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Off the Beaten Tracks: Van Dyke Parks and a sunny delight

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THE name Van Dyke Parks might not strike a chord with the public, but his music definitely does. As a songwriter, arranger and producer he has been involved in everything from Disney to Sesame Street, from the Beach Boys and the Mothers of Invention to Ry Cooder and Randy Newman. And his solo album Discover America has been a treasured companion of mine for almost half a century.  

Van Dyke Parks was born on January 3, 1943, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, the youngest of four brothers. His father Richard was a neurologist and psychiatrist and his mother, whose name I have been unable to discover, was a Hebrew scholar. Richard was the first doctor to admit black patients to a white southern hospital. He was also a keen clarinettist and while at medical school ran a band called Dick Parks and his White Swan Serenaders.

Raised in a musical household with two grand pianos, Van Dyke learned the clarinet from the age of four and became a boarder at the American Boychoir School in Princeton, New Jersey. While studying voice and piano he discovered, no doubt to his teachers’ horror, the joys of popular music. He also developed a career as a child actor, appearing in films and sitcoms.

From 1960 to 1963 Parks studied under Aaron Copland at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh but eventually tired of highbrow music and dropped out, heading to California where he became a beatnik and formed a folk duo with his brother Carson. Their act was witnessed at a coffee house in Santa Barbara by future superstar David Crosby, who told his friend and fellow musician David Lindley: ‘If they can get away with it, so can we.’

Meanwhile another folk singer and composer, Terry Gilkyson, had been hired by Walt Disney as a music writer. He composed The Bare Necessities for an early draft of The Jungle Book movie and to console Parks, whose brother Benjamin had just been killed in a road accident, asked him to arrange the song. ‘It paid for us to go to our brother’s funeral and buy some black suits,’ says Parks. ‘That first cheque, with Mickey Mouse waving a three-fingered glove at me, was my introduction to music as a profession.’ The film was shelved but eventually came out in 1967 with Parks’s arrangement intact.

In 1964 Van Dyke, who had joined a group named the Brandywine Singers on vocals and piano, had a chance meeting in a bar with a psychedelic band named The Charlatans. They mocked his ‘square’ and ‘preppy’ appearance. In response he performed a song named High Coin which he had just written, and they begged him to let them record it. The ensuing disc was a big hit in the San Francisco area, went on to be recorded by artists including Bobby Vee and Jackie DeShannon, and established Parks as a force to be reckoned with.

He was signed by MGM records and made two unsuccessful singles for them, the Beethoven-inspired Number Nine and Come to the Sunshine.

Then producers Lenny Waronker and Terry Melcher persuaded him to switch to Warner Brothers, where they created a novelty band, Harpers Bizarre, who recorded several VDP songs including High Coin. Parks worked as a session musician, composer and arranger, and became friends with artists including Randy Newman, Ry Cooder and Harry Nilsson. He performed on the Byrds album Fifth Dimension and was invited by David Crosby to join the band but refused. Some time later he would also decline an offer to join Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

After a brief spell with the Mothers of Invention, during which Frank Zappa introduced him on stage as Pinocchio, Parks was introduced by Crosby to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. In 1966, while recording the Pet Sounds album, Wilson asked Parks to help him with the song Good Vibrations. Van Dyke said he could not improve on the words but made certain musical suggestions which impressed Brian so much that he enlisted him to write the lyrics for the next Beach Boys LP, Smile.

Wilson was by now using drugs heavily and in a far from healthy mental state, causing tension with the other members of the project. Parks walked out with the record unfinished and it was shelved until 2004, when a new version was made and released as Brian Wilson Presents Smile.

Introduced one day to Frank Sinatra, Van Dyke persuaded him to record Somethin’ Stupid, written by Carson Parks, as a duet with daughter Nancy. Released in 1967, it was a number one hit.

By the end of that year Parks had released his first solo album, Song Cycle, an eclectic and eccentric amalgam of show tunes, classical themes, bluegrass and ragtime. Parks in a later interview described playing the LP to Warners president Joe Smith. ‘There was a stunned silence. Joe looked up and said, “Song Cycle“? I said, “Yes,” and he said, “So, where are the songs?” And I knew that was the beginning of the end. Warner held the album for a year. Then I met Jac Holzman (future head of Elektra Records) and after he listened to it, he went to Warner Brothers and said, “If you folks aren’t going to release this album, I will – how much do you want for it?” So they decided to put it out, grudgingly.’

