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I’m Still Standing: America’s Gerry Beckley Looks Forward and Back on His New Solo Set, ‘Keeping the Light On’
Singer-songwriter Gerry Beckley of the band America has hardly slowed down during the pandemic. He and Dewey Bunnell celebrated America’s 50th anniversary in 2020 with an eight-disc box set (click here to pick up a copy) that includes a book, replica posters, unreleased demos, album outtakes and hits from their copious catalog.
Beckley will release Keeping the Light On on March 26, a compilation of songs from his eight solo albums and Like a Brother, a 2000 collaboration with Chicago’s Robert Lamm and the late Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys. The collection includes five previously unreleased tracks including the single “(I’m Your) Heart Slave.”
America formed in, of all places, London in 1968. Dan Peek, Dewey Bunnell and Gerry Beckley met at London Central High School; their fathers were stationed at the United States Air Force base near London. Performances at a local teen club for Americans led to a recording contract.
America topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1972 with their debut single, “A Horse With No Name.” The song fit comfortably with the acoustic rock of the era performed by James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills & Nash.
America teamed with producer George Martin for their fourth album, 1974’s Holiday. The former Beatles producer collaborated with the band on three additional albums. America continued to record hits into the 1980s that include “Ventura Highway,” “I Need You,” “Tin Man,” “Lonely People,” “Sister Golden Hair,” “Daisy Jane,” “You Can Do Magic” and “The Border.” Peek, who died in 2011, left America in 1977 to shift his focus to Christian popular music.
We talked with Gerry Beckley from his home in Sydney, Australia.
Rock Cellar: Were the previously unreleased songs on Keeping the Light On intended for America or were they always solo work?
Gerry Beckley: I don’t think I had really made a decision on some of these songs. As you might know, I do write quite a lot. It doesn’t mean that they’re all winners but there’s usually an abundance of stuff to work on. There was a dynamic in play when an America project would come around. I certainly would let Dewey have an ear to all of it and anything he felt moved by or attached to would of course defer to America’s stuff. But I never really write them with one or the other in mind.
Rock Cellar: The first single is one of them, “(I’m Your) Heart Slave,” which you recorded with Jeff Larson. What contribution does Jeff make and how is it different from working with Dewey?
Gerry Beckley: Jeff has been working with us as our archivist for years and years and there is, as you can imagine, an immense amount of recordings. So he’s been very helpful in that regard. But beyond that, he’s a very talented singer-songwriter himself and I’ve worked with him in that capacity.
As far as working with him on material, it varies from song to song. He is one of the ears that I trust. I’m in Sydney, Australia at our home here. And so it has been invaluable to be able to bounce things back and forth.
In the case of this song, he wrote and sang the bridge in the song. That’s actually him singing, he has kind of a similar voice. It makes it nice, particularly on solo projects, when it’s just you singing everything. It’s nice to bring in some extra voices, which I’ve never shied away from.
Rock Cellar: Another new track is “Norman.” Who was Norman and why did you write a song about him?
Gerry Beckley: It was about an industrial designer named Norman Bel Geddes, who was a futurist, and I’m a big fan of his work. Years ago when I kind of went on a jag about that, the song came to mind. It was, I think, in a batch from one of George Martin projects and we never got around to it. He’s kind of in the Buckminster Fuller-kind of futurist genre.
Rock Cellar: Was “Emma” about a real person?
Gerry Beckley: [laughs] No. Nor was Daisy Jane. Not that I have any hard fast rules about these things. And as many songwriters will tell you, you have quite a scope of poetic license regarding these things but I never really got into verbatim writing, direct things. I would usually twist and turn stories and names.
Some people start with the lyrics. Although I use all versions of how to write, I do that less. I’m usually more of a melody guy and then figure what the words will be.
When I wrote “Daisy Jane,” not only did I not know any Daisy Jane but I had never even been to Memphis. The opening line is “Flying me back to Memphis.”
