Take Me Home

March 13, 2008

“I can be in a grocery store and my song will come on, and there’ll be some old guy there singing my song,” Walter Egan (COL ’70) said. “It’s like my own little movie.”

Magnetic: Walter Egan’s publicity photo from the 1970s.

Egan had a top 10 hit in 1978 with “Magnet and Steel,” and has returned to Georgetown this semester to teach a seminar on the music industry. He joins fellow alumnus and two-time Grammy winner Bill Danoff (FLL ’68) on the faculty of the music department.

Danoff teaches songwriting, a fitting pursuit considering he wrote John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and “Afternoon Delight”—a paean to the joys of daytime lovemaking and a number one hit for Starland Vocal Band in the summer of 1976. The song was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but is probably best known for inspiring Will Ferrell in Anchorman and for an ironically incestuous episode of Arrested Development.

Danoff arrived at Georgetown in the fall of 1964, planning to major in Chinese and find a job in the government or foreign service. He had played guitar on-and-off through out high school, after his mother got him out of bed to see Elvis Presley perform on television.

Facetime: Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert share an intimate moment together.
Courtesy Bill Danoff

In college, Danoff traded his electric guitar for an acoustic, in keeping with the country’s brief folk music obsession in the early 1960s.

“I thought it would be too difficult to try to put a band together while going to college,” Danoff recalled. “So I sang in the corridors of the dormitory [Loyola, now LXR], where people were gathering.”

Danoff began working as a doorman at the Cellar Door—“one of the coolest small nightclubs in the country,” located at 34th and M where the Philadelphia Cheesesteak Factory is now—in the summer of 1965. The lights and sound man left soon there after, and Danoff found himself operating the club’s sound and lights by hand.

“That really was my training,” he said. “It taught me how to perform, to distinguish a good set from a bad set and how to behave yourself both on and off stage.”

Egan walked into Copley in the fall of 1966 for his freshman year and saw flyers announcing “This is Clinton country,” advertising Bill Clinton’s (SFS ’68) campaign for junior class president—Danoff’s class. Egan gravitated to Georgetown’s small art department as a sculpture major, and spent much of his time fighting with the station management to play rock and roll on WGTB, then broadcasting its FM signal over a 60-mile radius from the basement of Copley.

Peekaboo: Walter Egan sees you as he poses next to one of his own paintings on the left of the band that he used to be a part of.

Egan came to Georgetown under pressure from two of the other three members of his high school band, the Malibooz, who also attended. Egan credits one of them, John Zambetti (COL ’70), with starting him on the electric guitar. The Malibooz had already experienced modest success, having made a record and played the first color TV special from the 1965 World’s Fair in New York.

Toward the end of his freshman year, the band changed its name to Sageworth—hoping to evoke the sounds of California bands like the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield—and added Annie McCloone as the lead singer. The band rehearsed in the boiler room of New South, where Egan lived for his sophomore year. Egan began to be drawn toward the new country rock sound of Gram Parsons, whose seminal country albums Sweetheart of the Rodeo with the Byrds and Guilded Palace of Sin with the Flying Burrito Brothers greatly influenced him.

Danoff, a Chinese major by day and a budding musician by night, began making connections through his job at the Cellar Door, meeting jazz musicians like Nina Simone, Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderly, as well as folkies like John Denver.

“We’d have two shows a night,” Danoff said. “As soon as we’d get rid of the last people … the staff, mostly college kids, would break open the Budweisers and we’d sit around sometimes until 3 or 4 in the morning, and usually joined by whoever the artist was.

“So you really got to know the people pretty well. It was kinda cool, to share a beer with this big jazz guy, or see people like the Everly Brothers. I remember Phil Everly reading my palm at 2 in the morning. And he was dead on, too.”

In early May of 1968, 18-year-old Little Stevie Wonder was in residency for the week at the Cellar Door, and it was then and there that Danoff met his future wife, Taffy Nivert—who auditioned for his band, Fat City, the next weekend. She joined the group and began making suggestions a few weeks later.

“We just started to fall into a pattern of going back and forth with lyrics,” Nivert said. “I don’t know what the secret is to collaborating, all I know is that it worked.”

Fat City became a duo, recorded an album for ABC in 1969 and started playing at Emergency, a alcohol-free teenage nightclub at 29th and M, where Sageworth was practically the house band.

By his junior year, Egan and his band had moved into a house on 1608 Wisconsin Avenue, dubbed Sageworth House. Linda Ronstadt and her band—including future Eagles Don Henley and Glenn Frey—visited, as did Spirit, Emmylou Harris and Neil Young.

