Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Jimmy Bowen: A Pirate, a Poet, a Pawn and a King

Nancy Sinatra and Jimmy Bowen circa 1967.

By Michael Corcoran

The 25-year-old Texan sat in the limo outside a Palm Springs desert compound for about an hour, waiting for Frank Sinatra. The junior exec had been recently hired by Reprise Records, which had half a dozen strong acts, but the problem was that there were over 100 on the label. Reprise was founded by Sinatra in 1960 and rescued by parent company Warner Brothers, with Sinatra retaining 1/3 ownership, three years later. That’s when Jimmy Bowen came aboard. “Sinatra would have a few drinks in some lounge and sign the piano player. He was out of control,” recalled the sheriff’s son from the Texas Panhandle. “So one of my first jobs was to tell Mr. Sinatra we had to drop more than half the acts he’d signed. I was scared shitless, knowing he was going to fire me- or worse.” Finally called inside, Bowen laid out the direness of the financial situation. “Mr. Sinatra downed a glass of Jack Daniels, then he said, ‘well, do what you gotta do’ and walked away. I left before he could change his mind.” The long ride to Palm Springs was a lot shorter on the way back.

When Bowen told the story 30 years later, he was Music City’s feared “Chairman of the Board.” When your music biz baptism was firing about 70 friends of Frank Sinatra, it’s no big deal to clean house when you take over as head of a Nashville label, which Bowen did six times from 1976 to his 1995 retirement. As the incoming chief at MGM, MCA (twice), Elektra/Asylum, Warner Brothers and Capitol, he’d generally keep two or three people and fire the rest. Bowen even pink-slipped the A&R guy who signed Garth Brooks, Capitol’s  golden goose in a Stetson. The designated label-fixer axed so many people he stopped going to industry parties. “The last one that I went to, I looked around the room and realized that I had fired half the people there – some of them two or three times,” Bowen said.

In a town known for humility, where honchos ask if you’d like some coffee, then fetch it themselves, Bowen made sure everyone knew who was boss. “Whenever you have a meeting with Bowen, you have to go to him,” said MCA’s Tony Brown, then Bowen’s main rival. Wearing a Greek sailor cap and aviator glasses, Bowen  brought the Rat Pack mentality to the Hat Act reality and never really fit in. “I was a Yankee for the first time in my life,” Bowen said of his two decades running (some might say “ruining”) Nashville.

But here’s where Jimmy Bowen matters: he produced 67 #1 country singles and 10 #1 country albums in the ‘70s and ‘80s, making superstars out of Kenny Rogers, Hank Williams Jr., Reba McEntire, Conway Twitty and George Strait. “The music belongs to the artist,” was his credo, something else he said he learned from Sinatra. “The worst mistake a producer can make is to think it’s his record. A good producer should do as little as possible- or as much as necessary.”

Bowen arrived in Nashville with a proven track record in the pop field, producing signature songs of Sinatra (“Strangers in the Night”), Dean Martin (“Everybody Loves Somebody”) and Sammy Davis Jr. (“I’ve Gotta Be Me”), with arranger /conductor Ernie Freeman.

Bowen started getting a little cocky after winning 1967’s Record of the Year Grammy for “Strangers In the Night,” but Sinatra was still in charge of the recording sessions. “He’d usually nail it on the first take, but sometimes there’d be a second take,” recalled Bowen. “But that was it. Frank didn’t do a third.” After Sinatra’s second take of “That’s Life” Bowen said, “let’s try one more,” and Sinatra shot back “no, we got it!” But Bowen persisted and Sinatra called him a “fuckin’ hayseed!” in front of everybody (including fiancee’ Mia Farrow), then stormed out. But about 10 minutes later, Sinatra was back. “ONE MORE TAKE!” he said, and that was the one they used on the classic “That’s Life.” That’s why he’s practically spitting the lyrics in his most over-the-top performance.

