Gary James' Interview With Michael Brewer of
Brewer and Shipley
Sometimes all it takes is one hit song to establish yourself in the music business. For Brewer and Shipley that song was "One Toke Over The Line", which was a Top Ten hit back in 1971. That song was not without controversy, but we'll let Michael Brewer address that topic as well as a host of others.
Q - The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia Of Rock And Roll described Brewer and Shipley as "Folk Rockers". How accurate would you say that is?
A - I would say that's pretty accurate.
Q - Oh, they're right for a change!
A - Yeah. It's funny you should mention that because when my daughters were young, one day they came home from school and said "Dad, there's a book in the library that you're in!" (laughs) That's the one you're talking about.
Q - Brewer and Shipley formed in 1968?
A - Actually, about '67. Our first album came out in '68 titled "Down In L.A.". It was on A&M Records. That's how we got together. Tom and I were both Folk singers, playing the coffee house circuit in the '60s as solos. We both ended up in California. I had a partner before Tom and we had a band. We toured with The Byrds at the time "Eight Miles High" was their current single. The Buffalo Springfield formed in the house next door to me. In fact, that's where they got their name, off this machine right in front of my house. Anyway, Tom came to L.A. We knew each other from the Folk circuit. At this point my other partner and I had split up. I was a staff writer for one of A&M's publishing companies. Tom and I ended up co-writing a couple of tunes. I helped him get a job doing the same thing. We continued to write songs. We'd go in and demo them for the publishing company. It didn't take long for them or us to realize that we had sort of a sound and style of our own. That's how our first album came about.
Q - What did you call yourself on that Byrds tour?
A - Mastin and Brewer.
Q - Was that a nation-wide tour?
A - No. Just Southern California.
Q - So, when you signed a songwriting contract with A&M in 1965, that meant you wrote for other artists on the label?
A - Right.
Q - Who did you write for and how did you get that job?
A - Well, Mastin and I had a recording contract with Columbia. Just about the time we had a single ready to come out and we were going in to record an album, he just freaked. He couldn't take the pressure and he just split. The Buffalo Springfield and us, we were packing 'em in at the Whisky A Go Go. Mastin told me he met some girl and was moving in with her. He asked if I'd bring his amp to the gig, which I did and he just never showed. About three days later a mutual friend said "I just saw Tom in San Francisco." At least I knew which direction he headed. Our man at Columbia Records was leaving and going to this brand new record company just being formed by these two guys...Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss. At that time A&M Records and their publishing company was literally an office with some filing cabinets. Then they went on to get the Perry Mason studios, which before that was the Charlie Chaplin studios, for their headquarters. He just kind of took me under his wing to A&M and I got the job as a staff writer.
Q - So, who did you write for?
A - Well, it's not like you specifically write songs for somebody. You just write songs. Maybe you could get somebody to cut 'em. I had tunes recorded by Glen Yarborough, Noel Harrison, Rex Harrison's son, and a group called HP Lovecraft. Then Tom and I had various songs recorded by various artists as well. Then we started doing our own. I've written songs since then that have been recorded by Stephen Stills, Don McLean, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Jonathan Edwards and various Bluegrass groups.
Q - When did you first arrive in L.A.? The mid-sixties?
A - Yeah. I originally was out there for several months the first time I was out there. Actually, I went to San Francisco and lived there for a year and moved to L.A. for about two or three more years. That's when Tom came out, when I was down in L.A.
Q - That had to have been an exciting time to have been in California. If you were in the Bay Area, did you see some of the hot up and coming bands of the day?
A - Oh gosh, yeah. There was a club called The Matrix. I used to see on the same bill at the club, The Jefferson Airplane before Grace Slick and The Grateful Dead and The Quicksilver Messenger Service and golly...the list just went on and on.
Q - How about Janis and Big Brother?
A - Yeah. I did see them, but that was after. That was later.
Q - Did you catch The Doors at The Whisky?
A - Oh, sure. And there was a club called The Troubadour that aside from the regular artists that did their shows there on Monday nights...it was Hootenanny night. Open mic night. You paid your dollar to get to play. If you didn't get a chance to play, you got your dollar back. On any given Monday night, it was everybody before they were famous from Linda Ronstadt to Jackson Browne. The first time I saw him he was 17 years old. You never knew who you were gonna see. You never knew who was gonna end up being famous.
Q - This first album of yours, "Down In L.A." was actually a demo of your songs?
A - Well, actually that was our first album. The songs were basically made up of demos. That's where most of these songs came from, songs that we had written for A&M. Basically, we were writing for ourselves. In fact, when I listen to our first three albums today, they're pretty cool little time capsules actually. We didn't intend for them to be at the time, but they are. They hold up.
