Quick: Who was the first guitar player in The James Gang? If you said Joe Walsh, join me at the back of the class because we were both wrong. In fact, The James Gang wasn’t even Joe Walsh’s band – it was formed in 1966 by drummer Jim Fox. The band predated Walsh by a few years and survives today long after Walsh departed for solo stardom and to later join The Eagles. The answer to the question is Glenn Schwartz, a guitar player of such talent that Cleveland dubbed him ‘the white Hendrix’. This was all news to me so naturally, I had to dig a little deeper into the story of this enigmatic guitarist.
When I was playing in The Twig in high school, one of the events we looked forward to with a great deal of anticipation was the spring school wide talent assembly when the most popular band comprised of Marquette Senior HIgh students got to close the show. Before you think that is just me bragging again, that is exactly how it was put to us by one of our classmates who headed the talent show committee that year. Mike, Gene, and I haggled a bit over what to play in our allotted ten minute closing slot and quickly settled on a big Top Forty tune of the moment (Are you ready? by Pacific Gas & Electric) and one of our favorite Grand Funk Railroad songs (Into the Sun). Even though the name Glenn Schwartz was a total mystery to me when I read about him in a recent Classic Rock magazine article, it turns out I had played his music: Are you ready? was one of the last things PG&E recorded before Schwartz departed the band and headed back to his native Ohio where the his whole musical story began in the first place.
Glenn Schwartz was somewhat of a child prodigy. He picked up guitar at age 11 and won an international guitar playing prize by the age of 14. He and his wife Marlene married when he was only 21, divorced, remarried, and then split for good in 1972. All the while he was playing music to support his wife and two sons. Youngest son Bob says, “Growing up, he was a great dad. He was real friendly and kind of goofy . . . he acted like a big kid himself.” When Glenn took up with The James Gang, their fortunes began to rise and they became the band to see whenever they hit the stage.
Schwartz eventually left The James Gang and caught a ride to Los Angeles with a friend. He arrived with a suitcase and his guitar. It didn’t take long for him to find a band and he cycled through a couple before landing the gig with Pacific Gas & Electric. He wasn’t immune to the excesses of the rock and roll life, but at the same time, he was searching for something deeper. He bounced around several spiritual genres before he happened to stop and listen to street corner preacher Arthur Blissitt on the Sunset Strip . Something in the preacher’s words triggered a ‘born again’ moment in Schwartz that would affect his life and career profoundly from that point on. His bandmates in PG&E began to dread the moments when he would step forward, grab the mike and begin to do a bit of evangelizing during concerts. He wasn’t preaching crazy Biblical doom and gloom, mind you, but it didn’t exactly fit in the confines of what the band was doing. This brief entry from Wikipedia encapsulates what happened next:
“Tired of the rock and roll life, he left PG&E to join a pioneering Gospel rock group The All Saved Freak Band, which was the musical evangelistic arm of an Ohio religious group-turned-cult, the Church of the Risen Christ, headed by Larry Hill. The book FORTNEY ROAD: Life, Death, and Deception in a Christian Cult (2015, Freethought House Publishers) examines the life of Glenn before, during and after he was in Rev. Larry Hill’s cult.”
I found this Wiki entry interesting for what it did not say about Schwartz’s time with Larry Hill’s cult (Schwartz only refers to him now as ‘the preacher man’ or ‘the one legged preacher’). The article I read was based on the same book (FORTNEY ROAD) mentioned above, but it dug a little deeper into Schwartz’s life during his time at Fortney Road. Yes, they did have a band and Glenn Schwartz was their drawing card. The book also mentions that the Freak Band stuck religious stickers all over their clothes and had done the same to Janis Joplin whom they were opening for. She wasn’t happy, ripped them off, and was kind of rude about the whole affair. The Hell’s Angels, on the other hand. liked his frenetic playing, so they were somewhat open to his proselytizing. Had it been just about the music, perhaps Schwartz would be a better known quantity to this day.
Like all cult leaders, Hill used his status to intimidate and terrorize his flock. He derisively called Schwartz ‘Star’ and chided him for putting his talents ahead of his duties. Chores beginning at 4 a.m. and beatings were the norm at Fortney Road. Schwartz’s family could not spend time alone with him and on one occasion when they were allowed to take him off site for a dinner, kidnapped him and paid a cult deprogrammer to bring him back. It didn’t work and Schwartz returned to Fortney Road. He eventually walked away on his own and moved back to his family home. He and his brother began playing music again as the Schwartz Brothers but his family remained on guard for any sign of Larry Hill. They weren’t being too cautious because Hill did surface at a couple of places they played and Schwartz claims he could “feel the doom coming over me when I saw him.” Schwartz continues to play music on occasion. Though he is still a religious and kind man, he remains guarded about his time with the preacher man who damaged his past.
When The Twig performed Are you Ready? we didn’t know anything about Glenn Schwartz. We would play Sunday evening youth services at Messiah Lutheran Church from time to time and in return, the church would let us hold occasional free jam sessions in the basement parish hall for anyone who wanted to wander in. Lyrically, the chorus of Are you Ready? fit right in with what we were involved with helping out Messiah’s youth minister (The chorus goes: Are you ready to sit by His throne? Are you ready not to be alone? Someone’s coming to take you home, And if you’re ready, then He’ll carry you home) and it was a Top Forty hit of the day. It certainly fit in with Glenn Schwartz’s Christian awakening while he was in California. Unfortunately, it was his last hurrah with PG&E before he returned to Ohio and was slowly pulled into the Fortney Road mess. His path generates many “what if?” questions about Glenn Schwartz’s life and career as a guitarist. Freak Band bassist Joe Markko said, “If Glenn had never met Larry Hill, he would have influenced his entire generation.” David Byrne of the Talking Heads went to see Schwartz play after he had left the cult and perhaps his take on it says it all: “Glenn Schwartz may have lost his mind but his fingers are firing on all cylinders .”
The Twig played an energetic version of Are you Ready? at the All School Talent Assembly that consumed about four of our ten allotted minutes. Our second selection (GFR’s Into the Sun) started with a solo guitar riff that added bass and drums while growing in intensity for at least 3 minutes before the vocals even start. Our version usually clocked in just under ten minutes so half way through the middle eight, the program committee girl yelled from behind the stage,”The hour is over, you have to stop!” I smiled back at her and mouthed, “We can’t” while Gene and Mike forged on at the front of the stage. Eventually, they principal rang the bell and started waving those seated near the door back to class. It takes a few minutes to get 2,000 bodies out of a gym so we wrapped up with half the gym still filing out. We fully expected to get a royal chewing out for going over time but we soon found ourselves in an empty gym breaking down our stuff. The program committee girl simply said, “oh that was great!”
I don’t know how other bands handle the adrenalin rush of performing when they don’t do a full show. After a two hour dance or four hour gig, I am pretty well drained. After two energetic songs, we were much too pumped to pack up our stuff and go back to class for the rest of the afternoon so we did the next best thing: gig post mortem over lunch at the Big Boy.
Top Piece Video – Joe Walsh and Glenn Schwartz making music in Nashville in 2016.