Bowen famously butted heads with Garth Brooks in the early ‘90s, but as a label exec, not a producer. Although Bowen oversaw multi-million sellers No Fences in 1990 and Ropin’ the Wind in ’91, Brooks blamed Bowen for slower sales of The Chase in 1992 and In Pieces in 1993. And why the hell did he have to change the label’s name from Capitol Nashville (AKA “The House That Garth Built”) to Liberty and move the offices miles away from Music Row? Brooks wanted a deal like the one Michael Jackson had signed, giving him more than a 25% royalty rate: Bowen told him he wasn’t Michael Jackson, which, according to Bowen’s 1997 Rough Mix autobio,  pissed off GB to no end. In 1994, Brooks told honchos at Capitol’s parent company EMI that he wouldn’t deliver his next album if Bowen was still in charge.

The pay-per-view-worthy staredown between the control freaks was averted, however, when the label head was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in late 1994 and retired to Maui. (Garth’s Life of Chris Gaines debacle came out in ’99, it should be pointed out). As of early 2019, Bowen, 81, was living in Arizona with fifth wife Ginger. Liberty was changed back to Capitol Nashville after Bowen left.

Bowen with Floyd Cramer and Johnny Rivers


“I didn’t really like country music growing up,” said the Dumas native, who teamed with fellow West Texas State student Buddy Knox in 1956 to chase the Elvis vapors to the top of the charts.

They called their rockabilly band the Orchids and wore matching purple shirts. After Roy Orbison of Wink and his Teen Kings played the college in Canyon, Bowen asked him where he got that great sound on “Ooby Dooby,” his first single.  “Norman Petty’s studio in Clovis,” Orbison said.

A few weeks later, bassist Bowen and guitarists Knox and Don Lanier, with session drummer Dave Alldred, crossed the border into New Mexico to see if they had some magic in them. The resulting self-released single – “Party Doll” by Buddy Knox with the Orchids b/w “I’m Stickin’ With You” by Jimmy Bowen with the Orchids- attracted the attention of NYC’s Roulette Records (Lanier’s sister was a model in New York and knew co-owners Morris Levy and Phil Kahl), who split it into two 45s and renamed the band Rhythm Orchids. “Party Doll” was Roulette’s first #1 record, while Bowen’s single, with “Everlovin’ Fingers” on the flip side, hit #14. Bowen released several more 45s on Roulette, but none hit the Top 40. “When the girls stopped screaming and I could hear myself sing,” Bowen said in ’93, “I figured I needed to find another way in the music business.” Mobbed-up impressario Levy gave the kids from Texas a glimpse into the real-life music business, where payola ran radio and a couple thugs materialized whenever the subject of monies owed came up. “You want royalties,” Levy would bellow, “then go to England!”

Bowen laughed at the hard lessons learned from the record man who was the model for the Hesh character in The Sopranos. We were sitting in a whatever room in Bowen’s brick mansion on Franklin Road in late ’93, and he reminded me of Ben Johnson from The Last Picture Show in the way his drawl made every word count. He rarely went into the office, he said, because that’s where they think about today. “My mind is on next September,” he said. But not on this day, when Bowen seemed to enjoy reminiscing for a career profile in the Dallas Morning News.

After a brief time doing A&R for Bob Marcucci’s Chancellor Records (Frankie Avalon, Fabian), Bowen was hired as a staff producer at Reprise in 1963. One of his first projects with the label was “The Lonely Surfer” by Jack Nitzsche, which reached #39 on the charts. But it was his work on The Intimate Keely Smith and Dean Martin’s “Everybody Loves Somebody,” which  knocked the Beatles out of #1 in 1964, that put producer Bowen on Sinatra’s radar like a jumbo jet. Everybody else forgot that Sinatra had recorded “Everybody Loves Somebody” 17 years earlier. Rising star Bowen became part of the inner circle when he married Keely Smith, a close friend of Sinatra’s, in ‘65. He also helped first daughter Nancy Sinatra by putting her with Lee Hazlewood of Port Neches, who co-wrote and produced smash hit “These Boots Are Made For Walking” in 1966. When the Sinatra father/daughter duet had a #1 hit the next year with “Something Stupid,” Bowen was listed as co-producer though he wasn’t in the studio. The kid from Dumas was learning how the music business worked.

