Although Ruthann Friedman rubbed elbows with name rock stars in the ‘60s, she didn’t have two nickels to rub together. The Bronx-born singer/songwriter was just another unknown mingling with “the known.”
But in the summer of 1967, everyone seemed to know The Association’s pop gem “Windy.” It was one of the first #1 hits composed by a female artist, preceded by Ricky Nelson’s 1958 smash, “Poor Little Fool” written by Sharon Sheely who, two years later, was a passenger in the car accident that killed her boyfriend, Eddie Cochran.
“Windy” produced a windfall for Ruthann, who at the time was ensconced in an apartment that her friend, David Crosby, allowed her to live in for free. She recalled: “It changed my whole life, one, two, three. I can have my own place! My own bed! It was so exciting, going out and buying a bed, stuff like that. I ended up not getting any of the publishing, and if I had a decent person representing me, I would’ve made out much better. But because of ‘Windy,’ I didn’t have to ‘work-work.’”
The tune was later brilliantly used in the Breaking Bad episode “Half Measure,” jauntily playing as a down-and-out hooker named Wendy (well-played by Julia Minesci) propositioned johns and puffed meth at the aptly named Crossroads Motel.
And like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” which was produced by Tom Wilson, “Windy’s” producer, Bones Howe, similarly took a simple song and, as singer Reg Presley roared in the infamous Troggs Tapes “put a little bit of f***ing fairy dust over the bastard!”
That included a melodic woodwind instrument (recorder) solo and gorgeous sing-a-long harmonies which were accompanied by soothing voices (including Ruthann’s) chanting bah-bah-bah. Perhaps the bah-bah’s reminded Ruthann of a guy who once gazed upon her as if he was a lost lamb: “I was sitting on my bed–the apartment on the first floor of David Crosby’s house–and there was a fellow who came to visit and was sitting there staring at me as if he was going to suck the life out of me. He wanted to know how I wrote. I didn’t want to teach him how to write. I just wanted to write. I just wanted to play. So I started to fantasize about what kind of a guy I would like to be with, and that was Windy. The song took about twenty minutes to write.”
From these twenty minutes, Ruthann achieved minor fame. But if she had been chosen as the singer of a Haight-Ashbury band called the Jefferson Airplane, she would have had worldwide fame. Airplane’s lead singer, Signe Anderson, had abruptly left the band, informing a Fillmore West audience in hippie fashion: “I want you all to wear smiles and daisies and box balloons. Thank you and goodbye.”
Ruthann remembered: “[Airplane guitarist] Jorma [Kaukonen] and [bassist] Jack [Casady] took me out to hear Grace Slick and her band and that was the end of that. She was amazing and gorgeous and already well-known, so it was a no-brainer. And you know, I don’t think I would have done well as a rock diva. That’s not my thing, really.”
Ruthann kept doing her musical thing, which included recording “Little Girl Lost and Found” by Tandyn Almer (who wrote The Association’s “Along Comes Mary”) on A&M Records. But instead of Friedman’s name being splashed on the single’s label, A&M decided to label Ruthann and her band, which included her then-lover Peter Kaukonen (Jorma’s brother) and Tom Shipley, who later formed Brewer and Shipley, “The Garden Club.”
Ruthann said of her one-and-done group: “Why they didn’t release it under my name I could never understand. That could’ve been my entrée. If you find a copy, you’ll see these people’s faces on it that are supposed to be ‘The Garden Club.’ I don’t know who the hell they are.”
After the release of her Constant Companion album in 1970, Ruthann found she was living the Kinks’ song “The Moneygoround,” a tune that summed up the music business and her disillusioning time at A&M. She stated, “It was all A&M for a few years. And then it all fell apart. I won’t get into the details of that, because it’s boring and depressing. I was recording with different people and blah, blah, blah. I was very needy as a young person. People could take advantage of me. And that’s what happened. And then I found a guy. And we decided we wanted to get married and have children. And that was a good family. And that’s what I wanted.”
She raised two daughters in Menlo Park, CA, where she recently celebrated her 35th wedding anniversary to ESPN Senior Writer, Jeffrey Carlisle. At the age of 61, she earned a B.A. in English from UCLA, graduating magna cum laude. In 2013, Ruthann released her second album Chinatown which featured her pal Van Dyke Parks (Beach Boys’ lyricist) on the keyboards. And, unlike scores of others in her past profession, the witty Ruthann is quite comfortable in her own skin and has no regrets or shame about never firmly grabbing the brass ring stating, “So many people want to be the star, and so very few people get to be the star. At a certain age you either have to be content with your life and happy with who you are, or you’re just going to be miserable because you didn’t get to be a star. I know a bunch of people who became stars and although it’s cool that they have lots of money and can do whatever they want, I wouldn’t want their life.”
Photo: Ruthann Friedman performing in Seattle, 2011 (Joe Mabel via Wikimedia Commons)