Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Review from 4/06: Musical pair rolling along with acoustic tribute to the Stones

From the Sacramento Bee

Published 2:15 AM PST Sunday, Apr. 30, 2006

Musical pair rolling along with acoustic tribute to the Stones

By Jim Carnes -- Bee Staff Writer

It's a long way from scoring the music for "Touched by an Angel" and singing "Ruby Tuesday" at a wedding to "All Wood and Stones," an album of acoustic Rolling Stones music, but that's the path John Batdorf and James Lee Stanley took.

The two recorded the album in 2004. It was available only at their concerts or on the www.allwoodandstones.com Web site until recently, when it was picked up for national distribution. Azera/EMI Records has geared up to push the album and, Stanley said, "We're starting to do some serious touring on this now."

So who are Batdorf and Stanley?

Both are singers and songwriters who have been recording since the 1960s. Tom Robbins, whose "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" inspired Stanley to record a song of that title, calls Stanley "probably the last great undiscovered singer-songwriter in America." He has released nearly two dozen albums, most in the pop, jazz and acoustic genres. He has performed solo and as a "road dog" in bands backing the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Robin Williams, and Chick Corea and Return to Forever; has teamed for recordings and concerts with ex-Monkee Peter Tork (a friend since their meeting in 1963); and has won Emmy Awards for his music for the CBS "Cathy" animated specials.

Batdorf is probably best-known as half of Batdorf and Rodney, an acoustic, folk-rockish group that formed in Los Angeles in 1969 after Batdorf's group Cloud disbanded. Batdorf and Rodney were signed by the renowned producer Ahmet Ertegun to Atlantic Records in the early 1970s, and their debut album, "Off the Shelf," was released in 1973. They had several moderate hit singles, including "Can You See Him?" "Poor Man's Dream" and "Home Again," before disbanding in the mid-'70s. Batdorf continues to write and record and has an established career scoring for television (including all 5 1/2 years of "Touched by an Angel").

Batdorf and Stanley will perform Friday in Loomis in a concert that will benefit the Del Oro High School Stadium Building Fund and, indirectly, the high school's band, which uses the stadium for field shows and competitions. On Saturday, they'll perform in Folsom at a house concert for invited guests.

Stanley and Batdorf frequently play house concerts and benefits as solo performers and were contacted about the local appearances as a response to "All Wood and Stones." The duo will perform songs from that recording as well as original material from their solo careers.

The "All Wood and Stones" project came from Stanley's wedding-singer experience. He had sung "Ruby Tuesday" with George Merrill (who wrote "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" for Whitney Houston) because "it was the only song we both knew."

"I came home from that and thought, 'Man, that sounded good,' " he said in a recent telephone interview from his home studio in West Hills. "I never realized how musical it was."

Although he was familiar with the music of the Rolling Stones, Stanley said, "My favorite band to listen to is Steely Dan. I like impeccably produced music." Stanley decided to apply the Crosby, Stills and Nash acoustic-folk approach he had taken with "Ruby Tuesday" to some other Stones songs and see where it would lead. In the resulting reinventions, "Under My Thumb" became a waltz and "Let's Spend the Night Together" turned into a shuffle. Such rockers as "Paint It Black," "Satisfaction" and "Have You Seen Your Mother Baby?" took on surprising atmospheric density.

It's a baby boomer's nostalgia trip, but Stanley said it's much more, that the tunes have unique chord progressions and are more lyrical and musically complex than most people realize, given the tunes' original freewheeling and sometimes sloppy recordings.

Merrill wasn't available when Stanley was ready to go into the studio, so Stanley started casting about for a singing partner. Batdorf's name came up - and it turned out he even lived nearby.

"When I first saw Batdorf and Rodney in a club, I thought, 'Man, I'd like to be a part of that. If I could be the third voice in that, it would be amazing,'" Stanley said. "Sadly, that never happened."

Batdorf did appear on Stanley's first two solo albums, released by RCA's Wooden Nickel records in the late 1960s. Stanley was a staff writer for Bone Howe, producer for the Association and the Fifth Dimension, at the time. When Stanley and Batdorf met again to discuss "All Wood and Stones," it was a reunion of two old friends.

"I was so delighted to see him, and when I told him about the project, we really wanted to do it. John is without a doubt the most professional, reliable musician I have ever worked with," Stanley said.

The two have something else in common: "Aurally speaking, both of us are really anal," Stanley said. "We want everything to sound perfect."

Stanley approached the project with some trepidation, however. "I sent the record to Rolling Stones fan clubs, just to see what they'd say," he said. "I didn't know what they might say - 'You've ripped the crotch out of Mick' or something. But I really thought somebody should give the Stones their musical due." It turns out Stones fans have been more enthusiastic than Stanley fans. "The majority of my fans did not buy this record," he admitted. "We've sold thousands of copies to people I don't know. My fans keep asking 'Where's the James Lee Stanley CD?' "

That will come - another set of impeccably produced original acoustic music - but there may be yet another surprise in the works.

"I'm very much excited about a follow-up," Stanley said. "I'm not sure it would be another Rolling Stones collection, but it might be a similar approach, where we'd take hard-rocking songs and do them differently. You tell me: Black Sabbath? Creedence Clearwater? Who can we do?"

Stanley turned 60 at the end of April, and he said that except for a stint as a Chinese linguist for the Air Force, he has always made a living as a musician. "I never gave up the dream. Never stopped. I'm not a world-famous, rich guy, but I play for a living," he said.

"I'd like to have more work, like to stay at the point where you always have more money than bills, but I'm extremely blessed. I have a good studio, it's in my home, and I can work steadily.

"People ask what would I have done if I weren't a successful musician, and I say, 'I'd be an unsuccessful musician.' "

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