A Message To Megyn Kelly
from Walt Stump, John Denver and Randy Sparks
I received this message last night:
'Hi, Sparks: Marquita is reading a new book from Megyn Kelly of Fox
News. In it she says her favorite song is "Today." She talks about
John Denver singing it. I'm not sure she realizes you wrote it.
I would like to send her your group’s album wherein you sing the solo
lines of that song. What album it is in?
Didn't John start out with you guys?
You need to know how important Walt has been in my life. I lived
with his family in my first year of college in San Diego, and he’s the
person who introduced me to the world of the coffee house. He said,
“I want to take you to The Hungry I in San Francisco. That’s a place
where you can perform.” He was right. I auditioned for Enrico
Banducci, who said, “I don’t have a place for you right now, but I’ve
called across the street to my friends at The Purple Onion, and you
need to audition for them too. That’s how I became a performer.
Yes, Walt, John Denver did get his start with us. I gave him his
first job and named him. His name was Henry John Deutschendorf,
Jr., and there wasn’t enough room on my marquee. Against his will,
I introduced him as ‘John Denver,’ and the subject never came up
again. He lived with my family in his first year in showbiz, as my wife
was worried that the older performers in our company housing would
lead him astray. He was young and naïve. We lived in Bel Air, and I
watched him develop all the tools for future success. I recorded
him solo for Capitol Records, and he wanted to sing my song Today,
but I couldn’t allow him to compete with my recording of it (which
was about to be released).
The last time we saw each other was at Burl Ives’ last rites concert
CLICK ON Burl Ives photo below for John Denver's brief comments at Burl Ives' last rites concert..
It might be interesting to you, Megyn, to know how the song came
to be. I was the writer for the group I invented, The New Christy
Minstrels, and we had been blessed with two hit records in a row,
Green Green and Saturday Night. Suddenly, unexpectedly, the folks
who ran Columbia Records said to me, “What’s next?” I hadn’t really
thought about it, and they said, ‘We need it right away; you’d better
I sat for half an hour over a cup of coffee in Nickodell’s Restaurant
on Argyle Street, Hollywood’s diminutive Tin Pan Alley, intent on
writing our next hit song, but the well was dry, no suitable subjects
coming to mind. Then, all at once, the room darkened. A huge truck
had parked just outside the large plate glass windows, limiting the
sunlight on a bright October day. The truck was delivering The
Herald Examiner, and on the side of it was painted their trademark:
‘Today’s News Today.’ ‘Now that’s an interesting word,’ I said to
myself, and my mind raced to a conversation I’d recently had with
my mother. “I may not be happy here,” she said, “but I know I’ll be
happy in Heaven.” “I hate to disagree with you,” I told her, “but if
you’re not pleased here, with all of our the many advantages we enjoy,
I cannot imagine that you’d be better served somewhere else.”
With those words rattling through my mind, I climbed aboard my
motorcycle for the ride home to Encino, and in the next ten minutes
I was loudly singing the chorus: ‘Today while the blossoms still cling
to the vine, I’ll taste your strawberries, I’ll drink your sweet wine;
A million tomorrows shall all pass away, Ere I forget all the joy that
is mineToday.” I sang it for my wife as I walked through the door,
then went to my writing room to assemble the verses.
The very next morning, at one of our regular rehearsals in the studio
at Columbia Records, I said to my group as we sat in the customary
circle, “I have a new song that I’d like to sing for you.” When I
finished, nobody said a word; every member was looking straight
ahead. “Well, whatdya think?” I asked. Larry Ramos, the banjo
player, said, “I think I can speak for all of us. It’s shit! The same old
shit you always write!” “Is that the way the rest of you feel too?” I
asked. Nobody said a word, every member of the group just sitting
there, looking straight ahead. I was stunned, but I recovered enough
to say, “You may not love it, but you’re still gonna sing it.”
The song took a few months to become a record. There was an obvious shortage of genuine effort expended by anybody. We recorded it in LA, then New York, and again in LA, and the resistance was not my imagination. Finally, after they wearied of arguing with me, I suppose, it began to sound better, and we achieved an acceptable performance on tape. The solo lines had been intended for Ann White, but she just couldn't get it right, and as we were about to run out of time, and as the finished product was already late, I stepped in to do the opening phrase and the one-line solo part in the middle. I shipped it off to New York, and in a couple of days, Bill Gallagher, head of A&R, called me on the phone. "I have listened to what you sent me, but there's a problem," he said, "It doesn't sound enough like Green Green." After all I had been through to get the recording to him, that reaction hit me entirely the wrong way. 'What a stupid thing to say,' I thought to myself, 'of course it doesn't sound like Green Green!' "Oh, don't worry about that, Bill," I assured him, "I can fix it." I then went into the studio, copied the opening 12-string guitar run off our recording of Green Green, and spliced it onto the opening of Today. Green Green was in C, and Today was in F. I then made an ‘official’ Columbia test pressing, and sent it to him. When he called me, I fully expected him to laugh, but he didn't. "It's better," he said, "but there's still something wrong with it." "Better?" I screamed over the phone, "better? Bill, it's a joke!" All was silent on the telephone. "The point is, Bill, I have already sent you our next record. You don't like my song, do you?" "Let me tell you how I feel about that song, Randy," he railed, "If that's a hit record, I'll eat my hat! I hate that song so much that I wish it was on Roulette!" "Well, you better start liking it," I told him, "because you're not going to get anything else."
That was a fairly undiplomatic position to have taken, but I had finally figured out that there are no geniuses in the record business, and one person's gut-instincts are as valid as another's. I had a feeling about this song. Part of that feeling was that I was following a pattern, not intentionally for the most part, but it would be as close as I ever want to get to fatalism, living a charmed life. Stephen Foster became famous and popular for ‘Oh, Susanna’ and ‘Camptown Races,’ but he wanted to be famous for ‘Jeanie With The Light Brown Hair’ and ‘Beautiful Dreamer.’ I was following in his footsteps. ‘Green Green’ and ‘Saturday Night’ were my up-tempo rousing songs; now I wanted a ballad. This was also a formula displayed more recently in the efforts of Bobby Darin.
Bill's final words to me were, "Okay, you have me in a corner. I'll put out the record, but this I'll guarantee you: nobody will hear it! I’m telling my sales force to bury it! I'm going to sit on this record like no record has ever been sat upon!" Then he hung up!
When the record of ‘Today’ by The NCM, MY RECORD, came onto the charts at #20 five weeks later, Bill Gallagher, to his credit, called me on the phone. "Where?" he asked. "Where what?" I asked back. "I told you I'd eat my hat if it was a hit. We have ourselves a hit, and I'm ready to eat my hat. Where?" "You're in New York," I replied, "how ‘bout Times Square?" Then we laughed together.
The song Today has given me a newfound friend in Cincinnati, a dentist named Brad Monti. He wrote to tell me that my words helped him through some trying times in his life, and he feels so strongly positive about the message therein that he has copied the lyrics onto the ceiling of his dental space, this for the comfort and inspiration of patients in the chair.
I’m thrilled, of course, to learn that my words can be of help to people I don’t even know, but I’m also saddened. Why can’t truckers be celebrated for exceptional loads they hauled fifty years ago? It’s just not fair.
Thanks for your attention,
P.S. Larry Ramos and I made peace before he died. He regularly sang my song Today in his shows, told people it was the most beautiful song he knew.