Kentucky-born songwriter Jim Ford may be the most influential musician you’ve never heard of.
Sly Stone, the namesake of psychedelic funk legends Sly and the Family Stone, described Kentucky songwriter Jim Ford as the “baddest white man on the planet” during an amazingly awkward 1971 interview on “The Dick Cavett Show.”
Wearing an oversized and slouching red crochet top hat with a black-and-white sparkling band, complemented by a red sparkling suit and black knee-high boots, Stone also refers to Ford as his “honky-tonk man.”
There’s no telling how far he was into a never-ending bender, but Stone’s far-out behavior clearly perplexed his host and audience. He got it together enough to elaborate on Ford’s beautiful songwriting, telling Cavett that Ford was “destroying the minds of people that have been led to believe that the world is flat.”
“In order to get to it, you gotta go through it,” Stone says.
“Who said that,” Cavett wryly asks, “Emerson or Thoreau?”
“Jimmy Ford,” Stone answers.
The lyric is from Sly’s favorite Ford number, “Go Through Sunday.” (Check out this video around the 2:10 mark for the clip.)
The greatest Kentucky songwriter you’ve likely never heard of also wrote songs with titles like “Big Mouth USA,” “Point of No Return” and “I’d Be Ahead If I Could Quit While I’m Behind.”
In his prime, the fearless Ford was a close associate and inspiration to Stone. They held court at Stone’s L.A. mansion, climbing mountains of cocaine with the likes of Miles Davis and Johnny “Guitar” Watson, while armed guards flanked the entrance. Ford became a major factor in the California music scene of the 1960s and ’70s, writing songs that were covered by some of the greatest musicians of that generation, including singer-songwriter Bobby Womack and soul sister Aretha Franklin.
Ford’s face is also featured in the collage on the back cover of Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 dope classic “There’s A Riot Goin’ On,” although Ford later couldn’t remember what songs he contributed to during the sessions.
Tune in; turn on; get out
James Henry Ford was born on August 23, 1941, in Paintsville, Kentucky.
“I came from a very raw coal-mining background,” Ford told Swedish journalist L-P Anderson during an extensive interview in 2006.
One of nine children, Ford was raised by his grandmother near Van Lear, Kentucky. In order to hear the radio, Ford said, he would often travel to a cabin on a hill in nearby Butcher Holler, where Loretta Lynn lived.
The last place he wanted to end up was a coal mine, however, so when he was 11 he moved to Coldwater, Michigan, to live with his father, a naval officer. He couldn’t stand the cold, so he took some money from his dad and boarded a Greyhound to New Orleans. After a couple of years on the streets and a few in Germany with the service, Ford drifted west, determined to make a living playing music.
Sporting a bushy beard and curly red hair, he came roaring onto the Hollywood scene in his overalls, using little more than good old-fashioned horse sense to find his way.
He met the Vegas Brothers — Pat and Lolly, who later formed the Native American rock band Redbone — while playing the clubs on Sunset Blvd. The trio wrote several songs together, got songwriting contracts and cut a handful of 45’s for Mustang and another small label.
Aretha Franklin cut Ford’s cajun soul number, “Niki Hoeky,” with a young Bobby Womack on guitar. It was Ford’s first taste of success. Ford was then introduced to the billionaire Hollywood agent Jerry Perenchio, who organized the “Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Perenchio took a liking to Ford and proudly introduced him to everyone in Hollywood. “All I had to do was act naturally,” Ford later said. Perenchio gave him a blank check and total creative freedom to make his first and only record, “Harlan County.”
Released in 1969, the album sounds like mountain soul meets Mardi Gras, covered with a fresh coat of sunny psychedelia. Dr. John, James Burton and Jim Keltner rock right along with Ford, who wasted no time reckoning with the state where he was born.
The title track is the story of a man who clawed his way out of the coal mines of Eastern Kentucky and never looked back. “In the back hills of Kentucky I was raised, in a shack on Big Bone Mountain,” Ford sings. With horns blaring behind him, he paints a dreary picture of mountain life, including the shooting of his father “over 15 cents” before praying for deliverance: “We are gathered here today to ask the Lord, to take us out of Harlan County!” Ford shouts.
He was actually born in Johnson County, but Harlan “rolls better off the tongue,” he said.
Living room star
The entire album is brilliantly executed, with Ford’s sparkling songwriting front and center. Though it is now a highly sought after record, “Harlan County” flopped at the time of its release and left its author sorely disappointed.
Elvis Presley reportedly had “Niki Hoeky” on his jukebox and was in California at the same time as Ford, mounting his musical comeback after a long hiatus in Hollywood. Ford also played in the legendary backyard football games at Presley’s Bel-Air mansion.
