Perfect Sound Forever

Austin Gravelding

Worth Giving Time To: 1970-71
by Kurt Wildermuth
(October 2020)

The singer-songwriter Austin Gravelding has two big claims to fame. One is having written a song, "Wish We Were Heroes," that the pop singer Melissa Manchester recorded as a duet with Bread's David Gates. The track appeared on Manchester's album Hey Ricky (1982), where it put Gravelding in the songwriting company of, among others, Bernie Taupin, Carole Bayer Sager, Vangelis, and George and Ira Gershwin.

Gravelding's other big claim is having written a song, "Hello Teddy Bear," with Ron Padovona. Padovona became better known as Ronnie James Dio, the singer in the hard rock/metal bands Rainbow, Dio, and Black Sabbath in the '80's, when Ozzy was on hiatus. Gravelding recorded the song on his first solo album, Self Made Man (1970). That LP and its follow-up, Restless Winds (1971), are listed at Discogs, but don't bother checking the All-Music Guide for further information. It's not just that only Gravelding's first album has an entry--a blank one, with no review. It's also that whoever keyboarded the AMG entry misspelled his last name as 'Graveldign.' Hey, say what you will about the artist, or say nothing, but at least spell the name right!

Working with bits and pieces from various sources, let's assemble some facts about the man who stands at the intersection of Manchester and Dio. Austin Gravelding, aka Rick Gravelding, was born in 1943. He graduated from Ithaca High School, in upstate New York. The Ithaca/Cortland area appears to be his connection with Padovona/Dio; that, and Percom Music, which published each man's early songs. In high school, Padovona led the rock and roll band Ronnie Dio and the Prophets, which recorded some singles and a live album. Gravelding played in (led, under a pseudonym?) Rick Jackson and the Lancers, which put out an album, The Best of (!), in 1961.

In addition to later releasing the two albums under his own name, he and Chuck Ciaschi released two albums and some singles as Austin Gravelding and Chuck Hawkins (lots of name changes going on here). Then, the year before Melissa Manchester recorded his song, Gravelding began a nonmusical career as an officer with the New York State Department of Corrections, from which he retired in 2006.

Corrections officer is not the occupation that comes to mind as you listen to the odd, angular, mildly edgy Self Made Man and the sweet Restless Winds. Man in jail for selling some weed, or buying some, is more like it.

Both albums came out on GWP Records, a New York City label that existed from 1969 to 1971. GW's first releases were singles: by Frankie Newsom (or Newsome) and the Soul Invaders, then by Izzy and the Hellraisers. The U.K. reissue label Ace Records now owns and compiles GWP's R&B productions, and according to a note at its website, "Gerard W Purcell was a colourful New York music businessman who used the best black music talent to produce fabulous soul sounds for his GWP label." Within its short life, GWP also amassed a diverse catalog that included the Irish folk musician Tommy Makem, the Dixieland trumpeter Al Hirt, the orchestra leader Hugo Montenegro, the poet Maya Angelou, a series of instrumental albums devoted to the astrological signs, and our man, the pop-folk-country-rocker Austin Gravelding.

The producer of both Gravelding albums, Andy Wiswell, wasn't an Ithaca neighbor or a newcomer to the biz. In the fifties and very early sixties, he worked for Capitol Records, where his most notable productions were albums by Dakota Staton, the collaboration Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley (1962), and Judy Garland's live extravaganza Judy at Carnegie Hall (1961), which won a Grammy for album of the year. In the sixties, Wiswell moved to RCA Victor, producing Harry Belafonte, Perry Como, Sgt. Barry Sadler (of the hit "The Ballad of the Green Berets") and the original Broadway cast albums for Hello, Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof and Hair (the latter winning him a Grammy). Then, for a few years before retiring, he produced a handful of GWP releases, including Gravelding's.

While the producer was decidedly mainstream, the cover of Self Made Man goes out of its way to depict Gravelding as "out there." On the front is a color photo, predominantly blue, of a man, presumably Gravelding, standing in an overgrown field by a house that could be in the middle of nowhere. The man wears groovy clothing and stares off to the right side of the photo, wondering what the rest of the cult members are up to. The shot's taken from a very low angle, perhaps below an incline, and at the bottom is an upright and elongated shadow of the same man, suggesting a supernatural division of body and soul. On the back cover is a blown-up black-and-white negative of a man's head, probably the same man's, next to another head, possibly itself. In the upper right corner is a poem by Austin Gravelding:


Upon the sands of time
I have left the footprints of many kinds of man
I have walked as a man of love and a man of hate
A man of happiness and a man of sorrow
yet standing here now and looking back
Those footprints somehow all appear the same.

