TUMBLIN’ DOWN: The weed-scented history of Colorado’s obscure, early-’70s record label, Tumbleweed Records
By Gregory Daurer
The Denver record label that hardly anyone remembers – or has ever even heard of – is getting some love.
A Tumbleweed Records compilation called “Sing It High, Sing It Low” has been released by the noted reissue label, Light In The Attic Records. Mojo – the elegant and tasteful music magazine out of England – gave the project its top rating of four stars. The new album/CD/digital download has shined a spotlight onto a forgotten musical history.
The story of Tumbleweed Records involves a multi-million dollar record deal, one of the most respected names in music production in the ‘70s (who would go on to produce the Eagles’ multi-platinum selling album “Hotel California”), and an eclectic roster of musicians playing everything from quasi-jazz and country rock to psychedelic folk and R&B. Nine albums were released by the label, which only existed from 1971-1973. According to some, it wasn’t so much the-record-label-that-couldn’t as the-record-label-that-wasn’t-allowed-to by its parent company overseers.
But now, thanks to Light In The Attic’s compilation, artists who were overlooked when their music was first released are being re-evaluated – and their highs (some very cannabis-accented ones, at that) and lows are being sung.
“So sing it high, sing it low/Which way would you like to go?…High, low, high…” – “Sunday Sherry” by Arthur Gee.
Tumbleweed Records began in 1971, after two record music vets Larry Ray, 31, and Bill Szymczyk, 28, arrived in Denver. The region had been gaining an increasing reputation as a place for musicians to relocate to. Szymczyk says “the vibe was very, very open” in the city back then, noting the area’s “undercurrent of musicality” – which some have likened to a pared-down version of L.A.’s Laurel Canyon scene.
Ray, who had spent time in Denver growing up, was burning to base a brand-new venture there, likely desiring his own hits with Tumbleweed like his previous employers, Elektra and A&M, had achieved with The Doors, Joe Cocker, and Cat Stevens.
But Szymczyk – who’d had some success producing B.B. King’s hit “The Thrill Is Gone” and the James Gang (featuring guitarist Joe Walsh, who would become a longtime collaborator) – ultimately had a terrifying wake-up call which caused him to join Ray in Denver: the deadly San Fernando Valley earthquake in California, in February 1971, scared him into moving his family out of harm’s way.
Through entrepreneurial hustle, Ray negotiated a multi-million dollar deal with Gulf + Western – one of the largest entertainment conglomerates in the world, and the owners of Paramount Pictures – and Tumbleweed Records was soon in business. Things were looking up for the brand-new label, which featured the image of a tumbleweed on its records (a tumblin’ tumbleweed, in fact, when spinning on a turntable).
For their offices, they rented a house at 1368 Gilpin Street (a fact noted on the back of each release) situated near Cheesman Park. Robb Kunkel, who brought several acts to Ray and Szymczyk’s attention before eventually recording his own album “Abyss” for the label, lived upstairs; Kunkel sometimes wheeled his upright piano out onto the deck situated above the house’s porch, filling Gilpin Street with song.
Commander-in-chief Ray had his own office there. So did the label’s radio man, Bob Ruttenberg, doing the all-important promotional outreach to the era’s still-revolutionary band of FM DJs. Tumbleweed had two secretaries and an art department in the basement. Soon enough, the label had a string of albums ready to be released – most of which were recorded elsewhere, often in Los Angeles.
According to promo man Ruttenberg, the Tumbleweed Records crew was considered “radical hippies” by the industry – and not just because of their toking, but also due to their approach to business. Ray has said that Tumbleweed Records set out to equitably share royalties with its acts; not keeping two sets of accounting books like other labels did to screw over their musicians. (Never mind that ultimately there was very little in royalties to ever share.)
Tumbleweed’s label-mates shared their weed as well. “Everyone was smoking,” recalls the intelligently-quirky songwriter Pete McCabe, who would show up at the Gilpin Street house to pick up an advance check for his upcoming album and then spend part of it on that week’s blonde hash. Once, McCabe was visiting Arthur Gee, a Canadian who was Tumbleweed’s resident hippie/cosmic cowboy. Gee told McCabe, “I’m out of pot, but I did spill some hash oil on this sweatshirt.” They cut up that sticky part of Gee’s shirt and began smoking it, according to McCabe.