Q - What I was trying to get at is, the album is not made up of actual demos you recorded, is it?
A - No. We went back in and re-recorded everything.
Q - So, that was wrong. You didn't get mad and move to a commercial farm outside of Kansas City and switch to Kama Sutra Records?
A - (laughs) I just love the press, don't you? It never ceases to crack me up how inaccurate they are. But, it's in print and if somebody didn't know any better, you take it as gospel.
Q - That's were I come in.
A - Exactly. It wasn't made up of demos. The songs were songs we wrote for A&M that we had demoed. That's what got us a deal. It wasn't working out at all with this guy, Alan Stanton, who was the guy who brought me there in the first place. He was producing us, but it was different worlds. He was old school and we were definitely new school. And this is when artists were first starting to write their own songs, much less have any control over production. Up to that point, you just went into the studio and did what you were told. We were basically producing ourselves. It just wasn't' working out. We weren't getting what we were wanting. So, we ended up doing half the album at Leon Russell's home studio. That's when he was going by his real name, Russell Bridges. He played a bunch of keyboard on that album. Jimmy Messina played bass.
Q - When did you move to that communal farm?
A - We never did. (laughs) We left L.A. 'cause we named our album "Down In L.A.", if that gives you any idea of how we felt living out there. We just figured there had to be a better way to make music and hopefully earn your living without living in L.A. or San Francisco or Nashville or New York. So, we ended up in Kansas City. We didn't plan to move to K.C. One thing led to another and we just did. We did have a little farm outside of town and lived there for several years.
Q - How did Kama Sutra enter the picture?
A - Well, basically we got out of our deal with A&M because in those days the business couldn't relate to you if you didn't live in L.A., San Francisco, Nashville or New York. The fact that we'd gone back to the Heartland meant to them that we had quit the business. We formed a management, production company in Kansas City called Good Karma Productions. We ended up going East instead of West. I can't remember how Buddha / Kama Sutra ended up being the label we signed with. I know that Neil Bogart was the King of Bubblegum at the time. This is when FM music and album music was really happening. It wasn't just all about singles. We were definitely album artists. He wanted to get into that and shatter his King of Bubblegum image. So, we were one of the first album artists he signed.
Q - How well did you do at Kama Sutra Records?
A - We did well. We did five albums for Buddha.
Q - What happened when "One Toke Over The Line" hit?
A - Well, a lot of things happened. Well, basically we were living on the road at this point anyway, trying to establish our company in Kansas City. We played virtually every high school gymnasium and college in the entire heartland. Well, all over the country for that matter. We just kept on touring. We just started playing much bigger places and got paid a lot more. (laughs) That was the main thing that happened with "One Toke". And of course it was controversial. We wrote that song one night just entertaining ourselves in the dressing room of this little coffee house in Kansas City. Little did we know that it would end up being a Classic Rock hit, still played 25 - 30 years later, not to mention the fact that at the time it was the Nixon / Agnew administration. This was when the FCC was threatening radio stations with censoring lyrics. It was just ridiculous. In fact, Spiro Agnew named us personally on national TV one night as "subversives to American youth." (laughs) We loved it! We made Nixon's enemies list! It got us more publicity than we could have paid for. But, it was very controversial. At exactly the same time, and I swear this is true, and this is an example of how a song is what ever you interpret it to be, Lawrence Welk did "One Toke Over The Line". He introduced it as a Gospel song.
Q - On his TV show?
A - Yup.
Q - I won't ask you what you meant in that song...
A - Well, I wouldn't tell you anyway. I always told everybody it's whatever you want it to be.
Q - To me, it's just a catchy Pop song.
A - Right. To this day, so many people still think it's "One Tote Over The Line". (laughs) They don't even know what the word was. It is what you want it to be.
Q - How long did it take you to write that song?
A - It was a fast one. We basically wrote it entertaining ourselves one night. We were bored in the dressing room of a coffee house between shows.
Q - Where did you debut the song in concert?
A - We played Carnegie Hall, opening for Melanie and we got an encore and we were out of songs. We had just written that. So, we did that song. Everybody just went crazy. That's when Neil Bogart came backstage and said "you've got to record that song." And we did.
Q - What keeps you busy these days?
A - We started our own company. One Toke Productions and opened our website (BrewerAndShipley.com), started doing shows again and made our own CDs. We recorded one called "Shanghai" and one called "Heartland". Actually, we have a CDs worth of songs that are literally ten years old that we wrote back during the Persian Gulf War that we really need to get into the studio and record, because it would just be so timely right now.