Steve Goodman - Biography

By J Poet

Steve Goodman was one of the finest singer/songwriters of the 1970s, although he is probably best known for the songs he wrote for other artists.  “The City of New Orleans” was a hit for Arlo Guthrie and was covered by Johnny Cash, Judy Collins, John Denver, and Willie Nelson; “You Never Even Call Me By My Name,” was a smash country hit for David Allen Coe, even though its lyric poked fun at country music’s excessive sentimentality and “Banana Republics” became a popular Jimmy Buffet tune. After six solid albums at various major and minor labels that didn’t know how to market Goodman’s gently humorous tunes, he started his own label Red Pajamas. Goodman was just beginning to get some national recognition as a performer when he died of leukemia in 1984.

Goodman was born in Chicago in 1948 and started playing guitar in his teens inspired by local folk hero Bob Gibson, Pete Seeger and The Kingston Trio. In high school he delved into the blues, which were all around him in Chicago, as well as folk and country. Discovering Woody Guthrie, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams got him interested in writing his own songs. In the late 60s he moved to New York City’s Greenwich Village to try and make it as a folk singer, but the folk boom had already peaked. He played coffee houses and busked in Washington Square Park, but returned home to Chicago to go to college.

Goodman enrolled in Lake Forest College in 1969 and sang in clubs at night to make ends meet. In 1970 a fellow folk singer got Goodman a job singing for ad agencies that were making radio and TV commercials. He didn’t get rich, but made enough money to marry his girl friend Nancy Pruter. His next big break was opening a show for Kris Kristofferson at a club called the Quiet Knight. Paul Anka saw the show and impressed by Goodman’s songs and vocal style, invited Goodman to New York to cut some demos. He also hooked him up with Buddah records. Goodman’s first album Steve Goodman (1972 Buddha) produced by Kristofferson and Norbert Putnam was almost a greatest hits collection with “The City of New Orleans,” “You Never Even Call Me By My Name,” and “I don’t Know Where I’m Going, but I’m Going There in a Hurry Blues.” Somebody’s Else’s Troubles (1973 Buddha) became a folk smash, although it was not a commercial success.

Goodman became a headliner on the folk and college circuit where he met Arlo Guthrie and convinced him to record “The City of New Orleans.” It became a major hit for Guthrie and led to a deal with David Geffen’s Asylum label, a home to many other singer/songwriters. Jessie’s Jig & Other Favorites (1975 Asylum), one of the first country folk albums, came out just as David Allen Coe made the Country Top Ten with “You Never Even Called Me by My Name.” (The song was allegedly co-written with John Prine, who was so embarrassed by its lyric that he let Goodman take full credit.) Goodman made four more major label albums; Words We Can Dance To (1976 Asylum) which included “Banana Republics,” was a moderate commercial success, Say It in Private (1977 Asylum), which featured cover art that was a parody of the famous Jacques-Louis David painting of the suicide of Marat and featured guest spots by Pete Seeger and Jethro Burns (of Homer and Jethro), High and Outside (1979 Asylum), and Hot Spot (1980 Asylum) a more rock’n’roll effort that may have been the label’s attempt to translate Goodman’s songwriting success into a successful career as a rocker.

In 1980 Goodman moved to Seal Beach, California. Around that time he discovered he had leukemia, but didn’t share that information with his fans. He started his own label Red Pajamas in 1983 and made Artistic Hair (1984 Red Pajamas) which features live recordings of his best known tunes and cover art showing his head bald from the effects of chemo and Affordable Art (1984 Red Pajamas) with the baseball standard “A Dying cub Fans Last Request.” Goodman’s last album, the country flavored Santa Ana Winds (1984 Red Pajamas), was finished just before his death. Unfinished Business (1987 Red Pajamas), his first posthumous collection included Michael Peter Smith’s “The Dutchman,” long a concert favorite and “In Real Life” one of Goodman’s most poignant songs and an R&B hit for Randy Crawford in 1983.

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