One of America’s most underrated songwriters, Danny O’Keefe has been creating albums for about 50 years. His most recent release, 2015’s Light Leaves the West, shows he has not lost his touch. The album is one of the finest in his vast catalog.
O’Keefe tells me his musical and lyrical aims while recording Light Leaves the West were the same as on past albums.
“I think my musical aims are always the same: Try to find the heart of the song and develop it into something meaningful to me and, hopefully, an audience. I wanted to play with Seattle musicians and long-time friends instead of going to Nashville or L.A. to play with session pros. Like every time I've gone into the studio with new material, I wanted to explore it with others to find the musical heart. I think Light Leaves the West differs from other recordings only because the players were old friends, and it was a collection of the latest ideas — both lyrical and musical.”
Most of O’Keefe’s earliest musical ideas originated in the Midwest.
“I lived in a small town in Washington state, and my father was dying of cancer, so we had to sell our house and move back to South St. Paul where my grandmother had a small hotel and an apartment where we could live. I discovered the music scene around the University of Minnesota, looking for hipness in any form. I saw Dave Ray and Tony Glover, among others, tearing it apart in a small coffee house off campus, and it was like lightning struck. Dave could make the room shake with his 12-string. I didn't own a guitar at that point, but I was trying to write poetry, and I wanted to be in the hip scene, because that was where the fun was. And the music. I'd grown up listening to early jazz and blues, and my parents bought me a record player and an album of Burl Ives folk songs. The impression had been made early on.”
After O’Keefe’s father died in 1960, “I was a little lost and struggled to find myself,” O’Keefe says. “Music was the one constant and touchstone that got me through the days. After high school, I tried going to night school at the U. of M. and hold down a job, but it was too much.
“I had been learning blues harp and played with a guitar player named Jeff Espina around Minneapolis. I was lonesome for my hometown in Washington, and Jeff and another friend, John Braheny, wanted to see Seattle and the West Coast. So we took a drive. After seeing old school pals and playing in a couple of Seattle coffee houses, the deal was sealed. I moved back to Washington and tried going to school and working again. It was a very hard time, and depression got the better of me. The only way I could figure out how to deal with it was to borrow a friend's guitar and start to pour myself into it. I probably drove everyone crazy trying to learn how to play. The young woman who would eventually marry me helped me to buy my first real guitar, a Gibson LG-3. I lived in that guitar and started trying to figure out how to write songs. During that period, I hitchhiked to New York and tried to play in the basket houses. I didn't have a clue, but it was a great experience and opened my eyes to the folk scene.”
O’Keefe met many folk musicians in New York, including Bob Dylan.
“I met Bob briefly in 1963 when I played a hoot at Gerde's Folk City. I knew people he knew in Minneapolis, so I introduced myself. He didn't pay much attention. I later met him after a concert at the Universal Amphitheater (in Los Angeles), and he was very friendly. In the 1990s, I signed with his publishing company, Special Rider, as a contract writer. We co-authored a song, ‘Well, Well, Well,’ but we never spoke about it.”
O’Keefe’s biggest hit was a masterpiece, “Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues,” an ode to desolation that was covered by many artists, including Elvis Presley. The song first appeared on O’Keefe’s 1971 self-titled album, and then a stronger version was on his 1972 album O’Keefe. That album also included “The Road,” which Jackson Browne would later cover on his best-selling album “Running on Empty.”
Other major artists discovered O’Keefe’s songwriting brilliance. "Magdalena" was covered by Leo Sayer; Judy Collins sang "Angel Spread Your Wings,” and Glen Campbell covered “Quits,” a poignant bonus song recorded in 1975 and released last year to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Alzheimer-stricken star’s hit album Rhinestone Cowboy.
I asked O’Keefe which songs he regards as his best.
“That's a difficult question,” he responds. “It's like asking which are your favorite children. The songs that stay in the set list are probably the ones I consider the best, but, like friends who've been absent for a while, there are songs you might not play in a set for various reasons that you come back to again because they have something that moves you. The obvious ones, of course, would be ‘Goodtime Charlie's Got the Blues,’ ‘The Road,’ ‘Steel Guitar,’ ‘Magdalena,’ ‘Drive On,’ ‘Driver.’ They contain personal truths and memories and are like touchstones. The newest ones that you write and move you emotionally are the ones you tend to consider your best. You have to see if the audience agrees, however.”