Rock Cellar: The album includes “Watching the Time,” a collaboration with Robert Lamm and Carl Wilson. How did the three of you work together in the studio?
Gerry Beckley: We were old friends for many, many years. As you know, Robert is with the group Chicago and Carl was one of the founders of the Beach Boys. We had toured together off and on, never all three acts at one time, but we were quite close. It actually came about that Robert was doing a solo record with Phil Ramone producing. And he cut my song, “Watching the Time.” And Carl and I came in and sang on that version.
We had such a great time that we thought, oh, this is so great, we should do some more of this. And that was the birth of the concept. What turned into being quite a challenge was that all three groups were immensely busy on the road. It was very hard to find daylight, overlapping all three schedules.
So we would find that, “It looks like all three of us will be in New York on May 710,” that kind of thing. So it took quite a few years to do but I loved every minute of it.
Those are two immensely talented guys and for those who followed the unfortunate, tragic finale was that we lost Carl near the end of the project. He was diagnosed and he was gone within a year. We were virtually done with the album. So we decided to put it out anyway.
Rock Cellar: How did you split up the tasks?
Gerry Beckley: There’s quite a bit of co-writing on that album, but in general one of the challenges of something like that is to try and not have it be, here’s a Carl song, here’s a Robert song, here’s a Gerry song. So you do that by either co-writing or co-singing or swapping out verses. But I think a project like that, whether it’s with America when we had three writers or two writers, the project benefits greatly if you can keep a balance going.
If it all falls on one guy’s voice or one guy’s writing style, you’ve really lost what could have been one of your strengths. So we tried to keep it fairly even. Although there is, I think, more Carl singing on that record, which is a treat and an honor, because he was one of the great singers of our generation. It was the last project he did so I know that a lot of Beach Boys and Carl’s fans are very fond of it.
Rock Cellar: Have the new projects and songs like “Remembering” and “Life Lessons” put you in a reflective mood?
Gerry Beckley: It has been, for the last couple of years with the 50th anniversary, what I like to call a summation. I never like to imply that this is wrappin’ something up. The joke is, well that’s 50, now we can start the next 50. But there was a lot of looking back, and this is where Jeff Larson was priceless. His knowledge of all the archives, what things have been used before, because there are quite a few different compilations and rarities and projects.
Having said that, particularly with the COVID situation, I’ve been working quite hard and there’s a bunch of new material that I’d like to think we’ll set the ship sailing again maybe one more time once we get through all of these compilation years.
Rock Cellar: Will there be a new America studio album at some point?
Gerry Beckley: I think it’s possible. It’s been interesting to watch the creative dynamic for many people, not just in the music business, when you confine millions of creative people that might have been spending a lot of their time on the road. I know I’m not the only person that got back into writing.
Rock Cellar: You’ve said, “Rock and roll is a young man’s game.” Explain what you meant.
Gerry Beckley: What I meant is that the main ingredients of rock and roll are youth and rebellion. I use as an example the great Brian Wilson line, “I’m bugged at my old man.” It works beautifully when you’re young or a teenager but you wouldn’t want to be writing that when you’re 40.
I also like to add this other half of that story, which is that when we were growing up, there were famous quotes. Mick Jagger said, “I can’t be singing ‘Satisfaction’ when I’m 40.” And what he was addressing was, I just can’t imagine being my dad’s age and still doing this. What is, of course, true is he couldn’t have been more wrong.
At that time, had anybody had foresight and had looked at Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, Chuck Berry, nobody was hanging it up. There was no, “Well, I’m 50.” The examples that we did have were still out there. They weren’t playing arenas but they were all working. I’ve gone to casinos and the Lettermen are performing. Most of these acts stay in the game.
Rock Cellar: Do you integrate your solo work with America’s in concert?
