Tim McMullen's Missives and Tomes

Sunday, September 20, 2009

My "One-Sided" Conversations with Maury

Second String Song Man
(For Maury Muehleisen)
Second string song man
Beautiful back-up band
Playing his heart out
For a part of the game
Singing the harmony
Stringing the melody
Seeing a small piece
Of another man’s fame
Nobody knew his name
Seems like quite a shame
Sang like an angel
Wrote like a demon
Held me against my will
And left me dreamin’
Sang about a song he’d heard
And never heard again
I know the music’s haunted me
Just like it haunted him
The singing of a friend
Will never end
He’d play those haunting melodies
Whispered fingers fly
He sang so high
Chorus, then Repeat First Verse
Second string song man
Beautiful back-up band
Playing his heart out
For a part of the game
©1974 Tim McMullen All Rights Reserved

In 1973, I wrote a song entitled, “Second-String Songman.” The title, as I am fond of doing with my titles and lyrics, is a triple-entendre. It made reference to a lead guitarist’s use of the B-string as a significant tool in his repertoire as well as the acknowledgement that the accompanist often is overlooked in favor of the front man; finally, it made specific reference to the fact that many backup musicians are also very talented song writers, singers, and musicians in their own right, but that they are seldom fortunate enough to have that talent recognized.

I wrote that song with several players in mind; one obvious one was my brother, Tucker McMullen, a brilliant and innovative guitarist who was playing with Bob Ward as a part of Bob Ward and the Cigar Band. However, the specific reason that I wrote that song at that time was out of a deep sense of personal loss that I felt upon hearing of the death of Jim Croce.
I was a huge fan of Jim Croce, but I was a bigger fan of his unknown accompanist, Maury Muehleisen.

In my book, Tim McMullen: Aged Fifty Years (A Life in Song), I had a chapter called “The Dear Departed.” It included a number of songs that I had written about lost loves, lost friends, lost lives, but it included four songs that I had written emulating or in honor of performers who had died.
When I got to my song, “Second-String Songman,” I had already spoken about the personal impact of the passing of my musical heroes, Phil Ochs and Townes Van Zandt. The next passage is one that I wrote for Jim Croce, but especially for Maury.

Yet another homage to a dead singer-songwriter. But unlike Phil Ochs and Townes Van Zandt, who had at least achieved some notoriety and a strong fan base, Maury Muehleisen was a true unknown. He put out one album on Capitol Records in 1970 entitled Gingerbreadd. It sold very few copies, but I, who buy everything that looks interesting (and this had David Bromberg and Eric Weissberg playing on it) bought it and instantly fell in love. He had a very sweet, delicate voice; he had an intricate, finger-picked guitar style; and he wrote such strange and interesting tunes that I was just knocked out by it. But there was no follow-up album and no news about him. Nothing.

Then, one day, I looked at an album by newcomer Jim Croce, and I saw Maury’s name on it. I bought the record and found another brilliant songwriter in Croce. Later, I read the story. When Maury’s album came out, his producers, Cashman and West, introduced him to Jim Croce, and convinced Croce to tour with Muehleisen as his accompanist, but the tour failed to raise any real interest in the record. When Croce got his big break, their roles were reversed, and Maury played behind Jim. Suddenly, his long, curly hair with Dutch-boy bangs and his fluid guitar style became instantly recognizable as “that guy behind Croce.” His style of playing and writing did, indeed, have a huge influence on Croce.
When Jim Croce died tragically, and the world mourned a hero they had just started to know (many of his hits were posthumous), Maury Muehleisen, his faithful “back-up band,” died in the plane crash with him, but the loss went all but unnoticed. It seemed like quite a shame...
(This is also dedicated to another great back-up guitarist, Jesse Ed Davis, 1948-1988).

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