By Richie Unterberger

The late 1960s were prolific years for Jerry Jeff Walker as the singer-songwriter started to get his solo career off the ground. First there were two albums he recorded for Vanguard as part of the band Circus Maximus. In September 1968, he released his first solo album for Atco, Mr. Bojangles, titled after his most famous composition. Then came Driftin' Way of Life—issued, confusingly, on Vanguard, to whom he still owed an album. And then, in March 1969, he recorded his second Atco LP, Five Years Gone—which had yet another version of "Mr. Bojangles," which had been done way back in November 1967. He might not have been selling a ton of records—none of the three albums, in fact, even made the charts. But Walker fans certainly had a lot to choose from within a short space of time.

    Five Years Gone, like so many albums of the late 1960s by singer-songwriters who grown out of the folk-rock scene, was recorded in Nashville. Bob Dylan had been the first from this crowd to make extensive use of the city's top session players, followed by such notables as Eric Andersen, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Ian & Sylvia, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, John Stewart, Gordon Lightfoot, and Country Joe McDonald. Walker had already cut material for Driftin' Way of Life in Nashville with some of the same players (drummer Kenneth Buttrey, bassist Norbert Putnam, guitarist David Bromberg, guitarist Wayne Moss, dobro player Pete Wade, and keyboardist David Briggs) who'd contribute to Five Years Gone. Producing was Elliot Mazer, who'd already worked with the likes of Ian & Sylvia and Lightfoot in Nashville, and would go on to produce Neil Young recordings in the city for the #1 album Harvest. Several of the names in the credits to Five Years Gone would be familiar to Dylan fans, as Buttrey, Moss, keyboardist Paul Griffin, multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy, pianist Hargus Robbins, and bassist Henry Strzelecki had all played on '60s Dylan sessions.

    In a 2002 interview with the author, Mazer observed, "Jerry wanted to reach a bigger audience. He had been on the road for a few years doing those coffee houses." Today he elaborates, "I had done lots of records in Nashville by then and he was interested in some of the musos I worked with. He wanted more rhythm and more country, I believe." Not that things always worked smoothly between producer and artist: "Jerry did not like that I was trying to get him to sing in tune and I did not like that he sang out of tune and didn't care."

    Walker has said that the songs he picked for Driftin' Way of Life were older ones from his repertoire, and that he was emphasizing newer compositions on his Atlantic Recordings. Certainly one of the standouts on Five Years Gone, "Janet Says," was freshly written, inspired by a recent short, rainy trip to Paris with friends and his wife of the time, Janet. (And could it just be possible that "Janet Says" supplied some lyrical inspiration for Lou Reed's "Lisa Says," recorded in October 1969 by the Velvet Underground, though not released at the time?) Other songs were directly inspired by interactions with some New York City acquaintances, such as Peter Stampfel of the Holy Modal Rounders; as Walker wrote of "Happiness Is a Good Place to Visit But It Was So Sad in Fayetteville" in the original LP insert, "I ran into Peter Stampbel [sic] at the New York Dental Clinic one day and in the course of conversation Peter said he always had to be prepared for the worst. 'If there is any possibility that anything could go wrong, or the slightest inside chance of it falling on me it will. Yes, it certainly did in North Carolina.'"

    Yet not all of the songs on Five Years Gone were hot off the press, and not all of them were written by Walker himself. "Seasons Change" was co-penned by Travis Lewis and Boomer Clarke, the principals of the late-1960s group the Lewis & Clarke Expedition, who issued an album on the Monkees' label, Colgems. Travis Lewis was actually a pseudonym for the singer-songwriter Michael Martin Murphey, who would record "Seasons Change" on his own 1976 album Swans Against the Sun, and eventually establish himself as a leading figure in the cowboy music genre. Under his own name, Murphey was the author of another of Five Years Gone's tracks, "Tracks Run Through the City." "About Her Eyes" was written by Keith Sykes, who as Walker told it in the original insert, "hitch-hiked to New York City from Memphis, Tennessee, to tell me how much he  liked 'Bojangles.' He stayed on at my house for about a week or so and we swapped songs and this one he played for me." Sykes would, in fact, end up cutting a couple albums of his own for Walker's old label Vanguard in 1969 and 1970, and Jerry would later cover several more of Sykes's songs, as would performers such as John Prine, the Judds, and Jimmy Buffett.

    The most famous song on Five Years Gone, oddly, had been recorded and released, also on Atco, less than a year previously. Yet the version of "Mr. Bojangles" on this LP, a little confusingly, had been recorded before the mid-1968 recording of the tune that appeared on Mr. Bojangles itself. Walker had already been performing it for a while before 1968, although it didn't make either of the two Circus Maximus albums. However, a November 1967 performance (with Walker backed by David Bromberg) for an all-night show on New York's non-commercial Pacifica affiliate radio station WBAI was taped by host Bob Fass. Fass, in turn, played the tape so much that listeners actually started to ask for it in local record stores, a demand that could only be filled when Walker re-recorded it as a single for Atco. That single had charted at #77 nationally, almost immediately beginning to attract a string of cover versions by the likes of Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson, and Lulu. Still, no doubt many listeners in the New York area appreciated the official availability of the November 1967 WBAI version on Five Years Gone, which was longer than the more elaborately arranged Atco studio recording. "I loved that version of 'Bojangles,' and Bob Fass liked the idea of us putting it on the record," Mazer explains.

    In early 1971, of course, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's cover of "Mr. Bojangles" would reach the Top Ten, in turn giving a kick to Walker's own career. He's been at it ever since, as of this writing having recorded about a couple more dozen albums since the late '60s. It would take a while for him to build his crossover audience between folk, singer-songwriter, and country listeners, which really took off after he relocated to Austin in the early '70s. The elements that made that possible, however, are there for all to hear in Five Years Gone. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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