Jimmie’s Dragon Still Dances

Originally posted February 21, 2007

If you own a Jimmie Spheeris CD, you’re in a very exclusive club.

Actually, if you own any recordings by Jimmie Spheeris – vinyl, cassette or CD – you’re in a pretty exclusive club. Spheeris is one of those performers from the late 1960s and early 1970s who didn’t sell a lot of records but whose listeners were certain that his recordings were bound to last forever. I hesitate to say the Jimmie lovers reached a cult-like status, but I think it’s fair to say that although Spheeris might not have reached a lot of people with his music, he connected on a very deep level with those he did reach.

How obscure is he? Well, I’d guess I’m very well acquainted with the world of pop and rock from the years 1966 through 1975, and I’d never heard of him, at least not until I was rummaging through the used records at a south Minneapolis music store in 1999. I came across The Original Tap Dancing Kid, with a photo of Spheeris on the front cover that made the record just scream “California post-hippie singer-songwriter vibe inside!”

That vibe happens to be one of my larger weaknesses, so I grabbed the record for $2.95, went home and found my judgment to be correct: California post-hippie singer-songwriter! But I liked it, so I logged it and put it in the stacks. Over the next few years, I gathered in three other Spheeris LPs: Isle of View, The Dragon Is Dancing and Ports Of The Heart. I liked them all, but I listen to a lot of obscure music, so I didn’t think about Jimmie Spheeris too often.

Lots of people do. One of the things the Internet has done, of course, is make it possible for people to connect with like-minded people all over the world. Sometimes, that’s not a good thing, as we occasionally hear and read about in the news. Most of the time, it’s pretty cool. And for followers of Jimmie Spheeris, I gather it’s way way cool. As have other groups, the Jimmies, as I shall call them – and I’m not making fun of them in any way, just observing; after all, I happen to be a Phillipian, one of the followers of Shawn Phillips – the Jimmies found each other in chat rooms and on websites, most importantly on the very impressive fan website devoted to Jimmie and his works at http://www.jimmiespheeris.com/

Spheeris – born Nov. 5, 1949 – released his first album, Isle of View, on Columbia in 1971. All-Music Guide makes the judgment I was reluctant to make, noting that the record “made him the subject of a rabid cult following.” His 1973 release of The Original Tap Dancing Kid boosted his fan base. He released The Dragon Is Dancing in 1975 and Ports Of The Heart in 1976. And that was it for a long time. Finally, in 1984, Spheeris went back into the studio and recorded an album known simply as Spheeris. Sadly, he was killed by a dunk driver on July 4, 1984, just hours after finishing work on the record.

Fan demand – made more intense, I surmise, by their gathering on the ’Net – persuaded Sony to authorize CD releases of Spheeris’ works, with his four albums of the 1970s joined by Spheeris from 1984 and a live recording of a 1976 concert in Willimantic, Connecticut.  Isle of View was released on the Rain label in 1997, which also released The Dragon Is Dancing in 1998, An Evening With Jimmie Spheeris (the live album) in 1999, and The Original Tap Dancing Kid, Ports Of The Heart and Spheeris in 2000. Just as suddenly, however, Sony withdrew its permission, and the CDs went out of print.

The CDs are prime collectors items, with Isle Of View being listed by more than one merchant at the music clearinghouse, www.gemm.com, for more than $300. The others are listed there at prices that range from just more than $20 to more than $75. The prices quoted at Amazon run in about the same range.

If our culture measures the intrinsic value of things by the prices we put on them, then Spheeris’ music is considered extraordinary stuff. There’s no doubt that it’s good, both musically and lyrically. His four albums from the 1970s are pleasures (I have no way to judge 1984’s Spheeris or the live recording). Would I pay even $30 for one of his CDs? Probably not, but then I might do that – likely will sometime soon – for a Shawn Phillips CD. It all goes back to finding the music that moves you and figuring out what its value is. And the fans of Spheeris have spoken loudly.

Actually, Shawn Phillips is not a bad comparison. As I ripped The Dragon Is Dancing this morning, there were moments when Spheeris’ work seemed of a piece with Phillips’ – odd misty melodies topped with poetic and sometimes cryptic lyrics adding up to a lush romanticism that one almost never hears anymore.

I selected The Dragon Is Dancing almost at random from the four LPs. It’s got a few more pops and cracks than the vinyl I normally post here, but it’s listenable enough to at least give you a taste of Jimmie Spheeris’ music.

A note: At those places where one track led directly into the next with no silence, I combined those tracks. As a result, an album that has twelve songs listed ends up having only seven tracks.

Jimmie Spheeris – The Dragon Is Dancing [1975]


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