All my life I have tried not to be the one with haughty eyes and a proud heart, but that’s difficult when you’ve done so many really cool things. I worked at being a good person, even pretending that evolution didn’t matter so much, and as I was directed by strong words in the Bible to allow myself to be praised only by others, I’ve constantly refrained from mentioning so many of my credits. The problem now is that very few of my true fans and good friends are still alive, and those who might take the time to praise me likely can’t remember who they are, let alone what I have accomplished. I apologize for serving as my own PR person.
My beloved late-wife (of fifty-six years) was an accomplished song-and-dance child star, later on, a semi-famous actress. She and I had in common something fairly unique: we were both discovered by Bob Hope, she in Minnesota at the age of six or seven, and I at twenty-five at The Blue Angel in NYC. I had become a singer/songwriter at The Purple Onion in San Francisco in my fourth year of college, and that part-time job was so exciting to me that I quit U.C. Berkeley to work at my craft full-time. I was Phyllis Diller’s opening act the first time she ever walked onto a stage. I was also Maya Angelou’s first bongo drummer.
I went on the road for just a few months (Los Angeles, and Shreveport, Louisiana) then got drafted into the Navy, but my work in showbiz continued, as I won the All-Navy Talent Contest both years that I was in uniform, and became one of only two performers to walk-off The Ed Sullivan Show. The other was Frank Sinatra, who shook my hand and said, “That son-of-a-bitch!” I toured all across the country for Navy Recruiting, and performed solo on a few TV show in uniform. Robert Mitchum saw me on The Bob Crosby Show, and offered me a contract to play his kid brother in Thunder Road…also to write and sing the title song for the movie. By the time I reached Asheville, North Carolina, Bob’s son Jimmy Mitchum had been given my acting role, and Bob and a more accomplished songwriter had crafted the song (and they refused to hear mine), but I would still be in the film…and sing their song. What a hoot to go from $93. dollars a month in the Navy to a thousand dollars a week! I had no complaint.
I became a successful solo singer, and did that for three or four years before inventing ‘The Big Band of Folk Music, The New Christy Minstrels.’ I won a Grammy for our first album! We auditioned for a steady job on TV with Andy Williams, and were such a well-oiled machine that it was difficult to even imagine that any member would ever want to leave. When Dolan Ellis gave notice (to become a bigger fish in a smaller pond: Official Balladeer of Arizona), I could not find anyone talented enough to replace him, so I immediately created a live, in-person training program, a rehearsal hall with an audience on Westwood Blvd. in West Los Angeles: Ledbetter’s Store of Fun & Folk Music. That’s where I discovered Henry John Deutschendorf (and named him John Denver), where I hired Steve Martin as a banjo player and watched him morph into a stand-up comedian in only thirty four weeks, where I gave Karen Carpenter and her brother Richard their first paying job, ditto Michael Martin Murphey and Gary Mule Deer. I sent Michael Nesmith to the audition for a new group called The Monkees, and my stage handily served as the very first credit for ‘The First Edition,’ including their bass-player, Kenny Rogers. The last time I saw Kenny was at the Jackson Indian Rancheria. He had invited me to his concert, and said to his band backstage, “Boys, I want you to meet someone, without whom we would not be here tonight.” How embarrassing!
Have I left anyone out? Yes. There was a pipe-fitter working on a new building in San Pedro, CA, who, while driving to work in his Cadillac convertible, heard one of my recordings being played on KFWB in Hollywood, and he liked the song so much that he parked alongside the highway to hear the whole performance, uninterrupted. The song was ‘Julianne,’ and the listener was Barry McGuire. Barry didn’t go to work that day. He’d made-up his mind, then and there, to become a folksinger, and within a year, I hired him to become one of us: The New Christy Minstrels. When I retired from the road, Barry became my replacement as frontman, and my group was but a stair step to a meaningful career as a singer, both folk and rock, even a starring role in ‘Hair’ on Broadway.
My mentors were Burl Ives and Bob Hope, and I became a rancher under the guidance of my partner, Tennessee Ernie Ford.
Think I’m not cool? Think again! The way I have presented my life story, it’s all positive, all good stuff! But that’s not the way life really is, y’know? I’ve left out a few negative details. It was my dream to manage and tour with the group that I founded, and I knew I could handle such an assignment, but that’s not what Irving Townsend, the head of Columbia Records West Coast, had in mind. “You need professional management,” Irving said, “and if you don’t acquire that necessary ingredient, your group will be dropped from the label.” I ought to have told him to go fly a kite, but I believed him, and I even went along with his first choice, a management team he described as “Hoodlums in Suits.” “Why would I want to sign with somebody like that?” I asked, and his reply was, “Because they can get the job done.” They did exactly that, and I learned much too late that they were likely associated with organized crime, The MOB! They handled all of the money, and when I learned from the newspaper that my group had earned more than a million dollars a year for the first two and a half, and I’d received only a thousand dollars (plus Union scale for The Andy Williams Show), I demanded an accounting. That’s when one of them said, “We think it might be safer for your wife and child if you simply sell the act to us”
‘Hoodlums in Suits’ don’t scare me, as I’m a trained killer (Boot Camp, San Diego, 1955), but if I’m in concert in Peoria, who would be there to stand guard at my house?
There are a few other unfortunate issues as well. If Mama Cass (Cass Elliot) had lived just a couple weeks longer, I might have been able to invite her to court to explain why she was circulating an untruth about me. She was telling one and all that my song ‘Today’ wasn’t really mine, that I’d “found it in an old manuscript,” and had simply put my name on it. When I confronted her, she said she’d been told this by a member of my own group. There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that she spread, but it’s still out there, and my worth as a dedicated songwriter has suffered.
Bruce Eder who serves on the web as the reviewer of All Music said in print that ‘The New Christy Minstrels is the group most despised by their peers,’ this because I would not allow the singing of protest songs I asked him politely to remove such a negative statement, and he refused. This bothered me enough that I accepted a ticket to a Peter Paul & Mary concert at Sant Rosa. I went backstage and asked Paul (he prefers to be called Noel) if he hated me, and his reply was, “No, we love you, man!” (big hug). “Why would you ask such a question.” I told him of Eder’s condemning assessment about our not singing protest songs, and Peter Yarrow said, “Randy, I think we had that covered.”
The truth is that I’m apolitical, and have always been. We’re not preachers or politicians; we’re entertainers, and I’m proud to tell you that no less than five Presidents were (are?) fans of my music, both sides of the aisle. I wrote JFK’s favorite song, ‘Last Farewell,’ and my song earned us our first invitation to The White House. Mr. Kennedy also wanted us to travel with him to stump for reelection votes, but we don’t do that, and that was my call. No, it was not a political decision. Ronald Reagan was a dear friend, but we also wouldn’t perform for him in a political arena. We were to have been at the Pennsylvania Ave. address just after JFK returned from Dallas, and the invitation was honored two months later by LBJ.
Someone else ought to be telling you this, but there’s nobody out there who appreciates the honor as much as I do, so I’ll mention it. There’s a dentist in Cincinnati who loves my song ‘Today’ so much that he has the lyrics written on the ceiling of his operating room, this, he says, “for the benefit of the patients in the chair, looking up.” My words helped him through a difficult part of his journey, and he now wants to share them with others. How special it is to have achieved such appreciation in one’s lifetime. That makes up for some of the unkindness of ‘Mama Cass’ and her expert witness.