Who are O’Keefe’s musical heroes? “I'd have to say Miles [Davis] is at the top of the list. Kind of Blue was a musical epiphany for me when I heard it in 1960. I couldn't, and can't, play that kind of music, but the colors and feelings it inspired are still there to this day. During that time, I discovered players like Lightnin' Hopkins, the Reverend Gary Davis, John Hurt, Muddy Waters, and so many more of the great players. I got to be the Reverend Davis's roadie for a week, because I had a car, and he took my spot at a coffee house I'd been working at in Minneapolis. I'd sit for hours and listen to him play and sing. I wasn't proficient enough at that point to get how to play like that, but the impression was there. There are so many influences it's hard to list them all. Certainly, Dave Ray was a strong influence even though he intimidated me with the force of his playing and his skill. John Koerner, Dylan, the Stones, the Beatles, and all the rock influences are there, too. I loved some of the Northwest bands and players like the Wailers and the Dynamics, and guitar players like Larry Coryell, Rich Dangel, and Joe Johanson were influences.”
O’Keefe’s early 1970 records were on a huge label, Atlantic Records, and then he moved to another big label, Warner Bros., in the late 1970s.
“I have made many poor career choices, and I was about at the end of my string at Atlantic Records,” O’Keefe says. “They agreed to let me go to Warner Bros. to finish out my contract. I liked the people at Warner Bros., but it was a different climate. I was experimenting too much and was probably a little lost. I didn't give them the hit they needed, and we eventually agreed that it was time to move on.”
Warner Bros. was known for a diverse roster of musicians such as Black Sabbath, Frank Zappa, and Joni Mitchell, but O’Keefe didn’t run into many of them.
“Strange as it may seem, I didn't meet many Warner Bros. artists. Bonnie Raitt, I believe, was on Warner then, but artists like Jackson Browne and the Eagles were on Asylum. It wasn't like Atlantic where many of the artists recorded at the studio where the company offices were located. At Atlantic, you could meet and talk to Donny Hathaway, Hall and Oates, Bette Midler, King Curtis, and many others who were often recording their own or playing on others’ recordings. You always got the feeling there that the people who ran the company really loved the music. They were very encouraging of artists finding their own voices. And, of course, there was (producer) Arif Mardin, who introduced me to many people, including Dizzy Gillespie and the great tap dancer Baby Lawrence. Mardin was one of the finest musical minds I've ever known and a gentleman in every sense. I will miss him forever.”
Besides making music during the 1970s, O’Keefe was an environmental activist.
“I'm proud of joining others in some of the No Nukes concerts,” he says. “I think we made a difference in raising awareness in the public of the dangers of nuclear energy. It is touted as clean energy, but, as we saw with the meltdown of the plants in Japan, it is a constant threat. The toxic poisons the plants produce remain in the environment forever — or a lot longer than anyone we know will live.”
In 1999, O’Keefe started a small nonprofit organization called the Songbird Foundation after learning coffee farming practices were destroying migratory bird habitat in Latin America.
“Convincing coffee consumers to create change with their purchases was a powerful lesson in activism,” he says. “With the help of artists and friends like Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, John Mayer, Tom Robbins, and others, we were able to raise money and awareness to help convince coffee companies to join us in providing sustainably grown coffee to their patrons. In 1999, you would have had a hard time finding sustainably grown coffee [organic, shade grown, and Fair Trade], but now it's common and the preferred choice of coffee companies and coffee drinkers.”
Such an endeavor might have warmed the heart of Phil Ochs, whom many consider the ultimate folk-singing activist. Ochs wrote protest song after protest song, calling for civil rights, peace in Vietnam, improved conditions for coal miners, and many other noble causes before his suicide in 1976.
“I only met Phil once,” O’Keefe says. “It was around 1972 or so, and he asked me to perform at a benefit in Central Park, which I was happy to do. I loved many of his songs but, as with many artists, didn't listen too closely — not wanting to be influenced by his style. I was very sad at the news of his death. I considered it a waste and didn't understand it, which is often the case with suicide.”
O’Keefe says today’s mass shootings in America are heartbreaking. “The NRA is contemptible as are the whores in Congress who will do anything for the funding to keep getting re-elected. I learned to shoot at an early age and hunted with my father when I was a kid. I no longer hunt, but I still own weapons. I'm not sure why anyone needs combat-grade weapons, though. There is an irrational fear that our government will need to be confronted physically at some point. We are so deeply divided that the irrational sometimes seems to make sense to the fearful. I don't know how we will heal ourselves, but we must find a way. When you can't trust your elected officials, you may be influenced by those who seek their own gain from promoting fear.”
What is Danny O’Keefe’s legacy in American music? “I never even consider it,” he says. “It’s for others to decide. My role is to write and play the music that moves me in hopes it will move others.”
Is it difficult to be such an accomplished songwriter and not have greater recognition by the public?
