A psych-folk singer who was once tipped to be bigger than Elvis, SCOTT FAGAN defines the concept of a ‘lost artist’. Spiritual, mythical and deeply soulful, Fagan’s classic 1968 record South Atlantic Blues is a rediscovered masterpiece.
Recorded when Fagan was only 21, penniless and virtually homeless in the Virgin Islands, it was released on Atco Records but remained unknown, until those famed un-earthers of hidden gems Light In The Attic Records re-issued it in 2015.
The biological father of The Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt – a fact he only found out in 2013 at the premiere of a film about his legendary mentor, songwriting genius Doc Pomus – Fagan is finally receiving the acclaim he deserves as he tours Europe backed by members of Trembling Bells. Christopher Torpey looks a little closer at the legend and finds a story of rare moral fibre.
BL!: Take us back to the mid-60s when you wrote and recorded South Atlantic Blues: what situation were you in at the time?
SF: I was living in a Tenement in Hell’s Kitchen, a tough, hardscrabble Irish section on New York City’s West side. My “Beautiful Sweetie” from the Islands, Patty Collins, was there with me. We were trying to make a life, in what was for us, a very cold and unfamiliar world.
I was finishing up the writing for what would become South Atlantic Blues. We were living on memories and dreams: I was down but not out, and completely optimistic. We thought that, if I poured my heart into it and wrote as honestly as possible, it would make a difference for us and, we hoped, for many other people in the world.
BL!: What was your education in music growing up? Did you align yourself more with jazz in your formative years?
SF: My father, Frankie Galvin, was a wonderful singer and tenor sax man. He came up with “Prez” [Lester Young] and Eleanora Fagan [Billie Holiday] on 52nd Street when it was jazz heaven. Frankie travelled all through the south with his Tic Tac Toe Trio playing Dixieland jazz. I spent a lot of time on the road with him singing. We sang through every state south of the Mason Dixon line. That was my basic musical education. Lots of jazz through him and my mother, who dragged a steamer-trunk full of jazz 78s with her through every move we ever made – and there were many. However, I was a rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm ‘n’ blues, country and western, rockabilly, bolero, calypso, pachanga, mambo, charanga, polka and voice of America kind of boy. We only had one radio station in St. Thomas in those days, so we were exposed to every imaginable kind of music. I embraced it all. It was wonderful.
BL!: How did you meet Doc Pomus? Did he open anything up to you in terms of how you approached making music?
SF: I had sailed up and was gigging in Fort Lauderdale but I was determined to go to New York. A group of girls in Ft. Lauderdale created a small Scott Fagan fan club, pulled together $50 and presented me with a bus ticket. My mother gave me a phone number that she got from a friend of a friend of a cousin-in-law once removed, who knew someone whose ex-husband sometimes wrote songs with somebody named Doc Pomus or something… she had me promise to call him. I had 11 cents when I got to NYC, and I used 10 cents to make the call. Doc Pomus answered and invited me over to his hotel to sing for him. Doc sat in the middle of his bed, wrapped in a toga sheet; I sat on a piano bench at the foot of his bed. Doc said, “OK Scotty, show me what you got.” I sang three songs for him. After a dramatic pause, Doc said, “Tell you what I’m gonna do Scotty, I’m gonna sign you to a personal management and sign you to me and Morty’s production company. Go downstairs and tell the desk clerk to give you a room, then come back up here an’ let’s get started.”
Although I had been singing with a group in the Islands called The Urchins and sung [in] a number of places beyond that, Doc immediately moved things to a professional level. He started me in the studio doing demos, included me in writing sessions, sharpened my focus in every way. The strongest influence on my singing was my pop – the strongest influence on my writing was Doc Pomus. My pop always said, “Scott, sing it like you mean it, and mean it when you sing.” Doc always said, “Scotty, write standards, write songs that will survive the test of time.” I took them both to heart. Boy, am I glad I did.
BL!: When did you find out that Jasper Johns had used South Atlantic Blues as inspiration for one of his artworks?
SF: I was signed to Screengems Music, and I was in my office there working on my rock opera Soon – which I intended to be my follow up record to South Atlantic Blues – when the phone rang. There was an extremely cheery-voiced fellow at the other end saying that his friend had fallen in love with South Atlantic Blues and had done a lithograph. There was going to be an ‘opening’ and he wanted me to come see. I was working intensely on the ‘grand opus’ and not thrilled that I had been pulled away from my train of thought, but my mother dear had taught me to ALWAYS be polite, and so I was. He wanted to know my address and would be sending me an invitation. As a recording artist, I had already received letters of every kind from people of every sort proposing everything under the sun, so I was wary. I was imagining a store front in the East Village full of psychedelic Day-Glo canvases with chicken bones and watermelon seeds stuck to them. Further, I was concerned that if I showed up, I would be expected to purchase the piece or maybe not be allowed to leave… ever. With that in mind, I invited my writing partner, the great Kookoolis, his wife and my sweetie along for back up. Invitation in hand, we all got in a cab, and set out. Much to our surprise, rather than the Lower East Side, the cab dropped us at the impressive front entrance of the Museum Of Modern Art. We went inside to discover a lithograph of my South Atlantic Blues – now renamed Scott Fagan Record – on the wall, as the centrepiece in a flood of light, surrounded by the most kindly and patrician looking group of people anywhere. It was Jasper Johns, the cheery-voiced Bill Katz, John Cage, Merce Cunningham and what seemed like the whole New York pop art scene. They greeted me as though I were the long lost prodigal son and have been kind to me from that day to this. And all because me dear Mudder dear taught me to be polite.
BL!: I believe you’re working on a cover album of your son Stephin’s songs, is that true? Have you found yourself getting to know him better through studying his songs?
SF: Scott Fagan Sings Stephin Merritt is an interesting idea that I would like to pursue. The boy writes great songs and I would love to sing them. Do I know him better by listening to his songs? That’s a great question… We have met a few times now and spent some time together, and frankly I think I very quickly recognised and came to know him at a level that precedes language. Nothing too metaphysical, just the natural knowing that exists between kindred spirits and birds of a feather.
BL!: Did you ever doubt that your music, in particular South Atlantic Blues, would ever be heard by so many people around the world?
SF: Yes I did, but I never gave up. I was sometimes afraid that South Atlantic Blues, and all the rest of my music, would go unheard. And honestly, I was deeply sad about it. I fully expected to do a South Atlantic Blues tour… but I thought it might be in 1968, 1969? Overall, I am wonderblasted and grateful for this opportunity.
Scott Fagan plays the Philharmonic Music Room on 19th October. South Atlantic Blues is out now.