My name is Delgatto: An interview with Sierra Records' John Delgatto

As founder and president of Sierra Records, John Delgatto has devoted the majority of his life to the recording, production, preservation and dissemination of traditional American music in all its guises, from folk-rock to bluegrass to country-rock.  Along the way, he's known/worked with some of the most legendary musicians in Americana, including Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, Byron Berline, Gram Parsons and Clarence White.  And yet, astonishingly, no one has ever taken the time to conduct an in-depth interview with him.  A great shame, of course, because, as you will see, John possesses uncanny recall for dates, places and people.  There are never any of those pesky "I don't know" or "I can't remember" answers to contend with. 
Think of it: John was at ground zero for some of the most pivotal moments not only of Gene Clark's career, but in all of California rock.  He witnessed performances by the original Byrds, Dillard and Clark -- even an impromptu saloon performance of "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man" in 1973 with Clarence White, Gram Parsons and Roger McGuinn. 

With Sierra's forthcoming release, Gene Clark - The Lost Studio Sessions, 1964-1982, fans will at long last gain access to over two dozen previously unreleased Clark-penned originals.  For long-suffering, understandably cynical fans, many of whom have waited decades for the legendary mother lode, this promises to be the most comprehensive archival release of Gene Clark material we have seen thus far: What Sierra has in store for us is an unprecedented deluge of songs that were, up until now, merely the stuff of legend; titles teasingly listed in the back pages of Johnny Rogan's Byrds bio, Timeless Flight Revisited
Soon they will be part of the Clark canon proper.  Thanks to John Delgatto.

John is a natural raconteur.  He possesses a raft of riveting, often hilarious, stories, some of which date back 50 years or more. So sit back and enjoy the trip. Maybe your jaw will hit the floor as many times as mine did.

Sierra Records has been flying the flag of Americana for over 40 years. How did it all start?

Sierra Records had its origins in 1969, when I recorded and produced my first record album, a live recording of the first bluegrass festival ever held in California. This led to my involvement in the world of bluegrass as a producer, writer and reviewer for such publications as Bluegrass Unlimited, Sing Out, Country Music and others.  I initially worked for Uncle Jim O'Neal's Rural Rhythm Records, were I learned the fundamentals of record production and the growing record mail-order business.  In the summer of 1971, I travelled to various folk and bluegrass music festivals with Doc and Merle Watson, which led to my association with such music notables as Clarence White, Country Gazette, Gram Parsons and the management team of (Eddie) Tickner and (Jim) Dickson.

At the urging of Doc Watson and Clarence White, I formed my first record company, Briar Records.  Among the first albums I produced for my new label were a fiddle album by the legendary Leslie Keith; a Doc Watson Family album (eventually released on CD on Sugar Hill Records); the Chris Darrow-produced Toullusions (by Toulouse Engelhardt);  Bluegrass Cardinals, Earl Collins' That's Earl - Collins Family Fiddling and an album of classic live performances by the legendary bluegrass group, the Kentucky Colonels, Livin' In the Past.  This live album was a joint production effort with Clarence White.  This collaboration was cut short by White's death in July, 1973 and it is still the only fully authorized live recording of this seminal group.

Clarence was late for the session, but when he saw me holding a copy of Kentucky Colonels' New Sounds of Bluegrass America album, we needed no formal introduction!

I expanded the Briar Records label by forming a new label, Sierra Records in 1977 which was briefly distributed by Flying Fish Records. I eventually merged his two labels in 1978 as Sierra/Briar Records. I released albums by Nashville West, Scotty Stoneman, Gene Parsons, Gram Parsons, Ian Whitcomb, the Credibility Gap (Harry Shearer, Michael McKean) and others.  In 1982, on the Sierra Records label, I and co-producer Marley Brant released the Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels, Live 1973 album, receiving worldwide acclaim.  The following year, that album was honoured with a Grammy nomination for "Best Country Performance By a Duo/Group" for the song "Love Hurts."

Sierra Records continued into the 1980s as an independent records label, adding book and home video/DVD divisions.  In the 1990's, Sierra Records continued releasing new albums by new artists. In 2000, the label's focus turned to reissuing older albums on compact disc as well as unreleased masters from the 1960s and 1970s.