“When you came in the front door,” Zambetti said, “on the left hand side there was a wall of the hallway, and musicians would sign the wall as they came in.”

In addition to Emergency, clubs like the Silver Dollar (located next to Nathan’s) and Apple Pie (across M street from the Cellar Door) made up the Georgetown circuit.

John Denver was a relatively unknown solo act at this time, and had recorded one of Fat City’s songs, “I Guess I’d Rather Be In Colorado,” after hearing them play it one night at JAMF (short for Jive Ass Mother Fuckers, and located where J.Paul’s is now). Since Denver wasn’t much of a local draw, the owners of the Cellar Door booked the locally popular Fat City to open for him in late December of 1970.

On December 29th, Danoff and Nivert returned after the gig to their slum basement apartment on Q Street to swap songs with Denver.

“Country Roads” was one of about 350 songs that Danoff and Nivert had written by that point. The song came to Danoff while he and Nivert drove along Clopper Road in Montgomery Country, Maryland.

“The joke at the time was nothing rhymes with Maryland,” Nivert said. “West Virginia seemed slightly more lyrical perhaps, and we knew a guy who had moved to a commune up there.”

Lacking only lyrics for the bridge, they played it for Denver. “John just flipped,” Danoff recalled. They stayed up and worked on the song throughout the night, looking up West Virginia—which Danoff had never visited—in whatever reference material was handy to find details to put in the song. The next night, Danoff and Nivert joined Denver on stage to debut the song at the end of his set, getting a standing ovation. The same thing happened the following night.

On New Years Eve 1970, his birthday, Denver joined his good friend Paul Meek, the coordinator of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, at a Georgetown restaurant and told him, “I’m on my way.” Denver recorded the song with Fat City, and it quickly went to number 1, becoming his signature song.

By early 1971, Emmylou Harris had considered leaving the music business, but according to Meek, Danoff and Nivert managed to convince her otherwise and got her a gig at Clyde’s Restaaurant. Sageworth, Egan’s band, continued to play around D.C. after graduation, opening for acts such as the Allman Brothers, Jefferson Airplane, Poco and the Grateful Dead.

Chris Hillman saw Harris sing at Clyde’s and told Gram Parsons, who had left the Flying Burrito Brothers and was looking for an accompanying female vocalist. “The first time they sang together was in my kitchen,” Egan said. “And I was pretty much the only one there … they sang ‘That’s All it Took’.”

Brooding Beauty: Cover to sheet music by Walter Egan.

Shortly thereafter, Egan wrote his first country song, “Hearts on Fire.” Parsons recorded the song with Emmylou Harris on his final album, just before his death from a drug overdose made him a music legend.

Sageworth moved to Boston in 1972, hoping to find steady gigs in New England college towns, but broke up when they were unable to secure a record deal. With his credit for “Hearts on Fire,” Egan thought about pursuing a solo career.

Chris Darrow—a member of influential underground sixties bands like Kaleidoscope, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Corvettes—had met Egan in D.C. while playing with Rondstadt, and encouraged Egan to come to California. In Boston, Egan auditioned for Linda Ronstadt’s band without success, and sent a letter to the Eagles asking to hold open the vacancy left by Bernie Leadon.

When he arrived in California, the Eagles told him to “just stick it out, persevere, that’s the key, you’ll make it.” Egan was simply happy to be where all the music he loved came from.

“It was the promised land to him,” Darrow said.

The money—and success—from “Take Me Home, Country Roads” took its time to arrive. Danoff has a picture of Nivert bailing out their apartment after a big rainstorm, holding a trade magazine showing “Country Roads” at number 1, though they still hadn’t seen a penny. But Denver soon gave their careers a boost when he took them on tour to open for him and sing “Country Roads.”

Country Classic: Sheet music to the classic song collaboration with Denver

After two albums as Fat City, Danoff and Nivert recorded two albums under their first names for RCA that went nowhere. But they made a big impression on Robert Altman, the Academy Award-winning director of MA*SH, at the afterparty for a show at Carnegie Hall, thrown by their agent, Jerry Weintraub. They met with Altman, who wanted to make a movie about Nashville but didn’t know anything about country music. Altman introduced the pair to screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury, and sent them with her to Nashville for research. They used their “credentials as the folks who wrote ‘Country Roads’ to call on some people, check out the country music hall of fame, go to [the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers] offices, check out some clubs,” according to Danoff. Tewkesbury kept a journal of the trip, chronicling their adventures for what became Nashville, one of Altman’s most critically acclaimed films.

