In 1974 Billy Swan walked into Chip Young's Young'un Sound studio and, in two takes, recorded a million-selling single that had taken him 20 minutes to write. This is how it was done...
When it was released, critics described it as neo-rockabilly. When he wrote it, Billy Swan perceived it as "an up-tempo blues song". Either way, 'I Can Help', that jaunty, organ-backed paean to romantic benevolence — "It would sure do me good to do you good" — was a smash-hit single on both sides of the Atlantic in late 1974, and led to an album of the same name topping the country charts the following year and the track itself being covered by no less an artist than Elvis Presley. All of which wasn't bad for a guy who grew up listening to country music, yet became a pro musician on the strength of rock 'n' roll.
Born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, in 1942, Billy Swan started out at age 14 playing drums in local beer joints while teaching himself to play rhythm guitar and keyboards. Then, a couple of years later, he wrote 'Lover Please', a number that, after initially being recorded by Swan as part of a group named Mirt Mirly & the Rhythm Steppers, as well as by the combo of former Elvis bassist Bill Black, eventually went Top 10 for R&B star Clyde McPhatter in 1962. Black published the song, and so in January 1963 Swan moved to Memphis to write more material for him, and while he was there he stayed with Elvis Presley's Uncle Travis.
"Travis was the brother of Elvis's mother, Gladys," Swan explains. "At that time, he was the guard in front of the gate at Graceland, and one afternoon I struck up a conversation with him, and when I told him I was a writer and looking for somewhere to stay, he said one of his sons, Billy, had just got married and left home, and that I could board with Travis and his wife Lorraine if I wanted. So, that's what I did, and I became friends with Billy and his brother Bobby. The house was only a couple of blocks up the street, and I'd hang out with them whenever they joined Elvis at the movies, the skating rink or the fairground. I stayed there until May, and saw Bill Black maybe twice. Most of the time I was hanging around the gate with Travis."
For all the fun, Swan eventually went home to Cape Girardeau, before relocating to Nashville in August 1963 and indulging in assorted music-related activities: touring as a road manager for singer Mel Tillis; writing songs recorded by the likes of Tillis, Conway Twitty and Waylon Jennings; and sweeping floors and moving microphones at Columbia's Nashville facility where, a week before passing that job on to a young unknown named Kris Kristofferson, he witnessed Bob Dylan start to record his seminal Blonde on Blonde album.
Thereafter, pianist Floyd Cramer secured Swan a year-long road manager gig for the Masters of Music festival that featured Cramer along with fellow Southern legends Chet Atkins and Boots Randolph, before an association with Fred Foster's Monument Records led to Swan's first production assignment, helming Tony Joe White's 1969 Top Ten hit, 'Polk Salad Annie'. This was followed by 18 months playing bass in Kris Kristofferson's touring band, and then serving as a sideman to both Kinky Friedman and Billy Joe Shaver.
It was on his return to Nashville that Swan secured a recording deal of his own with Monument, and composed 'I Can Help' in the music room that his wife Marlu had converted from a closet inside the small duplex that they shared close to the city's Centennial Park. Along with her Rhythm Master drum machine, this housed an RMI electric organ and Vox amplifier that had recently been bought for them as a wedding gift by Kristofferson and his then-spouse Rita Coolidge.
"That Rhythm Master had something like 10 preset sounds," Swan recalls. "It had mambo, cha-cha, bossa nova, 'Rock 1' and 'Rock 2', and I used one of those Rocks when writing 'I Can Help' — it played 16ths and sounded like a sock cymbal, so I just started playing these chords along with it, and the song came in about 20 minutes. I didn't always write that quickly, but from my experience the ones that come quickly are the good ones. 'Lover Please' was like that, and so was 'Everything's the Same'. With 'I Can Help' I actually wrote the three verses first, and since I needed something to put between the second and third verse I then came up with the bridge. The whole thing just came out of the air, including the words."
'I Can Help' was written in March 1974, and the following month Billy Swan was recording it in the studio of Chip Young, who, since playing guitar on Tony Joe White's Swan-produced Black & White album, had also worked in that capacity alongside Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Leon Russell and Carl Perkins, among many others. A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Young had been touring as a guitarist with Joe South when, in 1960, fellow Atlantan Felton Jarvis (who would later become Elvis's producer) helped launch his engineering career. Then, three years later, when Young was playing with guitarist Jerry Reed as the only other member of his 'band', Reed encouraged him to move to Nashville, and before long Young had established himself there as a noted session musician. He built his own studio in 1968, and now here he was, six years later, co-producing and engineering Billy Swan's debut song at Young'un Sound.
