Al Staehely — Interview
When Geraldo Rivera opened up Al Capone’s vault live on television in 1986, he found… nothing. The same could not be said for music industry veteran Al Staehely when he recently opened his own personal vault and found a treasure trove of recordings dating back to the 1970s and ‘80s, many of which featured some of the most respected musicians of the time. Instead of doing a “digital dump” of his finds, the former frontman and principal songwriter for Spirit set out to release an album, Post Spirit Vol. 1 (1974-1978), and in the process, uncovered a time capsule that every music fan should unseal in the comfort of their own home.
I recently sat down with Staehely to discuss digging up the past, memorializing Jim Croce, and working both sides of the music industry.
Americana Highways: These songs were written over 40 years ago. I’m curious if revisiting them for you was a bit like looking at old yearbooks from the past?
Al Staehely: (Laughter) Well, it is kind of like that. Actually, most of the songs, I’ve continued performing off and on over the years, some with a band, some in acoustic performances. One kind of surprise is “Live Like a River.” Tell you the truth, I’d kind of forgotten about that one and I never really performed it for whatever reason. I wrote a lot of stuff with John Denver and I didn’t really know him very well, but we had a mutual friend, Patti Dahlstrom, who I had co-written some songs with for her albums. In fact, there’s one I co-write on this with her, “Without Love.” She’s a lyricist. This guy Joe Henry is primarily a lyricist, so I guess she told him about me and gave me this lyric. I put it to music, we recorded it and actually, that’s Jim Horn playing flute on it. I just kind of forgot about it until I was going through all this stuff and found it and then a lot of people are kind of flipping out over it, saying, “Wow, this sounds really good.” That was a discovery that I’d kind of forgotten about. Then others brought up memories of who played on them or trying to remember who played on them.
I have to say, a couple, I really couldn’t remember everybody who plays on them because they were done so long ago. (Laughter) But a lot of the guys I got back in touch with, like Snuffy Walden. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him?
AS: If you ever watched West Wing or Thirtysomething or The Wonder Years or any of that, look, it’ll say W.G Snuffy Walden. He does the music. He’s one of the top music guys for TV. And, at that time, he was just a balls-to-the-wall electric guitar player who was really good. That’s him playing the solo on “Wide Eyed & Innocent.” And then there’s a bass player that used to play with me around LA a lot, Vayler Hildebrand. I hadn’t talked to him in years. I got back in touch with him. It’s been a gratifying experience from a lot of levels.
AH: The album is titled Post Spirit Vol. 1 (1974 to 1978). I was born in that span, and now some 40 or so years later, I’m enjoying music that was written and recorded at the same time I was coming into the world. That’s a beautiful thing.
AS: Yeah. That’s why I kind of referred to it as sort of being found in a vault or kind of like a lost treasure, even though, I’ve had them, but I just hadn’t, I guess, bothered, or spent the time. A lot of these old Ampex tapes, you got to bake them. You have to have them baked and transferred to digital. So there’s expense involved with all that. Plus, even though I’ve known I’ve wanted to do this for a while, I didn’t want to just do a digital dump. Anybody can put stuff out now. You can just throw it up there. I thought, this stuff, these were some good songs recorded with some of the best people in LA and some of the best studios that, at the time now, are being revisited. Plus, I’m getting to an age where, I don’t want… I’m 75. Hopefully I’ve got another 20 years left, but who knows. I don’t want to be gone and have my son just find all this stuff in a big plastic tub and wonder what to do with it or it gets lost.
AH: Absolutely. And at the same time, you get to enjoy it all again as well.
AS: That’s right.
AH: There is this great vibe and sound to the record that a lot of people are trying to recreate today, but it’s not always something that comes off sounding authentic. But these songs were recorded then and only seeing the world now, so they’re as authentic as it gets.
AS: It’s interesting you say that because a young man who I’ve kind of known since he was a kid, he’s a friend of my sons and I know his family… he did that video for “Wide Eyed & Innocent,” a guy named Taylor White. He’s like 33, something like that. He loves this stuff. Not just my stuff, but he loves that stuff from that era. I think there’s more and more people in y’all’s age group that are kind of developing an appreciation for some of the stuff.
AH: Definitely. I grew up listening to guys like Jim Croce, so a lot of music from this era still feels like my era, even though I didn’t live in it.
AS: Actually, speaking of Jim Croce, that girl Patti Dahlstrom I told you about, she was big friends with Jim Croce and she wrote lyrics about him called “Louisiana” that I wrote the music to. I think it’s on one of her albums, or it was at least used in a documentary about him. Actually, going through all these tapes I found just a guitar/vocal demo of it that I’d done but I never recorded it beyond that because it was really for her to do. But it’s interesting that you mention Jim Croce. They were big friends.
AH: I will have to look that one up!
AS: It was called “Louisiana” because he (Croce) died in a plane crash in Louisiana.
AH: Of course. Al, I can’t help notice that there’s a “Vol. 1” attached to this album, does that mean there’s more coming?
AS: (Laughter) That does imply a volume two, doesn’t it? Yeah. There is. A lot of that is going was produced by Andy Johns, if you are familiar with him?
AH: I am.
