A Rockapaedia Obituary
Bands: The Byrds, The Flying Buritto Brothers
Gram Parsons died aged twenty-six on 19th September 1973 from an overdose of morphine with alcohol at the Joshua Tree Inn, in Joshua Tree, California, U.S.A.
In the late 1960s, Gram Parsons began to take vacations at Joshua Tree National Park in southeastern California, U.S.A. where he frequently indulged in psychedelic drugs and reportedly experienced several UFO sightings. After splitting from his wife, Gretchen, Gram often spent his weekends in the area with Margaret Fisher and Phil Kaufman, with whom he had been living. Scheduled to resume touring in October 1973, Gram Parsons decided to go on another recuperative excursion on 17th September. Accompanying him were Margaret Fisher, personal assistant Michael Martin, and Dale McElroy, Martin's girlfriend. Phil Kaufman later declared that Gram Parsons' attorney was preparing divorce papers for him to serve to Gretchen while the Gram remained in Joshua Tree. During the trip, Gram Parsons often retreated to the desert, while the group visited bars in the nearby hamlet of Yucca Valley, California on both nights of their stay. Gram Parsons consumed alcohol and barbiturates in high amounts. On 18th September, Michael Martin drove back to Los Angeles to resupply the group with marijuana. That night, after unsuccesfully challenging Fisher and McElroy to drink with him, Gram said, "I'll drink for the three of us," and proceeded to drink six double tequilas. They then returned to the Joshua Tree Inn, where Gram Parsons purchased morphine from an unknown young woman. After being injected by her in room, he overdosed. Margaret Fisher gave Gram Parsons an ice-cube suppository, and later on, a cold shower. Instead of moving Gram Parsons around the room, she put him to bed and went out to buy coffee in the hope of reviving him, leaving Dale McElroy to stand watch. As Gram's respiration became irregular and later ceased, Dale attempted resuscitation. Her efforts failed and Margaret, watching from outside, was visibly alarmed. After further failed attempts, they decided to call an ambulance. Gram Parsons was declared dead on arrival at High Desert Memorial Hospital in Yucca Valley. The official cause of death was an overdose of morphine and alcohol.
According to Margaret Fisher in the 2005 biography Grievous Angel: An Intimate Biography of Gram Parsons, the amount of morphine consumed by Gram Parsons would be lethal to regular users; thus, he had likely overestimated his tolerance in light of his diminished intake despite his extensive experience with opiates.
Before his death, Gram Parsons had stated that he wanted his body cremated at Joshua Tree and his ashes spread over Cap Rock, a prominent natural feature there. However, Gram Parsons' stepfather Bob organized a private ceremony back in New Orleans and neglected to invite any of Gram's friends from the music industry. Two accounts state that Bob Parsons stood to inherit Gram's share of his grandfather's estate if he could prove that Gram was a resident of Louisiana, explaining his eagerness to have him buried there.
To fulfill Gram Parsons' funeral wishes, Kaufman and a friend stole his body from Los Angeles International Airport and in a borrowed hearse, they drove it to Joshua Tree. Upon reaching the Cap Rock section of the park, they attempted to cremate Gram Parsons' corpse by pouring five gallons of gasoline into the open coffin and throwing a lit match inside which resulted was a big fireball.
The two were arrested several days later. Gram Parsons's body, what remained of it, was eventually buried in Garden of Memories Cemetery in Metairie, Louisiana.
The site of Gram Parsons' cremation was marked by a small concrete slab and was presided over by a large rock flake. The slab has since been removed by the U.S. National Park Service, and relocated to the Joshua Tree Inn. There is no monument at Cap Rock noting Gram Parsons' cremation at the site. Joshua Tree park guides are given the option to tell the story of Gram Parsons' cremation during tours, but there is no mention of the act in official maps or brochures. Fans regularly assemble simple rock structures and writings on the rock, which the park service sand blasts to remove from time to time.
Gram Parsons signed a solo deal with A&M Records and moved in with producer Terry Melcher in early 1970. Melcher, who had worked with The Byrds and The Beach Boys was a member of the successful duo Bruce & Terry, also known as The Rip Chords. The two shared a mutual penchant for cocaine and heroin, and as a result, the sessions were largely unproductive, with Gram Parsons eventually losing interest in the project.
