originally published at sandiegouniontribune.com.
Tempchin’s music has endured, both pre- and post-YouTube. But the delineation between the two periods has nearly evaporated, as two fascinating examples demonstrate.
In 1973, he and fellow San Diego tunesmith Tom Waits co-wrote a witty, booze-soaked country waltz, “Tijuana,” in a dressing room at SDSU’s now-defunct Back Door. Minutes later, the two went on stage and did the song together for the first, and last, time at the club, which Tempchin managed between 1968 and 1970.
A year later, another Tempchin pal, Jackson Browne, paired with Linda Ronstadt on the Tempchin-penned “One More Song,” a touching, booze-free
Neither performance was filmed, back in that pre-cell phone era. But audio recordings were made, even though Tempchin didn’t know it, and both can now be heard on YouTube.
Triple major at SDSU
“If you were going to record something back in those days, you had to have a reel-to-reel tape recorder,” said Tempchin, who graduated from SDSU with a triple major in music, psychology and English.
“So somebody had to be there with a reel-to-reel, and I’m positive I was not aware of it. To have that recording come from out of my past and appear decades later, it’s mind-boggling.”
As for “One More Song,” Tempchin played it in Chicago in 1973, when — at Browne’s invitation — he opened several of Browne’s shows.
“A few nights later, Jackson played it with Linda,” Tempchin said. “Then, someone sent me a letter saying they’d heard them do the song in concert. I asked Jackson about it, and he said: ‘No, I don’t think we played it at the show, just backstage.’ Now, it’s on YouTube, and it’s so great that it is.
“There’s also some lecture I did on songwriting that showed up on YouTube that I wish I could take off, and I can’t! But there are also pieces of your life — like a video of 40 Japanese guys singing ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling’ together — that are really something else. YouTube really illustrates how far your songs can go.”
With and without him, Tempchin’s songs have resonated over the decades.
In addition to “Peaceful Easy Feeling,” he cowrote another of the Eagles’ most popular songs, 1974’s “Already Gone.” Tempchin wrote the 1977 Johnny Rivers’ hit, “Swaying to the Music (Slow Dancin’),” which was also covered by Olivia Newton-John. It first appeared on the self-titled 1976 album by Tempchin’s superb country-rock band, the Funky Kings. Together with Eagles’ mainstay Glenn Frey — whom he befriended in 1967 at the Candy Factory, a music club near SDSU — Tempchin co-wrote such Frey hits as “Smuggler’s Blues,” “You Belong to the City” and “The One You Love.”
Earthy music, changing technology
A partial list of the many other artists who have fared well with songs written or cowritten by Tempchin includes Emmylou Harris, George Jones, Glen Campbell, The Mystic Moods Orchestra and Rock Hall of Famer (and former San Diegan) Chris Hillman.
Tempchin’s best songs, whether vintage or on his lovingly crafted new album, are marvels of concision. They are rich in emotion but free of even a single note or word that doesn’t completely serve the music.
“When I play live, it’s no different than anything I’ve done before,” he noted. “I show up, I play and try to entertain people. It’s me, the guitar and the songs. When you record, it’s always way different than that, (although) — as far as writing the song and singing it — that part’s the same. As far as getting it played on the radio and having hits, that’s changed so much, I don’t have a clue. I probably never did.”
What he does have on his latest album, “Learning to Dance,” is a new (and unlikely) musical partner, Joel Piper, the ex-drummer in the Christian metalcore band Confide.
Piper, 29, co-produced “Dance” with Tempchin and performed virtually all the instrumentation. Due to their nearly 40-year age difference, Tempchin laughingly noted, “Joel was not familiar with the Eagles and Rolling Stones, while I didn’t know any of these newer bands he showed me on his computer, who have had 80 million plays on YouTube.”
Even so, he describes Piper as “just the perfect match for me.”
The two recorded half of “Learning to Dance” in Tempchin’s studio in Encinitas, the rest in Piper’s bedroom in Escondido. “Joel’s an incredible guy when it comes to recording with ProTools,” Tempchin said. “He told me: ‘I’m not going to bring you into the electronic music thing; I’m just going to bring some of the sounds and technology into what you do.’ I’m just as excited about the music; I’m just making it in a different way with Joel.”
