[22 August 2014]
Excerpted from Southbound: An Illustrated History of Southern Rock by Scott B. Bomar. Published by © Hal Leonard Corporation. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.
Uneasy Riders: The Charlie Daniels Band
…Born in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1936, Charles Edward Daniels was an only child whose father worked in the timber industry. “Work back then was hard to come by,” he recalled, “so we moved around a bit when I was younger.” Charlie and his family spent time in a handful of locations in Georgia and the Carolinas. He learned to make friends in the various working-class communities of the South, and developed a warm and friendly personality. “I come from a blue-collar background,” he explained to American Cowboy magazine in 1994. “When I think about things, I think about them in the vernacular, in a way. All of my people were farmers, timber people, that sort of thing.”
Like many budding musicians, Charlie grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights. “I can’t begin to tell you what an impact the Grand Ole Opry had on the rural southeast,” he wrote in his book The Devil Went Down to Georgia: Stories. “650 WSM came booming down our way all the way from Nashville, Tennessee, sounding for all the world like a local station.” Charlie first picked up a guitar as a teenager while hanging out at his friend Russell Palmer’s house. “He casually pulled out a Stella guitar,” Charlie remembered, “and proceeded to play about two and a half chords. Well, I immediately went crazy. I had had a secret desire to play a guitar almost all my life.” Charlie soon began learning to play mandolin, and he and Russell joined forces with a friend named Joe Phillips, who played the banjo. They dubbed themselves the Misty Mountain Boys and started playing local gigs.
Soon after graduating from high school, Charlie took a factory job, but he continued to pursue his music. The Misty Mountain Boys landed a weekly half-hour radio show at 6:30 on Saturday mornings and picked up a handful of gigs playing at square dances. By this point, Daniels had taught himself to play the fiddle, in addition to the mandolin and guitar. When Charlie’s parents moved yet again, however, he said goodbye to the Misty Mountain Boys and followed his family back to their hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina.
“I started playing with a lady named Lit tle Jill,” he recalled of his return to Wilmington. “She paid me $50 a week, which was good money back then. It was the first time I considered myself a real, professional musician.” By the mid-1950s, rock and roll had captured Charlie’s attention, so when Little Jill eventually left the band, Charlie developed the group into a guitar-driven outfit called the Rockets. “I basically started out playing beer joints,” he confirmed. “There was hardly any place to play in Wilmington because they didn’t have open bars. They had two or three beer bars, but there was just not that kind of nightlife going on, except for the one place up in Jacksonville, North Carolina. That was the home of the 2nd Marine Division. Those guys were out there partying until they ran out of money, so we started working there six nights a week.”
After a couple of years, Charlie decided to dedicate himself exclusively to the music, as he revealed in an interview with Ron Johnson:
I was working a day job with my father at the Taylor Colquitt Creosoting Company, and around 1958, I think it was, they had some layoffs. There was a fella there, Louis Frost, who had been there longer than me, and because he was black, you see, he was chosen to be let go. Well, he had a family to feed and I had my music, so I went to the foreman and offered to go if he’d let Louis stay on. He was fine with that arrangement, so Louis stayed on until he retired. Anyway, that’s when I made the jump to being a full time musician.
The Charlie Daniels Band in 1974, as shown inside the Fire on the Mountain LP. Left to right: Mark Fitzgerald, Taz DiGregorio,
Charlie Daniels, Freddie Edwards, Gary Allen, and Barry Barnes. (Kama Sutra Records)
By the end of the 1950s, the Rockets were touring a circuit of US cities. A chance meeting in Texas on one such trip opened the door for the group to make a record of their own.
When I played in Jacksonville, I met a guy by the name of Bill Belcher who was from Ft. Worth. We became good friends. When he got out of the marine corps he went back to Texas. Well, I was taking my first trip to play some dates out in California in 1959, and our route took us through Ft. Worth. We said, “We’ll just stop and see Bill.” Well, Bill knew Bob Johnston, who was working at Bell Helicopter and trying to get something going, record-wise. Bob said, “You guys want to go in the studio and cut something?” I said, “We don’t have anything to cut.” He said, “Well, let’s write something.” So we did. We wrote an instrumental called “Jaguar” and went in and recorded it.
