Pamela Polland may not have become a worldwide household name, but there was a point around the year 1973 where she was close to becoming one. In the prior decade, she had written songs performed by the illustrious likes of Vikki Carr, The Serendipity Singers, and Linda Ronstadt; performed in a blues duo with Ry Cooder; formed the psych-pop duo The Gentle Soul; appeared in the Leonard Bernstein-hosted Inside Pop documentary; and launched a solo career. In the years that followed, she hit the road with Joe Cocker, Leon Russell, and Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and recorded a successful debut album under the guidance of Clive Davis that featured the likes of David Briggs, Nicky Hopkins, and Taj Mahal. It shone a light on Polland’s remarkable songwriting talents and led to engagements opening for some of the biggest acts of the early ’70s.
Her 1973 follow-up, Have You Heard The One About The Gas Station Attendant? was designed to put her on the map with absolute top-tier talent on board, including most of Elton John’s band backing her up, plus Joan Armatrading, Bruce Johnston, Taj Mahal, Nicky Hopkins, and members of The Section. Del Newman provided the arrangements and Gus Dudgeon produced the sessions. But due to an unfortunate combination of poor timing and bad luck, the album was shelved at the eleventh hour, lost to time forever…or so it appeared.
Tomorrow, March 8, Pamela Polland’s lost album Have You Heard The One About the Gas Station Attendant? will be released for the first time ever, paired with her self-titled debut on a new 2-CD compilation from BGO Records. To mark this celebratory occasion, The Second Disc caught up with Pamela Polland and compilation producer Charles Donovan to discuss the incredible story of patience, persistence, and pure serendipity that surrounds the incredible music and its eventual release more than 40 years later.
PART ONE: HAVE YOU HEARD THE ONE ABOUT PAMELA POLLAND?
Pamela Polland spoke to The Second Disc from her place in Hawaii. Though she’s called the island home for nearly forty years, Polland got her start in Los Angeles. Pamela was always surrounded by music. Her family had some music industry ties, but while the sounds of classical and folk filled her living room, the hits of the burgeoning rock and roll scene were a little harder to find for young Pamela. Despite their appreciation for most other music, her folks were less enthused with rock and roll. To hear those new sounds meant taking clandestine trips to her friends’ place. It’s there that she heard the revolutionary sounds of Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and, perhaps most significantly, The Everly Brothers, who instilled in her a love for harmony. Once she heard that music, she sought to make music herself and was soon hooked on the art of songwriting.
It didn’t take long for Pamela’s original material to reach listeners everywhere. “Sam Cooke’s publisher signed me at 16,” she recalls. And right out of the gate her music found a home in the catalogs of Vikki Carr (“Should I Follow”), Nancy Ames (“See The Friendship There”), and others. Around the same time, Pamela picked up a job as a cashier at popular folk club The Ash Grove, which hosted blues and folk acts from across the United States. Pamela attended countless shows there, including many by the originators of the blues. Next door was “a little hole-in-the-wall guitar store” called McCabe’s. Outside, guitarists would hang out, sometimes buying and selling secondhand gear. It’s there that Pamela met her first musical partner, a fifteen-year-old guitarist named Ry Cooder, and they soon formed a close musical bond based around their shared love for the blues. Soon, they started to perform together, with Pamela on vocals and Ry on guitar.
“Ry was my first singing teacher,” Pamela recalls. “He taught me how to listen with a fine-toothed comb.” Together, they performed a repertoire of Bessie Smith, Rev. Gary Davis, and the old Delta blues masters. And while Pamela – a self-described “little Jewish teen girl” – did her best to “emulate a 300-pound black woman,” Ry was learning the guitar styles of the genre’s finest pickers.
As much fun as it was to perform with Ry, the pair’s repertoire was solely old blues tunes. “But my heart and soul was in original music,” Pamela said, “[and] that’s where I wanted to return. And I loved harmony.” By the mid-’60s, Polland teamed up with Rick Stanley, a gifted singer and songwriter. “I completely hit it off with Rick,” she recalls. They shared similar formative musical influences, especially The Everly Brothers, and they both were concerned with creating strong and interesting harmonic blends for their original songs, which they wrote sometimes individually and sometimes together. “We were a fully functioning team,” she notes. Their sole album was released on Epic in October 1968 (and reissued on CD by Sundazed as an expanded edition in 2003). It was produced by Terry Melcher and featured orchestration from Jack Nitzsche, and instrumental accompaniment by Van Dyke Parks, Paul Horn, Ry Cooder, Larry Knechtel, Joe Osborne, and Hal Blaine. It’s an 11-track collection of music that’s both of its time and timeless. “There’s the undeniable ‘All You Need Is Love’ Beatles influence,” Pamela says, as well as a healthy dose of inspiration from transcendental meditation and the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (who found a disciple in Rick Stanley before The Beatles caught on). Tracks like the dreamy “Renaissance” and the bluesy folk-rock number “Reelin'” (with slide guitar by Cooder) demonstrate the pair’s devotion to the guru, while the richly arranged and breezy pop song “See My Love” was a tribute to Pamela’s then-husband, her “first great love.”
