Friday, August 12, 2022

May 1, 1973 Ahmanson Theater, Los Angeles, CA: New Riders of The Purple Sage/Dr. Hook and The Medicine Show/Bruce Springsteen (Ships In The Night)

A few decades into the 21st century, we look back at the iconic names of iconic 20th century rock and rollers with reverence, reflecting on the days when they criss-crossed the country playing modest gigs to modest acclaim. Bruce Springsteen and the Grateful Dead are two of the most important and popular acts in rock history, and the performance history of both has been researched in great detail. Their paths only crossed twice. Bruce Springsteen attended a Grateful Dead concert at a junior college gym in Edison, NJ on November 22, 1970. Bruce, nonplussed at the event itself, admitted later that he didn't get it until a long time afterwards.

Even Bruce does not seem to recall, however, that early in his career, he opened for the New Riders of The Purple Sage at an event sponsored by Columbia Records. The New Riders had some status at the time--unlike Bruce--and no doubt in the interests of making an impression on Columbia, had invited three members of the Grateful Dead to sit in with them that night. Bob Weir and Keith and Donna Godchaux made their final live appearances with the New Riders, at the very show when Springsteen was the opener. None of the Riders nor Dead members have ever mentioned Bruce's presence on the bill, nor has Bruce referred to the Dead members' presence.

This post will look at the different arcs of both bands at the time, and review what little we can discern about the show. Oh yeah--Columbia made video and audio tapes of the event. We even know for a fact that the Springsteen tape was shown and still exists. And yet the full event remains lost in the mists of time.

Columbia promoted the seven nights at the Ahmanson as "A Week To Remember"

May 1, 1973 Ahmanson Theater, Los Angeles, CA: New Riders of The Purple Sage/Dr. Hook and The Medicine Show/Bruce Springsteen (Tuesday)
Columbia Records was the largest record label in the world in 1973, and also a division of the powerful Columbia Broadcasting System, so the label could do things on a scale beyond that of other labels. In early 1973, Columbia chose to book all their major acts in Los Angeles' finest theater for seven consecutive nights. The real purpose of this mini-festival was to showcase their acts for radio djs, talent agents and Columbia sales staff. This was commonly done at company sales conventions. At a typical sales convention, however, with the drinks flowing, newly-signed bands found themselves playing to drunk industry pros catching up on gossip with their pals. By selling tickets at a big theater, the hall was filled with regular civilians who liked the bands. It was more of a true concert atmosphere, and the pros could more fairly gauge the impact of each band. 

The Ahmanson Theatre had opened in 1967, as part of the Los Angeles Music Center. It was Los Angeles' premier theater, and regularly featured prominent Broadway productions. For the week of April 29-May 5, Columbia booked the 2084-capacity Ahmanson for seven nights, with three acts each night. The acts ran the gamut, as Columbia was prominent in rock, soul, country, jazz and pop styles. Billboard reviewed all seven nights, which were apparently 95% sold out (Part 1 of the review is here, and Part 2 can be seen here). 

Gypsy Cowboy, by the New Riders of The Purple Sage, released by Columbia in December 1972

Status Report, May 1973: New Riders/Dr Hook/Bruce Springsteen

By May 1973, the New Riders of The Purple Sage had released three albums on Columbia Records (NRPS, Powerglide and December '72's Gypsy Cowboy). None had been big hits, but they had peaked in the 30s in the Billboard album charts. The New Riders had toured relentlessly, which not every rock band would actually do, so they were building audiences in the Northeast and elsewhere. After a Midwestern tour in February, the band had played numerous gigs in the Northeast from mid-March to mid-April '73. Here and there the band still opened for the Grateful Dead, but they were now headlining smaller theaters on their own.

While the New Riders were inevitably associated with the Grateful Dead, back in '73 the Dead weren't some "old hippie band." Indeed, hippies weren't even old yet. The Dead themselves had put out four gold albums in a row, so commercially the New Riders connection to the Dead was positive. Also, musical taste was evolving, and young long-hairs were starting to appreciate the directness and good nature of country music. Long-haired country rockers like the New Riders seemed well-placed to capitalize on this trend. In fact, it would turn out that real country singers who grew their hair long--Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, most prominently--would be the ones to get real attention, but that wasn't clear in Spring '73. The New Riders had a level of success and a promising commercial future, so it's no surprise that Columbia was having them headline on the Tuesday night showcase.

Dr. Hook and The Medicine Show had released their second album on Columbia, Sloppy Seconds, in 1972. It included their big hit "Cover Of The Rolling Stone."

Dr. Hook and The Medicine Show
were another band that mixed rock sensibilities with Nashville songwriting. The band had been playing in New Jersey around 1970 when they were discovered by Nashville producer and songwriter Shel Silverstein, and had performed for him on a movie soundtrack. Silverstein wrote most of the songs on the band's first two albums, combining country song structures with a comic pop edge. Their initial hit, "Sylvia's Mother," was a sincere parody of a pop country weeper. Their follow-up album, Sloppy Seconds, included the band's iconic hit "Cover Of The Rolling Stone" (written by Silverstein). The single would sell a million copies. In Spring '73, Dr. Hook was probably better known than the New Riders.