Gram then accompanied the Rolling Stones on their 1971 U.K. tour in the hope of being signed to the newly formed Rolling Stones Records; by this juncture, Gram Parsons and Richards had mulled the possibility of recording a duo album. Moving into Villa Nellcôte with the guitarist during the sessions for Exile on Main Street that commenced thereafter, Gram Parsons remained in a consistently incapacitated state and frequently quarreled with his much younger girlfriend, aspiring actress Gretchen Burrell. Eventually, Gram Parsons was asked to leave by Anita Pallenberg, Keith Richards' longtime domestic partner.
After leaving the Stones' camp, Gram Parsons married Gretchen Burrell in 1971 at his stepfather's New Orleans estate. Allegedly, the relationship was far from stable, with Gretchen Burrell cutting a needy and jealous figure while Gram Parsons quashed her burgeoning film career. Many of the singer's closest associates and friends claim that Gram Parsons was preparing to commence divorce proceedings at the time of his death; the couple had already separated by this point.
Gram Parsons and Gretchen Burrell enjoyed the most idyllic time of their relationship in the second half of 1971, visiting old cohorts in England. With the assistance of Ric Grech and one of the bassist's friends, a doctor who also dabbled in country music and is now known as Hank Wangford, Gram Parsons eventually stopped taking heroin; a previous treatment suggested by William Burroughs had proved unsuccessful.
He returned to the U.S.A. for a one-off concert with the Burrito Brothers, and at Hillman's request went to hear Emmylou Harris sing in a small club in Washington, D.C. They befriended each other and, within a year, he asked her to join him in Los Angeles for another attempt to record his first solo album. It came as a surprise to many when Gram Parsons was enthusiastically signed to Reprise Records by Mo Ostin in mid-1972. The album GP in 1973 featured several members of Elvis Presley's TCB Band, led by lead guitarist James Burton. It included six new songs from a creatively revitalized Gram Parsons alongside several country covers, including Tompall Glaser's "Streets of Baltimore" and George Jones' "That's All It Took".
Gram Parsons, by now featuring Emmylou Harris as his duet partner, toured across the United States as Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels in February and March 1973. Unable to afford the services of the TCB Band for a month, the group featured the talents of Colorado-based rock guitarist Jock Bartley (soon to skyrocket to fame with Firefall), veteran Nashville session musician Neil Flanz on pedal steel, eclectic bassist Kyle Tullis (best known for his work with Dolly Parton and Larry Coryell) and former Mountain drummer N.D. Smart. The touring party also included Gretchen Parsons, by this point extremely envious of Emmylou Harris and Harris' young daughter. Coordinating the spectacle as road manager was Phil Kaufman, who had served time with Charles Manson on Terminal Island in the mid-sixties and first met Gram Parsons while working for the Stones in 1968. Phil Kaufman ensured that the performer stayed away from substance abuse, limiting his alcohol intake during shows and throwing out any drugs smuggled into hotel rooms. At first, the band was under-rehearsed and played poorly; however, they improved markedly with steady gigging and received rapturous responses at several leading countercultural venues, including Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, Texas, Max's Kansas City in New York City, and Liberty Hall in Houston, Texas. According to a number of sources, it was Emmylou Harris who forced the band to practice and work up an actual set list. Nevertheless, the tour failed to galvanize sales of GP, which never charted in the Billboard 200.
For his next and final album, 1974's posthumously released Grievous Angel, Gram again used Emmylou Harris and members of the TCB Band for the sessions. The record received even more enthusiastic reviews than had GP but has since attained classic status. Its most celebrated song is a Gram Parsons-Emmylou Harris duet cover of "Love Hurts," a song that remains in Emmylou Harris' solo repertoire. Notable Gram Parsons-penned songs included "$1000 Wedding," a holdover from the Burrito Brothers era, and "Brass Buttons," a 1965 opus that addressed his mother's alcoholism. A new version of "Hickory Wind" was included, while "Ooh Las Vegas," co-written with Ric Grech, dated from the GP sessions. Despite the fact that Gram Parsons only contributed two new songs to the album ("In My Hour of Darkness" and "Return of the Grievous Angel"), he was highly enthused with his new sound and seemed to have finally adopted a diligent mindset to his musical career, limiting his intake of alcohol and opiates during most of the sessions.
