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Jackie DeShannon performing on stage during 1972-73.
Jackie DeShannon performing on stage during 1972-73. Photograph: Courtesy DeShannon Communications
Jackie DeShannon performing on stage during 1972-73. Photograph: Courtesy DeShannon Communications

Musician Jackie DeShannon on her incredible career: ‘It was really difficult being a woman’

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The 82-year-old singer-songwriter, known for hits like What the World Needs Now Is Love, reflects on a storied career filled with highs and lows

Say the name Jackie DeShannon and two things spring to most listeners’ minds. “A lot of people think I popped out of nowhere singing What the World Needs Now is Love and Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” DeShannon said of her two biggest hits. “They don’t know there’s a history there.”

In fact, there’s an incredibly long and varied one. As a singer and songwriter, DeShannon has seminal connections to many of the most important musical forces of the last century, including Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Page and the Wrecking Crew. Her musical output also spreads far and wide, spanning genres from soul to folk-rock to standards, heard on scores of solo albums and in a wealth of cover versions of songs she has written. But there’s even more to DeShannon’s story, including a formative part that even her most ardent fans never had access to – until now.

DeShannon, born Sharon Lee Myers in Hazel, Kentucky, began her career as a child singing country songs with such finesse and brio it earned her a regional radio show when she was just 13 years old in 1954. Two years later, her mother began making secret home recordings of those shows. Now, that trove of recordings is finally being released under the title The Sherry Lee Show, echoing her stage name at the time. On these newly unearthed recordings, she covers hits of the day by country stars like Patsy Cline, George Jones and Don Fleming. Asked what she thinks of that little girl when she hears her now, the 82-year-old loudly declared, “I love her! I hear an innocence,” she said by phone from her Beverly Hills home. “But I also hear someone who has a powerful dream and a lot of drive.”

An astute listener will also hear nuance. At 15, DeShannon’s feel for the emotion and story in the country standards she sang is uncanny. Some of that comes from having grown up surrounded by a multi-generational family of musicians. “On weekends everyone would bring out the fiddles and guitars and sit on my grandmother’s porch and sing and play,” DeShannon said.

Her father and uncle had a band modeled on the Delmore Brothers. “It wasn’t all-out country,” the singer said. “It was country-blues. My dad was influenced by hearing Jimmy Reed and Bobby Blue Bland and so was I.”

Her radio recordings also show a love of R&B and rockabilly through covers of songs that became hits for Fats Domino and Elvis Presley. Because all these recordings were made surreptitiously by her mother the sound is raw and primitive. “I’m proud of that!” DeShannon said. “There’s so much that’s clean and slick out there now. We need more rowdy.”

Jackie DeShannon in Laurel Canyon in the 60s. Photograph: Sue Cameron, courtesy of DeShannon Communications

It was that raw quality in the music that first drew DeShannon to Elvis’s early records. By the time she reached her 20s, she didn’t just admire the singer, she got to know him. It’s been said that the two dated, a rumor she finds funny. “I just enjoyed him as a friend,” she said. “I used to go up to his house and sing gospel music when he had the Jordanaires there. He was very polite and humble.”

It was another rocker, Eddie Cochran, who suggested the singer move to LA to advance her career in 1960. Around that time, she chose the consciously androgynous stage name Jackie DeShannon and met Sharon Sheeley, who became her early writing partner. “We collaborated on the lyrics,” the singer said. “But melodies always came to me first. I’d get a lick or hook and just work it from there.”

The pair got a publishing deal with Liberty Records which pitched their songs to whoever was going into the studio at the time. They first hit with songs for Brenda Lee, including Heart in Hand, which made the Top 20, and Dum Dum which broke the top five. Soon DeShannon got signed to her own recording deal at Liberty, but she quickly came up against the limitations placed on female artists at the time. While she was allowed to write and record her own material – already a profound rarity back then – she also had a vision for how those songs should be produced and arranged. And that didn’t fly. “In those days, they thought, ‘How would a woman know what to do in a studio? It’s impossible,’” she said. “I would go in with one idea and the producer would say ‘It has to be done this way.’ If you suggested they do it differently, you were labelled difficult.”

Her issues with Liberty began with her very first album, a self-titled work in 1963. For that project, DeShannon had a bold idea inspired by an event she had just attended. “I saw Bob Dylan’s first concert at Town Hall,” she recalled. “For the first half, he sang traditional blues songs like See That My Grave Is Kept Clean. I was going, ‘that’s nice but I don’t see the fuss.’ Then, for the second set, he came back with songs like Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright, With God on Our Side, and The Times They Are A-Changin’. I went crazy.”

