Published: Mojo, August 1995
“I think it’s different these days,” he says. “There’s so many people and everybody wants to be a rock star. It’s really tough to put your heart into it…” The name may not be as familiar as it once was, but to anyone who even strolled past a radio in the ‘70s, the music of David Gates needs no introduction. The man who wrote all those classic songs for Bread, who counts covers of his material in their hundreds and his own record sales in their millions is, after 13 years of cattle-ranching and a pastoral family life in California, back in the rat race once again. He surely doesn’t need the money?
“Well, I just missed the songwriting,” he says. “I thought I’d try making songs for other artists, but I kept running into situations where people would go ‘Gee, why don’t you do it yourself?’ After a while I ran into Jac Holzman, who’d owned Elektra Records and who’d signed Bread, and he suggested we try making a record…” The result, issued in America late last year on Holzman’s new Discovery label, is the wonderful Love Is Always Seventeen – a welcome return to the warm, melodic values of Bread, with one eye on the new sound of country. Gates is a craftsman, and to his ear “some of the best songs are being written in country today.” And it’s also fair to say that new country is where the soft-rock audience of the ‘70s has moved to – but try telling that to the US radio mafia. The album’s title track is as timeless a ballad as anything Gates has written, and was the all important first single. You may have seen it on CMTV, but it didn’t get the radio play to make it a hit. Over the phone he sounds hurt, but philosophical: “After ‘If’, I think it’s the best song I’ve ever written. That doesn’t mean it’s gonna sell a million records. It’s that much more difficult to get heard now.”
Even for a man of Gates’ track record and personal reputation, the comeback isn’t easy. But he’s no stranger to commitment. He’s never drunk alcohol, smoked nicotine or taken drugs, and when he tells you he’s “only interested in the music, that’s all”, you know it’s true. He was following classical recordings with sheet music by the age of five, wooed his high school sweetheart into marriage with his first record release ‘Jo Baby’, in 1958, and then dropped out of college to try and make a living on the LA sessions scene. He made it rather well. Contemporaries from his school days in Oklahoma included JJ Cale, Jimmy Webb and Leon Russell: “We were all from the same town, so I’d run into them from time to time. Everybody was starting a band. Really, Chuck Berry started the whole thing. Elvis Presley gets a lot of the credit but Chuck was really the guy that everyone looked to ‘cos he was such a fabulous songwriter, played lead guitar and so on. I was never that good at lead guitar…”
He didn’t need to be. His string arranging and multi-instrumental abilities set him apart very quickly – scoring and playing for the likes of Elvis Presley (some movie – he doesn’t remember which), the Beach Boys and Phil Spector – and his songwriting was a bonus. An early hit song with “Popsicles And Icicles’ for The Murmaids in 1963 led to regular songwriting work with Screen Gems, including ‘Saturday’s Child’ for The Monkees. “It was almost their first single, but it did make it onto their first album, which sold three million copies. Helped pay a few bills at the time!” Still more bizarre is the David Gates credit in the chronicles of Captain Beefheart: “Yeah, that was really different. They were looking for a producer, so I went in and did four sides – and actually wrote one, for which I still get a few royalties, but not much!”
Bread, which he formed with the writing team of Robb Royer and James Griffin in 1968, was intended to be an occasional studio band – an uptempo, pop singing antidote to late ‘60s rock indulgence “and then all of a sudden on the second album I wrote this ballad [‘Make It With You’] and it started to sell, and that dictated the direction the group took after that. Radio did that for you…” Back then radio was on firmly on Gates’ side, and the hits just tumbled out – ‘Everything I Own’ (written for his late father), ‘Diary’ (“just a fictitious thing – it disappointed a lot of people who were hoping there really was a diary!”), and the glorious ‘Guitar Man’. Did it ever occur to him that he might be writing that one about himself? “No, it didn’t, although somebody came up to me at the time and said it sounded like Bread’s swansong. ‘No’, I said, ‘it’s just about this guy who can’t quit, doesn’t care how many people come along, he just loves to play’…”
The band split soon after and, barring a one album reunion, Gates soldiered on respectably enough as a soloist into the early ‘80s, before retiring to the backwoods. The new album includes David Martin’s powerful ‘Ordinary Man’ – the first ever cover on a David Gates album. It might be a single. Wouldn’t it be an irony beyond measure if it took someone else’s song to re-establish the name of David Gates? “Yes,” he says, “I think so too.”