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Johnny Cymbal (born John Hendry Blair; February 3, 1945 – March 16, 1993) was a Scottish-born American songwriter, singer, and record producer who had numerous hit records, including his signature song, "Mr. Bass Man".
|Birth name||John Hendry Blair|
|Born||February 3, 1945|
Ochiltree, Ayrshire, Scotland, United Kingdom
|Died||March 16, 1993 (aged 48)|
Nashville, Tennessee, United States
During a career that spanned four decades, Cymbal made an impact on popular music worldwide as a songwriter, singer, performer and record producer. During those years, in addition to his rock and roll anthem, "Mr. Bass Man", he was responsible for hit records including: "Teenage Heaven", "Cinnamon", "Mary in the Morning", "Rock Me Baby" and "I'm Drinking Canada Dry".
In 1963, with the hit "Mr. Bass Man", Cymbal was recognized as a teen star. (The crucial Bass Man part was sung unaccredited by Ronnie Bright (1938–2015), who sang with the Cadillacs, the Valentines and, for 40 years, phase 2 of the Coasters.) While continuing to record, he toured the US, Europe and Japan performing as both a solo headlining act and in rock and roll package shows. Later, as a songwriter and record producer, he found success in New York City, Los Angeles and Nashville. Cymbal thought of himself as a songwriter; throughout his life he kept diaries of ideas and notes for future use. Though he was an excellent vocalist with an effective stage presence, he believed his greatest talent was composing. By 1966, having married and started a family, he no longer wished to be on the road as a performer so he committed himself to songwriting. Thereafter, although he continued to make records as a singer throughout his career, most of those recordings were released with the names of others (such as his brother, Derek) or pseudonymic "groups" as the artist.
A prolific composer, Cymbal published over 200 songs. During his career he wrote alone and with many partners, including: CMA Hall Of Famer Charlie Black; Austin Roberts of "I.O.U." fame; Mark Sameth; multiple CMA award winner Gene Pistilli; legendary Nashville writer David Malloy; Bill Holmes, Peggy Clinger; and with Michael Rashkow as his co-writer, he penned the 10,000,000+ seller and BMI Million Performance Award Winner, "Mary in the Morning." With that song, John attained a lifetime ambition—to have one of his compositions recorded by Elvis Presley. George Tobin who together with Cymbal wrote and produced "Cinnamon," his biggest pop production. George Tobin was a staff producer for Musicor Records and he and Cymbal formed a writing and production partnership that lasted for five years and included the Gene Pitney UK hit Somewhere in the Country and all of the California-based production during that period. As a staff producer for A&M Records Tobin signed and produced all of his A&M releases. As a singer, Cymbal had releases on numerous labels, including MGM, Columbia, Musicor, Kapp, Roulette, Bang, Curb, and Scepter. His recording pseudonyms included "Brother John", "Derek", "The Eye-Full Tower", "Dallas" and "The Non-Conformists", among many others.
Those who knew him best say Johnny was an extraordinarily intelligent, unpretentious, affable person who had a great sense of humor and a head for business. His friend and writing partner Austin Roberts said, "Johnny was always the fastest wit in the room—taking on and demolishing all comers because, wherever he was, he was definitely the funniest guy on the block." Cymbal's songs have been recorded by numerous artists: Elvis Presley, Glen Campbell, Gene Pitney, Al Martino, the Partridge Family, the Spencer Davis Group, Frankie Ford, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Eddy Arnold, Ed Ames, Adam Wade, Aaron Tippin, Mike Curb, Jan and Dean, Trini Lopez and David Cassidy, among others. He wrote songs for and produced records for the legendary Mae West, and also placed material in movies such as Tender Mercies and the TV shows Catanooga Cats and Barnaby Jones.
In his career and his personal life, Johnny Cymbal encountered both fame and misfortune. He had success as a youngster, but struggled through difficult dry periods between hits. He was married and divorced three times. With his first wife Carol (known as "Cubby") whom he married in his late teens, he fathered two children: a girl, Kimberly, and a son, John, Jr. He maintained a close relationship with both throughout his life. In the 1970s, he lost his soul-mate and writing/performing partner, Peggy Clinger, to a drug overdose. Shaken by that tragedy, he conquered his own addictions and rediscovered his Christianity. Starting over, he left the West Coast and soon established himself as a writer of consequence in Nashville. Then, with ten solid years of creativity in Nashville, he suddenly died almost 6 weeks past his 48th birthday. Playing all alone as a solo performer, this last show was video-recorded in high quality.