How did you come to meet Gram Parsons and Clarence White? What are your favourite memories of them?
Through my radio shows, I became friends of the Country Gazette, and eventually sort of became their unofficial "roadie" (bluegrass bands don't have "roadies") which in turn introduced me to Jim Dickson and Eddie Tickner -- and in turn Clarence and Gram.  I was big fan of Jim's going back to his days as producer of Modern Folk Quartet, Dillards albums, et cetera.  I met Gram briefly in January 1969 when the Flying Burrito Brothers did a live radio show at the station at which I was doing my own radio show.  But I just did not get country music at the time.  I was steeped in bluegrass; middle-of-the-road country music was just not my cup of tea.  It took the third Burritos album to turn me around, but by then Gram had left the band.  Though Clarence and I knew of each other over the years, we had never met in person, though I had seen him perform in the Kentucky Colonels, and then the Byrds.

The Kentucky Colonels, featuring Clarence White (centre) 

I met Clarence for the first time in the fall of 1972 at Warner Bros Records Amigo Studios for the Gene Parsons Kindling album sessions.   I was invited to one particular session as they had flown in Ralph Stanley and Vassar Clements for the recording.  Since they knew I was a friend of Ralph's, they thought having a friendly face would be good.  I remember Clarence was late for the session, but when he saw me holding a copy of Kentucky Colonels-New Sounds of Bluegrass America album, we needed no formal introduction!

From November 1972 through June 1973, had to be for me the most incredible time for this music.  I remember the Saturday night in January 1973 sitting at this tiny front table at the Sundance Saloon in Calabasas. Clarence had gathered the "tribe" to play some bluegrass.  Clarence and I were sharing a pitcher of beer.  Clarence then called up to the ... stage Gram and Roger McGuinn, and they proceeded to do an acoustic version of "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man"!  I have to believe that was first and only time Roger and Gram ever sang that song in public.  They finished, and both disappeared into the night!  You talk about magic!

Then there was the entire day I spent with Clarence for the videotaping of the group that became Muleskinner at the studios of KCET on Sunset Blvd.  We ended the night, saying goodbye by drag racing down Sunset Boulevard before Clarence had to get on to the freeway to head home.  He was off the next morning, for what would be his last concert tour as a Byrd.

Gene Parsons' Kindling album
And then of course, there's the infamous "equipment manager" job that Gram and Eddie offered me for what would be the Fallen Angels tour.  I was still an independent record distributor, but had no real full-time job.  Gram was going to pay me $200 a week cash to ride the bus and work under Phil Kaufman.  I asked Clarence and Byron Berline about the offer.  They flat-out said,  "Don't do it, you will end up being a babysitter for Gram"!  But as they say, when one door closes, another opens -- the week that Gram and the Fallen Angels left for the tour, I landed an unbelievable job as a disc-mastering engineer.

And so in February 1973, I was hired as a disc-mastering engineer at United Sound Inc. in Burbank California, replacing the legendary, now late Stan Ricker. This offered me the opportunity to learn all phases of vinyl record production, beyond disc mastering, including galvanic metal processing, record pressing, printing, and fabrication.  When I told Clarence what happened, he was excited as he knew at the time -- although I didn't -- that this would be a way for me to learn the inside of the record business in order to start my own label.

Once, when I was paid a visit by Clarence and Gram at the mastering studio, I played them the Hinshaw mix of Roadmaster.  They tried to reach Gene by phone to have him come over! Gram really liked it! 

Did you ever meet Gene Clark?

Having been around all these musicians, the one that I never met was Gene!  I did see him perform with the Byrds and Dillard and Clark, but we just kept missing each other through the decades for a one-on-one.  Once, when I was paid a visit by Clarence and Gram in early June 1973 at the mastering studio, I played them the (Chris) Hinshaw mix (of Roadmaster).  They tried to reach Gene by phone to have him come over!  How incredible -- to have Gram and Gene together to talk about the album.  Gram really liked it! They never connected,  Gene actually might have been up in Mendocino at the time.

A large portion of Sierra's catalogue features recordings made by members of the Byrds family tree (Clarence White, Gene Parsons, Gram Parsons and now Gene Clark). Can you tell us a bit about the importance of the Byrds in your life?

To be honest, back in 1965 when the Byrds came on the scene, I was still a die-hard folk and bluegrass person.  I was playing in a folk quartet that played regularly at the Ice House in Pasadena while still in school.  I was trying to move into bluegrass, playing a pre-war Gibson Mastertone that I had purchased from Harry West in NYC, taking bluegrass banjo lessons and having gone to high school with then Southern California banjo king, David Lindley.  Though I liked rock and roll,  I was not a fan when the Byrds hit!  In fact, I was upset that they "ruined" folk music!  It was actually with the release of the Beatles' Rubber Soul in December 1965 did I "see the light"!  It was like an epiphany!  All of sudden, the Byrds' music started making sense.  Of course earlier I had seen Chris Hillman playing mandolin with the Gosdin Brothers on the old Cal's Corral TV Show so the transition from bluegrass to rock now seemed more real to me now. Thank you, Chris!

