Gary James' Interview With Songwriter
Jack Tempchin has written some memorable songs. He wrote "Swayin' To The Music (Slow Dancing)", which was a hit for Johnny Rivers. He wrote "Peaceful Easy Feeling" and co-wrote "Already Gone" for The Eagles. He would go on to write with Glenn Frey of The Eagles. Some of the songs those two guys wrote include "You Belong To The City" and "Smuggler's Blues". Jack Tempchin's songs have been either performed or recorded by the likes of Glen Campbell, Linda Ronstadt, Richie Havens, Tanya Tucker, Sammy Kershaw, Tom Rush, George Jones, Buck Owens, Emmylou Harris, Chris Hillman, Randy Meisner and Jackson Brown to name just a few. He's also performed or toured with three of The Eagles, Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh and Timothy B. Schmit. He's also played with Poco, Jackson Browne, Chicago, Jimmy Webb, Dave Mason, Barry McGuire and Kenny Loggins. These days you'll find Jack Tempchin involved with his "Peaceful Easy Feeling" tour. It's a real honor to speak with such a gifted songwriter.
Q - Jack, how different would The Eagles' and Glenn Frey's career have been without your assistance and your songs?
A - (laughs) Well, I'd have to say it would have been a little bit different, but they still would have been great, just as great, just as spectacular being successful, I think. We're dealing with some amazingly, incredible guys. I only wrote two of their hits really. They've got so many hits that you could go see them play for three and a half hours and you already know every song. I won't say I didn't have a contribution. "Peaceful Easy Feeling", the way they did it was just kind of a perfect mood for the times in Southern California. It's like if I wrote two songs for The Rolling Stones. You could take any two of the greatest songs from guys like that and they still have so much greatness, it's overwhelming. That's kind of how I feel. I was fortunate that some of my work was able to be of use to them.
Q - Are you currently in a group called Rocket Science?
A - No. For the last five or six years I haven't worked with a band. I've been playing solo. I only played locally with Rocket Science. At one point I decided I needed a social life too. So, I got all my good friends in this area of San Diego and started a band called Rocket Science. I didn't pick the best players. I just picked the guys I liked the most. (laughs) We played once a week for thirteen years at this restaurant. So, that was Rocket Science.
Q - You played cover tunes then?
A - No. I played all original stuff. But then after a little bit I decided for the benefit of all my friends in the band that we rotated through the night playing songs so they could play any songs they wanted and they started playing some originals. It was really good for them and everybody.
Q - Rocket Science is a funny name.
A - Yeah.
Q - You can go to school and study to be a rocket scientist, but you can't go to any school to learn how to write the songs you wrote.
A - I suppose that's true. (laughs)
Q - We know it's true. Creativity is a hard thing to teach other people. You either have it or you don't. It's that simple.
A - Well, I think that might be true. I talked with Glenn Frey quite a bit about it because he was teaching songwriting in New York at some university. He taught at UCLA. It's just kind of like, can you help someone write to the extent where it bumps up the quality of their songs? To me that's still a mystery, if you can or not. Most people, their songs remain a consistent quality through their whole life. There's only a few people that I've noticed who at some point got better. You know what I'm saying?
Q - Yes, I do. An example of that might be the songwriting of John Lennon and Paul McCartney.
A - That's true, but still their early songs like "I Want To Hold Your Hand", those are masterpieces as well as far as I feel.
Q - You didn't pick up a guitar until you were 18.
A - That's true.
Q - Shortly thereafter you started writing your own songs. What kind of songs would you write?
A - At that time?
Q - Yes. Not everyone can start off playing someone else's material and then sit down and write their own songs.
A - Well, it was funny. It happened in a couple of ways. Every musician was in a band when they were in high school. I didn't begin to start playing until I was 18. Then I didn't do many cover songs. Frankly, I was just not very good. Even a Blues song, I would do a Blues and my friend, who was a Blues guy would say, "What did you do to that song?" They wouldn't even recognize it. (laughs) Not being very good a playing any cover songs; I played a few folkie cover songs, but I just started writing my own songs. I had a good friend named Joe and we'd go down and sit on the beach and he would start playing some figure on the guitar. If you take a D chord and move it up and down the neck and then he would just start making up songs. He would make up a song for forty-five minutes. We would be sitting on the beach and then I would start helping him and we would do that all the time. One time I said, "Joe, some of these things are super great. Maybe we should write 'em down or something." And Joe said, "Jack, that would ruin it. That's not cool." (laughs) But he kind of kicked off the idea that I would write.
Q - I don't understand your friend's remark. Was he afraid it would turn into a business? And then he would have to take it very seriously instead of just fooling around?