The classic lineup of the Charlie Daniels Band, as pictured on the back of the Nightrider LP. Left to right: Don Murray, Taz DiGregorio, Charlie Hayward, Freddie Edwards, Tommy Crain, and Charlie Daniels. (Epic Records)
Epic Records released the “Jaguar” single but wanted to change the name of the band to match the song title. “The Rockets became the Jaguars,” Charlie laughed. With one foot in the door of the music industry, Daniels continued on as a working musician while honing his songwriting skills. In 1964, Elvis Presley recorded “It Hurts Me,” which was co-written by Charlie and Bob Johnston. “It was by far the biggest thing that had ever happened to me in my life,” Daniels said.
After spending the better part of a decade slogging it out with the Rockets and the Jaguars—including an extended stay in Washington, D.C.—Daniels was ready for a change of pace. “I went to Nashville in 1967,” he recalled. “I had been on the road for a long time, and was not really getting anywhere. Bob Johnston ... had taken over Columbia [Records] in Nashville. He asked me if I wanted to come down.”
Because of his relationship with Johnston, Daniels was invited to be a part of Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline sessions. “I was lookin’ for that withdrawn, surly sort of person you hear about,” Charlie confessed, of his first experience recording with Bob Dylan, “but he was fun to work with.” Like the future Area Code 615 and Barefoot Jerry personnel who played with Dylan, Charlie cited that period as a turning point in both his own—and Nashville’s— creative development. “I didn’t fit in so well until Bob Dylan came to town,” he remarked.
In addition to his work on Nashville Skyline, Daniels would also go on to play on Dylan’s controversial Self Portrait album, as well as the New Morning LP. “I felt I had a lot in common with Charlie,” Dylan noted, in his memoir. “The kind of phrases he’d use, his sense of humor, his relationship to work, his tolerance for certain things… When Charlie was around, something good would usually come out of the sessions.”
By the end of the 1960s, Daniels began working on the other side of the studio glass. “The Youngbloods were looking for a producer, and they had called Bob Johnston,” Charlie recalled. “He had a full agenda, so he said, ‘I don’t have time to do it, but I’ve got a guy that works with me here that’s got time if you’d like to talk to him.’ I flew out to L.A. and went to RCA studios. We sat down and talked, and decided to give it a shot.”
The Youngbloods’ folk-rock-flavored Elephant Mountain LP, produced by “Charles E. Daniels,” was released in 1969 to favorable reviews. As the 1970s dawned, Charlie continued to cement his reputation as a fine session musician for the left-of-center projects that were cropping up more frequently for Nashville’s best players. He worked on Al Kooper’s Easy Does It album in 1970, and appeared as a guitarist on Ringo Starr’s Beaucoup of Blues LP the following year.
Charlie returned to work with the Youngbloods once again on their 1971 live album Ride the Wind. It was partially recorded at a music festival in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where Charlie was inspired to write “Uneasy Rider,” which would become his first Top 10 sin gle. “All the San Francisco bands were there,” Charlie recounted, “the Grateful Dead and the Jefferson Airplane and all these people… A lot of ’em were really terrified about being in the South. I think they’d seen this movie [Easy Rider]. They were afraid if they stopped at a 7-Eleven store somebody’s gonna run out with a pair of shears and cut their hair or something… I thought it was a funny attitude to have, and I think that’s where the song came from.”
By the time “Uneasy Rider” became a hit in 1973, Charlie had already gone through several incarnations of his band and recorded three albums as a solo artist. Working with Jerry Corbitt—who had been a member of the Youngbloods, but left the group before Charlie began working with them—led to Daniels’ own artist career. Corbitt, like his old bandmates, was looking for a producer, Charlie recalled:
He had talked to the guys in the Youngbloods, his friends. They said, “We’ve got this guy Charlie Daniels we’re really enjoying working with.” He said, “Let’s talk,” so we did, and I ended up doing a record on him. He was on Capitol, and we had gone down to Capitol in L.A. to play some of our songs for the powers that be there. Jerry’s manager said, “Charlie, why don’t you play them some of your songs?” I had a backlog of stuff I’d written, so I picked up a guitar and played some songs. They signed me on the spot.
