DAVID REA: AMERICAN FOLK MUSICIAN
By Doug Bright

From: Heritage Music Review/B>

Even among the nation's folk music devotees, the name of David Rea hasn't yet achieved household word status. Nevertheless, this seasoned guitarist, songwriter, and singer has toured with, recorded with, and written for an astonishingly diverse assortment of famous folkies and rockers. His vast repertoire of traditional and original material is sampled in his seventh album, TIMES SEVEN, released last month. It will be showcased in still greater detail when Rea appears this month at Seabold Hall on Bainbridge Island October 14th.

David Rea (pronounced "Ray") was born October 26, 1946 in Akron, Ohio, a place which proved to be fertile ground for cultivating eclectic musicianship. "Akron was a great place to listen to three kinds of American traditional music," Rea explains. "You had rock and roll because Alan Freed had his show comin' out of Cleveland. Because Akron was a big industrial center, you had a lot of poor whites and poor blacks comin' up from the South to work in the rubber factories. As a consequence, you had a lot of hard blues. There was a whole lot of bluegrass because most of the bands from Tennessee and Kentucky came up through Cincinnati. You'd turn the dial and you'd get the Stanley Brothers or Flatt and Scruggs, plus a thousand little one-horse stations with gospel programs and stuff like that."

In addition to this colorful array of folk influences, there was another side to David Rea's musical education--an influence that gave him the musical theory to comprehend and integrate what he heard on the radio. "I was fortunate in that I had a solid classical background," he says. "My mother was a fine classical musician: she played the piano primarily."

Although Rea started out at age five studying classical piano, it was the music he heard on the radio that set the direction of his career. "By the time I was twelve," he recalls, "I started playing guitar and five-string (banjo. I got to be very good friends with a fella up the street who must have been about six years older than I was. He was going to Oberlin College, and there was a whole lot of people pickin' down there, so I started hangin' out down at Oberlin."

Not only did Rea's college friend provide him with valuable jamming experience at Oberlin, but he also contributed to his musical education by lending him albums. Of all the music he heard on these records, Rea was most impressed by early rural blues and the Southern string band music that originated in the 1920's with such colorful ensembles as Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers. "I liked the New Lost City Ramblers because these guys were taking that old music and revitalizing it," he says. "The biggies for me were Blind Willie McTell, Merle Travis, and Robert Johnson. Merle was the guy that put the whole thing together, so that's where I was by the year 1962 when I met Ian Tyson and Gordon Lightfoot."

The next giant step in David Rea's musical life came when he attended the newly organized Mariposa Folk Festival in Ontario. "It was near my family's fishin' camp up on the French River," he recalls, "so I took my sleepin' bag, bought my ticket, and took a bus down there. That was the first time I'd ever been away from home all by myself."

Of all the acts he heard at the prestigious Canadian event, it was the country-flavored folk duo Ian and Sylvia that proved most crucial to Rea's musical future. Ian Tyson and Sylvia Fricker had met in Toronto in 1959, moved to New York the following year, and released their first Vanguard album in 1962. "I remember seeing Ian and Sylvia for the first time," says Rea. "That was when they'd just made their first album. That first night Ian and I got into a tent with a bottle of rye, and we just picked all night! We were so delighted to find somebody that spoke the same musical language that age and nationality didn't make any difference, so Ian and Sylvia and I became fast friends. I think that was the first time I ever felt like I belonged someplace."

Ian and Sylvia kept in touch with Rea through his high school years, sending him encouraging letters which he treasures to this day. In June 1964, just after his graduation, they invited him to Toronto for their wedding. By this time Rea had decided on a musical career, and the big Canadian city, with its vibrant folk scene, seemed a good place to start. Ian and Sylvia Tyson extended their friendship as always but offered him no shortcuts. "They were great," he says, "because they didn't cut me any slack. Anything that I achieved, they made me work for, so I started at the bottom."