Johnny Cymbal was born in Ochiltree, Ayrshire, Scotland on February 3, 1945 and named John Hendry Blair. His mother's maiden name was Jean Hendry. He had an older brother and sister, Andy and Sylvia Blair. People often thought Johnny Cymbal was a stage name, but that was not the case. At a young age, he was adopted by his mother's second husband, Nick (possibly Nikolas) Cymbal, who was a Polish national and a member of the Free Polish Forces stationed in Scotland during World War II. John, who always spoke of Nick as his father, took that surname, and thereafter was known as John Hendry Cymbal. He also had a younger half-brother Derek, and half-sister Helena, issue from the marriage of Jean and Nick. Though they never met, Canadian historian and reggae musician Jason Wilson is Cymbal's first cousin, once removed.
When Johnny was seven or eight years old, the family moved from Scotland to Goderich, Ontario, Canada, and later to Cleveland, Ohio. Nicky Cymbal was a miner by trade, and at the time both those locales had thriving mining industries. Growing up outside Toronto and then Cleveland, during the genesis of rock and roll, Johnny (who was a fan of, and heavily influenced by, Elvis Presley) became fixated on music and quickly taught himself guitar. He began writing his own songs and singing at the age of 13.
While the chronology of his early music business years is problematical, it is said he was discovered by the Cleveland music entrepreneur, Sid Lawrence, who (with the legal consent of John's parents) put Johnny under contract. Lawrence, wanting to promote Johnny's career, brought him to the attention of the well-connected Philadelphia radio personality, Jack Gale. According to Gale, this took place via a phone call from Lawrence telling him about a "fifteen year old who played great guitar, sang terrific and wrote wonderful teenage songs."
Then, as Gale recounts, "... Johnny and Lawrence flew in to Philly" with some of John's tapes. That history may or may not be accurate. According to Johnny, the trip was made on his own initiative (but with his mother's blessing) alone at the age of 14, "...on a Greyhound bus from Cleveland to Philly" where he then waited by himself all night on Gale's doorstep to make sure he would not miss the appointment.
However he got to Jack Gale, it was a valuable journey because Gale quickly negotiated a recording contract for Cymbal with MGM, and in 1960, at the age of 15, Johnny did his first two sessions, in Nashville, singing his own compositions, with Jimmy Vienneau (who had worked with Conway Twitty, Donna Fargo and later Hank Williams Jr.) producing. The two A-sides were "Always Always" (MGM 12935) and "The Water Was Red" (MGM 12978). After those two releases failed to chart, Johnny's contract option was not picked up by MGM.
At that time, according to Gale, "... (I) got a release from Lawrence, and with written documents from his parents in Canada ... became both Johnny's manager and legal guardian." It was decided it would be best if John went to live with Jack Gale and his wife, Lovey, in Philadelphia.
Gale was empowered by, and responsible to, the Surrogate Court for handling John's financial affairs and as Gale relates, "had to get approval for every purchase of a shirt or a suit for performances." John himself stated that he also "worked in a shoe store" as a salesman during this time, while he continued writing songs and Gale sought another recording deal.
Gale was able to get Johnny several one-shot releases on various labels and he soon charted with "Bachelor Man", a demo released in 1963 (Vee Jay 495). Shortly thereafter, having had, according to Gale, "contract offers by several labels including RCA and Columbia", he chose to place Johnny on Kapp Records. Kapp was a hot label at the time, releasing such top artists as Louis Armstrong, Ruby and the Romantics and Jack Jones.
Kapp gave Johnny an album deal and put him together with top producer/arranger Alan Lorber, who had been successful with Neil Sedaka. On December 14, 1962, at Mirasound Studios in New York City, John recorded his self-penned, "Mr. Bass Man" (Kapp 503), with Ronnie Bright from the Valentines doing the bass voice. "Mr. Bass Man", released in January 1963, became an instant worldwide smash, going to No. 16 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, No. 1 in Japan and Argentina, No. 24 on the UK Singles Chart, and charting in every country where charts existed; it was recorded with French lyrics by Henri Salvador and released in France as "Monsieur Boum Boum"; with different French lyrics, it was released as "Monsieur La Basse" by Gilles Brown in Quebec, Canada. "Mr. Bass Man" is Johnny's signature song—it is a rock and roll anthem and continues to receive radio airplay and sell records after 40 years. John was soon signed by the William Morris Agency and began personal appearances throughout the Northeast and then to Europe and Japan after completing his first LP for Kapp. He was 18 years old and had become a teenage idol.
