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Fat City / Bill and Taffy

Starland Vocal Band

Bill and John Denver

Mention of Starland Vocal Band brings quickly to mind the 1976 hit "Afternoon Delight" that earned the band two Grammy Awards for Best Arrangement for Voices and Best New Artist as well as two other Grammy nominations that same year. The history of the group dates back to Bill Danoff and his songwriting. Befriending John Denver in the mid-1960's, Bill collaborated with Denver and Taffy Nivert to create "Take Me Home, Country Road," which Denver debuted at the Cellar Door in Georgetown. At that time known as Fat City, Bill and Taffy toured across the country with John Denver as his opening act. In 1976, Bill and Taffy joined with Jon Carroll and Margot Chapman to form Starland Vocal Band, their "Afternoon Delight" hitting the charts fast and furious. The band opened for John Denver at several major venues, including Madison Square Garden, bringing great publicity to this instantly successful group. Starland Vocal Band continues to receive notoriety for their success by being spotlighted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, having two Starland Vocal Band compilations released, one from K-Tel and one from Collectables that brings together the group's first two albums, and being included in two recent movies.

 

In Bill's Own Words - the Whole Story:

I Guess He'd Rather Be in Colorado Liner Notes 

I Guess He'd Rather Be in Colorado was the first song Taffy Nivert and I wrote that was recorded by someone other than ourselves. We did it as a 20-minute exercise in songwriting, just to see if we could. The inspiration for the lyrics was Dick Weissman, a friend and producer of Reincarnation, our first album as Fat City, the name of our duo. Dick was a renowned banjo player with the folk group, The Journeymen.

            During this time I was a Georgetown University student working nights as the lights and soundman at the Cellar Door, a funky little nightclub on M Street in the Georgetown section of Washington, DC. But the Cellar Door was big on the national circuit, along with the Bitter End in New York and San Francisco's Hungry i, for an eclectic lineup of performers including Joni Mitchell, Odetta, comedian Mort Sahl and Thelonius Monk.

In 1966, The Mitchell Trio played at the Cellar Door. Chad Mitchell had just left the Trio and was replaced by a skinny, blond-haired Air Force brat named John Denver. While John did not have Chad's outstanding vocal range, he more than made up for it with an upbeat personality that one day would charm millions of fans from kids to grandmothers.

Later, The Mitchell Trio broke up and John formed a new group with David Boyce and Michael Johnson, called Denver, Boyce and Johnson. The group, though loaded with talent, did not last long. But during that time John often was in Washington and we became friends.  He knew I wrote and sang, but for whatever reason we just did not sit down and try to do something together.

            During the summer of 1970, Taffy and I as Fat City were playing at another club on M Street called JAMF. One night John rode up to JAMF on a motorcycle. He visited us between sets, and said he wanted to hear a song we had written that Alan Cowell, Cellar Door manager, told him he would like.

After the club closed that night, Taffy and I sat at a table with John between us and sang Colorado - in real life stereo. He was impressed and wanted to record it. A few weeks later John called from New York to say that not only had he just recorded Colorado, but Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary, the popular folk trio, was going to use it on Mary, her first solo album. Just like that we achieved legitimate credentials as songwriters!

Sam L'Hommedieu, who co-owned the Cellar Door with Jack Boyle, took a chance on booking John, now a solo act, with Fat City opening for him the week during the Christmas holidays in 1970-71. It worked, with John drawing from the old Mitchell Trio fans and Fat City with its local following.

 After the show on Wednesday night of that week, John came over to our Georgetown basement apartment to play some music together. He actually didn't show up until 3 a.m. because of a car accident, had one thumb in a cast and couldn't play his guitar.

With John were Kris O'Connor, another Cellar Door alum who later would spend 20 years as a Denver road manager, producer and confidante, his wife Bonnie and Annie Denver.

Taffy and I had a half-finished song we thought might be right for someone like Johnny Cash. The song had no title or lyrics for the bridge, but two verses and, we thought, a good chorus. Taffy suggested we play it for John. I didn't think he'd like it, but John, thank God, said, "We gotta start someplace."

At this point I must say my original inspiration for the song came one day while driving down a little country road in Maryland, and it was totally written in our basement apartment.

 So, we sang the two verses and chorus.

John was ecstatic. "That's a hit," he said. "Let's finish it!" So Take Me Home, Country Roads was finished about six that morning.

Later that day John, who had a recording contract with RCA, called Milt Okun, his producer, in New York and told him he had a new song to be recorded as a single. That night Taffy and I performed it with John as an encore at the end of his last set. The result was a five-minute ovation, one of the longest in Cellar Door history.

Thursday, New Year's Eve, was John's birthday. Over a champagne lunch with friends in Georgetown he told them about the song and the reaction from the Cellar Door crowd the night before. "This is it," he said. "I am on my way." And was he ever, ruling over the pop and country/western charts for years.

