Cult Classic: Eric Andersen: Sweet Surprise.

In 1975, thirty-two year old folk singer and songwriter Eric Andersen moved to Greenwich Village, New York, where it had all started for him in the early sixties. Back then, Eric Andersen was part of the folk scene, and as a twenty-one years in 1964, had auditioned for Vanguard Records at Gerdes Folk City, a well known music venue in the East Village. The audition was successful, and Eric Andersen was signed to Vanguard Records.

The following year, 1965, Eric Andersen released his debut album Today Is The Highway on Vanguard Records. It was well received by critics, and launched Eric Andersen’s nascent career.

1966 was one of the most important years of Eric Andersen’s career. He made his debut at the Newport Folk Festival, and  released his sophomore album ‘Bout Changes ‘N’ Things. Songs like Violets Of Dawn, Thirsty Boots,I Shall Go Unbounded and Close The Door Lightly When You Go showcased a hugely talented songwriter who many critics believed had a big future ahead of him.  Just like his debut album, ‘Bout Changes ‘N’ Things was released to plaudits and praise, and Eric Andersen was seen as one of the rising stars of the vibrant folk movement.

When Eric Andersen released ‘Bout Changes ‘N’ Things 2 in 1967, it had much in common with ‘Bout Changes ‘N’ Things. The same songs featured on the album, but they had been rerecorded and Eric Andersen had used different instruments. The songs were resequenced, and When ‘Bout Changes ‘N’ Things 2 was released, it showed another side to these familiar songs as Eric Andersen’s music evolved and moved towards folk rock.

The reinvention of Eric Andersen’s music continued on his fourth album More Hits From Tin Can Alley, which was released in 1968. It was the most eclectic album of Eric Andersen’s career.

When it came time for Eric Andersen to record his fifth album  for Vanguard Records, A Country Dream, he was following in the footsteps of many folk singers who had also made the journey to Nashville. Joining Eric Andersen was a band that featured top session players. They played their part in Eric Andersen’s first album of country rock which featured a cover of Otis Redding’s Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay. It was given a makeover and was one of the talking points of A Country Dream when it was released in 1969. Despite being well received, A Country Dream was Eric Andersen’s swan-song for Vanguard Records. He was about to go up in the musical world.

After releasing five albums for Vanguard Records, Eric Andersen signed to Warner Bros. Records. Later in 1969, Eric Andersen released Avalanche where he flits between country-rock and his now familiar folk rock sound. Some of the songs are cerebral, while others feature a reflective, introspective Eric Andersen as he sings of roller coaster romances. However, on It’s Comin’ and It Won’t Be Long, Eric Andersen sounds like Bob Dylan right down to his phrasing. Other songs are understated and allow Eric Andersen’s emotive vocal to centre-stage as this new chapter to his career began.

This new chapter continued with the release of Eric Andersen in 1970. It was Eric Andersen’s second album for Warner Bros. Records, and saw him continue to mature as a singer and songwriter. He had written then entire album which saw Eric Andersen continue to combine country rock and folk rock and on occasions move towards a pop rock sound. Despite being one of his finest albums of recent years, Eric Andersen failed commercially. For Eric Andersen this was the end of his time at Warner Bros.

Later in 1970, Eric Andersen joined Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead and country rockers The Speckled Hen on the Festival Express Tour. It wound its way across Canada and introduced Eric Andersen’s music to a new audience. However, it would be two years before Eric Andersen returned with a new album.

By 1972, Eric Andersen had signed to Columbia and began work on Blue River which was produced Norbert Putnam and features The Jordanaires and Joni Mitchell on backing vocals on the title-track. When Blue River was released later in 1972, it was to overwhelming critical acclaim. Record buyers were also won over by an album the featured elements of AOR, country rock, folk rock, pop and rock, and Blue River reached 169 in the Us Billboard 200. This meant that Blue River was Eric Andersen’s most successful album. It had taken seven years and eight albums, but somewhat belatedly, Eric Andersen had made a commercial breakthrough.

Buoyed by the success of Blue River, Eric Andersen returned to the studio and began work on the followup, which was going to be called Stages. Eric Andersen completed the album, but before it could be released, the master tapes disappeared. This was almost unheard of, and despite searching high and low for the master tapes, there was no sign of it. For Eric Andersen this was a devastating blow, as he had just made a commercial breakthrough.

The loss of the Stages’ master tapes affected Eric Andersen badly, and he decided to take a break from recording. Little did anyone realise that this break would last two long years.

