Jerry Dennon

Danny O'KeefeHistorical Perspective, HP, Random Musings, Short Stories

Let’s roll back the years or at least roll back with them. I have been remiss in giving credit where it was most do at the beginning of my career and I need to not only pay respect but appreciate a kindness that in my hungry years I overlooked. I want to tell you about Jerry Dennon. But before I can I need to give you a sense of perspective on how he came into my life and how he exited.

My father died in the poorhouse in 1960 and in the struggle to rise out of the compression of living many years through his illness I desperately tried to find means of expression to verify myself. We must have dreams and the realization of those dreams requires often painful learning processes. In pain we begin to understand limits and possibilities.

Since the first time I had seen Dave Ray shake the floor of a small coffeehouse in Minneapolis with his stompin” blues I knew where the dream was taking me. I dreamed of a guitar and the ability to sing myself from the inside out. I began taking as much from the outside in as I could. Folk music, the blues, rock and roll all pulled the imaginary strings of the guitar I longed to hold in my hands. The pot had been put on the stove and the flames were slowly heating.

I went through various escapades in my pursuit of learning and some of those will be stories in and of themselves. Later. Right now my young very pregnant wife and I are leaving South Saint Paul, Minnesota in my mother’s Ford Pinto. It is the day of New Year’s Eve and we are driving a car loaded with well-intentioned gifts of furniture and mementos back to Wenatchee, Washington where we will take up our lives together with a third member soon to arrive. We are Holy Fools embarking on Life’s amazing and dangerous journey as adults. As fearless as we are clueless.

I can’t imagine my mother’s feelings as we take our leave but looking back now it must have been wrenching for her. Her son, for whom she feared was on the road of no return into some future she couldn”t really imagine, and her new daughter, who she loved already and hated to see go, especially with her new granddaughter barely two months away from the world, were leaving Minnesota in the heart of winter to travel to a place of great previous pain and memory into a life most tenuously balanced. By Ford Pinto.

We drive ’em till they drop, our cars. At least our cars then. The ’56 Ford had died of exhaustion, and the ’60 Ford convertible I had conned my mother into buying with the small life insurance policy my father left had been two round trips to Laredo, Texas with not much else than a foot on the accelerator. It too wore out. Too soon.

We left in the morning with a little less than $200 dollars to our names. The heater didn”t work well so the girl who was my life was wrapped up in blankets as we sauntered into a relatively warm and beautiful New Year’s Eve day. There was snow on the ground but the roads were bare as we drove through Minnesota into South Dakota making good time and lost a bit in the overwhelming future that loomed.

The brakes had been grinding but I hadn”t paid attention until about five miles outside of Lemon, South Dakota when the right wheel fell off the car and put us in the ditch. It was about four in the afternoon. A calamity of not-quite-fully-imagined proportions but the day was still light as I hitchhiked into Lemon and found the Ford agency where the mechanics were just starting to put away their tools and ready themselves for a drink or two before heading home to their separate New Year’s Eves. I was twenty-one and must have looked terribly young to them. Probably like one of their own kids in my red mackinaw and jeans and boots. I told them of my, our, plight and, in a state of no small amazement they bent to the task of rescuing us.

I got into the tow truck with one of the mechanics and we roared out to where the Pinto lay. My young wife was still warm enough and pleased to see us. All three of us piled into the tow truck with the Pinto trailing behind and headed to the Ford shop. I think they were taken aback to see that we were not only very young but very pregnant and embarked upon a journey they would not have taken on themselves at this time of year.

They had one Pinto in the lot, a new one that could deprive itself of a wheel for the time being to help lift us out of this hole in which we now found ourselves. “How much money have you got?” was the question. I pulled out everything I had in my pockets and counted it out. It came to approximately one hundred and seventy-five dollars. He said, “I’m sorry but I’m going to need $135 of it for the cost of the wheel and the repair. At that we’re not making any money but the boss insists I cover the costs of the parts.” I understood. They invited my young wife into the office and the couch so she could make herself comfortable and I loitered and conversed as they worked fast and steady to put the new wheel on the Pinto. At about six-thirty they were done and we were ready for the road, albeit with about $40 and change. The looks in their eyes showed their care and concern as ours showed our great gratitude. We pulled out of Lemon, South Dakota feeling as though aided by angels.

