When The Association took “Windy,” a song penned by their friend Ruthann Friedman, to the Number One position in July 1967, the young songwriter didn’t just score a hit single. She achieved a milestone: Ruthann was only the third female songwriter to compose an American Number One record without the help of a male cowriter: Sharon Sheeley was the first in 1958 with Ricky Nelson’s “Poor Little Fool,” seconded five years later by Jeanine Deckers (The Singing Nun) with “Dominique,” (a thoroughly fascinating story unto itself). Bobby Gentry would follow Ruthann a few weeks later in 1967 with “Ode To Billie Joe.”
And Ruthann’s infectious smash reached another landmark far beyond what anyone could’ve expected.
On December 13, 1999, the performing rights organization BMI announced their Top 100 Songs of the 20th Century, designating the recordings most played on American radio and television. The Association had three classics in the list: “Never My Love” (2, right behind the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’”), “Cherish” (22), and “Windy” (61). While it was by far her greatest commercial achievement, “Windy” was just one of many creative highlights for the immensely talented singer/songwriter—many of which are released here for the first time on this collection.
The story begins in the Bronx, during wartime. Born July 6, 1944—also the day of the Hartford Circus Fire, one of the worst fire disasters in US history—Ruthann was the youngest of three children. She was raised in a leftist household in a six story, walk-up apartment building on Gun Hill Road. Ruthann remembers those early days: “My father owned a knock-off evening gown factory and my uncle was the president of the ILGWU (International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union). Remember that ad on TV? (sings Look for the union label). So we were raised with the labor union inculturation.”
Although her parents weren’t musicians, the Friedman household was usually filled with music, including classical, opera, and show tunes. “South Pacific, Guys and Dolls, Babes in Arms, Annie Get Your Gun… I still know all the words. I used to dance down the street while singing, thinking some Broadway producer was going to discover me.”
Just up the street from Ruthann’s home was a new record store that opened up next to the corner candy store. This was where she picked up her first record: a 78 by pop crooner Julius La Rosa. But it was folk music that most inspired Ruthann when, at age eight, she took up the guitar. “I was influenced greatly by my sister and her friends who were bohemians from the University of Chicago. And they used to come over with their guitars and banjos and play Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie songs. And I fell in love with it. As a family, we all used to sing in the car on trips, because we didn’t want to talk. It was not pleasant talking with my father… so we used to sing instead. Music and books were a great escape for children in difficult situations.”
Her father’s heart condition was the impetus for the family’s relocation to Southern California, and the Friedmans settled in North Hollywood in 1954. With her brother and sister in college, Ruthann was left alone with her retired, combative parents. “I used to dream Peter Pan was gonna come to my window and take me out of that house… I knew no one (in California) and my cousin Joel and I were the only two Jews in the whole school. So I was kind of a loner and spent all of my time playing guitar and singing folk songs; Richard Dyer Bennet, things like that. The beginning of rock and roll for me was Bill Haley & The Comets, and ‘Sh Boom Sh Boom.’ One day I tried to play (Bobby Day’s) ‘Rockin’ Robin,’ and picked it up really fast. It was so exciting because ‘Rockin’ Robin’ turned the tide and helped me branch out (musically).” By age 12 she had written her first song, “I’ll Never Fall In Love,” and performed it live on a local TV program.
Attending Grant High School afforded Ruthann the opportunity to meet some early influential figures in her life, including a beloved English teacher. “Gertrude Siegel was just a brilliant, feisty woman. She gave me a feeling that I wasn’t totally worthless. I was president of the Folk Song club. My friend Patty Schrag was dating Lenny Bruce at the time and I saw him perform at the Renaissance [now the House of Blues] when I was 16. I went over the hill [to Hollywood], so to speak, and never went back to the Valley.” A born seeker, Ruthann was taking every opportunity she could find to get away from home.
