If some of the books you should read get judged by their covers, then sadly the same applies to certain albums you should hear. Jimmy Stevens released his in 1973, in a sleeve that can only be politely described as utilitarian. The design doesn't make a dynamic impression, and since the record isn't well known, packaging becomes sole reason for the uninitiated to consider it afresh.
As someone who knew nothing of Stevens, I almost left his Seventies labors in the dump bin in which I'd encountered them, but having bought sufficient well-designed but disappointing turkeys, I decided to give the bearded man in granny glasses, and lost in anguished full throttle, a listen. It dominated my turntable for weeks, making me a suitably surprised and unsuspecting convert, along with a few others I forced to share the experience.
A closer look beyond the splatter of snapshots littering the sleeve betrays a guest list that only a special talent could attract. Peter Frampton, John Bonham masquerading as Gemini, and Maurice Gibb all feature on songs that are superlative, consummately constructed, and passionately delivered. Stevens had supported ELP and later toured the U.S.A., Canada, and Japan with the Bee Gees, and it seemed that he had a long and respected career to carve, especially when Maurice Gibb agreed to produce his record.
Jimmy Stevens was born August 5, 1942 in Liverpool. His father bought him an old pub piano, but like many of his generation, he veered away from his classical training. Completing his education at Blackrock Castle, overlooking Dublin Bay, with an old wind-up gramophone for company and a collection of 78s, he developed a passion for Fats Domino, Ray Charles, and especially Buddy Holly. By 1963 his composition "Baby That's You" was released by the Liverpool band The Young Ones on Decca. To supplement his meager income from music, he worked as a bookie's runner, a leather watch strap maker, and a coal miner. He even rejected an approach from Brian Epstein to record because he "didn't think it was worth following up," but he did release a few solo singles. It was during this period that he earned the tags Jimmy Sometime and Jimmy Summertime
In 1971 he was heard in Cam Studios in Moorfield by two Robert Stigwood representatives. A deal and the tour with ELP followed, which Stevens recalls with mixed emotions. "You'd go on and find people were chanting 'ELP' when you were trying to sing." The experience with the Bee Gees proved more inclusive and friendly. By the following year, he was recording at Morgan Studios in London, laying down the sessions that would result in Don't Freak Me Out on Atlantic in Britain, and Paid My Dues on RSO in the States. Stigwood would prove to be both usher and nemesis. A row with him would scupper the sessions for an almost completed second album. Jimmy Stevens returned to Liverpool, and a silence descended, at least as far as the wider world was concerned.
Stevens inhabits much the same domain as his contemporary Bill Fay, the respected English songwriter who, after years of obscurity, has finally seen his work garner the attention it always deserved. Piano-driven songs of melodic introspection give the proceedings of Stevens an air timeless quality, and after all these years it remains entrenched within the grooves. He shares Fay's languid singing style, but his work has a more up-tempo feel and possesses an American tinge. On this mixture of folk, blues, and pop, fusing elements of John Lennon with Nick Cave, it is the strong songcraft that demands the ears of the listener.
Proceedings kick into life with "Paid My Dues" a song about knowing all too well that you've done just that. It contains a spirited optimism that flies into life, a rare combination of inspired commerciality and honest introspection. "Tears Behind My Eyes" suggests Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show at their Shel Silverstein best, entwined in a Beatles White Album intensity, and features Stevens's voice at its plaintive finest. A swaying piece of pretty melancholia with strong sentiments, it will take an emotional toll on even the most resigned soul.
A child when it's in trouble
Can only turn to its mother
And the young in love,
When it don't go smooth
Can only turn to another.
If ever a song deserved to fall into the hands of Tom Waits, it is the smoldering, swirling ballad "Girl from Denver," which rises and flows with true cry-in-your-beer nostalgia. Sinking slowly in orchestration, it exhibits the sensitivity of Jimmy Webb at his best. On "Bye Bye Love" there is the air and smoke of barroom eccentricity in which Stevens provides the song, as a good cover should, with a wistful sadness the original lacks.
"You Are There" features a theatrical feel, Brel meets Brecht; wonderfully underscored by understated sax, it creeps and crawls with a strange determination, building to an inspirational finale. His "Don't Freak Me Out" is another Beatles-laced confection of the amped late period Lennon kind, driven neatly along by John Bonham's louche drumming and a rasping vocal. On "Sweet Child of Mine" the divine coincidence of one artist sounding like another he'd never heard of takes on an uncanny likeness. Pure Bill Fay, from the slightly stilted piano to the intimately somber vocal, it is one of the small moments of genius on an album shot through with many such minutes deserving of praise.
The album bows out with "The Lady I Want to Grow Old With," a curious collision of Beefheart and a mad gypsy orchestra, scarlet roses clenched between pearl white teeth, a burlesque cascade which echoes the more frenetic, ethnic elements that delivered a spooky edge to some Cat Stevens offerings, and you're only halfway home. It is a perfect finale, especially when you realize that Jimmy Stevens would release nothing more for three and a half decades. It is a telling song to leave with, a promise and a possible farewell. Inspired, mesmeric, and a little unhinged, it really is a lightning flash of pleasure.
Jimmy Stevens still lives in his native Liverpool, and occasionally performs in pubs and bars. He deserves much more than his footnote status on the radar of Bee Gee completists, and with just a little stroke of luck he may reap such a late-coming reward. His album crops up inexpensively, but will gradually, because of the songs it showcases, become an artifact to seek and own. He has finally recorded a sequel, but that must wait for another evening. This revisit concerns Don't Freak Me Out or Paid My Dues depending upon which side of the pond you reside. Plain covers may contain riches that will surprise and reward, so judge them kindly with an accordance of care. - Rob Cochrane
Mr. Cochrane is a poet and writer living in Manchester, England. His work has appeared in Mojo, Attitude, and Dazed & Confused. He has published three collections of poems, and Gone Tomorrow, his biography of the rock singer Jobriath, will appear via SAF soon.