Perhaps you had one in your family. It was a decade of rambling, disconnected souls seeking a way out of a button-down life. Scruffy, a bit worn-down at the heels, rather old to be "dropping out". Hippy hoboes. Nature boys and girls. Old beatniks. In the case of the character in question today "J. P. Rags", a bit childlike, a folkie nature boy slinging a guitar, sitting on the railroad tracks to dump gravel out of a worn but stylish boot. You know that there's more to him than that. He has several stories and lives that he has perhaps walked away from. And Mr. Rags has songs about what he has learned, written in an innocent, caressing tone, hard to listen to uncynically today, but seemingly heartfelt and well-meant at the time.
Here's a song from his one and only album; and then come back and see what we've been able to find out about the elusive Rags.
The album Scruffety (World Pacific, 1968) is one of those that came to my attention long ago through a fellow record-collector and DJ who had bought it blind and then immediately had to share it with someone else in that sort of "...Try to figure this one out-!" way. We played it in those few sets where it would stand and didn't think too much more about it until recently, during my last year of intense study of Harry Nilsson, when I realized that there was a connection between the mysterious J. P. Rags and my current fave singer, Nilsson. Because my friend owned the only copy of the record I had seen, I hadn't studied the back cover in years, and when the admin. of the excellent Harry Nilsson site pointed out that Nilsson had written liner notes for the album, "-What-!?" I did a double-take and had to demand that my friend scan it so that I could examine the back cover artwork where,
yes indeed, "Harry Nilsson" had penned a brief tribute. Of course, record cover writings being what they were in those days, there's a 50 percent chance Harry never got within a mile of that back cover. But I thought, "What is the connection, then?"
Well, I have to admit, after months of work - the jury is still out on that one. More evidence is being collected. What we can do, to begin with, in analysing this artist and project, is take a look at the credits, which luckily were numerous.
To begin with, this is World Pacific release # WPS 21881. They began as a strictly jazz label, and branched out into a few other genres (and some real oddball uncategorizable stuff, such as Kali Bahlu / Takes the Forest Children on a Journey of Cosmic Remembrance) during their lifetime. Their cover designs during the late fifties and early sixties were legendary. By the time of this 1968 entry, the label had been sold to Liberty Records, who kept the trademark alive through 1970. Some records that came out at the same time as this catalog number from this label were: Lord Buckley / Buckley's Best, Craig Hundley / Arrival of a Young Giant, and Harper & Rowe / Harper & Rowe.
Scruffety was produced by Larry Goldberg and Doug Cox for Double L Productions, with arrangements by Ralph Geddes (who may be the same person as this Ralph Geddes). Here was our first key clue: The songs on the album are all written by either Doug Cox alone or with Ralph Geddes. So Mr. Cox is obviously our hero J. P. Rags. This much I'm assuming on the basis of many other mysteries of this sort.
The album was cut at two studios; from the sound of it, I'd say all of the basics and his vocals were done at Golden State Recorders, the famous San Francisco studio created by Leo De Gar Kulka, who engineered as well. Thank goodness for Leo and his wonderful name, about whom I was able to find out reams of interesting information. Lets talk about Mr. Kulka for a bit.
In 1957 he created the studio International Sound, in Hollywood at Sunset and Western; one of the first multitrack outfits in town and frequented by many top stars of the day. His Neumann record cutter was the first around to sport a stereo head. In 1964 he moved north and set up Golden State Recorders, the largest studio in Northern California at that time. He installed a Stevens 16-track machine, an unusual luxury for those days, and is credited with helping to pioneer the "San Francisco sound" along with a laundry list of the famous SF-area bands of the day. One other fact that tickles me that I want to mention about Leo comes from his nephew's quote that "...He may have been the last living audio engineer to edit tape without a splicing block or razor blade. He'd lay a section of tape across his left hand, precisely lining it up with his thumb and finger, and using a small scissors, he made fast splices that always joined perfectly." I'll bet he did! I love that.
The second studio in which Scruffety work was done was Living Sound Recorders, in Arcadia, California; with Dennis Hardesty engineering. I suspect this might be where the strings were laid in. But maybe not - if Golden State was so large, it might have been done more easily there. Judging from the sound of the vocals, chances are they were all recorded in the same place. A couple of tracks where he's mixed further back, though, make me less sure. I wasn't able to find out anything special about Living Sound, but I know I've heard of them before from some other records, just don't know which ones. Let's look at the 12 songs themselves:
01 Soul Sunrise / a lovely soft intro piece. 02 Wonderful World of Children / about innocence lost. 03 Don't Watch Me / basically an ode to self-pity, with a possibility of delivery from same. 04 Something to Think About / describes seeing the world through the eyes of innocence - in this case, the eyes of his girlfriend. Contains the lines: "But give her a chance to get high on a hill / She'll ask me to come / And you know that I will" 05 Portrait of a Soft Woman / in the intro Cox tells of meeting Ray Charles, which led to this song about blindness and the heightening of the other senses. Contains the lines: "I heard a sightless man describe great beauty he had touched / And I admired his sense of smell so very much" Side two opens with (06) Scruffety / which for me so well describes the process of a hippy dropout Dad in the making. 07 Porch Song / a short throwaway (but pretty) instrumental guitar piece.
08 Bells of Saint Barbara / Here we will digress for a moment - this piece is also the B-side of the (probably the only) J. P. Rags seven-inch single. The A-side is Rags singing the Donovan-penned theme song for the film If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium. The single came out in the year of the film, 1969, as World Pacific # 77915. I don't remember much about this film from when I would've last seen it on telly, about 35 years ago, but it was helmed by one of my favorite directors, Mel Stuart, who went on to direct the classic Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in 1971.
09 Possession is 9/10 of the End / a warning against being too possessive in love. Also features one of Cox's many spoken song intros. 10 Talkin' / a best friend lies to his friend's girl in order to steal her and ends up losing the girl and the friend. 11 Still Life / basically a love song, with a lovely string intro hook by Ralph Geddes.
12 Let's Get Together Again (J. P. Rags Theme) / from the song-by-song liner notes: "Whether it be by a railroad track, in a service station, or through the window of a Rolls Royce, whenever, let's get together again."
Overall, not a monumental piece of work, but sweet and soft and somehow affecting in it's subtle way. For once, I wanted to look at and listen to this project without merely laughing at it. I did manage to find the entire album online, however with the recent demise of Megaupload it may have become harder to find. I recommend it to those with the patience and ears for such things. It's a sincere and off-the-beaten-track project that clearly had some loving care put into it. "Good for the Warmth! / Hooray for the Simplicity! / Good for Scruffety! / And Hooray for J. P. Rags!"
I look forward to contributions and corrections from anyone who has knowledge of these people and this album.