Next to Presley’s “From Elvis in Memphis,” the iconoclasm of “Harlan County” sticks out like a sore thumb. Ford’s acting career was decidedly less stellar than Presley’s, as well. Ford starred in television ads for milk and cigarettes, for example, and also posed for a satiric illustrated story in “Playboy” magazine in 1970. The songwriter made a habit of shacking up with beautiful women he met along the way. He lived with actress Movita Castenada for nearly 30 years, and helped raise two children from her previous marriage to Marlon Brando. “I’m just acting like I’m not affected by losing your love at all,” he moans in “Me and Marlon.”
Ford’s financial prospects began looking up in 1972. He scored his biggest hit when Bobby Womack covered “Harry Hippie,” forging a musical relationship that would last more than a decade. Ford penned half of Womack’s “The Poet” and a good chunk of “The Poet II” before the relationship soured. Ford later claimed that Womack abandoned him in the 1980s when he needed financial help. “Bobby recorded many of my songs but put himself as co-writer. I reasoned that half the share is better than none at all, but I must say that Bobby Womack sucks — both as a person and as an artist,” Ford told Anderson.
He would perform unbelievably at home, but to go out and put it on a record, I don’t think that was part of him.
Ford wrote the entirety of The Temptations 1976 album, “Wings of Love,” and his songs were covered by many other well-known artists — including Bo Diddley, Tanya Tucker, The Ventures and Nick Lowe — but Ford himself refused to go on tour and snorted up his royalties even quicker than he could write songs. He considered himself to be primarily a songwriter, rather than a performer, preferring to stay home and “cash the money while others do the hard work.”
Several attempts at a follow-up to “Harlan County” failed to materialize, as Ford proved too temperamental to complete anything. A visionary by nature, the compromises necessary to be transformed into a marketable pop star proved either undesirable or too difficult.
Bobby Womack later told journalist Barney Hoskyns that Ford liked staying in and writing. “He would perform unbelievably at home, but to go out and put it on a record, I don’t think that was part of him,” Womack said.
Ford was convinced that he wasn’t getting paid what he was owed, so he signed contracts with labels and then waited them out. “Basically what happened was, they beat me, and I quit on ’em,” Ford said.
A bittersweet coda
In 1993, a couple of years after the death of songwriter Gene Clark, Ford moved out of Los Angeles and in with Clark’s widow, who had been one of his first girlfriends. He later ended up living alone in a trailer park in Fort Bragg, California, where he continued to write songs and work on his prized Peugeot cars. He broke out in tears when he received a letter from Swedish journalist L-P Anderson in 2006, telling him that he had been trying desperately to track him down and asking for permission to fly over and visit. “Who would be looking for me, unless it was the law?” Ford said.
Anderson found a friendly and reflective man who still possessed the wild energy that almost propelled him to stardom. Ford was proud of the work that he had done, especially “Harlan County,” but was also glad to be out of the music business and away from the drugs. “I was feeling like I got robbed over the years, which I did, but it ain’t gonna bother me no more. I’m just gonna pick up and go on, they can kiss the biggest part of my ass.”
His trailer turned out to be a goldmine for Anderson. Collections of reel-to-reel tapes were scattered amongst the clothes covering the carpet. Ford had kept everything along the way and never stopped recording.
“I have this energy, it’s an energy that I have,” Ford told Anderson. “Who could sit down and write two or three songs, and lay down and have a beer, and get up an hour later and write two more? It’s just a gift, and it’s wore me out over my lifetime. You know how much energy that takes? That’s why I have all this energy because I never know what I’m going to write next.”
Arrangements were made with German-based label Bear Family Records to finally release some of the material. Ford was all set for rediscovery, with his back catalog coming out and a show booked in London, when he was found dead at his home on November 18, 2007.
Neighbors called the police after noticing that the hood of Ford’s Peugeot was left propped open in the rain. He was 66 years old. Much of Ford’s life is still a mystery, but Bear Family made good on releasing the records from his missing years. One, “The Sounds of Our Time,” was released while Ford was still living, and five more were released posthumously, including “Big Mouth USA” and “Allergic to Love.” All show an artist who continued to evolve well after he went into seclusion.
“Demolition Expert: Rare Acoustic Demos,” released in 2011, provides a peek into what a hang with Ford was like in his prime. He casually conducts cocaine deals over the phone while the recorder runs, in between entertaining his drunk friends with new songs and covers of Hank Williams, Roy Acuff and Elvis.
The revelers sing along, scream and comment throughout the album while Ford sings, brags and tells stories about songwriting.
“I’m a writer’s writer,” Ford tells them.
The raw recordings come closest to capturing the sound of this restless spirit — distilled in the Kentucky hills and aged by Hollywood excess — whose only relief valve was his voice and his pen.
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