On Valentine’s Day, Heck Of A Guy offers a tale of romance replete with lovers galloping through the French countryside, an idyllic auberge in Provence, danger, music, Leonard Cohen, and, believe it or not, living happily ever after (well, at least 40+ years so far).
This is the story of Susan Musmanno,1 one of Lenard Cohen’s backup singers, and Elkin “Bubba” Fowler,2 a guitarist in Cohen’s band, who met, fell in love, courted, and became a couple during the 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour.
This adventure is told here in the words of Aileen and Elkin Fowler.3 The resulting narrative is enlightening, entertaining, and often poignant. It is a wonderful gift from the Fowlers.
Update: The Fowlers have contributed much more about the 1970 Tour. That material can be found at The Picaresque 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour
Susan (aka Aileen) and Elkin (aka Bubba) Meet
Bubba Signs On: My group, the Avant-Garde was signed to Columbia Records on the basis of a song I wrote called Yellow Beads. Bob was also producing a group that Ron [Cornelius] was in. I forget the name of that group,4 but they were all from northern California. We were all working together on many of Bob’s productions, among them Flatt and Scruggs, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Marty Robbins, and others. Bob got Marty Robbins to record one of my songs, “Jolie Girl,’ which became a Top Ten song for him, and for which I still receive a modest royalty several times a year.
Somewhere along the way during that time, Bob resigned his position as head of A&R and became an independent producer. Perhaps it was Bob who suggested that Leonard tour. I don’t know, but the idea arose, and Leonard said basically that the only way he would tour would be if Bob put it together and also accompanied him on the tour.
So, Ron and Charlie and I were Bob’s core group of studio musicians, and we all were very close. Charlie and Ron were hired to join the tour. Charlie and Ron were both guitar players, so Bob asked me if I could play bass. I didn’t, but I wasn’t going to get left out of the European tour. So I said, “Sure,” and then quickly began learning all of Leonard’s songs from his first two recordings and, when we finally met in the spring to rehearse, I was probably the most prepared.
It was during that time that Charlie first started playing the fiddle, and it ended up that I brought my banjo along and played Tonight Will Be Fine and Charlie played the fiddle on that.
Susan Signs On: I was hired on April 5, 1970, and the first show was the 9th in Hartford. Not much time to learn the repertoire. Corlynn5 and I had been in a group together in L.A., where I still lived.
She got the job with Leonard and gave Bob Johnston6 my name.
He contacted me by phone and asked me to come to Nashville to audition. I had some other opportunities in California, and told him I couldn’t come.
He persisted, calling another couple times. He finally said, “I’ll send you a plane ticket. If it works out, what’ve you got to lose?” So I went.
I arrived at the airport in Nashville and was picked up by Charlie Daniels,7 one of the guys in the band. When we got to Columbia Studios, we knocked on the door to Studio B, and it was opened by Bubba. I met everyone, and needed to audition.
I looked around the room and Bubba was holding a guitar.
I asked him if he knew “Last Thing On My Mind.”8
He did, he accompanied me as I sang it, and I got the job.
In Full Gallop In Aix
Susan: As I eagerly scanned the archives at your website, I was thrilled to see the pieces about the festival in Aix. Especially the photo of Leonard on the horse.
We all rode horses onto the stage. Bubba and I rode together. I just happened to have a buckskin dress with fringe and boots to match, so we went all Native American, and it is a great memory. I remember Leonard’s horse rearing up. It was Bob Johnston’s idea. There was no way to the festival by road — traffic, roads blocked, etc. — and Bob had a flair for the dramatic, anyway — so the horses were the perfect solution.
I think we were all wagging bottles of wine as we rode across the meadows and woods of southern France. I would love to see more photos — perhaps some of the rest of us on our horses.
We didn’t know the name of the festival, so it was great to see photos of the poster.9
Bubba and I re-visited the auberge where we all stayed in Aix — a charming little place called Auberge Bourrelly in the village of Calas [see image on right]. He wrote a song about it.
He and I were falling deeply in love during those days, so it was a special time for us on so many different levels. We were under Leonard’s spell as we were falling in love with each other. Leonard seemed to enjoy our love story, and called us The Lovers. He’s a true romantic, is Leonard — not in the sappy, pop culture sense of the word ‘romantic’ but in the classic, literary sense. It was a magical time.
