Capitol Records wunderkind. Producer. Songwriter. Guitarist. Author. Motivational speaker. All these job descriptions and more apply to Ken Mansfield. The all-purpose raconteur relives his amazing journey below in an all-new candid interview, bookended by the time he nearly crossed paths with the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, at Ringo Starr's behest.
While Mansfield may not be a household name, the artists he counts as dear friends most certainly are. During his creative peak in the '60s and '70s, Mansfield navigated the careers of such luminaries as The Beach Boys, The Band, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Buck Owens, Jimmy Buffett, Glen Campbell, and "Ode to Billie Joe" chanteuse Bobbie Gentry.
And the greatest band of them all, The Beatles, befriended Mansfield and put him in charge of Apple Records' American division in 1968. Wearing an ostentatious white coat due to the frigid temperature, you can see him sitting beside Yoko Ono and Maureen Starkey (Ringo's first wife) on top of the Apple building in London as The Beatles perform "Get Back" during their legendary final, impromptu live performance in January 1969.
Mansfield's remarkable life is all the more astonishing when you consider his rags-to-riches upbringing. The son of a lumberjack, Mansfield grew up near a Nez Perce Native American reservation in north central Idaho. Listening to the radio late at night awakened a desire within the young boy to pursue his muse beyond the confines of Idaho’s banana belt. A stint with the Navy proved to be Mansfield's golden ticket to Hollywood, and he has never looked back.
In the fascinating first installment of a conversation plugging the release of his memoir, Stumbling on Open Ground: Love, God, Cancer, and Rock 'n' Roll, Mansfield memorably recalls his early musical influences, how he pretty much conned his way into producing a record for a pre-Buffalo Springfield Jim Messina, the story behind his debut composition for Italian heartthrob Al Martino, his surprising songwriting collaboration with Contemporary Christian singer–guitarist Phil Keaggy, Waylon Jennings' approach to recording, and much more.
The Ken Mansfield Interview, Part One
What was your childhood like growing up in Idaho?
I grew up alongside a Nez Perce Indian reservation. I didn’t actually grow up on the reservation but our property was next to their boundaries. My father worked in the sawmill and before that as a lumberjack. We grew up very poor.
I worked from the time I was 12 years old for the things I wanted. I was never encouraged to do anything or make anything out of myself. There was just this far-away thing I always saw and felt. I’d hear songs on the radio and try to emulate the sounds on my steel guitar. When television came around, I would see these things in Hollywood. I was completely fascinated.
When I was 17 years old, I joined the Navy so I could get out of Idaho. I was stationed in San Diego. It wasn't long before somebody drove me up to Hollywood. As I passed by the Capitol Tower, I got shivers. Perhaps it was a premonition. Years later I would have an executive office in that very building.
Who were your early musical influences?
During my childhood I was raised on hard country – I played around with steel guitar for awhile – and jazz. I grew up with amazing artists such as the Four Freshmen, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Stan Kenton, and Nat King Cole.
I was in love with the guitar, and when I heard the music that Chet Atkins and Les Paul made, I was hooked. The first record I bought was Les Paul’s “How High the Moon” in 1951, featuring his wife, Mary Ford, on vocals. Coincidentally or not, the number one single was released on Capitol Records.
That was production before people were really producing. Les stacked eight different recorders on top of each other and synced them together so he could overdub against himself. He truly pioneered overdubbing.
There was a seismic cultural shift around 1954, my senior year in high school. Bill Haley and the Comets made a record called “Rock Around the Clock”, Elvis Presley was kicking things up on Sun, and James Dean was making these anti-establishment movies.
Hearing “Rock Around the Clock” play as the credits rolled in The Blackboard Jungle with Glenn Ford was like a whole new world for me. I'll never forget that. Our music – rock and roll – rebelled against the old folks’ jazz.
By the time I entered the industry in the early ‘60s, the British rockers were right around the corner. Of course, I liked their sounds, too, especially The Beatles [laughs]. I developed a strong musical education just by listening and being fascinated by every new genre of music that came about.
What is the story behind your debut as a music producer?
I had a concept for a folk rock group and put the members together one by one, picking from people who had played in my La Mesa folk club – the Land of Oden. I signed them to a managing contract and named them the Deep Six.
I couldn't get a record deal for the band and because I knew in my heart that someday I wanted to be a producer, I decided I would start with them and show everyone what I was hearing with the group. I didn't quite know how to produce yet, and I met this young kid in Hollywood named Jimmy Messina.
He said, “I know how to produce and I’ll show you how to do it.” He was basically a “ghost producer” [laughs]. We were both making our bones at the time. It’s just those kind of things that are on the natch and by the heart. You don’t really think about it. When you start trying is when things get stiff.
Anyway, we went in and did the record. Liberty Records later signed the band and released “Rising Sun” as the single. It went Top 5 on the West Coast and in a lot of smaller markets. Unfortunately, the record never broke the East Coast. It only got to No. 122 in Billboard. It was the band’s only nationally charting single in November 1965.
