getTV Talks JOHNNY CASH — An Interview With Singer-Songwriter Jackie DeShannon
If Jackie DeShannon had done nothing more than sing “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” she’d have a place of honor in pop music history. But the singer-songwriter’s resume before and after that 1965 Burt Bacharach and Hal David hit is so vast, it demands her inclusion on any list of the Rock Era’s influential women artists.
The Kentucky native was signed by Liberty Records while still in her teens and soon began writing hits for popular artists like Brenda Lee. She opened for the Beatles on their first U.S. tour in 1964, acted in movies like Surf Party (1964) and TV shows like My Three Sons, and scored her highest-charting single in 1969 with “Put A Little Love in Your Heart,” a song she co-wrote with brother Randy Myers. Then, after a few years away from the Top Ten, her “Bette Davis Eyes” was the 1982 Grammy winner for Song of the Year (thanks to a sultry cover by Kim Carnes).
She was also a fixture on TV variety shows throughout the 1960s and early ‘70s, with performances that demonstrated her musical versatility. And you can see what we mean when Jackie DeShannon guests on two episodes of The Johnny Cash Show on getTV.
“Good things often come in small packages, and this young lady is a great big ball of talent!” Cash said of DeShannon. And half a century later, she is still as talented (and busy) as ever. Recent years have seen inductions into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, compilation releases of vintage tracks, acoustic renderings of her signature songs, and new singles.
We talked to Jackie on the phone recently from her home in California. The following are highlights of that conversation, edited and condensed for space and clarity.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up on a farm in Kentucky. During the summer we had jam sessions on the front porch. My father sang with his brother. My mom was a big band singer. My aunt taught classical music.
So, music is in your DNA. Is it true that you were three the first time you got on stage?
That is correct. My mom took me to see Tex Ritter and she looked around and I wasn't in the seat. I was running up to the stage to try to sing with him. Then I sang Gospel songs on the radio when I was four and five. I would stand on a little apple box to reach the microphone.
How did you make the transition to pro?
I had a local hit which made the top five in Chicago. Back in the day, disc jockeys had what they called sock hops where the artist would come in and lip sync their record in front of the audience. Eddie Cochran happened to be on one of the shows and he said, “You should get out to California.” So, I did.
Once you signed with a label, did you have any say in your career path?
I didn't have the leverage. Since I was a songwriter, they were more interested in me writing songs to feed the publishing company. My first hit song was “Dum Dum” by Brenda Lee.
How did you end up on the Beatles first U.S. tour?
I never knew how things came about, because I was busy writing and working. When the limo pulled up at our first show and Paul McCartney got out, I said, “Hi Paul, I'm Jackie DeShannon.” And he said, “I know who you are.” He mentioned that they'd heard quite a few of my demos.
What response would you typically get from the audience?
Everybody got, “We want the Beatles!” That was it, because they came to see the Beatles. I was perfectly fine with that because I was just thrilled to be able to play in front of a Beatles audience. But some of the acts quit.
Did you pick songs that you thought would appeal to the Beatles audience?
No, I sang the records of mine that were hits and maybe one or two that weren’t. You sing what you're known for.
Did you have any interactions with any of the Beatles during that tour that were particularly memorable?
I did have some great experiences. They were really, really nice guys. They were very respectful to all the acts that were on the tour. We just had a great time.
How did “What the World Needs Now is Love” come your way?
I was doing a session with [co-songwriters] Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Hal kept asking Burt to play it, and he was quite reluctant. What I didn't know at the time was a lot of artists had turned it down. So, it wasn’t like they chose me for the song. No one wanted to record it. When Burt finally played it for me, and I learned it, he was over the moon. He closed the piano and said, “We're going to New York to record it!”
Were you surprised when it became a giant hit?
I was thrilled, very happy. Especially because of the message.
You worked with Sonny Bono on “Needles and Pins.” Did you write that with Sonny?
It was written by Jack Nitzsche and Sonny Bono. I didn't get credit, but I did help write it. Jack and I were very close friends and we worked together very closely on that.
Did you enjoy working with Sonny?
I liked him very much. He was a likable person and a very funny guy.
Kim Carnes had a big hit with “Bette Davis Eyes, which you wrote and recorded in 1974. Your version has kind of a honky-tonk vibe. Was that your vision of the song?
No, that was not my vision. Our demo was much more of a rock feel, just straight-ahead rock and roll. But the producer and I did not agree. We had a large disagreement, but he was able to deal with the record company and that version was what was put out.
How did you feel about Kim Carnes' take on it?
It's an extraordinary record and she did an extraordinary vocal. I'm very, very proud of that record. It was number one in practically every country in the world.
Had you ever met Johnny Cash before you did his show? He acted like you were old buddies!
No, I hadn't had the honor of meeting Johnny. He knew I was a country girl from Kentucky, and that’s just how you are. I think a lot of that organic stuff played into our relationship on the program.
Your performances on Johnny Cash are very different from your early variety show appearances on shows like American Bandstand.
The little shows were very early on, so there would be quite a difference in the performances. By the time I got to The Johnny Cash Show, I’d had some hit records. I’d had a lot more experience.
Did you modulate your performance in a different way because you were at the Ryman Auditorium, home of the Opry?
I’m very organic in that sense. If you could take “Yesterday” for instance, the Beatles song, and put it with a country band, it sounds country. It just depends on where you are and what the band is like who accompanies you. I grew up hearing every style of music, so you'll hear cross references in my vocals.
Johnny Cash was a primetime, network show. Were you nervous?
When the opportunity came up, I was over the moon to do it. Who isn't a Johnny Cash fan? But I was a little apprehensive, because I was such a fan and he's such an icon. I was a little nervous, actually.
There’s a sweet moment after your duet is over, when Johnny says, “You sure did good.”
Johnny was so gracious with all of his guests. He was one of a kind. He had such a presence. There will never be another Johnny Cash.
You’ve recorded songs that could be described as pop, rock, country, gospel. Do you think your versatility hurt you?
I do. Now, everybody sings everything. It's totally different from what they did in 1968. If people love you as an artist, they love your music. That was my approach. But the timing was not great, and the record company really didn't understand what they had, as far as my versatility.
Versatility is a real quality of The Johnny Cash Show.
Absolutely. And to me, that's what made it so incredible. His vision was, “I'll have on who I want to have.” But he was Johnny Cash. Back in the day, I couldn’t go in and have a recording session without a male escort, a producer. And if you disagreed with something, the producer was always right. The artist was “difficult.”
Did you fight it? Or did you just accept it?
I didn't accept anything. Sometimes I won, but most of the time I didn't.
Do you think you ever got the reputation as being difficult because you were willing to fight?
Yes, I do.
Do you feel like you’ve gotten the credit you deserve?
There's a lot of great music and a lot of great artists that are amazing, but they don't get through. I feel grateful that I've had some recognition, because many people don't.
What would you say to getTV viewers who will be watching you on Johnny Cash 50 years after those programs aired?
It’s so amazing that these shows will be seen. It was such an honor to work with Johnny, and I’m excited that people who don’t know my work will get a chance to hear it. And people that do know me will enjoy some of their favorite memories.
What’s the secret to your longevity, both personally and professionally?
I think it’s the love of the game. Even though I'm older now, I still feel like there's something more to reach for. There are always new rivers to cross.