It wasn’t until 1974 that Eric Andersen decided that he was ready to return to the recording studio. This was perfect timing as Clive Davis, who signed Eric Andersen to Columbia, had founded a new label Arista earlier in 1974 and was looking to add artists to the roster. One of the artists he wanted to sign was Eric Andersen, who signed to Arista in 1974, and began work on Be True To You. It’s the first of two albums that Eric Andersen released for Arista as he hit the comeback trail.

Be True To You.

Having signed to Arista, Eric Andersen began writing the ten songs that eventually became Be True To You. This was the much-anticipated followup to the album that was regarded as his masterpiece, Blue River. Be True To You was an album Eric Andersen’s fans had waited patiently for. They had heard about the loss of the master tapes to Stages, and Eric Andersen’s two year absence from the recording studio. 

Some of the songs on Be True To You had originally featured on Stages, while others were new songs that Eric Andersen had just written. There was also one cover version Ol 55 on Be True To You. These songs became part of an album that focused on the subject of love and various events that happened during life. However, there was more to Be True To You than that. The album also dealt with how love had affected other people. Be True To You featured two themed sides, with side one entitled I’m Weary Of These Petty Wars while and side two Lovers They Make Promises, But Lovers They Tell Lies.

Recording of Be True To You began at Eric Andersen’s comeback album began at Wally Heider’s in August ’74, when Keep Fallin’ Like the Rain was recorded with producer Tom Sellers who was joined in the control room by John Florez. The pair co-produced the song with Eric Andersen before moving to another of LA’s top studios.

Four months later, in November 1974, Eric Andersen arrived at The Sound Labs, where he once again joined by a band that featured some of city’s top musicians.  Some of the musicians were part of the core band, while others were drafted in to play on one or two tracks on Be True To You. The rhythm section alone included drummers Dennis St John, John Guerin, and Russ Kunkell; bassists Emory Gordy, Scott Edwards and Mark Sporer and guitarists Dean Parks and Chris Bond. They were joined by pianist Allen Lindgren, flautist Ernie Watts, cellist Jesse Ehrlich, tenor saxophonist Tom Scott and Richard Bennett who played acoustic guitar and steel guitar. Among the backing vocalists were Maxine and Julia Waters, Jackson Browne, Hern Pedersen and Maria Muldaur. Meanwhile, Tom Sellers took charge of production, except on Ol 55 Tom Sellers which was co-produced by John Florez. By December 1974, Be True To You was completed and ready for release in 1975.

Before the release of Be True To You in 1975, critics had their say on what was the belated followup to Blue River and essentiality,  Eric Andersen’s comeback album after three years away. Just like Blue River, critics dissevered that Be True To You was a carefully crafted album where featured folk rock, country rock and pop rock. Critics hailed Be True To You a fitting followup to Blue River, and welcomed the return of Eric Andersen. His partnership  with producer Tom Sellers was success.

Tom Sellers was responsible for a slick, polished production with woodwind and strings sweetening the country rock ballad  Moonchild Riversong which open the album. It gives way to the beautiful heartfelt ballad Be True To You where again strings sweetens the sound and harmonies add the finishing touch. Very different is Wild Crow Blues where the tempo increases and Eric Andersen showcases a tougher country rock sound. The tempo drops on Ol 55, an anthemic country rock ballad where a weeping steel guitar provides the perfect foil to Eric Andersen’s vocal. Time Run Like A Freight Train features an understated arrangement and a tender, soul-baring vocal from Eric Andersen who sometimes sounds like James Taylor. This beautiful ballad closes side one, which was entitled I’m Weary Of These Petty Wars.

Side two was entitled Lovers They Make Promises, But Lovers They Tell Lies and opened with the hurt-filled folk rock ballad Liza, Light The Candle. It’s followed by Woman, She Was Gentle where backing vocals accompany Eric Andersen’s vocal which is akin to a confessional. Can’t Get You Out Of My Life features another emotive, hurt-filled vocal which is delivered against a jaunty arrangement where harmonies and a sultry saxophone play starring roles. It’s all change on The Blues Keep Fallin’ Like The Rain, where blues and jazz combine as Eric Andersen accompanied by drums played with brushes, subtle harmonies, a Wurlitzer and saxophone delivers a vocal full of sadness and despair. Closing the album is Love Is Just A Game, another beautiful ballad where a piano, lush strings and backing vocals accompany a rueful vocal full of hurt. It closes Be True To You on a high, and is one of many highlights on the album.