"Dum Dum De Dum" (Kapp 539), the July 1963 follow-up release to "Mr. Bass Man", did not do well, stopping at No. 77 in Billboard. The next single, "Teenage Heaven" (Kapp 524) made it to No. 58 in the US (but to No. 1 in Sweden). Subsequent releases (including "There Goes A Bad Girl" (Kapp 576), written by Bobby Darin) failed to chart. Kapp had Johnny record the title song for the 1964 film Robinson Crusoe on Mars, but it was not included in the film and the released record (Kapp 594) received little attention. The inability to maintain his initial level of success was naturally discouraging to Cymbal, who "...would lock himself in his room for hours", according to Jack Gale.
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Soon thereafter, Gale's radio career took him to Cocoa Beach, Florida and John returned to live with his parents, who had moved from Cleveland to Chico, California, and he began to write again in earnest.
When Gale returned to the Northeast as a deejay at WMEX in Boston, Cymbal moved back in with the Gale family. Working with John's new material, Gale was able to get John another shot with Kapp. Cymbal cut two sides, "Little Miss Lonely" and "Connie" (released together on Kapp 614), with Jack Gale producing and Bert Keyes as arranger. Gale says, "Kapp did their best to promote the record, but the Beatles had arrived and changed the face of music—the Kapp deal was over."
This was a tough period for Cymbal and Gale says, "He became more and more withdrawn and hardly spoke. I flew to New York for another try (with Cymbal's material) and ran into Gerry Teifer, who was running April-Blackwood Music and Teifer suggested I call Don Costa who was in New York working with Ed Ames." Costa was considered a major player, a producer/arranger who had worked with Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Connie Francis and others, "...so when I called him and mentioned Johnny", remembers Gale, "I was a bit surprised that he said 'yeah, Mr. Bass Man', come on up to my hotel, and with little negotiation offered me a very generous recording and publishing deal for Johnny."
It was 1965 and Costa had his own label, DCP, distributed by United Artists Records. He liked a new song Johnny had written, "Go VW Go" (DCP 1135), and asked Gale to put John back with Alan Lorber and the same crew that had done "Mr. Bass Man." Gale writes, "One month later, the record was [released] and immediately started getting good play and orders from distributors—it was like "Mr. Bass Man" again. Then Murray Deutch, who ran United Artists at the time, called me and gave me the bad news—UA had a falling out with Costa and they were killing the label and the record. The DCP deal was history and Costa left for California."
John continued as a signed writer to Costa's publishing company for a period of time and Costa produced John on one more record, "Jessica", a timely Viet Nam era Cymbal composition released on Columbia in 1966 (Columbia 43842), but the record did nothing.
While still with Costa, Cymbal became friends with Michael Rashkow, a recording engineer at Costa's studio and "would-be" songwriter, who coincidentally had recently been signed to the writing staff at Pamco Music, the BMI wing of ABC/Paramount. As soon as the term of Cymbal's contract with Costa was concluded, Rashkow brought Cymbal to ABC and Terry Cashman, who was then the Professional Manager of the music publishing division, put him on staff at ABC (Terry would later produce Jim Croce, among many others). This change reinvigorated Cymbal's career.In 1967 Johnny recorded a song he wrote("Carol Cartoon")with an unknown singer, Paul Dreyfuss, singing lead. After it was recorded Paul put a group together and appeared as The Eye-Full Tower.
Within a few months, Cymbal and Rashkow had written "Mary in the Morning", which when recorded by Al Martino became a substantial hit record and was quickly covered by several top artists and became a semi-standard. It was included on Glen Campbell's double Grammy Award-winning "Gentle on My Mind" LP, which sold over 5,000,000 copies on vinyl and tape and later was covered by Elvis Presley and included in his film That's The Way It Is. The song Rashkow and Cymbal wrote as the follow-up was "Julie on My Mind", but Martino turned this tune down. Subsequently, contractual issues prevented them from writing together. Rashkow began writing and producing with Ellie Greenwich and Cymbal forged a partnership producing with George Tobin at Musicor while remaining on staff at ABC. During this time Austin Roberts who later wrote the smash "I.O.U. " for Lee Greenwood among many other hits was also writing at ABC and Cymbal began a long and fruitful writing and singing partnership with Roberts.
