Richie Furay: The worship leader/pastor in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame

Wednesday 23rd July 2008

Darren Hirst conducted extensive interviews with RICHIE FURAY covering Buffalo Springfield, Poco through to his Calvary Chapel ministry

Buffalo Springfield, 1967
Buffalo Springfield, 1967

In 1966, a new band emerged upon the American pop-rock scene. They were named Buffalo Springfield and though the band had quite a short life as a unit, they were to have a considerable impact on the world of rock. Their standout hit single "For What It's Worth" contained lyrics that summed up a generation who were suspicious of authority, opposed to the Vietnam War and determined to make their own mark for a different set of values than their parents: "There's something happening here/What it is ain't exactly clear/There's a man with a gun over there/Telling me I got to beware/I think it's time we stop, children, what's that sound/Everybody look what's going down/There's battle lines being drawn./Nobody's right if everybody's wrong/Young people speaking their minds."

To this day, the song sounds distinctive whenever you hear it on the radio but it wasn't for the songs and their three albums alone that Buffalo Springfield proved important. The band also launched three of the most significant careers in the whole of rock 'n' roll's pantheon and were elected to the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame on their first year of eligibility. There was Stephen Stills who went on to form the quintessential harmony band of the hippy movement: Crosby, Stills & Nash. There was Neil Young who teamed with Crosby, Stills & Nash at their most memorable concerts and who moved on and is now 40 years into one of the most eclectic careers in rock. And there was Richie Furay who is sometimes overlooked but who formed Poco, who were a huge influence on the Eagles (still one of this year's highest selling bands) and who somehow wound up as. a Christian pastor.

Looking back today, I asked Richie about his perspective on the hippy movement and the activism of the late '60s and whether it had in some way become a springboard for the Jesus People revival of the early '70s. "When you ask me about anything positive that came out of the 'hippy movement' of the '60s - looking at it from my perspective today - my answer is 'not much.' I see so much of the 'freedom' people we're talking about only resulting in people being more 'bound up.' Did drug experimentation and so called sexual freedom really result in many positives? I saw a lot of very talented and gifted musicians fall victim to drug experimentation ending in their death or, as in the case of, say, Brian Wilson (of the Beach Boys) - the drug culture robbed him of his precious gift. I am only thankful that he is 'pressin' on' today even though much damage has been done. As far as the idea of sexual experimentation, free love - 'love the one you're with' - though it offered 'pleasure for a season' it too only opened up the door and left a devastating trail of disease and heartache that's again taken its toll on the lives of so many. Unfortunately, I'm not sure what we've learned as a society today and yet your comment about it advancing the Jesus People movement is true! It was a time of searching, in some cases, deep soul searching and it did lead to an awareness in many people's lives as to the emptiness drugs and sexual experimentation couldn't satisfy. Through it all, God is watching and continues to reach out to those who have ears to hear - that a personal relationship with him through faith in Jesus Christ is exciting, fulfilling and alone satisfies the deep hunger one has in navigating through this life."

Did Richie regret that such a significant band like Buffalo Springfield had only stayed together for a such short time? "In all honesty, no. We accomplished all that we were going to accomplish together. By the group breaking up it also gave me the opportunity to venture out and see what I was all about musically. I might not have understood this at the time - but that's what it did and I, along with a few other musical visionaries (Chris Hillman and Gram Parsons), pioneered what would have a great influence on the contemporary music scene, bridging the gap between country music and rock. (In Buffalo Springfield) I was in the shadows of two tremendously talented people in Stephen Stills and Neil Young and I'm not sure I would have had or taken the opportunities before me to become my own person, musically, had we stayed together."

Poco, 1989
Poco, 1989

Richie's next stop on a long and successful career was with the band Poco. Sometimes overlooked today, they had a long and successful career, particularly in the USA. They were the first home for the original bassist with the Eagles, Randy Meisner, who was replaced in Poco by the guy who would eventually replace him in that band too, current Eagles man Timothy B Schmit. Whilst Poco had a measure of success and predated the Eagles by a year or two, their sales would never equal the sales of the band who took the journey to the "Hotel California". Did Richie feel that his band were unfortunate?

