John Stewart: Maverick singer-songwriter


John Coburn Stewart, singer and songwriter: born San Diego, California 5 September 1939; twice married (three sons, one daughter); died San Diego 19 January 2008.

A former member of the Kingston Trio, John Stewart wrote the Monkees hit "Daydream Believer" and secured his own hit with a sceptical song about the music industry, "Gold". These brushes with success were accidents and Stewart, a defiant maverick, said he had no desire to sustain them. Instead, he released album after album on which he chronicled life in contemporary America.

John Stewart was born in San Diego, California in 1939. His father trained racehorses but John's main interest was in music. He fronted a rock'*'roll band called the Furies and in 1957 recorded "Rockin' Anna" for a small label. Then he heard the Kingston Trio, a campus act who made three or four albums a year for Capitol. "I heard these great songs that you could play with a guitar and no amp," he told me in 2000.

The songs were about history and, as I love history, this was tailor-made for me. I played the Kingston Trio some stuff in their dressing room and they did "Molly Dee". They put it on their album Here We Go Again! and my first royalty was for more than my dad made in year. That set my course.

Stewart, playing both guitar and banjo, formed the Cumberland Three, with Gil Robbins (father of the actor Tim Robbins) and John Montgomery. They recorded three albums and had moderate success, but Stewart left in 1961 to join Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds in the Kingston Trio. Mostly, the Trio sang smooth adaptations of old folk tunes but they introduced the world to Pete Seeger's anti-war song "Where Have All the Flowers Gone", Billy Edd Wheeler's "Rev Mr Black", "Seasons in the Sun", an English translation by Rod McKuen of a Jacques Brel song, and Stewart's own "Chilly Winds".

In 1965, the Trio moved to US Decca and achieved a more contemporary sound, with Stewart providing much of the material. He wrote eight of the songs on their fine Children of the Morning (1966) and he is well to the fore on their double-album Once Upon a Time, a live set from Lake Tahoe. Their final concert, recorded at the Hungry i in San Francisco in July 1967, was recently released and you can sense from it that Stewart was desperate to break free from this musical straitjacket.

His liberation was helped by the Monkees turning "Daydream Believer" into an international hit in 1967, but he never gave them another song: "Nothing else I wrote was like 'Daydream Believer': it was a blip on the screen. If I'd tried to write another 'Daydream Believer', it would have sounded like 'Daydream Believer'."

Stewart's first solo album was the critically acclaimed California Bloodlines (1969), produced by Nik Venet for Capitol. It was made in Nashville in the same week that Bob Dylan made Nashville Skyline and is far superior in both material and performance, although it did not meet with the same success.

Many compared Stewart to Johnny Cash. They were tall, imposing figures and they had an element of spirituality in their voices which distracted from any imperfections. Stewart himself disliked the vibrato on his early records but this enhanced his work, especially on the one song central to any discussion of his work, "Mother Country". He displays his love of America by thinking of the past: there are vignettes about old pioneers and the sequence about a blind man riding his horse for the last time is profoundly moving.

Peter Asher produced Stewart's next album, Willard (1970), on which the guest musicians included James Taylor, Doug Kershaw and Carole King. Stewart then moved to Warner Brothers and cut two albums, The Lonesome Picker Rides Again (1971) and Sunstorm (1972), produced by his brother Michael, a former member of We Five.

Over at RCA, Stewart returned to Nashville and recorded his best album, Cannons in the Rain (1973). One song, "All Time Woman", describing the monotony of touring, is one of many he wrote for his wife Buffy Ford. Perhaps the most poignant of these is "Some Kind of Love" from his 1975 album, Wingless Angels:

Some kind of love is like gold

That is the hardest to hold

It catches the eye of each thief passing by

Some kind of love is like gold.

The RSO album Bombs Away Dream Babies (1979) contained Stewart's million-selling "Gold", with harmony vocals from Stevie Nicks. Ironically, this song about not having a hit was his most successful record. "I was so depressed when I had a hit," he recalled.

All my old problems were still there and I had new problems. I had a big-time manager and agent; I had a band and a bus; and I was opening for Chicago and people were throwing frisbees while I sang. I went on the road for three weeks and made $80,000 but for what? I said to the President of RSO, "Now what?" And he said, "Well, you have to do it again."

The next album, Dream Babies Go Hollywood (1980), despite the presence of Linda Ronstadt and Phil Everly and some excellent songs, failed to sell and Stewart's moment of glory was over.

From then on, in those pre-internet days, it became increasingly difficult to keep up with his work. His albums included Blondes (1982), Revenge of the Budgie (1983), Punch the Big Guy (1987) and Bullets in the Hour Glass (1992). For a time he released albums on his own Homecoming label. He loved coming to the UK, even if it was only to perform in the back room of a pub, and among his more esoteric releases is The Essential John and Buffy, recorded at the Turf Inn, Dalry, Scotland, in 1994.

When Buffy contracted a brain tumour, for two years Stewart found he had writers' block. Then, after her recovery, he wrote some of his best songs, including "Waiting for Castro to Die", "The Day the River Sang" and "Who Stole the Soul of Johnny Dreams", although his voice was failing. In 2007, his response to hearing that he had Alzheimer's disease was to write "I Don't Drive Anymore".

Spencer Leigh

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: PA

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A PA is required to join a leading provider of...

Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - London - £43,000

£35000 - £43000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior IT Support Analyst...

Recruitment Genius: Technical SEO Specialist

£24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness