The Singer-Songwriter genre pre-existed 1969 in such artists as Bob Dylan, Donovan, and Paul Simon, but it wasn’t called that then. It was called folk, or folk-rock. Around the end of the 1960s, the term singer-songwriter began to be used primarily to designate songwriters who produced songs with confessional or highly personal lyrics, and who were for the most part living in or around Los Angeles. Though this genre carried forward the peace & love message of psychedelia, on the whole the Singer-Songwriter genre was distinct from psychedelic music in its sincerity (or humorlessness) and its “laid back” rather than adventuring affect. The first Crosby, Stills and Nash album, released May 1969, was one of the earliest of this genre and reached #6 on the U.S. charts (#25 UK). In this collection of Psychedelic Masterworks, I have already noted Marrakesh Express by Graham Nash as having the sort of lyrics that seem taken from a diary. Suite: Judy Blue Eyes by Stephen Stills is an even more obvious example, as it is stripped of psychedelic sound distortion (though still somewhat within the psychedelic aesthetic in its amalgamation of separate songs into one work). It was released in September 1969 and climbed to #21 on American Top 40. For the band’s second album, Déjà vu, they added Neil Young—released in March 1970, it got to the top of the American charts (#5 UK). The album included Woodstock, a single written by Joni Mitchell that CSNY had released in October 1969 which made it to #11 in the U.S., but did not chart in England. CSNY released another topical song after the release of Déjà vu. A few weeks following the Kent State shootings at a war protest rally, Young’s Ohio was released in June 1970 and rose to the #14 position in the U.S., but again, did not stir much interest across the Atlantic. Shortly thereafter, Neil Young left the band, and has yet to return for a studio recording. CSN lost their popular momentum.
Behind the scenes of the success of CSN was Joni Mitchell. Her first album, Song to a Seagull produced by David Crosby, was released in March 1968 and preceded Crosby’s work with CSN. However, it took a while for Mitchell to catch on. Song for a Seagull only barely got on the charts, at #189 in the U.S. Buoyed by Judy Collins’ radio version of Mitchell’s Both Sides Now, Mitchell’s second album Clouds, released May 1969 rose to #31 in the States. She did not receive much attention in England until her third album, Ladies of the Canyon, which celebrated life in Laurel Canyon, California. Released in April 1970, the album made it as high as #27 in the U.S. (#8 in Britain), and brought out her first single to chart in America (at #67) Big Yellow Taxi. Mitchell’s 4th album, titled Blue saw Mitchell branch out from folk forms and odd guitar tunings to jazz piano arrangements, and the album enjoyed a great deal of critical success. In the early part of the 21st century, it is still considered one of the best examples of Singer-Songwriter artistry. Blue was released in July 1971, and took her to the #15 position on the Billboard chart, while achieving the #3 position in Britain. The single from that album, Carey, only made it to #93 in America, but by this time Joni Mitchell was considered a major artist, particularly by critics. Her most popular album in the U.S., Court and Spark, released in January 1974, rose to the #2 position (#14 UK). Help Me, the single from that album, broke into the U.S. Top 10 at #6. Free Man in Paris, also from that album, and carrying a similar sound, rose to #22 in the States. A third single with a similar theme, titled In France They Kiss on Main Street, which rose #66 in the U.S., was included on Mitchell’s album Hissing of Summer Lawns, released November 1975. The album sold fairly well, reaching #4 in the U.S. (#14 UK), and was her most ambitious composition, with a theme of depicting the lives of wealthy young women in L.A. However, some of the lyrics were critical of that lifestyle, and her lyrics were less melodic, set against complex musical backdrops. The rock critics and public taste began to turn against her work. When Hejira was released in November 1976, featuring again odd guitar tunings that provided a drone for even less melodic structures, the album only rose so far as #13 on the U.S. charts (#11 UK). Mitchell ended the 70s decade with Mingus, adapting her lyrics to the ailing jazz musician Charles Mingus’ compositions in the company of Mingus himself. Released in June 1979, it would be Mingus’ last recording, and reached #17 in the U.S. (#24 UK). Mingus died a few months afterward.
The Singer-Songwriter genre provided a vehicle for the emergence of several female artists. Carole King had been behind the scenes, across the street from the Brill Building in New York City, writing hits with her husband Gerry Goffin like Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow since the early 1960s. But it was only after she had divorced Goffin and moved to Laurel Canyon that she was able to record an album of her compositions called Tapestry. Released in February 1971, the album held the #1 spot for 15 consecutive weeks in the U.S. (#4 UK), won the Best Album category of the 1972 Grammys, and is one of the best-selling records of all time. You’ve Got a Friend, a song from the album received the Song of the Year award from the Grammys as well. From Tapestry, the double sided single It’s Too Late/ I Feel the Earth Move, released in April 1971, got to the top of the charts in the U.S (#6 UK). Also from the album, So Far Away, released in March 1971, climbed as high on the Billboard charts as #14. Carly Simon was another female artist who did well in the Singer-Songwriter vein. Her first single, That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be, released in March 1971, reached #10, and her second, Anticipation, released in November 1971, got so far as #13, and was used to advertise slow pouring Heinz ketchup. You’re So Vain, released in November 1972 was a #1 hit and her first to chart in the UK, at #3. Mockingbird with James Taylor, a remake of an Inez and Charlie Foxx hit of 1963, was released in January 1974 and rose to #5 (#34 UK). Simon’s Nobody Does It Better (also written by someone else as the theme song for the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me) was released in August 1977 and got to #2 in the U.S. and #7 in the UK. Simon wrote You Belong to Me with Michael MacDonald of the Doobie Brothers. Released in September 1978, it reached the #6 position in the U.S.