"Poco and the Eagles were/are two great bands - one was a pioneer while the other built their own musical style on another's foundation. Sometimes the pioneer doesn't get the recognition deserved. There were so many (behind the scenes) factors involved in the '70s between group, management, record company, etc that it played heavily upon the outcome of success. Had Poco had the radio hits at the time, would they have become as successful as the Eagles? I don't know. The Eagles certainly had the knack for writing (radio friendly) songs and at that time in history - that's what it was all about. Did Poco have the same 'knack - I think there was a period of time before the success of 'Crazy Love' and 'In The Heart Of The Night' that we did, but for whatever reason the songs never made the radio on the scale needed to launch the group to the next level. Could we have sustained it if that had happened? Who knows? I do think we could have but again, we never had the opportunity. One positive came with the changing of personnel in Poco - it gave opportunity to others to step up and develop their talent."

Interested to try and recreate how it had been all those years ago, I asked my friend, Bernie Leadon (then guitarist with the Eagles) about his view on Poco. "They had four good singers, and Furay and Meisner were exceptional. They had it all, period. If that band had gone forward as they were, they would have had more success, I think. Unfortunately, they lost Randy Meisner before that first album got released. I tried to find out at the time why he left, and never got a satisfactory answer. At one point in about 1974, I was backstage somewhere with Poco and Richie, and he said to me something like, 'You know, the Eagles did what I wanted Poco to do.' I reassured him that Poco had done fine, but it showed he was somewhat disappointed."

Whilst Poco (like the Eagles) continues to this day, Furay was to step aside after six albums at the helm. Which of their records from that time did Richie think had best stood the test of time? "I certainly think 'Good Feelin' To Know' holds up well today. The mix of songs and different songwriters give the album a lot of diversity and variety. I don't listen to the albums a lot any more but I think they all have their moments and are of the highest quality. In comparison to other groups of the day, for what we were doing, I think they all stand up really well - each one showed we were not afraid to do what was necessary to develop our own sound. Though there were outside influences each of us had personally, we were original and created an original sound that influenced many."

Richie Furay, 1979
Richie Furay, 1979

Richie's next move was to form a trio which was regarded in its day as a supergroup. J D Souther had a number of successful albums in his own right and co-wrote some of the Eagles biggest hits. Chris Hillman had been the pivotal member of the Byrds, a huge group from the '60s who amongst other things had been one of the first bands to successfully blend country and rock and who had brought the songwriting of Bob Dylan to a wider audience with hits like their version of "Mr Tambourine Man". Despite blending three of the most significant vocalists in rock, The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band never really flew that well commercially and only made two albums. It was a time though which led to one of the most significant changes in Richie's life as during this time he was to find his faith in God.

Richie confessed that the Christian rock music of the day - made by pioneers like Larry Norman, Randy Matthews and Love Song - had completely passed him by. "I really wasn't aware of it all until I became a Christian," he freely admitted. Rather it was the quiet and thoughtful witness of a member of his band which helped him to see the light. Guitarist and pedal steel player Al Perkins had come up through the ranks since playing in Don Henley's (of the Eagles) first band, Shiloh and passing through The Flying Burrito Brothers which was home for a time for the aforementioned Bernie Leadon.

Richie took up the story. "As I mentioned in my book Pickin' Up The Pieces, Al was not easily received in The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band by me. I didn't want him in the band because he was a Christian - plain and simple. He could have been a Buddhist, a Muslim, a drug addict, an alcoholic, a womanizer, whatever, but because he was a Christian I didn't want him in the band believing that fact alone would hold the band back from attaining the success I dreamed of. As time went on, I became intrigued and captivated by his lifestyle. At first it had nothing to do with what he shared. You have to understand Al was quiet, but when the door was opened - he knew what to say. But initially, it was simply the way he conducted himself in our midst - maintaining a solid witness no matter what else was going on."

