50 Years Ago: Poco Release Debut Album, ‘Pickin’ Up the Pieces’
Buffalo Springfield lasted just over two years before collapsing in 1968, but what the band lacked in longevity, it more than made up in talent: the influential band's first brief go-round served as an opening act for some of the biggest careers in rock, including Neil Young and Stephen Stills. Springfield guitarist Richie Furay, who founded Poco in the wake of the group's demise, was determined to achieve similar success.
Originally named Pogo before legal threats from cartoonist Walt Kelly forced a switch to Poco, the group started coming together during the piecemeal sessions for Buffalo Springfield's final album, 1968's Last Time Around. Needing a pedal steel player for his ballad "Kind Woman," Furay hooked up with guitarist Rusty Young; with Springfield producer Jim Messina joining on vocals and guitar, the group cemented its original lineup with Randy Meisner on bass and George Grantham on drums.
"I just knew that I still hadn't done anything I wanted to do," Furay told Sounds in 1972. "I knew I wanted another band but I had no idea I could put one together ... I didn't go off and get David Crosby and Graham Nash, you know, it all started right down at the very bottom -- nobody knew who Rusty was, nobody knew who George was, nobody knew who Tim was and nobody really knew who Jim was at the time. But even at that time there was a sort of pride thing, you know -- 'We're going to make it without having to reflect back on the Buffalo Springfield.'"
With a much more familiar pedigree than most new bands, Poco quickly found a receptive audience in L.A. "Everybody wanted to come see us," Young told Classic Bands. "Richie had really come up with the concept of the country/rock thing that wasn't being done. Everybody was ready to jump on the bandwagon. In the Troubadour there'd be a booth and there would be Ricky Nelson and Ozzie and Harriet. The whole gang would be there in their booth. The Smothers Brothers came down. George Harrison and John Lennon came down because they tried to sign us to Apple at one point. Pretty much all the L.A. people you can imagine would be in the audience on any given night."
"Probably my favorite was the very beginning with Randy, Jimmy, Richie and I. That was a great time," recalled Young. "I think the impact we had, whether people recognize it or not, that brought about the Eagles and brought about Ricky Nelson coming back into playing music, the whole genre ... it really came out of those days at the Troubadour when we hit. We were great, we were really something special. Unfortunately we didn’t even make it to the first album because Richie decided to let Randy go."
"I did that first album with them," Meisner told Rock History Music. "There was a thing where Richie Furay and I, we made the album, and then I called in and said, 'I want to come down and listen to the mixes.' Richie, for some reason, thought he and Jimmy Messina should just do it alone. I said, 'If that's the way it's going to be, then I don't feel like a member of the band,' and Richie said, 'Okay, you quit.' So then I left. It was just as simple as that."
Meisner's departure was just the first in what would fairly quickly become a long list of lineup changes for the band. In fact, as various ex-Poco members went on to find greater success in groups like the Eagles while their former bandmates continued to toil in the commercial minor leagues, Poco developed a (not entirely undeserved) reputation as an act that always seemed poised to grab the brass ring, but never seemed to be able to catch that big break. "It is too bad you don't get a check when someone steals your bass player," chuckled Young in an interview with Vintage Rock. "That'd set us all up, I'm sure."
Ironically, although Poco's sound fit right in with the country-inflected sound that was taking off on rock radio -- and even though the band included a number of musicians who'd helped start that trend -- Furay would come to regret being part of that scene.
"In the beginning, we wanted to call ourselves a country/rock band, I guess, because it seemed to be the thing that was taking shape at the time. And, actually, I think it really did hurt us a lot more than it helped us," Furay told Circus in 1971. "The minute somebody said 'Poco,' it was country. ... It's taken three years, man for us to break the image down that we're a country band."
As Furay saw it, the band had a sound all its own -- one that transcended genres. "If we had to be labelled, I'd want to be labelled a rock 'n' roll band. Or a musical band," he mused. "We definitely are under the title rock 'n' roll. We can play country, we can play rock, we can play folk, we can play blues, we can play jazz ... all of it's our own style. It's all Poco-rock, Poco-country, Poco-blues, Poco-folk, you know?"
Regardless of how ambitiously they may have blended sounds, it was just about impossible for Poco to escape being lumped in with some of the other bands of the day, whether or not the comparisons were truly accurate. "It really did hurt us," continued Furay. "We were being compared to Dillard & Clark and the [Flying] Burrito Brothers, who didn't have any sound -- Dillard & Clark took the bluegrass influence, and the Burrito Brothers took more the country influence, and we were definitely more the rock influence. They would go around and play, and people would think it was gonna be a very similar kind of thing when we played. And people would come, not knowing what they were gonna hear, and really be freaked out when they found out we played rock 'n' roll."
