Carla Olson: ‘Gene Clark Taught Me So Many Things About Singing’
Carla Olson sang, played guitar, and was a leader of the highly respected Los Angeles-based rock band the Textones long before she met Gene Clark. Yet she credits the late Byrds singer for providing her with a musical education.
“Gene taught me so many things about singing,” Olson says, “He used his voice like a woodwind or a cello, with subtlety. Gene showed me that I had to back off the mic — not just belt it out — to make every word count.
“He was a superb guitarist and could hold his own with the likes of Bob Dylan, Donovan, and Joan Baez. I loved the way he played the rhythm parts and the bass lines at the same time, which came from playing solo for many years. He was also an excellent harmonica player and used his beautiful whistle as an instrument as well.”
Olson teamed with Clark for live shows and the 1987 album So Rebellious a Lover.
“Because he had played solo so much, I had to find my place in the song, whether to use a different inversion of a chord, or find a harmony that fit,” Olson recalls. “Many times I opted for a unison part but an octave above. That seemed appropriate to create a single voice on some lines.”
Olson remembers Clark as “incredibly giving and patient.” She says they had a lot of fun working together — “lots of laughs, jokes and tomfoolery.”
Olson was a huge Byrds fan long before she met Clark. She bought their first two albums, Mr. Tambourine Man and Turn! Turn! Turn!, when they were released in 1965.
“I had switched from classical piano — my father’s occupation as a young man — to folk guitar, and I wore out my LPs learning to play and sing like the Byrds and the Beau Brummels. We had our version of the British Invasion.”
Olson first met Clark at a club in West Los Angeles where he was playing with his band, the Firebyrds, which, Olson says, included Byrds drummer Michael Clarke, Matt Andes, Michael Hardwick, and Peter Oliva.
“They played their set to a room of maybe 50, mostly UCLA students who were there to drink,” Olson recalls. “At the end of the show, the Gene Clark fans coaxed an encore out of them, and they launched into ‘I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better.’ Tom Slocum, one of Gene’s friends, was sitting in the next booth and asked if he could join us. The next thing I knew he was taking my hand and pulling me along toward the stage. He said, ‘You can sing with them on this one, you know it — right?’ Halfway through the guitar solo, Gene says, ‘Hi, I’m Gene Clark,’ to which I replied, ‘Carla, Carla Olson, nice to meet you!’ ”
Olson, who says her relationship with Clark was strictly musical, says his song “For A Spanish Guitar” is “the perfect composition,” poetically and musically. “The melody is very complex, yet follows a natural progression modulating within the verses. Bob Dylan has been quoted as saying that it’s ‘something I or anyone else would have been proud to have written.’ “
Another beautiful Clark song is “Gypsy Rider,” Olson says. “It conjured images, the first time Gene played it for me, of Michael Parks’s character in Then Came Bronson, the 1969 television series. I think that Gene envied that lifestyle — the drifter with a kind heart. I wish that Willie Nelson would cut this song, because it’s perfect for him. “Gypsy Rider” debuted on the duet album I recorded with Gene, So Rebellious A Lover.”
Despite the beautiful music she made with Clark and during other times in her career, Olson says her proudest accomplishments are the Textones’ two albums, Midnight Mission and Cedar Creek.
“We were a band of five very diverse backgrounds and musical influences,” she says. “What we had in common was the energy and desire to entertain. Our music may have been either ahead of its time or too retro stylistically. The fans got it, but the labels did not.”
A new album by the Textones — which, besides Olson, now includes George Callins, Tom Junior Morgan, Joe Read and Rick Hemmert — is being recorded. “Even though we are spread out all over the globe, the five of us have managed to write songs together and share the same passion for the music that we continue to make.”
Olson says it was “a thrill and an honor” to tour with and play alongside drummer/harmony vocalist Phil Seymour in the Textones and on their 1984 Midnight Mission album. Seymour, who had also performed with Del Shannon and Dwight Twilley, was stricken with lymphoma and died in 1993 at age 41.
“He was such a generous and talented soul,” Olson says. “It is such a shame that he passed away at such a young age.”
