Pamela Polland…and her Missing Album
March 10, 2013
I am searching for a lost album. I don’t mean ‘lost’ in the sense of being an undiscovered treasure (though it certainly is that), I mean it literally. The master tapes for Pamela Polland’s Have You Heard The One About The Gas Station Attendant? from 1973 have apparently vanished. Help me find them! Because they deserve finding. If ever there were an album jumping up and down and shouting, “I’m brilliant!”, it is this one. Its most plausible resting place is with Sony in America, but so far it hasn’t shown up even when searches have been requested. And the greatest pity is that this album begs to be found. Not only is it one of the best albums I’ve ever heard, but I’m in no doubt that others would like it too. It’s by afore-mentioned singer/songwriter Pamela Polland (musos will know who Pamela is, the rest will catch on in time) and was recorded for Columbia Records in the early 1970s. It features an all-star studio cast, including Elton John’s band and producer, as well as backing vocals from Joan Armatrading and an appearance by Taj Mahal. Pamela’s songwriting throughout is visionary and expansive. It has to be heard to be believed.
Let’s go back a bit. Let me introduce you to Pamela, in case you don’t know who she is. Pamela is one of my dearest friends. Since 1998, she has been with me through every pratfall and resurgence. There is nothing about my life I don’t disclose to her and, possibly, vice versa. Rarely have I met someone who exudes such magic and whose personality is so much like a fresh, dripping slice of sunshine. It’s a friendship that I do my best to cherish. Pamela and I became pals simply because I found her 1972 album in a Notting Hill record shop many years ago, and dropped her a line to say that I liked it. Bit by bit our correspondence became more personal until we’d established a certifiable friendship that only grows. As I said, Pamela knows everything about me; the drugs, the prostitution, the hard times, the good times, the desperation. There is nothing I don’t tell her.
Pamela’s place in music history cannot be overstated. She’s a genuine Los Angelina. Her career began with early live performances with Ry Cooder when she was in her teens and blossomed to the extent that a few years later, she made her first album as part of the duo Gentle Soul (Epic Records). Pamela went on to join Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen Tour and then forged an intermittent solo career. There is almost no one she hasn’t worked with and she is held dear by all those fortunate enough to cross her path. And we are fortunate. I cannot imagine a life without Pamela. In 2003, I had the pleasure of sitting at my upright piano and singing directly to her one of the songs from her first solo album in the intimate setting of my living room.
So, back to the lost masterpiece…following the release of her first album for Columbia Records, Pamela found herself in an enviable position for a recording artist. Clive Davis (a name now forever associated with Whitney Houston) told her to come up with a list of her favourite producers. The first album, on which Pamela accompanied herself on piano and guitar, had been a solid effort, but with sales of around 25,000, it had not been enough of a success to make her a name in the living rooms of America. This time, things would be different. Pamela was ready to make a statement as profound and personal as Laura Nyro’s New York Tendaberry or Joni Mitchell’s Blue.
“Paul Simon was top of my list. He told Clive he’d love to produce me but he also said he took at least a year to produce an album and he wasn’t immediately available. Clive didn’t want to wait. Norbert Putman was on my list, but Gus Dudgeon was higher up and when he said, ‘yes’, we were thrilled.” Pamela chose Dudgeon because of his work with Elton John and Joan Armatrading. “He showed an amazing breadth of style and creativity”.
Pamela was swiftly dispatched to London, recording at Trident Studios in Soho while living in Covent Garden. As a native Londoner, I’m fascinated by the way areas change. Today, Covent Garden is a garish extension of Leicester Square and most of the people who live there are not native central Londoners or creatives. I avoid it at every opportunity. In all likelihood its residents are a mix of money-loving people from the counties trying to be urbane and obscenely wealthy Europeans, working in oil or banking. Pamela – a transplant from Los Angeles – is more a Londoner than they’ll ever be. Back then, the area was still real. “It was the ‘vegetable’ district,” says Pamela. “Lorries came through every morning at around 5.30 a.m. Lots of artists lived there because it was cheap and centrally located. I never had to go far to get anywhere I might have wanted to go. My memories of it are very happy ones. I had a boyfriend, I loved Indian food which was inexpensive and plentiful, I was working on my music all the time…it was an artist’s dream come true”.