We figured out we were going to be able to afford the gas but not the food that would take us to Wenatchee and our old and new home. We had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, just in case, and now they were needed. We were intending to drive straight through. We estimated it would be about forty hours. When I stopped for gas I would get coffee and we would talk to each other to make sure I was awake, although being pregnant needs its sleep and she would drift off, sometimes with her head on my lap.

We had tried to pull over to rest but it was too cold without running the motor so we gave up and continued on the road. We were down to fumes and not much else when we hit the zone near Missoula where her father’s credit card, which had almost magically appeared, became valid. Amazingly, it was accepted and we were good for gas for the next five hundred miles. We celebrated with burgers and cokes and that would have to do until we hit Wenatchee sometime the next day.

I prided myself on being able to drive long hauls without stopping and had once driven the Ford convertible from Laredo to South Saint Paul in a long, hallucinogenic race to home with two cases of Mexican booze in the boot. On one stretch somewhere in Iowa I awoke to realize I had been driving for miles, who knew how many, in a state of unconsciousness. That was terrifying enough that I pulled over and slept before driving the rest of the way home. I’d been popping and drinking all the caffeine my system could take and it finally went on autopilot. That fall I would take a job as orderly on a psych floor in a Catholic hospital in Saint Paul and another level of the world would open, and be sustained on caffeine.

Just out of Spokane, somewhere around Davenport we realized there was a blizzard coming from behind that threatened to overtake us. There were billows of snow already blowing across the highway but we just bore down and managed to barely drive ahead of the beast. It was snowing as we rolled into Wenatchee late that evening. Her parents, my new in-laws, were there to greet us, overjoyed and relieved to see her but less so me. Fate had not given them their desire and what they assumed was their due. Fate is funny and cruel.

I had a job as a delivery boy waiting for me at a drive-in restaurant supply house and the owner had been my best man. Knowing how difficult life was going to become, he gave me a raise and an offer that if I put myself into my job there would be rewards suitable for a young family man.

But there was still a wildness that stalked me at every step. I had my guitar, which the young woman who loved me had helped me purchase with the money she had made packing cherries, before she was pregnant and we were married. It was a guitar I had looked at every day in fear that someone would take it before I could figure out the necessary magic to make it my own. It was a Gibson LG3 Adjustable with a case with a beautiful pink lining. I talked to the owner of the music store often about making a layaway payments but he wasn”t sure that was in his best interest as he couldn”t imagine me paying it off in what he considered due time. My Apple Blossom Princess came to my rescue and the guitar quickly fused itself to my hands whenever we were close. Looking back now at how little I knew about anything I’m more than slightly amazed about everything. I played and played and played. I was trying to write songs out of all the impressions the music I’d listened to and was listening to had made on me, was making on me. I began recording some of these songs a year or so later and you can tell I didn’t have a clue as to who I was but I was searching, searching every “whi-hi-hi-acha-way”.

And then, in late February, I am a father of a baby girl who has wrestled her way through an aperture reluctant in its release. Now we are three.

I’ve told the story of the second motorcycle in “A Long Short Story” but the first motorcycle was a `52 Triumph. An antique that should have been regarded as a collector’s item, as my first car, a 1946 Ford “Woody”, should have been. I’m not a collector and I drove them both into the ground: a cracked block on both, but the Triumph bought and paid for by a stranger before I knew there was any damage. It was never street legal and would have been very difficult to make so but it was the match that lit the fire. With a small bank loan, based on my status as an “adult” with an occupation, the sale of the old Triumph, and a “temporary” trade of a Martin D-18, I bought my friend and mentor Walt’s 1959 Triumph Bonneville 650. After almost losing my life and my left leg in a terrifying accident I was rescued by legendary Northwest saxophonist Don Lanphere and his good doctor, Don Cadman, and reset gently on my journey. I was in constant, gnawing pain but I was moving in a direction I assumed was forward.

