The Flying Burrito Brothers’ 1969 debut never made it higher than 164 on the Billboard 200. But the album’s country-rock sound cast a shadow almost from day one, influencing artists ranging from the Rolling Stones to Tom Petty, Beck, Uncle Tupelo and entire generations of future Americana luminaries. The Burrito Brothers weren’t the first artists to hybridize country and rock. Buck Owens and His Buckaroos, for one, got there first, on songs like “Act Naturally.” But The Gilded Palace of Sin was druggier, sexier and more youthful — as much about the intermingling of rhinestone suits and hippie haircuts as about running steel guitar through a fuzz box or applying George Jones vocal moves to space rock.
Gram Parsons is at the center of the Burritos and Gilded Palace legends. A talented singer and songwriter, Parsons was also a close friend of Keith Richards and died in a motel room, adding to his bad-boy rock-star aura. During his 26-year lifetime, Parsons also made two influential solo albums, GP and Grievous Angel. But those don’t quite exude the allure of Gilded Palace. Parsons’ Southern-rogue charm was at its best in the Burritos, where it could play off fellow Byrd expatriate Chris Hillman’s roots-music bona fides. Bassist Chris Ethridge, like Parsons a heavy-lidded product of the South — they’d been in Burritos-precursor International Submarine Band together — brought deep red-clay grooves. Steel-guitarist “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow added instrumental magic. All that said, Parsons is magnetic. His heartbreakingly vulnerable vocal on “Hot Burrito #1” — an amazing ballad titled so goofily that Elvis Costello later determined “I’m Your Toy” to be a more fitting name — is unforgettable. And on “Hot Burrito #2,” Parsons’ voice is lithe and lusty, building to that “Jesus Christ!” punctuating the choruses. His cosmic-cowboy vibe sets the tone for all of Gilded Palace.
Parsons had already displayed his country & western chops pre-Burritos. There was a single-LP tenure with the Byrds on their Sweetheart of the Rodeo album and the forgotten International Submarine Band’s Safe at Home, both from 1968. Many other acts have since put a memorable thumbprint on country-rock — Bob Dylan, Lucinda Williams, Eagles, Steve Earle, etc. But it’s difficult to think of a country-rock album that’s been more of a bountiful influence than The Gilded Palace of Sin. With groups like the Eagles taking flight, country-rock became a bigger enterprise, but Gilded Palace’s cocaine twang was never equaled.
To mark the 50th anniversary of Gilded Palace’s February 1969 release, here are 10 things you might not know about the album.
1. Opening track “Christine’s Tune” was written about the same woman who appears on Frank Zappa’s Hot Rats album cover.
Christine Frka was a curly-haired member of Frank Zappa’s absurdist all-female group the GTOs (a.k.a. Girls Together Outrageously), which released an album called Permanent Damage, produced by Zappa and future Little Feat frontman Lowell George. Also a quintessential early Hollywood rock groupie, Frka reportedly dated musicians including Alice Cooper and Todd Rundgren. On the Hot Rats cover Frka can be seen climbing out of an empty lily pond (or is that a swimming pool?) at actor Errol Flynn’s former Hollywood Hills estate. Musically, “Christine’s Tune” is a speed-shuffle knockout, with Kleinow’s quicksilver steel and Everly Brothers–style Parsons-Hillman vocal harmonies. But lyrically the song, a Parsons-Hillman co-write, is acerbic and bitter. After Frka died in 1972 at age 22 of an overdose following a painful car-accident injury, the song was rechristened “Devil in Disguise.” Hillman told American Songwriter in 2012, “We felt it was really terrible to have her name there. It was not the kindest lyric. It’s a misogynistic lyric.” On a 2017 blog post on her website, Nathanson remembered Frka as “a Tim Burton character mixed with a silent film star.”
2. The album’s steel-guitarist had a more profitable career in TV and film.
On Gilded Palace, steel guitarist Pete Kleinow conjures the kind of sparks a lead electric-guitarist would’ve typically provided on a rock album: an inventive blend of traditional licks and psychedelic refractions. A native of South Bend, Indiana, Kleinow would later grace recordings by Ringo Starr, Carly Simon and Stevie Wonder. But he didn’t consider music his main gig. Kleinow worked as a visual-effects artist and stop-motion animator on such TV and film projects as Gumby, The Outer Limits, The Terminator and The Empire Strikes Back. Kleinow, who died in 2007, even won an Emmy for his work on ABC’s Robert Mitchum–starring 1983 mini-series The Winds of War.
