Flashback: Waylon Jennings Signs With A&M, Cuts Haunting ‘Love Denied’
On July 9th, 1963, Waylon Jennings was living and playing in Phoenix, Arizona, when he received a recording contract in the mail. His friend, songwriter and comedian Don Bowman, had taken Jennings’ demo recordings to Jerry Moss, who with trumpet-playing bandleader Herb Alpert, had started a small label called A&M Records in Los Angeles.
Four years earlier, Jennings was playing bass in rock & roll legend Buddy Holly’s band when he had given up his seat on a doomed flight to J.P. Richardson, a.k.a. the Big Bopper. Holly, Richardson and rising star Ritchie Valens all perished in that February 3rd, 1959, flight, an accident that would haunt Jennings for decades after joking with Holly about the plane crashing. During Jennings’ first session for A&M, he would cut one of the songs for which Holly was best known, a rockabilly tune called “Rave On.” The song, which served as the flipside of Jennings’ debut single for the label, was co-written by the original artist to record it, Sonny West, along with Norman Petty and Bill Tilghman, the trio also responsible for another major Holly hit, “Oh, Boy!” credited to the musician’s band the Crickets.
The A-side of that first single, which was penned by Tilghman and arranged and conducted in the recording session by Alpert, was a demonstration of Jennings’ vocal range, if not exactly a clear indication of his future status as a country-music outlaw. “Love Denied” is a forlorn ballad, with Jennings turning in an initially subdued performance reminiscent of Roy Orbison. With trumpet flourishes and a male chorus adding background vocals throughout, the song slowly builds to a deliciously dramatic and Oribson-esque finish, with Jennings hitting quite possibly the highest note he ever committed to vinyl — until the two Orbison covers on his 1964 debut album, that is.
Love was, unfortunately, not the only thing denied with the release of the single, as greater success eluded both Jennings and the label at the time, a result, Jennings would note in his 1996 autobiography, of trying to “fit a round peg into a square hole.” Subsequent tracks cut for the label didn’t work well for Waylon either, yet his A&M records did sell well at J.D.’s, the Phoenix nightclub where Jennings and his group the Waylors served as the house band.
In November 1964, RCA artist Bobby Bare caught Jennings’ act at J.D.’s and recommended him to Nashville label head and producer Chet Atkins. It would take a second endorsement, from guitarist Duane Eddy, to convince Atkins to offer Jennings a contract, with Jennings’ first RCA recording sessions taking place in the spring of 1965. Eventually taking control of the material he would record and the direction he wanted to take as an artist, Jennings would remain with the label for 20 years. Meanwhile, A&M Records would go on to sign such influential acts as the Carpenters, Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker, the Police, and Janet Jackson, among many others.