Two of Carly Simon’s boyfriends made it big as Singer-Songwriters in the 1970s. In February 1970, James Taylor’s second album Sweet Baby James was released as a model for sincere laid back performance and got so far as #3 on the charts in the U.S. The album was also a success in the UK, reaching #6. A single from that album, Fire and Rain rose to #3 in the U.S. Taylor continued to have singles that broke the Top 10 throughout the 70s decade: the most successful were You’ve Got a Friend with Carly Simon which topped the charts (#4 UK); and How Sweet is to be Loved by You with Carly Simon (originally a Marvin Gaye song written by Holland-Dozier-Holland) which got to #5 in America. The other Simon boyfriend, Cat Stevens had his first success with the album Tea for the Tillerman, released in November 1970, which got so far as #8 on the American charts (#20 UK). Wild World, from that album, achieved the #11 position as a U.S. single. In October 1971, Stevens released the album Teaser & the Firecat, which climbed to #2 (#3 UK). Peace Train, which got to #7, and Stevens’ version of the Christian hymn Morning Has Broken, that got to #6 (#9 UK), both come from that album. Though Stevens continued to release albums that reached into the Billboard Top 3 through 1974, his influence began to wane, and he composed no further original songs that made it to the top of the radio playlist.
In April 1972 the radio audience was introduced to another Los Angeles singer-songwriter named Jackson Browne, when Doctor My Eyes broke into the charts and got to #8 in the U.S. His second album For Everyman was released in October 1973 and brought the single Take It Easy, which was a hit for a California group called the Eagles, but failed to chart for him. The album rose to #43 in the U.S. The album Late for the Sky, considered his best work by many critics, was released in September 1974, and rose to #14 on Billboard, though its single Fountain of Sorrow, failed to chart. The Pretender, released in November 1976, got to #5 in the U.S. It was the first of his albums to chart in England, reaching #26. The same named single from the album got so far as #58 in America. The album Running on Empty, about life touring with a band on the road, released in December 1977, is the best-selling Browne album to date and achieved the #3 position on Billboard (#28 UK). Its same named single made it so far as #11 in America. Browne’s next album, Hold Out, released in June 1980, was his only #1 album on Billboard, and contained the single The Boulevard which rose to #19 in the U.S. A more popular American singer-songwriter on the radio was John Denver. Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads, released in April 1971, rose to the #2 position and has been claimed as the state song of West Virginia. But Denver actually represented Colorado in most of his material. Rocky Mountain High, released in October 1972, made it to #9 as a single in the U.S. By late 1973 Denver was a mainstream pop song writer and achieved several number one songs, among them Annie’s Song (#1 UK also), and Sunshine on My Shoulder.
Not all members of the Singer-Songwriter genre were Californians, or even Americans. Gordon Lightfoot, originally a Canadian like Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, achieved Top 40 success in the 1970s. If You Could Read My Mind became his first chart success in December 1970, getting to #5 in the U.S. chart (#30 UK). In March 1974, Lightfoot had his first number one hit with Sundown (#33 UK). In August 1974 he got to #10 on Billboard with Carefree Highway. Lightfoot enjoyed another success with The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald which when released in August 1976, got to the #2 position in America (#40 UK) before his star began to fade. One of the earliest singer-songwriters was Van Morrison from Northern Ireland. He had achieved hits before this period, first with a group named Them (with the song Gloria) and in 1967 made his first hit record on his own, the famed Brown-Eyed Girl. It was with the release of Astral Weeks in November 1968, however, that he began to feature in the Singer-Songwriter genre. Though one of the most praised of all pop albums, its Madame George considered by some a masterpiece, it failed to capture the attention of the public upon its release and did not chart in the U.S or the UK. His following album, Moondance, issued in February 1970 fared better in America and got to #29 (#32 UK). A double single from that album, Come Running / Crazy Love climbed to the #39 in the U.S. Even more popular was Domino, released in October 1970 and breaking into the Top 10 at #9, his biggest selling song in the U.S. Saint Dominic’s Review, issued in July 1972, became Morrison’s best-selling album of the 1970s, reaching #15. Like Astral Weeks, it was made for listening as an entire album and resisted popularization on the radio. Even less well known, indeed unappreciated in his lifetime, was the Englishman Nick Drake, who produced three albums, all valued in the early 21st Century, but failures upon their release: Five Leaves Left (November 1969), Bryter Layter (November 1970), and Pink Moon (February 1972). Drake died of a drug overdose in November 1974, completely unaware of the recognition his work would eventually receive. Since around 1997, several cuts from his albums, including River Man, ‘Cello Song, Fly, Northern Song, and Pink Moon have found their way into movie soundtracks.