By Bob DiCorcia
As you may know, in the early 1970s, songwriter David Palmer was one of the original members of the pop/rock band Steely Dan. He was also a member of the rock band The Myddle Class, which was managed/produced by Carole King and Gerry Goffin in the late 60s. [Carole’s second husband, bassist, Charles Larkey, was also a member of the group.]
At any rate, David co-wrote a song with Carole for her first performing band, The City. The song was called “Paradise Alley.” He eventually went on to co-write an entire album’s worth of songs with Carole: 1974’s platinum, #1 album, Wrap Around Joy.
David agreed to participate in my very first electronic interview earlier this month, 1/97:
David Palmer: I’ll attempt to answer your questions as accurately as memory permits — some of that stuff is 20 plus years ago and I’m sure the passage of time makes some of it seem a lot more romantic than it actually was…anyway
Bob DiCorcia: Where were you born and raised?
David Palmer: Born and raised in Warren township, Watchung, New Jersey which, despite being 45 minutes-an hour outside of Manhattan, was rural territory back then. I went “home” a couple of years ago and didn’t know the place. My mom and I were pretty middle class and I doubt very much if we could’ve afforded to live there now.
BD: What was the first lyric/song you wrote? How old were you?
DP: I wrote my first lyric (if you can call it that) when I was 17. A friend of mine; Rick Philp (more about Rick later) loved the Thelonious Monk tune “‘Round Midnite” so I gave it a shot. We later found out the tune already had lyric — a great one I might add — but it was a noble first attempt
BD: How do you compose your songs? Do you play any instruments?
DP: I compose on keyboard (piano and various synths) but never in public as my live playing tends to be of the “gorilla” variety
BD: How did you get involved in the rock music business? Did you always want to be a part of it or was it something you “fell into?”
DP: I’d always sung in choir and “folk” groups but when the Rolling Stones hit in the ’60s and I discovered it was a wonderful way to “get” women (not being of the “jock” or award winning Mr. popular student type myself) I devoted myself full time to pursuing a career in music…
BD: What was the first song you sold? How did you get your start?
DP: The first publishing deal I had was with Col-gems music, the same company Carole and her then husband and song-writing partner Gerry Goffin were with. As a matter of fact Gerry and Carole were producing a group I was in (with the above mentioned Rick Philp) called “the Myddle Class” so I’m positive they secured the publishing deal for us.
BD: How did you get involved with Steely Dan?
DP: I was more of an “innocent bystander” than I was a founding member with “The Dan.” I was on the loose in New York when I got a call from an old friend — Jeff “Skunk” Baxter — telling me about this group forming in L.A. and they needed a singer and would I be interested. Since I was working in a plastics factory in Jersey at the time I didn’t need a hell of a lot of convincing… I hit the road, arrived in L.A. a week later, was in the studio the next night and ended up singing the leads on “Dirty Work” and “Brooklyn” as well as backgrounds on many of the other tunes on the first “Dan” album Can’t Buy A Thrill.
BD: Why did you leave Steely Dan?
DP: There were two reasons for me leaving the Dan: First, I was asked to. Second, when you have a singer as great as Donald Fagen was and is, you don’t need another lead singer in the band. I’ll always be grateful to Donald and Walter for giving me a break and also for their musical integrity. The word “genius” is bandied about a lot in pop music but those two are the genuine article.
The ’60s: David Meets Carole
BD: When did you first meet Carole King?
DP: The first time Carole and I collaborated — just the two of us — was on a song for a group she had formed with some L.A. studio guys — Danny Kootch, Jim Gordon, and Charlie Larkey. Charlie and I had been in The Myddle Class together and Kootch was James Taylor’s longtime friend and guitar player (they had been in another Village group: The Flying Machine. The Flying Machine and The Myddle Class used to play in the same clubs in the Village — someone should write a book about that time). Anyway the song was called “Paradise Alley”… that’s what they used to call a section of the lower east side of New York…that’s all I remember about it.
BD: How did you become professionally involved with Carole?
DP: Rick Philp and I had formed a band in high school called “The Kingbees” named after an old Rolling Stones blues cover “I’m a Kingbee.” Al Aronowitz, then a reporter for the New York Post, had discovered us playing high school concerts. He introduced us to Carole King and Gerry Goffin. He had known Carole and Gerry because of an article he had written for the Saturday Evening Post about pop music in the early ’60s. He also knew they were looking for a band like The Beatles or The Stones to sign to a label they were putting together.
Carole and Gerry had written for and/or produced all those great artists from the early ’60s — The Drifters; The Shirelles; Little Eva; The Cookies; Freddie Jackson — the list, as I’m sure you’re aware, is endless. But they were looking for a different outlet for their music so they signed us to their label, “Tomorrow Records.” We changed our name to “The Myddle Class” and were off and running
BD: How did you re-connect with Carole in the 70s?
Flash forward… I came out to L.A. in 1972. Carole, of course, had recorded “Tapestry,” and was enjoying all the attendant success. I felt kind of awkward about getting back in touch with her… sort of like the poor relative showing up out of nowhere. So I waited until the Dan album was mixed and brought her an unreleased copy, she took one listen and knew it was going to be a hit.
BD: Whose idea was it that the two of you work together on Wrap Around Joy? Was it suggested by Lou Adler/Ode Records?