Before recording, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris played a preliminary four-show mini-tour as the headline act in a June 1973 Warner Brothers country rock package with the New Kentucky Colonels and Country Gazette. A shared backing band included former Byrds lead guitarist and Kentucky Colonel Clarence White, Pete Kleinow and Chris Etheridge. On 14th July 1973, White was killed by a drunk driver in Palmdale, California while loading equipment in his car for a concert. At White's funeral, Gram Parsons and Bernie Leadon launched into an impromptu touching rendition of "Farther Along"; that evening, Gram Parsons reportedly informed Phil Kaufman of his final wish: to be cremated in Joshua Tree. Despite the almost insurmountable setback, Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, and the other musicians decided to continue with plans for a fall tour.
In the summer of 1973, Gram Parsons' Topanga Canyon home burned to the ground, the result of a stray cigarette. Nearly all of his possessions were destroyed with the exception of a guitar and a prized Jaguar automobile. The fire proved to be the last straw in the relationship between Gretchen and Gram Parsons, who moved into a spare room in Kaufman's house. While not recording, he frequently hung out and jammed with members of New Jersey–based country rockers Quacky Duck and His Barnyard Friends and the proto-punk Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers, who were represented by former Byrds manager Eddie Tickner.
Before formally breaking up with Gretchenl, Gram Parsons already had a woman waiting in the wings. While recording, he saw a photo of a beautiful woman at a friend's home and was instantly smitten. The woman turned out to be Margaret Fisher, a high school sweetheart of the singer from his Waycross, Georgia days. Like Gram Parsons, Margaret Fisher had drifted west and became established in the Bay Area rock scene. A meeting was arranged and the two instantly rekindled their relationship, with Margaret Fisher dividing her weeks between Los Angeles and San Francisco at Gram Parsons' expense.
Gram Parsons was born
Ingram Cecil Connor III on 5th November 1946, in Winter Haven, Florida, to Ingram Cecil and Avis Connor. The Connors normally resided at their main residence in Waycross, Georgia, but Avis travelled to her hometown in Florida to give birth.
Ingram Connor committed suicide two days before Christmas in 1958, evastating the twelve-year-old Gram and his younger sister; Avis. Avis subsequently married Robert Parsons, who adopted Gram and his sister and they both took his surname.
Gram Parsons briefly attended the prestigious Bolles School in Jacksonville, Florida before transferring to the public Winter Haven High School; after failing his junior year, he returned to Bolles. For a time, the family found a stability of sorts. They were torn apart in early 1965, when Robert became embroiled in an extramarital affair and Avis' heavy drinking led to her death from cirrhosis in June 1965, the day of Gram's graduation from Bolles.
As his family disintegrated around him, Gram Parsons developed strong musical interests, particularly after seeing Elvis Presley perform in concert in 1956, in Waycross. Five years later, while barely in his teens, Gram played in rock and roll cover bands such as the Pacers and the Legends, headlining in clubs owned by his stepfather in the Winter Haven/Polk County area. By the age of sixteen, Gram graduated to folk music, and in 1963 he teamed with his first professional outfit, the Shilos, in Greenville, South Carolina. Heavily influenced by The Kingston Trio and The Journeymen, the band played hootenannies, coffee houses and high school auditoriums; as Gram Parsons was still enrolled in prep school, he only performed with the group in select engagements. Forays into New York City, where Gram Parsons briefly lived with a female folk singer in a loft on Houston Street, included a performance at Florida's exhibition in the 1964 New York World's Fair and regular appearances at the Café Rafio on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in the summer of 1964. Despite his middling grades and test scores, Gram Parsons was admitted to Harvard University's class of 1969 on the basis of a strong admissions essay. Although he claimed to have studied theology, Gram Parsons seldom attended his general education courses before departing in early 1966 after one semester. He did not become seriously interested in country music until his time at Harvard, where he heard Merle Haggard for the first time.
In 1966, he and other musicians from the Boston folk scene formed a group called the International Submarine Band. After briefly residing in the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, they relocated to Los Angeles the following year. Following several lineup changes, the band signed to Lee Hazlewood's LHI Records, where they spent late 1967 recording Safe at Home. The album contains one of Gram Parsons' best-known songs, "Luxury Liner", and an early version of "Do You Know How It Feels", which he revised later in his career. Safe at Home would remain unreleased until mid-1968, by which time the International Submarine Band had broken up.
