Warren Zevon

  • Rock singer born in 1947 in Chicago Illinois. Died in 2003 of cancer.
  • At the age of 13, he occasionally visited the home of the famous composer Igor Stravinsky after Stravinsky moved to California. He briefly studied modern classical music with Stravinsky.
  • In 1964, he formed a duo group with a high school friend named Violet Santangelo. The group was named lyme and cybelle (all small letters – Zevon took the stage name Stephen lyme). They sang for some friends, and one of the friends had a mother who worked for an independent record label. The label signed them, and they recorded 2 singles. The first, a mellow psychedelic song called Follow Me, charted at #65 on the Billboard Pop Chart in 1966. The second single was a cover of a Bob Dylan song that did not chart. Zevon left the duo after this.
  • He wrote several songs for the group The Turtles in the late 60s, and also wrote a song on the soundtrack to the film Midnight Cowboy. He released his first solo album in 1969, Wanted Dead of Alive. The record did not sell well, but some of the songs were indicative of many of his later songs involving romantic loss and cynicism.
  • In the early 70s, he toured as a member of the band that supported the Everly Brothers. In the summer of 1975, Zevon moved to Spain, dissatisfied with his career. Here, he met a former mercenary who owned a bar, and together they wrote the song Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, which later would become a signature song for Zevon.
  • By the fall of 1975, Zevon moved back to Los Angeles, where he lived with Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, prior to their involvement with Fleetwood Mac. He met Jackson Browne, who produced Zevon’s first major label album, the self-titled Warren Zevon, released in 1976. Contributors to the album included all 4 future members of Fleetwood Mac, members of the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys. The album barely hit the Billboard album chart – though after I discovered Zevon, I picked up the record at my neighborhood used vinyl store, and I consider it his best album.
  • Ronstadt in particular liked his music, and she recorded several of the songs he wrote, most notably Poor Poor Pitiful Me.
  • Zevon’s next album was his breakthrough record, Excitable Boy, released in 1978. It was his highest charting album, peaking at #8, and it sold over 1 million copies. Five singles were released, though only 1 charted – his famous song Warewolves of London. This song was a rare lighthearted fun song – most of the other tracks on the album are darker stories, though presented with catchy melodies.
  • He released 11 more albums after Excitable Boy, between 1980 and 2003. Five managed to chart on the Billboard 200 chart, but generally they did not sell well, though much of the music was acclaimed by critics.
  • David Letterman was a fan of Zevon, and Letterman invited Zevon to substitute for Paul Shaffer as band leader on his show periodically between 1982 and 2001.
  • In 2002, Zevon complained of dizziness and a cough. He visited a doctor, and it was discovered that he had cancer of the pleura, the thin lining around the lungs. He refused treatment, and instead began recording his final album, The Wind. Contributors to the album included Bruce Springsteen, Don Henley, Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty and others. On October 30 that year, Zevon was featured as the only guest on Late Night with David Letterman, and he discussed openly about his terminal illness. His final public performance was that night – he performed three songs, closing with Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner per Letterman’s request.
  • The Wind was released in August 2003. He died 12 days later. The album peaked at #12 on the Billboard chart, and Zevon posthumously won 2 Grammy Awards for the album.
  • Zevon was an artist that people either liked or disliked. Some thought his music was too dark to be enjoyed. He had a unique vocal, a baritone that sometimes sounded like he was holding his nose while singing. Here is a clip of his final appearance on Letterman in October 2002 performing Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner. Before Zevon left the television studio, he gave Letterman his guitar, saying “take care of this for me.” Ten months later, Zevon was gone. RIP Warren Zevon.

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