Somewhere in the fall of 1965 with a family, a shattered femur, and a notebook of songs I headed to Seattle to see my friend Terry Bassett who was a concert promoter and was working his way up the ranks of success. He booked all the Northwest bands: the Wailers, the Dynamics, the Sonics, Paul Revere and the Raiders and he and I, though some years apart, went back quite a ways. When my father first took me at six years of age to play “Peewee League” baseball (before there was a Little League) Bass had been a big boy who showed me kindness and how to field a grounder. He was also the bat boy for the visiting team that the local baseball franchise, the Wenatchee Chiefs, played at home games. He was a hero and through the years was always friendly and kind to a younger boy.

The folk music boom was turning into rock and roll with the Byrds and others beginning to hit the pop charts. Bass wasn”t sure if my songs were good but he was willing to help me secure enough rope to find out. He once offered me an opening slot on a bill with Sonny and Cher but my car was such a relic that I got there a little too late and he was cautious about letting me on the stage without a sound check, undoubtedly a wise decision on his part. I still didn”t play guitar particularly well but I had some songs I’d written and songwriters, thanks largely to Bob Dylan, were beginning to have some cache.

And here is where we meet Jerry Dennon. Jerry Dennon had a love of music and a sense of business and had had an enormous success with the hit of “Louie, Louie” with the Portland band The Kingsmen. Many of you know the story of how “Louie, Louie” was thought to have”dirty” lyrics and was protested and kept off the air in some places until a groundswell of interest propelled it onto the heights of the charts. Truth is it’s a reverie of a sailor out to sea thinking of his girl. We’d been dancing to it in the Northwest for years and believed “Rockin” Robin Robert’s and the Wailers’ version was the best and had deserved to be the hit. Needless to say, it was already an anthem in the Northwest.

Jerry Dennon had also had a recent hit with Ian Whitcomb’s “You Turn Me On” and he was the closest thing to a music mogul Seattle had. He was also a nice guy. He listened to my songs and he was interested and suggested we go into the recording studio in the same building and start putting down song demos. I signed both a recording and publishing contract. The first and last time I ever signed anything without a lawyer’s advice. All in all it worked out well and under his auspices I begin to learn my craft. Whenever I would have a bunch of songs (at least six) I’d book some time with Kearney Barton, the engineer and owner of Audio Recording, and I’d lay down a guitar and vocal on his Ampex three track recorder. Occasionally, if Jerry felt a song might have some commercial merit, we would put a band together and cut a single. Nothing much ever came from the recordings although one tune, “That Old Sweet Song”, got some local play.

I had tried to work at a regular job but my left leg was still so painful to stand on for any period of time that most of the work I could find proved almost impossible. I went to work for Boeing in the mail room and all the walking I had to do would make my leg swell up so painfully that it would bring me to the point of tears. I had been taking codeine but I knew I wasn”t going to be able to do that for long. One day I hurt so bad I just punched out and never looked back. Needless to say, there was very little income for a young family of three. All the time I kept writing and playing trying to figure out the heart and the art of the song.

Being broke most of the time prevented some of the luxuries of life like car insurance. I”ve learned, at some pain, that it’s not a luxury but a necessity, but then with caution completely thrown to the wind I’d drive without a license or insurance. And I’d get caught. The first time was for a taillight that was out. Driving without a license was serious and I was arrested and taken to the Seattle City Jail and booked. I got my call and told her where the car was and asked her to call Jerry Dennon. Now this is the measure of a friend: When you’re broke and in jail who do you know you can call who will come to your aid? Remember that person, they’re special to your life. Jerry Dennon came to my rescue and I was on the street and home again.

