The "Oregon" Story!
A Remembrance by Bill Coleman
Click on the "Blackhawk County" picture
I was playing nightly at "The Hindquarter" restaurant in downtown Salem during the spring of 1980. Glancing into the audience while preparing to sing another song, a young woman caught my eye. Attractive with dark hair and soft dark eyes, she was smiling at me in a way that suggested I should know her. Slowly it dawned on me the young lady was none other than Joann McDaniels, and in this moment of recognition the odyssey that had brought our lives together for the past seven years had finally come to a close.
Once Upon a Time ...
Our journey began in the summer of 1973 ... Scott Riordan, a classmate at Oregon College of Education and extremely talented vocalist, and I had formed Blackhawk County and began playing clubs and parties in the local area. One of our favorite haunts was a pizza parlor called "The Stone Lion" in Independence, where we were a weekly attraction. While this was fun, we both felt that if we were ever to be taken seriously we would need to break into the Portland market.
Somehow we found a gig at a small pub on Southwest Washington Street in downtown Portland called "The 8 of Cups" that summer. We were literally working for chump change, the pub didn't even have air conditioning, but we played and sang our hearts out nightly for anyone who would come in. We made some great friends that summer, but none so dedicated to our success as Ron Stassens.
Ron, the son of one of Portland's foremost real estate brokers, was working his way into the family business at the time. Lacking the necessary musical skills to be a performer himself, he had an interest in pop music, and enjoyed dabbling in songwriting. In short, Ron was interested in seeing just how far he could take a recording project and was looking for the right act to carry a song that he, as yet, had not written.
An Oregon Girl Imprisoned in Turkey?
When Stassens approached us at "The 8 of Cups" with a rather vague proposal about recording for him, we agreed that we would be interested if the right project came along. Little did we realize that the "right project" would not come as an accident, but only after hours of thought, negotiation, and plain hard work. After several meetings, discussing some of the song lyrics Ron had written and the musical styles we were interested in recording, he came up with an idea that seemed plausible.
The national news had recently run a story of a young University of Oregon student, who had been arrested by Turkish border authorities, charged with smuggling drugs, and subsiquently sentenced to death, the penalty in Turkey for such an offense. After a little investigation, we found Joann McDaniels, originally from Coos Bay, Oregon, was initially sentenced to death, but her sentence, and those of her two companions, Bob Hubbard; an army brat who had grown up all over the U.S. and Europe, and Kathy Zenz; a fellow student from Wisconsin, had been commuted to life.
Coincidentally, Ron's English teacher at Sunset High School, near Portland, happened to have been JoAnn's older sister, which led him to contact Joann's family in Salem. They had moved to Oregon's state capitol for closer access to the Oregon State Legislature and Senator Hatfield's office. Ron was informed by the family that she was being held in a women's annex built adjacent to a major prison facility in Ankarra, Turkey. All her needs, besides the basic necessities of life, had to be provided by family and friends ... the Turkish prison system offered nothing but incarceration. Airmen from the American Air Force base near Ankarra brought a few things obtained from the PX, and there was the occasional care box sent from home, but by and large Joann and Kathy were left to fend for themselves.
Bob Hubbard, who claimed full responsibility for the entire operation at the trial and was suffering from extreme depression was being held next door at the men's facility. Bob had attempted to convince the Turkish authorities at the time of their arrest that the scheme of hosting a middle eastern tour made up of European college students to cover the hashish smuggling operation was all his idea, claiming that the girls, Joann and Kathy, who were driving the two other vans of students had absolutely no knowledge that the headliners had been filled with Syrian hashish. The plan was for himself and the girls to drive the vans back to their point of departure, Germany, where Bob would pull the hashish out of the vans and sell it. He insisted that all the girls knew was they were being paid well to drive tourists around the middle east to purchase artifacts and souvenirs. The Turks didn't buy a word of it.
Bob was unaware that he had been set up by the hashish dealer. He was sold the hashish, by the same guy who claimed the reward offered by the Turkish government when the party reached the border. Poor Bob was duped coming and going, and whether the girls were accomplices or not became a moot point. Blackhawk County never made any mention of Joann's part in the scheme, nor did we attempt to claim her innocence. However, we vigorously protested the harshness of her sentence, and did all that we could to keep her plight in the public eye.
After first hiring American lawyers, unfamiliar with the Turkish justice system, the trio attempted to appeal the first court's life sentence ruling. They were not aware that an appeal in Turkey could go either for or against the defendents, and that the second court could impose an even harsher penalty if it so desired ... it did.
In a panic, when the higher court imposed a penalty of death, the American lawyers were sacked, a new team of Turkish lawyers engaged, and the trio threw themselves on the mercy of the Turkish judicial system. Not wishing to actually execute any American college students, thereby provoking an international incident, the Turks backed off and let the first court's ruling stand. Their point had been made ... The drug traffic coming into the United States from Turkey was as much the responsibility of America as it was the Turks.