The voice is strong and sincere. Far worse poems have been published by renowned poets. But that bit of verse, presenting Gravelding's overall vision as a songwriter, contrasts with the cover's eerie imagery. I don't know just how GWP intended to position Gravelding, but Lee Hazelwood as contemporary suburban "cowboy" in a nightmare comes to mind. You can imagine Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction quoting Gravelding's poem, so maybe Quentin Tarantino meets David Lynch on a low-budget psychodrama with no bloodshed...

The album's first song, "Miss Anne," plays over the opening credits. Full of ringing guitar, rolling if thin-sounding percussion (maybe bongos), strings, and horns with a Mexi-Cali accent, it suggests "Secret Agent Man" arranged by Ennio Morricone. When Gravelding sings, "I got a feeling / I won't die a wealthy man," the effect is fairly exciting, but at the chorus or refrain, "Oh no, Miss Anne, I'm not that kind of man," the melody and rhythm recall Neil Diamond's "Solitary Man" the way George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord" recalls the Chiffons' "He's So Fine." It's shocking that Wissell and GWP signed off on this blatant copy of a song that you figure someone involved must have known. Then again, Harrison always said the similarity between his song and its clear antecedent was coincidental. I once heard Rickie Lee Jones, during a radio interview, express complete surprise at how closely one of her songs resembled one of Leonard Cohen's, a song anyone familiar with her music would assume she knew but which she claimed never to have heard. So let's give Gravelding & Co. the benefit of the doubt.

From here on, Gravelding doesn't sound so indebted to anyone, though Hazelwood meets Diamond meets Glen Campbell singing Jimmy Webb might serve as a summary. The next song, "I'm on My Way," pleasantly combines bass, percussion, and piano with a touch of Phil Ochs in Gravelding's vibrato. "They got the best of me / I'm on my way," the singer explains to the woman he's leaving behind. The next song, revisiting the musical territory of "Miss Anne" in a more relaxed style, is addressed from a San Francisco hippie to a "Mr. Barnes"--perhaps a cousin of Dylan's "Mr. Jones"--who's looking for a daughter who left home (bye, bye). On "Lands of My People" the view shifts to a Buffy Sainte-Marie-style lament from a Native American for his lost people and the natural world destroyed with them. Call these lyrics cultural appropriation, as I suspect people would have done even then, but acknowledge their good intentions and rhetorical power. Side 1 closes with its strongest track, which gives the album its title. The phrase "self made man" is used ironically, because the singer left his hometown, Seattle, decades before and now wants to return: "Mama, Mama, I wanna go home / Mama, Mama, I'm so alone.... I think I'm gonna die." Here the mariachi horns have real punch.

These songs are so short--the whole album runs less than half an hour--that they don't spell out the exact nature of the singers' problems. The threats against these people are broad, existential, taking place in bleak, washed-out landscapes. The singers may be sitting by motel-room windows, or maybe by the windows of that house on the cover. They could be talking on the telephone (a land line circa 1971) or just thinking, looking out at telephone lines stretched across overcast skies (not shown on the cover).

Side 2 picks up with another address, this time to the singer's childhood teddy bear. The strangest thing about this number is that it was cowritten by Dio. Still, the regrets expressed by the singer do take on nihilistic tones suitable for metal: "But these yearnings to be gone won't let me be / Never could stay any place too long." The follow-up, "So Little Time," is a creepy address to life's passing, with lots of space, a ringing guitar lick, strings, and spoken-word verses. "Bottom of the Glass" opens with fuzz guitar, then mixes twangy guitar and thumping drums as a drinker laments his fate and those of others who've faced the bottom. The outlook, sonic details, and pace make this one a perfect candidate for a Tarantino soundtrack. The pace picks up for "Road Time"- trucker country but not cheesy, with really tasty guitar. The finale, "The View from the Nursing Home Window," is a stately, literary, nicely detailed, unpretentious slice of life about a senior citizen whose "spectacles mirror what is happening in the world below."

