Saturday, 2 July 2011

Sweetwater and Nancy Nevins

I have experienced one film Sweetwater based on the true story of the 1960’s band singer Nancy Nevins who followed Ritchie Havens on stage on the opening day of the Woodstock in 1969.

The band reflected the soft peace loving aspect of 1960’s music with the members of the band playing classical instruments such a flute and cello. The group appears with all the major bands of the era including Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Joe Cocker, Santana, the Who, Crosby Stills and Nash, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry, and even Bing Crosby. They were among the first interracial bands to achieve national USA recognition. Tensions arose when the rest of the band expressed concern that they were being regarded as the backing group for Nancy and then disaster struck as Nancy was involved in a serious accident which left her in a coma and with a damaged vocal chord during operation to save her life.

Nansi stage name Nancy Nevins was born in Glendale California and a musical family although her amateur musician violinist father died when she was 18 months. She attended a Roman Catholic Grammar School where she learned to play classical piano but listened to the emerging rock and roll and wanted to be a singer from her childhood. She describes herself as becoming a juvenile delinquent smoking cigarettes, truanting and boyfriends before the age of sixteen years. She did not behave conventionally.

One evening the nucleus of Sweetwater, calling themselves Jay Walker and the Pedestrians was playing at a coffee house near Los Angeles City College at which other musicians and singers were free to join in. Nancy attended with her boyfriend and when the band started to play, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” she grabbed the microphone to sing one of her favourite numbers. She was invited to sing on for the next half an hour and from that Sweetwater with Nancy was created a short time afterwards as Nancy reached her eighteenth birthday. They were an unusual group for the day with a white female singer, a Cuban Conga player, a Jewish drummer, an Italian on Keyboard and a Mexican bass player.

Understandably her mother was unhappy at the a situation where her just eighteen year old daughter was on the road with seven or eight musicians although Nancy recalls that they were protective behaving as older brothers, and in those early days they played on gigs with the Beach Boys and Canned Heat in addition to those already mentioned. In 1969 they played at the Miami festival which drew 50000 and the largest crowd at such an event and then in Los Angeles where the event attracted 250000, with Jimi Hendrix Big Brother and Jefferson Airplane on the bill, an event which is rarely mentioned because of what happened weeks later with Woodstock. The reason they played immediately after acoustic playing Ritchie Havens was that their instruments had been delivered to the site separately and they were able to get to the stage via a helicopter while other bands were caught up in the traffic jam as more and more people attempted to the site. They had no sound engineers and relied on those provided by the organisers.

Their appearance is believed to have contributed to invitation to appear on national television much to the delight of her mother who came to accept her daughter‘s chosen way of life and interests.

That she survived the near fatal vehicle accident was due to the presence of all the Southern Californian Neurologists holding their monthly meeting on the night of her admission. Nancy was in a coma for two weeks and the damage caused by the intravenous tubes on her vocal chords was irreversible. She was given no hope of recovering and also the last rites according to the Catholic Church. She overheard the doctors telling her mother that if she survived she would have permanent brain damage. She had six operations to try and reduce the damage to her vocal chord but aged only 20 years she was discharged from hospital feeling her life was over unable to continue the only things she felt destined to do.

Sweetwater attempted to continue having 18 months of bookings but the public wanted to hear the sound on the records that had been released.

According to the film Nancy refused to accept the situation and gradually regained her ability to sing with her voice having a deeper and richer sound. She made one record which failed and became an alcoholic cutting herself off from family and friends. Eventually she went into treatment about the same time as her mother contracted terminal cancer but in recovery she was reunited with her mother before her death. She disappeared from the music scene graduating with honours, gaining a Masters degree in English and American studies becoming a college English teacher in Orange County.

According to the film a TV journalist whose career had zoomed and fallen because of an addiction problem decided to try and find out what had happened to the band and eventually tracking Nancy after three of the surviving core members who did not know what happened to her. With two of the original members Nancy reformed the group, recorded and performed including the anniversary Woodstock festival, The Band and Nancy established have Internet sites including MySpace and Facebook. I found the story inspiring.

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