Bruce Springsteen's debut album Greetings From Asbury Park had been released by Columbia in January 1973

Bruce Springsteen
had been signed to Columbia by legendary talent scout John Hammond, who had also signed Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan to the label. He had just released his first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, in January of 1973. Although Bruce had a following in the Northeast, he was unknown on the West Coast. He had played a record company showcase at the Troubadour on February 26, 1973, with only a few dozen invited guests in attendance. He had also been booked for a tour with the Butterfield Blues Band right around then, too, yet all but a few shows were canceled. His manager had hustled Bruce into few opening slots, but nobody in California had heard of Springsteen unless they had a cousin from New Jersey (which I did, but that's another story). Bruce was opening so that local djs and talent agents could hear Columbia's latest signing in a good setting. 

As far as Columbia was concerned, Bruce Springsteen was a singer/songwriter rather than a rock and roller. The label saw him as someone like John Prine. Bruce had a backing band, but they were not using the name "E Street Band" yet. Clarence Clemons was on sax, "Phantom Dan" Federici was on organ, Garry Tallent on bass and Vini Lopez was on drums. They had all played a little bit on the Greetings album, and would all play on the following album, The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle, where they would be joined by pianist David Sancious (the band would rehearse at Sancious' house at 1107 E Street in Belmar, NJ). The five piece lineup had been playing together since October, 1972.

The Show
An unnamed Billboard reviewer ran down the Ahmanson show in the May 19, 1973 issue:

If any one artist captured the essence of what the week was really about it was Bruce Springsteen. Latest in Columbia's recent acquisitions of singer-songwriters (Bill Quateman & Andy Pratt), he has an appeal that borders on the universal. His songs are interesting, thoughtfully worked out and often exciting. Material aside, he has about him that glow, the elusive X factor that spells STAR. Comparisons to Van Morrison and Bob Dylan have been made, but he is no carbon, rather than glowing and vibrant performer in his own right.

Note that the reviewer compares Springsteen to two recently signed songwriters, both now largely forgotten (I had an Andy Pratt record, though, it wasn't bad). 

Conversely, the reviewer was scathing about Dr Hook:

Dr Hook and His [sic] Medicine Show were insufferably self-indulgent during their truncated set. They were obviously more concerned with their own enjoyment rather than that of the nearly full house. Engaging in oblique repartee and unfunny asides, their instrumental sloppiness and vocal insipidity did nothing to salvage their performance.

All in all, the Riders came out fairly well. He says:

The New Riders of The Purple Sage have uncovered nothing new or outrageous, but they do what they do very well and with more than a little bit of inspiration. The mode is country, mellow and laid back yet ready to set off sparks at a moment's notice. Joined by Grateful Dead members Bob Weir, Keith Godchaux and Donna Godchaux they transformed the staid Ahmanson into a veritable hoe-down.

So Bob Weir made his last appearance with the New Riders, and Keith and Donna played yet another gig with the band, lending a little star power to the proceedings. This was never nothing in status-conscious LA. Save for the Billboard review a few weeks later, the show all but disappeared from the memory of participants or audience.

Most of what we know about this Ahmanson Theater show comes from the thorough research of Bruce Springsteen historians. The indispensable Killing Floor site has some great details. Per the site:

All 7 shows in the Ahmanson series were recorded by CBS and professionally filmed in colour by Arnold Levine Productions on behalf of CBS, whose intent was to show the performances at the CBS Sales Convention in July. This did indeed happen - Bruce's entire performance was shown several times at the Convention - but has never been shown anywhere since.

So this means that the New Riders were filmed and recorded, with Bob Weir and the Godchauxs. This, too, may have been shown at the July '73 Columbia sales convention. I'm not aware of any such video in collector's circles, however. If it could be extracted, it would make a great archival release. Of course, Springsteen fans have been trying to disentomb his full live video, and they have had no luck yet. So near and yet so far. 

Since their were three acts, I would guess that the New Riders played about an hour, half of their usual show in those days. Keith Godchaux had played with them a number of times in the previous two months, so it's reasonable to assume he sat in for the entire show. Donna Godchaux probably sang harmonies on one or two numbers, which was her typical contribution when Keith sat in. Weir, however, had only played with the New Riders once onstage since 1970, in a unique show at the Felt Forum on March 18, 1973. That show included Jerry Garcia as well as Keith and Donna. My guess about the Ahmanson set--pure speculation--is that Weir joined the Riders for a final or encore number, perhaps two.

It's important to remember that while the Ahmanson shows would have seemed like regular rock shows to the paying customers, the experience would have been very different for the performers. One purpose of these events was to introduce bands to radio and concert professionals who might like them, and to encourage Columbia sales people to talk up the acts.  Both before and after the shows, all three acts would have been backstage being introduced and shaking hands. Drinks--and perhaps other things--would have been flowing freely. The Billboard reviewer leaves the distinct impression that Dr. Hook were there just for the party, and that their performance suffered as a result. Springsteen was known not to over-indulge, and while you couldn't really say that about the New Riders, they were nonetheless professional enough to ensure that they always came on stage in good shape to play. 

