wax Poetics
Photo by Henry Diltz

California Son

Ned Doheny befriended Jackson Browne, the two hanging out and writing songs in Laurel Canyon with David Geffen and the L.A. folk scene. After an album on Geffen’s Asylum Records failed to make waves, Doheny wrote a couple songs with Average White Band’s Hamish Stuart that would find great success in the R&B world.  Teaming with Steve Cropper and Tower of Power, Doheny embraced this new funky direction and recorded Hard Candy, then his follow-up Prone, whose single “To Prove My Love” blew up as a disco single in England and Japan, taking his career in yet another direction.

published online
Originally published in Issue 54, Spring 2013
By Allen Thayer

“In those days, it was very small-townish,” Ned Doheny says about his hometown of Los Angeles. Between bites of a chopped salad in an unremarkable Malibu strip-mall bistro, Ned talks about growing up in Hollywood. “It was before everybody arrived. Everybody seemed to arrive towards the latter part of the ’70s. All of a sudden, you could see the bodies on the streets. I think this town has been selling itself for so long that everybody finally said, ‘Let’s go there.’ Now, it’s kinda like Blade Runner with no budget, which is kinda wonderful and terrible at the same time.” Ned now calls Malibu home.

The Doheny family patriarch, Edward L. Doheny Sr., was the wealthiest oil tycoon on the West Coast during the peak of domestic oil discovery, only surpassed nationally by John D. Rockefeller. The Doheny legacy faded into the shadows in the aftermath of a grisly murder-suicide in 1929 at the palatial family estate in the neighborhood that is now known as Trousdale Estates. That being said, the only time Ned invoked his familial legacy during our interview was to explain his mixed emotions about standing in the spotlight: “To tell you the truth, my family had gotten a lot of celebrity at one point, and it did not do us any good. Everybody was very leery of fame after that.”


Music from Big Ego

Ned took up guitar as a young kid, getting his first taste of the professional music scene as a teenager. “There was an ad looking for guitar players to play with Jackson Browne, who I assumed probably was a large, ursine, African American person, but in actual fact, it was this willowy, little, Latin-looking kid, and he just played his tunes, and I played along.” Jackson and Ned clicked musically and platonically, resulting in many nights on the Strip and days hitching through Laurel Canyon.

In the euphoric aftermath of the Summer of Love’s climax, the Monterey Pop Festival, music scenester Barry Friedman (aka Frazier Mohawk), who was one of Jac Holzman’s Elektra Records A&R guys, proposed “a music ranch. Take talented kids out of the struggles of trying to make it in the city, give them fresh air, good food and the freedom to create whatever music came to them.”(1) The Northern California music ranch, known as Paxton Lodge, became a circus, literally. “All kinds of amazing things happened,” Ned recalls. “Barry Friedman lit his face on fire trying to eat fire for Jac Holzman because he used to be a clown in the circus at some point. I mean, it gets no better.”(2) Ned was one of the first of the core musicians to leave. “For me, it was about seven months, but it seemed like an eternity,” Ned explains. “Hearts were broken. When I left Paxton, it was the first of many agonizing reappraisals where you really have to rethink your life based on the fact that your vision didn’t really hold up in the bright light of day.”

After an ill-fated and short-lived stint with hippy-friendly jazzman Charles Lloyd, Ned tuned inward. “That’s when I went and took classical guitar [lessons from the Segovia disciple Fred Noad]. I said, ‘Goddamnit, I’m gonna pull my digits together and become more economical. It woke me up.” With nothing much happening for him in Los Angeles, Ned did what most of his musician friends had already done getting to L.A. in the first place—he hit the road. “So I loaded everything in my car, and I thought if I have all this information and wanted to integrate it into something that made sense, what would you do? So, my ‘logical’ conclusion was, drive around the world. I was going to keep going until the lights came on. And the lights came on in England. And I wound up playing with journeyman Dave Mason [of Traffic] and Cass Elliot [of the Mamas and the Papas].”