Pamela and her producer Gus Dudgron
Photo: Michel Ross
Recording her second solo album was an experience of unadulterated joy for Pamela. “Gus was wonderful. So funny, intelligent, generous and a true lover of music. He had a great sense of humour and an amazing ability to inspire.” And, as a consequence of sharing the same producer, Pamela met Elton John and found him to be a charming and kind figure totally removed from the frowning, petulant curmudgeon constantly lampooned by the tabloids. “I got to go to his house a couple of times. He was incredibly gracious and ‘real’. He was actually very kind to me for a few years after I left London, letting me in backstage when heʻd play the Bay Area arenas. One of my fave memories of Elton is when he gave Gus a Rolls Royce for Gusʻs birthday. How many people would be so generous?”.
But what we haven’t touched on yet is how it was Pamela’s songwriting that elevated the album to an inspired level. Something had given her a shot in the arm and Have You Heard The One About The Gas Station Attendant? was an incredible step forward. Whereas the previous year’s eponymous album was lovely – a sort of Carole King/Laura Nyro-ish confection – this new album was pure Pamela. No longer did she sound like anyone else. No more a follower; now she was all leader. It begins with ‘The Refuge’ – an uptempo pop song about Mexico, with wonderful backing vocals. Things only get better from this point. From the intimate reflection of ‘You Stand By Me’ to the exquisitely cosmic closer, ‘The Clearing’, in which Pamela finds herself at the fount of all wisdom and in possession of the meaning of life, there is not a single misstep.
Pamela is not modest about the album. And why should she be? “Those recordings, which are now 40 years old, still hold up today as beautifully well-produced songs. At the time, I felt I was in the hands of a true master and, to this day, I’m proud of the work we created.”
She remains in awe of the skilled musicians who accompanied her. “Good natured blokes,” she says, “professional, skilled, talented. The one we used the most was Ray Cooper, Eltonʻs brilliant percussionist. He would literally invent instruments, like the water gong he used on The Clearing. We all used to sit in the booth and gawk at his brilliance”.
Arrangements for the album were by Paul Buckmaster. Pretty much any time you see an album with his name on, you know you’re going to hear beautiful orchestral work. And then, on Wild Roses, comes a choir of Joan Armatradings. “Joan was a quiet women, hard to get close to, but fun to sing with. It was like we were from two different planets, but it was an honour to have her appear as a cameo artist on my album. Iʻve always admired her unrelenting uniqueness”.
Then the problems began. After a bit more recording was undertaken in America, then a bit more in London, the album was complete. “Three songs had extra recording work done in America. Gus had always wanted to work with renowned session players Leland Sklar and Russ Kunkel. I was also able to bring Taj Mahal in for a track since we were friends. We worked at Columbia studios there for a couple of weeks. After delivering the masters to CBS in New York, we started working on the album art. I was told it would take about a month, but three months later it was still on the production line. We had all the elements. Gorgeous photographs, graphic art, lyrics, credits – everything was laid out and ready to be produced. Clive was hesitating because he didnʻt think I had a “single”. He wanted me to go back and record one more song, but thatʻs when CBS fired him.
“The whole company went into a complete state of chaos. The things Clive was accused of were activities that all record company execs participated in. No one felt safe, and all unreleased productions came to a screeching halt. It was an awful time. The twelve vice presidents at Columbia were all trying to figure out if they were going to be next in line to be promoted or fired. Everyone was so paranoid, not just at Columbia, but at all the labels. It was a huge game changer for the industry. No one at Columbia wanted to stand up for me, because I had been so closely associated with Clive. So they took my album off the release line and simply waited for my contract to run out, and then they didnʻt renew my contract. It was quite a let down after the happy year I had spent in London.”
The masters are supposed to be in New York or LA. When Sony Japan started to reissue Pamela’s work a few years ago, they launched an investigation and were told that the album could not be located. Pamela’s bold and naturally uplifted spirit has helped her come to terms with the loss. By the mid-seventies, she had reinvented herself as Melba Rounds, a bawdy madam with a knack for sexy, between-song banter and a fondness for performing jazz and blues. But getting over the unreleased album was not easy or overnight. “It was a slow process. At first, I just assumed the album would be released once Columbia got back on its feet after Clive’s demise. I waited around for almost a year before they dumped me. When they didn’t renew my contract, my manager and I just assumed weʻd get another label to pick it up. That was a common occurrence in those days. Label hopping. My manager shopped me and that album for three years. We started with the big labels and slowly worked our way down to the dinkiest of labels. But no one would touch me after Iʻd a) been dumped by Columbia and b) been so closely associated with Clive. It was as if I’d been black listed. It never occurred to us in a million years that I wouldn’t be picked up by another label or that my album would never be released. After three years of knocking on every door in the business and being turned away, my manager resigned from exhaustion, and I was left without representation. Always resilient, I simply kept singing and writing and performing, but the loss, shock and disappointment came upon me like a slow boil. In a way, I still canʻt believe it forty years later”.