After returning, Danoff and Nivert “didn’t take gigs because we were going to be in the movie,” even though they had insisted throughout that they were not actors. But their roles of Bill and Mary—married songwriters and members of a folk trio inspired in part by Peter, Paul and Mary—had been cast, and they never heard from Altman again.

RCA decided that Danoff and Nivert should record a few singles before the company would commit to another full album. Soon after, Danoff walked into a music store for strings, and came out with an inexpensive 12 string guitar, which inspired him to write a batch of new songs—one of which became “Afternoon Delight,” its title inspired by the appetizer menu at Clyde’s.

Danoff decided that the song needed more voices than just his and Nivert’s, and asked Jon Carroll and Margot Chapman to sing with them.

What a Sendoff: Danoff and Nivert waving goodbye from the back of a caboose.

“[It] was a perfect blend,” and Bill asked if they wanted to join the group, Nivert said. “We knew our strength was not actually in vocalizing, but in songwriting.”

Starland Vocal Band recorded “Afternoon Delight,” which became an indelible part of the summer of 1976, reaching the top of the charts on July 10th . “Once you finish the song and finish your record, everything in the universe is out of your control,” Nivert said. Their label promoted the song heavily, booking Starland as the opener for John Denver and setting up radio interviews.

Their success led to the creation of a summer replacement series on CBS, the “Starland Variety Show”—a retread of the tired slapstick comedy meets musicians formula. It was David Letterman’s first entertainment job, and one episode was filmed in Georgetown; the band performed in Dahlgren Quad. Danoff made sure Clyde’s got a gold record, which now hangs on the wall of the Atrium—once the alley where they would smoke.

California agreed with Egan, whose hair became increasingly feathered as the decade progressed. While touring England with Darrow, Egan met a talent scout named Andrew Lauder, who later saw him play with his band Wheels at the Troubadour in February of 1976. He offered Egan (but not the band) a deal for six songs on United Artists UK; with this deal in hand, Egan went to Columbia, who then offered him an album deal. The only remaining obstacle was finding a producer.

Playing for Peace: Walter Egan in front of White Gravenor.

Egan’s first choices—John Fogerty and Brian Wilson—were unavailable, but he found that he had a lot in common with his final choices, Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks of Fleetwood Mac.

“I always loved the interplay between male and female voices,” Egan said.

On the way home from recording “Tunnel o’ Love” for his first album, Egan was behind a Lincoln Continental with a diamond window and neon lights, and a license plate reading “not shy.” Like Danoff, Egan took to the found idea, which inspired the title of his next album and the chorus of his biggest hit: “With you I’m not shy.”

“‘Magnet and Steel’ was very much tongue out of cheek,” Egan said. “That was when I was madly in love with Stevie Nicks.”

“To me, the high water mark of my whole career in those days was September when ‘Magnet and Steel’ was riding high in the charts,” Egan said. “I felt like this is where it should all go … of course it didn’t work out that way, but … ”

On February 22nd, 2008, a lonely pair of snowy footsteps were tracked through the lobby to the lower level of the Davis Performing Arts Center. The clicks and winding of a disposable camera led to Egan—now white haired—documenting his exhibit of paintings and prints.

Darling Duo: Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert performing together at a party.

“Basically this is a culmination of a life spent in creativity,” Egan said “I’ve tried to be an artist in whatever I do.” Since his commercial heyday, he has continued writing—songs, an unpublished book (Top 10, a thinly veiled autobiography) and an unoptioned screenplay called College Radio ’68. Egan released two more albums before being dropped by Columbia, but continued to play intermittently with the Malibooz (which reformed in 1981), and with Sageworth for college reunions. He also toured with Spirit in the eighties, his own bands the Brooklyn Cowboys and the Walternative band in the nineties. He’s been with Burrito Deluxe—the latest incarnation of the Flying Burrito Brothers—since 2006.

And he has become a four letter word, an answer in crossword puzzles for the New York Times and T.V. Guide.

“I’m really lucky that ‘Magnet and Steel’ did what it did, I’m really lucky that Hearts on Fire got covered by Gram Parsons,” said Egan. “I wish I didn’t have to supplement my income doing substitute teaching and whatever else I have to do.”