3. The vivid chorus lyric on “Sin City” contains real-life details.
“We had this manager, Larry Spector,” Hillman told American Songwriter in 2012. “He lived on the 31st floor of a condo in Hollywood. He had the most ugly front door with gold plating on it.” That inspired the “Sin City” lines: “On the 31st floor, a gold-plated door/Won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain.” That kind of specific yet interpretive lyric helped make “Sin City” the Burritos’ signature song — and possibly country-rock’s most exquisite. Stirring Parsons-Hillman harmonies summon “high-lonesome” melancholy. As gorgeous as it is, the song only took about 30 minutes to compose. Roommates Hillman and Parsons put together the song one morning over coffee in their rented house off Ventura Boulevard, as Hillman told the Los Angeles Times in 2007. Other Gilded Palace notables, including “Christine’s Tune” and flirty “Hot Burrito #2,” are said to have been penned at their San Fernando Valley bachelor pad, a.k.a. “Burrito Manor.”
4. To promote The Gilded Palace of Sin‘s release, the Burritos’ label set up a barn dance at a soundstage.
Invites to this release party contained packages of hay. The U.S. Postal Service suspected the hay of being contraband and confiscated the invites to test them for drugs. The packages tested positive for hay but negative for drugs. Still, according to Bob Proehl’s fascinating 33 1/3 book on Gilded Palace, the “media buzz the seizure created was better than anything the A&M marketing department could have dreamed up. Before anyone had heard a note of the album, the Burrito Brothers had the exact image A&M wanted: psychedelic cow-punks, drug-addled.” Unfortunately, that buzz didn’t translate into sales. The Gilded Palace of Sin moved a then-anemic 40,000 copies in its first six months. But Parsons could afford to chase his muse without real concern for scoring hits: His trust fund included his share of his grandfather’s reported $28 million Florida citrus empire, making him probably the coolest rich kid to ever walk the earth.
5. David Crosby provided an uncredited high harmony vocal part on the album.
Even though it’s a cover, The Gilded Palace of Sin’s third track is one of its most interesting. “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” had been a 1967 hit for Aretha Franklin. The Burritos rebooted Franklin’s soul ballad, penned by Muscle Shoals–Memphis songwriting duo Dan Penn and Chips Moman, as a country slow-dance. Kleinow adds spangled fills throughout the track (its title shortened to simply “Do Right Woman” here) and a lyrical solo. Parsons and Hillman harmonize like siblings. “That was the genius of Parsons,” Hillman told American Songwriter. “He got me into looking beyond the country parameters into R&B and making that work.” Listen closely to the Burritos’ “Do Right Woman” and in the background you can hear a third vocal, a buttery high harmony said to be by folk-rock superstar David Crosby. According to a 2014 Los Angeles Magazine story, the Monkees’ Peter Tork also contributed backing vocals to Gilded Palace. The Burritos rhinestoned another Penn-Moman gem — “The Dark End of the Street,” previously a James Carr R&B single — into honky-tonk perfection.
6. The same year Gilded Palace of Sin was released, Parsons starred in a sci-fi film that never got released.
Titled Saturation 70, the experimental film also featured Mamas & the Papas singer Michelle Phillips and Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones’ then–five-year-old son Julian. Written and directed by Parsons’ pal Tony Foutz, the project was shot sans permits, guerilla-style. Scenes were filmed at a UFO convention, around seven-story Mojave Desert boulder Giant Rock and in Los Angeles. “The whole experience of making the film was like a technological tribal throw-down,” Foutz told The Guardian in 2014. Douglas Trumbull, a special-effects supervisor on 2001: A Space Odyssey, was set to do special effects for Saturation 70. The latter film’s themes included “aliens, psychedelics, time travel.” Parsons had an interest in extraterrestrials. He and Keith Richards are known to have (when appropriately buzzed) cruised the desert together looking for UFOs up in the sky. Saturation 70 would’ve been Parsons’ acting debut. Alas, it was not to be. The project never came to fruition, although some curious production photos finally emerged for a 2014 art exhibition in London. Parsons is said to have played a decontamination-suit-clad alien in Saturation 70 and, according to Foutz, planned to record music with former Byrds bandmate Roger McGuinn for the film.
7. A Parsons motorcycle wreck inspired oft-covered tune “Wheels.”
Artists ranging from Emmylou Harris to Black Francis have covered strolling Gilded Palace cut “Wheels,” and for good reason. Like other Parsons-Hillman compositions on the LP, such as bloodshot plea “Juanita,” “Wheels” still sounds timeless. Parsons had recently purchased an old English-made motorcycle — possibly a BSA, the same brand advertised decades later on George Michael’s leather-jacket in the “Faith” music-video. Taking the bike out for a ride, he ended up crashing and injuring his leg. After Parsons walked the incapacitated vehicle back home, he and Hillman wrote “Wheels.” “That really has a gospel bent to it,” Hillman said of the song in 2012.
