Danny O'Keefe - "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues"

by Bruce Pollock

They're Playing My Song is a column by Bruce Pollock, where he focuses on the one song that had the greatest impact on a particular artist or songwriter's career. Here, he speaks with Danny O'Keefe.
"Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues"
Artist: Danny O'Keefe
Writer: Danny O'Keefe
Album: O'Keefe
Year: 1972
Chart Position: #9 (US)
Label: Signpost
While "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues" remains Danny O'Keefe's only Top 10 hit, his real signature song is "The Road," a scorched earth picture of a one-hit wonder on the road to nowhere that Jackson Browne famously covered in 1977 on the album Running on Empty. It's such a pointed and poignant portrayal of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, that I figured it had to be written in the aftermath of his lone hit, autobiographically detailing his frustration with and ultimate abandonment of that lifestyle in favor of something more conducive to great songwriting. The truth is "The Road" was written well before "Good Time Charlie" put O'Keefe, however briefly, on that soul-sucking road.

"I imagine a lot of songs are prophetic like that," he said. "I don't know if it's true for other writers, but it has been for me. They're sort of like impressions you get of the future. A lot of them are things that are maybe already in the process of happening and you're catching those sort of deep bubbles of intuition or inspiration that slowly come to the surface."

Well before a Top 10 single made the road a harrowing reality, O'Keefe had had more than his fill of the life. "For me the road was basically go out for six weeks and after six weeks you were usually sick of the road and sort of beat to death and poor, because unless you stay out there for a long period of time it's very hard to recoup those expenses that you have when you're carrying a band."

If "The Road" was a disturbing vision of a future just around the bend, what appears on his resume as a career highlight - a collaboration with Bob Dylan on the song "Well Well Well" - also failed to measure up to the fantasy. "There wasn't much of a collaboration," O'Keefe explained. "Somebody from his publishing company sent me a demo. It sort of made me think that Bob had recommended that I try to write something to it. But whether Bob actually did or not we may never know. Bob had done the demo, but there were only two words on it, 'Well, well,' that he was using as a cue to let the band know he was going to change chords. It was a funny context, that Bob Dylan possibly would have sent me a demo that I would write lyrics to, so I appreciated the humor and I thought that Dylan would, too. Although I don't know if he did. So I just added another 'well' and made it a song about groundwater.

"I never heard from Bob, but the people in his office loved it. I'm not positive about this, but I think it's true, that Maria Muldaur, who is an old friend of Bob's, called him asking for material and he sent her that song. So he must've liked it. And she cut a great version with Mavis Staples. And David Lindley cut a version of it. And then Ben Harper cut a version with the Blind Boys of Alabama. So the song has legs. That's the beauty of a song, that you can't really predict its journey very well."

Far from being a one-hit wonder, O'Keefe's songs have been covered by a rootsy coterie of classy artists, including Judy Collins, Donnie Hathaway, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Alan Jackson, Jimmy Buffett, Alison Kraus, John Denver, and Elvis Presley. In the not too distant future, a more intimate version of "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues," along with some other classic O'Keefe songs, as well as some that have never been released, will appear on a new O'Keefe album, his first since 2008. Doing this project "probably wouldn't have been my first choice," said O'Keefe, "but I warmed to it. Partly it was so people could hear how I do these songs now, which I think is interesting. And partly it was to have versions that could be placed in TV or film that are different from the old versions. So, it was partly a business decision. But then once I got to playing them pretty much with old friends, it feels more like I'm playing with my band as opposed to playing with studio players. And I like the feel of that. We're just at the mixing stages now, so it's kind of hard to get a perspective on it until it's all mixed and you step back a ways and listen, and listen with other people, and kind of see what you've got. Because you're trying not to remember the older versions, and yet you still want to be faithful to them in some degree."
Danny O'Keefe:
"Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues" was written in 1968 or maybe very early in '69. It was just one of those songs that came very quickly. It was a gift. I was at a very poor stage of my life, probably because I was young and trying to be a musician. I cut a demo of it, but I don't know that I ever played it live other than sort of as an audition piece for different record companies, because I really wasn't playing live very much at that point. I thought it had some money in it. I mean, that's not why it was written, but that's the first thing you see in someone who has a musical business interest. If they perk up when you play a song, then that's probably one that could do some business. What you know about a song is not so much from yourself, but from the listener, and particularly listeners who are interested in the financial aspect of it. That's true of publishers and it's true of record guys. That's what they've trained themselves to do, ideally, especially if they're good music people.