Charlie Daniels at an autograph signing session in
New Haven, Connecticut. (Courtesy Carl Lender)
Though his self-titled debut was billed as a solo record, Charlie began putting together the original incarnation of the Charlie Daniels Band around the same time. The first recruit was Joel “Taz” DiGregorio, who had played with Charlie in the latter days of the Jaguars, following a stint with Paul Chaplain & His Emeralds (best known for the 1959 hit “Shortnin’ Bread”). “I came to Nashville,” DiGregorio told interviewer Bronson Herrmuth, “and he was in the studio with Leonard Cohen. I didn’t even know who Leonard Cohen was. I had just got out of the army, and the whole world had changed. I hadn’t been in the United States in eighteen months and everything had changed. Everybody had long hair and they were acting strange.”
“Basically,” he continued, “the origi nal band was Charlie, Jerry Corbitt from the Youngbloods, Billy Cox from Band of Gypsys, and Jeffrey Meyer and myself. That band did not stay together but about six months, then it just dissolved.” By the time the album came out, the band had already splintered. Roll ing Stone, in its glowing review, said Charlie’s voice was “a synthesis of the lechery of Levon Helm and the sensuality of Van Morrison. Put ’em all together, they spell an excellent album of Southern badass rock and roll.” Despite the acclaim, however, the album failed to catch on. “It was a well-kept secret, actually,” Daniels laughed, years later.
Moving to Kama Sutra Records, Char- lie released Te John, Grease, & Wolfman in 1972, which featured a new lineup of the Charlie Daniels Band. Taz DiGregorio and Jeffrey Meyer played keyboards and drums respectively, while Earl Grigsby handled bass guitar duties. Though the album was again credited to Charlie solo, the title referred to the band members’ nicknames. “Charlie loves to give people nicknames,” DiGregorio explained to Michael Buffalo Smith. “That was one of those Southern rock cultural things.” Bassist Earl Grigsby was “Te John,” drummer Jeffrey Meyer was “Wolfman,” and keyboardist Taz DiGregorio was dubbed “Grease” for his greasy hair.
The Te John, Grease & Wolfman album was originally intended to be a collaboration with Jerry Corbitt as Corbitt & Daniels, but while the band were on tour in 1970, opening for Delaney & Bonnie at Carnegie Hall, Jerry Corbitt abruptly departed. “I am not sure what happened, but something happened with Corbitt and he quit the band,” DiGregorio recalled. “Charlie was really very upset… The contracts had been signed, and the money had been put up, and Corbitt quit.”
When Te John, Grease & Wolfman debuted, the label released “Great Big Bunches of Love” as a single. It failed to make a dent on the national charts. Drummer Jeffrey Meyer departed, and was replaced by Buddy Davis and Freddie Edwards, who provided the dual-drummer lineup that the Allman Brothers Band had popularized in Southern rock circles.
Charlie and his band soon returned to the studio to record the Honey in the Rock album, released in May of 1973. The group then spent nearly a year on the road promoting the LP. Their efforts paid off when “Uneasy Rider” climbed to #9 on the Billboard pop chart. While touring that year, the Charlie Daniels Band often shared the bill with other up-and-coming Southern rock performers with whom they formed lasting friendships. “We met the Marshall Tucker Band for the first time in Kansas,” Freddie Edwards recalled. “We kicked ass. Then it was time for Tucker. Wow. After they played, it became a new era for us. They wanted to tour with us because they liked us so much. So we did thirty days with them, back-to-back… Tommy and Toy Caldwell were always hanging out with Charlie and David Corlew, our road manager, so we all partied every night.”