Jimmy later joined Buffalo Springfield as producer, recording engineer, and bassist on their final album, Last Time Around . He found even greater fame with Loggins and Messina in the ‘70s. What is interesting is that the Buffalo Springfield had the same problem as the Deep Six in that they were a Top 5 group on the West Coast but had trouble getting a nationwide acceptance.
Since you were good friends with The Beatles, did you have an opportunity to meet Elvis Presley?
Unfortunately I didn’t. Ringo Starr, who I met during my Capitol tenure and later befriended when The Beatles personally asked me to oversee Apple, their record company in the USA, called me from London and said Elvis was performing at the International Hotel in Las Vegas.
This happened during the last weekend of January 1970, just months after Elvis’ triumphant return to live performances. By then I had resigned from Apple and joined MGM Records as vice-president.
Ringo hadn’t seen Elvis since The Beatles’ historic August 1965 summit at the singer’s exotic Perugia Way home in Bel Air. (Ironically, I had also spent that day with The Beatles at their rented house in the Hollywood Hills. The day ended with them getting ready to go to Elvis’ house.)
Ringo said, “If I fly in, can you take care of us and arrange seating arrangements at one of Elvis’ shows?” Of course, I jumped at the opportunity as I was a serious Elvis fan. I thought, ‘Great, I'm going to get to meet Elvis because I'm going to be with Ringo’.
Long story short, we snuck Ringo in the back of the hotel and into the auditorium. Afterwards, Elvis sent for Ringo, but his people wouldn't let me go up with him. They only let Ringo go up. I was really disappointed.
I knew the musicians in Elvis’ TCB band, including drummer Ronnie Tutt and guitarist James Burton. I ultimately worked with The Imperials, a superb vocal quintet best known for backing Elvis, on their 1991 album, Big God. By then, Armond Morales was the only member still in the group who had worked with Elvis. Believe me, I asked him plenty of questions about Elvis [laughs].
How did you get your start as a professional songwriter?
The first song I wrote was called “Wake Up to Me Gentle” for an artist named Al Martino. He was a very famous Italian pop crooner in the ‘50s and ‘60s who scored a big hit with “Spanish Eyes” in 1965 [No. 15 Pop, No. 1 Easy Listening]. I wasn’t even thinking about being a songwriter. I just happened to have written “Wake Up To Me Gentle” and showed it to him in 1968 [laughs].
Al decided to cut the song for his next album. It was a political thing – Al thought he could record one of my songs and I would promote the album, since I was then head of promotion at Capitol.
Jimmy Webb, in the midst of his incredible streak with Glen Campbell, was the hot songwriter of the day. Al got ahold of a Webb song entitled “If You Must Leave My Life” [also recorded by Richard Harris and B.J. Thomas] and decided that it would be his next hit single. But when the album was finished everybody kept insisting that my song would be the hit.
Capitol finally made “Wake Up” the single and the title of Al’s album. Al reached a compromise by putting “If You Must Leave My Life” on the B-side [Author’s Note: Martino’s initial gut instinct may have been correct. The “Wake Up” single barely registered on the pop chart when it debuted in October 1968, stalling at No. 120. However, on the Easy Listening chart it improved significantly, falling just shy of the Top 20 at No. 21. A video of Martino’s performance is included to the left of this article].
In total, six of my compositions were recorded in the ‘60s and ’70s: “Wake Up to Me Gentle” [Al Martino, Sonny James, Bonnie Guitar, and Claudine Longet], “Take a Walk in the Country” [Doyle Holly, Don Ho, and The Makaha Sons], “Summer Only Needs Its Autumn” [The Hager Twins], “While You’re Sleeping” [Claudine Longet], “Come Back Shane” and “I Just Want to Hear the Music”, both recorded by Tompall Glaser. Quite a few are tough to locate as of this writing and will involve a bit of detective work. Incidentally, my wife was associate director of Hee Haw for the last five years of the show, and several of the above artists were regulars on the show.
Would you consider writing a song named “Stumbling on Open Ground”, and is it true that you are writing new material with Contemporary Christian singer/guitarist Phil Keaggy?
I might. I’ve had more than one person say, “Hey, “Stumbling on Open Ground” is a great song title.”
Recently my wife and I were on vacation on the Gulf Coast with Phil – one of my dearest friends – and his wife, Bernadette. I sang “Between Wyomings” for him in the living room one morning after our devotions. A couple weeks later Phil sent me a tape with his arrangement of my song. He absolutely brought it to life.
“Between Wyomings” subsequently became the lead track on his album, The Cover of Love . In case you didn’t know, Between Wyomings is the title of my third book prior to Stumbling on Open Ground.
A few months ago I rang Phil up and said, “I think I have a new song idea that I want to write with you. All I need is help with a melody and a few more lines, and we can go from there.” We met in Nashville and finished the song in an afternoon.
It was a song that I was originally working up decades ago for Ringo Starr called “Drums in Love”. We worked with the basic concept and turned it into “My Guitar’s in Love”. Once again Phil brought life into the whole idea.