A life sentence in Turkey had limits ... The Turks figured forty five years was close enough to life, with no provision established for parol. They refused to turn the trio over to American authorities to complete their sentences in the United States for fear that they would be immediately released. So, Bob, Kathy and little Joann McDaniels from Coos Bay, Oregon settled in for a long stay.
"I Fear How Lonely and Forgotten I Could Be" ...
Ron explained that Joann's greatest fear was that she would become a fond memory held only by close family and friends. Oregonian's would soon resume their busy lives, forget about yesterday's headlines, and allow Joann to simply fade away. He wanted to do something that would keep Joann's plight in the spotlight, while at the same time perhaps advance his credibility as a songwriter/record producer and our careers as performing artists. Scott and I talked it over and decided that we would take up the challenge by helping to write a song that would keep the memory of Joann McDaniels alive.
How Do You Write a Hit?
I don't exactly recall every detail, but this is a rough outline of how the song was written. It was early June, 1974 and classes at Oregon College of Education were beginning to wind down. We had been playing better jobs with much more frequency, and were right on the verge of going professional, performing music on a full time basis. Scott had gone to Portland for a meeting with Ron, and the two had sketched out a rough draft of the chorus for "Oregon," coming up with the lines:
I live in Oregon, Oregon's my home ...
The following day, Scott was still excited from his meeting with Ron and called to invite me over so that I could add my input to complete writing the song. That afternoon the two of us sat on his patio in Monmouth in the spring sunshine on an absolutely perfect day in Oregon.
I thought that the chorus sounded pretty good, even though the last line didn't rhyme with the others. Just to get started, I began messing around with a few chord changes that I liked while Scott sang a rather rough melody line. After some shared thoughts about how we wanted to keep the whole thing rather vague and non-specific, but at the same time, needed to describe the sensation of being locked in a cell in a foriegn land that was so completely different from the beauty that surrounded us on that afternoon, we got busy writting.
Scott brought the first couple lines with him from his meeting with Ron. Ron had written the beginning of the song a couple years prior, and was just waiting to use them somewhere ...
They say the Oregon rain will get you down,
Scott offered ...
The wind, the sun, the things that I have known before,
So, I countered with the next line to finish the verse ...
Now seem like faded ghosts, like shadows on the floor
We looked at each other rather amazed ... Well, that was easy ... the first verse was now finished, so we tried the chorus a couple more times ... it fit ... and we moved on to the next verse. Once again Scott began ...
Let me roam endless hours on my own ...
And, once again I finished the verse with ...
I feel so lonely and forgotten in this place ...
We threw around a few ideas to sum up the song, but decided to keep my third verse for the finish.
Note: Joann's parents mentioned in passing of sending some colored chalk to the girls. Their quarters were really not cells as we might think, JoAnn and Kathy lived in a large barracks divided into seperate rooms for sleeping with an outdoor common area set aside for cooking, washing and socializing with other inmates. Turkish women were allowed to bring their children with them into the prison, so there were plenty of people to mingle with. The girls had drawn pictures all over the walls and paving stones to brighten their little compound to the consternation of their captors.
I've painted pictures on the blank walls of my cell ...
And before we knew it, the song was finished ... or so I thought ... but wait, there's more!
Scott felt there needed to be a direct plea on behalf of Joann ... something haunting that would seem to come from her. So, he came up with the idea of having a female soloist sing ...
I can't go home ...
I didn't like the idea protesting that our duo, "Blackhawk County," did not include a female vocalist and that I felt the effect would be awkward to replicate live. Scott insisted that it would personalize the song and strike an emotional bond, and wanted to try it just to see what it sounded like. A couple days later he asked several fine vocalists from the OCE music department, if they would help. We rehearsed the part with one, two, then three girls, and finally settled on using a soloist. After hearing it a couple times I reluctantly agreed and gave my support. It was decided that we would sing the part ourselves when we didn't have a female vocalist to sing it for us. I think we spent more time on those four words than we did the entire rest of the song.
We tested the song by performing for live audiences and found the response was quite favorable. Toward the end of the summer Ron scheduled a session at a small recording studio in east Portland called Rex Recording Studios. We excitedly arrived first thing in the morning, ready to become stars.
Over the River and Into the Studio!
Given this was our very first recording session, things began to fall apart almost immdiately. While we had rehearsed the song endlessly, with several different combinations of instruments, we still had not formulated any concrete idea of how the song should sound. "Should it be folk ... rock ... folk/rock ... country ... reggae ... calypso ... who knows?" "Should we have a bass guitar?" ... "Well, okay!" ... "How about a drummer?" "I guess so" ... "Who knows a good drummer?" ... "How about a conga player?" "Let's try it!"
