ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH
The enchanting saga of Tumbleweed Records


"I will get this right even if it takes all the money Tumbleweed has got."

As the excitement of the 1960s psychedelic explosion faded away and the once-magic streets of SF and LA were crowded with crazies and hard drugs, many westcoast heads felt an urge to retreat into quieter surroundings. This rural exodus led to Sierra Nevada communes, artist colonies in Marin County, expensive hideaways in Laurel Canyon, primitive farms out in the California desert, and, in several cases, to the high mountain air of distant Colorado. For a few years Denver and the nearby jet-set ski resorts attracted hippie musicians from all across the USA. A significant nexus in this early 1970s scene was the newly founded record label TUMBLEWEED. Despite having a few chart hits, a number of high quality LP releases, and providing a springboard for 1970s star Michael Stanley, Tumbleweed's name has remained obscure.

I originally came into contact with the label thanks to the excellent 1973 LP by ROBB KUNKEL, who also worked as an A & R representative for Tumbleweed. Based mainly on Robb's recollections of the weed-fuelled daze at Tumbleweed, here's a detailed look at the label and its releases for the first time in 30 years.



Discography

ARTHUR GEE - "Arthur Gee" 1971 (Tumbleweed TWS 101)

DANNY HOLIEN - "Danny Holien" 1972 (Tumbleweed TWS 102)

ALBERT COLLINS - "There's Gotta Be A Change" 1972 (Tumbleweed TWS 103)

DEWEY TERRY - "Chief" 1972 (Tumbleweed TWS 104)

PETE MCCABE - "The Man Who Ate The Plant" 1973 (Tumbleweed TWS 105)

MICHAEL STANLEY - "Michael Stanley" 1973 (Tumbleweed TWS 106)

ARTHUR GEE - "City Cowboy" 1973 (Tumbleweed TWS 107)

RUDY ROMERO - "To The World" 1973 (Tumbleweed TWS 108)

[not released?] - (Tumbleweed TWS 109)

[not released?] - (Tumbleweed TWS 110)

ROBB KUNKEL - "Abyss" 1973 (Tumbleweed 111)

 



The Label

Tumbleweed was formed in 1971 by a couple of music business pros from Los Angeles, soon-to-be-famous Eagles producer Bill Szymczyk among them. The venture was typical of the "back to the country" trend of the time, and concern over a potential Big Earthquake in LA provided additional impetus. 

ROBB KUNKEL: "Tumbleweed was the brainchild of Larry Ray and producer Bill Szymczyk. Larry Ray was head of promotion for ABC-Dunhill, while Bill had produced the James Gang, BB King and others at ABC. In 1970 Larry and Bill flew to Denver and pitched the idea of Tumbleweed records. I came in at the ground floor as I was the ABC-Dunhill promotion man in Denver. We all drank root beer with magic mushrooms and drove up to the mountains to see Judy Roderick and the band Sixty Million Buffalo. These guys were terrified of the earthquake situation in LA and wanted to do the label in Denver."

Tumbleweed was not to be some meagerly funded hippie DIY dream however, as loads of corporate dollars were within reach.

ROBB: "The money came from Gulf-Western, a hard boiled corporation that saw that money was being made by hippie music and changes in the society. Remember, they also backed Robert Evans who took Paramount films from 5th to number one with his selection of movies. Tumbleweed being in Denver was unknown to the money company who had no clue what they were doing and figured if it did not make money, it would make a great writeoff. Larry Ray and Bill Szymczyk talked Gulf-Western out of 1 and a half million dollars to do Tumbleweed, so the money -- drugs, plane trips, best studios, fine graphics, expensive dining etc --  was made possible until Gulf-Western dumped the label."

For younger people only familiar with more recent artists, it's hard to imagine a large corporation letting millions go beyond the office door with virtually no strings attached. Artists now are highly managed investments with all of their moves coordinated by some executives sitting around the boardroom in big and tall office chairs. In the '60s and '70s however, attitudes of those in the big and tall office chairs was a little different. They knew there was money and profit to be made from the emerging hippie music scene but had no idea how to do it and weren't interested in leaving their desk and getting involved. Many bands, artists, labels and recording studios had corporate sponsorship, but even then not many enjoyed the freedoms or substantial funding that Tumbleweed did.



Due to the financial background and the atmosphere at the time, Tumbleweed turned into a big stoned party, apart from putting a lot of money into their releases.

