Andy Pratt on the Beach Boys, Steve Winwood, and More
Many people who know Andy Pratt’s music most likely became aware of his artistry through the song “Avenging Annie.” The odd song, featuring Pratt’s piercing falsetto, demanded attention and was a minor FM hit on his self-titled 1973 album.
In a recent interview, Pratt tells me where that falsetto came from. “I was a fan of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and many other singers,” he says. “I couldn’t hit the high notes with my full voice, so I used falsetto. That seemed to work sometimes, though it made me cringe, too.”
Though the calendar shows that Pratt’s 69th birthday passed at the beginning of this year, “I can often sing easily today, because I’ve done it so much,” he says.
His voice is “still pretty much the same,” as it was in the 1970s, “though I took some voice lessons and can sing higher in full voice than back then,” Pratt says. “I’m a bit lazy with warming up, breath control and all that stuff. I’m often rushing in the studio, so it’s a bit rare when I get a great vocal performance. I used doubling and various studio tricks to get it as good as possible, and it also depends on the people I work with.”
Pratt released his first album, Records Are Like Life, on a small label in 1970 and has steadily released albums through 2015’s Do You Remember Me? He says today’s songwriting is akin to when he started releasing albums.
“There’s a stronger religious element now, but the process is much the same,” Pratt says. “The songs kind of pour out of me. Sometimes, I copy my favorite songs on the radio, change them, and put my lyrics on them. It’s basic songwriting, like the Beatles. You have some music, and you fiddle until some good whole is together.”
When I ask what his greatest song, “Avenging Annie,” is about, he directs me to an article he wrote in September 2006.
“I wrote ‘Avenging Annie’ in the summer of 1972 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at my mother’s 1926 Steinway B Baby Grand piano,” Pratt explains in the article. “I had broken up with my first wife, and I was stoned on marijuana. On my turntable was the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, particularly the Woody Guthrie song ‘Pretty Boy Floyd.’
“You can clearly hear that the first part of ‘Avenging Annie’ is an altered version of ‘Pretty Boy Floyd,’” he adds. “I was going into a creative trance, and I altered Woody’s words. Then out came a Bach-like piano riff which I liked, so I began singing to it in falsetto, taking the part of a woman I called Avenging Annie. A whole story came out, which was a fantasy version of my relationship with my ex-wife, combined with the outlaw theme of the American West.
“I worked on the song for a few weeks and played it for other people who liked it. I made a demo with Rick Shlosser and Bill Riseman, which became a hit at Brown University radio WBRU. This new fame led to me being whisked away by John Nagy of Earth Opera, Clive Davis of Columbia Records and Nat Weiss of the Beatles, being wined and dined in New York City and given star treatment at the famous Black Rock on 6th Avenue. Once recorded and released on Columbia, ‘Avenging Annie’ took on a life of its own, which has never really stopped. My version was given extensive radio play, became a No. 1 single in New Orleans and Providence, and reached about No. 85 in the national charts. I did a successful tour of the East Coast, where Jimmy Buffet opened for me at Max’s Kansas City, an Andy Pratt show was broadcast from Boston’s Jazz Workshop over WBCN radio and many other wonderful things happened. The Andy Pratt record with ‘Avenging Annie’ is still available on various websites, including Amazon.com.
“Roger Daltrey covered ‘Avenging Annie’ in 1974,” Pratt continues, “and his version appeared first on his One of the Boys album, as well as other collections he released. My opinion of his version is that he was afraid to play the role of a woman in the song, and his band did not play the syncopations that we played in our version. I prefer my version. Still, I am grateful for his recognition of the song and the added exposure that he helped me to gain. Carmenica Diaz wrote a book called Avenging Annie and credits the song as the book’s inspiration, for which I thank her.”
“Avenging Annie” was a high point, but Pratt’s career after that was full of starts and stops.
“That’s true,” he says, “but behind the career was a human life. There were various shifts in the business lineup in the old music business. I read a book called Hit Men that chronicled some of that. I was signed to Polydor in around 1970 with ‘the Boston sound’ — Ultimate Spinach, the J. Geils Band, and a few others. Actually, I am not sure J. Geils was in that package, but they were in our stable. Ray Paret and David Jenks had a management company. It was the hippie days, with a lot going on.”