It had become painfully evident by mid-morning that none of us knew what in the world we were doing, and we still hadn't the vaguest idea of what the song should sound like ... even though we had been performing it live for about two months along with our newly acquired bass player, Spencer Palermo.
So the recording engineer made an executive decision and said, "Let's start with the bass and guitar and we'll lay the vocals on top and see what it sounds like." Next, we decided that we needed some type of rhythm track. Ron called up his brother-in-law, Jim Graziano, to come into the studio at the last minute and lay down the drums.
This sequence of recording the drums after the other instruments creates inumerable problems. It is always wise to include them when you record the other instruments, otherwise the tempo of the song recorded without drums fluctuates so much that it is almost impossible for any drummer to play. But, Jim did his best and managed to do an admirable job despite our crazy tempo.
Now we were actually making progress. Scott, still pushing his "girl singing in the background" idea, insisted upon calling a friend from college to come sing the solo. But, Ron asked the studio engineer if he knew anyone in the Portland area that could sing it, and he came up with the beautiful voice of Debbie York.
Debbie had worked with Gary Ogan, another very talented Portland artist, at a few local clubs. She possessed the most innocent, pristine singing voice I have ever heard and made the pleading "I can't go home" effect absolutely haunting. I had to admit that I was wrong about the part, and that Scott was exercising sheer genius at including it on the finished record. Note: After the release of "Oregon" people actually asked if that was Joann singing .... huh?
Scott added some synthesizer parts toward the end of the song, and another fine Portland musician, guitarist Doug Fraser, added a blazing electric guitar lead on the fade out. Doug walked into the studio; plugged his guitar into the board; listened a couple of times to the song through the studio monitors; laid down his track in one take; smiled and asked, "Is that what you want?" We said, "Yeah!" and he picked up a check, packed his guitar and was out the door in less than a half hour.
It was now nearing 11 PM, and everyone was just about exhausted when someone had the bright idea to time the song. To our horror we discovered that we had recorded some four and a half minutes of music, which would never do considering that a standard 45 rpm record could not hold that much material. The song had to be cut down to the industry standard, around 3:05, before any radio station would play it. We debated, edited, squeezed, cut, argued, pushed, screamed and yelled ... finally cutting out the last chorus, half of Debbie's "I can't go home's" layered over a repeat of the first verse, nearly all of Scott's synthsizer part and a big chunk of Doug's screaming electric lead just to get a song that would actually fit onto a forty five. As it is, the song is somewhere around 3:50, which is as close as we could come to the industry standard of 3:05 necessary for air play.
So, You've Got a Hit Record?
From that point on, "Oregon" seemed to take on a life of its own. People came into and out of our sphere so fast that we hardly had time to know who we were talking to. We were literally flooded with record promoters, newspaper reporters, television crews, radio disk jockies, booking agents, potential managers, bookkeepers and even a few congressmen and senators, all wanting a piece of the "Oregon" action. Scott and I had become over night sensations, swept up in a whirlwind of notariety, and at its center was a rogue's gallery of the "haves and have nots." "Oregon" had become a national hit and nearly everyone we encountered wanted in on it, making us feel like aliens in our own home. What they didn't know was that we would have the last say! "Oregon" had a built in provision that would thwart nearly all of the profiteers ... the joke was on them ... we had vowed that no one would get anything from "Oregon," not a single solitary nickel ... except Joann McDaniels.
Understand that from the very beginning the principle characters; Scott Riordan, Ron Stassens and myself, pledged that any profits from the record would go directly to Joann. We felt it would be terribly distasteful for us to profit from her misfortune. So, all of the proceeds, every last cent, were kept in trust for her by Ron Stassens. Scott and I never saw a single penny for our efforts. The proceeds from the sale of the song completed Joann's college education from the University of Oregon. It paid her tuition to finish her degree while she was still in prison. We kept that secret to ourselves all these years, feeling it was no one elses business. No one has ever known until now ... and now you know how we got rich from our one hit.
In Closing ...
Sometimes wealth cannot be measured by how much money you have in the bank ... sometimes money just doesn't matter. Sometimes you just look into a crowd of people and see a woman smiling back at you and know that it was all worthwhile.
A Postscript ...
The following year we all traveled to Seattle to record our album, "Monkey Zoo" at Kaye- Smith Studios ... home of such notables as "Heart," and "Bachman, Turner Overdrive." After recording the album, Ron Stassens, our producer, sent the master tapes, plus the "Oregon" master to Los Angeles to be re-mastered and transfered to vinyl. In the process all of our master tapes were lost and never returned. The only copies of "Oregon" that survive today to my knowledge are on the original vinyl albums and 45 rpm records floating around thrift stores and in private collections. The copy of the song featured on this website is from the album that I gave my grandmother. Grandma Grace put it in her buffet drawer and it never saw the light of day until she passed away some fifteen years later. It was then returned to me ... Thank goodness she never played it.
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