Thus it's extremely unlikely that any of the New Riders or the Dead members had a chance to observe the opening acts. By the same token, Springsteen and his band would have been equally consumed by what would now be called "networking" right after their set, so I doubt any of them had any chance to see the New Riders. Nor do I think they would have had time to care that half the Grateful Dead had joined them onstage, since all the djs and talent agents in Los Angeles were likely chatting them up.

Still, it happened. Bruce Springsteen and the soon-to-be-E-Street-Band opened a show for the New Riders of The Purple Sage and half the Grateful Dead. There is audio. There is video. It remains glimmering on the horizon, just outside our field of vision.

Appendix A: Bruce Springsteen Set, May 1, 1973, Ahmanson Theater, Los Angeles, CA
Per the Killing Floor site, one track was officially released, audio circulates, and there are eyewitness accounts of seeing the video. "Thundercrack" is now accessible on the internet (brace yourself if you’ve never seen Ur-Bruce). Of the five songs, only one was from his current album, and only one would even be on his next album. Since other pieces of the video have been used in documentaries, the material is accessible, somewhere.

01 Spirit In The Night
02 Circus Song
03 Tokyo
04 Thundercrack
05 Twist and Shout

  • [An audio] tape of the five-song Springsteen set has circulated for decades.
  • Bruce plays piano on "Spirit In The Night".
  • "Tokyo" is preceded by the long "Ducky Slattery Gas Station" monologue.
  • For "Thundercrack," a giant Asbury Park Turnpike sign descends from the back of the stage - the only time this prop was ever utilized.
  • "Twist And Shout" is performed as an encore.  
  • The entire video definitely survives to this day - in CBS's archives. It has still yet to leak out to collectors.
  • Very brief film snippets of "Circus Song" and "Thundercrack" were used by CBS as part of a promo-only video clip put together by the company in late 1973 to promote the newly released "Wild & Innocent" LP. This promo spot video circulates among collectors (and indeed was shown in the VH1 Rockumentary).
  • The very brief colour film snippet of Bruce performing "Spirit In The Night" on piano in the 1998 BBC Documentary "Bruce Springsteen - A Secret History" is from this show as well.
  • The recording of "Circus Song" from this show is released by CBS on July 7, 1973 on the promotion-only 7" CBS Playback EP.

Appendix 2: A Week To Remember
April 29-May 5, Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, CA: Columbia Records "A Week To Remember: An Extraordinary Music Festival"
For the May 19, 1973 Billboard Review of all these shows (uncredited) see Part 1 here, and the longer Part 2 here.

Columbia had released Mahavishnu Orchestra's second album, Birds Of Fire, in January 1973. Despite the daunting music, the record would reach #15

Sunday, April 29, 1973 Mahavishnu Orchestra/Loudon Wainwright III/Anthony Newman

Monday, April 30, 1973 The Staple Singers/Johnny Nash/Billy Paul

  • The Staple Singers classic "I'll Take You There" had been released in February 1972, reaching #1
  • Johnny Nash's "I Can See Clearly Now" released in June 1972, had also reached #1
  • Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs Jones" released in September 1972, had peaked #1 for three weeks in December '72.

Tuesday, May 1, 1973 New Riders Of The Purple Sage/Doctor Hook/Bruce Springsteeen

Wednesday, May 2, 1973 Miles Davis/Earth, Wind & Fire/Ramsey Lewis

  • Miles Davis band at this time was: Miles Davis (tpt); Dave Liebman (ss, ts, fl); Pete Cosey (g, perc); Reggie Lucas (g); Khalil Balakrishna (sitar); Lonnie Liston Smith (keyb); Michael Henderson (el-b); Al Foster (d); Badal Roy (tabla); Mtume (cga, perc)
  • Miles Davis had played the previous day Santa Monica Civic, and some of that performance would appear on ABC-In Concert
  • Earth, Wind & Fire's Head To The Sky album (their fourth) was released in May 1973. It would reach #2 on the Billboard Soul chart and #27 on the Pop chart
  • Jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis, who had been releasing albums since 1959, had released Funky Serenity in 1973. It would reach #6 on the Billboard jazz charts.

Thursday, May 3, 1973 Loggins and Messina/Taj Mahal/Albert Hammond

  • Loggins and Messina's "Your Mama Don't Dance" had been released in October 1972. It had peaked in early 1973 at #4
  • Albert Hammond's "It Never Rains In Southern California," released in November 1972, had peaked at #5
  • Taj Mahal was joined onstage by the Pointer Sisters

Friday, May 4, Johnny Mathis/Peter Nero/Maxine Weldon

Saturday, May 5 Johnny Cash/Lynn Anderson/Charlie Rich