We enjoyed reading Corlynn’s memories [Corlynn Hanney Talks About Singing Backup On The 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour,]. The little village of Calas in the south of France, where we stayed for the few days we visited there for the festival in Aix, remains in my memory all these years later as perhaps the most charming place I have ever visited in my 63 years. Although Corlynn didn’t remember the name of the place in her comments, her description of it was spot on. Bubba wrote the beginning of a song about it while we were there with these lyrics:
Come, let’s walk the fields of Calas
When the lids of morning barely part
And watch an old Frenchman pedal down the road
With his basket full of bread and wine
We”ll climb the hill and ring the chapel bell
And listen while the shepherd calls his sheep
So Lover, lay your dreams down
I’ll be there.
After The Tour
Bubba: After our concerts in California, Susan and I stayed on in L.A. Bob called and said he needed Susan to come to the studio ASAP to put down some vocals for the album that became Songs of Love and Hate. We left California immediately, driving to Nashville. When we arrived, he asked me to put down a working bass part for Joan of Arc. All I can say is that it was a very special experience. I got lost in the music and put down what I thought was a very special track.
I get paid for playing guitar and banjo, so, naturally, Bob called in two different professional studio bass players, one electric and one upright, but neither of them came close to what I had done. Bob Moore, who was the premiere bass player in Nashville at that time, came in and put an upright bass on it. When it was all said and done, Bob Moore said, “What’s wrong with the track Bubba put down? I can’t do any better.” And Johnston agreed. So my ‘working’ bass part is what is on Joan of Arc and, to this day, I can listen to Joan of Arc and be transported back to that same place, mistakes and all. It’s not perfect, but the soulful feel would be hard to beat.
Susan: In 1971, Bubba and I went into seclusion. We dropped out and lived on a boat in Tennessee for the next four years. We often say that we rescued each other from the music business.
Leonard wanted us to tour with him in 1971, but we refused. We had had enough of the craziness, drugs, and general sleaze of the music business, and just wanted to be alone. Leonard called us from the airport (NY Airport? Don’t remember) as they were flying out and asked us one last time to come and go with him. Bubba told him that, as much as we would like to help you, we feel we are in the place that we should be right now, and I know you understand that. And Leonard said that he did understand. And we wished him the very best.
Bob came on the phone after we spoke with Leonard and begged us to go, saying, “We’re going to go down the tubes in Europe.” We both particularly remember the phrase ‘down the tubes.’ From what we know now, sounds like they didn’t go down the tubes at all, but managed very well without us.
Jennifer Warnes is a pretty strong talent. Charlie didn’t go back, either. Ron and Bob did. Don’t know about Corlynn. When Elkin and I came back to performing in 1976, we had different names, and a bunch of original songs that he had written while we were in seclusion. We wanted a simple, beautiful life, and we found it — first with each other, then on the boat and, later, on a farm on the Texas prairie that we called home for the next twenty years. We became smalltime, but full-time, music professionals. We made a good enough living. Never needed a day job. Played folk venues, colleges, festivals. We learned the value of owning your own songs in the music biz. Also learned a lot about the business end of music, generally. So we started our own publishing company and record company. Toured in a great bus and took the dogs along. It’s been a great life. And it all began with your friend and mine, Leonard Cohen.
A Final Word From Susan & Bubba
[I emailed the Fowlers last night to tell them I planned to publish their story today and to ask, for the purposes of this post, when they married. Their reply, written by Susan, is worth sharing:]
Well, Happy Valentine’s Day to us! Thanks for giving us the honor of occupying your site on the day reserved for lovers. We were married on November 9, 1972, so we will celebrate our 40th anniversary this year. Guess we will have to ‘celebrate,’ although it’s always hard to figure out how to do that because we feel like we celebrate every day. And we do. We were married aboard the boat to which we retreated after we left the Cohen tour, and lived there until 1974 when we went to Texas. Leonard visited us there, btw. Elkin remembers playing him a song that he had just written, and Leonard said he didn’t understand it. And Elkin smiled and thought, “You gotta be kidding me.” LOL.