But up to that point, although I was an avid record-album buyer, I had never purchased any Byrds albums.  But I remember walking into my local record store to purchase yet another copy of Rubber Soul album in February 1967 (I had literally worn out the record) but saw this new album by Gene Clark!  With musicians like the Gosdins, Clarence White, Glen Campbell and Doug Dillard, I bought it as well!  I loved the album,  loved Gene's songs and performances!  In the winter of 1967, I am in college now, my folk group was long gone and I was a broadcasting major and doing a regular radio show.  Though the station policy was not to play any "rock and roll," I was able to play Gene's album as a "folk" album!

Over the years, with doing more radio shows, working for Rural Rhythm Records, starting my own mail order company and Southern California distributor for such labels as Folkways, Rounder, Rebel, County and others, I finally started hanging out with the Country Gazette (Byron Berline, Roger Bush, Kenny Wertz, Alan Munde) which, as I said before, led to meeting Jim Dickson and Eddie Tickner and sort of became the "young kid" who wanted to start a record label.  By then -- with Clarence White -- the Byrds became my favourite group.  Let's just say it was a long process becoming a Byrds fan.

Much of the material included on Sierra's hotly anticipated new release, The Lost Studio Sessions, 1964-1982, is sourced from Jim Dickson's personal archive. Can you describe the nature of your relationship with Dickson and how you came to inherit these recordings? 

As it will be explained in more detail in my portion of the album notes that will be part of the upcoming release, when Jim Dickson turned over his audio archives to me in 1996, the only Gene Clark tapes Jim had in the collection were, of course, the Preflyte Byrds 3-track masters, and the 2", 16-track master to the 1982 Nyteflyte sessions [Also known as the Flyte recordings, featuring Gene Clark, Michael Clarke, Chris Hillman, Herb Pedersen and Al Perkins]. In addition, I know that volume 2 of Johnny Rogan's epic Byrds saga [Requiem for the Timeless] will explain more of this in detail, as he has spent decades filtering through all the BS to get to the real story.

I first came across the other studio recordings -- that make up the majority of the album -- while I was a disc-mastering engineer at United Sound.  Many came from former recording engineers going as far back as 1970!  Over the years, especially in the late 1990s, prior to taking over Jim's collection, I discovered more of these true studio recording sessions from former, now retired studio engineers.  It was pretty obvious that Jim was the original source for these recordings but, as he explained, these recordings were either left at studios, in Gene's possession, or just lost in the many times Jim moved around LA to Tucson to Hawaii and back again!  For example, the two studio multi-track recordings from January 1967 represented only a fraction of the recordings Jim actually produced of Gene through 1967.  The others continue to be lost.  For Jim's part, once I played some of these tracks for him, he still could not remember doing them in the first place, but clearly he did!

Thus a major concept for this album was to only use studio recordings: no home recordings, no song publisher’s references, no acetates, cassettes, etc.  That's not to say in the future, more of these recordings won't be released.  It's just not where my interests lay.  Frankly, all of Gene's music will hopefully see the light of day.  And who knows, maybe this album will resurrect some of these lost masters stuck in someone's garage.  Where did you think I found most of these for this album?
Terry Melcher's self-titled album from 1974.

What specific details can you reveal to readers of The Clarkophile about the contents of the forthcoming Gene Clark release?

Many fans will be focused on the original recording of "Back Street Mirror." Jim Dickson took this original and had David Hemmings overdub his vocal several months later, yet [contrary to popular belief] Gene's original vocal was not erased.
In 1972, during and after the so-called "Roadmaster" sessions, the same thing happened to Gene again when Terry Melcher, a year or so later, overdubbed his vocal on Gene's original studio recording of "Bars Have Made a Prisoner Out Of Me" by Spooner Oldham/Freddy Weller, and Gene's mournful version of "Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms."  These "new" Melcher tracks would appear on his 1974 Warner Brothers Records album!  Locating these and other recordings from the Wally Heider Studios -- thanks to a much earlier tip I got from the now late Chris Hinshaw -- enabled us to include these tracks on the album.

Apart from the Clark album, what other releases can we expect from Sierra in 2016? 

