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Jim Messina Q&A: Memories of Buffalo Springfield, Poco and Reuniting with Kenny Loggins for Two Special Gigs
Fans of classic rock radio are never far from hearing a song Jim Messina had a hand in creating. A singer, guitarist and songwriter in three celebrated bands, Messina also worked as an engineer and producer with some of rock’s biggest stars.
Messina formed his first band, Jim Messina & His Jesters, before he entered high school. When bassist Bruce Palmer was fired from Buffalo Springfield after numerous drug possession busts, Messina was able to parlay his work as their engineer and producer into the gig as bass player on their final album, Last Time Around.
Messina teamed with Springfield guitarist Richie Furay in 1968 to form Poco, one of the forerunners of country rock. “You Better Think Twice,” written by Messina, is one of Poco’s signature songs.
Messina left Poco in 1970 to continue his work as a record producer. Messina agreed to produce Kenny Loggins’ debut album, but his contribution was so significant that they became a duo.
Loggins & Messina was a hit machine during the 1970s thanks to tunes like “Danny’s Song,” “Vahevala” and “House at Pooh Corner.” “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” their biggest hit, was co-written by Loggins and Messina.
The duo moved onto solo careers in 1976 but have occasionally reunited, as they will for two nights July 15–16, 2022 in Los Angeles. Besides a busy solo tour schedule, Messina conducts the Songwriters’ Performance Workshop, a six-day session that helps singers and songwriters develop their talents.
We spoke with Messina from his home in Tennessee shortly before his 2022 tour began. A logical place to start was with Buffalo Springfield, formed in 1966 by Neil Young, Stephen Stills, Richie Furay, Bruce Palmer and Dewey Martin.
Rock Cellar: Why did Buffalo Springfield bring you in on bass rather than hiring a session musician?
Jim Messina: I had been working as their engineer first, and I was producing them at that time as well. They did a cattle call to try to find the right musician. I said, “Hey, do you mind if I try out?”
They had no idea that I even played anything, much less the bass. Before I met them I was playing in sessions and producing and playing guitar. I had built a studio assisting Mike Dorrough, who was my engineer when I was hired by Ibis Records to produce for them.
Mike and I developed a friendship, and after I quit producing for Ibis I was hungry and starving. I asked Mike if I could be his assistant to learn engineering. Joe Osborn, who was a bass player and later became part of the Wrecking Crew, couldn’t afford to hire me and Mike. I asked Joe if he would help me learn a few things on the bass, because I admired him so much as a bass player. He said, “Yeah, I’ll help you.”
When Joe was not working and had some time, he’d take five or ten minutes and show me some things about the bass and why he did what he did, how he used the pick, how he needed to read at least a little bit for that job.
I was working full-time as an engineer with Buffalo Springfield and the opportunity came up for me to raise my hand. Twelve, thirteen people auditioned and I was sitting way in the back. Neil said, “Anyone else that we’ve forgotten?“ I said, “Yeah, me.” And he said, “Oh yeah—Jimmy.”
Little did they know that I did play and that I was listening for the last year. So when I plugged in, I started off and Stephen [Stills] turned around about eight or ten bars into it, looked at me and said, “Whoa.” Because I was playing the parts that they wanted to hear. So they hired me based on what they heard in that audition.
Rock Cellar: You’ve said that they were focused individually, not collectively.
Jim Messina: When I first came in, I met Neil Young. There was nobody else in there. I first got hired as an engineer and Neil was coming in there to assemble some tapes for their Buffalo Springfield Again album. So I was looking at Buffalo Springfield from the standpoint of Neil Young, who I thought at the time, because of what he was doing, was the producer.
I met Stephen later, and Stephen impressed me more as being a performing musician. He was a musician and a performer. When I first met Richie, he was married and they didn’t hang out together. Bruce and I very seldom met in the early days and of course he got himself busted so I had no relationship with him.
My impression was that they worked together as a group but they spent very little time together. Neil liked engineering and producing and being inside. He was very focused on the technical stuff. Stephen was more focused on playing and grooving and writing and singing. He was more artistic in that sense.
One thing they really had in common was that they created such a great sound together. Vocally, Neil had that edge, that sort of Keith Richards part-of-the-Stones thing going on. And Stephen had the folky and melodic sound. It was a very interesting combination that never really seemed to want to be a unit, because even when I would call sessions, they very seldom all showed up together.