Other 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour Posts
- 1970 Strawberry Fields Festival: 3 Days Of Love, Sun, & Sound In Canada – But No Leonard Cohen
- Donna Washburn 1972 Leonard Cohen Tour Backup Singer – 1970? Not So Much
- Michelle Phillips, Dennis Hopper, And The 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour
- Susan Musmanno, Corlynn Hanney, & Aileen Fowler – Leonard Cohen’s 2 Great Backup Singers In 1970
- Corlynn Hanney Talks About Singing Backup On The 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour
- Leonard Cohen At The 1970 Aix-en-Provence Festival – Maoists, Music, Mud, Money, & Mayhem
- Leonard Cohen’s Opening At Aix-en-Provence 1970 – Festivals, Revolution, Profit, and Bird On A Wire
- Leonard Cohen At Another Other 1970 Festival – Aix-en-Provence (Part 1)
- Leonard Cohen Plays Notes On Guitar In 1970 – A Second View
- Leonard Cohen & The Horse He Rode In On-Stage At The 1970 Aix-en-Provence Festival
- Leonard Cohen Plays Notes On Guitar – 1970
- Leonard Cohen, Forest Hills 1970 – “Nervous, Uncomfortable, Oppressive, Lifeless”
- Leonard Cohen Live At Leeds – Previously Unknown Recording Of 1970 Concert Surfaces
- Leonard Cohen Live At The Isle Of Wight 1970
- 1970 Leonard Cohen In Hootenanny Mode
- Susan Musmanno background from LastFM:
The Groop – A shortlived sunshine pop act, formed and disbanded in 1969. It consisted of Susan Musmanno, Corlynn Hanney [also a backup singer during the 1970 Leonard Cohen Tour], Brian Griffith and Richard Caruso. They recorded one self-titled LP in 1969, which remained an extreme obscurity until it was finally released on CD in 2007. At its best, it’s sunshine pop at its finest, with soaring harmonies and elaborate string arrangements. [↩]
- Elkin “Bubba” Fowler background from AllMusic by Jason Ankeny:
Psychedelic pop duo the Avant-Garde teamed vocalists Chuck Woolery and Elkin “Bubba” Fowler, who were backed by session musicians on each of their three singles for the Columbia label. The duo debuted in late 1967 with “Yellow Beads,” capturing a sweeping acoustic sound that crested with the follow-up, “Naturally Stoned,” a minor classic of orchestral pop that reached number 40 on the Billboard pop charts in mid-1968. The more overtly psychedelic touches that distinguished the Avant-Garde’s first two efforts were scrapped for their third and final single, “Fly With Me” — when the disc barely dented the charts, the group dissolved. Fowler then went folky and in 1970 Columbia issued his lone solo LP, And Then Came Bubba — he later played guitar on Bob Dylan’s Self-Portrait, Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate, and a handful of other sessions. Woolery, meanwhile, went on to much greater fame as a television game show host, helming Wheel of Fortune in its original daytime run as well as the long-running Love Connection, Scrabble, and Greed. He also founded MotoLures, a company that manufactured his signature line of fishing lures. In 2003, Woolery — now host of the Game Show Network program Lingo — was also the subject of the channel’s first-ever reality series; dubbed Chuck Woolery: Naturally Stoned, the show also featured the Avant-Garde’s biggest hit as its title theme.
- The content is taken from email correspondence primarily written by Aileen Fowler, with Elkin contributing, in response to questions I raised. I’ve performed minimal editing, such as correcting typos, rearranging paragraphs for reading convenience, and adding explanations (in brackets) to clarify context [↩]
- The group was called West: From CorneliusCompanies.com:
After years as a backing guitarist, Cornelius formed the group West, which would bring his first national recognition. West appeared in numerous national showcases across the country which resulted in bids from 8 major record labels. In 1967, they signed with Epic Records and appeared in Las Vegas at the CBS Convention. Two albums were cut in Nashville for the label. A single, “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (a Bob Dylan composition), climbed to #17 on the national charts. The group went on to record a third and final LP for Paramount Records before dissolving. Altogether, Ron Cornelius has had 5 major record deals as an artist, others included A&M Records and Polydor Records.
In 1969, Ron found himself with Johnny Cash in San Quentin as part of the production team for Cash’s album “Live at San Quentin”. Soon after, Ron returned to backing other acts as a lead guitarist, but this time on a remarkable chain of hit albums with some of the biggest names in country and popular music, such as Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, Hoyt Axton, Loudon Wainwright III, and many others. Most notably, Cornelius supplied lead guitar work on seven multi-platinum albums for the legendary Bob Dylan. [↩]
- Corlynn Hanney was the other backup singer during the 1970 Tour [↩]
- Bob Johnston, a producer for Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Simon and Garfunkel, and others, not only produced Cohen’s Songs From a Room (1969) and Songs of Love and Hate (1971) and put together the band for the 1970 Tour but also, at Cohen’s insistence, played keyboards in the Tour band. [↩]
- Yep, that would be the fiddle-playing Charlie Daniels of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” fame. [↩]
- “Last Thing On My Mind” was written by Tom Paxton and covered by many singers, including Peter, Paul and Mary, The Kingston Trio, Johnny Cash, Marianne Faithfull, and Joan Baez. A video of Paxton singing his own composition can be viewed at Tom Paxton – Last Thing On My Mind. [↩]
- For more about this concert, see Leonard Cohen At The 1970 Aix-en-Provence Festival –Maoists, Music, Mud, Money, & Mayhem [↩]