From the film noir fatalism to the dramatic, not confessional, projections, Gravelding displays the ambition to be a songwriter in the old-fashioned sense: the provider of fictional material for a performer, such as himself, to inhabit. The song Melissa Manchester recorded over a decade later bears his hallmarks. There, the singer wishes she and her companion were not mere mortals but "heroes in the setting sun / riding off when the story's done... / Two heroes never feeling all of the pain." In different hands, the song might have become a country anthem.

In fact, Gravelding's Restless Winds presents him as a straightforward folk-country singer. On the sepia-tone front cover, he sits in close up, playing an acoustic guitar in a forest and looking earnest. On the sepia-tone back cover, he sits in the same spot, still holding the guitar but with another man, and the proximity of their heads suggests this shot is a variation of the one used as a spooky reverse negative on Self Made Man (economy in design!) I'm guessing the second man is Gravelding's former partner, Chuck Ciaschi/Hawkins, who was credited as that first album's bass player (neither albums includes full credits).

This record's sound is much fuller than Self Made Man's. Its first prominent sounds are piano and pedal steel, and "Whistle Down This Wind" has a relaxed tempo, not the freneticism of "Miss Anne." Neil Young's gentler side comes to mind. There's some elegant piano-and-guitar interplay on "Loving Her Has Never Crossed My Mind," where the singer confesses to some caddish behavior. Whoever plays piano on that track and the next one, "Who, What, When, Where" (which applies those words to love), really lifts these tracks up, and the bassist has quite the inventive touch. Both songs could have been hits in someone else's hands (maybe George Jones's)--not that there's anything wrong with Gravelding's performances, just that GWP doesn't seem to have had promotional energy. On the banjo-driven "Like a River Running," the singer confesses an unrepentant lust for life: "Swear I'll die in bed / But not alone." The song is two minutes and fifteen seconds of fun, and that's more than a lot of well-known performers deliver. "Masquerade of Our Lives" slows down and gets more serious, depicting people engaged in charades that ultimately entrap them, calling to mind T. S. Eliot's lines about preparing faces to meet the faces we meet. As the band cooks on the side 1 closer, "Reason to Love Me," Gravelding delivers one of his most compelling meditations on time and regret: "I'd rather leave you reason to love me / Than stay and make you wonder why." A lost soft-rock classic!

Same for side 2's opener, "Carolina Country Roads," which might have segued between John Denver and Glenn Campbell. Again, as in "Self Made Man," the singer yearns for the place he left decades before. Dolly Parton, with or without her trio partners Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris, could work wonders with "China Doll," which revisits the approach of "Hello Teddy Bear," this time with an old woman and a doll. "As Flowers Reach to Touch the Sky" is a touching piece of love poetry. "What Are We Teaching Today?" is social commentary about how children pick up values. "Sparrow Not I" applies a bossa-nova beat to a lovely melody that allows Gravelding to employ some falsetto in one of his most nuanced performances. "I Think That I Will Stay" brings it all home with a sound that echoes "Whistle Down This Wind" but a sentiment that's different for Gravelding. Here, the singer admits that "freedom isn't something to be measured in miles," so he wants to settle in to his comfortable situation.

Life is short, as Gravelding and his protagonists would counsel us, and there's no shortage of recorded music for your listening pleasure. You don't need to hear or own these particular records, and they don't desperately need to be reissued. But if you encounter them and like exploring crevices of pop-music history, they're worth giving time to. Just as when independent films yield viewpoints, insights, and beauties you won't find in more expensive and manicured productions, Gravelding's albums are also products of vision and ambition that require you to adjust your ears and listen through or past their limitations.

Here's a suitably idiosyncratic way of positioning these albums. Right now, for no particular reason, I have three pieces of recorded music in front of me: Prince's 3121 (2006), Leonard Cohen's Recent Songs (1979), and Austin Gravelding's Self Made Man. If I had to choose only one to hear, I'd go with Prince, who's full of energy and mastery. If the choice were narrowed to the other two, I'd pass over the sometimes quite-inviting, occasionally-amusing, but mostly droning Cohen, who seems to have worked out all the answers he's delivering. Rather than spend time parsing Cohen's pronouncements, I'd rather hear the life-affirming, searching, striving Gravelding, who seems quite capable of making discoveries and very much wants to please his listener. Anyway, that's how I feel about these particular artists on these particular albums on this particular day. Your mileage may vary.

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