Which is why I looked at them individually. I took care of Neil when he needed to be done, we did “Broken Arrow” together. Stephen, it was engineering, it was making sure the contracts got filled out. He would get his guys in there, set him up, make sure he got recorded and he got what he wanted to do.
Richie was a singer-songwriter. He did not read music, he didn’t know who to call or what to do. And so that’s when I leaned on Leon Russell to get some musicians, because I knew Leon before I ever met the Springfield.
He helped me get Jimmy Karstein and a group of musicians together so I could get Richie’s stuff recorded. But none of the guys sat in and played on his stuff.
The presentation they brought to me was not a group of people who worked together all the time. They were more like who I was at the time and who I listened to. There was a camaraderie that I felt very much at the beginning when I started working with them.
Rock Cellar: After Buffalo Springfield, you and Richie formed Poco. You auditioned Gregg Allman and Gram Parsons. Why didn’t they make the cut?
Jim Messina: At the time Gregg came, Gregg had just lost his brother. They all liked riding motorcycles; that was part of who they were. Gregg showed up to the audition and he had been drinking. Perhaps sad because of his brother to the point where he had to go back out and get on his motorcycle and rush down the street really quick, and rush back to get a rush of oxygen so he could sober up a little bit.
A sweet guy as we know, a very gifted guy, but for myself, I conveyed to Richie that I don’t know that I wanted to work with somebody who was a drinker or into drugs. It was not who we were.
Gram was more of a friend of Richie’s, but Gram was very arrogant. He came in right away and said “Yeah, I think we should do this, get rid of Jimmy, and let’s do this.” I thought, “I don’t think so.” It’s not what we had in mind.
Gram thought he was a star right from the beginning. I think he was by no means ready to sit down and have somebody else tell him how he might want to do a song. It wasn’t the right vibe.
Rock Cellar: Why did you leave Poco?
Jim Messina: I wanted to get off the road. I was tired of being in Poco. I wasn’t having any fun. I had just gotten married, I wanted to start a production career and be a producer. I was tired of the whole thing.
My first artist that I accepted was Kenny Loggins. At the time he was a singer/songwriter, did not own a guitar, mainly wrote folk songs. “Danny’s Song,” “House at Pooh Corner,” a couple of other tunes. I took him on thinking that I know he only writes folk songs, but I love the fact that he loved other styles of music.
He had a voice, he could sing anything that he wanted to. It was all fun for him. I liked his spirit but I knew he was gonna be a lot of work. I didn’t realize how much work he was gonna be until I committed to doing it.
“I gotta get him a band.” And once we got a band and a place to rehearse, which was my father-in-law’s place, he needed instruments. I loaned him one of my amps that I’d gotten from Buffalo Springfield and a guitar to get him going.
I also realized he needed more tunes. And he needed direction, he needed real help. Since that was just what I’d gotten through doing, and wanting to get away from, it was easy for me to say, “Look, how about I help you out here, here’s a country song, here’s a song I’ve been writing called ‘Peace of Mind.'” As the pieces started to come together, I realized I needed to step up and do more than just be a producer.
Let’s fast forward and now we’re rehearsing and we’re getting tunes. What I like to do when I’m producing is do demos first, record everything. Let’s look at it. Analyze it. Re-rehearse things that they need to do. Sequence it, try to make the album so that when I presented it to Clive Davis or Columbia, they could get a good picture of what it sounds like.
So I did that, put it all together and at that time I said to Kenny, “Maybe it would be a good idea if I sit in with you, help you get on that first tour and get you out there and get you going.” So when Clive Davis heard the stuff, he said, “Wow, this is really good but you’re playing an awful lot on this. I thought you didn’t want to do that.” I said, “I didn’t, but I really feel that he needs help, especially on this first opportunity to get out there.”
I think he had a lawyer but he needed management, he needed an agency, he needed road managers, he needed a lot of stuff that he had never really experienced before.
And this was my first record. And the worst thing to do is to spend nine months to find an artist, make a record and have him fall in the pooper. So I felt the best chance for this album to me as a producer and for Kenny as an artist was for me to step up, get involved and help him do that.
— Loggins & Messina (@LogginsMessina) February 15, 2022
Rock Cellar: You have two nights performing with Kenny coming up in July at the Hollywood Bowl. How did that come about?