The later chapters of Pamela’s career are indeed testament to her resilience. Her fictitious character, Melba, went down incredibly well in San Francisco in the seventies. Then she explored teaching – both songwriting instruction and vocal coaching. When opportunity allowed, she made further albums, the latest of which is Hawaiianized – a covers album on which famous hits are rearranged with ukelele-based accompaniment. Lest anyone fear, Pamela is no gimmicky dilettante. She’s been studying Hawaiian culture and music since she first moved to Maui in the 1990s.
Pamela will always cherish her memories of working at Trident. It’s no longer in existence, but its reputation is legendary. David Bowie, Tony Visconti and Marc Bolan, among many others, found their feet at the studio. Pamela explains, “Trident was a state-of-the-art studio at the time. Because we were working analog, mixing was challenging and sometimes weʻd be in there for 15-24 hours at a crack, working non-stop to get a mix right. In those days, you couldn’t save your work and come back the next day and pick up where you left off. You had to get it right in or start over from scratch, so it was the standard to just stay with a mix until you were happy with it no matter how long that took.”
She laughs to recall some of the old recording methods. “One of the engineers at Trident, I think his name was David Briggs, was a Moog specialist and created some great patterns for The Clearing. In this day and age, you just punch up Garage Band, or any number of
professional sequencers, and you have thousands of loops, patterns and sounds to create from and with. David worked for hours and hours dialling in one sequencible pattern on the Moog. My, how times have changed!”.
Pamela Polland’s Have You Heard The One About The Gas Station Attendant? should be right up there. Every time a documentary heralding brilliant 1970s singer/songwriter albums is aired, it is missing and unmentioned. I am in the lucky group of friends and fans who have heard it. “I worked with my dream producer and arranger in a dream studio for a year. I was very happy with the arrangements and production values and my own performances. I felt that Gus really did pull the best out of me that I could give at that phase of my life. There are no words to describe how disappointing it was to never be able to share the work we did with the rest of the world”.
If you go onto iTunes or any other digital retailer, you can find Pamela’s first album, which was simply entitled Pamela Polland. It is excellent but it is not the masterpiece. Get it anyway. And dip into further Pamela albums, such as Heart of the World and Hawaiianized. For the missing album, the work that makes Pamela every bit the equal of Laura Nyro, Bob Dylan, Janis Ian and Joni Mitchell (seriously, why aren’t we hearing from contemporary versions of these stars? Where are they?), you need to make contact with Pamela.
“I have, in my possession, a half track tape of the final mixes. I had it transferred to DAT about 15 years ago, because I knew the tape would deteriorate. My lawyer tells me that if Sony canʻt produce the masters, they wouldn’t be able to take me to court if I decided to release the album, but at this point, Iʻm not sure who would care. Itʻs hard to get anyone to purchase new music these days, so Iʻm not sure who would want to buy an album thatʻs forty years old. I have the music available for listening on my website. Itʻs slightly “hidden”, but anyone who really wanted to hear the project could find it with a little searching around my site.” With typical charm, Pamela ends our conversation by saying, “Thank you for the opportunity to tell this strange tale.” I can’t help thinking it should be the other way around. It is Pamela, through her mystical and earthy songwriting, who has told my tale. That’s how I feel when I listen to her music. Pamela sent me a CD of her lost album in 1998 and now I can’t get any of its songs out of my head. They need to be heard. And now. I did some investigating of my own. I contacted the Gus Dudgeon estate. Nothing turned up. I contacted Sony/BMG UK. The people were very pleasant but could not help. The next step for me is to contact Sony/BMG USA. We’ll see. I’m just glad to have written about the album. To me and others fortunate enough to be in our band, Pamela is one of life’s stars. From the maximum kilowatt eyes to the lovely singing voice that needs no pitch-correcting software, she is everything a singer/songwriter should be.