A - No, that wasn't it. It was almost a religious thing with him, you know like every year the Zen Monks used to send some people to Lucy's Bella Adobe restaurant where they would do a sand painting for a month, dropping one grain of colored sand at a time to do those Mandawa sand paintings. Then when they're done with this incredibly laborious, perfectionist thing, they take the sand and dump it in the ocean, see? It's like that's what he was talking about. To him, it was just like, no, the flow goes through you and you just do it and there's no thought of capturing it. I guess it's hard to explain. He didn't think of himself as in the music business. He just said, "This is the way you live, create." (laughs) I don't know. It's kind of a unique perspective.
Q - After coffee houses started closing in San Diego in 1972, you moved to Los Angeles and started hanging around The Troubadour. What was going on at The Troubadour then? I believe Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne performed there. Were you at The Troubadour the night John Lennon was heckling The Smothers Brothers?
A - I was not there that particular night. I was there the first night that Elton John played in this country. (laughs) Of course, we didn't have any idea who he was. I just happened to be there. This guy starts playing and about half way through he kicks over the piano stool. He keeps playing and people are just standing up. I saw Join Mitchell. I saw Gram Parsons when he had just returned from hanging out with The Stones and he was wearing a Nudie suit. It's a suit made by a tailor named Nudie. Those elaborate, embroidered, spangled cloths. After going and hanging out with The Rolling Stones, Gram Parsons tried to be more flamboyant. He had a Country Nudie suit. So, I saw him there. I saw everybody. I used to play the Monday Night Hoots at the Troubadour. I played harmonica with the band Longbranch Pennywhistle, which was Glenn Frey and J.D. Souther. So, they were a duo and I played harmonica at The Troubadour at some of those shows. So, what was going on? I had met J.D. and Glenn 'cause they came down to San Diego and used to stay at my place all the time. When I went up to L.A. they kind of helped me. I remember going up by myself and just like standing in line to play Monday night like everybody did. Then after I played once or twice, Matt Cramer, who was doing it at the time, said, "You don't have to stand in line anymore. You can just tell me you're coming and I'll put you on (the list)." (laughs) Then of course we'd go hang out in the bar. If you didn't want to pay and see the show you'd be in the bar, but the bathroom was in the club. So you could always go into the club to use the bathroom and then see who was playing. At some point Doug Webster, who owned The Troubadour, offered to sign me to a seven year recording contract. That was kind of exciting. Eventually I did not do it. He opened another club in San Francisco, but I spent a lot of great times at The Troubadour. Tom Waits, who I knew from San Diego, was doing big things at The Troubadour. It was happening and we all knew it was happening. All the people you heard on record who were bit in the Folk scene, they appeared there in person. So, it was just kind of a stupendous time right there.
Q - You had Paul Rothchild produce your group, Funky Kings. He was in the studio with The Doors. Did he ever talk about those days with you?
A - No, not so much. Paul was an incredible guy. I really miss him. He also did Janis Joplin's record. He lived in a huge piece of acreage right in L.A. with only one little tiny house in the middle of it, right? He had been given this land by Janis Joplin. It's a huge piece of empty, beautiful land which nobody has in L.A. and then on the border there's some kind of wilderness area too. He decided to build a little house there so he hired a carpenter to help him, although he could also build a house. He built this beautiful, little place. He told me in the middle of building it, his carpenter got called away because the carpenter wanted to be an actor and it was Harrison Ford. Such a cool story to hear the guy working on your house turns out be Raiders Of The Lost Ark. We didn't ask him that much (about The Doors).
Q - You write your songs on guitar?
A - Yeah.
Q - Which comes first, the music or the words?
A - Mostly the idea comes first, like I'll have an idea for a song. But then I'll play and I'll just make up songs. Suddenly I'll go, "Hey, that line was pretty good!" Then I'll build a song around that idea and that line and maybe a little melody riff that I came up with. The melody and the words kind of grow together at the same time. A lot of people do it every which way. Some people just write the lyrics first and do it that way, and some just write the music, but I don't. I kind of do 'em all at the same time.
Q - Do you write songs on a regular schedule or just when inspiration hits?
A - Mostly inspiration. I'm constantly working on stuff 'cause I get a bunch of ideas every day. But I don't try to just sit down and write. I guess I've done that a few times. I used to have a thing called Song A Day where for a couple of months I wrote a song every day and put it up on the Internet. I wrote a lot of songs like that, but then I sort of lost that particular discipline. Then when I worked with Glenn Frey there was a lot of pressure. We'd think of a song; he was going to make a record so we had to finish it. But usually I don't put myself on a schedule. I just write 'em as they come.