Many Pratt fans may be unaware that his self-titled album, which included “Avenging Annie” as the first cut, was not his debut disc. Records Are Like Life came first on a small label special, and it’s a solid recording.
“I think ‘Low Tide Island’ is a great song, and a lot of the album is good,” Pratt says. “ I was copying various jazz people like McCoy Tyner and Sergio Mendes. I did the whole record with the late Bill Riseman and drummer Rick Shlosser. I played all the other instruments and did all the vocals except for the ones Patricia, my wife at the time, sang. We enjoyed doing it, and it’s musically very good. You have to watch out for the last song ‘Records Are Like Life,’ because it was my bright idea to have it fade up rather than fade out. It gets louder and louder at the end.”
Rolling Stone writer Stephen Holden went gaga over Pratt’s third album, 1976’s Resolution, saying it “forever changed the face of rock.”
“Always emotionally charged, the instrumental textures evoke volcanic eroticism on one cut, aching tenderness on another … “ Holden wrote in a July 1976 review. “The songs carry rock harmony one step beyond the Beach Boys and the Stones. Because they modulate so frequently and unexpectedly, they require concentration. … Like the late-19th-century Romantic composers, especially Scriabin and Mahler, Pratt uses chromatic restlessness to evoke extreme emotional volatility.”
I ask Pratt how he feels about Resolution forever changing the face of rock.
“Those were heady days,” he responds. “I attended a self-help ‘life’ course in Boston in 1976. It was very inspiring for me at the time, and I wrote those songs in the six months after the course. Mark Doyle helped me write several of them. I made demos with many of my Boston musician friends at the time, plus Doyle and Rich Mendelson from Syracuse.
“Then it all got recorded in New York, produced by the late, legendary Arif Mardin. I guess Stephen [Holden] meant that there were classical, funk, and jazz influences in the music, and the words were very idealistic. I know people who were very touched by that record.”
Nine or so albums followed from 1977 to 2001, but I am most curious about Pratt’s 2003 album, Cover Me. He covers 10 songs on the disc: “Under Pressure” by David Bowie and Queen; Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me”; “Don’t Worry Baby” by Brian Wilson and Roger Christian; Jimmy Cliff’s “Harder They Come”; Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message”; “Goin’ Back” by Gerry Goffin and Carole King; Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors”; Aaron Neville’s “Tell It Like It Is,”; “Beauty’s Only Skin Deep” a Temptations song with some added lyrics by Pratt, and John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance.”
“Well, I love Brian Wilson and Beach Boys music,” he says, “but my version of ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ isn’t the best. That was perhaps the most important song in my music life — all their stuff really.”
Besides Wilson, who are Pratt’s other songwriting heroes? “John Lennon, Bowie, Stones, Stevie Winwood, Willie Nelson, etc., etc., any good song going back pretty far with me.”
Pratt says the best concert he ever attended as a spectator was a show by Bob Dylan and his Rolling Thunder Revue. He says he can’t remember the date or venue. Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, which included a traveling caravan of musicians included Joan Baez, Roger McGuinn, Mick Ronson, Bobby Neuwirth, T-Bone Burnett, Scarlet Rivera, David Mansfield and others, toured from fall 1975 through spring 1976.
Equally as good as the Rolling Thunder show was a 1970 concert by Jimi Hendrix at the Boston Garden, Pratt says. It was on June 27 and would be Hendrix’s final Boston concert before his death three months later. The concert featured many Hendrix staples, including “Foxy Lady,” “Red House,” and “Purple Haze, and he played the national anthem mid-concert prior to breaking into Dylan’s blazing “All Along the Watchtower.”
Concerts that most influenced Pratt as a musician were held at Boston’s legendary Jazz Workshop in the 1960s.
He says he saw many of the jazz greats there and “listened to a lot of Bill Evans.” He says he also was influenced by classical music, including compositions of Vladimir Horowitz. And he keeps listening today.
“These days, I’m listening to an album by Misha Piatigorsky, who’s a current jazz pianist,” Pratt says. “It’s piano trio stuff, and it’s excellent.”