With Tobin, John did some sides in 1968 under the name "Milk" for Buddha (the song "Ochiltree" by Cymbal and Tobin was written about Johnny's birthplace in Scotland), which didn't fly. But soon after hooking up with Tobin, John co-wrote, co-produced, and was lead vocalist on "Cinnamon", which was released on Ilene Berns' BANG label (Bang 558). For the release, John used the alias "Derek", the name of his younger brother. A band was put together, including James Craig Leitch on bass and Leonard Kovner on guitar (later the owner of Davlen Studios), and "Derek" went on the road performing the new hit. "Cinnamon" reached No. 11 (#3 Canada), and it being John's third major hit gave him solid credentials and a great many more opportunities. Johnny also recorded as "Derek" for "Back Door Man", the Bang follow-up to "Cinnamon" (Bang 566) (#47 Canada).
During this period in NY Cymbal remained busy writing and producing records for a number of artists, including Gene Pitney and Terri Gibbs (who had a big country crossover hit with "Somebody's Knockin’"). In early 1969, as the New York recording scene slowed dramatically, Cymbal and Tobin moved their base to California. Initially, Austin Roberts who was a very good singer as well as a writer stayed in New York, but soon after they were settled into the West Coast, he joined them in L.A. With the entrepreneurial Tobin running the business and Johnny and Austin Roberts creating the music, they were making what Roberts describes as "the record of the day"—they'd write a song during the day, then head into the studio to record it that night—with either Cymbal and/or Roberts voicing it. The next day, according to Roberts, "Tobin would go sell it to three different labels." That may be an exaggeration, but they surely made a lot of music recording under names such as "Taurus" on Tower and "Brother John" on A&M.
It's uncertain in which order the following events took place, but in 1969 John acrimoniously ended his partnership with George Tobin, met and fell in love with Catherine (Peggy) Clinger, and became active with the Wes Farrell Organization and their label, Chelsea Records.
Cymbal and Clinger forged a complete relationship; writing and recording together as well as becoming romantic partners. This was a watershed period for Cymbal. Johnny had a 1973 solo release on Chelsea, "Boulder, Colorado" (Chelsea 158), which garnered attention but did not hit. On his own and with Clinger as co-writer, Johnny had songs recorded by Wes Farrell-produced artists including the Cattanooga Cats and the Partridge Family, as well as solo recordings by Partridge lead singer, David Cassidy.
By 1972, Cymbal and Clinger's writing success led Farrell to produce Cymbal and Clinger on an eponymous LP of their own material using the cream of studio musicians in the Los Angeles area, including: Hal Blaine, Tom Scott, Larry Carlton, Michael Omartian, Joe Osborn and the rest of the "A" team players. Singles from that effort failed to chart, and though John and Peggy toured to support the release, including one gig at the Hollywood Bowl opening for Sly and the Family Stone, the LP did little to enhance the career of either Cymbal or Clinger. But David Cassidy's recording of the Clinger/Cymbal song "Rock Me Baby" (featured on the Cymbal & Clinger LP) which failed to make much noise in the US, but went to No. 11 in the UK and then Top 5 in Australia for another artist, John Farnham.
Subsequently, according to newspaper reports, Peggy Clinger died of a drug overdose at her home in Boulder, Colorado. Of Clinger, Austin Roberts said, "...she was a beautiful person and she and Johnny were just totally in love with each other." Although Johnny and Peggy had broken up as a couple before her death, his discouragement at their LP's failure and his depression at the news of Clinger's passing sent Cymbal into an emotional and physical decline for several years during which he drifted into the Hollywood drug culture ultimately hitting bottom. Fortunately, he went into rehab, and with the assistance of his former wife, Carol, he rediscovered his Christianity, obtained professional help, and over the next few years was able to overcome his addictions and make a complete recovery.
By 1978, Cymbal was back on his feet and living again in Cleveland, working outside the business with his former brother-in-law Peter Perri. Seeking a path back into music, Cymbal hooked up with former writing partner Mike Rashkow, who was at the time, an advertising copywriter in New Jersey. The pair got together for writing sessions in both Cleveland and in New Jersey. They quickly wrote a number of songs which Rashkow says, "Are absolutely the best work we had ever done."
