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GRAM PARSONS
The Early Years: 1960-1965


Gram Parsons Discography

Gram Parsons Bibliography



Gram Parsons: A Music Biography by Sid Griffin. Courtesy Sierra Records.




The level of detail in this profile is possible only because of two fine books. Both are essential reading for anyone who wants to learn more about Gram Parsons; together these books cover his story in much more detail than is possible here. The first, by Ben Fong-Torres, is a thoroughly researched and crisply written biography called Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons (New York: Pocket Books, 1991). The second is Gram Parsons: A Music Biography (Pasadena, CA: Sierra Books, 1994) (3d Edition) by Sid Griffin, a Parsons authority. Griffin is a musician who has played his own brand of Cosmic American Music with the Long Ryders and the Coal Porters. His book is a compendium of essays and interviews with key figures from the life of Gram Parsons, including John Nuese, Chris Hillman, and Emmylou Harris. As such, it is a perfect compliment to the Fong-Torres bio. Follow the links for each of the titles for further information on each of these books.


Gram Parsons had many gifts: his ground-breaking artistic vision, his infectious enthusiasm, and his undeniable musical talent. But his tragically short life was punctuated from the start by drink, drugs, and death. Parsons came from a family of wealthy Southerners with a weakness for alcohol and a history of mental instability. As Chris Hillman has observed, they could have come straight out of Tennessee Williams.* Gram Parsons struggled with that legacy and lost. He didn't live to see how profoundly his music and ideas would influence both rock and country music.


The Connors of Waycross:

Parsons was born Ingram Cecil Connor III in Waycross, Georgia on November 5, 1946. His mother Avis came from the prosperous Snively family, whose orange groves made them millions by the mid '50s, when Snively Groves was the largest shipper of fresh fruit in Florida. The Snivelys later owned an interest in Cypress Gardens, the popular tourist attraction built on part of the Snivelys' land in Winter Haven, Florida.
His father, Cecil "Coon Dog" Connor, Jr., was the son of a wealthy salesman from Columbia, Tennessee. During World War Two, Coon Dog Connor was a major in the Army Air Force and flew over fifty combat missions. By 1946 he was running a box-making factory in Waycross, Georgia, owned by his new in-laws, the Snivelys. The Connors lived in a comfortable home in the nicest section of town.
By age nine, Gram Connor was taking piano lessons and listening to country music. By 1956, early rock and roll had captured his interest. He was partial to Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins, but nobody made a greater impression on him than Elvis Presley. The nine-year-old fan saw Elvis perform in Waycross in February 1956, when he opened for Little Jimmie Dickens -- only weeks before "Heartbreak Hotel" made Presley a star. He got Elvis's autograph, and soon was lip-synching Elvis numbers on his front stoop for the neighborhood kids. Those young friends remember Gram Connor as smart, charismatic, and prone to spinning wild tales.
The next year Avis Connor sent her son to the Bolles School, a military prep school in Jacksonville, Florida. His stay was interrupted when his father killed himself with a .38 caliber bullet to the head in December of 1958. Coon Dog Connor had grown to feel trapped in his job with the Snively family business, and perhaps in his marriage as well. His son was seriously shaken; within a few months, he was kicked out of Bolles because of disciplinary problems.
He returned to Winter Haven, where his mother had married Robert Ellis Parsons, described by sources of Fong-Torres as a transparent fortune hunter.* Bob Parsons immediately adopted Gram Connor and his little sister Avis as his own children, which his wife's family regarded as part of an effort to get hold of the Snively fortune.
Gram Parsons, by 1959 a thirteen-year-old ladykiller, became more interested in music. Elvis's career was in eclipse, and Philadelphia pretty boys like Bobby Vee and Bobby Vinton dominated radio. Parsons had no use for the American Bandstand brigade; he still preferred the first-generation rockers and the R&B bands that toured the Southern frat-party circuit.


The Pacers

In 1960, the eighth-grade Parsons joined his first band, the Pacers. He was the lead singer; the others were older guys from Winter Haven High. The Pacers covered Elvis songs to the delight of the local high school girls. After a year with the clean-cut Pacers, Gram defected to a rival local band that had several promising musicians.