A Year With Lightfoot
By early 1965 David Rea had hooked up with a Toronto-based folk group called the Allen-Ward Trio, playing guitar on its one and only Vanguard album. "They were among a lot of Peter, Paul and Mary clones," he says. "I was the accompanist and musical arranger. We got a contract with Vanguard. Then about that time Gordon Lightfoot was listening to me and he started inviting me to play with him, so while I was working with the Allen-Ward Trio, I was working with Gordon getting his first album ready."

According to producer John Court's liner notes, the circumstances of Rea's first recording session with Lightfoot were anything but conducive to artistic inspiration. Even the color of the studio walls reflected the gloom of the New York autumn night, and the inattentiveness of the assistant engineer made it painfully clear that he didn't give a broken E string about the music he was documenting.

Nevertheless, the resulting album, simply entitled LIGHTFOOT and released by United Artists in late 1965, proved to be one of the era's finest. David Rea's guitar blended seamlessly with Lightfoot's, harmonizing subtly but powerfully behind the singer's vocal and instrumental melody lines. It was the only one of Lightfoot's albums on which Rea appeared. "Gordon was really great to work with," he recalls. "I worked with him until '66 when Ian and Sylvia offered me a salary. Gordon was really good about it. Gordon and I have remained friends."

Reinventing Ian and Sylvia
David Rea joined Ian and Sylvia only months before they ventured into the realm of folk-rock with their 1966 release PLAY ONE MORE, and though he wasn't directly involved in making that groundbreaking album, he was a key element in the process that many folk purists regarded with disapproval. "I was the one that had to take all the blame for the electric crossover," he says. "I was their first electric guitar player. I'll tell you exactly how it happened. Ian and I went to see Buck Owens, and we saw Don Rich and Buck Owens playin' out of a Super Reverb (amplifier). Ian called me up the next day and he says, "We're goin' electric.""

Given the vast tonal differences between the acoustic guitar and its more modern offspring, going electric proved to be harder than it looked. At first Tyson and Rea tried plugging their acoustic instruments into amplifiers with cheap electronic pick-up devices. "We had no idea what the hell we were doin'!" Rea recalls with amusement. "We thought all you did was plug it in and we're gonna sound like Buck Owens and Don Rich. Surprise, surprise! We did a lot of experimenting."

Experimental as it was, there was nothing haphazard about the development of Ian and Sylvia's new sound. "They had a house in Toronto," Rea explains. "I had a place within walking distance of their house. Before we'd make an album, we'd go into rehearsal. I would usually show up at their house about 9:30 in the morning and we'd rehearse until one. Then we'd go upstairs and have some lunch, we'd get back at it about two o'clock, and then work until seven or so. Then we'd have dinner together, have a bottle of wine, and discuss what we'd done. Usually about three weeks of rehearsal per album."

On SO MUCH FOR DREAMING, Rea's first record with Ian and Sylvia, he generally played in the clean folk style that had characterized their earlier records as well as his own work with Gordon Lightfoot. On a couple of its more rock-flavored tracks, he approached the electric guitar with the same sense of taste and balance. Ian Tyson's "January Morning" featured him on the kind of electric twelve-string leadwork that typified the folk-rock sound of the Byrds.

When Ian and Sylvia were picked up by MGM Records in 1967, Rea applied the same versatility to LOVIN' SOUND, an album whose title song became a hit single. One of the album's strongest tracks was David Rea's poignantly philosophical "Pilgrimage to Paradise". "That was the first time that anybody had recorded any of my songs," he says.

With the 1968 release of Ian and Sylvia's next Vanguard album, NASHVILLE, the change in their songwriting style was painfully obvious. While earlier efforts had been eloquent in their folk simplicity, this album was, with a couple of excellent exceptions, hopelessly mired in a swamp of poetic and musical abstraction. For David Rea, however, its creation was an exhilarating experience. Recorded in Nashville as its title implies, it was graced by such Music City session stars as steel guitarist Pete Drake, fiddler Tommy Jackson, and guitar wizard Jerry Reed. "That was a fun album to make," Rea recalls. "When Ian would know that I admired certain musicians, he'd hire them for the sessions. He hired Jerry Reed for the NASHVILLE album just to see the look on my face when Jerry walks in. That's the kind of a guy Tyson is."