One of the delights of the Gentle Soul CD reissue is the handful of bonus tracks, including the single “Our National Anthem.” “I think [it] could have been our hit song,” Polland acknowledges of the non-album A-side that features an aural kaleidoscope of harmonies and the catchy hook, “It’s love and it’s right for me.” It’s a creed that Pamela still believes in.
But despite Pamela and Rick’s best efforts, widespread success alluded The Gentle Soul and they eventually went their separate ways. “There was not much promotion,” Pamela remembers, “so it was a case of stagnation through inactivity.” The only TV promotion Pamela could recall was an exposé that involved Leonard Bernstein. It turns out that this documentary was the 1967 CBS profile Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution, which featured the legendary maestro highlighting his favorite rock songs. Bernstein was eager to get the older generations hip to the musically adventurous and socially conscious material of the day with the help of Brian Wilson, Janis Ian, Graham Nash, and Frank Zappa. And seen in the opening sequence? The Gentle Soul. But even an endorsement from Bernstein and CBS-TV could only do so much. She and Rick disbanded The Gentle Soul in 1969: “Rick wanted to follow the Maharishi in Iowa. He actually recorded several albums of transcendental meditation-influenced songs.”
Transitions and a Helping Hand
Meanwhile, Pamela moved out to Marin County and her songs continued to reach ears through cover versions by Linda Ronstadt and The Stone Poneys (“I’d Like To Know,” the B-side to “Different Drum”) and The Byrds (“Tulsa County”). Terry Melcher had also planned to produce a Pamela Polland and Ry Cooder live album at New Orleans’ Preservation Hall that would have paired them up with all the living blues legends. “Ry was a kid in a candy store,” Pamela recalls, but she had her reservations, since she’d hoped to cut tracks that were more in the singer-songwriter vein. “[Singing those songs of my roots] was great fun, but original work was key. I wanted to ensure that I could do a solo singer-songwriter album and I never really got a straight answer from Terry.”
In a bind, she decided to take her concerns straight to the top: to Clive Davis, president of CBS Records (which included Epic and its parent label, Columbia). “I called Clive blind for advice. He told me, ‘If you go [to New Orleans] and it’s a hit, you’ll be required to follow that path. If your heart and soul is in singer-songwriter, don’t go to New Orleans. Get a producer and we’ll support you.”
Before she could do that, though, Pamela got a surprise that would bring her to the attention of audiences worldwide. “A friend in Marin said, ‘let’s go to my friends’ rehearsal,'” Pamela remembers. “It was the first rehearsal for the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour at A&M Studios. On break, Leon [Russell] said, ‘Hey, aren’t you Pamela Polland? Sing with us after the break.'” After she sang, Russell implored her to join them on tour. “So before returning to Columbia, I ran away with the circus! It became a great calling card.” Once back from the now-legendary tour, Polland was set to record her first album for Columbia Records.
Simply named Pamela Polland, the debut was mainly recorded at the label’s San Francisco studios and produced by George Daly, an A&R man who had helped her get the record deal. The material was top-notch and the backing band included many luminaries including Taj Mahal, Nicky Hopkins, and members of Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. But it was the production that some felt wasn’t up to snuff. “Clive heard it and was underwhelmed,” Polland admits. He had them record some tracks out in Nashville with Norbert Putnam producing and with backing by David Briggs, Kenny Buttrey, the Memphis Horns, and the Holliday Singers.
Among the tracks from those Nashville sessions was the powerful ballad “Out of My Hands (Still in My Heart).” It was emblematic of Polland’s newest musical direction. With its piano backing and introspective lyrics, the track recalls the work of Laura Nyro and Carole King but combines the jazz, blues, and gospel approaches that informed Pamela’s unique style. “I wanted that one as the single,” Pamela remembers, “but George went with ‘In My Imagination’ because he produced it!”