After high school, and her father’s passing, Ruthann’s wandering spirit took control and she dropped out of college to embark upon an adventure with boyfriend/flamenco guitarist Bruce Patterson. The pair landed in Colorado first and lived in a frat house with students from Denver University. Although she never played the folk circuit per se, Ruthann recalls her first paying gig at the Green Spider Coffee House in Denver. “They had a tiny raised stage with a color wheel that you could press with your foot and turn yourself red, yellow, green or blue… My mother was furious that I left home, but I just had to get out of there.”
The two moved on to San Francisco and crashed with Bruce’s old pal—nicknamed El Niño Dorado—from Wichita, Kansas. “We stayed in the Mission District, which at the time was a really crappy area. So El Niño was living with his mother and they had one pot on the stove. Anything they could gather they would throw in the pot; it was awful. There were cockroaches in the apartment… So Bruce and I lived in our car for a few days.”
By the time they arrived back in L.A., the couple were strapped for cash, and Ruthann had to pawn her beloved Gibson L7 acoustic guitar. “I never had the money to get it back… We got this little apartment in L.A. and that lasted until Bruce’s mother arrived from Wichita and dragged him back home.”
Friends from their days growing up in the San Fernando Valley, Ruthann reconnected with a man who became her musical mentor: folk guitarist/songwriter Steve Mann. Steve worked with many notable musicians of the era, including members of Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Frank Zappa (whom Ruthann briefly dated), Taj Mahal, Hoyt Axton, and many others. “Steve was a fabulous musician. He taught me so much. Through Steve I met a lot of people, including Van Dyke Parks.”
A budding songwriter, arranger, and ex-member of the folk group The Greenwood County Singers, Van Dyke was signed to MGM Records as a solo artist when he met Ruthann in 1965. “We fell in love for a minute… And we smoked a lot of dope. He had a piano downstairs and one day I said to him, ‘You know, I don’t know if I’m good enough to be a professional.’ And he said to me, ‘The only difference between an amateur and a professional is a decision.’ That was very encouraging.”
It wasn’t long before Van Dyke introduced Ruthann to the band that was to change the course of her career. “The Association had an extra spare bedroom in their East Hollywood house. So they said invited me to live with them for a while. This was around the time of the Watts riots (August 11–17, 1965) and before they had any hits. We had a lot of fun. All sorts of people would come by and visit. I remember Donovan dropped in once and we all took Cyclol… And all we could hear was thud thud thud when we played guitars. The strings sounded like a telephone wire slapping on a piece of wood.”
By March 1966, The Association were working with producer Curt Boettcher on “Along Comes Mary” and the material that would comprise their debut LP. Boettcher was then collaborating with former Vee Jay VP Steve Clark in a production firm called Our Productions. It was through the Association that Ruthann met Clark, and later, Boettcher. In the summer of that year, the two men produced Ruthann’s first recordings at Gary Paxton’s GSP Studios, where they had recorded The Association, Tommy Roe, and others. “Gary Paxton had this weird home studio where you played downstairs and had to go upstairs to hear the playback. It was a house near Hollywood Blvd. Back then, we recorded on four-track machines. That’s all we had. I didn’t know how to sing, so I screeched a lot, which is embarrassing now. I allowed Steve Clark to set the tone… I allowed him to tell me what to write, so I ended up writing stuff that wasn’t really my true self. The real me was stuff like “Piper’s Call” and “Ringing Bells” and “Hurried Life,” and stuff like that. So I’m writing this pop stuff and, I don’t know, it sounds forced…”
The Clark/Boettcher-produced tracks (“Burning House,” “Please, Please, Please,” Don’t Say No,” and “There’s a Place”) utilized many of the same musicians heard on And Then…Along Comes The Association and most other Boettcher/Clark productions from this period. These sessioneers included drummer/percussionists Toxey French and Jim Troxel, bassist Jerry Scheff (who later toured with Elvis Presley), keyboardists Butch Parker and Mike Henderson, and guitarists Mike Deasy and Ben Benay. “Steve Clark was this great, big southerner from Atlanta. He was good to me and gave me money to write songs for his publishing company, Since Music. It was paying my rent.”