FULL CIRCLE, recorded in Nashville the following year, was David Rea's last recording project with the Tysons before embarking on a solo career. "It was really great workin' with Ian and Sylvia," he says. "They were like my mom and dad. One of the bright points in my life is knowin' somebody like that. I was with them about three and a half years. Then I went solo." Flying Solo
It was Felix Pappalardi, who had played electric bass for Ian and Sylvia during Rea's tenure with them, who helped him launch his solo career. "Felix had been my best friend," Rea explains. "Felix Pappalardi brought me down to New York City, and I got connected with E.S. "Bud" Prager. At the time, E.S. Prager was one of the best movers and shakers in the business and a very helpful person. Bud Prager got me a five-year contract with Capitol Records--a lot of money. The stipulation was that Felix Pappalardi produce the first two albums."

David Rea's first Capitol album, MAVERICK CHILD, emerged in 1970. From a purely musical viewpoint, it was an impressively eclectic showcase of the many styles in which Rea felt at home, ranging from country to folk-rock to down-home electric blues to lyrical contemporary folk. His vocal style was somewhat reminiscent of Neil Young, but his supple, soaring tenor voice was infinitely more lyrical. Nevertheless, his songs were no match for the clarity and power of his first recorded effort, "Pilgrimage To Paradise". "I'm just a maverick child, I'm young and runnin' wild," he sang. It was an apt metaphor for a talented young musician with some growing to do and time to grow.

With his debut Capitol album enthusiastically reviewed in ROLLING STONE, David Rea's career seemed to be very much on track in 1970. It was also the year in which his composition "Mississippi Queen" scored the pre-metallic rock band Mountain its biggest hit. By this time, however, his producer, deep in heroin addiction, had siphoned record company funds to support his habit, exhausting and even overrunning Rea's production budget. "He called me up and bailed out of the contract," Rea explains, "which left me, with my Irish and Native American sense of responsibility, saying, "I owe these people an album", so I got on the telephone."

Assembling a cast that ran the gamut from Rascals drummer Dino Danelli to Appalachian folklorist Mike Seeger, Rea put together the 1971 album BY THE GRACE OF GOD. Like its predecessor, it covered a wide range of roots-based American styles, but the material was stronger, allowing Rea's voice and guitars to shine with undimmed brilliance. Drawing from folk sources, he turned Leadbelly's cowboy fantasy "Western Plains" into an engaging electric blues shuffle that featured his bottleneck-style slide guitar. On the traditional "Patteroller Song" he played pre-bluegrass banjo in an old-time duet with Mike Seeger on fiddle. On "David and Goliath", recorded live at New York's Fillmore East, Rea took the basic concept of an old spiritual and ran it into the end zone with an elaborate comic story line in the best "Alice's Restaurant" tradition. Drawing from more contemporary sources, he used his tasty six-string and twelve-string acoustic guitarwork as the centerpiece for an arrangement of Jerry Reed's "Guitar Man", which had provided Elvis Presley with a come-back hit three years earlier. "Here We Go", written with Mountain drummer Corky Laing, was a goodtime contemporary rocker of the kind that might have made the Rolling Stones sit up and take notice.

All in all, the album was a brilliant piece of work, but due to the budgetary problems caused by the former producer, it got no promotional support, and Rea's contract with Capitol was terminated. Rea, however, took the devastating setback in stride. "I did the best with what I had," he says. "I will never, ever blame anybody else for any sort of trouble that I've ever had."

(This article will be continued in the next issue of HERITAGE MUSIC REVIEW. David Rea appears at 7:30 PM October 14th at Seabold Hall, corner of Komedal and Ralston Roads on Bainbridge Island.

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