By 1968, Gram Parsons had come to the attention of The Byrds' bassist, Chris Hillman, via business manager Larry Spector as a possible replacement band member following the departures of David Crosby and Michael Clarke from the group in late 1967. Gram Parsons had been acquainted with Hillman since the pair had met in a bank during 1967 and in February 1968 he passed an audition for the band, being initially recruited as a pianist but soon switching to rhythm guitar and vocals.
Although Gram Parsons was an equal contributor to the band, he was not regarded as a full member of The Byrds by the band's record label, Columbia Records. Consequently, when the Byrds' Columbia recording contract was renewed in February 1968, it was only original members Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman who signed it. Gram Parsons, like fellow new recruit Kevin Kelley, was hired as a sideman and received a salary from McGuinn and Hillman. In later years, this led Hillman to state, "Gram was hired. He was not a member of The Byrds, ever. He was on salary, that was the only way we could get him to turn up." However, these comments overlook the fact that Gram Parsons, like Kelley, was considered a bona fide member of the band during 1968 and, as such, was given equal billing alongside McGuinn, Hillman, and Kelley on the Sweetheart of the Rodeo album and in contemporary press coverage of the band.
'Sweetheart of the Rodeo' was originally conceived by band leader Roger McGuinn as a sprawling, double album history of American popular music. It was to begin with bluegrass music, then move through country and western, jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock music, before finally ending with the most advanced form of electronic music. However, as recording plans were made, Gram Parsons exerted a controlling influence over the group, persuading the other members to leave Los Angeles and record the album in Nashville, Tennessee. Along the way, McGuinn's original album concept was jettisoned in favor of a fully fledged country project, which included Gram Parsons' songs such as "One Hundred Years from Now" and "Hickory Wind", along with compositions by Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard, and others.
Recording sessions for 'Sweetheart of the Rodeo' commenced at Columbia Records' recording studios in the Music Row area of Nashville in March 1968. Midway through, the sessions moved to Columbia Studios, Hollywood, Los Angeles. They finally came to a close on 27th May 1968. However, Gram Parsons was still under contract to LHI Records and consequently, Hazlewood contested Gram Parsons' appearance on the album and threatened legal action. As a result, McGuinn ended up replacing three of Gram Parsons' lead vocals with his own singing on the finished album, a move that still rankled Gram Parsons as late as 1973, when he told Cameron Crowe in an interview that McGuinn "erased it and did the vocals himself and fucked it up." However, Gram Parsons is still featured as lead vocalist on the songs "You're Still on My Mind", "Life in Prison", and "Hickory Wind".
While in England with The Byrds in the summer of 1968, Gram Parsons left them due to his concerns over a planned concert tour of South Africa, and after speaking to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards about the tour, he cited opposition to that country's apartheid policies. There has been some doubt expressed by Hillman over the sincerity of Gram Parsons' protest. It appears that Gram Parsons was mostly apolitical. During this period Gram Parsons became acquainted with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones. Before Gram Parsons' departure from The Byrds, he had accompanied the two Rolling Stones to Stonehenge in the English county of Wiltshire. Immediately after leaving the Byrds, Gram Parsons stayed at Keith Richards' house and the pair developed a close friendship over the next few years, with Gram Parsons reintroducing the guitarist to country music. According to Stones' confidant and close friend of Gram Parsons, Phil Kaufman, the two would sit around for hours playing obscure country records and trading off on various songs with their guitars.
Returning to Los Angeles, Gram Parsons sought out Hillman, and the two formed The Flying Burrito Brothers with bassist Chris Ethridge and pedal steel player Sneaky Pete Kleinow. Their 1969 album The Gilded Palace of Sin marked the culmination of Gram Parsons' post-1966 musical vision: a modernized variant of the Bakersfield sound that was popularized by Buck Owens amalgamated with strands of soul and psychedelic rock. The band appeared on the album cover wearing Nudie suits emblazoned with all sorts of hippie accoutrements, including marijuana, Tuinal and Seconal-inspired patches on Gram Parsons' suit. Along with the Gram Parsons-Hillman originals "Christine's Tune" and "Sin City" were versions of the soul music classics "The Dark End of the Street" and "Do Right Woman", the latter featuring David Crosby on high harmony. The album's original songs were the result of a very productive songwriting partnership between Gram Parsons and Hillman, who were sharing a bachelor pad in the San Fernando Valley during this period.