Sinatra and Keely Smith.

The Golden Boy and Louis Prima’s ex had a messy divorce in 1969, by which time Bowen had formed Amos Records as a mirror of Reprise, signing such past-prime acts as Bing Crosby, Frankie Laine, Mel Carter and Johnny Tillotson. The label didn’t have a single hit record in its three years, but two Amos acts would play a part in music history, when Glenn Frey of Longbranch Pennywhistle and Don Henley of Shiloh joined together with Bernie Leadon and Randy Meisner to form the Eagles. Amos LPs by Longbranch and Shiloh (whose membership also included J.D. Souther and future Warner Brothers Nashville president Jim Ed Norman, respectively) stiffed, but the Eagles released the best-selling album of all time with Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975.

Bowen’s country music mentor was Tompall Glaser, whose Hillbilly Central recording studio in Nashville gave birth to the ‘70s “country outlaw” movement with recordings by Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver, Mickey Newbury, Kris Kristofferson and many more. When he moved to Nashville in ’76, Bowen hung out at sessions and listened to every classic country record Glaser thought he should hear. Perhaps Bowen’s first great move was encouraging Hank Williams Jr. to pursue his true identity as a rowdy country rocker.

Texas can boast several top record producers as native sons. T Bone Burnett of Fort Worth helmed the multi-platinum O Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack (2001) and Raising Sand by Alison Krauss and Robert Plant (2007), in addition to acclaimed LPs by Los Lobos (How Will the Wolf Survive?), Gillian Welch (Revival) and Elvis Costello (King of America). Jim Beck of Dallas recorded Lefty Frizzell, Ray Price, Marty Robbins and many other honky tonkers in the early ’50s before he died after accidentally inhaling cleaning solution. Houston’s Huey Meaux produced classic garage rock by Sir Douglas Quintet, R&B by Barbara Lynn and country by Freddy Fender. Then there are Tom Wilson of Waco and Hillsboro’s Bob Johnston, who produced, not only classic ‘60s Bob Dylan albums (Johnston took over for Wilson on Highway 61 Revisited), but the Velvet Underground, the Animals, Frank Zappa and Sun Ra (Wilson) and Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen and Simon & Garfunkel (Johnston). Amazing bodies of work from two guys who grew up 40 miles from each other in the middle of Texas.

But no one’s resume is more impressive than Bowen’s. Before he was 30, he produced classic recordings by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Then came all those number ones in Nashville, including the dry spell-ending “Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink” for Merle Haggard and “Family Tradition” by Hank Williams Jr. His creative and business brains got together to spearhead Nashville’s conversion to digital recording technology in 1986- a year before Los Angeles studios followed suit.

The knock on Bowen, who produced an average of one album a month for 15 years, was that he was just in the room- when he wasn’t on the golf course. He usually shared production credit with the artist. But that’s how Bowen wanted it, to get the full commitment of the person whose music this was. When Reba, then a moderately successful country pop singer, signed to MCA in 1984, she told label boss Bowen she wanted to go back to her roots, with fiddles and steel guitar. He gave her the keys to make My Kind of Country, and McEntire won her first of four consecutive CMA awards for best female vocalist. There are a lot of stories like that.

Many of those Bowen fired became label heads and other prominent Nashvillians, which could be why his name is not suitably revered today. But nobody mastered both the business and the creative ends of the music industry, not to mention the pop and country fields, like Jimmy Bowen.

Through it all, he said he’s operated under a simple mantra: “You make music for tomorrow, not for today.” The records he made still stand up.

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