Deep Grooves CD Review: Jim Ford – Point of No Return (Bear Family)

If you are unaware who the late Jim Ford was and what he accomplished in the world of music, you are not alone. In fact, Ford’s career and legacy are so far under the music industry radar, the late singer/songwriter should have carried a deep sea diving tank with him wherever he went.

Ford first started to make his mark in the mid to late ’60’s with a series of country-soul singles on various small labels, including some of his own imprints. He eventually became known in singer/songwriter circles as having an original style and a modicum of talent and began to meet and cultivate the right kinds of friends. Never really interested in touring or the trappings of fame that were part-and-parcel of becoming a “star”, Ford preferred others record his songs, figuring he could sit home and collect the royalties for writing the hits and others could do the work of actually going on the road and performing them. His first main musical alliance was with country singer Bobbie Gentry, who became his lover. Though she is credited as the writer of her biggest hit Ode To Billie Joe, long-standing rumors persist Ford wrote the song and allowed Gentry to have it after their breakup due to guilt. It may be no coincidence that Gentry never could write anything quite like it again, maybe due to the fact she never wrote it to begin with.

Ford later met and began writing songs with Pat and Lolly Vegas who would later form the band Redbone, and also became fast friends and songwriting collaborators with soul stars Bobby Womack (who recorded lots of Ford’s songs, often (according to Ford) attaching his name as co-writer to Ford’s songs as a “kickback” for helping Ford) and Sly Stone (Ford guested on Sly’s album There’s A Riot Goin’ On and is featured in the photo montage on the cover) to name but two. He was also a fixture on the Hollywood party scene, and became involved as an actor in several small films, magazines pictorials etc. During all of this activity, Ford put out one solitary solo album, a hard-to-find gem entitled Harlan County. Though little-known today, it became a musical bible to the country mavericks such as Gram Parsons and even trickled over to Europe where pub rock bands like Brinsley Schwartz (featuring a young singer/songwriter by the name of Nick Lowe) became enthralled by the album’s mix of spaced-out country rock tinged with Memphis soul. Bear Family re-released the influential album last year, tacking on a slew of additional tracks which made fans wonder why such a soulful artist never recorded another whole album. Truth is, he did. But every project was aborted because of Ford’s addictions, strrange behavior or both.

This new set from Bear Family is a collection of singles Ford released on various small labels over his career with a few unreleased tracks tacked on to show what Bear Family has in its’ vault. Seems the normally skeptical Ford received enough money from Bear Family’s reissue of Harlan County to actually trust the label with all of his masters. And when I say all, I mean several hundred! Seems Ford never stopped writing and recording his songs and his legacy is about to get a big boost over the next several years. To that I can only say it’s about time, as this is some of the most enthralling country soul you are ever going to hear. Though I love and respect the legendary songwriter/producer Dan Penn of Dark Side of The Street fame (and many others – he’s a legend, did I not say that?) Penn would give his liver to have these songs. These songs will rip your heart out or save your soul, and Ford tossed ’em out into the world like snowflakes – each one a perfect piece of crystalline beauty of it’s own. The fact he could write tons of them boggles the mind but I think it’s fantastic Bear Family got hold of the masters before they were lost forever.

Ford was an eclectic talent and I am sure there are plenty of musical surprises and gems from him yet to discover, For now, check out this album and see for yourself why it’s the best country album released in many, many years.