“In My Imagination” was also selected as the album opener. It’s an uptempo soul-pop number about an imagined companion whose mere appearance sends the narrator into “the dizzy spell” of love “like a spinning Ferris wheel.” Propelled by The Holliday Singers’ call-and-response backing vocals, it lifts into a rollicking conclusion. Other highlights of that first album include an impromptu jam on “Teddy Bears Picnic” and the emotive ballad “The Dream (For Karuna),” both of which spotlight Nicky Hopkins on piano. “The Rescuer,” meanwhile, is a jaunty, bluesy number about spiritual enlightenment that features Taj Mahal on slide guitar. Taj inspired another track on the album, “Sing-A-Song Man,” including members of Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show on backing vocals.There’s also “Please Mr. DJ,” a tribute to a New York disc jockey that Pamela had befriended. Interestingly enough, the song got a new life years later halfway across the world. “As it turns out, a German DJ had a popular show – a late night show similar to Wolfman Jack – and used [the song] as the theme.” Though the DJ, Christian Gunther, died in 2004, Pamela still receives mail about the song that became his theme.
Off to London
Pamela Polland was a moderate critical and financial success that propelled her career forward. Soon Polland was opening for the likes of Richie Havens, Loggins & Messina, and Van Morrison. “But Clive Davis felt that the reaction could have been better with a different producer,” Polland recollects. Davis asked her to list 10 of her favorite producers she might want to work with for the next album. Her list included Paul Samwell-Smith, who had produced Cat Stevens’ breakthrough albums, and Paul Simon. The latter actually agreed to produce her, but said he’d have to wait a year before he could begin and that production would take another full year. Gus Dudgeon was another option. He was in the middle of a hugely successful run with Elton John. Dudgeon was interested, but told Davis he’d have to hear Polland live before committing to the album. So, Polland was given the opportunity of a lifetime: to perform at the 1972 CBS Convention in London for all the producers and A&R reps in attendance. Also on the bill were Bill Quateman, Dave Mason, and Loggins & Messina. Gus was floored by Pamela’s performance and arranged a meeting the next day, after which plans were made for her to move to London in September of 1972.
“I entered into an incredible world of talent and skill,” Pamela said. Inside the famed Trident Studios, she worked with engineer Ken Scott, arranger Del Newman, and most of Elton John’s backing group. For an artist who loved the art of recording it was to be an unforgettable experience: “Gus was an awesome producer and we developed the best friendship.” Dudgeon was a family man, so sessions were held during the day, and Pamela doesn’t recall any particularly lengthy session. Still, there was no shortage of creativity. Polland was allowed to guide arrangements, “intro ideas, feels, backing ideas, and band instrumentation,” while Del Newman handled the symphonic charts. “I loved everything [he did],” she confirms. “I heard [the] first arrangement and left it to him. I knew we were in capable hands.”
The album begins with “The Refuge,” one of three songs that were tracked in Los Angeles. Dudgeon had never recorded there and had always longed to work with the famed LA session men collectively known as The Section. David Campbell was enlisted to write string arrangemnets for the LA tracks. The LA recording of “The Refuge” is simply luscious. It’s a vivacious ode to Mexico with Section members Leland Sklar on bass and Russ Kunkel on drums, plus The Elton John Band’s Davey Johnstone on guitar. Marc McClure, The Beach Boys’ Bruce Johnston, and Gus and Pamela provided the backing vocals. Another highlight is “Wild Roses,” which shows off Pamela’s flair for richly textured harmonies. “Wild Roses” was inspired by the flora that grew outside of Steve Miller’s home in California. Adding her beautiful vocals to very groovy and spacey effect is Joan Armatrading, who was also collaborating with Dudgeon on an album at the time. “It was so fun singing with Joan Armatrading,” Polland said. “She’s a consummate musician – devoted and dedicated, and absolutely wonderful.” Have You Heard The One About The Gas Station Attendant? was so named from “For Earl,” a piano ballad about “a young man down the road, working in the service station” who’s “always on my mind.” While the narrator “would like to get to know him,” “he’s got another woman, and I’ve never been the ‘other woman’ kind.”