Consequently, she told Liberty she wanted to do an entire album of Dylan songs, which would have made a historic statement at the time. They balked, allowing her to only cut a few, including Don’t Think Twice, a song she felt should be the single. Liberty disagreed. Shortly afterwards, Peter Paul and Mary’s version of that song became a top 10 smash. For DeShannon’s second album in 1964, she recorded a piece she wrote that became a classic: When You Walk in the Room. While her version barely broke the Top 100, a cover by the Searchers became a worldwide hit, inspiring scores of later interpretations. The music DeShannon wrote for that song had with the jingle-jangle chime of folk-rock, a genre the Byrds got sole credit for birthing the next year. In fact, The Byrds covered another DeShannon song, Don’t Doubt Yourself Babe, on their 1965 debut. “I don’t want to be the person who says, ‘I should have credit,’” DeShannon said. “It just came down the way it came down.”

But it kept happening that way, in part, DeShannon believes, because of how Liberty Records viewed her. “Unbeknownst to me, the label preferred to build their publishing company with me as a writer rather than to really market me as a performer,” she said. “Let’s just say it was very disappointing.”

At the same time, DeShannon was having some great experiences. In 1964, she was part of a package of acts opening for the Beatles on their first American tour. Given the intensity of Beatlemania, this was a mixed blessing for some performers on the bill. “Some of them were really upset that the crowd wasn’t hollering for them,” DeShannon recalls. “I was laughing and saying, ‘well, are you putting people into seats?’ The crowd would shout, ‘we want the Beatles!!’ But I sang right through it and had a blast.”

Better, the next year she scored her first major hit. Burt Bacharach and Hal David had been having great success writing songs for Dionne Warwick. But when they brought Warwick What the World Needs Now Is Love, she found it preachy and turned it down. “The song sounded great to me!” DeShannon said. “It’s got a churchy thing in the melody that I picked up on. And the lyric was gorgeous.”

Soon after, DeShannon made another important connection. During a recording session in England, she needed to find a guitarist. The producers suggested Jimmy Page, an art student at the time who did session work on the side. “I had been very spoiled with guitarists on my sessions because I worked with James Burton and Glen Campbell,” the singer said. “I said to the producer: ‘He has to be really good.’ When Jimmy Page played my song back to me, he sounded like Segovia. I knew he was a genius immediately.”

She was attracted to him, too, and the feeling was mutual. The two dated for a bit and, it’s been written that he later penned the yearning Led Zeppelin song Tangerine for her. DeShannon said she has no idea if that’s true, but added, “if it was written for me, I’m honored”.

By that time, she had been writing much of the material on her albums, predating female singer-songwriters like Laura Nyro, Janis Ian, Joni Mitchell and Carole King (who wrote at the time, but didn’t yet record). For this, too, DeShannon rarely gets ample credit. “You have to have marketing and publicity for that,” she said. “I didn’t have it.”

By 1968, however, she had enough clout to have a greater say over what may be her greatest album, Laurel Canyon. While the lyrics she wrote for the album lionize the storied LA music scene of the time, the soulful music she created sounded more like that of Dusty in Memphis. “The Laurel Canyon album was my baby,” DeShannon said. “It was an organic thing that captured a place and time.”

While the album didn’t chart, the next year her song Put a Little Love in Your Heart, broke the top five. In 1975, DeShannon co-wrote and recorded a song (Bette Davis Eyes) that no one paid attention to at the time. Six years later, a version by Kim Carnes topped the charts worldwide. DeShannon’s original version features an odd rhythm that sounds nothing like the one in Carnes’ take. “Can you possibly guess why?” DeShannon said with a sardonic laugh. “I didn’t have control of that situation. My demo was more rock’n’roll. The producer turned it into a shuffle.”

Despite such frustrations, DeShannon emphasized several times in our interview that she has “no sour grapes at all. I’m happy for the success I’ve had,” she said.

She’s also happy that the fullness of her career is now getting a wider airing. To toast the new Sherry Lee release, she will be honored this April by the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. And next year will see an album of unreleased demos from 1961 and ’62 that lean towards soul, in both original songs and covers of early pieces by Ray Charles. “I’m very happy that all this is finally coming out,” DeShannon said.

She’s even happier that the gender power dynamic in the music business has nearly inverted, with artists like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé reigning as its biggest stars. “Back then, it was really difficult being a woman,” she said. “It’s amazing what’s happening now. I couldn’t be happier about the change.”

  • The Sheryl Lee Show is out now

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