Ruttenberg also shared his weed with radio DJs. It was a way of seeking airplay, as much as it was a fun way to travel and hang out. Ruttenberg says, “All the FM DJs loved getting stoned – and I loved getting them stoned. And that’s one of the ways I presented myself: as Tumbleweed’s stoner… Let’s get stoned and listen to the new Michael Stanley record. Let’s get stoned and listen to Albert Collins and Dewey Terry.”
Notoriously, Ruttenberg was arrested in Seattle with six ounces in his possession after having to unexpectedly pass through an airport metal detector (which perhaps came into greater use as a result of D.B. Cooper hijacking a plane in the Pacific Northwest in 1971). The metal-detector alerted authorities due to the recording equipment Ruttenberg was carrying, and his contraband was quickly discovered.
Ruttenberg told airport security, “Listen, man. This is my personal stash. It means nothing to you. It’s not going to hurt anybody. I’m just going around the country, taking care of business. Why don’t you put the bag back in the suitcase and let me go Eugene, Oregon to see my friend who’s waiting for me at the gate?”
After a short spell in jail and ultimately five thousand dollars in legal fees, charges were dismissed due to an improper search and Ruttenberg was a free man.
But even though its promo man was able to get out of jail, the label couldn’t achieve breakout success.
Tumbleweed’s highest charting record was a single by Danny Holien called “Colorado.” It hit number 66 on Billboard Magazine’s charts in October 1972. Whereas John Denver’s 1972 single “Rocky Mountain High” (released after Holien’s) celebrated the natural wonder of the state, Holien’s song explored a dystopian vision, an early take on the “Californication” of Colorado. It has a martial, fife and drum-like quality to it, a deeply-expressed passion for how wilderness would be overrun by development one day.
“Colorado, Colorado, beautiful place that you are/Feel the sorrow of tomorrow, before you go very far/Listen to the calling of the wilderness crying for a human soul to feel.” – “Colorado” by Danny Holien.
The song incorporates what Pulitzer Prize-winning zen Beat poet Gary Snyder has termed a “moral sense of the nonhuman world.” In other words, given its subject matter and keen production, it’s a stunning-sounding bummer.
Holien wasn’t the only act brought to Tumbleweed by Kunkel. Also brought into the fold was Dewey Terry, who had been recording music since the 1950s as part of the soul and doo-wop act Don and Dewey. With his partner Don “Sugarcane” Harris, Terry had written and recorded seriously-grooving songs like “Big Boy Pete” and “Farmer John” (which has been covered, over the years, by The Premieres, Neil Young, and The White Stripes). Don and Dewey toured alongside Little Richard (featuring Jimi Hendrix) and even met the Beatles.
“He was one of the funkiest dudes ever,” Szymczyk says of Terry.
Terry’s howling vocals on the song “Do On My Feet (What I Did On The Street)” call to mind the Don and Dewey ‘50s raver “Justine.” It’s Tumbleweed’s funkiest, James Brown-like moment. Then, on “Sweet as Spring,” Terry delivers a tender, country-esque, string-accented number. The two songs, which sound as if they had been recorded by totally separate acts, both appear on 2017’s Light In The Attic release, as well as Terry’s Tumbleweed record “Chief.” Holien and Kunkel were both a part of Terry’s backup band, the Rocky Mountain Rhythm Kings – as all-white as a snow-capped Colorado peak. (Kunkel has written about how, prior to Tumbleweed starting, he was dragged to Denver’s Five Points neighborhood by Terry so he could share his Thai-stick weed with a fellow soul brother at the “Bucket of Blood” bar and demanded that Kunkel take to the stage and jam on guitar for the all-black audience.)
Kunkel also heard brilliance in Denver native Pete McCabe, who rightly calls some of the lyrics on his recording “The Man Who Ate The Plant” “fantastical.” In McCabe’s song “Magic Box,” a seemingly whimsical story about a drunken magician turns into a tale of existential horror: in his act, the magician really does make volunteers from the audience disappear forever, and he laments over how so many people are eager not to exist. To close its reissue disc, Light In The Attic includes McCabe’s “Late Letter” – an ode to movie star Marilyn Monroe told by an admirer whose needy fan letter belatedly arrives after the late Monroe has already taken too many sleeping pills. Szymczyk remembers McCabe as an “eccentric singer-songwriter” and says, “I also always loved the Pete McCabe [record], because that is such an oddball.”