Embarking on a cross-country tour via train, as Gram Parsons suffered from periodic bouts of fear of flying, the group squandered most of their money in a perpetual poker game and received bewildered reactions in most cities. Gram Parsons was frequently indulging in massive quantities of psilocybin and cocaine, so his performances were erratic at best, while much of the band's repertoire consisted of vintage honky-tonk and soul standards with few originals. Perhaps the most successful appearance occurred in Philadelphia, where The Flying Burrito Brothers opened for the reconstituted Byrds. Midway through their set, Gram Parsons joined the headline act and fronted his former group on renditions of "Hickory Wind" and "You Don't Miss Your Water". The other Burritos surfaced with the exception of Clarke, and the joint aggregation played several songs, including "Long Black Veil" and "Goin' Back".
After returning to Los Angeles, The Flying Burrito Brothers recorded "The Train Song", written during an increasingly infrequent songwriting session on the train and produced by 1950s R&B legends Larry Williams and Johnny "Guitar" Watson. Despite a request from The Flying Burrito Brothers that the remnants of their publicity budget be diverted to promotion of the single, it also flopped. During this period, Ethridge realized that he did not share Gram Parsons' and Hillman's affinity for country music, precipitating his departure shortly thereafter. He was replaced by lead guitarist Bernie Leadon, while Hillman reverted to bass.
By this time, Gram Parsons's own use of drugs had increased so much that new songs were rare and much of his time was diverted to partying with the Stones, who briefly relocated to America in the summer of 1969 to finish their forthcoming Let It Bleed album and prepare for an autumn cross-country tour, their first series of regular live engagements in over two years. As they prepared to play the nation's largest basketball arenas and early stadium concerts,The Flying Burrito Brothers played to dwindling nightclub audiences; on one occasion, Mick Jagger had to beseech Gram Parsons to fulfill an obligation to his Stones. As Gram Parsons "became a trust-fund baby when he came of age," he was still receiving about $30,000 per year from his family trust during this period, "distinguishing him from his many hungry, hard-scrabble peers."
However, Gram's dedication to the Rolling Stones was rewarded when the Burrito Brothers were booked as one of the acts at the infamous Altamont Music Festival. Playing a short set including "Six Days on the Road" and "Bony Moronie", Gram Parsons left on one of the final helicopters and attempted to seduce Michelle Phillips.
With mounting debt incurred, A&M hoped to recoup some of their losses by marketing The Flying Burrito Brothers as a straight country group. To this end, manager Jim Dickson instigated a loose session where the band recorded several honky tonk staples from their live act, contemporary pop covers in a countrified vein ("To Love Somebody", "Lodi", "I Shall Be Released", "Honky Tonk Women"), and Larry Williams' "Bony Moronie". This was soon scrapped in favor of a second album of originals on an extremely reduced budget.
Faced with a dearth of new material, most of the album was hastily written in the studio by Leadon, Hillman, and Gram Parsons, with two Gilded Palace of Sin outtakes thrown into the mix. The resulting album, entitled Burrito Deluxe, was released in April 1970. Although it is considered less inspired than its predecessor, it is notable for the Gram Parsons-Hillman-Leadon song "Older Guys" and for its take on Jagger and Richards' "Wild Horses", the first recording released of this famous song. Gram Parsons was inspired to cover the song after hearing an advance tape of the Sticky Fingers track sent to Kleinow, who was scheduled to overdub a pedal steel part; although Kleinow's part was not included on the released Rolling Stones version, it is available on bootlegs. Ultimately—and to the chagrin of Hillman, who was not keen on the song amid the band's creative malaise—Jagger and Richards consented to the cover version.
Like its predecessor, Burrito Deluxe underperformed commercially. Disenchanted with the band, Gram Parsons left The Flying Burrito Brothers in mutual agreement with Hillman, who was long fatigued by his friend's unprofessionalism. Under Hillman's direction, The Flying Burrito Brothers recorded one more studio album before dissolving in the autumn of 1971.
In a recent interview with American Songwriter Chris Hillman explained that the greatest legacy of the Flying Burrito Brothers and Gram Parsons is they were the alternative country band. They couldn't get on country radio and they couldn't get on rock radio! They were the outlaw country band for a brief period.