going to become totally independent and start their own record company. Not only was this unthinkable in the 1970s record industry, players like Clive Davis must have just thought it was a negotiating tactic. Thus getting on the good side of key members of the band was part of a difficult dance by Davis to get the Dead signed to Columbia

What did record producers do in the 1970s? A producer could play a variety of roles, but to use some modern terminology, a record producer was both Risk Manager and Project Manager. There were a variety of models for producers, not at all exclusive to each other.

Risk Manager
Producers got a royalty for producing an album (as part of their contract), but they were also responsible for their assigned budget. A producer would have to decide whether to rush a band, or change studios, or take his time, weighing the cost of the record against the resulting sales. When you see a band or artist listed as their own  producer, this mostly refers to the financial risk/reward associated with the record. The band is getting producing royalties, weighed against the cost of the album.

Chief Engineer
Some producers were renowned for their distinctive sounds, and had risen to prominence as brilliant engineers. A classic example of this was Glyn Johns. Johns had engineered many classic English rock albums, such as Beggars Banquet, Abbey Road and Led Zeppelin, and mixed many 60s classics as well (like Joe Cocker! and Let It Bleed). From 1971 onwards, he was largely a producer, engineering his own work, including Who's Next and the first four Eagles albums (Johns' discography is amazing). Johns' sound is the sound of classic rock.

Band Director
Some producers left the engineering to some hired gun, and focused on the songs and the players. A producer like Nick Lowe was always trying to find the right people to play the right song the right way, rather than worrying about the aural landscape. This approach worked very well when the emphasis was on songwriting, like Lowe's production of early Elvis Costello (My Aim Is True, This Year's Model and Armed Forces)

Some producers' most critical function was as a filter between the artist and record company. Legendary producer Tom Wilson produced "Like A Rolling Stone" for Bob Dylan, and the groundbreaking debut albums by the Mothers of Invention, the Velvet Underground and Soft Machine. On those projects, his principal value seems to have been keeping the record company at bay so that the musicians could do their thing.

Every project would be different, and for each the producer had to figure out how to manage the budget, how much to interfere with the songs, how much to modify the actual soundscape and how to navigate any record company politics. The best producers, like Glyn Johns, George Martin or Todd Rundgren, could wear any and all of those hats with ease.

[With respect to the history of the Grateful Dead, "staff" producers like Bob Matthews, Betty Cantor, Owsley or Dan Healy focused on the engineering. That also seems true of Dave Hassinger (the debut album). Stephen Barncard (American Beauty) and Gary Lyons (Go To Heaven). Keith Olsen, during Terrapin Station, was his own engineer, but he also directed the band far more than any other Grateful Dead producer, demanding section rehearsals and overdubbing an orchestra. Lowell George, for Shakedown Street, was much more of a Band Director and far less focused on the sound itself. Since he never finished the project, we won't ever know how it could have come out].

The great Buddy Cage (1946-2020) on stage

Bob Weir, Buddy Cage and Recording

So what really happened when Weir produced Slewfoot? Rea was pretty much a flatpicker with a country-style voice, so the Buck Owens sound of the 1972 live Grateful Dead seemed made to order. Still, it wasn't Weir who had captured that sound on tape. Slewfoot was recorded at the newly-opened, state-of-the-art Record Plant studio in Sausalito. This alone tells us that Columbia was paying top dollar for this. In early 1973, the New Riders would record Panama Red at The Record Plant, but I'm not sure whether that was before or after the Slewfoot sessions. 

On board as engineers for Slewfoot were Stephen Barncard and Tom Scott. Barncard was already an experienced producer in his own right--he had produced American Beauty--so I don't know why he was just an engineer for Slewfoot. It's possible he didn't have enough time. Tom Scott (not the saxophonist) was a well-regarded engineer, but I think he may not yet have had the experience to get the call as producer. The plan, however, seems to have been to send Rea to San Francisco for a Grateful Dead-styled country rock album, and perhaps the concept was that Weir was the conduit to the right guests.

Bob Weir has always been the nicest and most agreeable member of the Grateful Dead, avoiding many of the feuds and factionalism that are integral to any long-running organization. A diplomatic personality can be an essential trait in a record producer. In contrast, however, Weir was always legendary for being the most disorganized member, and the most likely to be late for any meeting, rehearsal or show. Disorganization was never a helpful trait in producing albums. There is a hint of this on the back cover: Buddy Cage is listed as "Session Coordinator." That is a very rare credit for an album. I have to think it arose only because studio veteran Cage did far more work than might normally have been expected, work that probably should have been done by co-producer Bob Weir. 