During the recording of “The Man Who Ate the Plant,” Szymczyk says it was “cool as hell” to put the anxious, tenor banjo-plunking McCabe – who’d only played solo before – in a room with 20 accomplished musicians. As for the studio environment itself, McCabe recalls, “Bill told me, ‘Okay, when these string players come in, we put the pot away. But for the horn players, it’s okay, we can smoke.’”
Szymczyk also produced bluesman Albert Collins for Tumbleweed. Collins’ guitar-string bends can wrench one’s guts, while the backing horns add their own “Yeah, ain’t life a bitch?” emphasis. (Collins’ song “There’s Gotta Be A Change” – the title of his Tumbleweed album – is included on his “Best Of” album, but not on Light In The Attic’s compilation, due to issues with acquiring the rights.)
However, if Collins had been hoping to have a hit like Szymczyk had crafted for B.B. King with “The Thrill is Gone”(which reached the 15 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1970), the lack of chart success was something that Collins could have written a blues song about. Regardless, the Texan is remembered as a powerful performer by Gee: “He played his guitar and he’d walk into the crowd. That was one of his signatures. He was a fabulous blues guitar player. Very creative.”
Besides producing Collins, Szymczyk also brought Michael Stanley to Tumbleweed. The Colorado Music Hall of Fame presently cites Stanley’s woeful “Denver Rain” as one of the greatest songs ever written about Colorado.
“Maybe it’s back to the mountains/Back to my place in the hills/Hoping that maybe she’ll tell me/Denver rain never will.” – “Denver Rain” by Michael Stanley.
Stanley came to Szymczyk’s attention when he was playing in a Cleveland band called Silk, back when Stanley was still known by his original last name, Gee. That surname proved problematic when he was about to be signed to Tumbleweed. Szymczyk told Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer newspaper, “When I finished Michael’s album we played it for Larry [Ray], surrounded by a cloud of fine Colorado weed, (mostly mine).” Ray was “floored” by the music – which included musicians like Todd Rundgren and Joe Walsh – but there was a problem: the label already had a Gee –
Arthur Gee – as part of its roster. In that shroud of cannabis smoke, Michael Gee ultimately changed out his last name for his middle name, Stanley.
The other Gee – Arthur – was the only Tumbleweed artist to have two albums released by the label. Gee comes off as a troubadour of inner-space and outer-geographies, doing what he’s called his “hippie, wandering-minstrel type thing.” While his first album was released under his own name, his second included a band which Tumbleweed took the liberty of naming the Arthur Gee-Whizz Band. “I was sort of shaking my head about that for a while,” says Gee, who ultimately rolled with the decision.
Gee recalls of the era, “It was an exciting time musically, because there was a lot of experimenting going on, back then, with music and electronic instruments and stuff like that.”
Although the music was sometimes experimental, the Tumbleweed business experiment didn’t prove sustainable in the long run. There were constant rifts between Tumbleweed and its parent entities – Gulf + Western and its music distributor, Famous Music – which controlled the label’s destiny. Szymczyk and Ruttenberg both maintain that Tumbleweed’s records received decent airplay, but weren’t given proper distribution in retail stores for stoned heads to buy. “In retrospect, we were nothing but a tax write-off,” says Szymczyk. Ruttenberg adds, “We were up against a brick wall with Famous Music. They didn’t do shit for us…We were like a bunch of freaks to them. We were hippies in Colorado, trying to make something happen.”
Until the label wasn’t happening anymore, at all, that is.
Gee, just back from a tour in 1973, discovered that Tumbleweed Records had ended when he paid a call to the label’s office. It had been abandoned. “That’s how I found out,” says Gee. “Nobody called me.”
About two and a half years ago, Light In The Attic Records phoned Gee to tell him they wanted to use his songs for a compilation of Tumbleweed Records material. Light In The Attic had been working on the project for a few years already and had just located him in British Columbia. Gee learned they were going to name the project after a line from one of his songs. “At first, I was a little shocked,” he says.
Despite a quibble or two over song choices, Gee, now 73, says about “Sing It High, Sing It Low,” “I think it’s an excellent package.”
