Kim Fowley Remembered

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By Ritchie Yorke.

KIM VINCENT FOWLEY

Music producer, composer Born: July 21, 1939, Los Angeles Died: January 15, 2015, West Hollywood.

Although probably best known for discovering and producing the ’70s all-girl rock band The Runaways, Hollywood composer/producer/entrepreneur Kim Fowley had links with a string of early rock ’n’ roll hits.

Always one to stand out in a crowd (inevitable at 1.96m), Fowley also possessed impeccable Hollywood genealogical credentials.

Despite his height and profile, he was renowned for what one observer described as pasty white skin, pale blue eyes, and slicked-back hair. Punk rock pioneer Iggy Pop noted that Fowley looked “physically frail, a lot like Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein”.

He may have appeared frail, but he was a tough competitor.

He was born to actor parents Douglas Fowley and Shelby Payne, and his grandfather was composer Rudolf Friml, who wrote ‘Rose Marie’ and the ‘Indian Love Call’ for movie soundtrack placement. The blood of a strong melody ran in his veins.

Fowley attended University High School in LA at the same time as singers Jan Berry and Dean Torrence (later of Jan and Dean ‘Surf City’ fame), Nancy Sinatra and Bruce Johnston (The Beach Boys), as well as actors Ryan O’Neal, James Brolin and Sandra Lee.

The indefatigable character chalked up his first chart success in 1960 with a doo-wop tune called ‘Cherry Pie’, recorded by Gary Paxton and Skip Battin, aka Skip & Flip.

He continued working with Paxton and they formed a band called The Hollywood Argyles, which soared on the wings of a tune called ‘Alley Oop’.

Soon after came two other chart-topping singles – ‘Popsicles and Icicles’ by the Murmaids and ‘Nut Rocker’ by B. Bumble and the Stingers.

He would ultimately write or produce songs for a long list of artists, including The Byrds, The Beach Boys, Gene Vincent, Warren Zevon, Helen Reddy, Frank Zappa, Cat Stevens, Soft Machine, P.J. Proby and Kiss.

He was a trendsetter and a scene shifter. Fowley sniffed the musical breeze and was out chasing the rudiments of the British rock scene before it collectively dropped an oar in the ocean to cross the Atlantic in the early ’60s.

“Kim was one of the first who smelt something going on in ’63 and came over to England. He was a leader of that American brigade and forever a part of American music,’’ noted Andrew Loog Oldham, The Rolling Stones’ producer and early manager.

This writer first encountered Fowley in London 1966, and I quickly introduced him to Australia’s king of pop, Normie Rowe, who had recently arrived to pursue a rock career abroad. We became firm friends and Normie was mortified to learn of Kim’s death.

“That is so sad – I have such indelible memories of Kim dancing around at the Marquee (in London).’’

As he proved on many occasions, Fowley had a knack of identifying the slightest hint of a trend or the possibility of a breakthrough. He could discern the heart of a hit from a considerable distance.

I was associated with one or two of them myself. Back in ’74, the ever-scheming Fowley had placed an ad in local fanzine Who Put the Bomp seeking female singers and musicians. There was no response, but a year later he met teenage guitarist Joan Jett, who was interested in forming an all-girl rock band.

Fowley put Jett with drummer Sandy West, whom he’d met outside the Rainbow Bar and Grill in Hollywood. He then recruited Lita Ford, Cherie Currie and Jackie Fox.

They began rehearsing and one day, when I was visiting him in Hollywood, he had the band play one of their songs for me over the phone to demonstrate their musical skills.

Fowley sought my opinion, and I was suitably impressed. He signed the band and they became The Runaways.

Several hits (‘Cherry Bomb’, ‘Rock and Roll’, ‘Queens of Noise’) and a 2010 movie The Runaways cemented their historic position.

Fowley constantly gave me credit for prompting him to sign the girls, but I believe it was more a case of his own karma in being able to forecast the musical future.

The movie was a significant success, with Kristen Stewart playing Jett, Dakota Fanning as Currie, and Michael Shannon portraying Fowley.

Another of his key accomplishments features prominently in the annals of musical history. When John Lennon and Yoko Ono were enticed by promoter John Brower and myself to travel to Canada in the summer of ’69 to take part in the Toronto Rock ’n’ Roll Revival, Fowley acted as emcee.

Just before a nervous Lennon and his newly formed Plastic Ono Band ventured on stage for Lennon’s historic first public performance in four years, Fowley urged the audience of some 25,000 to greet them with a blanket of lights – matches, lighters, torches ad infinitum. Given the evolution of technology, this has evolved into a universal habit of applauding performers with a chorus of mobile phone lights.

KimFowley

Fowley’s Good Clean Fun album was released that year and I had the pleasure of contributing liner notes.

It was a two-way street – I penned Fowley’s liner notes but he provided me with linguistic ammunition.

He encouraged me to embrace the term “grease’’ as an all-encompassing term for promo activity, and I did so with passion and purpose. I formed a Canadian personal services company called Super Grease Limited.

In later years, Fowley used his annual music royalty payments to finance his involvement in producing independent films. He travelled to Australia to promote the 2011 film Black Room Doom, about an all-female band using that name and delving into their sexual appetites as they perform in LA fetish clubs.

Fowley was hosting his own weekly satellite radio show on Little Steven’s Underground Garage – operated by Steve Van Zandt, guitarist with Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band – until a week before he died.

“Kim was one of a kind. He’d been everywhere, done everything, knew everybody. We should all have as full a life. I wanted DJs that could tell stories first person,’’ Van Zandt noted.

“Kim was the ultimate realisation of that concept. Rock Gypsy DNA. One of the great characters of all time. Irreplaceable.’’

Of himself, Fowley observed in 2012: “I’m a horrible human being, with a heart of gold. I’m the worst – horrifying, but lovely. I’m a bad guy who does nice things.”

Eccentric and imaginative to the end, when he departed the planet in Hollywood, his last words were, “What’s happening?”

He is survived by his wife, Kara, a music executive. 

Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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