They recorded some demos in New York and pitched a Johnny Cymbal solo LP to Mercury Records based around the new material. Mercury passed, but the Wes Farrell office in New York picked up one of the songs, "Words and Music." It was immediately cut by Julie Budd for Tom Catalano's Tom Cat label. As Rashkow recalls, "It was a big over-the-top arrangement and production by Herb Bernstein, and there was a lot of enthusiasm about the record", but Tom Cat went out of business before the record could be released. Wes Farrell later cut the tune with a girl group for a TV show Cattanooga Cats and it was released as a single [??on Chelsea??], but went nowhere.
Cymbal returned to Cleveland from New York City and within a few months moved to Nashville. Over the next few years, he established himself as one of a small group of "outside" writers who were accepted by the Nashville music business community and wrote with the cream of the Nashville composing corps. He was first signed as a staff writer at Famous Music, later he was on staff with BMG Music. During the Nashville years, he had many songs recorded by artists such as David Frizzell, Frankie Ford, Tompall & the Glaser Brothers, Aaron Tippin, the Shoppe ("Doesn't Anybody Get High On Love Anymore?") and in 1982 he had a solid US hit and a Canadian smash with "I'm Drinking Canada Dry" by the Flying Burrito Brothers (Curb 3023).
In the early 1980s, with these successes under his belt, John and his good friend and writing partner Austin Roberts formed the "Cymbal Roberts Band."
They were quickly signed to a recording and publishing contract by Barry Beckett who had established Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and, with his partners, had a reputation for making great records for people like Etta James, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Rod Stewart and Bob Seger. Beckett had a distribution deal for his MSSS Productions with Capitol Records and the Cymbal/Roberts Band was among the first artists Beckett chose to record under that logo imprimatur.
This opportunity was recognition of Cymbal's talent as a writer and singer and offered the pair the chance to jump start his singing career under the guidance of one of the best producers in the country. They went into the studio with the MSSS team and cut a group of sides which, unfortunately, were never released because Beckett's deal with Capitol fell apart very rapidly. These recordings remain unheard by the public.
What effect this latest disappointment had on Cymbal is not known. Over the next decade his music regularly graced the country music charts. He also placed songs on the film soundtracks of Tender Mercies (1983) starring Robert Duvall and in the film Tough Enough (1983) starring Dennis Quaid.
During his years in Nashville, Johnny Cymbal was twice married and twice divorced. He was alone when he died in his sleep of a heart attack on March 16, 1993 at the age of 48. In accordance with his wishes, he was cremated and his ashes were spread at Lake Radnor in Nashville.
- "Johnny Cymbal". Archived from the original on September 26, 2007.
- "Passings: Ronnie Bright of the Valentines, Coasters and Johnny Cymbal's "Mr. Bass Man" (1938 - 2015)". Vintagevinylnews.com.
- "Johnny Cymbal - Mr. Bass Man". YouTube.
- Further anecdotes and more details about Johnny Cymbal's early career, as recalled by his early manager and lifelong friend Jack Gale (winner of Billboard Magazine's first "Disc Jockey of The Year" Award) are included in Gale's book, "Same Time-Same Station."
- All in all, Johnny Cymbal recorded under the following names: Johnny Cymbal, Derek, the Eye-Full Tower ("Carol Cartoon", SSS Int'l 700), American Machine ("Snowball", Tower 473), the Sideshow ("Nickels and Times", (GRT 6), Brother John ("Polyanna", A&M 1199), Simonshy ("Hal, the Bill Collector", Mercury 73047), Dallas ("Ragamuffin Man", Marina 501), Milk ("Angela Jones", Buddah), Taurus ("Hey Jane", Tower 487), the Cymbal Roberts Band, James River Drive, the Non-Conformists, Cymbal and Clinger.
- Rashkow recalls their reacquaintance: "I hitchhiked, so I could save bus fare, to meet up with Johnny. Well, life backfired on me, it rained all over me the whole trip, and when I arrived in Cleveland, I was sick as a dead dog with a cold and fever. I just wanted to lay there on the couch. And did John take pity? No, he pushed me like a field hand, saying 'Get up, you useless * &$#, we have work to do.' He smiled the whole time. I was sick that whole week we wrote songs and you can be sure I took a plane back home."