Just as word came down that Bear Family is scheduled to release a second collection of Jim Ford material â€“ a disc called The Point of No Return, comprised almost entirely of unreleased recordings plus a lost 45, on deck for February of next year â€“ the label also ran news that the singer/songwriter was found dead in his home on November 18. Details surrounding his death are slow to surface -- news leaked out slowly and the cause of his death is still undetermined -- but such haziness is only appropriate for a musician that dropped out of the public eye over 30 years ago, leaving his music beloved by a cult that was small, but passionate, keeping his name alive despite the dearth of recordings -- he only had one album, 1969's Harlan County -- and absence of reissues. Ford's music was passed around by word of mouth, handed over on battered cassettes, sought out in used record stores and, these days, mentioned in blogs. His was the name that popped up in the writing credits by Bobby Womack, Aretha Franklin, Ronnie Wood, Dave Edmunds and, of course, Nick Lowe, who vocally championed Ford over the years and covered his songs with Brinsley Schwarz and put Ford's "36 Inches High" on Jesus of Cool. His discography was so paltry it couldn't warrant a full article in Record Collector or Goldmine, his story so hidden he couldn't get a feature in Mojo.
It wasn't until this very year that biographical details finally surfaced, thanks to the efforts of Swedish music journalist L-P Anderson who managed to track Jim Ford down, finding him somewhere in Northern California, roughly around Mendocino, in spring of 2006. Anderson coaxed Ford into speaking about his past, eventually gaining enough trust that the songwriter opened his vaults, giving the journalist unreleased songs and demos, several of which surfaced on Bear Family's The Sounds of Our Time, which contained the entirety of Harlan County and several rare singles sides as well. Harlan County had previously reached CD before -- Edsel put it out about ten years ago -- and those lucky enough to have tracked it down during that brief time it was in print were familiar with its easy blend of country, soul, blues, and rock & roll, a sound not too dissimilar to the Band, but a whole lot funkier -- which is as it should be, as Ford claimed Sly Stone as a good friend, reportedly playing guitar on There's a Riot Goin' On.
The equally reclusive Stone contributed a brief testimonial to The Sounds of Our Time -- "Jimmy Ford is the baddest white man on the planet. Killer writer." -- but despite these heavy soul credentials, bolstered by his own early blue-eyed soul sides and covers of his tunes by Aretha Franklin and Bobby Womack, his reputation was a country-rocker, a progenitor of pub rock, thanks largely due to the spell he cast on a young Nick Lowe when he was co-leading Brinsley Schwarz with Ian Gomm. According to Anderson's liner notes Ford was "unimpressed" with Brinsley Schwarz but that lack of admiration was not mutual, as the Brinsleys covered Ford's "JuJu Man" and from that point forward Lowe's songwriting bore the influence of Ford's easy and earthy tunes, songs that were alternately soulful and sly. This versatility was hinted at on Harlan County, but The Sounds of Our Time really brought home the depth of Ford's talent, as it contained more of his slow, passionate soul songs (the title track), clever country ("Happy Songs Sell Records, Sad Songs Sell Beer"), funky wah-wah work-outs ("Rising Sign"), soul-pop reminiscent of the Box Tops (the early single "Linda Comes Running"), careening Dylan-esque Thin Wild Mercury Music ("Ramona"), and backwoods poetry so vivid it bolstered his claim that he penned Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" when he was dating the songstress.
Ford revealed that gem to Anderson and the liner notes to The Sounds of Our Time, where it fit into a tapestry of tales, both small and tall, that painted Jim Ford as a true maverick of the '60s and the '70s. There are pictures of a comic photo story called The Good, the Bad and the Garlic from a 1970 Playboy, where Ford cavorted with topless vixens and Tony Randall. It's revealed that he lived with actress Movita Castenada, who had two children with Marlon Brando that Ford raised with her. He jammed with Sly Stone, he pushed Harlan County on American Bandstand, wrote the Wings of Love album for the Temptations, rejected both the Brinsleys and Joe Cocker's Grease Band when he tried to cut a follow-up to Harlan County on Liberty Records. Soon, he simply dropped out of sight, suffering from substance abuse problems, eventually straightening himself out with the help his friend and neighbor Merrily Pence, who he was seen photographed with in the liners of The Sounds of Our Time.
According to L-P Anderson's obituary on the Bear Family site, that CD had done well enough to give Jim Ford a better financial outlook, and it received enough attention that he was entertaining the possibility of recording new songs, possibly with producer Jim Dickinson and guitarist James Burton, legendary for his work with Elvis Presley and Rick Nelson. There was also a charity concert for Ford in May of 2008, where Jim was scheduled to perform with Nick. It is very, very sad that none of these plans will materialize, yet there is considerable comfort in realizing that Jim Ford did not die as an unknown in a trailer park in northern California. In the last couple years of his life, he finally surfaced -- not on a large scale, but large enough for those who care -- and he got to tell his story, sharing his unheard music along the way and thereby ensuring that his legacy will not be lost but instead preserved. Pay tribute to this unheralded hero by seeking out The Sounds of Our Time -- roots-rock is rarely as soulful or as funky as Jim Ford's music.
Best Jim Ford Songs Recorded by Jim Ford:
Dr. Handy's Dandy Candy
Working My Way to LA
Big Mouth USA
36 Inches High
Sounds of Our Time
I'll Wonder What They'll Do With Today
Happy Songs Sell Records, Sad Songs Sell Beer
Linda Comes Running
Best Jim Ford Songs Recorded by Others:
Niki Hoeke â€“ Aretha Franklin
Harry Hippie â€“ Bobby Womack
I Feel a Groove Comin' On â€“ Bobby Womack
Ju Ju Man â€“ Dave Edmunds
Ju Ju Man - Brinsley Schwarz
Ju Ju Man â€“ Flamin' Groovies
36 Inches High â€“ Nick Lowe
Hangin' from Your Lovin' Tree â€“ The Herd
I'm Ahead if I Can Quit While I'm Behind â€“ Brinsley Schwarz
She Never Told Me â€“ Ron Wood
Best Jim Ford Song That May or May Not Have Been Written by Jim Ford:
Ode to Billie Joe â€“ Bobbie Gentry