AS: Yeah. He engineered Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin albums. Unfortunately, we lost him a few years back, but he was a friend of mine. You’re going to find that stuff interesting too. He came down to Texas and we recorded it in my friend’s ranch with a mobile truck. They had Robert Palmer’s drummer, Dony Wynn, playing drums and Pat Thrall on guitar. My brother on a couple of things, but Pat Thrall on most of it. It’s got a distinctively ’80s sounds, as opposed to this stuff, which has a distinctively ’70s sound.
AS: Yeah, and just so you know, before we release Vol. 2, I did some new recordings last year in 2020 during the pandemic out in Marfa, Texas. We’re planning to release that before we do the Vol. 2, to get something new.
AH: You’re spanning all the eras and decades of your life.
AS: That’s right. Yeah. It’s going to be fun. In fact, I don’t know if we can make something of it, but I pointed out to Ron Stone, who’s a manager who managed us in Spirit – you may know him from Gold Mountain Management from Nirvana and Bonnie Raitt and all sorts of people – but I said, “Ron, do you realize that next year, 2022, is going to be the 50th anniversary of the Spirit Feedback album?” He said, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about that. Maybe we’d better talk to Epic Records, see if they can make something out of that.” So, we’ll see.
AH: Obviously this album spans different periods of your life, but what would somebody learn about the Al who was writing and recording back then if they sat down and listened to the album front to back?
AS: Well, I’ll tell you, you’ll hear a difference if you listen to the Spirit Feedback album versus these songs. The Feedback songs were written, except for a couple – “Mellow Morning” was an acoustic song, and “Right on Time” was – but, basically, a lot of those songs were written to be for a band, a rock band. In fact, some of them I wrote on bass, which, by the way, for your readers out there who might be bass players, I’m going to tell you, that’s a good way to write a rock song. It works up real quick with the drummer and the rhythm section.
After the Spirit and The Staehely Brother albums, I made a conscious decision that, “Okay, you do these band things and then they break up. I want to write more solo appropriate material and try to get a solo deal.” So, there was a conscious effort to write those types of songs that I could kind of present. I could sit in a room and play them on an acoustic guitar for people, and you could hear the song. It didn’t involve having to have a band fill in all the gaps, even though, all those songs on this album do, those Vol. 1 songs, I can sit down and play on acoustic guitar. So there was that difference. The subject matter is more personal and less of a rock and roll vibe. And probably more mature, in a way. (Laughter) To tell you the truth, it might have had a little something to do with the relationship I was in at the time. So, you will notice the difference.
AH: Beyond music, you’ve also spent decades as an entertainment attorney. Is there anything that you wish young Al knew about rights and controlling music that you know now?
AS: I’m trying to think if there’s anything legally that I know now because I’d already finished law school when I joined Spirit. Not that I knew everything about the law, but… what happened was I was in a band in undergraduate school with two law students, and they talked me into going to law school to keep the band together when I graduated from undergraduate school, and I had to stay in school to stay out of Vietnam. So I finished law school, went ahead and took the bar (exam) to get it over with, but I decided I was going to give music a full time shot.
Not that I knew everything about the music business, because you don’t learn all that in law school, but when I look back, the things I might wish I might have done differently, probably have less to do with legal things. For example, “Wide Eyed & Innocent,” I remember there was a powerful DJ in LA named Dave Diamond who was a friend of Patti Dahlstrom’s, and he loved that song. He came to me and wanted to sign me to a singles deals. At the time, I thought, “No. I want an album deal. Nobody does singles much these days,” or at least at that time. When I stop and think about it, what an idiot I was. (Laughter) It would have gotten airplay, probably would have been a hit. Instead, here I am releasing it over 40 years later finally.
AH: Sometimes when we’re in the moment, it’s hard to see how things will impact us positively when we have our mind set on things.
AS: Yeah. If it had been a hit, I’m sure I’d gotten to do an album. And if it wasn’t a hit, then they probably would have dropped me anyway. I mean, some of the things I’ve learned being on the other side, being a lawyer, had to do with that it’s not only about the deal, it also has to do with the people you’re dealing with and the company you’re dealing with. Sometimes you give up a little more on the front end as long as you get more on the back end. You got to make it worth peoples’ while.
Don Henley was a friend of mine in Texas before he went out there. I remember him calling me and saying, “Hey, I think we got a name for the band.” I said, “What?” He said, “Eagles.” I said, “I think it sounds all right.” He said, “Well, I’m not sure. I don’t know if I like it.” (Laughter)
AH: Well, that worked out pretty good. (Laughter) Finally, Al, you have been on both sides of the industry. What would be the most amazing thing that would blow 12-year-old Al’s mind if he found out you got to experience or be witness to?
AS: Oh. How about headlining Carnegie Hall being one of them, as I did with Spirit in 1972? I only went out to LA in the summer of ’71 and by April of ’72, we had an album out, Feedback, and I was the lead singer, bass player and I’d written some of the songs on the album and we were headlining Carnegie Hall. Kind of hard to think of something more astounding than that for a 12 year old, especially since when I was 12 years old, I don’t even think I was playing guitar yet. (Laughter)
To learn more about Al Staehely and his incredible journey in the world of music, visit www.alstaehely.com.