Stu Nunnery – 35 Years On: The Interview

by TW on November 3, 2008

If you’ve never heard of Stu Nunnery, you’re probably not alone, but it would be your loss. Nunnery is a singer/songwriter who released one self-titled album on the short-lived Evolution label in 1973. The nine-song LP showcased a heady talent, playing a mix of folk-rock that fans of Dan Fogelberg, James Taylor, Gordon Lightfoot and Jackson Browne should connect with immediately. Yet, Nunnery sounded like no one else. And if you’ve never heard him, read and listen on, for there’s plenty of great music to discover here.

I first learned of Nunnery when I found his album amid tens of thousands of old, dusty LPs in a St. Paul, MN, building, whose lower floor was serving as a used record store. That same day, I discovered another singer/songwriter (Jimmie Spheeris) who comes up in this interview, as well. I plunked down $1 for Nunnery’s album and left not expecting much. I got home, dropped the needle on Side 1 and after about 20 seconds of hearing the lead cut, “Isle Of Debris,” I was thinking,  “How has this been hidden for so long?” Later, I found out this was his only record and one could only hear it on vinyl. How could this album languish in obscurity and never find its way to compact disc? Why didn’t he release more albums? As I was to find out, truth is crazily stranger than fiction. Nunnery’s story is one you just have to read for yourself.

You released one album in 1973 and then seemed to disappear. What happened?

First off, I always appreciate hearing from someone who had picked up my first and only album. It’s funny, at this point in life I’m getting a lot more calls [about my music] than I got many many years ago.

My story is a simple one. I did one album in 1973-74. Over the next couple of years, two of the cuts from that album – “Madelaine” and “Sally From Syracuse” – reached the Top 100 on the American charts. And in 1976 – after I had left the company I was with – “Lady It\’s Time To Go,” which is on the flip side of the album, became the #1 Record in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, Brazil. And it was my recording of it, sold to a label called Copacabana Records, which was part of the RCA stable. And in 1976, I got a phone call after I had left the record company I was with, telling me I was a big star in South America, and, “Can you come down here and perform?”

Well, I could barely eat back in 1976 – I was still [playing]  in small clubs. And I never saw a dime for that #1 Record down there in South America. In fact for all of 1976, my English-speaking record was the 57th-best-selling record down there, which is really bizarre.

You didn’t receive any royalties?
I also never received anything from the album that I did do, which sold fairly well. I had a lot of turntable hits around the world: I had a turntable hit in South Africa, Australia, England and Canada. In addition to the two records on the Top 100 American charts, “Lady It\’s Time To Go,” was recorded by B.J. Thomas, and Nicky Hopkins, if you can believe that – the former keyboard player for the Rolling Stones. So there was a lot of attention; I did some concerts. The label I was with – it was Evolution Records: part of the Longines-Wittnauer watch company’s series of companies. They went out of business in ‘74/’75, I guess.

After that, I went back to the Berkshires, where I lived. I was living in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts when my first album came out. After that and the first album came out, I went back to the Berkshires and continued playing in clubs. And I received a call from a woman, who was in the fashion industry but very interested in the music industry. She found me through somebody, and for a time became my manager. She represented me to John Hammond, at Columbia Records, and I was signed to Epic Records in 1976. I went into the studio in New York and cut four records, four sides. I was then sent to California to redo one side and to cut a few more sides. I was told, at the time, that one of the records, which I had done, was going to be the theme at the CBS Convention that year. Soon after I got a call [saying] that Epic Records was going to move into disco, and I was asked if I would consider being a disco artist. [laughs] I was 26 at the time and quite full of myself – I thought I knew what I was doing – and I said, “Absolutely not.”

And then the thought was, back then, that they were going to put some supergroup together. And some names of people you know from other groups that were not functioning at the time – they were going to put us together. I was going to be the lead singer and the writer, and they thought that was a great idea. Well, that kind of fell apart as well, and Epic really became more of an R&B and disco label. And I left CBS Records in early 1977, without having anything released. I had recorded, I think, five or six sides – at least half an album – and nothing was released. Walking out the door of CBS, though – I was living in New York at the time; this was ‘77, I had moved down to New York. Friends of mine ran jingle houses in New York City, and they were kind of the feeder companies for advertising firms that wrote radio and television jingles. A woman that I knew, who liked my music, asked me if I would consider coming in and writing jingles. And given that I didn’t have a recording contract at the time, I said, “Sure. Why not?”

How did jingle writing go?