The album also includes “Music, Music,” which was eventually covered by Helen Reddy as the title cut to her 1976 album. Reddy’s slick pop interpretation went Gold, but Polland’s original is a more expansive, almost shimmering credo to the power of song as salvation. Closing out the original album’s planned track list was “The Clearing,” an epic, spiritual-minded song about remaining present in the face of love and spiritual enlightenment. It features Herbie Flowers on bass, David Hentschel on ARP synthesizer, plus orchestration by Del Newman and backing vocals from Bruce Johnston. For this track, the incomparable Ray Cooper built a prototype instrument that he called a water gong. “It was a vat-of-water contraption that he built,” Polland remembers, “that Ray would fill with water. [Then he] hit the gong in the water” to fantastic effect.
An Album, Lost
Creativity and talent were boundless during the making of the album and everyone expected it to be a big hit. With the caliber of talent involved, how could it not be? The album was mixed in a number of lengthy sessions in London, a track list was prepared that pared down the 13 songs recorded to a more manageable 11, and artwork was readied. Then, all of a sudden, there were hints that things weren’t well. “We didn’t discover until mixing that there was a lack of support. We sent the music to Clive and his response was ‘great material but no single.'” How could that be? All involved felt there were many potential singles; Gus had hoped for “Music, Music” to be the lead single to establish Pamela as a hit artist, then the reflective “For Earl” as a follow-up. “But it’s the music business. The company always represents the money, and I was just a creative – one-hundred percent.” So, Davis recommended that Polland return to London for more recording, but that didn’t come to pass.
Not long after, Pamela’s manager read in the newspaper that Clive Davis had been ousted from his position at Columbia. With every aspect of Polland’s album ready to go – mixing, mastering, artwork, and even a release date – everyone was hopeful that the project could continue on toward its finalization. But with Clive gone, Pamela’s greatest supporter was no longer there there to push the release through. Instead, 12 VPs – each with pet projects of their own – vied for promotion. Pamela learned that her album had been put on indefinite hold and no one wanted to be the one to “unfreeze” it. With no label support, there was nothing that Polland could do besides wait four months for her contract with Columbia to expire and try all over again. So, with completed masters all set to go, Pamela and her manager waited it out and then started shopping the material around again. Given that all the assets had been delivered, it seemed likely that a label would be eager to buy up the masters and press it in no time, but no one would bite. Two year earlier, Pamela had major labels fighting it out for her name on their roster. Now, no one would go near her. Eventually, she learned she’d been blacklisted from the industry, owing to her close association with the then-disgraced Davis.
Changing Musical Paths
But Pamela couldn’t quit music. At first, she turned to touring, continuing to perform the college circuit as she’d done before, but audiences were clamoring for new material and she couldn’t keep promoting her two-year-old debut. So, one night at a Chicago club gig, she went back to her roots and performed a loose set of old blues to great reception. She found a piano player and started booking more club dates for her revival of the bawdy jazz of the ’20s to the ’40s, which she performed under the punning name of Melba Rounds. Polland kept writing original material, but struggled to find a home for it. In 1977, she settled in Maui and soon, she was playing the best live gigs on the island. Around 1980, she returned to the mainland to work with a songwriting partner on a musical, but when that turned out to be less fruitful than expected, the two went their separate ways. In the years following, Pamela continued performing, but also worked as a songwriter and vocal coach as she absorbed all the rich culture that Maui had to offer. In the mid-’80s she was approached by Fostex to create one of the first in-home multi-track recordings that the company had designed, meant to be recorded direct to cassette from the user’s home, but that wasn’t meant to be, either.
In the early ’90s, Pamela decided to have all her 1/4″ tapes digitized and self-released an album called Heart of the World, which featured Bonnie Raitt, Kenny Loggins, and Chris Hillman. It was around this time that Charles Donovan came to learn about Pamela’s work.
PART TWO: A LOST ALBUM, REDISCOVERED
Charles Donovan knows an interesting story when he sees one. He trained as a journalist at IPC Magazines in the mid-1990s, and later became the Arts Editor for Woman & Home Magazine while contributing to The Sunday Telegraph, The Sunday Times Magazine, The Independent, The Evening Standard, and many other publications. When he wasn’t writing, he moonlighted as a singer and pianist in clubs and restaurants.