All that being said, Poco's debut album, Pickin' Up the Pieces, enjoyed generally favorable reviews after its release in May 1969. The only hint of the turmoil behind the scenes came on the cover, where Meisner had been erased from the cover painting and replaced with a dog; the music itself was as smooth, sunny, and harmony-laden as anything a fan of the emerging Laurel Canyon sound could ask for. Unfortunately, record buyers proved harder to attract than critics, and although Pieces sold respectably enough to convince label to foot the bill for a follow-up, it wasn't exactly the hit Furay had been hoping for.
"It seems that whenever we've played, we've gotten a following," Young told Cream. "I think the majority of people like us, and our problem at this point is getting to the majority of the people. you know, we have something to sell, and that's our music, from a commercial point of view. And our problem is making everyone aware of us. It's not whether or not they're gonna like us, because we're pretty sure they are."
Listen to Poco's 'Pickin' Up the Pieces'
It didn't help that business difficulties prevented the Pickin' Up the Pieces record from receiving the kind of promotion it really needed in order to stand out in the marketplace. "Our record company and our manager had really bad conflicts and they weren't getting it on at all," recalled Furay. "Therefore the record company didn't push us right at the beginning like they should. ... I'm hurt, disappointed and bitter about the whole thing, because I really think we needed more help from them in the beginning."
Furay's frustrations were understandable, but they definitely affected the creative chemistry in the group. As Messina later told Sound Waves, "In the Springfield, I wasn’t even thinking about commercial music. I was worried about engineering and producing, getting Richie, Neil and Stephen on tape, which was a challenge at age 19. I had no ego then. It made things easier. When Poco started ... Richie wanted commercial success in both bands. With Poco, he wanted to be as big as Crosby, Stills & Nash. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, but there were, and are, no guarantees in the music business. To think that way was a sabotage of every aspect of what we were trying to do. You should never expect that you will get what you want. Just keep doing it and you will get better, that’s all."
Messina would soon find himself bidding Poco farewell, and Furay himself followed in 1973; after Meisner's replacement on bass, Timothy B. Schmit, left the band to join the Eagles (replacing Meisner a second time), Poco was reduced to the duo of Young and guitarist Paul Cotton for 1978's Legend LP -- which wound up giving the group its biggest hits to that point with the Top 20 singles "Crazy Love" and "Heart of the Night."
But that momentum proved difficult to capitalize on, and by the mid-'80s, Poco was basically a touring act whose best days seemed to lie in the past.
The group's story came full circle, however, with 1989's Legacy album, which reunited the Pickin' Up the Pieces lineup for a new collection of songs that -- while heavily assisted by outside writers -- saw the original members of Poco finally coming together for a hit record. Legacy went gold behind the hit single 'Call It Love,' and the group toured throughout that year and the next -- although in true Poco fashion, their new surge in popularity came with further turnover, as Furay quit again after a brief three-week stint on the road, citing conflicts between the music and his newer calling as a minister.
"We found you cannot mix the ministry and rock 'n' roll. Richie felt that 'Your Mama Don't Dance' was too suggestive," Young told the Los Angeles Times. "We had battles over song lyrics that I thought were frankly absurd. He's a good guy, but the tension was so high. You never knew when someone was going to say an offensive word. There's no hostile feeling. It's just the reality of it."
Even if Legacy didn't cure the lineup instability that had always plagued Poco -- and didn't lead to a speedy return to the studio for the band, which wouldn't release a follow-up until Running Horse in 2002 -- it did herald a return to steady touring for Poco. With Young in the lead, various incarnations of the group stayed on the road through the end of 2013 when he announced his retirement -- an impressive streak for a group that had had to overcome more than its share of setbacks.
"The reason the band survived all this time is that we’ve always had great musicians," Young told Pollstar in 2013. "When we did our Legacy album in 1989 -- that, to me was an amazing record. On one album was the original Poco band: Randy Meisner, Jimmy Messina, Richie Furay, George Grantham and me. In that one band you had [members of] Loggins & Messina, Eagles, Buffalo Springfield and Poco. Four of the most influential bands in American music that all came from this one little group of guys playing together in 1968. I think it’s amazing what we’ve done. We’ve had great talent, and we still do today. It’s as good as ever."