Weir had been in the studio many times with the Grateful Dead by 1972, but the Dead had their own teams of technical wizards to manage the hardware. Jerry Garcia, and to some extent Phil Lesh, had already demonstrated some interest in the actual making of albums, but there was no sign that Weir had been particularly hands-on. What was he bringing to Slewfoot?

The album consisted of 10 tracks, five of them written or co-written by David Rea, and five cover songs, played in a honky-tonk country rock style. The album covers two country songs, a variation of a blues classic, a countrified version of a Fairport Convention song (less strange when you realize Rea had just left that group) and a Chuck Berry song. Save for the Fairport song, the other four are all in the vein that the Dead or Kingfish might do, so I suspect Weir played a part in selecting songs. I also assume that Rea had a fair amount of original material, and some choices were made regarding his songs as well. 

For new artists at the time, it was common to include some original material and then cover some recognizable songs, so record buyers could get a feel for an album just by reading the back cover. "Run That By Me One More Time" was not a big hit for Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, but it was well-known (from the 1970 album Porter Wayne and Dolly Rebecca, actually written solely by Parton), and "The Year That Clayton Delaney Died" had been a big hit for Tom T Hall in 1971. Those songs, along with the Chuck Berry song (the classic "Nadine"), would have given a prospective buyer a view of David Rea's range without actually having heard his music.

Who Played The Sessions?
The enduring curiosity for Deadheads is the credits on the back of the album (see the complete list below). Joining Weir are Keith and Donna Godchaux from the Grateful Dead, and John Kahn on bass. Four of the New Riders are on the album (Cage, Torbert, David Nelson and Spencer Dryden), and there are some familiar faces from other albums, including Richard Greene on fiddle, and Darlene DiDomenico on vocals. DiDomenico was a friend of the NRPS crowd, and sang in various local bands, as well as on some Riders albums. DiDomenico also sang with the infamously notorious Sparky And The Assbites From Hell (a "band" consisting mostly of Grateful Dead road crew). The first track on side one--an important decision back then--is"'Run That By Me One More Time," and DiDomenico shares the call-and-response vocal with Rea.

Richard Greene, an old friend of David Nelson's, plays some prominent fiddle parts. The biggest surprise in the credits is Charles Lloyd on flute and saxophone. Lloyd was known to be friendly with the Dead, but it's surprising to see him play on a country session (in any case, he's inaudible to me on saxophone, but noodles on the flute for one track). The countrified grand piano of Keith Godchaux is plain in a few places, as well. The album credits "Vocal Arrangements" to "Weir/Godchaux," presumably Donna Godchaux. Many tracks have 70s-style "choir" vocals, with plenty of "ooh-oohs," but none of them are distinctive, certainly not as either Bob or Donna.

The last four names on the credits actually became the band Slewfoot, formed to tour and support the album. The fact that the band members effectively auditioned at the Record Plant and even played a little bit on the album tells us that the sessions were fairly extensive, and that Columbia was footing the bill. Harmonica player Matt Kelly, as I have extensively detailed elsewhere, had been in a number of bands with Dave Torbert around 1968. Torbert and Kelly had parted ways but stayed in touch. Kelly had returned to the Bay Area in '72, having spent a lot of time touring on the Chitlin Circuit, playing the blues. It was Torbert who invited Kelly to the Slewfoot sessions, triggering his reunion with Bob Weir.

The other "Slewfoot" band members had similar connections. Guitarist Bill Cutler had worked with Stephen Barncard before, drummer Chris Herold had worked with Kelly and Torbert previously, and bassist James Ackroyd had been part of the "greater Dead family" as one of James and The Good Brothers.  Cutler said that he spent a long day jamming and talking, and agreed to join the Slewfoot band at the end. It's not clear which tracks the new band members played on, save for Kelly's harmonica parts.

Where Was Jerry?
Of course, if Clive Davis' concept was to record in San Francisco in order to affiliate David Rea with the Grateful Dead, where was Jerry Garcia? Davis' longstanding affinity for the Grateful Dead was mostly focused on Garcia. I have to presume that Garcia could have produced Rea's album if he chose, whether or not he was asked directly by Columbia. I also have to think that hiring Weir as a producer would come with the assumption that Garcia would drop in for the sessions.

It's not clear when Slewfoot was recorded, but it was probably late '72/early '73. During that time, Garcia was very busy: writing songs for the upcoming Grateful Dead album, practicing his banjo to get up to speed for Old And In The Way, and gigging at night with Merl Saunders. Now, Rea sounds like a terrific flatpicker in a wide variety of styles, and probably would have had a gas playing bluegrass in Stinson Beach with Garcia, David Grisman and Peter Rowan. And--who knows--maybe some hot-picking acoustic sounds would have set Slewfoot apart, in a way that just covering some country hits did not. But none of it happened.

