Waylon Jennings: Sex, Drugs, & Rockabilly- Part One
Sex, Drugs & Rockabilly: A Moment In Time With Waylon Jennings
by Bill Conrad
THE WEST COAST CONNECTION
In January of 1976, I was in Los Angeles, writing as a freelance stringer for Buddy Magazine, out of Dallas and Austin. I was also looking for work that paid real money and, like a lot of broke writers closing in on thirty, I was an English major drop-out.
Buddy Magazine was named for the late Texan and rockabilly pioneer, Buddy Holly. The free weekly was, for thousands of music fans around Texas, a primary print source for the music scene. As Buddy’s self-appointed, roving correspondent, I mailed articles from Nashville, then L.A, to Stoney Burns in the Dallas office. Writing for Buddypaid peanuts, but it was a free pass to interview my musical heroes: John Prine, Leonard Cohen, Boz Scaggs…
A dear heart named Ramona was the gal in charge of business at Hollywood Sound Recorders where I had been employed four years earlier. I was back in town to give L.A. another chance to deliver fortune and fame–in that order. But first I needed a place to un-box my typewriter. Ramona’s grapevine included producer Ken Mansfield who was seeking a production assistant who would also plant flowers on his hillside estate. As an apprentice engineer at Hollywood Sound, I had worked Ken’s sessions in ‘71 and liked his laid-back California attitude. He had always included me as a member of his studio people. When I picked up pizza at Two Guys, there was a slice for me.
Ken was pleased to find me needing work and quickly moved me into a shack on his Laurel Canyon home site in West Hollywood. My 6’4″ height presented a bodyguard presence Ken liked in a personal assistant/yard man.
His recent success with country star, Jessi Colter, had landed him a shot co-producing her notorious husband, Waylon Jennings, so he was feeling flush and ready to take on an employee.
Above my humble digs, the rambling main house was built into the hillside. Eighty steep and winding steps below was a small cottage he rented to a young nurse. Outside her place was just enough parking for Ken’s convertibles—a Mercedes and a Jeep. When I wasn’t on the hillside planting flowers with an illegal Salvadoran named Rafael, I was running errands, top down in the Mercedes. Ken’s country image kept him in the Jeep. Pulling down a hundred bucks a week and living in Laurel, I never felt so rich and so broke at the same time.
It was late February when I first met Waylon. He and Jessi came to Hollywood to be entertained by Ken and Teri, his lean and lovely Italian spouse, and to finalize a production deal for Waylon’s next album, Are You Ready for the Country. Waylon had just climbed the eighty steps up from Utica Drive and was totally out of puff. He lit a Marlboro Light and made a comment about meeting Ken, from that day forward, at the bottom of the hill. I didn’t know much about Waylon, but a friend in Dallas had played his 1973 Honky Tonk Heroesalbum for me, and I really liked the rockabilly feel Waylon was injecting into country music. His rockabilly roots came from his West Texas beginnings and a brief friendship with Buddy Holly.
Ken Mansfield was only twenty-eight when he served as Capitol Record’s stateside liaison for The Beatles and their Apple label. That alone established his industry credentials and paid him enough to party with the beautiful people and their rolled-up hundred dollar bills.
After the Beatles parted ways, Ken was contacted by legendary crooner and multimillionaire Andy Williams who wanted to start a record company. Part of Andy’s motivation was his estranged Parisienne wife, Claudine Longet. Fourteen years older than she and the father of their three children, Andy was hoping to lure her back home. He hired Ken to run Barnaby Records and had him sign Claudine as project number one. She was coming off a four-year contract with A&M Records where her first album, Claudine had been a top ten hit. The novelty of her sexy, whispering French accent had fizzled. A&M was happy to release her to Barnaby. Predictably, her album with Ken, Let’s Spend the Night Together, never made the charts. She divorced Andy in 1975 and made headlines the next year when she killed her boyfriend, Olympic skier Spider Sabich. Ruled manslaughter (a lover’s quarrel), she served thirty days at home and has lain low ever since.
Mansfield’s Capitol Records/Beatles connections kept him in the loop and had earned him a shot as country singer Jessi Colter’s producer. Their first album together with Waylon watching over, delivered “I’m Not Lisa,” Number 1 on the country charts. Ken and Jessi became the music industry’s latest darlings.
“I’m Not Lisa,” became so popular it crossed over to Number 4 on the pop charts. Waylon never achieved a crossover hit that popular. In fact, his biggest hit, “Luckenbach, Texas” in 1977 was Number 1 on the country charts, but stalled at 25 on the pops.
“ARE YOU READY FOR THE COUNTRY”
In 1973, Mansfield had been invited to produce one cut, “We Had It All,” on Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroesalbum. The other nine songs were written by Texan Billy Joe Shaver and produced by Waylon with help from his old pal, Tompall Glaser. Waylon had befriended Shaver at Willie’s Fourth of July Picnic the previous summer and was knocked out by the fellow Texan’s early efforts. For Waylon, Shaver’s tunes became hard-driving, raw-edged, country-rock gems. The album received strong reviews but didn’t find the buyers it deserved. Nevertheless, it made a statement: Waylon was no longer part of the Nashville machinery; he was in control of his music and his brand of country.
Mansfield was pumped by his association with the outlaws of country. He wanted to take Barnaby Records in a country-rock direction, but saddled with acts like The Hager Brothers from television’s Hee Haw, and Ray “Ahab the Arab” Stevens, the label was soon oozing red ink. A brief contract with an emerging Jimmy Buffett also failed to pan out. Andy Williams’ accountants said enough write-offs already. The label went under, but Mansfield’s record business savvy and charming personality kept him inside the money circle. He was offered another shot at the big time as co-producer with Waylon on Are You Ready for the Country–title cut written by Neil Young. Sessions were booked at Sound Labs in Hollywood for the week of March 23-30, 1976.
Neil Reshen, Waylon’s New York manager, had successfully wrestled artistic control away from RCA Records in Nashville, freeing Waylon to choose the studio and musicians he wanted. Deliver the contracted albums on time and RCA would leave him alone—that was the deal. Production control secured, Waylon advised RCA Nashville he would ship his next album from Hollywood with Mansfield serving as co-producer. He hoped Ken had some more of that left coast magic for an outlaw country rocker about to turn forty.
After working the Hollywood sessions with Ken and Waylon, I knew I needed a transition plan which would relocate me to Nashville and Waylon’s camp. His time at the top was soon coming and I wanted to be there when he arrived. Teri Mansfield warned me Waylon would never hire me away from Ken. There was an unwritten code about picking off a friend’s employees. In August of ’76, I gave two week’s notice, packed my boxes and drove east into the unknown, in the direction of Dixie.
Six months of selling myself via numerous letters and an article I had written during the Hollywood sessions finally netted the phone call I was seeking. Late October, Waylon’s drummer and best friend, Richie Albright, phoned me in Jacksonville Beach, Florida: “Waylon said yeah. How soon can you get to Nashville?”