ROBB: "I was living in a 3 story old mansion with fireplaces in every room, owned by a rich pal. Tumbleweed moved in to the bottom floor at 1368 Gilpin St in Denver, I lived on the 2nd floor. It was a constant party house and Joe Walsh, Albert Collins, Don & Dewey etc were always around. Pinball machines, massive monitor JBLs in every room, the basement converted into a graphics studio. It was 2 years of great times on corporate money."

All in all, nine LPs were released on Tumbleweed, and a bunch more were recorded but never came out. All the LPs are expensive productions both in terms of studio resources and lavish packaging, which typically included ambitious gatefold sleeves, booklets, and more. The production credits are littered with heavy session names out of LA, and classy studios were often used. As a consequence many of the Tumbleweed LPs have a very attractive sound, flawless yet organic, the overall good vibes of stoned easy living in Denver creeping its way onto the vinyl. However, with so much efforts put into the creative side, very little energy was spent on promotion and distribution.

ROBB: "Several thousand pressings were done on the early albums, but Tumbleweed was way more interested in making music than the business of music. They were energetic with recording but had virtually no promotion. Had they been a production house for a major label they might have made it."

As it was, and despite reasonable success with Danny Holien, the Gulf-Western $$ pipeline ran dry in 1973 and Tumbleweed dissolved. Robb Kunkel's "Abyss" LP was the last album on the label, in a much smaller pressing than the first releases, and again with virtually no promotion. Today, Robb has fond memories of the high life of the Tumbleweed era:

ROBB: "The Tumbleweed house in the winter had fires going in every room as there was only steam radiators for heat; they went through cords of wood. Drugs were a daily obsession, starting with acid-mescaline-hash-weed, eventually going to cocaine-opium and a drug called Astral Flash."

Q: What was Astral Flash?

ROBB: "It might have been MDA -- I do not know - but it was a powder put in water and snorted out of Dristan bottle. It caused tunnel vision and hearing and produced intense laughing euphoria. We all used it on the Dewey Terry session at the Record Plant and since no one could hear properly we called the session and went bowling... There were catered parties often -- one time a hotspring hotel was rented and the entire company did acid and took hot baths. Valerie Perrine the actress was there and it was very amusing; everyone naked and into hippiedom. Thanksgiving 1971 was held at my rooms as it was also my 21st birthday -- everyone was on mescaline and Astral Flash. I was given a present of MC Escher prints and a coffee can full of Humboldt weed. Dewey Terry entertained the crowd with versions of "Big Boy Pete" and "Justine". The Tumbleweed years were a great time to be young, creative and totally stoned at the expense of Gulf-Western."



The Releases

ARTHUR GEE - "Arthur Gee" 1971 (Tumbleweed TWS 101)

Arthur Gee's name has been bandied about a bit of late, as he was recently identified as the guy behind a mysterius 1969 demo LP on the Two:Dot label in California, credited only to 'Arthur'. A whole LP's worth of recordings from this pre-Tumbleweed era was recently released by RD Records in Switzerland, including earlier versions of a couple of numbers that would turn up on this Tumbleweed album. Arthur was originally from Canada, and after a few years and one more LP for Tumbleweed would return there. His LP was one of the few that Tumbleweed actively promoted, as evident from the trade paper ad below.

The Arthur Gee LP is a good moody hippie folkrock excursion with obvious psych remnants as well as nods to "Blonde On Blonde" and Tim Hardin. Two tracks from Gee's 1969 demo LP appear in far more elaborate production. Not a bad start for the Tumbleweed label.

ROBB: "I knew Arthur Gee -- he was a Canadian quintessential hippie in dress and manner. He wrote dark folk songs and did two records for Tumbleweed. He was Tumbleweed's first record and his album cover was done by Aaron Shumaker."

 


DANNY HOLIEN - "Danny Holien" 1972 (Tumbleweed TWS 102)

On the back of a national hit 45 this Stephen Stills-styled LP turned out to be a bit of success for Tumbleweed in the Fall 1972. Holien also guested as a session musician on a few other Tumbleweeds. He was originally from Minnesota and would later form the band Midwest.

ROBB: "Danny Holien was the biggest record for the label, the song "Colorado" was in top 60. He had moved to Denver and had a trio [the Shades] that I produced a couple singles for before taking him to Tumbleweed. Bill Szymczyk produced his album. Danny was a fine songwriter -- a great vocalist and excellent lead guitarist. He lived in an A frame up in the mountains near Evergreen."


ALBERT COLLINS - "There's Gotta Be A Change" 1972 (Tumbleweed TWS 103)

As evident from the two subsequent releases, Tumbleweed wasn't all honkie hippies mellowing out up in the mountains. In an effort to broaden the label's roster, two noted black performers were brought in.