The Legends

Parsons became the lead singer for the Legends, another rock and roll cover band. Other members included Jim Carlton on upright bass, Lamar Braxton on drums, and future hitmaker Jim Stafford on lead guitar. The Legends covered Ray Charles and Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the Everly Brothers, Duane Eddy and the Ventures. It was a loose aggregation; later members included Jon Corneal on drums, Jesse Chambers on guitar, and Kent LaVoie, who also achieved fame in the early '70s as Lobo. The Legends earned a decent living for a high school band, playing gigs in Winter Haven and around Florida. They even earned a regular slot on a local TV dance show.
By 1962, Parsons had involved himself in several musical side projects while still a member of the Legends. He sometimes sat in on keyboards with Kent LaVoie's full-time band, the Rumors. As the folk music boom filtered onto the charts, Parsons also started dabbling in that genre. Occasionally he would play solo gigs with an acoustic guitar. With Legends bassist Jim Carlton, he worked up a folk and comedy duo in the style of the Smothers Brothers. Next, Parsons put together the Village Vanguards, a folk trio patterned after Peter, Paul & Mary that featured Parsons, his girlfriend Patti Johnson, and his friend Dick McNeer. For the most part, the Vanguards played during intermissions at shows by the Legends.
Meanwhile, Avis Parsons had given birth to a daughter by her new husband, but before long Bob Parsons was spending an unseemly amount of time with their 18-year-old babysitter. Avis Parsons in turn became increasingly dependent on alcohol and on the pharmacopoeia she had accumulated with the help of a neighboring doctor. Gram Parsons began to sample from her medicine cabinet as well.
With music, girls and pills to distract him from his schoolwork, he failed his junior year at Winter Haven High. Patti Johnson's father prevented an attempted elopement with Parsons that summer, incidentally putting an end to the Vanguards. Family friends pulled strings, and in fall of 1963, Parsons returned to the Bolles School, now a college prep school with no military ties, to repeat his junior year. Without Parsons, the Legends dissolved.


The Shilos

Greenville, South Carolina was the home of Buddy Freeman, an old family friend who began to manage Parsons. Freeman had no prior music experience but threw himself into the job with enthusiasm. As a result, the young singer developed a following in Greenville. In 1963, Parsons played a teen music show there on local television. An area deejay saw the program and asked Parsons to judge a talent contest and sing a couple numbers.
Before the show, Parsons met two-thirds of a singing trio from the area called the Shilos. They discovered a mutual appreciation for the Journeymen and ran through one of their songs backstage. The resulting harmony impressed them all. The next night Parsons chose the Shilos as the winners of the contest and the prize money, after which the group joined him onstage to perform. (Remarkably, none of the other contestants protested.)
Before long, the 17-year-old Gram Parsons was a member of the Shilos. The other members -- Paul Surratt, Joe Kelly, and George Wrigley -- were also in high school, but the addition of Parsons and the hustling of Freeman led to impressive success for the band. The Shilos played dances, coffee houses, colleges, and TV shows; in time they commanded several hundred dollars per performance.
In the summer of 1964, the Shilos spent a month a New York City. They played often at the small Café Rafio, but also performed at more prestigious venues like the Bitter End and Café Wha. They managed to ingratiate themselves with their idols the Journeymen, so much so that Dick Weissman and Parsons recorded some tracks together -- tracks which are now, sadly, lost. John Phillips even brought the Shilos to the office of Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan's manager. A Grossman underling was intrigued, but balked when he learned the Shilos were all too young to sign a contract.
The Shilos returned South. In March of 1965, they recorded nine tracks at the radio station of Bob Jones University, a Greenville religious college (which became famous in the '80s for refusing to integrate). These tracks surfaced many years later on Gram Parsons: The Early Years, Volume I (1963-1965) (Sierra, 1979). Among the songs were two by Journeyman Dick Weissman, and most interestingly, a version of Pete Seeger's "Bells of Rhymney" that predates the Byrds' version by several months.

Cover of Gram Parsons, The Early Years: 1963-1965
The Early Years: 1963-1965.
Courtesy Sierra Records.

The record shows a young group very much fixated on the sound of the Journeymen and the Kingston Trio. But by early 1965, that form of folk music was being drowned out by Beatlemania -- and soon it would be displaced by the folk rock of Dylan and the Byrds. Not surprisingly, the group's attempts to generate record company interest in the demo proved fruitless.
Parsons's high school graduation arrived in June of '65. That same morning he learned that his mother had died of alcohol poisoning after a period of hospitalization. Aside from her husband's conduct, Avis Parsons had other troubles: she had been embroiled in a bitter internecine legal struggle over her brother's management of the Snively businesses -- a struggle that helped cause the loss of the entire family fortune by 1974. These emotional strains worsened her substance abuse so much that her death was no surprise to the family.
Bob Parsons soon moved to Florida and married the family's babysitter, though she was only a few years older than the teenaged Gram. Despite considerable strain in their relations, Bob Parsons helped his step-son wangle a draft deferment (on the grounds that he was supposedly 4-F), and encouraged him to apply to Harvard.
"I did a back-dive into Harvard," Parsons said in a 1972 Warner/Reprise PR bio. "They were looking to break out of their traditional mold of choosing students, and I was way out of the traditional mold."* His grades and test scores were unimpressive, so his own assessment seems plausible: "I guess they figured they had enough class presidents and maybe they needed a few beatniks."* The young singer arrived in Cambridge in the fall of '65.




The story of Gram Parsons and the International Submarine Band appears in Gram Parsons & the ISB: 1965-1967.



Notes

Tennessee Williams: Griffin, Gram Parsons at 85.

Fortune hunter: Fong-Torres, Hickory Wind at 35.

"I did a back-dive...." Quoted in Griffin, Gram Parsons at 55.

"...A few beatniks." Quoted in Fong-Torres, Hickory Wind at 50.


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Band Members | Gram Parsons | 1960-1965

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