We haven’t done anything with it yet other than a quick demo in his studio. If “My Guitar’s in Love” does eventually see release, see if you can listen to that song without admiring Phil’s talent and walk away without a smile on your face.
Have you noticed any parallels between song composition and writing a book?
Something about words has always fascinated me. I’ve been a writer ever since I can remember. I never did anything formal with it until I got into college. When I eventually became head of artist relations and marketing at Capitol, I was always writing press releases, bios, or advertising campaigns about artists.
Concurrently, I pursued songwriting. When I composed songs, I loved crafting the words and having sentences fit certain length, rhymes, and the flow of things. I never really thought about putting all these words I created into something that would be a lengthy format such as a book.
After I’d written my first book – The Beatles, the Bible, and Bodega Bay: My Long and Winding Road – a lot of people came to me and said, “You write your stories like a songwriter.” That kind of surprised me, because I had never realized that being a songwriter was the basis for how I wrote everything.
Now I understand that every sentence or paragraph has to have a rhythm and a certain flow. It’s almost like I write an intro, verse, chorus, turn around, second chorus, tag, and fade out. It’s very much a natural transition.
Has the writing process gotten any easier over the years?
It’s a funny thing. For example, Marshall Terrill, best known for his well-received books on Steve McQueen, can sit down with an assignment and write on demand, regardless of quantity. He also researches his subjects thoroughly.
I’m still like a songwriter in the fact that I have to have something emotional happening inside of me to write. Case in point: Marshall and I are currently working on a book. Marshall had written his part of a chapter and then it was my turn to write my part of the manuscript.
I sat down, studied it, and had to walk away with virtually nothing. Then all of a sudden, Bam! Inspiration hit me. Marshall understands that about me and because we have such great respect for each other’s process, the whole project is becoming very exciting.
It’s like when I was producing Waylon Jennings during his ascension to legendary outlaw status. He had this West Texas street approach to recording. When I joined him with my British rock approach to producing in 1973, the middle ground we found ourselves in was very unique.
I get totally lost in space when I am writing. If my wife Connie walks into the room and sees me writing, she’ll start to say something, turn around, and walk out, shutting the door behind her. She knows better. I just leave the planet for a little while.
Writing doesn’t get harder, and it doesn’t get easier. It’s just pretty much what it is. I don’t know. I never intended to be a writer. It just happened. I’m published four times now by major publishers. I have a fifth book that is almost finished, and I’m already working on my sixth.
DON'T GO ANYWHERE YET! PART TWO, entitled "Stumbling on Open Ground: The Imperfect Christian Life with Author Ken Mansfield", concludes the inspiring tale. An eight-image slideshow also accompanies this article, highlighted by Mansfield holding court in complete Midnight Cowboy attire during a Buck Owens video shoot and later partying with Ringo Starr.
Did you know that former Beatle George Harrison followed up his critically-acclaimed 1970 solo debut, "All Things Must Pass", with another number one record featuring the drumming expertise of Ringo Starr? Surprisingly, "Living in the Material World" contains one song that remains largely undiscovered by the general record buying public. To read about "Don't Let Me Wait Too Long", definitely the most Beatlesque and pop-oriented track that deserved to be a hit single, visit the following article: "Rediscovering A Superb Love Song..."
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Exclusive Interview: Trailblazing Cleveland deejay Tommy Edwards was the first deejay in Cleveland to actively promote Elvis Presley. His bold efforts ultimately broke Presley north of the Mason-Dixon Line, virtually a racial divider during the '50s. The deejay also had a prominent role in the highly sought after but still lost concert film, The Pied Piper of Cleveland, which documented the first time Presley was filmed by a professional camera. To read about the King of Rock and Roll's meteoric rise to worldwide fame, why one prominent authority controversially believes "Mystery Train" was the singer's last honest recording, and a surprising defense of Tickle Me, visit the following link: ["On The Brink of Becoming An Artistic Phenomenon..."].
Further Reading: Ken Mansfield's upcoming coauthor and good friend, Marshall Terrill, recently wrote an in-depth feature with yours truly regarding Bobbie Gentry. When the songwriter burst onto the pop music landscape with the mysterious "Ode to Billie Joe", usurping The Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" from its number one perch, who could have imagined the massive success awaiting her? She also recorded a fine duet album with Glen Campbell in 1968 on Capitol Records. Country artist Reba McEntire revived interest in the singer when she made "Fancy" her theme song, decades after Gentry had a moderate hit with the Southern Gothic recording. To read about Gentry's enduring significance and exactly why she abandoned her career, visit the following link: "Ode to Bobbie G: The music and mystery of a Mississippi Delta Queen."
Exclusive Interview No. 2: Will Turpin, founding bassist of '90s alternative rock band Collective Soul, is the genuine article when it comes to his lifelong respect and admiration for The Beatles. In a wide-ranging conversation entitled "The Beatles' Epic Influence on ...", the musician reveals how he first became a Beatles fan, his favorite songs and albums by the group, whether he's played a Hofner bass, if Lennon and McCartney's solo output suffered when the band broke up, and whether Collective Soul intends to record a tribute album to the greatest band of all time.
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