Around the time of writing the song, I was managed by Charlie Greene, who had managed Buffalo Springfield. Ahmet Ertegun at Atlantic Records was pretty open to hearing any new pitches from Charlie. So we were sitting in Charlie's office one night and he got a call from Ahmet and probably had a wild idea in the middle of the conversation. He said, "Ahmet, this kid wrote a song about me and I want you to hear it." So I took the guitar and played it into the phone for Ahmet. Charlie pitched him that I was in a band and that he ought to come over and hear us. But I didn't have a band, and I was not very experienced at putting bands together, although I'd been a member of some bands, temporary kinds of things. And I'd usually been a singer rather than a guitar player. So the people I put together; we didn't have equipment or anything; we never even really rehearsed. Ahmet came over and we played "Good Time Charlie" on a steel guitar, along with a couple of other things, and he agreed to sign the group. Unfortunately, the group, because it really wasn't a group, fell apart before it ever came together.

Ahmet was a great businessman and had a keen ear for talent. But part of the problem about him as a producer was that he was very busy. He was an international man at that time. So you got his attention as much as you could, but it would have been better if he'd passed me on early to Arif Mardin. That's probably why the first album came and went. It had a single, "Covered Wagon," that got played in some places. "Good Time Charlie" was on that record, but it was never a single. I mean, it didn't sound like a hit. But everybody at the label still thought it could be a hit. So, when we went back fairly quickly to do the next album, Ahmet passed me on to Arif, which was one of the best things he ever did for me.

Arif and I went to American Studios in Memphis and that was the version that became the hit. The musicians there were all great guys, great players, very inventive, very dedicated to making the song work. A lot of those guys played with Elvis over the years and early on. I think Elvis covered "Good Time Charlie" largely because of those guys. He did it on an album called Good Times.

That was great, watching it go up the charts. Unfortunately, nobody had any idea of what was the second single. Under different circumstances we probably would have taken more time and made sure the album was at least two or three singles deep. I went right out on the road, learning by the seat of my pants as I went along, and I wasn't very good or gifted at playing live shows. But we went out and did it. It was already a big hit when I went out with the Hollies and the Raspberries on kind of like a 'hits' package. That was an agent's idea, but it wasn't really a brilliant way of building me as an artist. I didn't do the coffee house circuit until some years later.

I'm still very fond of "Good Time Charlie." The best songs you've written are ones that continually move you emotionally every time you play them. And I have a bunch of those. It's not an encore. It's usually the next to last song I play. People are expecting to hear it. I suppose I could play it earlier in the set, but it just seems like, you know, it's 40 some years old, so it's like a dear old friend. I mean, it allowed me to remain in the music business for the course of my life. It's a song that everybody knows. Not everybody connects me with it. They may have heard Willie's version or Elvis's version or who knows who's version and they connect it with them more than they do with me, which is just fine.

June 11, 2013.
Much more on Danny at dannyokeefe.com.

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Comments: 2

  • Jim from Evanston IllinoisAlways intrigued by this song.....Played it all the time on the AM radio here in Chicago on WLS and WCFL IN THE EARLY 70'S ......What's funny has I have gotten older I enjoy it more ......actually bought the album in the late 70's at a used record store.......A Classic
  • Mimi Sharpe from Sacramento, CaAlways an important song to me. I was in clinical depression for about 6 mos. (result of brother dying) and I woke up one morning to the radio playing Good Time Charlie -- I suddenly felt hopeful for the first time in 6 mos. and I never fell backward again. Everytime I hear that song I smile and appreciate that it brought my life back to me. Danny O'Keefe rocks!
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