In Recess December 2021
Live Like a River
A Houston attorney's trip from the 1970s L.A. music scene to entertainment law in Texas
Interview by Eric Quitugua
After earning a law degreee in 1970, Al Staehely left Texas for Los Angeles, where he soon joined psych rockers Spirit as the chief songwriter and became enmeshed in a life of music A-listers, major movie soundtracks, and world tours. His life as a musician informs his practice as an entertainment lawyer in Houston today. Photo courtesy of Al Staehely.
After playing in cover bands in Austin in the 1960s, then-recent law graduate Al Staehely carved out a life as a musician in 1970s Los Angeles, meshing his brand of swinging Southern rock with L.A.’s airy folk pop. Staehely briefly fronted psychedelic rockers Spirit alongside his brother John and played in other bands, touring the world. Today he is a unicorn in his field of law, having the clout and connections of an artist and the legal skills to navigate intellectual property issues as an entertainment lawyer in Houston. With an album of back catalog material [Post Spirit Vol. 1 (1974-1978)] recently released, Staehely has a new album recorded in Marfa in the wings.
GROWING UP IN AUSTIN, WERE THERE CERTAIN SOUNDS YOU WERE
EXPECTED TO PLAY?
It was cover band stuff. In the late ’60s, there were acts like the 13th Floor Elevators, who were doing original stuff. There was a great band called Krackerjack that was really popular doing mostly original stuff. But most of the bands, including ours, were doing covers. It was all over the place—we might do a Rolling Stones song or a Led Zeppelin song. Whatever was popular on the radio. In those days, you were always expected to know a little bit of everything. We’d do a couple country songs, a couple blues- oriented songs. The marketing hadn’t been subdivided into hard rock, metal, soft rock—all these categories that came to be in the ’70s when radio programming went in that direction.
HOW DID YOU END UP IN CALIFORNIA?
I got out of law school when I was 24 and took the bar. I looked like I was about 19, and I thought, Nobody’s going to trust me to be their lawyer anyway—I look like a kid. The drummer in the last band I was in during law school went to L.A. and joined up with two guys who were leaving Spirit to form a band called Jo Jo Gunne. I knew a girl named Patti Dahlstrom from college who at the time was a songwriter for Motown. And I knew Don Henley because his band used to play in Austin. They were all saying come to L.A. So I went to L.A. and visited Don’s, and he had some guy over at his apartment named Jackson Browne who I hadn’t heard of. Don was still playing in Linda Ronstadt’s band but was in the process of forming the Eagles. In fact, I remember when he called me one day and said, “I think we got a name for the band but I don’t know if I like it.” Seems to have worked out OK. Anyway, because my drummer had joined the two guys who left Spirit, I met them and they introduced me to the remaining members of Spirit. I had some rehearsals with them, and they asked me to join the group as lead singer, bass player, and, as it turned out, when we did an album some months later, I wrote some of the songs.
I THINK OF THAT BAND BEING MORE ON THE PSYCHEDELIC SIDE.
FEEDBACK HAS A LITTLE OF THAT, BUT IT ALSO HAS A SOUTHERN ROCK
THING GOING. ESPECIALLY ON “CADILLAC COWBOYS.”
Which is kind of natural because I came from Texas and injected that. But John Locke, the keyboard player, wrote those couple of instrumentals on Feedback, which I really like. It was an interesting band because the drummer and the keyboard player have more jazz roots and then my roots and my brother’s were more rock-oriented. That was true before we joined but probably even more so after we joined. The juxtaposition of rock and jazz was good.
HOW DID YOU LIKE KEITH MOON’S VERSION OF “CRAZY LIKE A
The whole thing was quite an experience. I went down to a Jo Jo Gunne recording session, and by this time, Spirit had broken up and my brother had joined Jo Jo Gunne when their guitar player left. Their engineer said he was about to start a Keith Moon album [produced by former Beatles roadie Mal Evans]. He said, “Come down to the Record Plant on Wednesday and I’ll introduce you to Mal.” I played him “Crazy Like a Fox.” He said, “Yeah, I can hear Keith doing this. We’ll cut it on Friday.” I said, “Well, of course I know the song but my brother knows it.” Mal said, “Why don’t we get all of Jo Jo Gunne to play on it?” We all went down there. They had called Spencer Davis and guitarist Jesse Ed Davis. We did the basic tracks. I had the lyrics written out and put on the music stand and had headphones. And I got up there with Keith to cue him when to come in because he wasn’t that familiar with the songs. He’s not really a singer so you can’t say, “Oh, that was a wonderful vocal performance.” He was just hoping to put his personality on the record, you know? They started calling me back to do some other sessions, so I ended up playing on about half the record and got to know Keith a little bit.
HOW LONG WERE YOU IN L.A. BEFORE YOU CAME BACK TO
I was in L.A. in the summer of ’79. I had finally gotten a solo deal. Quite a few songs were to be a part of an album [Post Spirit Vol. 1 (1974-1978), released in 2021]. I signed a deal; got started on the record; had Steve Cropper, Pete Sears, Gary Mallaber, and all these people playing on it; and we had gotten halfway into the record, and the record company went out of business. That’s why some of these have never been out. I came back just to visit my parents for a couple weeks in Austin, and I ran into a friend of mine from L.A. who was Stevie Wonder’s recording engineer and was visiting his girlfriend. He told me a mutual friend of ours was a music supervisor on a movie that was about to start in Houston called Urban Cowboy with John Travolta. Knowing it was probably going to be a big deal because Saturday Night Fever had been such a big deal—this was kind of like Saturday Night Fever country style—I called my friend who said to bring some songs. I also made some deals to represent some songs from other Austin writers. There was interest in some songs and ultimately one I was representing by Rusty Wier called “Don’t It Make You Wanna Dance?” Bonnie Raitt did it. I had also called my friend Mike Hinton, who had been my drummer and one of the guys who talked me into going to law school, and asked him if I could stay with him in Houston for a few days. While I was there, Mike said, “Did you ever take the bar exam?” I said, “Yeah, I’m paying my dues every year. I’m a lawyer. I just haven’t practiced.” He said, “Well, do you have a suit?” He took me to the courthouse and said, “That’s my old pal Al Staehely. We used to be in a rock and roll band in law school.” Because I was with Mike, who was a well- known criminal lawyer, they started giving me felony criminal cases right off the bat. I had never practiced law before. So, I’m running back to the office, saying, “OK, I got this arson case— what do I do now?”
HOW HAVE YOUR EXPERIENCES OVER THE YEARS INFORMED YOUR LAW
Even though I started off doing criminal law, I knew I didn’t want to do it long term. I wanted to get into entertainment law. It took me a while to build an entertainment law practice. My background, of course, was very relevant. Although I hadn’t been an entertainment lawyer before, I had experiences that few entertainment lawyers had—writing songs, making records, doing tours. A lot of clients have commented they appreciate that I do have those experiences.
SO YOU HAVE A NEW ALBUM ON THE WAY?
Last August we spent the month in Marathon, about 40 minutes from Marfa. I was sitting out there thinking, I’ve got all these songs I keep saying I’m going to record, and I haven’t done them. There’s one recording studio in Marfa and I know two good musicians there: Fran Christina, who was the drummer with the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and Scrappy Jud Newcomb, who is a well-known Austin guitar player who relocated to Marfa. I called them, and they got Chris Marsh on board to play bass. I wasn’t even thinking of doing an album. I was just thinking about getting some of these songs recorded—maybe just demos to see how I liked it. About six weeks later, I went back and now I’ve got an album’s worth of stuff I’m excited about. TBJ