On January 19, 2013 songwriters lost a good friend. Affectionately dubbed “the Songwriters Best Friend”, John Braheny passed away at his home in the Los Angeles area, after an off and on battle with battle with prostate cancer spanning over 12 years. He was 74. After over 40 years of mentoring, coaching and consulting songwriters throughout North America, and releasing what most consider ‘the’ classic songwriting book , John left a big mark on song smiths of every skill level. This is part one of a three-part chronicle of his life, his loves and a few of his many accomplishments. He was a troubadour, a songwriter, an author, a teacher, a loving husband, father and grandfather. He was an ambassador for the songwriting community. He was active in many music industry and songwriter organizations. This writer owes a huge debt of gratitude to John’s wonderful wife, JoAnn Braheny, for her hours of reflective conversation in the writing of this article.
The Early Years …
Born in 1938 in Mason City, Iowa, John Braheny spent most of his childhood in nearby Sioux City, Iowa. He grew up in a close-knit family with a sister, Mary Braheny Alvich, and two brothers, Dan and Kevin Braheny Fortune. Although Mom and Dad (Cecilia and William) were not musical, they encouraged the children when they showed interest. As a boy, John’s mother asked him what he thought was the prettiest instrument. Following his reply, she bought him a violin and a lesson package. Like a duck to water, John embraced his newborn passion and participated eagerly in school music programs until he graduated from Bishop Heelan High School, a parochial school in Sioux City.
John played football for a season or two and unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) suffered a minor injury to his hand. Learning of this event, his violin instructor gave him a choice; football or violin. The football was placed carefully on the shelf and his career in music took flight.
According to his wife, JoAnn, “John always said that he noticed later in his youth that the girls were not chasing the violin players”. John’s astute observance prompted him to include a Sears acoustic guitar to his musical interest collection. Later he began tinkering with songwriting.
John attended Morningside College and soon left his home in Sioux City to pursue his masters at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He studied English, Drama and Psychology. John often quipped, “drama and psychology certainly prepared me for working with people in the music industry”. Between terms, John hitch-hiked, guitar in tow, from town to town playing his growing catalog of folk and blues tunes to coffee shop audiences across the US and Canada.
It was in Vancouver, BC, at one of his coffee-house gigs, that he received a surprise $200 check from his mother. She wrote him that the money was from a Los Angeles based publishing company for a song he had written. According to JoAnn, John said at the time “if they liked that one, they will certainly like these others”. This inspired his permanent move to the LA area. There he soon discovered that the $200 check he had cashed meant that he had much to learn about the business of songwriting. This certainly stimulated John to work toward “better business practices” to protect songwriters.
Some Kind of Change
John’s first and only solo album, released in 1970 titled “Some Kind of Change” with a single of the same title achieved moderate success. John’s passion for songwriting was rewarded most when his tune “December Dream” was recorded by Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Ponies. Fred Neil (best known for writing the Harry Nilsson hit “Everybody’s Talking at Me”) also recorded the song, however proper author credit was not noted on the album. John promptly contacted Fred Neils publisher, ironically also his own publisher, and was able to straighten things out.
The Los Angeles Songwriters Showcase
John was born to teach and during the 70’s decade, these natural gifts began to surface. With a developing passion to serve the songwriter community, John co-founded the Los Angeles Songwriters Showcase (LASS) with friend Len Chandler in 1971. LASS was the first weekly showcase for songwriters and writer/performers in the Los Angeles area. The organization became tremendously successful on a national scale. During the early years of the organization, John and Len provided exposure and encouragement to an impressive list of soon-to-be-successful new writers and artists. Warren Zevon, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, Stephen Bishop, Karla Bonoff, Jules Shear, Wendy Waldman, Steve Seskin, just to name a few. John and JoAnn saved over 500 cassette recordings of interviews and performances throughout the years. Plans are, through the Braheny Legacy Archives Project (link?), to convert a portion of the recordings to digital for archiving and easy retrieval. The live showcases evolved into an international membership organization. Members world-wide could submit songs on tape for the weekly ‘cassette roulette’ and ‘pitch-a-thon’ sessions.
According to JoAnn, “So many writers would get off the greyhound bus in LA and ask ‘now what do I do’, and soon discover ‘you need to go to the Songwriters Showcase’”.
“They (LASS) were instrumental in educating songwriters to what their possibilities were”, recalls JoAnn.“What John and Len did with the Songwriters Showcase that was different is, they felt that sharing information was a good thing. Where I ‘grew up’ (in the industry) if you had the book, you kept it a secret, not give it to the competition. You wanted to have the edge”.
John and Len helped to shape one of the most successful and prolific songwriters in pop history. When the father of Diane Warren approached the pair about his 15 year old daughter’s apparent songwriting talents, John and Len happily took the girl under their wing. Over the next few years, the two mentored the teenage Diane and critiqued over 150 songs that this prodigy had created.
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