By Richie Unterberger

To the music business, Terry Melcher was mostly known as a producer, particularly for his hits with the Byrds and Paul Revere & the Raiders in the 1960s. To the world at large, unfortunately, Melcher was mostly known as a rumored target of Charles Manson, who had tried to get Terry to sign him to a record deal. Yet Melcher was himself a musician and singer-songwriter. It took until 1974 for his first album to come out, but -- though relatively few were aware at the time -- his recording history actually predated his self-titled debut LP by a good dozen years.

    The son of recording and film star Doris Day, Melcher made his first recordings in the early 1960s as Terry Day. More successful, both commercially and artistically, were the sides he made as part of a duo with future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston. Under the names Bruce & Terry and the Rip Chords, the pair were behind a number of surf and hot rod tunes, the Rip Chords' "Hey Little Cobra" rising all the way to the Top Five in early 1964. He wrote songs with a rising Randy Newman and Bobby Darin, and both Melcher and Darin played on the obscure 1963 City Surfers single "Beach Ball," which was co-penned by a young Jim (aka Roger) McGuinn. By early 1965 Terry was the youngest staff producer of Columbia Records, his mom's label, and came across McGuinn's path again as the producer of the Byrds' first two albums, which included their #1 singles "Mr. Tambourine Man" and "Turn! Turn! Turn!" (Amusingly, a tape exists of Melcher illustrating a possible vocal approach during a Byrds session for "She Has a Way" by singing a few lines of the song to the band himself.)

    Melcher also produced a string of hits at Columbia for Paul Revere & the Raiders, as well as sessions for a couple of notable folk-rock groups that never got wide exposure, the Rising Sons (featuring a young Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal) and the Gentle Soul. He also re-teamed with the Byrds in the late 1960s and early 1970s to produce several more albums for the group at Columbia. When Terry Melcher came out in 1974, however, it was not on Columbia but Reprise, which along with its parent label Warner Brothers was home to numerous singer-songwriters in the '70s.

    With Melcher and his old buddy Bruce Johnston co-producing, the tracks were, in the style of the time, augmented by a wealth of top session musicians. Both Melcher and Johnston had been making the rounds of studios for over a decade, and no doubt they knew about as many players on the scene as almost anybody. The long list of contributors included ex-Byrds Chris Hillman (bass), Michael Clarke (drums), and Clarence White (guitar); guitarist Ry Cooder, with whom Terry had worked back in the mid-1960s Rising Sons days; steel guitarists Sneaky Pete Kleinow (noted for his stint in the Flying Burrito Brothers) and J.D. Maness (who'd played on the Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo); respected Southern songwriter and session cat Spooner Oldham (piano); and A-team Los Angeles session stalwarts Hal Blaine (drums), Jim Keltner (drums), Joe Osborne (bass), Mike Deasy (guitar), and Larry Knechtel (piano). Helping out on vocals were Spanky McFarlane (of Spanky and Our Gang) and none other than mom Doris Day herself. Even the album design was handled by an old pal, Dean Torrence (who in the '60s had been half of Jan & Dean). Melcher himself played some piano, in addition to handling all the lead singing. As Hillman says, it was "the '70s, the decade of large recording budgets and 'anything goes in the studio' mentality. Terry was definitely plugged into the studio musician scene in L.A., and was well-liked and respected by the 'A' players."

    The songs were an odd mix of Melcher originals (one of them, "Dr. Horowitz," written with Johnston) and covers of tunes by Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne ("These Days"), Spooner Oldham (who co-wrote the country lament "These Bars Have Made a Prisoner Out of Me" with his frequent songwriting collaborator Dan Penn), and even the Byrds (whose "Just a Season" was written by Roger McGuinn and Jacques Levy, the latter of whom would co-write much of the material on Bob Dylan's Desire). No doubt Melcher had been very familiar with Dylan's material starting from at least the mid-1960s, the Byrds having covered no less than six Dylan songs on their first two albums, with Melcher in the producer's seat. There were also renditions of the timeless folk standard "Stagger Lee" (which had topped the charts for rock'n'roller Lloyd Price in 1959) and the traditional number "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms."

    The music was a very laidback mix of California singer-songwriter, country, sweet orchestration, female backup vocals, and ghostly production touches. When it was reviewed by Bud Scoppa for Rolling Stone in June 1974, however, entirely more sinister and disquieting elements were detected. "This album is definitely not for everyone," declared the opening sentence -- no doubt, about exactly the opposite of what a label hopes to read in the most prominent American music magazine. Scoppa went on to describe the LP as "an eccentric work that suggests he's given up not just on optimism but even on despair. The result suggests the bleak mood of [Italian film director Michaelangelo Antonioni's] L'Avventura." Scoppa, incidentally, would have --unlike many a rock journalist in the days when rock history was young -- been quite familiar with Melcher's past, as he'd written the first Byrds biography, The Byrds, for Scholastic Book Services in 1971.

    Scoppa, however, was just getting warmed up, going on to note that Melcher "takes such liberties with lyrics and melody that [some of the cover songs] are only intermittently recognizable. With a vocal delivery somewhere between a sarcastic howl and a wounded moan, he gets to the heart of his desolate feelings in two successive cuts -- his own existentialist lament, 'Beverly Hills,' and the Penn-Oldham country song, 'These Bars Have Made a Prisoner Out of Me.' His interpretations describe two kinds of psychic isolation and suggest he's locked up within a grand ennui. His duet with mother Doris Day on Jackson Browne's 'These Days' is so down and drained of life that I find it nearly painful to listen to." The Melcher-penned closer "The Old Hand Jive," he continued, "in its ironic joylessness, sums up the mood of the album...a disturbing, difficult album that reverberates like a cosmic sigh."

    The review may have been more peculiar than the album itself, and it's likely a lot more people read the review than actually heard the record, which didn't chart. Melcher did manage a follow-up LP on RCA a couple of years later, the similarly obscure Royal Flush, but it would be his second and last. He'd be involved in few recording projects in the final decades of his life, though he did produce and co-write the Beach Boys' 1988 #1 single "Kokomo." "He was a good guy and behind some of our greatest work in the Byrds," says Hillman of Melcher, who died of melanoma in November 2004. "For a very shy kid coming from a rural background, he treated me with respect and made me feel comfortable when I first worked with him in the old Columbia Studios on Sunset Boulevard in 1965." -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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