Scott Homewood

5 Comments

  1. The idea that Jim Ford wrote Ode to Billie Joe is without merit and slanders the reputation of a gifted artist. Bobbie donated her rough drafts of Ode to Billie Joe and Fancy to the Un. of Mississippi in the early 1970’s. They have been posted on their web site and show the stages of construction of the song and some of the verses Capitol Records edited out of the original recordings, all in Gentry’s own hand. Bobbie attended the L. A Conservatory of Music majoring in music theroy. She is proficient on piano, base, banjo, organ. She attended classes at U.C.L.A taking advanced studies in non-verbal psychology(which Ode to BillieJoe is a case study of) She took her art very seriously. Ode to Billie Joe is based on places and event from her life experiences. TheTallahatchie Bridge and Choctaw Ridge are real places from her own childhood. There are many inconsistancies in Fords claim. Acording to Nick Lowe,Ford stated he wrote the song. Accordiing to Fords family, he claimed he co-wrote it with her. Regardless ,it is obvious he failed the legal and ethical burden of proof. He never challenged her in court and never provided any creative evidence of rough drafts ect. Bobbie Gentry has published over 100 songs. A dozen have been covered by other artists. Reba Mc Entire has sold 20 million cd’s with Bobbie’s other great story song Fancy. She now claims it as her signature hit. Bobbie’s entire Capitol Records catalog is back in print. She won the grammy hof in 1999 and in 2008 was inducted in The Mississsippi Musicans hof. Roseanne Cash, Lucinda Willams, Sheryl Crow and many others claim her legacy in the development of their own musical voices.

  2. Hey Daniel – thanks for commenting but I don’t believe you read the review thoroughly or you would have seen that I mentioned that it was “rumored” that Ford wrote Ode to Billie Joe. It is true Bobbie Gentry was a great songwriter and has not really gotten her due in that regard, due to her relatively early retirement from music. It is also true she never wrote anything quite like Ode To Billie Joe again, at least, not with that song’s scope. While no one will ever know the truth, I personally believe Ford had a hand in it, if only a guiding hand to help Gentry with the song’s development.

  3. Scott: I totally agree he influenced her(as she did him) but the man claimed authorship without a shred of proof .It is only repeating a rumor(that attacks the reputation of another) to state otherwise . As for Bobbie not writing a similar song of O.T.B.J, she accounted the pressure Capitol Records put on her to do just that but that doing so (in her mind) would delute the power of her masterpiece and she wanted to creatively move forward.. Time has shown the wisdom of such thinking. Ode to Billie Joe has been covered over 200 times and sold 40 million records. The song has generated 100 million dollars in four decades. There is also far more to Bobbie Gentry than O.T.B.J.In 2001 Mojo Magazine named her second album ‘ The Delta Sweete’ as one of the 500 greatest albums of all time. Listen to her songs ‘Refractions’ and Courtyard’ if you want artistic scope and vision.Likewise, her album ‘PatchWork’ is being hailed as a masterpiece in re-issue commentary. It has the scope and feel of a Broadway play( she wrote and produced the entire set even tieing the songs together with master ,musical enterludes )and in my view is her greatest achievement on record.There is a subtle,sexist text to a question of authorship. She was attacked on both ends by male songwriters. Jim Ford in claiming authorship and Bob Dylan for writing his savage parody, Answer to Ode: Clothseline Saga, to prove his creative superiority. He even stated at the time there was not a single major female poet in the entire English language. That about sums up the rock and a hardplace female writers faced.

  4. Now, I have to say I am not sure if he went to court or not over this situation, but from most accounts he just claimed credit for the song while among his peers. To the outside world, Gentry is indeed the writer of the song and has the credit. My statement, again, is just the acknowledgement of a rumor semi well-known in the music community and something I felt important to mention in an article about Ford to give readers an idea of the influence Ford had at the time with then-hitmakers such as Redbone, Gentry, Sly Stone, and Bobby Womack . He was a songwriter capable of connecting with various genres, as was Gentry. I have listened to and also own the Gentry albums you speak of and I most prefer Delta Sweete, which is a stunning album. You seem to feel I am slighting Gentry when I am not. I don’t keep up with dollar amounts and sales but I know her music lives on and has been covered many times and will no doubt be covered many more times. It is a shame she retired when she did. I have reviewed a few of her reissues and can send if you want to read but I must say again, the review was about Jim Ford, an equally talented songwriter and Gentry is only mentioned to give the reader context, not to slight Gentry. I am a fan of great songwriting and count both artists among my favorites.

  5. Well stated Scott .You are obviously a talented writer and I do enjoy your written commentary. Its true, the rumor does touch a nerve with me as the song has many autobiographical elements of Gentry’s life which account for her stunning,souful delivery. Ford never challenged her in court. I too admire Jim Fords talent, AbbyRoad has just remastered Gentry’s debut album with her cover of Niki Hokey, the only song she did not write on that massive debut.

Comments are closed.