“I wrote ‘On and On’ driving between Los Angeles and New York, and then when I got to England, I wrote ‘Trust Me’ sitting on the floor in Dave Mason’s living room. And he went, ‘Holy shit! Would you like to be in a band?’ ” After a few years kicking around the semi-pro music scene, Ned had identified his niche: “I was providing material, and that gave me a certain leverage. It was something I figured out early on; you wanna be one of those guys if you can be.” Dave, Cass, and Ned continued rehearsing at Dave’s flat in London before decamping to L.A. to record an album for Blue Thumb. “Because of my association with Dave, we met everybody. I met all the Beatles, Eric Clapton, and for a twenty-one year old kid, I mean, wow!” Ned recalls. But an unease crept up on Ned once again. Dave’s manager was making Ned nervous. “I have no trouble being around extreme personalities, by and large, but it didn’t seem the smartest thing to base a long-term association on.

(left to right) Bernie Leadon of the Eagles, Jackson Browne, friend, Joni Mitchell, David Geffen, and Ned Doheny in Venice, California, 1972. Photo by Henry Diltz.
(left to right) Bernie Leadon of the Eagles, Jackson Browne, friend, Joni Mitchell, David Geffen, and Ned Doheny in Venice, California, 1972. Photo by Henry Diltz.

From Asylum to Exile

Ned walked away from the flawed supergroup that went on to record Ned’s tune “On and On” as a duo. Back in L.A. and reunited with his old buddy Jackson Browne, Ned fell into a scene gravitating around a short, arrogant marketing executive and label owner named David Geffen. After being turned down by all the major labels as Jackson Browne’s agent, Geffen went all-in on his own label, Asylum, quickly assembling an impressive roster of young, L.A.-based talent including Linda Ronstadt, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, and the Eagles. “Jackson had introduced me, and he had a stable of considerable talent,” Ned says as one of the very first artists signed to the label. “I think David wanted me to be involved largely because Jackson spoke highly of me. I don’t think he really heard what I was doing,”(3)  Ned remarked in Barney Hoskyns’s book Hotel California. 

Future New York Times critic Stephen Holden called Ned’s self-titled solo debut on Asylum “a sort of Southern California Astral Weeks” in Rolling Stone, praising both the musicality and depth of lyricism, describing the release as “supremely laidback, acoustical jazz-rock that on first listening is pleasant, and after several more absorbing.”(4) The album sold poorly, overshadowed by more accessible albums in a similar style on the same label. “I had the highest hopes imaginable [for the album],” Ned says, “and once again, I found myself in the situation of the agonizing reappraisal.”

I had the highest hopes imaginable, and once again, I found myself in the situation of the agonizing reappraisal.
Photo from the shoot for Ned Doheny's 1973 self-titled debut album.
Photo from the shoot for Ned Doheny's 1973 self-titled debut album.

 Above Average White Friend

“I met Hamish [Stuart] around the time that Robbie McIntosh died of a drug overdose. We had all gone to the Troubadour and were absolutely stunned by how well these guys played and sang,” Ned recalls about seeing Average White Band during their first U.S. tour. “[Robbie] was Hamish’s closest friend, and when he died, Hamish was absolutely devastated,” Ned says. “Hamish was going out with a girl that I had gone out with... I sort of took up a little of the space that was left by Robbie’s passing.” 

The two became friends very quickly, and, naturally, they found themselves hanging out and playing music together. “We sat down one night up at the house, and ‘A Love of Your Own’ was the first piece we ever wrote,” Ned recalls of the song that he would soon record, as would the Average White Band for their 1976 album Soul Searching. “And ‘Whatcha’ Gonna Do for Me’ was the second,” he continues. That song would be recorded by the Average White Band for their 1980 record Shine, and, more famously, by Chaka Khan on her 1981 Arif Mardin–produced album of the same name. “We were so terrified by that,” jokes Ned, “that we didn’t write anything else. Those two [songs] really did both of us a lot of good.”

Meeting Hamish and hanging out with these funky Scots really unlocked something musically for Ned. “Sometimes, rhythm can be very helpful to hook yourself in [to the music], and there’s nothing more fun than playing a groove,” Ned says. “I think I got sucked into that direction.” The demo of “A Love of Your Own” found its way to former MG and producer of dozens of classic Stax singles, Steve Cropper. The guys from Tower of Power also heard the song and loved it. “Based on that, I became friends with Tower of Power—that one song.” 

Cropper arranged a deal with Columbia, and soon Ned was in the studio working with one of his guitar heroes and the funkiest horn section west of the Mississippi,  Tower of Power. Everyone had so much fun making the record, 1976’s Hard Candy, they decided to play a local show to debut the album. “It was one of the greatest moments ever. It was my stuff with Tower of Power behind it. That was so much fun.” 

