Fascinated by faraway places — Keeping up with the multifaceted Ken Mansfield
Capitol Records wunderkind. Producer. Songwriter. Guitarist. Author. Motivational speaker. Obvious multi-purpose raconteur Ken Mansfield generously relives his amazing journey below in a candid interview.
While Mansfield may not be a household name, the artists he counts as co-conspirators most certainly are. During his creative peak in the ’60s and ’70s, Mansfield navigated the careers of such luminaries as the Beach Boys, the Band, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Buck Owens, Jimmy Buffett, Glen Campbell, and “Ode to Billie Joe” chanteuse Bobbie Gentry.
Even the ultimate four-piece band — the Beatles — befriended Mansfield and put him in charge of Apple Records’ American division in 1968. Wearing an ostentatious white coat, you can spot him sitting beside a frowning Yoko Ono and Ringo Starr’s first wife Maureen Starkey atop the Apple building in London as the Mop Tops unleash “Get Back” during their final, near-impromptu live performance on January 30, 1969. The Roof is Mansfield’s written account of that legendary, frigid mid-day afternoon.
His trajectory is all the more astonishing when you consider his rags-to-riches upbringing. The son of a lumberjack, Mansfield grew up near a Nez Perce Native American reservation in north central Idaho. Listening to the radio late at night awakened a desire within the young boy to pursue his muse beyond the confines of Idaho’s banana belt. A stint with the Navy proved to be Mansfield’s golden ticket to Hollywood. Sayonara to the old home place.
In the fascinating first installment, the guilty as charged memoirist behind Stumbling on Open Ground: Love, God, Cancer, and Rock ’n’ Roll holds court on his earliest musical influences, experiencing a whole new world with Les Paul and Bill Haley, how he pretty much conned his way into producing a pre-Buffalo Springfield Jim Messina and the Deep Six, the political decision informing Italian heartthrob Al Martino waxing Mansfield’s debut composition to vinyl, the middle ground he achieved when producing Waylon Jennings, the emotions underscoring songwriting, and much more.
The Ken Mansfield Interview, Part One
What was your childhood like growing up in Idaho?
I grew up alongside a Nez Perce Indian reservation. I didn’t actually grow up on the reservation but our property was next to their boundaries. My father worked in the sawmill and before that as a lumberjack. We grew up very poor.
I worked from the time I was 12 years old for the things I wanted. I was never encouraged to do anything or make anything out of myself. There was just this far-away thing I always saw and felt. I’d hear songs on the radio and try to emulate the sounds on my steel guitar. When television came around, I would see these things in Hollywood. I was completely fascinated.
When I was 17 years old, I joined the Navy so I could get out of Idaho. I was stationed in San Diego. It wasn’t long before somebody drove me up to Hollywood. As I passed by the Capitol Tower, I got shivers. Perhaps it was a premonition. Years later I would have an executive office in that very building.
Who were your earliest musical influences?
During my childhood I was raised on hard country — I played around with steel guitar for awhile — and jazz. I grew up with amazing artists such as the Four Freshmen, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Stan Kenton, and Nat King Cole.
I was in love with the guitar, and when I heard the music that Chet Atkins and Les Paul made, I was hooked. The first record I bought was Les Paul’s “How High the Moon” in 1951, featuring his wife, Mary Ford, on vocals. Coincidentally or not, the number one single was released on Capitol Records.
That was production before people were really producing. Les stacked eight different recorders on top of each other and synced them together so he could overdub against himself. He truly pioneered overdubbing.
There was a seismic cultural shift around 1954, my senior year in high school. Bill Haley and the Comets made a record called “Rock Around the Clock”, Elvis Presley was kicking things up on Sun, and James Dean was making these anti-establishment movies.
Hearing “Rock Around the Clock” play as the credits rolled in The Blackboard Jungle with Glenn Ford was like a whole new world for me. I’ll never forget that. Our music — rock and roll — rebelled against the old folks’ jazz.
By the time I entered the industry in the early ’60s, the British rockers were right around the corner. Of course, I liked their sounds, too, especially the Beatles [laughs]. I developed a strong musical education just by listening and being fascinated by every new genre of music that came about.
How did your debut as a record producer emerge?
I had a concept for a folk rock group and put the members together one by one, picking from people who had played in my La Mesa folk club — the Land of Oden. I signed them to a managing contract and named them the Deep Six.
I couldn’t get a record deal for the band and because I knew in my heart that someday I wanted to be a producer, I decided I would start with them and show everyone what I was hearing with the group. I didn’t quite know how to produce yet, and I met this young kid in Hollywood named Jimmy Messina.
He said, “I know how to produce and I’ll show you how to do it.” He was basically a “ghost producer” [laughs]. We were both making our bones at the time. It’s just those kind of things that are on the natch and by the heart. You don’t really think about it. When you start trying is when things get stiff.
Anyway, we went in and did the record. Liberty Records later signed the band and released “Rising Sun” as the single. It went Top 5 on the West Coast and in a lot of smaller markets. Unfortunately, the record never broke the East Coast. It only got to No. 122 in Billboard. It was the band’s only nationally charting single in November 1965.
