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James R. Stout

Determination

            I want to talk to you about determination. I learned from an early age that you will face a plethora of obstacles and adversities that may cause you to feel like giving up. Worse yet you may develop a habit of not even trying because something looks too hard or impossible to do. I’m going to tell you part of my story, from my teenage years, when I learned to persevere and to achieve that which I was being told was impossible. That is, impossible for me.

            I started to learn the guitar when I was about 14-years-old. I wasn’t very good. I learned some basic chords, but I was using my Dad’s old guitar that wasn’t in very good shape. It was very difficult to play because of what is called the “action” on it. The neck was way out of adjustment and consequently the strings were too high above the fretboard. It took what seemed to be superhuman strength to press down the strings to the fretboard and hold them there long enough to play. To make matters worse, the guitar had a short neck on it. Playing bar-chords on it was virtually impossible. I played on that guitar for nearly a year and my ability to play the guitar didn’t improve much. It was rather like putting a ball and chain on a sprinter. He just isn’t going to get very far with that heavy ball and chain attached to his leg.

            In the fall of my high school freshman year I met several guys who were in a band. It actually was two different bands depending on what day of the week it was. A real musical chairs kind of thing. Someone would get mad at someone else and quit one band and go join the other band. Eventually a core group formed up and they had quite the little click going on. One Saturday I was invited over to a practice. I was still struggling, but when I played the guitar belonging to one of the guys that was much nicer (and expensive) than mine it was like the ball and chain had been removed.  These guys were for the most part not very nice. They were all pretty arrogant and they were of that elitist group of people circa 1970 who thought that the only music that was worth listening to or playing was hard rock. Their repertoire included Jimi Hendrix, Grand Funk Railroad (before they got smart and started writing more radio friendly hits), The Rolling Stones, etc. The deal was they weren’t bad at playing their instruments. But not a one of them could sing worth a darn. So, I had been invited over to see if I could sing. My voice was developing, but it was never meant for a steady diet of hard rock. It has been and still is more suited to the “singer-songwriter” style of music. I felt that perhaps with some work I could learn some of those harder edged songs and the band could play some of the songs that I was more suited for. They thought differently. In fact, this is where the first of two events within 6 months happened that caused me to seriously doubt myself and almost be defeated by the petty meanness of a handful of people. The guys blunted told me that I just wasn’t good enough to be in their band. But if I wanted to hang around and move their amps and equipment for them, I could do that. I said no thanks. I was hurt and I was mad. A little of the former and a lot of the latter.

            That Christmas I got a new guitar. It wasn’t an expensive guitar, but it sounded much better than my father’s, had great easy action, and it allowed me to improve my guitar playing immensely in a short period of time. By March of 1971 I met another guitarist in the neighborhood, and we formed a band. He had a friend who wanted to play bass but didn’t know how to play guitar. I didn’t know how that would work out. It turned out that the other guitarist was teaching the bassist the bass lines and he was memorizing the lines. He didn’t have a clue what notes he was playing. We had a drummer who was passable. I would play rhythm guitar and sing, and the other guy would play lead and sing. Well, it didn’t take long to find out that my idea for the band was vastly different than the other three guys. They wanted to play even harder music. They were into Black Sabbath (it gave me the creeps) and the lead guitarist started thinking he was going to be the next Jimi Hendrix. After two months of working with that band I was told to hit the road. They were going to make it big and rich being a power trio. Uh-huh. They lasted about another month from what I heard. But once again I was told that I just didn’t measure up. I knew in my heart that I had talent and that I could get a whole lot better. I dug in and decided that I was going to show all those guys. I was going to stay the course.

            That summer my father surprised me by buying me a used bass guitar and amp knowing that I had interest in playing that instrument. I took to it like a duck to water. Within a couple of months, I was playing bass pretty well. There was just one problem. Playing bass and singing at the same time takes a lot more coordination than playing guitar and singing. Most of my performing at the time was at school or family gatherings and those performances were just me singing and playing my guitar. Two other things started to happen about this time. First, I started to develop my voice more. I would listen to records and do my best to sound like the singers. It wasn’t that I wanted to copy other people, but I wanted to learn the craft of singing. Secondly, I started to write my own songs. I was writing like a fiend. Granted, most of those songs don’t measure up to what I would eventually be able to write, but it was a time to learn the craft of songwriting. I learned how to write melody, add different harmonies, how to organize a song using verses, bridges, breaks, choruses, and so forth. I learned what worked and what didn’t. I studied other songwriters to see what tricks they used. My own style started to form as I sifted through the many styles of songwriting of the most successful songwriters in history. I got to the point where I would hear a new record come on the radio and after one listening, I knew whether or not the song would be a big hit. Sometimes a record would feature a part that was a standout part. A “hook” if you will. But if the producer relied too much on that hook it could work against them. I remember one song that had a great intro and a catchy hook in the chorus. The problem was we got two short verses and then the hook was repeated ad nauseum. If they had developed the song a bit more with perhaps a break and another verse and omitted the dozen or so repeating choruses (which included some modulations that didn’t help), then it would have likely been a Top 10 song. It didn’t do terrible because it did make it into the Hot 100, but it could have been done better. I also learned that while the original versions of songs were sometimes impossible to beat, once in a while a cover version would be a huge hit and do much better. I listened to the differences. What made the cover version so much better? A great example of this is the song “California Sun” by The Rivieras. The original song was done by Joe Jones on Roulette Records in 1961. It lacked a decent guitar part, featured a pretty raw saxophone that didn’t do the song much good, and it was in the original out and out rhythm and blues style of the artist. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t good. Three years later an unknown group called The Rivieras put their take on the song. What they did was add a killer guitar part, a rock and roll beat, a great combo organ interplay, a vocal that stood out and made you want to sing along, and a great drum intro part. The result was a #5 hit record compared to the original version that managed to only get to #89.

            Throughout 1972 I continued to practice my guitar, bass, piano, singing, and songwriting. I started to record some of my own songs on an old reel-to-reel recorder that my Dad had. Those recordings are pretty rough, but by the end of the year I was getting much better. I formed a duet with a schoolmate, and we started playing at coffeehouses and so forth. We were doing many of my original songs and getting a good reaction from theme. At that time, it was just us playing two acoustic guitars and singing two-part harmony. Of course, we just had to include songs by some famous duets including The Everly Brothers, Simon and Garfunkel, Seals and Crofts, and Loggins and Messina. We went into a recording studio in the summer of 1973 and recorded one of my songs called “Happy as Can Be”. It was passable, but when I listen to that record and realize it was just a couple of 17 year old kids playing the instruments (I played lead 12-string guitar and bass and sang lead while LJS played rhythm guitar, maracas, and sang harmony), producing and arranging the record, what I hear are two guys that had some talent and would get better.

 

Picture on the left is me getting my new guitar at Christmas 1970. Picture on right is approximately 4 years later.

 

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