DP: We kept in touch and one day, a couple of years later, she called and asked if I’d like to try and write a song or two for an album she was doing. Having lost my gig a few months before with the Dan and with literally nothing happening, it didn’t take me long to think about it — maybe a New York minute. I started writing that night and things just flowed. To this day, I have no idea what precipitated that call. I know she had written her previous album by herself. That can be an exhausting process in and of itself but when you’re raising kids and dealing with concert tours and the rest of it, the pressure to also be creative can be overwhelming. Perhaps Lou Adler did suggest it. Again I’m not sure, I’m just happy that someone thought it would be a good idea.
When we started writing I’m sure that neither of us thought it would be an entire album’s worth of material. As I’ve said, I was just grateful to have a shot. It’s like I looked up a few months later and it was done.
BD: Did you feel pressure teaming with Carole, who in 1973/74, was the most successful singer/songwriter in the world?
DP: You know it’s funny. I felt more pressure from the Dan than I ever did with Carole. I think she had a lot to do with that. She’s a gracious and compassionate lady and that makes it so much easier. Besides which I was probably too naive to feel nervous. The way I looked at it: it was a win-win situation. Here’s this great artist and songwriter. How could I screw that up? Thinking back now there was probably more pressure on Carole to produce another hit album than there was on me, but I’m certainly glad it worked out.
BD: In my review of Wrap Around Joy, I wrote that it seemed that Carole was consciously returning to the “pop roots” of her Brill Building days. Do you agree?
DP: I don’t think Carole ever left her “pop roots,” Brill building or otherwise, if by that statement you mean well-crafted pop songs. She and Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and a few others I can think of reinvented the medium for the ’60s. They spoke to my generation in a way that the “old guard” songwriters never could by combining their own musical-lyrical sense (Broadway/teen angst with black doo-wop soul) and created a hybrid that influenced songwriters for three decades. Wasn’t it John Lennon who said that all he and Paul really wanted to do was be the next Goffin and King? I also think her pop sensibility runs like a thread through everything she’s ever written, from the Drifters to The Byrds to The Monkees through her “Latin period” right up until the present — even if the styles changed — her sense of what makes a great pop song never has.
BD: When you wrote the lyrics to “Jazzman,” did you have any idea it had such commercial potential?
“Jazzman” was either the 1st or 2nd lyric I gave Carole for the Wrap Around Joy album and I had no idea it had success potential. Your songs are like your kids. You raise and nurture them and hope for the best.
BD: How did you and Carole compose together?
Lyrics always came first. Sometimes just a verse and chorus. She’d write melody and structure and give it back to me and I’d finish it up. This is the way it worked best for us, although I seem to remember she and Gerry doing it differently. They wrote in the same room together, hashing it out one on one. I need more privacy than that. I have a great deal of respect for writers who get together and kick it around until they come up with something.
BD: Did you agree with the choices of singles released from Wrap Around Joy?
Since I probably wouldn’t have picked “Jazzman” as the first single, I may not be the one to ask about hit selections. I always respected Lou’s taste in music. His track record seems to speak pretty well for itself.
BD: Which was your favorite song off that album?
That’s a hard one. It’s like which of your kids do you love the most? I think I’ll pass.
BD: “Ambrosia,” the song you penned with Carole for her 1976 Thoroughbred album seemed to predict the future direction of her more spiritual, pastoral late 1970s Capitol Records releases.
As long as I’ve known her, Carole has been on a spiritual path. I hope that doesn’t sound too “new age” or pretentious, but she’s curious by nature and I think that’s reflected in her desire to explore new ground — whether it be as an actress or in different styles of music. She was always willing to experience something new and take some chances. Anyway, “Ambrosia” was a song about spiritual longing and it was written during a period in my life of pain and self doubt. I’ve always loved the melody Carole came up with for that song.
BD: Have you written anything with Carole since “Ambrosia?”
Carole and I got together a few years back when she was recording a new album and we wrote one song. I don’t think it got past the demo stage though.
BD: What other projects have you been working on since the 70s?
Since the ’70s I’ve written songs for The Pointer Sisters , The Neville Brothers, Randy Travis, Laura Branigan, various other artists, TV and movies. I’m still very much involved with “the business.” I work a lot with a producer and writer out here: Steve Tyrell. I spent two months in Europe this past year traveling with an artist Steve produces and manages named Jamie Walters. Jamie played the “bad boy/musician” on Beverly Hills 90210 and had a very successful CD out here and in Europe.
I have a home studio these days which enables me to record my own demos and send them to other artists.
BD: Who are some of your current favorite recording artists and songwriters?
I’m a fan of anyone who practices the “craft” of songwriting and can hold my attention. I’m still a sucker for a great “hook”… be it Smashing Pumpkins, Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, Vince Gill, Patti Loveless, George Strait or Alanis Morrisette. I’m also not one who believes that art and commerce are mutually exclusive. I’ve been broke and I’ve had bread and having is much better. More power to anyone who can sell a zillion CDs.
BD: Do you agree with some critics calling Diane Warren the “Carole King of the ’90s?”
I think when people start comparing Diane Warren to Carole King or vice versa it robs each of their uniqueness. I think those kinds of comparisons are just meant to make critics more comfortable and nobody should be that comfortable.
BD: Do you vote for the annual Grammy awards?
I don’t vote for the Grammy awards.
BD: Have you seen “Grace of My Heart?”
I haven’t seen “Grace of My Heart”
BD: What does the future hold for you from a professional point of view?
I plan to continue singing, writing and getting better at what I do. My life is the best it’s ever been and I wouldn’t have missed any of it… the good or the seemingly bad. I can’t wait to find out what’s happening tomorrow.