The studio was located in the two-room log outhouse of a sprawling 1830 antebellum farm home on the outskirts of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, which is about 35 miles southeast of Nashville. "I had one of the first 16-track studios in and around the Nashville area," Chip Young remarks. "In fact, I was the first one to have an Ampex 16-track, and I worked there with Theresa Brewer, Johnny Mathis, Jimmy Buffett, Jerry Reed, Joe Ely, Delbert McClinton and just about everybody you can imagine. However, being in the studio business is not such a good thing — owning a studio is like owning a boat, except the hole is much bigger. When somebody once told me he was going to make a million dollars running a studio, I told him, 'then you'd better start with three million.'
"Young'un Sound was about 15 by 20 feet in size, and that was including the control room, which was separated from the live area by a log wall and a door. The walls and ceiling were all log, 21 inches wide, the wood floor had a carpet on top, and the sound in there was pretty good. Most everything was recorded direct, except for the drums. I built a booth for them, and I also added a screened-in porch where we did string overdubs — when we did Jimmy Buffett's Havana Daydreamin' album, we recorded the strings at night, and the crickets outside were chirping so loud that we kept them on the record.
"All of the equipment that I had was tube. I'd worked with producer Rick Hall at Muscle Shoals in Alabama, and he had a Universal Audio console with big old biscuit knobs, so I bought some of the same tube components and built my own great-sounding console. The monitors were JBL 4300s, and a guy named Fred Cameron helped me build a monitor console to play back through. I wanted to be able to do solos with echo in place — in the old days, when you solo'd on a console it switched everything to the centre and altered the effect, whereas on mine it stayed in exactly the same place and with the same amount of echo, so I could tell exactly what I was doing with that particular instrument and whatever effect I was using."
"People just loved recording there," adds Billy Swan who, contrary to popular legend, didn't perform the distinctive keyboard part of 'I Can Help' on the aforementioned RMI organ purchased by friends Kristofferson and Coolidge, but on the portable Farfisa of Memphis session musician Bobby Emmons.
"Bobby walked into the studio with that portable organ over his shoulder and said, 'Man, you oughta hear this,'" Swan recalls. "I had written the song with this little boogie-type rhythm pattern that I was so used to playing — it's about all I know — and so Bobby just said, 'You've got it down pretty good. Why don't you go ahead and play it?' That's what I did. Chip set up a vocal mic, I stood in front of the organ, and what you hear was captured on the second take. In fact, while I was playing the organ and singing I was shaking my leg, and all through that second take Chip's little puppy dog, a German Shepherd named Bowser, was pulling on my pants. Reggie was laughing because that little thing wouldn't give up. It wasn't like he could pull me away or anything, but he was tugging on my leg all through what you hear on the record."
Whereas a Neumann U47 was used for Swan's vocal, his keyboard, Mike Leech's bass and Reggie Young's guitar were all recorded direct. Dennis Linde and Johnny Christopher, who played acoustic guitars, were each miked with Sony ECM lapel mics, while the setup for Hayword Bishop's drums comprised another pair of ECMs overhead on the cymbals, an Electrovoice RE15 on the toms, an RE20 on the kick and a Shure SM58 on the snare.
"Reggie Young was standing right behind me when we recorded the song, and he played the little intro guitar lick," Swan recalls. "He'd played that while warming up, limbering up his fingers, and I said, 'Man, that would be a good intro,' and Chip agreed."
"I'd built a swimming pool at the back of the studio," adds Young, "and one morning at around nine or nine-thirty all the guys were sitting around out there, talking, smoking cigarettes or whatever, while Reggie and I were in the studio. I was kinda setting things up, and he was just fooling around with that lick, warming his fingers up. I said, 'That would make a great intro for the song.' He said, "But I'm just warming up,' and I said, 'Well, it's still a great intro,' so that's how all that happened. It was just one of those freakish things."
Keyboard player Bobby Wood had also been booked for the session, but after hearing the track he saw no need to contribute, and therefore convened in the control room with Bobby Emmons and Chip Young, who next suggested overdubbing handclaps at the end to convey an in-studio party atmosphere, as well as adding some bridge-section backing vocals by Lea Jane Berinati and the Holliday Sisters, standing around a U47. Then it was onto another song, although Young still had to leave his own indelible stamp on the recording, underscoring the track with subliminal guitar lines on his Fender Telecaster, before then adding the descending lead solo that would provide the song with its signature sound.