Ruthann’s affiliation with Steve Clark didn’t last beyond 1966, however, and none of their recordings were issued. Boettcher must’ve believed in “Don’t Say No” as he rerecorded it in late 1967 with a band from Louisiana called The Oracle. The Verve Records single, coproduced by Keith Olsen, was an adventurous recording—even by Boettcher standards—and served as an intriguing prelude to The Millennium’s Begin album. Ruthann and Curt penned one song together (“Spinning, Spinning, Spinning”) which, today, Ruthann has no memories of writing. Others in far away places took notice: The pre-ABBA Hep Stars covered it, and in 1968 The Simple Image took the gentle folk ballad to the top of the charts for two weeks in their native New Zealand. Boettcher’s pre-Millennium band, The Ballroom also cut “Spinning” for a one-off Warner Bros. single, intending it for their 1967 album, which remained in the vault until the late ’90s. (Efforts to find an original demo of this song, and other Boettcher-era Friedman compositions, were unsuccessful.)
Around the time that Signe Anderson left Jefferson Airplane (October 1966), Ruthann was living in Haight-Ashbury with members of the band. She was briefly considered to be their new vocalist. “The Jefferson Airplane gave me enough money to buy boots… They didn’t take me, which was smart. I mean, Grace Slick, how can you turn that down? While I was up there, I sang with Country Joe and the Fish at the Avalon Ballroom and learned the pleasures of Southern Comfort from Janis Joplin and purple acid from Owsley.”
Back down in L.A., she befriended eccentric songwriter and Troubadour regular Tandyn Almer, the composer of “Along Comes Mary, and later, the cowriter of The Beach Boys’ “Sail On Sailor.” “Tandyn asked me if I’d like to come in and sing on a Goodyear tire commercial. It was a parody of Nancy Sinatra’s hit, (sings These tires are made for walking.) Soon after Tandyn asked Ruthann to sing on a new song he wrote with John Walsh called “Little Girl Lost–and–Found.” “I fell in love with that song. Tom Shipley [of Brewer & Shipley] and I sang the vocal parts. It was Tandyn and Larry Marks’ studio project. Why they didn’t release it under my name I could never understand. That could’ve been my entrée.”
“Little Girl” was issued by A&M in April 1967 under the moniker The Garden Club and the single was a regional success, especially in Los Angeles where it received a significant amount of airplay. As a result, Ruthann was asked to form a live “Garden Club” to help promote the record. Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane) suggested his brother Peter for the “Club.” As a result, Ruthann and Peter became fast lovers, traveled up and down the coast, and formed a band called Petrus.
Concurrent to this activity, Ruthann received a call from Association member Jim Yester’s wife, Jo-Ellen, inquiring if she had any songs suitable for them to record. Ruthann suggested a new tune she had written while living in a single underneath David Crosby’s house on Beverly Glen. “It only took me 20 minutes to write, and I wrote it as an escape. There was a songwriter fellow who I will not name who was…annoying me and I wanted to think about somebody else. So I made up this other person. Everybody has a different story about who ‘Windy’ was and how it was written. Jerry Yester said I played it for The Association while I was sitting on the floor in the living room. Some say it’s about my hippie lover from the Haight… The truth is ‘Windy’ is me in my best incarnation. That’s who ‘Windy’ really is. Windy is the dream me.”
“Windy” went to Number One in July 1967, staying there for four weeks, and reached Number 3 on Billboard’s Top 100 Songs of 1967. “I ended up not getting any of the publishing, and if I had a decent person representing me, I would’ve made out much better. My publisher (A&M’s Irving Music) didn’t place the song with The Association—I did.” Still, Ruthann remembers the time a “Windy” royalty check was mistakenly sent directly to her rather than her accountant: “It was for twenty grand. And Peter and I couldn’t believe it. We were trying to figure out where was the period and where was the comma! (The demo recording of “Windy” on this collection, cut by studio musicians, post-dates The Association’s version.)
During this time, Irving Music pressured Ruthann for another “Windy” and Ruthann dutifully acquiesced, demoing commercially-inspired songs up in Half Moon Bay and sending them down to L.A. in the hopes of getting covers. “I’ll Make You Happy,” “When You’re Near,” and “Candy Apple Cotton Candy,” were among these efforts. “Cotton Candy” was sung by ex-Christy Minstrels Art Podell and Nick Woods. “That song was me telling (Irving) this was shit… This sticky gooey song is stuck to my fingers. It’s gooey and I don’t like writing this stuff! (Pat Shannon cut a magnificently produced version of “Cotton Candy” for Warner Bros.)