8. For The Gilded Palace of Sin cover shoot, Parsons ordered custom-made Nudie Cohn suits for the entire band.
Bedazzled images of pills, weed and nude women adorned Parsons’ now-iconic Nudie suit — as did, perhaps as counterpoint, a cross on the jacket’s back. Cohn son-in-law and head tailor Manuel Cuevas rendered the designs because Cohn’s chief embroiderer refused to stitch such salacious depictions herself. Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors had previously crafted the gold lamé suit Elvis Presley wore on the 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong cover. According to legend, as a young child in Georgia, Parsons saw Presley perform at the Waycross Auditorium — and even got to shake hands with the star afterward, sealing his destiny. Parsons’ Gilded Palace suit is now on display in Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame. But it wasn’t Parsons’ first Nudie. Arriving in Los Angeles a few years prior during his International Submarine Band period, Parsons acquired a red Nudie adorned with yellow submarines. The Gilded Palace of Sin may have bombed commercially, but it turned out aces for Cohn. Nudie clients soon grew to include Janis Joplin, Sly Stone, Bob Dylan, Grateful Dead and Mick Jagger. Nudie himself even graced the cover of Rolling Stone. “Through the Burritos, I got to be kind of well-known to the rock & roll people,” Cohn, who died in 1984, once said, “and I really appreciate what they did for me along those lines.”
9. Parsons is said to have spread a rumor around L.A. that his friend Keith Richards was going to produce the Burritos’ debut, which helped pique some label interest.
“I think that’s what Gram wanted, short of being asked to join the Stones,” Hillman told Gilded Palace 33 1/3 author Bob Proehl. “But I can’t remember any promise from Keith, or even any discussion with him.” That’s not the only Parsons-Stones nebulousness. Other rumors involve his possible inspiration of or contribution to tracks like “Wild Horses” (the Burritos’ take on the Jagger-Richards ballad was released before the Stones’). Parsons famously spent time in France with Richards and the Stones during the recording of Exile on Main St. Fans love to theorize about Parsons’ involvement on Exile country cuts like “Sweet Virginia.” But latter-day Stones producer Don Was, who worked on bonus tracks for that album’s 2010 reissue, told me (as part of a 2017 LA Weekly story) there was “not a trace of Gram Parsons” to be found on all those original Exile tapes. “I was looking for that,” Was said. “Gram was at the house, but there’s nothing to indicate that he played on any of the songs or sang on anything.” Still, Parsons left a mark on the Stone. Richards told Parsons biographer Ben Fong-Torres, “Gram’s knowledge of country music was awesome,” adding, “Gram taught me an awful lot about the music.”
10. The Gilded Palace of Sin cover photo of the band is believed to have been shot just miles from the Joshua Tree Inn, where Parsons died less than four years later, after an alcohol and morphine binge.
The Burritos weren’t nuts about the final cover photo. Parsons felt other images shot amid trippy desert trees looked cooler. The band had trekked out to the desert for the shoot with photographer Barry Feinstein, A&M art director Tom Wilkes and two slinky models named Suzanne and Bridget in tow. “Everybody was loaded,” Feinstein told scribe Proehl. The party happened upon a dilapidated shed, outside of which the eventual cover images were done.
Flash forward to the early morning of September 19th, 1973. After a few days of drinking and drugging following recording sessions for his second solo album, Parsons dies inside Joshua Tree Inn’s room eight. According to Fong-Torres’ nuanced Parsons bio Hickory Wind, the musician had more than once (including at Byrds guitarist Clarence White’s funeral) expressed wishes to be cremated and his ashes spread at Joshua Tree. Parsons’ family now planned for his final resting place to be in New Orleans. In an outrageous series of events later inspiring the 2003 Johnny Knoxville film Gram Theft Parsons, the deceased singer’s former road manager Phil Kaufman and accomplices stole Gram’s body from the Los Angeles International Airport. In a friend’s borrowed black 1960 Cadillac hearse, they transported the coffin out to Joshua Tree’s Cap Rock formation. According to Fong-Torres, Kaufman placed a can of beer into the coffin, sloshed gasoline over it all and ignited the box and body. Parson’s remains would eventually be buried in Louisiana. But this country-rock lodestar had already been freed in the California desert, one last time.