We had to push back the vinyl-only release of Randy Meisner - Take It To The Limit until March 1, due to production delays and remastering at Abbey Road Studios.   Also slated for 2016 are more audiophile vinyl releases of Gram Parsons & The Fallen Angels Live 1973Early L.A. (based on the original Together Records, Jim Dickson-produced tracks); more unreleased studio recordings of Clarence White from 1973; a possible unreleased Gosdin Brothers album, and other similar recordings.

Special thanks to John Delgatto


Indigo Mariana said…
Thanks so much for this interview Tom. It's interesting to learn the history behind Delgatto and Sierra and how the upcoming Gene Clark release came together. I'm anxiously waiting to hear this historic release!
Anonymous said…
Yes, this is so interesting, but naturally, no actual date when it will be released, or actual song titles to mention either(other than Back Street Mirror).
A good release date at this point would be sometime in May, the 25th anniversary of Gene's death. If it's not released by then, I suspect it will take "years", much like High Moon Records release of Two Sides To Every Story, which was first announced in 2011, but was not released until 2014, giving lame excuse after lame excuse.
I truly hope this will not be the case here, that you are indeed a man of integrity, Mr. Delgatto.
The Clarkophile said…
Why the sneering cynicism? I don't think there's any need for that. You talk like you're entitled to something here.

And you're incorrect about song titles. It's been stated elsewhere online that, along with "Back Street Mirror," that another track in the collection will be "Don't Let It Fall Through" from 1967.
Furthermore, Mr. Delgatto states quite clearly -- later on in the interview, I guess you missed it -- the titles of two more songs featured in the set, "Bars Have Made a Prisoner Out of Me" and "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms."

pholkiephred said…
Considering that these are some of the seminal recordings of country rock and folk rock, the opportunity to hear some previously unheard or even unheard of recordings has to be classified as exciting. I do hope most hidden tapes are found before they need to be baked to be played.
Unknown said…
Beautiful work! Tom & John. I really enjoyed reading this thank you very much.
ge said…
Dear friends:
We have a friend who has been diagnosed with an incurable terminal disease,
and has approx. 3 weeks to live [MD report on request]
Might we please have our prayers answered by hearing unheard studio
demo's of Gene Clark in preparation now? This may be a lot to ask but
it is a dying man's most fervent wish!
In God We Trust No Other
Make A Wish Foundation
The Clarkophile said…
I have neither the authority nor permission to help here. You need to contact John Delgatto at Sierra Records and provide additional information. Thanks.
paolo said…
Ciao Clarkophile!
It's Paolo from Italy here... this interview is really a great post... i liked it very much...
and i think i'll like the double vinyl of sierra records...
i interviewed John Delgatto in 2009 for a Gene Parsons special i wrote for the italian magazine "Late for the Sky"...
if you think it could be interesting i can send you my interview, John don't talks about Gene Clark but he remmebers a lot of other interesting things about his roots....

stay goo

Unknown said…
Dear John (oh, my Gosh--that sounds like an ending salute! Sorry. Not.)-- This missive is to thank you sincerely for all that you have done and are doing for the music that so many of us love. (By the way, "Del Gato" that was mentioned by another as a nod to your name, was a nice touch!). We have spoken before on the Net, although I absolutely do not expect you to remember it, at least not now. I am, however a contributing author in the tomes ACROSS THE WAY-CANYONS, and BEST POETS OF 2015. I am right now re-listening to THE LOST STUDIO SESSIONS by Gene Clark, and am fervently looking forward to the new release of the lost sessions. What inspired me to write was the notice that two more songs were uncovered, and you were sending them along, too. UNHEARD OF! YOU ARE THE BEST! I've been a fan since I first heard the Byrds as I was in the shower in my parent's home in 1965. Subsequently, I have had the pleasure to meet Roger and his wife, Camilla, and Geno, and Michael, and Chris (along with Herb), and York, with other notables. A lucky life for a kid from the Mid-West! (Although, my mom dated Gene Rayburn, host of The Match Game, in high school, and I am a fraternity brother and old next-door neighbor of David Letterman. Also, Director, Producer, and Creator Ryan Murphy was in my 9th-grade honors English class! Small world, indeed! Regards, Mikey
Anonymous said…
I discovered Sierra almost 20 years ago, Gram Parsons material was rare then and hard to find. Sierra at the time had the only Live Parsons records that I knew. Mr.Degatto actually wrote me back and was helpful to me and writing a brief history of the Fallen Angels CD. What a great company to help make these rare gems available.