Jim Messina: Kenny and I have thought on and off about doing some more touring, but as we get older it gets harder to think about how do you do that, how you make everybody happy, especially the people that are investing in it.
I don’t know that both of us are in the position to do 80 dates like we had done [in the past]. And I think that was something that had been brought up, doing more shows, something that Kenny was certainly not interested in.
I proposed the idea that maybe we’re at that point in life where if we want to work together, make it easy on us. I don’t want to have three trucks out there on the road and a sound system, paying for a crew. I said, “Why don’t we see if we can find some dates that are already set up, they got the lights, they got the sound. We can come in, do a show, have fun, and not have to worry about loading up the bus and heading down the road?”
I think it’s an experiment to see how it would be in the future to do four or five shows a year and do it for fun, do it for the joy, do it for the music. That’s what I’m thinking. We just have to wait and see.
The audience wants to hear the music that gave them joy back in the ’70s, the harmonies. I think Kenny still sings really well, plays well. He’s out touring and I’m out touring, so I think it’s an easy enough situation for us to sit down and do.
I’m looking forward to it.
Rock Cellar: Is there a song from your solo career that you think more people should have listened to?
Jim Messina: I was listening to a song that popped up on my iPhone the other day, “We Got to Get Back,” written with Patrick Simmons. The lyric is such that it’s so now that I just wish this song had gotten to the right people.
I think sometimes the reason is that in a desire to make it work for radio I might have made it too contemporary. Sometimes if we stylize something … it’s like if you like carrot cake, don’t cover it with icing.
Rock Cellar: What are some of the takeaways that singer-songwriters who attend the Singers’ Performance Workshop can expect?
Jim Messina: The workshop is not about writing hit songs. It’s about learning how to emotionally get into your own being so that you can express yourself through your lyrics, through your emotions and through your feelings so they resonate with the listener.
For me, that’s the process, how to get your words, your melodies, your thoughts, your feelings in a cohesive way in which you project them out, that people can hear that. I call that going core to core, when you can resonate sympathetically, vibrate and magnetize the listener to think, “Wow, I love this song.”
That’s part of what I explore in the Songwriters’ Performance Workshop, to learn how to write and to sing and to project yourself in a manner in which people can resonate with what you do and understand how it works.
Rock Cellar: In all years of touring, have you had a Spinal Tap moment?
Jim Messina: Back in the Buffalo Springfield we were playing with the Beach Boys. We were on a tour that was playing three shows a day.
We were flying around in Viscounts. They had limousines for us, they’d pick us up at the airports and we’d drive to this one place at two o’clock, play and then drive to the next place at seven and play and drive to the next place at nine and play.
It was about three or four days into the tour and Dewey, the drummer in Buffalo Springfield — I like to think he was a very spiritual man, he really enjoyed the spirits. He got looped one night and the guys in Buffalo Springfield said, “You’re not allowed to drink, if you drink you’re gonna get fired.”
He was on the wagon and we’re driving around in the limousine and it was hot in the South and he said, “I’m thirsty. Anybody want to stop and get something to drink?” And everybody was looking at him, what is he talking about? He says, “Water, I’m just talking about water.”
We go into this 7-Eleven and Dewey says, “Have you guys ever tried applejack?” I said, “What’s applejack?” He said, “It’s kind of like a cider.” I said, “No, I never tried it.” So we started sippin’ on this applejack and I swear to God, man, within a half an hour I could not even see straight.
So we show up to this gig in the South. There were hay wagons that were set up for stages. I had a hard time even getting up on the wagon. I’m up there playing and I look over, we’re starting to play “Good Time Boy,” and Stephen jumps up on the drums and Dewey jumps up off the drums. All of a sudden Dewey takes his shirt off, he was wearing a buckskin shirt, it was a hot, sweaty situation.
Dewey starts singing and the crowd is going crazy and he jumps in the middle of the crowd and all of a sudden this big cop comes over, pulls the microphone out of Dewey’s hand, grabs him by the hair of the head and turns around and looks at the audience and says, “The concert’s over.”
He looks up at me and the band and says, “If you boys are not off that stage in five minutes and in your limousines I guarantee you will rot in my jail.” And I was the first one off with my bass between my legs in my limousine.
Another Dewey moment.