Gee’s greatest commercial success had come in the late ‘60s when his song “Sunspots” was covered by Canadian vocalist Anne Murray on an album that included her best-selling hit “Snowbird.” In the late ‘70s, he formed a punk-inspired band based in San Francisco and Portland. Over the years, he’s played fiddle for a Celtic group, and as a country-inspired artist. He also recorded an intriguing collection of songs called “The Dark Monkey is Laughing” with Jeff Bird, a musician known for his work with The Cowboy Junkies.
Gee’s fellow label-mate Pete McCabe, who lives in Venice, California, recalls his own Tumbleweed Record days as “a fabulous time…To be able to make a record and have the production I got is pretty amazing.” Employed over the years as a graphic designer and teacher’s aide, McCabe, 68, just started recording music again over the past decade, and his Tumbleweed record “The Man Who Ate The Plant” has become a cult favorite. In fact, it’s drawn musicians anew to him, assisting him with his recordings. He released a new disc, “I Forgot,” this year.
McCabe says of his late friend, Robb Kunkel, “I’m just eternally grateful for him for kind of discovering me and bringing me to Tumbleweed.” McCabe calls that period in the early ‘70s “a magical time for both of us.”
In 2009, Kunkel discussed by email his Tumbleweed album, “Abyss,” which has achieved its own cult following for its somber, jazz-accented stylings: “I was 21 and stoned to the hilt making ‘Abyss’ and, at the time, I knew there was not one commercial track on it – but, hey, I had 56,000 bucks to make it and more cocaine than Sly Stone…The company looked at me with suspicion, but [they] were too busy getting stoned to pay attention.”
Due to the label’s problems, Tumbleweed “backfired—but spectacularly,” says Sarah Sweeney, who wrote the liner notes to “Sing It High, Sing It Low.” Ultimately, it’s most noted for having served as a stepping stone for Szymczyk’s subsequent career, allowing him to “hone his chops.” Sweeney says, “[Tumbleweed] really launched Bill Szymczyk into the stratosphere.”
Szymczyk went on to produce popular records for the J. Geils Band, Rick Derringer (“Rock and Roll, Hoochie Koo”), Bob Seger, The Who, Joe Walsh (including the song “Rocky Mountain Way”), and the Eagles.
As for his time with Tumbleweed Records, which ended in 1972, Szymczyk says, “I would consider that definitely my grad school work, if you will.”
Szymczyk, 74, still considers the Tumbleweed album he made for Michael Stanley one of the highlights of his career, and he remains one of Stanley’s biggest admirers. In fact, Szymczyk was preparing to travel from his home in North Carolina to visit Stanley and assist the Ohioan with a new album. “As he’s gotten older his songwriting has become incredible,” says Szymczyk. “It’s always done from a perspective of intelligence.”
Recognizing Szymczyk’s achievements, the Colorado Music Hall of Fame will be honoring him with an “Award of Excellence” on August 13 at Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre. The Hall of Fame’s Director, G. Brown, says of Szymczyk, “There were only a handful of people that created the classic rock sound of the ‘70s – and Bill was one of them.” Szymczyk’s Tumbleweed days (as well as his more prominent recordings done at Nederland’s Caribou Ranch) will be cited at the ceremony, and Brown is particularly impressed with Light In The Attic’s recent reissue: “That was a forgotten bit of Colorado music history, until they addressed it. I’m not sure who would have.”
In 2019, the History Colorado Center will be including Szymczyk and Tumbleweed Records in an exhibition called “Colorado Sound: Homegrown Music from Folk to Rock.” Curator Megan K. Friedel says of Tumbleweed, “It’s part of that early 1970s story of what’s happening with the music scene here: that suddenly people from outside of the state are discovering Colorado as a place to come and make music, [a place] that’s particularly conducive to inspiring music that’s not necessarily of the mainstream.”
And given that Tumbleweed Records was known for gifting people stone-engraved roach clips in the early ‘70s, it’s fitting that Light In The Attic’s deluxe packaging of Tumbleweed’s music includes a packet of rolling papers. Arthur Gee – who G. Brown says offered him his first hit of weed back when Brown was a teenage rock journalist – agrees: “I think it’s totally appropriate,” says Gee, who says he’s been smoking cannabis for over 50 years and has recently been using a regimen of CBD oil to combat his cancer and rheumatoid arthritis. “Everyone was smoking pot back then.”
In other words, once upon a time in Denver in the early ‘70s, there was plenty of weed at a storied music label called Tumbleweed Records.
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