Well, it turned out to be a very lucrative profession, and the first four or five things that I wrote became national campaigns. I sang solo on a number of campaigns, for GMC Trucks, cars, sodas – all kinds of things – and made very nice money for about two or three years. I was actually starting to study acting and dance in New York, and I figured I was going to be a triple threat on Broadway – in addition to being a recording artist – because I continued to seek a recording contract with other companies in New York. Then in April of 1978 is when everything… the day the music died. I stood up off a bed after a nap – after a recording session – and an explosion happened in the left side of my head. It was not a stroke. Thirty years later, it appears to have been probably a rupture or breakage of a blood vessel. And it immediately filled up my ear chamber, and I was 40 percent deaf in 24 hours on the left side. While there was no diagnosis in the polytomography – they take an X-ray of your ear – it did not show a tumor. Nonetheless, I was 40 percent gone in 24 hours. I had terrible vertigo and dizziness for a long time.

I continued to record in New York City, doing jingles and things, but I was beginning to miss-pitch, because my tonal discrimination had been distorted in the left ear. When you’re in the studio and recording, of course, you’re wearing a headset. And in one ear you’re trying to hear yourself, and in the other you’re trying to hear the band. Well, now I only had one ear to work with. It became obvious to me that things were not going as well, but I still continued to pursue music. And in 1981, while painting my apartment, I had the exact same explosion in my right ear. By then, it was gone. I had almost no hearing at all. I had terrible vertigo and tinnitus in both ears – it was over. And I was 31.

What I did immediately – after seeing all the doctors I could see… I went out to the House Ear Institute in California, and I had a well-known ENT [ear, nose and throat specialist] here in New York. They were trying all kinds of things; they were putting me on steroids, thinking it was some kind of auto-immune thing. They weren’t sure what had happened, but it was very rare that it would be bilateral like that.

Three years later, I started losing my sight. Both retinas detached while I was driving home from a business trip. In 1983, with no music career, I decided to try and take care of my health – I became food crazy, basically, foods and health. And my hearing was improving enough in ‘83-’84, that I thought, “Maybe I could do this [music] again.” The interesting part of the story is that I took some of the money that I had made doing jingles, which was considerable, and I hired a producer friend of mine and went into the studio to cut four more tracks, probably late ’82/early ’83. They were excellent tracks but never got released because my hearing was essentially gone soon after that. But if you can imagine, my band was Paul Shaffer on piano; Lawrence Juber, from Wings, was my guitar player; Allan Schwartzberg was the drummer; Jimmy Malin, who passed away several years ago, was percussion; and Will Lee was on bass. These were friends of my producer, Bert Dovo. We were able to put together this very hot band to do a couple of tracks, and the four tracks were done but the songs were never released. So, I still have that music, and, in fact, I still have a lot of old music on tape of some things I’m thinking of doing.

In late 1984, I went to work for a natural food company and worked on the road for seven years. I was a sales manager for a natural food company in the Midwest, but I worked from Maine to Washington D.C., and literally was on the road three weeks out of four. In addition to selling food, I was also telling my story.

How would you compare the music you did with that band to your first record?

The biggest frustration for me is that I’ve never been able to evolve from that first album. Now, I always got good responses to the music back then, and when I listen to it now I cringe, because you think of all the things that you could do now. The other thing, I believe, is that what I can do vocally right now is far superior to what I could do back then – of course, I haven’t recorded in 30 years. So the frustration is that I don’t know how it would have evolved. The four songs I cut, I think, were definitely an evolution from where I was at that point – not that much different, but I think I started to develop a style. But it never progressed beyond that because I didn’t record after that period of time.

And one thing I want to make clear, because we hear a lot about musicians losing their hearing because of noise: As much as I would have liked to believe that that was the problem, there were several other factors that were never really eliminated that were involved here. Noise certainly could have exacerbated it, but most noise-related hearing loss takes the top off. I’d had this bizarre hearing loss that killed much of the lower tones. It was in part done either because of the blood vessels bursting or this auto-immune response – it really destroyed that [ability to hear lower tones]. I can hear about a third of the keyboard properly. The rest of it, I hear the over-rings, or I hear the third or the seventh; I don’t hear the dominant. So in trying to sing again – I can sit at the piano and sing and play, for the most part, pretty much on key. But if I were to try and sing live with a band, it would be nuts. I couldn’t do it.

You couldn’t focus or key in on anything.

Yeah. There would be too much interference, and my ears couldn’t translate it all – and I had perfect pitch. For me now, because I still have tinnitus in both ears, I already have musical tones in my ears that play 24 hours a day. So, hearing those, then hearing a keyboard and six other instruments and trying to find my voice in the middle of that would be pretty impossible.