ROBB: "Bill got hold of Albert Collins thinking that he could duplicate the great success he had with BB King. Collins' record is great but did not have the impact or distribution of BB King."

Here's a comment on the LP from noted 1960s-70s music expert Stephane Rebeschini: 

"The Albert Collins LP is a solid blues album, but far from his best LPs, probably because the production includes too many guests (Dr John, various horn players) and features mostly white session men/musicians: Jim Keltner, Jesse Ed Davis, Brian Garofalo... Good L.A musicians but not bluesmen! Only 9 tracks, with great blues ("There's got to be a change") but also a dispensable novelty blues called "Frog jumpin". Once again, amazing packaging with gatefold and giant poster."


DEWEY TERRY - "Chief" 1972 (Tumbleweed TWS 104)

As member of legendary 1950s r'n'b duo Don & Dewey and a very successful songwriter ("Justine", "Farmer John", "Big Boy Pete" -- all three of which became standards with 1960s frat bands), Dewey Terry's place in r'n'r history extends far beyond what will be detailed here. Robb Kunkel brought Dewey to Tumbleweed for what I believe is the only solo album in his career, a soulrock outing which was nominated to a Grammy for its artwork (by Aaron Schumaker). Don Harris is on the LP as is Harvey Mandel on guitar, as well as session horn & string players.

ROBB: "The Dewey Terry 'Chief' album is great -- I did the arrangements with Dewey and it was a blast to make. Dewey died last year (2003) and Don 'Sugarcane' Harris died in '98. They were both dear friends and I produced many projects with them. True originals and funnier than any comedy team. As an example, when playing at Tulagi in Boulder in 1973 Don was coked up and drank a bottle of Cuervo. We were in the dressing room and Don somehow got hold of a butcher knife and lunged at Dewey -- Dewey held his trembling arm with the knife aimed at his chest and calmly said "now Don, I told you a hundred times -- liquor and weapons do not mix". I played many gigs with these guys and it was always a laugh riot."


PETE MCCABE - "The Man Who Ate The Plant" 1973 (Tumbleweed TWS 105)

Next to Robb Kunkel, this obscurity is my favorite Tumbleweed LP, an idiosynchratic and obviously stoned hippie-folk/singer songwriter album with terrific lyrics and an atmosphere of rare warmth. Robb Kunkel rates it the best thing the label ever released:

ROBB: "Pete Mccabe was a local folkie in Denver; after I saw him play at Harry Tufts-Denver Folklore center I took him to the label and they liked his songs. Bill Szymczyk did the record with excellent musicians like Jim Keltner, Plas Johnson and arrangements by Jimmie Haskell. Mccabe is now a graphics guy in LA and I see him often. He writes one tune a year and it is always pure genius. The record got very little attention -- it was way ahead of its time and Tumbleweed had very little promotion or distribution, as if they thought just making these records would ensure sales."


MICHAEL STANLEY - "Michael Stanley" 1973 (Tumbleweed TWS 106)

Michael Stanley would reach success in the second half of the 1970s with his radio-friendly AOR style, and is still a household name in hometown Cleveland today. This somewhat unfocused debut LP contains "Rosewood Bitters" which has become a classic among Stanley fans, and is an appealing piece of westcoast-influenced melodic 70s rock with good slide guitar from Joe Walsh. In a 1978 interview, Stanley revealed that the Tumbleweed LP was held up from release for almost a year due to some legal problems involving parent company Gulf + Western. The LP has never been reissued, but "Rosewood Bitters" can be found on most Stanley retrospectives. Recorded in LA, the album features the usual roster of heavy session names, including Todd Rundgren and Rick Derringer in addition to Walsh. Prior to his solo career, Stanley was in psych band Silk under his real name, Michael Gee.

ROBB: "Michael Stanley was an old friend of Bill Szymczyk who brought him from Ohio to record for Tumbleweed. His record launched his career."


ARTHUR GEE - "City Cowboy" 1973 (Tumbleweed TWS 107)

Gee's debut LP apparently did well enough for him to be offered another shot with this follow-up, which was released as by the Arthur Gee-Whizz Band.

ROBB: "Arthur
was convinced he was a genius but in my opinion was very weak as a writer. One time visiting his house he asked if anyone wanted some smoke, then proceeded to pack his pipe with weed that had fallen on the shag rug and was full of threads -- not very smooth on the draw."

This LP was Gee's last attempt in the US before returning to his native Canada. Apart from the stunning psychedelic artwork it is considered inferior to the debut, with a more pronouced country influence.