Also as a result of the success of “Little Girl” and “Windy,” Ruthann caught the attention of Jerry Moss at A&M Records, who signed her to the label as a recording artist. Paired with producer Tommy LiPuma—who, at the time, was producing other A&M signees including Chris Montez, Roger Nichols and the Small Circle of Friends, and Claudine Longet—Ruthann embarked upon recording an album. Sessions began on July 22, 1967 at Western Recorders for the tracks “Birdie’s Blues”—about Association member Russ Giguere’s wife, Birdie—and “Half Way There,” featuring one of Ruthann’s most passionate lead vocals. The two songs were slated to be Ruthann’s debut single. Musicians included guitarist Ron Elliott of the Beau Brummels, guitarist and future Randy Newman producer Russ Titelman, bassist Joe Osborn, drummer Hal Blaine, and ubiquitous guitarist Mike Deasy (who had previously played on her Boettcher/Clark recordings). Despite a promising start, Ruthann was deeply distracted by personal issues. “I was uncooperative during the making of the album. I went in to record some stuff with Tommy and I’d be on the phone every five minutes trying to reach Peter. I wanted my man up in Northern California…”
Moving over to Sunset Sound studios, sessions continued sporadically throughout the rest of 1967. Randy Newman played the piano on Ruthann’s recording of his oft-covered classic “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today,” and her rendition of “High Coin” featured Van Dyke Parks’ unmistakable tack piano and sounds like a magnificent lost track from Song Cycle. “‘Raining Down On My House’ was the only thing I did by myself. The engineer and I cut it before Tommy came in. I don’t know who played the sitar part; they must’ve added that afterwards.”
After nearly a yearlong break from recording, Ruthann went back in the studio in November 1968 to cut more songs for the album. The sessions for the mournful “Country Song” featured Wrecking Crew luminaries Lyle Ritz on bass and Jim Gordon on drums, and Van Dyke contributed the beautifully expansive piano parts to “The Sky Is Moving South,” a Friedman-Kaukonen cowrite. “When we came back down to L.A. to record, we rented a stilt house near Big Rock on the beach for a year. Shitty plumbing, and all that… We had this 20-foot-long picture window that looked out onto the ocean, and that inspired a lot of songs, including “The Sky Is Moving South.” It was just so beautiful; the ocean’s vastness can just draw any negativity out of you.”
The final album sessions were held the following month at the new A&M Studios on LaBrea Ave. Still unfinished, the project was ultimately shelved by Jerry Moss. “When they dropped me, I remember going into Jerry’s office, and he looked at me and said, “You’re the first person I signed to this label who didn’t make it.” The recordings from this era, presented here for the first time, provide a glimpse of what could have been. Ruthann’s Smile? Perhaps.
Despite this setback, the Van Dyke Parks-produced “Cary” was recorded at Sunwest Studios the following January and featured future Bread drummer Michael Botts, bassist Lyle Ritz, in addition to Ruthann and Peter on guitars. “I wrote “Cary” for a friend of Peter’s up in El Granada. He was a guy who was kinda always on the road. He came to visit and then he was off to someplace else.”
The other two tracks that round out this collection—“Living With My Best Friend,” and “Pinball Man”—post-date her 1969 Reprise LP, Constant Companion. Today, Ruthann can’t recall the singer of “Pinball Man”; as with many of the details from this time in her life, much has faded from memory—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. But these previously-lost recordings miraculously survived 40-plus years, revealing an ever-evolving songwriter, distilling the best elements of the era into her very own rarified vision.
[the recordings described above were issued on Now Sounds under the title, The Ruthann Friedman Songbook; Now Sounds will be releasing The Complete Constant Companion Sessions this June; Wolfgang Records is releasing Chinatown, the first new recordings by Friedman in some 40 years]