Singer-Songwriters, Unsung

Emitt Rhodes, Terry Callier, Bridget St. John and other master storytellers you need to know.

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When news broke about the death of cult singer-songwriter Emitt Rhodes in July 2020, the acclaimed screenwriter Paul Schrader put up a post on his Facebook page that read, “How is it there was a talented singer-songwriter who coexisted during the years you were obsessed with singer-songwriters but you only know about now when he’s died?”

I’m sure Schrader was far from alone in asking himself that question. Plenty of major music fans I know have scant awareness of Rhodes’ enriching music, odd narrative or crucial role in the creation of the entire power-pop genre. A longtime Rhodes fan, I had the chance to speak with him four years ago when he reemerged, Rip Van Winkle-like, with Rainbow Ends, his first collection of new music in over four decades. Lurking behind Rhodes’ decision to scuttle his solo career at just 23 was a complex story including a vindictive record company, a peculiar and painstaking way of recording, and his own emotional issues. Associates of Rhodes I interviewed alluded to those issues without offering specifics. I knew not to press further.

Sad and eccentric as Rhodes’ story may be, it’s far from unique in either the music industry or within the specific genre that shaped him — namely, the singer-songwriter movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s. For every Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne who became an icon in that arena, there were literate and innovative contenders who never captured a fraction of the audience they deserved. Here’s a look at five of the most striking singer-songwriters who never got their due.

Emitt Rhodes

Given the sheer fluidity of his tunes, the bounce of his beats and the brightness of his production — not to mention his insistence on playing every instrument on his records — Rhodes found himself anointed “The One-Man Beatle” by the press. It didn’t hurt that his voice had the boyish elan of a young Paul McCartney. All of that made him a pioneer of early ’70s power-pop, presaging acts from Big Star to the Raspberries. Yet a closer listen to his first four albums, which stream on TIDAL as The Emitt Rhodes Recordings (1969 - 1973), proves that his sound deserves to be taken on its own terms.

Rhodes’ early song “Time Will Show the Wiser,” penned when he was still a teen, revealed the depth below the sheen and inspired an emotive cover by Fairport Convention on their 1968 debut album. His full catalog displays a wide creative range, from baroque chamber-pop in his early band, the Merry-Go-Round, to Laurel Canyon folk-rock, which he explored on 1973’s Farewell to Paradise, Rhodes’ last album before his long retreat. Rainbow Ends, issued 43 years later, found him singing in a lower register and with greater gravity. But Rhodes’ tunefulness remained undimmed, establishing him as one of the great melodists of his time.

Terry Callier

In his formative years, the Chicago-born Terry Callier found a visionary link between folk, jazz and soul. Imagine the acoustic mystery of Nick Drake crossed with the erudite soul of Nina Simone. In fact, Callier, who died in 2012 at the age of 67, shared a bit of Simone’s tawny timbre and resounding vibrato. He recorded a dozen solo albums, scattered over 50 years, starting in 1965, but minted his masterpiece in 1972 with What Color Is Love. From its trippy psych-folk opener, “Dancing Girl,” to the deep funk of “You Goin’ Miss Your Candyman,” to the exquisite lounge stylings of “I’d Rather Be With You,” the music bewitched. The title track offered a poetic tour de force, presenting the late Callier as a seminal figure in the creation of acoustic soul, affecting everyone from Bill Withers to Joan Armatrading to India.Arie.

John Martyn 

John Martyn slurred when he sang, an approach he mirrored by letting his instruments blur. His most crucial album, Solid Air, issued in 1973, offered a humid mix of folk, blues and jazz fusion. But it wasn’t just Martyn’s impressionistic vocals that intrigued. So did his guitar, which he tricked up with devices of his own design, including a twist on the tape-delay effect Echoplex. Vocally, Martyn could be tender, as on the protective “May You Never,” or demonic, evidenced by his wild cover of Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” (titled “I’d Rather Be the Devil” here). But in any guise he remained his own beast. Martyn died in 2009 at age 60, after putting out over two dozen albums. While many are wonderful, Solid Air idealized a sound abstract in texture but razor-sharp in purpose.

Ralph McTell 

The warmth of Ralph McTell’s baritone could heat a village. On the 1968 album that made him a cult star in his native U.K., Spiral Staircase, he used his humane instrument to tell moving and elaborate stories. The best-known one, “Streets of London,” tells cascading tales of the local homeless, meant to stoke the listener’s appreciation for their own privilege. Like many McTell ballads, it boasts a ravishing melody, enhanced by the singer’s sterling acoustic-guitar work. For a chaser, stream McTell’s 1972 set Not Till Tomorrow, which shifts the focus from story songs to personal odes. The melodies are so fine, and delivered in a voice so sweet, it’s a wonder the album didn’t make McTell the next Cat Stevens.

Bridget St. John    

Few songwriters have captured the restorative power of the countryside better than the British chanteuse Bridget St. John did on her ravishing 1971 album Songs for the Gentle Man. Pieces like “A Day a Way” and “City-Crazy” toast the contemplation encouraged by an immersion in nature. St. John’s vocals, as deep and solemn as Nico at her best, communicate a calm that speaks of appreciation and focus. To flesh out the sound, St. John employed a wide swath of woodwinds, horns and strings, arranged in patterns that are both lush and prim. The artist had released a far sparer debut in 1969, Ask Me No Questions, and, sadly, she stopped any significant recording by the mid-’70s. But for anyone drawn to the finery and ache of chamber-folk, the Gentle Man album stands as a lost lodestar.

Opening image of Emitt Rhodes courtesy of Rovi.

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