He was a singer-songwriter and actor born in Rock Island, Illinois who was born into a musical family where his father was a musician and his mother’s family were previous music hall performers from England.
When he was a child the family moved and settled in Los Angeles, California, where he would remain for the rest of his life. While he was still young he was taken on by Columbia Pictures to act in the children’s film series about Rusty the Dog. He was so successful he appeared in six of the eight films that were released but was only credited in the The Return of Rusty in 1946 which was the second in the series.
The family used to take an active interest in their local church community where they sang hymns together and also while still a child he sang in a duet with this sister where they performed vaudeville-type songs. They later evolved into a duet that concentrated on singing lesser known folk songs. This led to his interest into actually writing songs himself as well as the production side of things.
When he got older he concentrated on his education and took studies in English and Film Studies at the University of Southern California and a year at the University of Edinburgh. The English side of his studies would later help him in writing poetry and lyrics for his songs and the film studies side was aimed at assisting his understanding of designing and starring in his own musical productions. In fact, during the time he was studying he also did various jobs and spent time composing ballets, choral works and musicals.
In the late 1960s he began as a staff songwriter at Elektra Records but none of the songs were suitable for the artists so it was suggested he record it himself. This led to his debut self titled album in 1968 which saw little success, even after its re-issue under the new title of The Road to Cairo in 1971. It did, however, gain the interest and provide influence to other singer-songwriters and musicians that would go on to perform in Rhinoceros.
In 1969 he released Subway to the Country which showed his unique musical style and included 22 musicians and it has since been suggested that the songs would have been a forerunner of some songs by Bruce Springsteen and others. Even though he was not keen on the idea he embarked on a tour.
In 1970 he was asked to be the opener for Elton John at Los Angeles’ Troubadour after becoming acquainted with Bernie Taupin who was the producer for his next album. He made such an impression on Elton that he dedicated his album Tumbleweed Connection to him. It took two years to arrange the orchestral side of the things for the musicians from the London Symphony Orchestra and the choral arrangements for the Salvation Army chorus before American Gothic was finally released in 1972. Although the critical acclaim was very positive it still only managed to achieve No. 167 on the US album chart.
The following year he released Five and Dime and then left Columbia Records and concentrated on the publishing contract he had with Warner Bros. Once again his songs were not deemed suitable for the artists he was writing for and so he went on to work from home and put his efforts into TV screenplays such as Word of Honor and various musicals.
The start of the 1980s was difficult for him as he was involved in a car accident in 1981 where his car was hit by a drunk driver and he had severe injuries to the bone in his thigh and he almost lost his arm. After being given a steel hip and having his arm saved, but not to the point of the nerve damage recovering, he was in a wheelchair for 6 months.
He went back to the University of Southern California during the 1980s where he eventually taught musical theatre and directed the musical productions of The Threepenny Opera and Good News in 1997.
In the 1990s he issued his musical Sister Aimee which was received its 1995 debut in Los Angeles and was further performed in Chicago in 2004. He also worked with the Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop and help the position of Executive Director of the National Society of Fund-Raising Executives.
In the latter part of the 1990s he was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away when he was only 62 in March 1999. He left behind his legacy of music, the songs he has passed on for countless others to perform and the artists he influenced that include Phil Collins, Elvis Costello, Elton John and Bernie Taupin.