David Rea and the band Slewfoot played the CBS Record Convention in San Francisco, I think in March of 1973. I think the album came out in the Spring, April or May perhaps. Slewfoot played a few shows around the Bay Area throughout the Summer (see below). But Clive Davis was pushed aside from the top position at Columbia Records, and many of the acts that had been signed under Davis, including David Rea, the Sons of Champlin and the Rowan Brothers, were all dropped. Rea continued to live and perform in the Bay Area for the next 15 years, but his connection to the Grateful Dead ran dry, leaving only an out-of-print album.

The back cover of David Rea's 1973 Slewfoot album on Windfall/Columbia, with his new band of the same name. Matthew Kelly (2-r) carrying the guitar case.

Album Credits

Side 1
    Run That By Me One More Time (Dolly Parton / Porter Wagoner)[sic: just Parton]
    The Year That Clayton Delaney Died (Tom T Hall)
    Stagger Lee And Billy (Ike Turner)
    Rosie (David Swarbrick)
    Saturday Night Woman (David Rea / Judi Corbo)

Side 2
    Tell Me Where Do All The Good Times Go (David Rea)
    The Light Of The World (David Rea)
    Nadine (Chuck Berry)
    Thank You For Being My Friend (David Rea)
    I Love You (David Rea / Gary Ship)

    David Nelson - guitar
    Buddy Cage - pedal steel guitar
    David Torbert - bass
    John Kahn - bass
    Spencer Dryden - drums, percussion
    Bob Weir - guitar, vocals
    Donna Jean Godchaux - vocals
    Keith Godchaux - organ, piano, vocals
    Darlene DiDominico - vocals
    Matthew Kelly - harmonica, percussion, vocals
    Richard Green - fiddle
    Charles Lloyd - saxophone, flute
    David Rea - guitar, piano, organ, chimes, vocals
    James Ackroyd - bass, vocals
    Chris Herold - drums
    Bill Cutler - guitars, vocals

Album Credits
    Producer - David Rea & Bob Weir
    Vocal Arrangements - Weir-Godchaux
    Engineers - Steve Barncard, Tom Scott
    Assistant Engineer - Kurt Kinzel
    Remix & Windfall Quality Control - Bob D'Orleans
    Technical Assistance and Advice - Spencer Dryden
    Session Co-ordinator - Buddy Cage
    Photos & Design - Bob Seiderman, George Hunter
    Communications - Rock Scully
    Recorded at the Record Plant, Sausalito, California

Slewfoot Live

Slewfoot (early 1973)

    David Rea-guitar, vocals
    Bill Cutler-lead guitar
    Matt Kelly-harmonica, guitar
    James Ackroyd-bass
    Chris Herold-drums

The band Slewfoot was formed to tour behind the album. As auditions were held during recording, all of the members ended up working on the album as well. Matt Kelly had been leading bands in the South Bay since 1967. Chris Herold had been in a number of those bands, including the New Delhi River Band, Shango and Horses. Horses had even released an obscure album in 1968. Bill Cutler was a transplanted songwriter from New York city, who also worked as a studio engineer. James Ackroyd had been with the Canadian group James And The Good Brothers, who had been encouraged to relocate to San Francisco after the Festival Express tour. The Good Brothers would return to Canada, but Ackroyd had stayed on.

Interestingly, according to Bill Cutler, Pete Sears was part of the auditions as well. Sears was a great player, and wouldn't have "flunked" at either bass or keyboards. Presumably Sears didn't see a fit for himself, possibly because Sears was more interested in the studio at the time rather than playing nightclubs.

Slewfoot played very few live shows, as far as I can tell. They did play the Columbia Records Convention in early 1973 with the Sons Of Champlin, but I'm not sure precisely when or where that was. When Clive Davis was fired as the head of Columbia Records, David Rea was dropped by the label and Slewfoot ground to a halt. Supposedly there has been an edition of the Grateful Dead Hour with a live recording of the Slewfoot band, but I have been unable to track it down.

My assumption so far is that Columbia was anxious to have David Rea put a band together for a CBS Records convention in San Francisco. Since they played with the Sons Of Champlin, another CBS act (with a new album, Welcome To The Dance), I think the convention was late February/early March. Both the Sons and David Rea ultimately got dropped, in the purge that followed Clive Davis' departure, but I think Davis had big plans. Remember--at the same time, Davis and Columbia were promoting The Rowan Brothers, so Davis was big on San Francisco bands.

