by Kevin Burton
Let me be clear: the beat, the rock and roll beat, does not free one’s soul. But in the secular sense it sure frees something.
And that’s the heart of the great 1973 song “Drift Away.”
Lawrence Darrow Brown was born in Simonton, Texas on this day in 1940. You know him as Dobie Gray, the voice behind the number five smash.
No, Drift Away was not a one-hit wonder for Gray. His “The In Crowd” went to number 13 in 1965. It’s a good tune with a good beat, but to me it’s antithetical to Drift Away.
The In Crowd guy derives status from supposed popularity and self-importance, “spending cash, talking trash…we’ve got our own way of walking we’ve got our own way of talking,” etc.
I have no time for that. That “in” is just short for insular.
The Drift Away guy knows from hard experience what reality is all about.
“Day after day I’m more confused.
Yet I look for the light through the pourin’ rain. You know that’s a game that I hate to lose. And I’m feeling the strain
Ah, ain’t it a shame?”
“Oh, give me the beat, boys, and free my soul, I want to get lost in your rock ‘n’ roll
and drift away.”
The second verse looks inside “Beginnin’ to think that I’m wastin’ time
I don’t understand the things I do” and outside” The world outside looks so unkind.
And I’m countin’ on you to carry me through.”
Drift Away sounds like a great idea to me at least three or four times a month. Gray’s vocal performance makes the notion seem believable.
The In Crowd is a throwaway song with a danceable beat. Drift Away is a true contribution to American literature, written by Omaha native, songwriter and producer Mentor Williams.
Williams, who died in 2016, “worked at The Record Plant with Paul McCartney and Kenney Jones and at Apple Studios in London with Stealers Wheel and Gerry Rafferty,” according to Wikipedia.
“He produced albums for his brother Paul Williams, as well as for Kim Carnes, John Stewart, and Dobie Gray for whom he wrote the standard Drift Away, among others.”
“Williams was a post-production, re-mix engineer for The Muppet Movie, which won a Grammy Award and an Academy Award,” according to Wikipedia.
Drift Away was both a financial and artistic breakthrough for Williams, according to Songfacts.
“I think one of the hardest things for me to learn about songwriting was to really expose my feelings and weaknesses and to write personal, emotional things,” Williams told American Songwriter magazine in 1988.
“As soon as I started doing that, I realized other people were relating to my songs,” Williams said. “You can study how to write and spend a lot of time writing, but without this emotional content in a song, it’s just not there.”
“Drift away was a big breakthrough for me. It was a song where it suddenly was ok for me to write about being hurt and let people know that I had been hurt and I wasn’t afraid to expose my feelings.”
“In the early 1960s Gray moved to Los Angeles, intending to pursue an acting career while also singing to make money,” according to Wikipedia. “He recorded for several local labels under the names Leonard Ainsworth, Larry Curtis, and Larry Dennis, before Sonny Bono directed him toward the small independent Stripe Records. They suggested that he record under the name Dobie Gray, an allusion to the then-popular sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.”
“His first taste of success came in 1962 when his seventh single “Look At Me” reached No. 91 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Greater success came in early 1965 when The In Crowd reached No. 13.”
“In 1970, while working at the Los Angeles production of Hair, he joined the band, Pollution, as singer and percussionist. They were managed by actor Max Baer Jr. (best known as Jethro in The Beverly Hillbillies) and released two albums of soul-inspired psychedelic rock, Pollution I and Pollution II,” according to Wikipedia.
“In 1972, he signed with Decca Records to make an album with producer Mentor Williams in Nashville. Among the songs they recorded at the Quadrafonic Sound Studios, was Drift Away, Gray’s signature song.
Gray mused that the song’s hook of “gimme the beat boys and free my soul,” has been misheard as “gimme the Beach Boys” “gimme the peat moss” and “gimme the meatballs.”
Gray died on Dec. 6, 2011, of complications from cancer surgery in Nashville, Tennessee, aged 71.Upon his passing, he bequeathed all his musical assets and royalties in trust to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Tennessee School for the Blind.