For his first solo album – and lone solo LP released during his lifetime – John Phillips was careful not to repeat himself. With The Mamas and the Papas in the rearview mirror at that moment in time, Papa John reinvented himself as John, The Wolfking of L.A. and surrounded himself with the day’s top musicians to craft a beguiling, mellow portrait of Los Angeles circa 1970. Varese Vintage expanded this one-of-a-kind record on CD in 2006, and has recently issued it on a new 180-gram vinyl edition.
Rather than recreate the L.A. pop sound of which he played such a central part, Phillips looked forward to the country-rock, singer-songwriter style that would largely dominate the SoCal music scene in the 1970s. For his spin on what Gram Parsons deemed “Cosmic American Music,” Phillips was joined by an eclectic roster of musicians including The Wrecking Crew’s Hal Blaine (drums), Joe Osborn (bass) and Larry Knechtel (keyboards) as well as steel guitarists Buddy Emmons and Red Rhodes, fiddler Gordon Terry, lead guitarist and dobro player James Burton (also a Wrecking Crew vet but lately of Elvis Presley’s band) and guitarist David Cohen. The Blossoms – Darlene Love, Fanita James and Jean King – supplied the soulful background vocals.
As he would a year later for The Mamas and the Papas’ “reunion” album People Like Us, Phillips drew on his life and acquaintances for the often-personal lyrics. The specter of his then-recent breakup with Michelle Phillips informed the songwriting on Wolfking, as did the early days of his relationship with South African actress Genevieve Waite, whom he would later marry. Phillips’ light, wispy and laconic, conversational voice brings listeners into the worlds of “April Anne” (with references to his friend Annie Marshall as well as Denny Doherty and columnist Steve Brandt), “Down the Beach” (about Mama Michelle), “Someone’s Sleeping” (a reflection on a trip taken by John, Michelle, Annie Marshall, and friend Scott McKenzie) and “Let It Bleed, Genevieve” (naturally inspired by a conversation between John and Genevieve). Phillips would continue in this intensely personal vein when he returned to The Mamas and the Papas.
Though the lyrics are often dark, the melodies on Wolfking are buoyed by its warm and relaxed country instrumentation. The upbeat “Mississippi” was selected as the album’s single release; the road ode, with its barroom piano, shout-outs to the Wrecking Crew members and southern flavor, became a favorite of Elvis Presley’s. From “Mississippi” to “Topanga Canyon” to even the “Holland Tunnel,” John Phillips (John the Wolfking of L.A.) found its restlessly-travelling creator painting on a broad canvas of people and places.
The LP is housed in a protective sleeve, and features a replica of the original artwork (right down to the incorrect song titles/sequence on the back cover) and the Warlok Records label. (Warlok was the custom imprint set up by Dunhill for John’s musical excursions.) This reissue, with crisply pristine sonics, brings this low-key, underrated album back to vivid life.
Before Buck Owens and Merle Haggard put The Bakersfield Sound on the map, Wynn Stewart was there, forging a niche in West Coast country-and-western that paved the way for those who followed. Varese Sarabande’s 2001 collection The Very Best of Wynn Stewart 1958-1962 captured his early Challenge and Jackpot sides on compact disc. Now those recordings have come full circle as Varese has recently issued the anthology on 180-gram heavyweight vinyl.
Born in Missouri in 1934, Stewart moved to California in his teenage years. In his high school years, the budding singer-songwriter-guitarist formed his own band, and by 1956 he had scored a major-label contract with Capitol Records. Though “Waltz of the Angels” was an impressive No. 14 Country hit (and later was covered by George Jones and Margie Singleton), his stint at the label was ultimately short-lived. In 1958, he signed with the Jackpot imprint of Challenge Records, the Los Angeles label founded by Gene Autry. Varese’s compilation re-examines this period of Stewart’s career before he re-signed with Capitol in 1964.
Stewart’s Jackpot/Challenge sides, produced by Joe Johnson, ran the gamut from rockabilly to pure roadhouse country. These recordings laid the foundation of the Bakersfield Sound which generally eschewed the trappings of The Nashville Sound, i.e. strings, choirs and pop gloss, in a return to country’s roots. Fiddles, steel guitars, tinkling saloon pianos, and stories of heartbreak populate these colorful and memorable sides. Legendary songwriter Harlan Howard was instrumental in Stewart’s signing to Challenge, and Howard is represented with three tracks: “Above and Beyond (The Call of Love),” “Heartaches for a Dime,” and the duet with Jan Howard, “Wrong Company.” Jan is also heard on the twangy “How the Other Half Lives.”
The Very Best of Wynn Stewart naturally features his biggest Challenge hit, the rhythmic yet lovelorn “Wishful Thinking” (No. 5, 1960), alongside other chart singles like “Big, Big Love” (No. 18, 1961) and “Another Day, Another Dollar” (No. 27, 1962). The most famous song on the set might be Vern Stovall and Bobby George’s “Long Black Limousine.” Though Wynn Stewart was the first to record the song, in 1958, it didn’t show up on a record until Stovall released his own version in 1961. Glen Campbell, Jody Miller and O.C. Smith all took turns with the song which gained immortality when Elvis Presley included it on 1969’s From Elvis in Memphis.
Another artist to record “Long Black Limousine” was Merle Haggard, an early “discovery” of Stewart’s. During the Challenge period, Stewart co-owned a Las Vegas nightspot, Nashville Nevada. Haggard sat in with the band one night while Stewart was out of town, and upon his return, he promptly hired the young man as his bass player. An accomplished songwriter responsible for half of the songs on The Very Best including the rockabilly-infused opener “Come On,” Wynn penned Haggard’s early hit “Sing a Sad Song.” Hag returned the favor by crediting Wynn as having influenced both him and Buck Owens in stripping country-and-western down to its essence later in the 1960s.
Varese’s first-time LP reissue has been newly remastered for vinyl by Steve Massie. The record itself is handsomely emblazoned with replica Challenge labels, and is housed in a protective inner sleeve. Both The Very Best of Wynn Stewart 1958-1962 and John, The Wolfking of L.A. are available on vinyl now from Varese Vintage at the links below!
- April Anne
- Topanga Canyon
- Malibu People
- Someone’s Sleeping
- Let It Bleed, Genevieve
- Down the Beach
- Holland Tunnel
- Come On (Jackpot single 48005-B, 1958)
- Long Black Limousine (originally unissued, rec. mid-1958)
- How the Other Half Lives – with Jan Howard (Jackpot single 48014, 1958)
- Above and Beyond (The Call of Love) (Jackpot single 48019, 1959)
- Wishful Thinking (Challenge single 59061, 1959)
- Wrong Company – with Jan Howard (Challenge single 59071, 1960)
- Heartaches for a Dime (Challenge single 59084, 1960)
- Playboy (Challenge single 59084-B, 1960)
- Big City (Challenge single 59216, 1960)
- If You See My Baby (Challenge single 59095, 1960)
- Big, Big Love (Challenge single 59121, 1961)
- I Don’t Feel at Home (Challenge single 59142, 1962)
- One Way to Go (Challenge single 59216-B, 1960)
- Falling for You (originally unissued, rec. 1962)
- Three Cheers for the Loser (originally unissued, rec. 1962)
- Couples Only (originally unissued, rec. 1962)
- Another Day, Another Dollar (Challenge single 59164, 1962)
- Don’t Look Back (Challenge single 59155-B, 1962)