Gerry Beckley: I don’t. It’s not an impossibility but the good news is there is such an immense amount of combined work with Dewey and myself and with our original founding member Dan, there’s never a shortage. If you’ve seen a show you know that it’s one of these, “Oh, I forgot they did that song.”
We’ve never been short of America material. And also I would feel uncomfortable imposing any of that. Now, if something happened, and one of the solo things got a little traction, I don’t think Dewey would be opposed to it. We would put our own spin on it and it would probably be even better with the combined voices.
Rock Cellar: What did George Martin contribute to America’s albums?
Gerry Beckley: The simple answer is focus. He was incredibly adept at corralling different ideas and I don’t mean to imply we were just a shotgun blast all over the place. But he could say, “Right, we’re gonna go with this.” And he had the weight and the experience that you go, “OK.” What we needed was a decision.
In George’s case I always felt that there was to a certain extent — and you have to be careful here — but there was an invisible hand throughout all of those Beatles records. “Please Please Me” was a much slower kind of Roy Orbison tune and he said, “Come on, let’s speed it up.” Right into “Yesterday,” one of the first with no band, just a string quartet. “Eleanor Rigby,” a beautiful pop song, that was all George Martin, those arrangements.
So he was really woven in. And that didn’t stop when he ceased working with the Beatles. He had an immense talent in that area and was really great. Things like “Tin Man” that he produced for us, that’s him playing the piano. On some of the signature pieces he said, “Hold on, I’ve got an idea” and he’d go out and play a beautiful piano thing. Awesome.
Rock Cellar: Did you pepper him with questions about the Beatles?
Gerry Beckley: Pepper him with questions about Pepper. I think we were pretty respectful about that. Because not only George, but sitting right next to him was Geoff Emerick, who had engineered Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper. Unbelievable legacy, these two guys. But we were there to do a job. I remember we booked two months to do the Holiday album ’cause he thought, Oh, these guys, who knows how long it’s gonna take?
And he said to us, “I booked two months. I’m not saying we should be done by then but let’s see how we go.” And we were done in two weeks. So there was not a lot of sitting around chatting about Beatles stories, as much as I could spend all day doing that.
I remember a particular time we were cutting a song and we needed a bell and they went into a sound booth and got this bell and I think it was the bell from “Penny Lane,” when the fireman rushes in. So there were times like that: “That’s the Beatle bell.”
Rock Cellar: Have people tried to impose their political views on you because of the name America?
Gerry Beckley: Yeah, it does come up. It’s certainly more of an issue now than it used to be. We, right from the start, said that we don’t want any kinds of stars and stripes, eagles and things, imagery of that sort. As much as we love our country and we love the name, we really wanted the music to be what represented us. There’s certainly no shortage of patriotic stuff and as you have seen, it’s very easy to quickly push that into some kind of a statement.
Dewey and I were clear from the start that we were both registered Democrats, usually voted along with our party, but beyond that we like to think that an evening with America was a bit of a respite from that. That’s a little bit harder, to put it mildly. But it has worked for us and we’d like to stick with that plan.
Rock Cellar: Let’s do a lighting round: Dead or alive, one musician you’d like to perform with that you haven’t.
Gerry Beckley: Burt Bacharach.
Rock Cellar: Favorite Beatles song.
Gerry Beckley: “For No One.”
Rock Cellar: America song more people should have listened to.
Gerry Beckley: The track on Hat Trick called “It’s Life,” written by Dan but we were all deeply involved in the production, a lovely production I think, of a song that was never gonna be a single, a long obscure piece with different movements and stuff but I think it’s Dan at his “peak.”
Rock Cellar: Favorite singer-songwriter or group from the Laurel Canyon era.
Gerry Beckley: I’ll go with David Crosby. We’ve been friends and he’s an immense talent and did some unbelievable solo work. If I Can Only Remember My Name, his first solo album, is one of my favorite albums of all time. So shine a little light on the Croz.
June 20, 2022
June 20, 2022