Song Cycle opens with a brief snatch of the folk song Black Jack Davey which segues into Vine Street, written by Randy Newman, followed by Parks’s Palm Desert. The other two songs of any length on side one are Widow’s Walk and The All Golden, both of which can best be described as strange. On side two the highlight is an instrumental version of Donovan’s Colours. An interesting record, but one seldom played in Ashworth Towers.

Parks began working with Randy Newman and Ry Cooder, producing their eponymous debut albums, and persuaded Warners to sign the electronic weirdos Beaver and Krause. He retained contact with the Beach Boys, working on albums including Surf’s Up and Holland. And he met the Esso Trinidad Steel Band, who had been performing in Las Vegas with Liberace of all people, going on to work with them for several years and announcing: ‘I have loved calypso all my life.’

At the beginning of the Seventies Parks therefore headed for Trinidad and Tobago. His time spent there resulted in 1972’s Discover America, a neglected classic. Most of the songs were written by calypso musicians between the 1920s and 1940s and are credited as ‘public domain, arranged and adapted by Van Dyke Parks’.  

Track one, Jack Palance, is in fact a minute-long clip from the Grenadian calypso king The Mighty Sparrow and refers to a lady with a face like the famously craggy film actor. 

Bing Crosby and The Four Mills Brothers were both written by a Trinidadian known as Roaring Lion. I love the former, which concludes:

I wonder if you heard him singing the song
May I Be the One to Say I
I wonder if you heard again
Every Time It Rains It Rains Pennies from Heaven

But Love Thy Neighbour was a most thrilling song
And Get Along Little Dogie Get Along
Unanimously three cheers for
Mr Bing Crosby.

Sandwiched between the Roaring Lion tracks is the instrumental Steelband Music, featuring Parks’s much-loved Esso group.

Honestly, every song is great. Be Careful is a father’s advice to a son regarding the perils of romance, while the irresistible John Jones is a warning to a gangster to lay off. FDR in Trinidad, written by Fitz McLean, is a deeply satirical account of a 1936 visit to the island by President Roosevelt (The greatest event of the century/In the interest of suffering humanity). It was performed for many years by the Trinidadian Atilla (sic) the Hun and also made an appearance on Ry Cooder’s magnificent second album Into the Purple Valley

Sweet Trinidad  is a short and charming interlude then we return to the US for the Allen Toussaint numbers Occapella and Riverboat,  which appear on either side of Lowell George’s Sailin’ Shoes, title track of the second Little Feat album.

Back in the Caribbean we have two Lord Kitchener songs, Ode to Tobago and Your Own Comes First, (can’t resist includin’ de original)  followed by Sir Lancelot’s brilliant G-Man Hoover

 And to finish, a steel band version of John Philip Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever

For those who find this record underwhelming on first hearing, I can only say that repeated listens provide their reward. It brings West Indies sunshine pouring into the room whenever I plop it on the turntable.

Parks spent the first half of the Seventies as an A & R man at Warners supervising early use of video to promote songs. One day, he said, ‘a man came into my office and he had a snake and his name was Alice (Cooper). Right then, I knew that my days were numbered as a person really interested in the record business.’

Quitting the office job, Parks attempted to emulate the artistic success of Discover America with another Caribbean-themed LP, Clang of the Yankee Reaper, but apart from the lovely title track it was a disappointment.

In a 2013 interview, he described the record as ‘brain dead’, adding: ‘That album was done at the nadir of my entire life. Psychologically I was in a terrible state, I was despairing. My best friend had just died – my roommate, he was my roommate. We scattered his ashes at sea, and they flew back into our faces . . . a terrible, terrible insult. I was grieving, I’d just been divorced, I’d just left Warner Brothers in disgust as I didn’t want to be a corporate lackey, didn’t approve of record business practices – you know, what can I say? “Lost my job, the truck blew up, my dog died”.’

In the 1980s VDP worked on several movie soundtracks including Popeye, Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird and The Brave Little Toaster. He also made two lacklustre concept albums, Jump, about Brer Rabbit, and Tokyo Rose, concerning the history of US/Japanese relations. In 1995 he released Orange Crate Art, an album of his compositions with a drug-addled Brian Wilson on vocals. It was a commercial disaster. ‘It took three years and $350,000,’ he told a Guardian interviewer. ‘The record came out and sank without a trace.’

Since then Parks has been mainly concerned with producing artists including Newman, Cooder and Joanna Newsom, although he made a 2013 album, Songs Cycled, notable for a steel-band version of Saint-Saens’s Aquarium

He has few regrets about never becoming a household name. As he says, ‘Anonymity has been pretty good to me.’

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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