Al may have been (and is) a man of few words but the words he carefully picked certainly counted and Richie was to undergo a conversion which was to shake his life to its very core. He credits the change with saving his marriage and the path his life has taken since then is clear evidence of how significant his faith in Jesus Christ was to prove. I asked Al Perkins how it had been when he first met Richie Furay and if he had any specific memorable moments from that time. "My first impression of Richie, during the formation of The Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, was that he was both congenial and a very gifted artist. And I could tell he was also very serious about his music. We never know how God will woo us. As Richie was still contemplating Christianity, I'm reminded of something that happened after his wife Nancy had come to the Lord. We were recording in Los Angeles for the Souther-Hillman-Furay album when Richie's car was broken into. Something was stolen from the car, something that meant very much to him. It was his old Martin guitar - the one he played to write all his songs with over so many years! Richie and Nancy had already planned a well deserved family vacation and were scheduled to leave for Hawaii very soon. Before leaving LA they registered a police report for the stolen guitar. They were told it was doubtful they would ever see the guitar again and that ' would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.' Nevertheless, Nancy kept praying for the Lord's help in finding it. A few days later, while they were still away on vacation, the LAPD called and said they believed they had found the guitar and asked them to identify it upon their return. It turned out to indeed be Richie's guitar that God had returned to him! Later, when I saw Richie and he related the event to me, I exclaimed 'Praise the Lord!' Still a bit sceptical, he replied, 'That's funny, that's exactly what Nancy said!'."

Richie Furay, 1981
Richie Furay, 1981

Al may have been one of God's instruments in Richie's life but all of us have different experiences. One thing that struck me as I was talking to Richie was how many of the musicians that were touring the US in the mid-to-late '70s had found a faith in Jesus Christ. Just from memory I could rattle off an extensive list for him. Let's see. There was Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue tour where T-Bone Burnett, Steven Soles and David Mansfield had come to be believers and later there was Bob Dylan himself. Dylan's friend, Maria Muldaur too. And then there was a whole flock of people from the West Coast bands of the day. There was Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman from the Byrds, Bernie Leadon from the Eagles as well as Furay. All of these had been added to musicians like Johnny Cash - musicians who remained in the mainstream of the business but who weren't afraid to tell people that they loved Jesus. Did Richie feel there was a common thread there or a particular work of God? He replied, "With the exception of Johnny Cash we all had a '60s background that, as I said earlier, left many empty and hurting, so the search went on for whatever was going to bring about that elusive inner peace. For each of the ones mentioned, I can't really speak for them personally but I'd say with all the success, with all the fortune and fame, it just didn't satisfy the hunger that everyone really has - the hunger for meaning in life. No matter how far up the ladder one goes, there never will be enough of whatever it is to satisfy them. It's interesting how God created that hunger in each person, a hunger that only he can satisfy."

Richie's new found faith seemed from the outside looking in to have left him with something of a musical quandary. During the next six or seven years he was to record four albums. The first of these was 'I've Got A Reason' which spoke of his hope in Christ but which would never be described as a "religious" album. The themes were there to spot if you knew what Richie was talking about but it worked just as well as an intriguing, thoughtful country rock record. After that came 'Dance A Little Light' and 'I Still Have Dreams'. These were albums that were uplifting and spoke of loves lost and found but spoke even less directly of Mr Furay's faith. Then in 1982, Richie left the Elektra/Asylum stable and released 'Seasons Of Change' on Word's Myrrh imprint. This was a very different record and much more typical of the Christian music of the day. However, shortly afterwards Richie was to disappear from the record stores with only the occasional guest appearance on small-market Christian releases to publicly mark what he was up to. I asked the singer what was happening in his life around that time?

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Reader Comments

Posted by Andy Rios in Chino CA @ 04:51 on Jul 24 2008

Wow! What a story. Richie Furay is the real thing. A true man for Jesus.

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