Hard Candy should have been Ned’s breakout release. The mellow and introspective sounds of the Eagles were consistently topping the charts mid-decade, the disco fad was just beginning to take hold, and this album was the perfect synthesis of these two popular trends. With the weight of one of the biggest and most respected major labels behind the album and Ned’s shirtless and glistening torso adorning the cover in a quintessential California beachside setting, it’s surprising the album found such little traction.

“A Love of Your Own” was the first single, which managed to encourage some decent cover versions by better-known artists like Millie Jackson and Average White Band, but the more obvious single was considered too racy. “Strangely enough, ‘Get It Up for Love’ was considered too risqué at the time,” Ned says. “ ‘Get It Up for Love’ was actually banned in Boston. Hard to believe.

“We had high hopes for Hard Candy,” Ned continues, “but in those days, the record company called the shots. They decided who got the funding and who was left by the wayside. I was in competition, stylistically speaking, with Boz Scaggs and Walter Egan.” Hard Candy is definitive L.A. light funk, but the album sold poorly stateside, though, like with his Asylum album, it sold well in Japan and the U.K. “It was not my time,” Ned says, seeing as Boz’s breakout hit, the legendary blue-eyed groove “Lowdown” was released the same year on his multiplatinum album Silk Degrees.

Columbia must have imagined Ned still had potential, because they quickly green-lit a second album with Cropper producing. Despite Ned’s comment that “Prone was probably the sketchiest in terms of the amount of prep that went up to it,” it stands up to the high quality of Hard Candy, if not surpassing it. After the album was already in the can, Columbia had second thoughts and sat on the record. The track “To Prove My Love” was released in the United Kingdom and Japan featuring a vocal chorus that Ned had not originally intended on using. The song became an underground dance hit in the U.K., receiving a 12-inch disco single pressing. “[It] was a big dance record in England, and I had no idea about it,” Ned says. “It would have never enjoyed what it enjoyed in England if that vocal had not been there. I know that,” Ned says sheepishly, as he had initially resisted adding a vocal to the sly instrumental funk groove.


Big in Japan

“It was the end of 1977,” Ned remembers. “I had been dropped by CBS, my girlfriend moved out, and a really close friend of mine lost his leg in an automobile accident and was convalescing in the second bedroom of my house, and I was emptying bedpans and chain-smoking Camels.” And then he received a request to tour in Japan, who had been following Ned’s career from his first album. “I had the best time,” Ned says of the tour. “I actually went from complete and total obscurity to being a celebrity, and it was one of the greatest things ever.”

CBS Japan released Doheny’s neglected album Prone in 1979 for all of the new and old Japanese fans. “They identify me with California. They see it as sort of an idyllic escape from the kind of insular crowding that they grow up in, in their own country. In their mind, this place sprawls, and the sun shines on them, and there are girls with big asses that don’t exist in Japan.” For over thirty years, ever since his U.S. recording career disappeared, Ned’s been supported by his Japanese fans. “Japan keeps bringing me back to life,” he says. “Not just in terms of some sort of music thing, but bringing me back to life in terms of bringing me to another level of endeavor without even trying to.”

Notes

1. Jac Holzman and Gavan Daws. Follow the Music: The Life and Hard Times of Elektra Records in the Great Years of American Pop Culture (Santa Monica: FirstMedia, 2000), p. 229.

2. Ibid, p. 246. 

3. Hoskyns, Barney. Hotel California: The True-Life Adventures of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young, Mitchell, Taylor, Browne, Ronstadt, Geffen, the Eagles, and Their Many Friends. (Hoboken: Wiley, 2006) p. 136.

4. Holden, Stephen. Album review of Ned Doheny S/T. Rolling Stone (July 19, 1973).

Drag left & right to navigate channels
  • Documenting the music trailblazers, cultures and stories that shape the sounds of yesterday, today, and beyond.

    DiscoverDiscover
  • Joining the dots.
    Groups of articles that bring stories to life.

    DiscoverDiscover
  • Explore classic, rare, or forgotten records.
    Digging on your desktop.

    DiscoverDiscover
  • All of our mixes, playlists, and podcasts in one place.

    DiscoverDiscover
  • Documenting the music trailblazers, cultures and stories that shape the sounds of yesterday, today, and beyond.

    DiscoverDiscover