Radio stations that played “Magnet and Steel” after its March release moved on to another track off the album, “Hot Summer Nights,” by the summer. When “Magnet and Steel” peaked in September at number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100, Columbia released “Hot Summer Nights” officially as a single, but those radio stations had already moved on.

“It was misfired, mistimed,” Egan said. “It got to the mid 50s, and it was disappointing for everybody.”

Zambetti has known Egan since he visited his house in Forest Hills, New York, in high school.

“It didn’t matter if [he lived in] a dorm room in Copley or in a multi-million dollar mansion in Beverly Hills,” Zambetti said. “He’s been exactly the same, all the way through. He is a true artist. All the other stuff can either

be there or not be there, it doesn’t really matter that much to him.”

“It’s so beyond our wildest dreams how things turned out,” Zambetti said. “I remember out in L.A. in 1976, Walt had a publicity picture taken for Columbia. And as a joke, he signed it ‘Top 10 in ’76.’ Of course, two years later, it actually happened.”

“It’s bittersweet after it goes along,” Egan said. “And I got married after all that, so she always felt like why isn’t this happening now for you?”

Starland Vocal Band became infamous as a one-hit wonder, though if they had two they wouldn’t have been eligible for the one-hit wonder wall in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Starland released a string of disappointing albums, and the eighties found Danoff and Nivert separated and then divorced. Danoff wrote a play and a musical, neither of which were ever produced.

“There are just too many factors, too many reasons why we didn’t sustain,” Nivert said. “I don’t have a story to go along with why we were a one-hit wonder. Shit happens, and along with that goes, sometimes shit doesn’t happen.”

During those lean years, Danoff became disillusioned with pop music and stopped listening to the radio.

“Some people can go 25 years and never get a hit, or it takes them that long to get something happening,” Danoff said. “With me it was sort of the opposite, which is fine with me.

“All the things that have to happen to have a hit are really incredible. They all have to line up correctly. And without any of the particular things it doesn’t happen. It’s some sort of cosmic destiny when you actually have something that comes out like that.”

The director of Georgetown’s fledgling music program, Dr. Anna Celenza, introduced herself to both Danoff and Egan after their performances at the Georgetown Entertainment and Media Alliance’s first annual show at the Orpheum Theater in New York City. She was impressed by their stories and experience, and floated the idea of teaching to both of them. Danoff came to Georgetown last fall to teach songwriting.

Danoff had his students write four songs for the course, after spending the semester analyzing songs to discover what they enjoyed.

“One of the first things I told them is ‘I can’t think of any great songwriter or performer who took a class on how to write a song,’” Danoff said. “They just did it. That was the underlying assumption of the class, sort of a zen approach.”

Egan teaches a seminar on the music industry, which is a natural fit for him “He’s played a lot of roles, put together his own bands, songwriting, so it’s perfect fit for a music industry class,” Dr. Celenza said.

“The way that I structured this course is my point of view of the music business, which started from the songs,” Egan said. The 16 students in the class have formed four bands, which will be performing a concert on April 25th. “Not everyone in the class wants to be that performer. There are a couple who want to be managers and promoters, so they’re gonna promote the show.” The class also features many guest speakers, since the business has changed significantly since Egan’s most extensive involvement with the industry. Its atmosphere is laid-back and pretty loose, not unusual considering its late afternoon time on Fridays.

“It’s kinda like School of Rock, you know, like the movie,” Rich Webster (MSB ’11) said. The dynamic encourages a certain amount of goofing off—members of one band sitting across the room from one another discussed ‘90s rock while Egan attempted to explain the plan for the rest of the semester.

“I know few people in this country that are better rock and roll historians, with encyclopedic knowledge,” said Annie McCloone. “He’s got passion for it. I don’t think you can find any better person with more passion, more knowledge … on his pedagogy, I’ll reserve judgment.”

“I’d like to think that I can still try to find a way to replicate that success of writing a song [like Afternoon Delight],” Danoff said, a sentiment echoed by both Egan and Darrow.

“I remember people would say … ‘What if you never do that again, what if the songs aren’t hits?’ I don’t have time to think like that. So I never had a plan B. And I still don’t.”

Bill Danoff will be performing a free concert for Friday Music in McNeir auditorium on March 14th at 1:15 P.M. Walter Egan will be performing a free concert for Friday Music in McNeir auditorium on April 4th at 1:15 P.M. Walter Egan’s art will be exhibited until the end of April on the lower level of the Davis Performing Arts Center.

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right now Walter Egan is my substitute teacher right now in Franklin Tennessee. he is Amazing. He is so cool and alot of people should comment.