Jimmy later joined Buffalo Springfield as producer, recording engineer, and bassist on their final album, Last Time Around . He found even greater fame with Loggins and Messina in the ’70s. What is interesting is that the Buffalo Springfield had the same problem as the Deep Six in that they were a Top 5 group on the West Coast but had trouble getting a nationwide acceptance.
Songwriting entered your life when?
The first song I wrote was called “Wake Up to Me Gentle” for Al Martino, a very famous Italian pop crooner in the ’50s and ’60s who scored a big hit with “Spanish Eyes” in 1965 [No. 15 POP, No. 1 Easy Listening]. I wasn’t even thinking about being a songwriter. I just happened to have written “Wake Up to Me Gentle” and showed it to him in 1968 [laughs].
Al decided to cut the song for his next album. It was a political thing — Al thought he could record one of my songs and I would promote the album, since I was then head of promotion at Capitol.
Jimmy Webb, in the midst of his incredible streak with Glen Campbell, was the hot songwriter of the day. Al got ahold of a Webb song entitled “If You Must Leave My Life” [also covered by Richard Harris and B.J. Thomas] and decided that it would be his next hit single. But when the album was finished everybody kept insisting that my song would be the hit.
Capitol finally made “Wake Up” the single and the title of Al’s album. Al reached a compromise by putting “If You Must Leave My Life” on the B-side [Author’s Note: Martino’s initial gut instinct may have been correct. The “Wake Up” single barely registered on the pop chart when it debuted in October 1968, bubbling under at No. 120. The Easy Listening chart was a significantly more encouraging story, as “Wake Up” stalled just shy of the Top 20 at No. 21].
In total, six of my compositions were recorded in the ’60s and ’70s — ”Wake Up to Me Gentle” [Al Martino, Sonny James, Bonnie Guitar, and Claudine Longet], “Take a Walk in the Country” [Doyle Holly, Don Ho, and the Makaha Sons], “Summer Only Needs Its Autumn” [the Hager Twins], “While You’re Sleeping” [Claudine Longet], and “Come Back Shane” and “I Just Want to Hear the Music”, both recorded by Tompall Glaser. Incidentally, my wife was associate director of Hee Haw for the last five years of the show, and several of the above artists were regulars on the show.
Have you noticed any parallels between song composition and writing a book?
Something about words has always fascinated me. I’ve been a writer ever since I can remember. I never did anything formal with it until I got into college. When I eventually became head of artist relations and marketing at Capitol, I was always writing press releases, bios, or advertising campaigns about artists.
Concurrently, I pursued songwriting. When I composed songs, I loved crafting the words and having sentences fit certain length, rhymes, and the flow of things. I never really thought about putting all these words I created into something that would be a lengthy format such as a book.
After I’d written my first book — The Beatles, the Bible, and Bodega Bay: My Long and Winding Road — a lot of people came to me and said, “You write your stories like a songwriter.” That kind of surprised me, because I had never realized that being a songwriter was the basis for how I wrote everything.
Now I understand that every sentence or paragraph has to have a rhythm and a certain flow. It’s almost like I write an intro, verse, chorus, turn around, second chorus, tag, and fade out. It’s very much a natural transition.
Has the writing process gotten less challenging over the years?
It’s a funny thing. For example, Marshall Terrill, best known for his well-received books on Steve McQueen, can sit down with an assignment and write on demand, regardless of quantity. He also researches his subjects thoroughly.
I’m still like a songwriter in the fact that I have to have something emotional happening inside of me to write. Case in point: Marshall and I co-wrote Rock and a Heart Place: A Rock ’n’ Roller-coaster Ride from Rebellion to Sweet Salvation. Marshall finished his part of a chapter and then it was my turn to write my part of the manuscript.
I sat down, studied it, and had to walk away with virtually nothing. Then all of a sudden, Bam! Inspiration hit me. Marshall understands that about me and because we have such great respect for each other’s process, the whole project became very exciting.
It’s like when I was producing Waylon Jennings during his ascension to legendary outlaw status. He had this West Texas street approach to recording. When I joined him with my British rock approach to producing in 1973, the middle ground we found ourselves in was very unique.
I get totally lost in space when I am writing. If my wife Connie walks into the room and sees me writing, she’ll start to say something, turn around, and walk out, shutting the door behind her. She knows better. I just leave the planet for a little while.
Writing doesn’t get harder, and it doesn’t get easier. It’s just pretty much what it is. I don’t know. I never intended to be a writer. It just happened. I’ve been published five times now by major publishers.
I have just finished my sixth and seventh books — Philco and The Roof: The Beatles’ Final Concert. Philco is a novel exploring a great country that lost its identity when God was asked to leave, while The Roof is about the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ near-impromptu rooftop appearance from 3 Savile Row, London, for the movie Let It Be. I was one of about 18 people on the roof that blistery midday afternoon of January 30, 1969, when they debuted five complete songs — ”Get Back,” “Don’t Let Me Down,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “One After 909,” and “Dig a Pony” — as their final group performance.
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