The Rowan Brothers and Slewfoot, both Columbia Records acts, are booked for three nights at The Orphanage in San Francisco, July 23-25, 1973.
The only other date I have been able to find in the first part of 1973 was at The Orphanage, at 807 Montgomery in San Francisco, a new club at the time. Since the Rowans and Slewfoot were booked together, it implies a Columbia connection. Of course, the Monday-Wednesday booking wasn't ideal. David Grisman was still probably the organist (yes, organist) for the Rowans at the time, and I assume Kelly and Herold were still onboard. So there's a lot of Grateful Dead history here, but I think the bands were at the end of the line. I haven't been able to pin down Clive Davis' departure but it's about this time. 

David Rea and Slewfoot (Mk 2) described in the San Francisco Examiner Bay Area band guide, from December 30, 1973 (part one was Dec 23)

Slewfoot Mark 2 (late '73/early '74)
Some other evidence I have found suggests that the original Slewfoot band scattered in late Summer '73. Evidence of Bill Cutler's and Matt Kelly's activities all point this way (in another forthcoming and incredibly lengthy blog post). Still, there was another lineup of Slewfoot led by David Rea. At the end of 1973, the SF Examiner ran a piece with the "Mighty 99," the top working rock bands in the Bay Area. It's a great guide to who was in what band at the time. Slewfoot, by the end of '73, was just Rea, bassist James Ackroyd and drummer Jay David. The group seems to have played in late '73 and early '74.

Bob Marley and The Wailers play two nights at "The New Matrix" at 412 Broadway on October 19-20, 1973, later better known as The Stone. Yes really. Stuart Little Band were booked, replacing a band who canceled, who I'm pretty sure were Slewfoot.

The most fascinating booking is this one, but I am all but certain that Slewfoot canceled and was replaced by the Stuart Little Band from Stockton, CA. Bob Marley and The Wailers, then thoroughly unknown, were booked for two nights at a club called The New Matrix. Grateful Dead fans may recognize the address of 412 Broadway as the future address of The Stone. The Stuart Little Band, from Stockton, have described in one band member's book (The Mouse That Almost Roared: yes, I read it) about opening for the Wailers. They replaced some other band on the bill, and I'm pretty sure it was Slewfoot.

update: scholarly Commenter David Kramer-Smyth found out that it was the Sons Of Champlin that canceled, and Slewfoot did indeed open for Bob Marley and The Wailers.

Slewfoot at The Wharf Rat Tavern at Fisherman's Wharf, New Year's Eve '73

Slewfoot appeared to have some sort of residency at a joint called The Wharf Rat Tavern, at 101 Jefferson Street. near Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. Slewfoot appears to have been playing Thursday through Saturday nights throughout January, and probably before that, based on the New Year's Eve booking. The Wharf Rat was on the corner of Jefferson and Mason, right near the waterfront (close to Pier 43). Although Fisherman's Wharf had been a genuine port for fisherman in its day, by the 1970s it was more focused on tourists. Playing one of clubs there on a weekend was probably really good money, much better than opening for the Rowan Brothers on a Wednesday. But Slewfoot was probably playing a lot of covers, too, and they weren't ever going to be reviewed in the newspaper if they played Fisherman's Wharf.

February 8, 1974 Freeborn Hall, UC Davis, Davis, CA: Jesse Colin Young/David Rea with Slewfoot
Jesse Colin Young had left the Youngbloods and gone solo, like so many singer/songwriters at the time. His album Song For Juli was getting a lot of local airplay, and he was playing the college circuit. The fact that Slewfoot opened for a rising artist was a sign that David Rea still had an agent, and wasn't exclusively on the cover circuit. 

March 28, 1974 Inn Of The Beginning, Cotati, CA: Cris Williamson and Melba Rounds/David Rea and Slewfoot
The Inn Of The Beginning was a delightful little club in bucolic Cotati, off in Sonoma County, near to Sonoma State College. It was a wonderful place to see a show, but it was tiny. Opening at the Inn Of The Beginning on a Thursday night was for young guys on the rise, not someone who wrote a hit single and recorded an album produced by a member of the Grateful Dead.

David Rea in 2010 (photo:Jack Bawden)


Slewfoot seems to have ground to a halt, as I found no trace of advertised David Rea performances after the Cotati gig. Now, to be clear, Rea did not give up music. However, he had three kids, and by the 1980s he focused on raising his family. I believe he still played and taught guitar around the Bay Area, but with a greater emphasis on gigs that paid. Good for him. In the mid-80s, with his kids  older, Rea took up writing, performing and recording original material again. Ultimately he moved to the Pacific Northwest in 1995, and he had a thriving career in the region until he passed away in 2011.

The Slewfoot album has never been released on cd. Vinyl copies float around, and every once in a while Deadheads look at it and say "what's this?" It's not a bad record, actually, though not a memorably good one, but so many questions are left unanswered.