John Batdorf on the Rolling Stones, Peter Gabriel, More
Richard Nixon was president and gas was 35 cents per gallon, but John Batdorf has not forgotten the glories of New York’s majestic Carnegie Hall as he performed on stage in 1972.
“It was a long time ago with Batdorf & Rodney opening for the Youngbloods,” he recalls. “The president of Atlantic Records, our producer Ahmet Ertegun, was in the audience with his wife. We got a standing ovation and an encore. It was true magic!”
John Batdorf and Mark Rodney never reached the stature of Simon & Garfunkel, but they were a notable presence on the folk-rock music scene of the early 1970s. Their staunchest fans place their vocal harmonies alongside those of Crosby, Stills and Nash and lament how vastly underrated the duo was.
Mots fans reminisce about their first two albums, 1971’s Off the Shelf and 1972’s Batdorf & Rodney, though critics also threw some kudos at their final album, 1975’s Life Is You.
“I loved our first two records,” says Batdorf, the duo’s principal songwriter and lead vocalist who is still releasing albums today. “They felt so young and alive — and raw and pure. After all, we were 18- and 19-year-olds who were good enough for Ahmet Ertegun, Atlantic president, to sign us the next day after playing for him. He took us to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and produced the first record.
“We had our own unique style — a combination of acoustic, folk, rock and jazz. Although we never broke through with a hit single, we were an FM hit band and made lots of fans during our early tours with Bread, Chicago, Seals & Crofts, Dan Fogelberg, Poco, and the Youngbloods. Ahmet told me that we ‘made our mark,’ and we did. To this day, every great music opportunity I have been lucky enough to be a part of has been a direct or an indirect result of the Batdorf & Rodney days and the love of the music. The band opened doors for me that may have never been opened if it were not for those records.”
What was Batdorf & Rodney’s best song? “The most impactful song that became our turntable hit was ‘Home Again,'” he says. “It was just pure Batdorf and Rodney at our finest — acoustic guitar bliss!”
Rodney, who sang harmony vocals and played guitar, now lives in Las Vegas, where Batdorf & Rodney met in 1970 and were inducted into the Las Vegas Rock Reunion Hall Of Fame in 2012. Rodney played in a few bands after Batdorf & Rodney broke up, then worked as an actor and hosted a Las Vegas jazz radio show.
Batdorf and his wife, Melanie, spent most of their lives in southern California before moving north near Bend in central Oregon last year.
“This is our first full summer in Oregon,” Batdorf says. “Melanie and I lived in SoCal most of our lives and loved it, but this was such a great choice to start a new chapter in our lives. I wasn’t going to work this summer, but a few things came up and I couldn’t resist. I was in-studio live on the radio in Bend, then I headed to Washington for a few shows and Eagle Crest, Oregon, for a house concert. The real touring begins in September (17 shows in eight states Sept. 3-Oct. 21). With all the free time before then, I came up with six new songs that I have demoed, so there just might be another CD.”
Why a move to Oregon? “My son Matt took a trip to central Oregon in 2014 and came back raving about how awesome Bend was. So Melanie and I flew up to check it out. We flipped! We knew this was the place for us, and one and a half years later, we sold our home in L.A., bought a house near Bend and left L.A. behind for good.”
Batdorf, though has fond memories of L.A. in the 1960s.
“I moved to Los Angeles from Ohio in 1967 with a band. I was on vacation as a 15-year-old and was going to stay for the summer, but I never went back L.A. was the perfect place for a young musician. But during the last five years, my wife and I were contemplating relocating because the L.A. scene had changed so much. The singing and composing work dried up; the studios were closing down left and right; most venues were pay to play, and, with the Internet, I could now do sessions anywhere in the world.”
Last year, Batdorf released Beep Beep, an album with 11 original songs. He likens the songwriting process to what he heard on his favorite 1960s records. “As a music lover back in the ‘60s and ‘70s,” he says, “I loved hearing new records from my favorite artists. Writers go through phases and grooves, and each record with newly written songs had a certain cohesiveness reflecting where the writer was at that time. For me, Beep Beep was a direct result of my prior release, Soundtrax2Recovery, a heartfelt, serious record that was 10 years in the making about a serious topic, addiction. I had performed at many recovery conferences and shared intense stories with so many attendees, so, as a human and a writer, I needed to write and produce something with a more fun approach — to get me through the darkness I had been experiencing.
“Music has always been my go-to elixir,” he adds. “It’s just such a powerful healing tool. The music on Beep Beep just makes me smile, and my hope was that it would have the same effect on others. I needed to write those songs and make that record. I was very important to me.”
In 2004, Batdorf teamed with James Lee Stanley to record All Wood and Stones, a Rolling Stones cover album that Mick and company might not be able to recognize.
“Can you imagine what the Rolling Stones songs would have sounded like if Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were California boys with acoustic guitars?” asks Batdorf on his website. “Would ‘Satisfaction,’ ‘Ruby Tuesday,’ or ‘Last Time’ have been as powerful if they had been played on acoustic guitars and filled with vocal harmonies?”