"Chip was excited after he recorded that part," Billy Swan recalls, "but I went out there and listened to it, and I said, 'Boy, I don't know.' I listened to it over and over, until finally I said, 'Hey, man, nothing else will work.' It was actually a great solo, so that just shows you where my head is at. That part was so perfect, and today a lot of people remember the song because of that solo."
Chip Young certainly remembers it: "When Billy first played me the song, I said, 'I've got an idea for the solo,' and I told Reggie, 'Don't play anything for the turnaround, just leave it open.' So, that's what happened. Billy was on the road with Kris Kristofferson when I taped the part, and when he came back and listened to the track he said, 'I hate that guitar.' I said, 'Oh really, why?' He said, 'It just doesn't fit.' I said, 'Well, I don't think anything else fits. What do you think it needs?' He said, 'I think it needs some blues.' After that, I spent an entire day playing blues, trying to make it work. I played every blues lick I'd ever heard or thought I wanted to hear, and nothing would fit. Then, late in the afternoon, Billy finally said, 'Well, I tell you what, I hate that original solo, but go ahead and put it back on there anyway.' I could have wrung his neck. I had already double-tracked that part, to give it a little phase, and bounced both parts over to the last open track together with a tambourine, so I now had to redo all that.
"Still, it worked out. With the console I had, I could get things sounding pretty much the way I wanted. And I'm one of those people who thinks that if something sounds good when you play it back, it's gonna make a good record. I'm not one to say, 'Hey, we'll fix it in the mix.' I want it right now... Y'know, it's like a piece of wood. I build furniture as a hobby, and if a piece of wood isn't shaped right, sanding it won't make it look good."
Fortunately, 'I Can Help' was shaped right, and Chip Young's solo then helped transport the melody out of its blues vein and, accompanied by a shuffle-type drum pattern, imbue the track with a rockabilly feel that had never been Billy Swan's conscious intention.
"To me, the rockabilly feel fits the song, whereas the blues didn't," Young opines. "Anyway, a little later on Billy and Kris Kristofferson were on the West Coast, riding in a car, and they heard [DJ] Wink Martindale play it three times in a row and then say, 'I've got to hear this guitar solo one more time.' At that point, Billy and Kris stopped the car, and Billy knew I'd won... I tell ya, I love Billy to death."
Chip Young recreated the solo as an overdub when Elvis Presley recorded 'I Can Help' for his Today album in March 1975. Young was a regular member of Elvis's studio band between 1965 and 1977 (including overdubbing some of the live recordings), and his old associate, producer Felton Jarvis, had persuaded the King to cover the song. Elvis nailed it on the first complete take. Afterwards, as a memento, Jarvis handed Billy Swan the socks Elvis had been wearing. Billy still has them.
Swan's version of 'I Can Help' was released toward the end of July 1974, and when Monument saw the single slowly wing its way toward the top of the US chart, the execs knew they had to cash in, and cash in quickly. So, with other tracks like 'Wedding Bells', 'The Ways of a Woman in Love' and the Swan-penned 'PMS (Post Mortem Sickness)' already in the can, the co-producers returned to Young'un Sound to record more material for an I Can Help album. This included covers of 'Don't Be Cruel', 'Shake, Rattle & Roll' and Swan's own 'Lover Please', and the result was a 1975 Billboard country chart-topper.
"Everyone at the record company had actually wanted 'The Ways of a Woman in Love' to be the first single," Chip Young recalls. "I said, 'No, wait a minute. That's not the hit. The hit is 'I Can Help'.' However, [Monument Records president] Fred Foster then hired a guy who was supposed to know the ins and outs of the business, and he said, 'There aren't any hits here. We've gotta re-cut a bunch of stuff.' I said, 'No, we don't have to re-cut a bunch of stuff.' It was a battle from then on. 'I Can Help' went gold, but including musicians and everything we still had only $19,000 to spend on the album. Then again, I produced Delbert McClinton's first three records, we never had more than $20,000 to spend on any of them, and all were critically acclaimed."
And so was 'I Can Help', which hit number one on Billboard's Hot 100 and Country charts in November 1974, selling over a million copies in the US, another million overseas, and peaking at number six in the UK.
"The success was amazing, although I think I'd appreciate it more today than I did then," says Billy Swan, who is managed by London-based Dennis Muirhead and has recently recorded a Scotty Moore-produced blues album with Bob Moore and the late Boots Randolph. "The song came to me so fast, it seemed easy. I sure wouldn't mind that happening again."