“I don't know how difficult it is,” O’Keefe responds. “I've made my own mistakes by not playing the performing circuits more. I probably could have made more commercial recordings as well. To be honest, I don't really think about it much. It all began with the guitar and the need to understand and, I think, comfort myself with music. The songs were/are a way of understanding all the shadows and subtexts lurking under the surface. When I write a new song that moves me, it provides an enormous relief. I would, of course, love to have more people hear and appreciate them, but I don't have the infrastructure to promote or publicize them to a greater audience. That may yet happen, but it's not my primary concern.”
O’Keefe concerts in recent years have been few and far between.
“I haven't had a booking agent or a manager in years,” he explains. “Booking myself is probably beyond my pay grade. I was always primarily a songwriter, and that is where I find my greatest joy and relief. I'd love to work more, but driving hundreds of miles a day to play a house concert or a small club gets more expensive than it's worth. I love my life, and being able to enjoy it with friends and family weighs heavily on the scale. That said, I'd still love to play more, because the great reward of a song is when others acknowledge it and are moved by it.”
O’Keefe points to a Little Richard concert as the best one he ever attended as a spectator.
“In 1957, I bought the album Here's Little Richard, and it rocked my world, literally. I was obsessed with it. It was the first album I'd owned. When Little Richard came through the small Washington town where I lived, I was in heaven. The show was held in a roller rink where we'd all skated as kids. I was probably about 14 at the time. My mother drove me to the show and left me to my own devices. Little Richard played all his hits and gave a great performance even though he was the strangest cat any of us had ever seen. I danced until my clothes were soaked. I was in a state of ecstasy for days after. I saw Fats Domino, Gene Vincent, James Brown, the Beatles, the Stones, Jimi Hendrix, and others, but no performance came close to that one.”
The second-best concert O’Keefe says he attended was a performance by the Yardbirds in the round at the Seattle Coliseum in 1966.
“Jeff Beck was in the Yardbirds and absolutely blew everyone's minds away with his playing,” O’Keefe says. “We’d never heard anyone use feedback in the way he did. He played with a Fender Bassman and a Vox head that he sent into a Vox Super Beatle amp. On Fender Telecaster, he played multiple tones with the feedback and played slide with the mic stand. He played it behind his back, too. When the Yardbirds set was over, the crowd was numb and didn't break into roaring applause until the band was well off the stage. Every guitar player in the audience knew a sea change had come and tried to find a ‘Fuzz Face’ to emulate Beck's tone. He's still the master. A side note: When the Beach Boys came up to play after the Yardbirds, Al Jardine found that Beck had blown up the Vox Super Beatle amp he was supposed to use. He ranted and slammed his guitar on the stage. No one cared. Beck had won the day.”
O’Keefe is unsure, though, which concert he attended most influenced him as a musician.
“I don't really know how to answer that,” he says. “Every show and artist that you see and moves you influences you in ways you may not fully comprehend at the time. I loved seeing Otis Redding with Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, including Eric Clapton, at the Whisky a Go Go [in Los Angeles]. It was definitely powerful, but I couldn't say there were acts that I tried to emulate on stage. The ones I loved were too good to try to cop. You have to find yourself through your music. Letting yourself go into it and through it seems to be the true basis for your performance style. I probably must say that seeing Dave Ray rock the room — when I was 18 or 19 — in a small coffee house that I later played at was the most influential. I knew I couldn't do what he did, but I knew I wanted to move an audience. I still do."
O’Keefe says he has completed with friends a new recording called Home that revisits his old songs. He plans to release it next year.
“I wanted people to hear songs like ‘the Road,’ ‘Quits,’ ‘Drive On, Driver,’ and, of course, ‘Goodtime Charlie's Got the Blues’ the way I play and sing them now. Over the years, we make necessary trades and bargains with time. Some of the songs were written more than 40 years ago, and I think I bring something different to them now. Home is where you start, and, if you make it around all the bases, it's where you end up.”
O’Keefe says he’s not sure whether he’ll make any more albums with new songs because of the way the music business has changed.
“I have lots of unrecorded music that I'd like to record, but I’m not sure in what format and distribution form. I'm hoping to finally record a collection of songs I've been writing for almost 50 years that is influenced by the history of the Nez Perce. Their story is a powerful parable to America — as are so many of the Native American stories and history. I would like to involve Nez Perce friends in the project, but, at this stage, we're just talking about it.
“I may decide to record a collection of new songs acoustically — the way I play them at home and when I'm alone in concert. There may be something interesting in hearing them as they were written without other players or arrangements. At 73, time is no longer on my side, and there's a need to get things done that have been put off.”