Just before the release of Be True To You, Eric Andersen and Arlen Roth played at the opening show of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. This was a huge coup, and great publicity for his forthcoming album Be True To You. 

Sadly, when Eric Andersen released Be True To You in 1975, his Arista debut failed to trouble the charts. This was a huge disappointment for Eric Andersen, who maybe, had been away too long? Three years had passed since Blue River, and many record buyers had short memories and may have forgotten about Eric Andersen. Music was also changing by 1975, and record buyers had moved on to different genres. However, despite the commercial failure of Be True To You, Eric Andersen decided to begin work on the followup Sweet Surprise. 

Sweet Surprise.

For Sweet Surprise, Eric Andersen wrote eight new songs whist living in one room high in the mountains of Montana. This backdrop provided the inspiration for Eric Andersen to write Sweet Surprise, where he would renew his partnership with producer Tom Sellers.

Just like on Be True To You, Tom Sellers took charge of production on Sweet Surprise. This time, it was a much smaller band who joined Eric Andersen when recording of Sweet Surprise and they used a different selection of instruments to those that featured on Be True To You.

This time around, Eric Andersen’s band included a rhythm section of drummer Chris Parker, bassist Tony Brown and guitarists Sister Joon Millington who also played acoustic guitar and Arlen Roth who played lead acoustic guitar. They were augmented by David Mansfield who played steel guitar and fiddle, percussionist Antonio Ramos, keyboardist Tom Sellers and Richard Bell who keyboards and ARP synth. Additional musicians included Jennifer Condos acoustic guitarist Paul Horan, Happy Traun on concertina and mandolin, cellist Wacky Jacky Robbins, steel guitarist Ben Keith and saxophonist Tom Scott. They provided the backdrop for Eric Andersen on Sweet Surprise which was released in 1976.

Just like Be True To You, Sweet Surprise was a slick, polished album that veered between country rock, folk rock and even pop rock. That was the case on the album opener Lost In A Song, where country rock and pop rock melt into one in this beautiful ballad. How It Goes is country rock all the way as a weeping guitar accompanies Eric Andersen’s vocal which sounds like Bob Dylan. Eric Andersen showcases his “own” vocal on the understated ballad Dreams Of Mexico which gives way to San Diego Serenade. It features saxophonist Tom Scott and a weeping guitar on this jazz-tinged, country rock ballad that closes side one.

Sweet Surprise opens side two and is another country rock ballad where Eric Andersen delivers a heartfelt vocal. The balladry continues on the ballad Down At The Cantina which features a hopeful vocal from Eric Andersen. It’s a similar case on Crazy River which features a country rock arrangement. Closing Sweet Surprise is another beautiful ballad where Eric Andersen delivers a tender vocal against an understated but effective carefully crafted arrangement. This ensures that Sweet Surprise closes on a high.

Sweet Surprise was scheduled for release later in 1976. Before that, the critics sat in judgment, before having their say on the followup to Be True To You. The majority of critics were impressed by Sweet Surprise, which should’ve found an audience within the country music community. 

When Sweet Surprise was released in 1976, the album failed to even trouble the charts. This was another disappointment for Eric Andersen, who wound’t release another album for Arista.

Eric Andersen’s Arista years lasted two just two years, and during that period  he released Be True To You and Sweet Surprise. It was the end of another chapter in a story that began in 1964 when Eric Andersen auditioned for Vanguard Records at Gerdes Folk City. 

Twelve years later, and Eric Andersen’s time at Arista had come to a close after releasing just two albums in two-year. During his short stay at Arista, Eric Andersen released Sweet Surprise, which is best described one of the hidden gems in his back-catalogue. It showcases a talented singer, songwriter and guitarist whose music didn’t find the audience it deserved. Sadly, Sweet Surprise  slipped under the musical radar on an album where Eric Andersen embraces country rock on his second set for Arista. After the commercial failure of Sweet Surprise, Eric Andersen didn’t release another album in America for eighteen years.

By the late seventies, Eric Andersen found himself without a record company, and for nearly two decades he fell into obscurity. During that period, Eric Andersen moved to Europe, and released 1980s Midnight Son, 1984s Tight Is The Night and Istanbul in 1985. Things changed in 1988 when Eric Andersen released Ghosts Upon The Road which sold well and caught the attention of critics in Europe. Still though, Eric Andersen was a forgotten man in America, despite producing albums of the quality of Sweet Surprise a  carefully crafted hidden gems that is a reminder of his Arista years.

Cult Classic: Eric Andersen: Sweet Surprise.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: