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The process didn't occur overnight. In the midst of an obsession with the music of the Band, he formed a group called Grinder's Switch, but the outfit's debut, 1970's Garland Jeffreys and Grinder's Switch, left nary a ripple. Jeffreys made a switch of his own shortly thereafter, moving ahead on his own, and Atlantic Records eventually took notice of his efforts. Too bad the firm didn't put more muscle behind Garland Jeffreys, a 1973 solo offering that fully revealed the dimensions of his talent for the first time. For proof, look no further than "Wild in the Streets," a riveting urban tale inspired by the murder of a young girl who was tossed off a roof by two boys, ages twelve and thirteen.
The tune's concerns prefigured punk rock and became an early anthem of the movement. English punks such as members of the Clash got to know it from a cover version by the British Lions, a combo that co-starred former members of Mott the Hoople; Guy Stevens, who produced the Clash's London Calling, did the same honors for Mott. "When I met the Clash in 1979 or 1980, I gave Joe Strummer a copy of the Atlantic-label 45," Jeffreys remembers. "He knew it very well." So did the Circle Jerks, whose rendition of "Wild" became the title cut for their second full-length, from 1982. Earlier this year, the Jerks' recording was used for a Vans commercial aimed at the skateboarding crowd. "I get a small royalty from these things," Jeffreys allows, "but what I'm much more excited about is that people have embraced the song -- that they're still playing it and recording it and listening to it."
"Wild" isn't the only great song on Ghost Writer, a 1977 album that marked Jeffreys's jump to A&M Records. Also on the disc is "New York Skyline," which he played at benefit shows with Springsteen after 9/11, and "Cool Down Boy," one of several tracks that sport a reggae undercurrent thanks to assistance from some of Jamaica's finest sidemen -- among them drummer Winston Grennan, who kept the beat on Toots & the Maytals' classic Funky Kingston platter and worked with Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff.
While Jeffreys's love of reggae and ska further endeared him to punks, it merely confused U.S. radio programmers, who had no clue what to do with an African-American singer-songwriter who didn't specialize in soul, R&B or disco. It's no surprise, then, that even after Jeffreys made two more highly regarded LPs, 1978's One Eyed Jack and 1979's American Boy & Girl (distinguished by "Matador," a song that topped charts in much of Europe), A&M dropped him. He resurfaced on Epic Records two years later with Escape Artist, which featured Reed, David Johansen and a who's who of New York rockers, plus reggae figures like Linton Kwesi Johnson and Springsteen cohorts Roy Bittan and Danny Federici. This crew created enough of a stir to turn a new rendering of the rock chestnut "96 Tears" into a minor hit, and a live followup, 1981's Rock 'n' Roll Adult, drew some heat because Jeffreys was accompanied by the Rumour, the band heard backing Graham Parker on his most memorable recordings. Nevertheless, Epic and Jeffreys parted company after 1983's Guts for Love, and another nine years would pass before another label, RCA, filled the vacuum. His 1992 disc, Don't Call Me Buckwheat, collected the expected raves but was harder to find than it should have been; Jeffreys says Springsteen didn't track down a copy until 2001.
Springsteen's enthusiastic patronage, as well as a key role in a Wim Wenders-directed segment of The Blues, Martin Scorsese's recent multi-part TV documentary, probably made Universal's decision to ink Jeffreys to a new agreement that much easier. "I'm thrilled about the opportunity to put out some new recordings with a large distribution," he says. Still, he knows better than to tie his self-esteem to anything as fickle as sales figures or acclaim.
"I think everybody aspires to more recognition if they're honest with themselves," he maintains, "but I'm taking responsibility for myself. I feel very much part of the world, very at ease with myself and comfortable in my own skin. No one has cost me anything."