He also realized at this time that my motorcycle accident had put me deeply in debt and that I would keep being pursued by bill collector’s who would eventually try to collect whatever royalties I might make. At his suggestion a lawyer friend filed bankruptcy papers for me and I was out from under a debt that would have taken me many years to repay. It was mainly for doctor and hospital bills and had I taken the welfare that was offered I could have avoided the debt, or much of it, but I couldn”t conscience welfare. In the end, it was largely the same thing. What else is bankruptcy but asking the state to assume your debt? Some gotta win, some gotta lose.

It was about this time in a small house with mattresses for furniture and a complete hippie style of life that the gift of “Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues” came to me. It has always felt like a gift because of the way it arrived. I was playing the line and the words just spilled out, simple as they were. The song was probably finished in less than an hour. When I played it several days later I could see that Jerry Dennon thought it had promise. Although it took several years and another record company to make it a hit I could always see that same look when I played it.

About this same time I got arrested without a driver’s license again. This time on a Friday afternoon, which meant I was going to spend the weekend in the Seattle jail. This time it was more serious and there was no one to quickly pull the string and get me out. We didn”t have enough money of our own to raise bail and asking parents was out of the question. It was a harsh weekend confined with young men much tougher than I was ever going to be, and who were eager to take umbrage, sharing the same cell. I kept to myself and hoped that no one would go off on me. Monday morning Jerry Dennon was reached and cajoled once again to help pry the lid off and let me out. He promised it would be the last time, however. It was.

I learned many years later that the money to pay for my bail and my bankruptcy were never added to my recording or publishing debt. They were done out of friendship and concern. And one other thing must be added to the list of gratitude:

One day I walked into Jerry’s office and laid out on a desk was a 1956 Les Paul Custom guitar (called the Fretless Wonder). It was black and beautiful and I was overcome. Here was the electric guitar I had dreamed of more than any other. How can I have this guitar was my question. What do I have to do? After a couple of days consideration Jerry Dennon said the guitar was mine. Next to the first guitar that my Apple Blossom Princess had helped me buy this was the greatest musical gift I’d ever received.

The list of things I owe to Jerry Dennon goes on: Small kindnesses done with grace that couldn”t have been more problematic had he been a different kind of person. When the band I was playing in called Calliope got an offer from Buddha Records to record Jerry let me out of the recording contract he held. The recording the group made was less than memorable but it was another important step that was taking me out of Seattle and down to Los Angeles. I drifted away from the Seattle scene with my friends in the band The Daily Flash and let the balloons of my dreams loft into that bigger sky. I didn”t see Jerry Dennon much after that and we drifted apart. Over the years he released several editions of my first recordings and I think because of my embarrassment at the amateur quality of those songs, and the simplicity of the recordings, I avoided the reminder of those days of poverty and pain and all the lessons learned. One of the last great favors Jerry Dennon did for me was when Ahmet Ertegun of Atlantic Records became interested and wanted to sign me to both his label and his publishing company Jerry sold him my publishing for a reasonable price and stepped aside.

And the years pass. And the years pass, and the other day not so long ago someone sent me notice that “The Seattle Sessions” were up on iTunes: All of that early schooling and embarrassment available once again after having been delegated to the storage vault for so many years. I am still not fond of those songs, or many of them, but you can hear something in them now. They are the seeds of whatever I”ve become as a songwriter. In a sense, I’m still very much that same person. I’m still trying to learn my craft and rarely satisfied with my performance or skill level. I doubt I’ll ever be. But the person who most made it possible for me to learn my craft in those early years was Jerry Dennon. The years have not been as kind to him as he had hoped but that is true of so many of us. His heart’s been broken and repaired. He does hold an important legacy that should be remembered in the Northwest: He was the first person to define and appreciate the “Seattle Sound”. Every time you hear “Louie Louie” remember that he was the guy who helped make it the college national anthem, and helped a naïve and provincial kid on his journey into the heart and art of the song.