Donovan is a voracious lover of music, particularly the singer-songwriters of the ’60s and ’70s. He was always on the hunt for new material to perform, scouring through bins at record shops for any eye-catching obscurity. It was during one such dig that he encountered Pamela Polland’s music. “First, I found the cover striking,” Donovan remembers. Then, he saw in the liner notes that it was a collection of all-original material. “I admired that and [especially] loved the song ‘Lighthouse,'” which he added to his repertoire. Donovan soon reached out to Polland, who told him about the planned second solo album. Polland had a safety copy of the material that she eventually played for Donovan, and the two developed a lasting friendship. While the debut was a great record, Donovan says that it’s that unreleased material that made him “a Pamela Polland devotee.” But at this point, any widespread official release seemed impossible as the master tapes were presumed lost.
By the mid-2000s, it seemed possible that the world would finally hear the album. A few years earlier, Sundazed reissued the entire Gentle Soul catalogue, including rare singles and unreleased tracks, reigniting interest in Polland’s classic work. In 2006, Sony Japan released Polland’s debut on compact disc and expressed interest in following suit with the lost album. But the label’s search of the Sony vaults, which include Columbia’s catalogue, came up with nothing. A few years later, Donovan began researching into the whereabouts of the lost tapes. He got in touch with anyone he could, including Gus Dudgeon’s estate, with the intent of sending the information back to Sony Japan so they could move forward with the release. But every search was ultimately fruitless. In March 2013, Donovan wrote a piece for Huffington Post called “Pamela Polland… and Her Missing Album,” which brought more attention to the album and his quest for the missing masters. Two days later, Donovan received an email from an employee at Sony Music UK. Donovan wrote, “He indicated that he’d read the piece and asked me to call him. He was friendly and personable and – to my astonishment – said that the master tapes were sitting on his desk and that he was looking at them while we were speaking. The power of the written word. Where emails and phone calls had failed, a well-timed article sorted everything out.” The employee was then put in touch with Pamela herself, who confirmed that the tapes were genuine.
Now it was a matter of finding a label to release it. Donovan contacted Sony Japan, but the contact who had first indicated interest in a Pamela Polland reissue program was long gone. It seemed as though history was repeating itself, with bad timing standing in the way once again; plans were temporarily put on hold. In the meantime, Donovan was commissioned to provide liner notes for BGO’s Melissa Manchester four-for-one reissue in 2016 and began working with the label closely on more projects the following year. “My involvement went beyond liner notes,” Donovan recalls. “I was able to conceive the whole project, liaising with designers, looking at tape reports and researching bonus tracks etc., etc. […] This meant that by the time the Pamela project picked up speed, I had already had a couple of years of working on reissues.” He also gained experience dealing with some of the hurdles involved with third-party reissues, including licensing and issues of rights and clearances. By the time all the legal hurdles were out of the way in 2018, it was clear that BGO would make a great home for the Pamela Polland reissue.
It was decided that the new reissue would pair Polland’s self-titled debut with Have You Heard The One About The Gas Station Attendant? as a 2-CD set. What’s more, Donovan’s research unearthed the two tracks that didn’t make the final track listing for the album. Both were fully mixed and mastered back in 1973, but remained on the reels, lost with the rest of the recordings. Those two lost tracks appear as bonus material at the end of Disc Two, and all the tracks have been remastered by Andrew Thompson at Sound Performance, London, in a way that remains, as Donovan puts it, “un-aggressive and not excessive.” That’s the best way to present the material, allowing the original productions to shine. In addition to the music, the deluxe package includes a 28-page booklet full of photos, lyrics, personnel, and an engaging essay by Donovan, drawing on a new interview with Pamela.
In all, BGO’s Pamela Polland/Have You Heard The One About The Gas Station Attendant? release is the culmination of a decade-plus-long hunt for the master tapes and, for Pamela Polland, an unlikely triumph that borders on the miraculous. That the 1973 album that was thought to be lost for 40 or more years can now be purchased by anyone interested to hear it is an overwhelming joy to the woman who brought the music into the world. “I’m eternally grateful,” Polland said, saying she owes a great deal to Donovan for his “years of fortitude and diligence.” “Just having that body of music available is gratifying. It’s amazing fortune to have people interested in my music [after all these years].”
So take yourself on a trip back to 1973 and enjoy this unearthed treasure of the singer-songwriter era, rediscovered 46 years on. Your ears and your spirit will be glad that you did.
BGO’s 2-CD compilation of Pamela Polland and Have You Heard The One About The Gas Station Attendant? officially arrives to retailers everywhere TOMORROW, March 8. You can find a copy wherever fine music is sold, and on Amazon U.S., Amazon U.K., and Amazon Canada. Happy listening!