Tom Jans Revisited

MUSING ON the pros and cons of being an only child recently, I was reminded of the title of an album by the late singer-songwriter Tom Jans, The Eyes of an Only Child, released on Columbia in 1976. I loved that record and used to play it a lot, along with his eponymous debut LP on A&M, featuring his best known song, “Lovin’ Arms,” recorded by Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, Dobie Gray, Frank Sinatra, Elvis and many others. I had not listened to either album in years and thought I might play them for Elizabeth as she made dinner. She had never heard of Tom Jans but is always eager to learn something new and has great ears. Using my laptop and Apple Music, I entered “Tom Jans” in the Apple Music search field and got back the complete works of Tom Jones. Apple Music’s library of “60 million songs” apparently has none by Tom Jans.

Good to know. Even more reason not to unload what’s left of my LP collection! I still have those two on vinyl, so I retrieved them, album covers, sleeves and all; the only problem was that the turntable is in the other room, and I had to crank up the volume to hear the music in the kitchen. But I did this while explaining to Elizabeth who Tom Jans was, supplementing my own memories with his Wikipedia entry and a few other online biographical sources, as she prepared a beet salad with goat cheese, orange and walnuts. This is an occasional hobby of ours, happening upon a singer or piece of music and then finding how many dots we can connect while listening and scouring internet data bases. Does anyone else do this while making dinner?

TOM WAITS, LOWELL GEORGE, MIMI FARINA AND GARY STEWART are among the forgotten or unknown references that turned up in this quick review of his career. Jans was a songwriter and performer of some standing in the 1970s, a “folk” singer strumming an acoustic guitar, but he also played keyboards, plugged in and toured with a backup band. He was born in 1948, a year we had in common. He was from California and had majored in English Literature at UC-Davis (graduating Phi Beta Kappa) before playing clubs in San Francisco and being discovered by Joan Baez and her sister Mimi Farina.

He and Farina toured for a year as a duo, opening for Cat Stevens and James Taylor. They made an album for A&M before he went his own way with the self-titled disc for A&M, recorded in Nashville, followed by The Eyes of an Only Child, produced in part by Little Feat’s Lowell George, with backing by marquee talent like Fred Tackett, David Lindley, Billy Payne, Jeff Porcaro, Herb Peterson, Valerie Carter and Jim Keltner. The best.

Little Feat was one of Elizabeth’s favorite bands when she was growing up in Ithaca, N.Y., so the Lowell George connection was an ah-ha moment in our search and seemed only fitting.

Jans recorded a final LP for Columbia, Dark Blonde, that I never heard, though I see now it was produced by Joe Wissert, who produced the historic Silk Degrees for Boz Scaggs. One music website calls it his masterpiece.

BUT THE ENDORSEMENT of music royalty and a hit song for others were not enough to make a place for Jans on the big stage of American pop in those years. After none of his albums clicked commercially, he went to Europe for a while, returning to the states and settling in L.A., at a house in Brentwood. In 1983, he was badly injured in a motorcycle accident and six months later died suddenly at the age of 36 “of a suspected drug overdose,” says Wikipedia.

Paul (“We’ve Only Just Begun”) Williams recited the lyrics to “Lovin’ Arms” at his funeral. Bette Midler took out a full page tribute in Billboard. Tom Waits dedicated the song, “Whistle Down the Wind,” to Jans on his album Bone Machine. A painter and former musician named Robert Florczak, who knew Jans in L.A., posted a recollection on a posthumous website that mentioned he often recorded funny greetings on his answering machine and did a good impression of the singer Nat King Cole.

I SAW JANS PERFORM in Dallas at the old Electric Ballroom on Industrial in 1976 and reviewed the show for the DTH, finding comparisons to Van Morrison in his delivery: “deep-throated blues-colored vocals with understated arrangements…a gutsy sound complimented by genuinely poetic lyrics.” Before I had located that old review, Elizabeth also heard echoes of Van Morrison while listening to him for the first time. On some songs she detected the piano and vocal stylings of Elton John that had not occurred to me but that I had to acknowledge all these years later. Jans was so versatile, and that might have been an obstacle in the biz at the time — not sounding the same on each cut. He could write a tender standard like “Lovin’ Arms” and an uptempo two-step like “Out of Hand” that honky tonk hero Gary Stewart (more royalty) made into a #4 country hit.

Other keepers include “Gotta Move,” “Struggle in Darkness,” and “Green River.” Somebody should be playing these on the radio.

WHEN I SPOKE to Jans after that Dallas show, he said he was worried about the shock and awe trend then powering the popularity of groups like Kiss and Queen. “But there are so many good people around,” he added, “like Lowell, Jackson Browne, Emmylou Harris and Janis Ian. I guess there’s still hope. Obviously there’s an audience for this type of music and we plan to keep on doing it if for no other reason than I can’t imagine what else to do.”

I have no inside info on Jans’ life and personality and can only speculate on what led to his untimely demise, but it’s sad and sobering to be reminded of how briefly he was here and gone, someone of such talent and promise. Hard not to see him as an unnecessary casualty of the music business — its fast fame and money, punishing expectations and concomitant drug culture — that claimed so many young lives in the 1970s. Tom Jans is on that list, along with Lowell George himself, Gram Parsons, Tim Buckley, Judy Sill, Danny Whitten, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and so many others. But we still have his music, on vinyl at least.

About Sean Mitchell

SEAN MITCHELL is a journalist, critic and former staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald Examiner and Dallas Times Herald. His articles and reviews have also appeared in The New York Times, New York Magazine, and other publications. Born in Bethlehem, Pa., he grew up in Dallas and is a graduate of St. Mark’s School of Texas and Brown University. He lives in Dallas.
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