The result is a dozen songs — each performed and recorded with impeccable taste — that subtly unfold with repeated listenings. Matters of the heart predominate.
“It’s like a journey of love,” Tempchin said, “from early euphoria to later realities.”
The album also finds him broadening his singing in subtle, rather than overstated, ways.
“Well, I hope I’m improving and I tried to put my vocals into a more relaxed range,” he said. “And, as a producer, Joel featured my vocals more so that you get more of the little nuances.”
Etched in blues
Tempchin grew up close to SDSU, near the College Grove shopping center.
“It was near 70th Street and University Avenue; if I walked across the street, I’d be in La Mesa,” recalled Tempchin, who grew up in close proximity to (and at about the same time) as fellow San Diego singer-songwriter Stephen Bishop, although their paths never crossed here.
“I was a big fan of the blues and loved people like Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. I saw Lightnin’ Hopkins play live a couple of times, and Bukka White. They were doing something incredible that I never thought about doing myself. I mean, I tried to play it, but there was no way I could ever do what they were doing. I super-admired those guys.”
“I wrote a song back then called ‘Poor White Guy, Trying To Play The Blues.’ I was heading toward the blues, and it dawned on: ‘I don’t have a blues life, so I can’t be a blues guy’.”
“No, I never recorded that song,” he said, “and I wouldn’t now.”
Tempchin met Waits at local folk music coffee houses, where the two frequently played. He also fondly recalls hearing then-San Diegan Chris Hillman, who was soon to co-found The Byrds, perform here with the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers, a local bluegrass super-group whose lineups also featured future Eagle Bernie Leadon and guitarist Mason Williams, who would soon top the national pop charts with his instrumental hit, “Classical gas.”
In the second half of the 1960s, Tempchin befriended J.D. Souther and future Eagles member Frey, then performing as a duo called Longbranch Pennywhistle, during one of their gigs at the Candy Company on El Cajon Blvd. At Tempchin’s invitation, the two came over “to jam all night” at his “North Park hippie pad,” where he and his brother had a candle factory in the garage. Souther and Frey stayed at Tempchin’s place during subsequent San Diego visits. It was the beginning of an enduring friendship and musical partnership, between Tempchin and Frey.
“Dick Russell, who owned the Candy Company, gave me my start,” recalled Tempchin, who met Browne early on at the same venue. “The Candy Factory hired me to run the open mic nights and that’s how I made a living, running opening mic nights around town. One of them was The Bilfrost Bridge in La Mesa. That’s where I met (music duo) Hedge & Donna, who were also from San Diego. They were the first people to record my songs, specifically, ‘Strawberry Malt’ and ‘Women and Religion,’ which have never been recorded by anyone else.”
From there, Tempchin gradually gained traction and Hoyt Axton began playing one of his songs, “Circle Ties,” in concert. Browne and Souther subsequently introduced Tempchin to David Geffen, who began managing Tempchin.
His songwriting career blossomed in the 1970s, the same decade that saw him record that classic but sadly little-heard album with the Funky Kings, then sign a solo deal with Arista Records. An array of solo albums and countless performances have followed, along with songs Tempchin wrote or co-wrote being sampled on records by such hip-hop acts as Jay Z and Coolio.
Now, as then, Tempchin is better known to many listeners for songs he wrote that became hits for other artists. And now, as then, his devotion to his craft remains undiminished.
“This is what interests me,” Tempchin affirmed. “And the fame part is only useful to me in that, if I go play somewhere, maybe somebody will show up. It just gets me a little better (quality) gigs, which is important because I like to play. Other than that, I don’t need any more fame or success. Still, it would be very satisfying if that did happen. Because I haven’t had a lot of people hear my records of my songs, and have people like them, and I would like to have that happen.
“But, really, the bottom line is, I just can’t stop.”
U-T Talks Presents: An Evening With Jack Tempchin
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday
Where: TSRI Auditorium, 10640 John Jay Hopkins Drive, La Jolla
Admission: Limited tickets are available to San Diego Union-Tribune readers, on a first-come, first-served basis. Attendees must RSVP. Reserve your ticket at sandiegouniontribune.com/rsvptempchin.