The following week we recorded the song in New York. It was to become the first chart record for John Denver as a performer and in 1999, received one of ten "Country Song of the Century" ASCAP awards for the most performed songs.

            While Country Roads was climbing up the charts, Fat City frequently traveled with John as his opening act. On the road or at our house, every time John heard me playing something new he would ask, "What's that song?" Over the years the answer to that question ended up as one of twelve Danoff/Nivert or Danoff songs John recorded in his career.

 John also wrote some wonderful songs. While he was struggling with his new solo career, the Peter, Paul and Mary recording of his Leaving on A Jet Plane became their greatest all-time hit.

But he also loved to do other songwriters' material, especially those different from what he wrote himself. And he constantly surprised me. Never would I have thought he would record She Won't Let Me Fly Away or Readjustment Blues, but he did and they worked well by bringing variety to his sets.

            She Won't Let Me Fly Away is a pretty good picture of the basement apartment at 3072 Q Street in Georgetown where we wrote most of these songs. And Readjustment Blues reflects a personal look at one of the largest anti-Vietnam War demonstrations ever held in our nation's capital.

            Neither Taffy nor I, both reared in urban areas, had any identity with country music. But our songs in a way wrote themselves, and we followed our hearts wherever they took us. As Kris Kristofferson says about his great hit, Me and Bobby McGee, "If you think it's country, man, then that's what it is."

Baby, You Look Good to Me Tonight was my first attempt at something in the country-style genre of songs. I first played it for a successful Washington, DC area county/rock band called The Rosslyn Mountain Boys. They didn't see it as a real country song and took a pass. With John Denver, Baby became one of those "What's that song?" successes. His recording of Baby became a number one hit on the country/western charts.

            Late Night Radio came out of our touring days, driving at night to the next gig, staying up late. It was another successful country song for John and has done well for other recording artists such as Tom Rush.

            Another early attempt with Taffy at writing country music was Please, Daddy, Don't Get Drunk This Christmas. We tried to convey the reality and sadness of a theme. John was touched by the song and put it on his next album. More recently Alan Jackson included it on a CD of Christmas songs.

            It was no small matter that Annie Denver not only was a wonderful friend, but a big fan of the songs Taffy and I wrote.

I remember sitting in a candle-lit living room in front of a fire one night, and Taffy and I sang We Don't Live Here No More for John and Annie. That song always was special to us and when we'd finished it, Annie said, "Oh, John, you've got to do that song." So he did.

But there is more to this story because I frankly don't remember writing it. This deserves some explanation. Between trying to make decent grades at Georgetown University and my night jobs, I wrote a lot of songs in the wee, wee hours when I should have been in bed sleeping.

Anyway, our Georgetown basement apartment flooded on a regular basis. One day as I was pulling up a water soaked rug, there lay in my best handwriting a copy of the We Don't lyrics. Puzzled, I dropped the rug and picked up my guitar to see how it would sound with accompaniment. The whole song came out at once, melody, guitar riffs and all. Denver fans will find it on the album, Farewell Andromeda.

            In 1973, we spent two wonderful months in London with John doing an entertainment series for BBC, taped live every Sunday. Once when we had some time off, Taffy and I flew to Paris to celebrate my birthday and stayed at the Hotel Esmeralda across from the Notre Dame cathedral.

Dearest Esmeralda started in Paris and I worked on it often in the green room for the BBC show. John would stop in and ask, "How's that song coming?" He wanted to record it before it was even finished.

            Some of our early songs later became choices for John's albums and live performances. (Trust me, I remember writing all the others except We Don't Live Here No More.)

In 1972 I wrote Nobody Can Take My Dreams From Me. In 1981 while on a trip to Los Angeles, I ran into John at the Beverly Hills Hotel and he invited me to his room to hear a rocking version of that very song. He was happy it had come out so well. It was a great surprise to me that he had chosen it for an album.

            By the mid-eighties Taffy and I had divorced and I was now writing on my own. Kris O'Connor, who had left Aspen to return to the DC area, heard Potter's Wheel on a tape I made for a friend.  Kris, a military brat like John, liked the song and pressed him to record it on an album called Different Directions. John also used it on his annual Christmas show, beautifully done on an Indian reservation in Montana.

Potter's Wheel, in the aftermath of 9/11 and events that have followed, seems especially appropriate as the last Bill Danoff song recorded by John Denver.

John grew up the son of a career Air Force officer, but he had a special love for songs about peace and the future of our children - subjects reflected in the words of Potter's Wheel. But it also is fitting that this last song is quite similar to those folk tunes that brought us together in the first place, producing music that fulfilled our wishes and dreams and seemed to be liked by people all over the world.

                                                                                    -- Bill Danoff   9/11/2002

            My sincere thanks to Taffy Nivert for her many contributions to the music, and for the assistance of her and my friend John Martin Meek with these liner notes.

 

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   2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 by Bill Danoff.  All rights reserved.

This page was updated: 04/24/2008 02:19 AM