Midnight Mission was produced by rock and blues great Barry Goldberg and Brad Gilderman. Goldberg, a current member of the Rides with Stephen Stills and Kenny Wayne Shepherd, has too long a resume to list in this column. Among other things, he played with Muddy Waters, Otis Rush, and Howlin’ Wolf, formed the Electric Flag with Mike Bloomfield and was the keyboardist for Bob Dylan when Dylan went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival.
Olson has traded the favor and produced two of Goldberg’s records. She also has produced albums by Paul Jones, (former Manfred Mann lead singer), Joe Louis Walker, Jake Andrews, Mare Winningham, and Chubby Tavares and tracks by Otis Rush, Sugar Blue, Roy Gaines, Taj Mahal, BJ Thomas, Billy Joe Royal, and Brenton Wood.
“One particularly memorable session was in London,” Olson says, “when Eric Clapton played on the first of the two Paul Jones albums that I produced.”
Clapton and other guitarists who played with John Mayall and his Bluesbreakers — Peter Green, Mick Taylor and Harvey Mandel — and Jeff Beck and the Yardbirds “were the players all my friends and I admired,” she says.
“After seeing Jimi Hendrix play four times, the bar was set so high that you knew you needed to be fearless to walk out on stage,” Olson says. “I was also so lucky to live in Austin where we got to see touring acts like Lightnin’ Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, Muddy Waters, Big Joe Williams, Mance Lipscomb, Jimmy Reed, Big Mama Thornton, and other blues artists who performed at the Vulcan Gas Company.
“For a paltry $1.50 a night, you could see these acts every week. Other great shows were Poco, Moby Grape, Johnny Winter, Steve Miller, Freddie King, B.B. King, and Austin’s great local bands who many times were the opening acts — Donnie Erickson’s New Atlantis, Jimmie Vaughn’s band Texas, and Shivas’s Headband.”
The best concert she has seen, Olson says, was the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Soft Machine at the Municipal Auditorium in San Antonio, Texas, on Aug. 2, 1968.
“I went with my friend John Staehely, who would join Jo Jo Gunne a decade later,” Olson recalls. “We drove down from Austin in the afternoon to see if we could catch their soundcheck, and the road manager was in a panic, because the night before someone had stolen all of Jimi’s guitar cases. So we offered to drive them to San Antonio Music to purchase replacements. As a thank you, they invited us to have dinner at the hotel with them and Robert Wyatt, the drummer of Soft Machine.
“Then they asked if we wanted to come to the hotel after the show and meet the band. We spent an hour or so in Jimi’s suite listening to an acetate copy of Jeff Beck’s album Truth, which was just being released. About 1 a.m., Jimi and (drummer) Mitch (Mitchell) said they really felt like jamming and asked whether anywhere was open, so they could do so. The HemisFair, the 1968 World’s Fair, was taking place and had a nightclub called Love Street that was open until 4 a.m. So we piled into two cars and drove them there. Our friends, the Sweet Smoke, from Fort Worth, were playing, and there were about 15 people inside when Jimi and Mitch took the stage. Jimi played Ron Thibert’s Gibson ES 335 upside down on four of five songs. Then we helped them find the hotel again and drove back to Austin.”
That incredible experience with the Experience, though, was not the most influential live show for Olson. That honor goes to the Rolling Stones show at San Antonio’s Convention Center on June 3, 1975.
“We knew the band’s guitar tech, Chuch Magee, who invited us to come down during their soundcheck, where we got to play all the guitars in the dressing room — two Zemaitis guitars, a couple of Keith’s Telecasters, and a Les Paul Jr.
“After the show,” Olson says, “we went to a restaurant owned by the stepfather of Tom Wright, who is a photographer and a one-time road manager for the Who. The restaurant was open only for the guests of the Stones, and we had a late-night dinner. There was a rehearsal room for some of the waiters who played in a band, so we went upstairs and found Keith, Ron Wood, Charlie Watts, and Ian Stewart loosely jamming on a Chuck Berry tune. When the guitar Ronnie was playing broke a high E string, he put it down. I picked it up and started playing Freddie King’s ‘Stumble,’ and all the others joined me for about a 10-minute jam. That’s right— Carla, Keith, Charlie and Stu! Afterward, we went back to the hotel, and, at about 6 a.m., the Stones had breakfast as the sun was coming up. They were photographed several hours later in front of the Alamo for Time magazine.
“I learned that you never let an opportunity to perform pass you by. You must be fearless to be an entertainer.”