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Parsons, Gram (5th November 1946-19 September 1973)

Multi-instrumentalist and singer-songwriter from Winter Haven, Florida, who father was a decorated World War II pilot and whose mother was an heiress to an orange plantation.

He started playing piano when he was nine years old and whose musical curiosity was piqued when he went to see Elvis Presley in 1957.  This may have inspired him to pick up the guitar and start up his own band, The Pacers, at the age of twelve.

Music would serve as an oasis for him during difficult times.  His father killed himself and his mother re-married a couple of years later.  Gram poured himself into his music, band-hopping between rock bands and folk outfits such as The Legends, with Kent Lavoie and Jim Stafford.

In 1963, he joined The Shilos, and they played anywhere and everywhere, including coffee houses, high schools, and hootenannies.  They even scored some dates at The Bitter End in New York, New York.  On the day of his graduation, his mother passed away from cirrhosis of the liver.

The Shilos disbanded and he went to Harvard for a short time, although the highlight of his collegiate career was founding The International Submarine Band.  They relocated to L.A. and landed a cameo in a movie and recorded one album, Safe at Home, in 1968.  By the time it hit the shelves, ISB was no more.

Gram was recruited by Chris Hillman to join The Byrds in time for their 1968 album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.  It was Gram’s idea to uproot the group and lay down tracks in Nashville, although the final sessions were recorded in L.A.  Then Lee Hazelwood, his producer, raised a stink about him appearing on the Columbia label while he was still legally bound to LHI Records.  It did not preclude Gram from performing vocals on “Hickory Wind”, “Life in Prison”, and “You’re Still on My Mind”, however.

Gram’s short-lived tenure with The Byrds came to an end during the summer, when he disagreed with the band’s plan to perform in apartheid-torn South Africa.  Instead of touring with The Byrds, he acquainted himself with the Rolling Stones, becoming good mates with Keith Richards.  His influence on the Stones resulted in several country-flavored tracks, such as “Wild Horses”.

In 1969, he and Chris reunited to co-found The Flying Burrito Brothers, along with Chris Ethridgeand Sneaky Pete Kleinow.  Their first album, The Gilded Palace of Sin, reached a modest #164 on the Billboard album chart.  Its follow-up, Burrito Deluxe, missed out altogether.  Before its release, Gram had already quit the band.

In 1971, he wed Gretchen Burrell, an actress, and their marriage would prove to be almost as short-lived as his time with FBB.  He inked a deal with A&M Records, but his first solo album did not materialize until 1973.  It was simply called GP, and it benefited from the guitar playing of James Burton and the harmony vocals of Emmylou Harris.  Emmylou and Gram were fast friends and toured in support of the album, while laying the groundwork for its follow-up, Grievous Angel.  None of this sat well with his new bride, and after their house burned down in 1973, they went their separate ways.

Gram was already on the rebound before they separated, however, as he got back together with his girlfriend from high school, Margaret Fisher.  She was with him the weekend that he died of a drug overdose at The Joshua Tree Inn, on 19th September 1973.  Alcohol, heroin, and morphine were found in his system.

His stepfather attempted to have him buried in Louisiana, but Gram’s wish was to be cremated and to have his ashen remains scattered atop Cap Rock.  A couple of friends managed to finagle their way out of the Los Angeles airport with his casket and incinerated it at Joshua Tree.  In 1974, Grievous Angel was posthumously released.  It barely graced the Billboard Top 200, peaking at #195.  Joshua Tree has since become a mecca for Gram Parsons fans, and for ten years, an annual Gram Fest was held in honour of their fallen angel.

His legacy lives on in CD form on re-packagings such as The Complete Reprise SessionsCosmic American Music, and Sacred Hearts & Fallen Angels:  The Gram Parsons Anthology.