The songs on All Wood and Stones take you “on a trip” and act “like a time machine,” Batdorf explains on his website. “In a single moment, you find yourself hearing the Rolling Stones songs as if they had come from a different world — familiar and completely brand new.”
The Stones album, Batdorf tells me, originated when Stanley called him and mentioned the idea in 2004.
“The concept was to record early Rolling Stones songs acoustically, as if Crosby, Stills and Nash had written and recorded them. It was supposed to be just a mail-order CD, but XM Satellite Radio got hold of it and started playing every cut. It got way more radio-popular than we had anticipated.
“I had just finished a seven-year run as composer/source supplier for [two TV series] Promised Land and Touched by an Angel. I hadn’t toured in 30 years and hadn’t planned on touring, but, as the CD grew in popularity, we were almost forced to go out and perform. I didn’t realize how much I missed that, and the shows were great. So I was inspired to start writing and performing again, which has continued to this day.”
Batdorf and Stanley followed with a second album of Rolling Stones covers, All Wood and Stones II, in 2013. “The other reason we made the two CDs,” Batdorf says, “was we thought, after all these years, how cool it would be to put out a CD that had hits on it for a change.”
Batdorf has also released several other solo albums and Still Burnin’, a live album that’s a reunion with Rodney at XM Satellite Radio studios in 2007.
“One of my greatest joys in life is writing songs,” Batdorf says. “I love the whole process. I think the biggest challenge to a writer is growth. I never want to write the same song twice, even if it the first was very successful. We need to challenge ourselves and take risks, even if we fail. We can’t play it safe. I am inspired by hearing great well-crafted songs by others. I love to experiment with tunings on my guitar, which is a huge reason I have written so many songs that probably wouldn’t have been written without the different tunings.”
His favorites: “Don’t Give Up On Dreams,” “I Don’t Always Win,” “Home Again,” “Don’t Tell Me Goodbye,” “Beep Beep,” “Where Does All the Money Go,” “Let It Go,” and “Ain’t Dead Yet.”
“These are the songs I had no regrets about,” Batdorf says. “They felt as good as they could be, and that’s what writers want. No compromises or settling. Keep at it until you know it’s how you envisioned it.”
After Batdorf and Rodney broke up in the mid-1970s, Batdorf joined a band called Silver, which included Brent Mydland and Tom Leadon. Mydland would later become famous as the Grateful Dead’s keyboardist, and Leadon was the brother of Bernie Leadon, an original member of the Eagles and a former member of the Flying Burrito Brothers. Silver released a self-titled album on Arista in 1976 and had a minor bubblegum hit, “Wham Bam Shang-A-Lang.”
“Silver was formed after I told Clive Davis that I wasn’t continuing with Mark,” Batdorf says. “It started with me, Brent Mydland, who played keys in Batdorf & Rodney, and Greg Collier, a singer-songwriter from Orange County. We auditioned for Clive two weeks after my announcement, and he wanted to make the record. We added Harry Stinson on drums and Tom Leadon on bass. It was a bit of a put-together band to help keep the dream going and later became a really great band.
“We had incredible vocals in the band with four lead singers. We made one album and toured the U.S. with America in 1976. Our hit ‘Wham Bam’ peaked at No. 16 in the nation, and we began writing songs for the next album. Once we were ready, we auditioned for Clive again, and he hated the new songs. He was forcing us again, like on the first album, to do songs that he had picked from other writers that in no shape or form were anything like the direction the band was going. Our manager, John Hartmann, took a stand and said the new songs were what the band wanted. That totally pissed Clive off. He told us that he would let us out of our deal with Arista, but he wanted four points and $200,000 from any deal we signed with another label. That crushed all of our careers. I only wish that we would have made a few more albums, because the band was really that good. We were all crippled for a while but survived.”
A much brighter band memory was many years before when Batdorf, at age 15, played in the Lov’d Ones.
“I was a huge Rascals fan as a kid, and seeing them perform live completely blew me away. I was part of a band, the Lov’d Ones, that somehow got on the gig. It was a show in West Covina (California), and it was my first real concert experience. Loved it!”
The best concert Batdorf attended — and the one that influenced him most as a musician — was Peter Gabriel at the Los Angeles Forum during the So tour in December 1986.
“My God, I’d never heard or seen anything that great — the band, the stage setup, the lights, Peter’s incredible stage presence and his vocals singing those incredible songs from that album. He was such a star, and the audience went crazy. He jumped off the stage, the audience caught him and passed him over their heads from one end of the venue and then back to the stage as the band played ‘Lay Your Hands On Me.’ It was like a religious experience, just freaking unbelievable. That record is still one of my all-time favorites.”
The Gabriel show “challenged me” and was “truly inspiring to this day,” Batdorf says. “After it, I wanted to be the best that I could and always perform like it would be my last show. Leave it all on the stage, and bring it every night no matter how you feel. The audience deserves that.”