At the same time, because of technology right now, I think it’s very possible that I could go into the studio – or even sit at my computer – I could probably record again. In fact, your call and other calls I’ve gotten over the last couple of years – I miss it very much. The thing I miss most – this is a nice long weekend – I’d love to sit in a club somewhere and sing for a couple of hours. But I couldn’t do it, because even with me just playing piano I couldn’t guarantee I would be on pitch the whole time. It would literally be, “What would you do if I sang out of key? Would you stand up and walk out on me?” [laughs] Well I think people would, you know?

That said, I could probably in a controlled situation and with technology that could adjust anything that’s not right, I could probably record again. But I could never go out and perform live again. So, I’m thinking with the Internet and everything, “Why not record an album and release it and sell it online?” If the music is good and people love it, and do that. So what if I can’t perform live?

There’s a lot to be said for playing music just for the joy of it, regardless of whether you ever play live.

You’re absolutely right. I would do it just ‘cause I enjoy it. But it is time consuming, and I do have enough music that I’ve already written that I can go in and just do that and not have to spend a lot of time writing new songs. But the one thing I’m trying not to do is assume that I can go back to that. Rather, I would say that’s another aspect of my life – it’s another part of my creative life. Now I write and speak and do a lot of other things that I enjoy very much. Music could be a nice piece of that. The music thing – your call and other people’s call tell me that it’s still there, and I still sing everyday – that would be a nice thing to do. My friend Don Puluse, who was a well-known recording engineer, recently retired, is still around and not far from me, in Boston. There’s probably ways we could put those things together. We’re not at that point, but given the technology I think that’s a possibility.

Let me ask you a question. What attracted you to my record? And it’s funny that you mention Jimmie Spheeris, because you’re not the only one… Jimmie Spheeris’ [first record Isle Of View] and mine, I think, came out about the same time.

Yeah, I bought that Jimmie Spheeris album and yours on the same day back in the early ‘90s. I was in this used record shop in St. Paul, MN, called The Landfill. I had never heard of either of you, but I bought both because they looked interesting and I recognized some of the session players that worked with you. I listened to the records and was blown away. I remember thinking, “Why haven’t I heard this before?” Who is Jimmie Spheeris? Who is Stu Nunnery? Your record label, Evolution, was one I didn’t know.

Did you know Neil Harbus?

No.

Neil Harbus was the artist on that label before I was signed, and he was produced by Neil Portnow, head of NARAS [National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences] now. Neil was a good friend, too…

How did you find me recently? Did you Google me?

I’ve been trying online to find you or some info about you for probably seven or so years. But no success.  Right now, I’m looking at an online acoustic guitar forum, and somebody wrote – this is in 2001 – “Anyone know how to play ‘Isle Of Debris’ by Stu Nunnery?’ Then he follows it up with, “Anyone ever heard of Stu Nunnery… besides me?” Then, an answer comes four years later: “If you’d like to chat, I was a hired musician that played with Stu Nunnery in about 1974/1975, or around there. I always considered him one of the most talented writer/composers that just didn’t make it.” He signs it as “Jack .”

Oh. That’s interesting. He was my bass player after I had left… his name is Jack Okolowicz. That’s right. I saw that, and Jack and I communicated about a year ago. He was my bass player between [my time with] Evolution Records and CBS Records – around 1974-75 when I was playing live.

Another thing: I’ve watched for 30 years as my records and sheet music have been sold all over the world by peddlers everywhere, and, of course, I haven’t seen a dime from that either. All the music that I did, I never saw one dime, which might sound like many other’s stories. I still have the tapes. I still own all that stuff and could re-release it tomorrow, and, frankly, I’m thinking about it. It’s intriguing to me.

Let’s talk about a few songs from your album. The lead-off Isle Of Debris” is a classic.

Rock Classic, at KSHE in St. Louis used to play it… it’s funny because my ex-wife is from St. Louis; I have friends in St. Louis. For some reason that song really stuck out there. Best story: We had been trying to download my music from the Web, and we’ve only found two songs. The songs were actually put to videos created by amateur video makers. If you go onto Youtube.com and search for Stu Nunnery, you’ll find videos for “Lady It\’s Time To Go” and “Isle Of Debris.” Two people – one in St. Louis and one in Brazil – apparently put their own videos to them. I’m wondering if people who are seeing those videos are saying, “Is this Stu Nunnery’s video of this song?” Or do they get that it’s Youtube?

A couple years ago, I was googling myself and saw an advertisement for Stu Nunnery’s first and second album. I never did a second album. I couldn’t find it again, but I’m wondering, did somebody record me playing live in a number of different places and cobble together some kind of an album? I don’t know.

Is “Sally From Syracuse” autobiographical?

