By Bill Conrad (His Prep School Pal)
Summer of 1969, I was in London when I saw a flyer advertising the Byrds at Royal Albert Hall. Melody Maker, the local music news, suggested that a few Beatles and Stones might attend. That was incentive enough for me.
The Byrds took the stage and launched into "Turn, Turn, Turn." Other than band leader Roger McGuinn, I had no idea who was in the band. What happened next became one of my life's unforgettable moments. Applause for the first song faded and McGuinn announced, "We're gonna let our keyboard man, Gram Parsons, sing one of his songs." I stared in disbelief as a long-haired 21-year-old pal I last saw at our high school graduation in 1965, strapped on a guitar, and walked to center stage.
The first eight words "In South Carolina/There Are Many Tall Pines," caused me to lean forward in my seat and listen in rapt amazement. That unique tenor, which three years earlier resonated in my left ear as our little chorus performed for the ladies of Lakewood, was now singing for thousands of paying customers in London.
In my wallet, I had cards which identified me as manager of The Illusions, Columbia Recording Artists. On the back I wrote, "Gram—Would like to see you. B.Conrad-Bolles." When the show ended, I followed a herd of fans to a door behind the stage where a beefy security guard allowed for a chosen few to enter I angled my way forward and offered my business card with a shout, "I'd like to see Gram Parsons. I'm an old friend." The big guy allowed me to pass my card through the peephole. A few minutes later, the door opened again and the big man gave me the OK. I was led through one small dressing room into another, where Gram sat, grinning and extending a hand.
We were allowed an uninterrupted chat that filled in some blanks between Bolles and that moment. I looked at him and said in continued amazement, "The Byrds!" That's when he told me he was leaving the band to do his own thing. I wasn't sure I was supposed to be hearing that before the band, before the press. Ninety days earlier in Nashville, Gram and the Byrds recorded Sweetheart of the Rodeo, an album that was more him than Byrds, an album destined to change American pop music.
He was as calm as if he had just offered me a stick of gum, and I admired him all the more for that. He then invited me to an after-show party where famous folk, including Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, would be hanging out. For a split second I was there, but said, "Nah, I'm on a motorcycle, and don't know my way around London."
He tried one more time, "Just come around back and follow us. We'll get you home later."
"Maybe." I smiled, meaning probably not. We shook hands, and never saw each other again.
Five years later, Gram overdosed and died from a combination of alcohol and morphine. He was in Room #8 at the Joshua Tree Inn, near the national park of the same name, just east of L.A.
A few days after our backstage reunion, Melody Maker splashed a headline: "Byrd Gram Says No to South Africa." The band was already in Cape Town without him. Below the headline, was a stock photo of Gram, looking pensive under a previous haircut, and wearing an army officer's jacket. Clever Gram, over a decade before America actively helped end apartheid, linked it with his split from the Byrds. Mandela was only five years into imprisonment that would last another twenty-two.
When asked how much he knew about South Africa's racial politics, Gram answered honestly, "I knew very little about South Africa before the tour was mentioned. I knew there was an intense problem, and knew right off I didn't want to go."
In an autobiography later written by Keith Richards, Gram's stance on apartheid was described as the result of his budding friendship and conversations with Keith. The pair became almost inseparable for a few years and at one point Gram's name was mentioned as a replacement for Brian Jones, an original Stone whose drug abuse got him fired from the band in June of 1969, and caused his death the following month. Mick Jagger had enough problems with Richard's' drug abuse. He never considered Parsons as a replacement for Jones.
Gram and I first met in 1963, during our junior year at Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida. He quickly became a high school pal with whom I shared some classes, laughs and music. After graduation, he wasted little time becoming a music star, and was credited with merging rock with country.
Bolles was a former military academy that had just switched to boys prep. There were less than four hundred students enrolled and over half were locals. I was a "day boy," and Gram from Winter Haven, near Orlando, lived on campus. He and I were both from dysfunctional families, a condition familiar to many of the boys at Bolles, but my parents were Ward and June Cleaver when compared with the Southern Gothic Gram was born into on November 5th1945.
He spent the first ten years of his life in Waycross, Georgia where his father, Ingram "Coon Dog" Connor ran a fruit-box factory for John A. "Papa John" Snively of Winter Haven. Avis Snively Connor was Gram's mother, and she didn't care much for life in Waycross. Alcoholism and depression became chronic conditions in both families. Papa John owned more than eighteen thousand acres of citrus groves and timberland from central Florida to south Georgia. Drink and disappointment with his family's lack of business sense caused his demise in 1958. That same year, two days before Christmas, Coon Dog Connor was found dead in his bedroom with a bullet in his head. Avis, Gram, and a younger sister, Little Avis, were in Winter Haven, expecting daddy "home" for the holidays.
Devastated by his father's suicide, 12-year-old Gram was never able to shake that awful moment. Money and love for her children kept Avis functional. In 1961, she met and married Louisiana playboy, Bob Parsons. The Snively siblings saw a gold digger but had no say in the matter.
Gram had become a father figure for Little Avis and he needed one as well. Bob Parsons showered the children with gifts and affection, and asked them to become his adopted children. Gram had a new father and a new name, but found Bob a moving target, not into raising children, including two daughters from a previous marriage.
Bob and Avis enrolled Gram at Bolles School for his junior year in 1963. At sixteen, he already played piano and guitar at a professional level, but it was his tenor voice that made him unique.
Our favorite instructor was an English teacher from New Hampshire. Bob Hubbard was our own D.H. Lawrence: lean, bearded, and brooding. He did not just teach English, he performed it. Gram was his most talented and creative student; I was more of a project.
We shared a few lines in a Drama Club production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, and a few songs in Chorus where my untrained tenor was placed right beside Gram's amazing voice. Christmas season in 1964, we were bussed to a Lakewood Women's Club luncheon. Our show stopper was "The Whiffenpoof Song" We're poor little lambs who have lost our way, baa, baa, baa... I kept losing the harmony part and suffered Gram's elbow each time. After "Deck the Halls," he was introduced, and with his guitar proceeded to blow those sweet southern moms away.
As Graduation day approached, we southern boys prepared to attend our favorite southern colleges. As usual, Gram amazed everyone and got accepted to Harvard. Our gang of sixty-nine boys graduated on June 5th 1965. On that same day, in a Winter Haven hospital, Avis Parsons died from too much drinking. She would have turned forty-two on June 8th. Bob Parsons kept the news private until Gram had a diploma in hand. Gram Parsons was gone before the ceremony ended, and gone forever from most of our lives.
He dropped out of Harvard after one semester. Wofford College managed to keep me enrolled part time until I reunited with Gram in London. Because he died so young, I wish I had followed him to that party, if only to hang back and observe. When you're young, you say goodbye and assume you will meet again in this lifetime.
His adopted father, Bob Parsons, died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1975. Little sister, Avis, and her 16-year-old daughter died in a 1991 boating accident. Apart from a life filled with tragedy, Gram Parsons left a musical legacy that includes half a dozen albums featuring his beautiful voice and compositions.