Q - What happened to all of your Song A Day songs? Did anyone, including yourself end up recording them?
A - They're up there on the Internet on YouTube under Jack Tempchin's Song A Day. A bunch of 'em did get recorded. It was really challenging because not only did I write the song, this was years ago when YouTube was not that big, and I had to do a little video of it by the end of the day which took almost as much time as writing and learning it. That was pretty good. Recently I started going down to the beach here where I live, setting up stuff and just playing for hours every day on a cliff overlooking the beach. Then I capture everything I do on my iPhone and get home and use all that stuff I made up to write songs. I just find sitting on the beach, looking out at the sky conducive to making things up.
Q - Are you ever interrupted?
A - Oh, yeah. Sure. (laughs) But it's not a problem.
Q - I would think your concentration would be broken when a girl in a bikini walks by.
A - Well, I wrote a song recently called "Me Oh My I Smile Everytime A Pretty Girl Goes By". Basically I would turn that girl into a song, which I did. Then I'm a little older now, so I kind of go I don't have to know her. I don't have to kiss her. I just have to see her go by and that makes my day because it's like watching a seagull fly across the sunset sky. Whatever is happening comes in your mind and comes out as a song.
Q - You went out as an opening act for singers and groups. How were you treated as an opening act?
A - Well, it was wonderful. In '76 I had the Funky Kings band that Rothchild produced and after that I did a solo album for Clive Davis on Arista. At that point I became an opening act. I opened for the whole Christopher Cross tour and I opened for just about everybody. I opened for Chicago, Tower Of Power, Kenny Loggins. Eventually I opened for Ringo Starr for a tour on his tours. It was terrific because I would just go out and play thirty minutes and entertain the crowd. I got to play the biggest, best venues in the country over and over again. That was a great, fun period.
Q - You actually opened for Ringo? He has all these musicians that are featured in his All Starr Band. So, how did that work for you?
A - I was a solo act. (laughs) I met Randy Bachman in Nashville. He said, "I'm going to be in Ringo Starr's band. I go, "Great! Who's the opening act?" He said, "Well, nobody." I got the manager's name and I just called and left a message with the manager, (laughs) or the promoter who's putting on the tour. I said, "Yeah. I'll play really cheap. I want to travel with the band on the bus, so I don't have to have a roadie. I'll stay in the same hotels and I'll play really cheap." So they gave my record to Ringo and he said, "Okay." I would go on and play thirty minutes before The All Starr Band. Mark Farner from Grand Funk was in that band. John Entwhistle was in that band and I got to know him pretty well before he died. Every year Ringo goes out he has a new band. These are the guys that were in the band for that particular tour.
Q - Glenn Frey seemed like a pretty easy going guy to get along with and work with, but was he?
A - For me, absolutely. Even a few years before he died I was sitting down, thinking about it and kind of going in all the time I've know him, and I knew Glenn for forty-seven years, and we were really good friends for quite a few years before he put The Eagles together, we never wrote a song together until The Eagles broke up in 1980. We'd never written a song together, but he used to stay at my house in San Diego. Then of course he did two of my songs with The Eagles. So, he was just a great friend. I'm sure a lot of people have different views of Glenn because he had this huge organization he had to run and keep it pure as far as the creativity. I was just thinking he was a stand-up guy. He always treated me really well. He didn't lie. It was kind of amazing. There's very few people in my life, my Dad, a couple of people I go, "That's a stand-up guy." He was a fantastic guy. I don't know exactly when The Eagles broke up. We wrote together for fourteen years. So, we wrote most of Glenn's albums. That was a fantastic time. I got to spend a lot of time with him. It was just terrific. I always looked forward to his call and I always looked forward to seeing him. We had an incredible amount of fun writing all those songs. Frankly, for those fourteen years we had songs on the radio pretty frequently for the whole time. Every time he did an album we had a couple of hits. There's nothing like that. There's nothing like knowing that your song is being played consistently on the radio throughout the country or the world. Of course, I miss that a lot. I love being a songwriter.
Q - You're very fortunate to have found something you like and make a living at it.
A - It's almost a miracle. I don't think you can decide you're going to do that. You just have to fall into it and be born with whatever it takes, and be lucky.
Q - You know the saying, the harder you work, the luckier you get.
A - That's part of it too. After I had "Peaceful Easy Feeling" I thought I don't want to be a guy who wrote one song. (laughs) So I had to work really hard to get more hits to prove to myself that I actually deserved to be there somehow.
Official Website: www.JackTempchin.com
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