RUDY ROMERO - "To The World" 1973 (Tumbleweed TWS 108)

Like all Tumbleweeds, this pop/singer-songwriter LP has an interesting background story. Romero was a talented member of San Diego 1960s band the Hardtimes who did an LP for World Pacific in 1968 (recently reissued). Apparently having relocated to Los Angeles this was his first solo effort, and it features a little-known guest appearance by none other than George Harrison, who plays guitar and sings backing vocals on four tracks. Whether George's presence was the reason is unknown, but this LP was also released in England as Tumbleweed 3304. In typical fashion the artwork was extravagant, with a diecut cover and a white vinyl pressing. Romero passed away in the early 1980s.

ROBB: "Rudy Romero was a LA songwriter. The LP which is very pop sounding was produced by Lee Kefer and engineered by Bill Szymcyzk at the Record Plant. Romero's music was a pop-rock sound and he had a very high strong voice. Once again the record was made at great expense and never promoted."


[not released?] - (Tumbleweed TWS 109)

[not released?] - (Tumbleweed TWS 110)

As far as I can tell, these two catalog numbers were allocated but the projects never realized. After a two-year party and a string of lavish, expensive LPs that failed to sell the corporate horn of plenty probably showed signs of emptying out at this point.

ROBB: "Tumbleweed recorded several things that were not released. I am not sure of the numbers but they did about 19 records. One was an old lady talking, a neighbor in Denver -- it was very humorus, called Jesse. Bill Szymczyk did 60 Million Buffalo with Judy Roderick, which came out on Atlantic." [more on this below]


ROBB KUNKEL - "Abyss" 1973 (Tumbleweed 111)

Robb's LP is what originally sparked my interest in Tumbleweed. Pressed in a small run as the operation was already running on fumes, it is by far the rarest thing the label released, and to many perhaps also the best. I've written a detailed review of this rather irresistable westcoast-influenced melodic psych/rock LP, which can be found here.

ROBB: "I am glad to hear some folks enjoy Abyss. It was a blast to be 21 at the Village Recorder, high as a kite, doing it in Quadraphonic. 'You were the morning' was written by Thomas Stockwell and I learned the song near Chicago in 1964. When session guitar master Howard Roberts was doing the banjo part at the end of 'You were the morning' he had done many lines and glasses of Remy Martin and had to keep doing re-takes. He looked up at the window to the control room and said, 'I will get this right if it takes all the money Tumbleweed has got'. 'Whispermuse' was based on the writing of Baudelaire who I was reading at the time. My upstairs 4 rooms had leaded glass round windows which I put in the lyrics: 'times magic sunlight dances through a round window'. I think 500 copies of 'Abyss' were pressed but it could be more. The company went under just at the time of it's release."



Related



Bill Szymczyk

Apart from co-founding the label, Bill Szymczyk appears to have been involved with every single Tumbleweed release. He was already a respected name after recording projects that involved the James Gang and BB King's classic "The Thrill Is Gone", although even greater success waited shortly after Tumbleweed folded.


ROBB: "Bill went on to be the producer for the Eagles which has made him a multi-millionaire. He was a huge tall guy, and an excellent engineer with great love of the studio. He was so good the records mixed like a pre-mix -- once everything was set he did not move a fader or change eq."



60 Million Buffalo

This local Colorado outfit, today remembered mostly for their great band name, recorded an LP for Tumbleweed in September 1971 that ended up on another label.  

ROBB: "The 60 Million Buffalo record was produced by Bill Szymczyk and a Tumbleweed production that ended up on Atco records. It is a down and funky roots record with the great vocals of Judy Roderick, who was a genius writer and singer formerly on Vanguard records (Woman Blue). The jukebox on the record cover was in the Tumbleweed house."

Release details: "Nevada Jukebox" (Atco sd 33-384, 1972).



Howard Roberts

This avantgarde guitar LP has a lot of familiar Tumbleweed names involved, as well as some entertaining private jokes hidden in the sleeve artwork. Here's the lowdown courtesy of Stephane Rebeschini, who brought the album to my attention: 

"One track is called 'Five Gallons Of Astral Flash could keep you up for thirteen weeks'. The inside gatefold shows a kind of turk/arab smoking a waterpipe, surrounded by a pot of 'Astral Flash', a box of 'Czygars'..."


ROBB: The "Antelope Freeway" album was an experimental record produced by Ed Michel and Bill Szymczyk. It was the record that made me want Howard Roberts on my record -- what a guitar player."

Release details: "Antelope Freeway" (Impulse AS-9207, 1971)



THE END


Thanks to Robb Kunkel for his time & memories, and to Stephane Rebeschini for valuable input.




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