45 Years Ago: The James Gang Release ‘Thirds’
The James Gang was seemingly on the road to career prosperity after the success of their sophomore album, Rides Again, but that didn’t necessarily pave the way for a predictable, or even smooth process when time came to record their next studio record, the obviously named Thirds.
In fact, the power trio composed of vocalist/guitarist Joe Walsh, bassist Dale Peters and drummer Jim Fox were somewhat short on new material, as Fox recalled when speaking to Ultimate Classic Rock’s Matt Wardlaw. “Thirds was a little tougher to finish, because we felt a little low on songs we felt strong about [and Joe said] ‘I don’t want to be the only writer in the band. You guys have to contribute.’ I’m not sure we were up for it.”
Then the band made their lives more difficult when they decided to dispense with longtime producer Bill Szymczyk (renowned for his work with Elvin Bishop, B.B. King and the Eagles) and attempt to produce themselves. As Szymczyk himself described it to Wardlaw, “We went into the Record Plant and cut three or four tracks, [but] then they had to go back on the road. So time passes and they call me up and say, ‘Well, we decided that we want to finish the album on our own.’ I went, 'Okaaaay.'”
“We were so naive and so happy to be doing what we were doing," Fox continued. "Having a guy like Bill on our team, you know, who would fight the battles with the label…[he] just made it easy. And how did we repay him? We got smart-assed and said, ‘Uh, we’re going to produce the third album ourselves.’ And then of course, went back to him with our collective tails in between our legs and said, ‘Would you mind mixing this for us, Bill?’
The good news for James Gang fans was that all involved ultimately made it work, by hook or by crook, emerging with another eclectic set of songs ranging from the riff-driven muscle of “Walk Away” to the grandiose, Beatles-esque “It’s All the Same”; from the funky licks and soulful organ of “Things I Could Be” to rural sounds of “Dreamin’ in the Country”; from the Southern rock of “Midnight Man” to the church-like social consciousness of “White Man/Black Man.”
Oh, and did we forget to mention Little Richard?
We'd better let Jimmy Fox explain: “We’re playing in Pittsburgh and Little Richard was on the bill,” he told Wardlaw. “We had played on the first night and all three of us said, ‘We have to stay and see Little Richard.’ [So] we’re sitting out in the audience and a note was put in my hand and it says, ‘Little Richard would like to see you after the show.’ I looked at Joe and I said, ‘This is a joke, isn’t it?’”
But when the startled James Gang made their way to Richard’s dressing room, Fox told Wardlaw that the rock legend surprised them even more by saying, “I love you guys, I want to make a record with you. When are you going to be in the studio?” Fox continued, “Our jaws are on the floor and I finally manage to croak out, ‘Well, Richard, we’re recording tomorrow night in Cleveland.’ He said, ‘Cleveland -- I’ll be there! You tell my people what time!’” Sure enough, as the band resumed their work on Thirds the following evening, in burst Little Richard with a huge entourage. “There must have been 15 people,” said Fox.
According to Fox, “The result was about three hours of tape and we wanted to use it terribly. The record company was reluctant. We were going to make a three-sided double record [with] Thirds as you know it and the Little Richard jam on one side of the other disc -- maybe 20 minutes that contained a song, but a lot of playing.” Alas, contractual issues forced the tapes into unreleased limbo for decades, instead, until they were finally unearthed, remixed and overdubbed for inclusion in Joe Walsh’s 2012 album Analog Man.
Meanwhile, back to Thirds, which was released in April 1971, and rose all the way to No. 27 on the album charts. That initial excitement, coupled with the “Walk Away” single’s all-time high of No. 51 soon subsided. In its place came Walsh’s surprising announcement that he intended to leave the group at year’s end to explore new sounds beyond the restrictive power trio format.
As Fox recalled it in his conversation with Wardlaw, “Joe came to us and said, ‘Look, I’m hearing stuff that requires keyboards and horns and extra stuff [and] the way we’re structured, I can’t do both at once.’ He couldn’t have been more upright about it.” But even though Fox and Peters would eventually decide to carry on, first with lead singer Roy Kenner and guitarist Domenic Troiano, then the one and only Tommy Bolin, no subsequent James Gang lineup captured the magic of the original trio. But that magic is still evident on Thirds, for all the confusion and unbelievable all-star jams surrounding its recording.
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