[laughs] I think anybody that says any song is not autobiographical to some degree is a liar. It’s one of the adages of good writers to write about what you know. It was really inspired by a trip in the early ‘70s to see a friend in Syracuse, NY, with my wife, at the time. It was my blue period, when I was writing songs, and it just came to me. In many instances some songs write themselves. Well, this one pretty much did. And it was actually the song that got me my first recording contract. It had become a hit at country stations in New York City, where there are lawyers – I can’t remember the station there, but they used to get requests from lawyers all the time to play the song. [laughs] Which I thought was great. Autobiographical? No, not to the degree of detail, but inspired by a real event. I was interviewed soon after that – I went up to Syracuse, actually, I was asked to sing “The National Anthem” at a Syracuse football game, which I did not do. And then I got very disparaging letters from women in Syracuse, who thought that I was a sexist idiot. When I had to remind them that this was about a woman who took charge, not me, I threatened that my next record was going to be “Eunice From Utica.” [laughs]

The album arrangements are very interesting, and you had a great cast of backing players.

They were very interesting arrangements and were done by Paul Griffin – wonderful stuff. And if you look at the people who played on my album: “Buzzy” Feiten [bass], Hugh McCracken [guitar], Elliot Randall, the guitarist who did [Steely Dan’s] “Reelin’ In The Years,” Rick Marotta [drums], David Spinozza [guitar], John Tropea [guitar] – wonderful musicians – Eric Weisberg [fiddle]. He had just come off “Dueling Banjos.” And we had [fiddler] Kenny Kosek – just some great folks on this album, and they did a very good job. When I listen to it and hear all this great music around me, I realize how much I would have loved to be in that atmosphere again and again and again. It would have matured my music even more. I was still shooting pretty much from the hip on that first album.

Have you been approached by any labels wanting to reissue your album on compact disc? It never got a CD release, and it can be challenging to find a good vinyl copy.

I am now thinking about doing something with it. Maybe the thing to do, instead of going in to redo it – because how many times have you heard an album and said, “Shit. That’s not as good as the original.” I’ve heard James Taylor recut his songs, and sometimes they haven’t been as good as the originals. Or Gordon Lightfoot, who was one of my heroes back in those days, would recut some of his songs, but they didn’t have the same soul as the originals. Maybe not mess with the originals?

You mentioned earlier that you still sing everyday. How much, if any, songwriting did you carry on with?

Just before I lost my hearing I got into more – I’m not going to say spiritual music, but more music with some meaning to it. In fact, a couple songs that I wrote I’d very much like to release. I think they’re very strong songs as well. They’ve had that kind of soul to it, that I was moving toward. More global, universal-type stuff. I tend to write that way. In fact, a couple songs on my album – “Roads,” the very last song; “Isle Of Debris” – people always asked, “Where did that come from?” You know, they were kind of like cautionary tales, and here I was 25 years of age. Where did that come from? I have no idea. [laughs] But clearly that was part of my soul that was being expressed, and I think more of that would have come out. At the same time, I was good at writing clever songs and up-tempo things and love songs. I’ve written some jazz and other things, so I think there’s a lot there that could be done. Who knows, I may be sitting right here in front of my computer someday and composing, finding the software I need and working with a couple old bandmates, and putting some things together online.

I would think the pull would be strong to get back to writing.

Probably the main reason I didn’t go back into music was that I had no context after 1983. Since 1983, I have not heard anything that has been recorded. Yes, I’ve heard it on the radio, but I don’t know what key it’s in; I don’t know what the melody line is; I don’t know the chords; and I can barely make out the lyrics. So, I have no context for what contemporary music sounds like.

You’ve been frozen in a musical time capsule.

I think that’s true, but songwriters are from Mars anyway. [laughs] My job as a writer is to channel whatever comes through me and create some form. But I know that that form may not be contemporary sounding. It may be something that I’m holding onto or connected to. I have no context for what music’s been like for almost 30 years. I think I would get more out of reading lyrics, so if all I did was read lyrics of top songs for the last couple years, perhaps I could learn. But I’ve always been a good lyric writer, so I’m not sure that I would learn anything, because I’ve never had any reluctance or hesitation to what I could or would say. I’ve always tried to say something a little bit differently.

I’ve been a musical virgin for the last 30 years. I don’t know what Sting sounds like; I don’t know what Madonna sounds like; I didn’t hear any of Michael Jackson’s newer stuff. I have no context, so I couldn’t be derivative! [laughs]

{Stu Nunnery is the director of the Rhode Island Center for Agricultural Promotion and Education (RICAPE). You can read more about his work and the Center’s mission at http://www.rifarmways.org. Special thanks to Stu for sharing his story and letting me post his music. Let’s hope his album will get a long-overdue re-release very soon.}

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