James Griffin: A Slice of Bread

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Bread_1971
James Griffin is third from left in this 1971 publicity photo of Bread, with bandmates David Gates, Robb Royer and Mike Botts (from left).

As singer, guitarist, and composer for Bread over the past four years, James Griffin collected a pile of gold platters in less time than it takes some artists to break into the top 100. For his co-writing of the Carpenters’ “For All We Know” (used as the film theme of Lovers and Other Strangers}, he won an Academy Award in 1970. Today, with Bread disbanded, he’s shooting for recognition as a solo artist.

Now 30, Griffin has been professionally involved with music since 1962, when he began recording his own albums, as well as composing and producing for other artists. With songwriter Robb Royer, he cofounded Bread in November 1969. (David Gates, who had previously been arranging for both of them, joined the group immediately. Later, Mike Botts would make it a foursome and Royer would leave, with Larry Knechtel taking his place.)

Working with Bread initially satisfied Griffin. Not only was the group producing big hits, but “there was an awful lot of musical expression and mutual admiration, which kind of drives each musician to greater heights. We. just. played off of each other for the first couple of albums.”

But, from Griffin’s point of view, the good feeling began to sour with the release of “Make It With You.” One of the band’s most dreamily romantic lyrical excursions, that song featured an extremely catchy melody and was a sure-fire hit. “It wasn’t quite our bag,” says Griffin, “but it took off, which kind of locked us into that style.

“Then the group started to take on a definite trend and no one wanted to break it—except me. It was a trend toward lack of variety, in singles especially. A trend towards keeping the hit bag going.

“We tried to deviate a few times, like with ‘Mother Freedom.’ But the stations in the Drake chain didn’t play it. People just wouldn’t let us change; we got caught in a sameness trip, which I don’t believe in. I just can’t live with that.

“And also, I didn’t have enough expression with Bread. I had all the ‘B’ sides of the singles. And it was supposed to be more of an equal trip writing-wise, because we were in it to expose our own material.”

Last year, while Bread was planning a new single. the conflicts came to the fore. Griffin says he’d been promised the “A” side of the record and had come up with a song called “Love You Till the Cows Come Home.” David Gates, however, had just written “Clouds,” and thought his song should be the group’s next 45.

Griffin liked “Clouds” himself (“I think it’s one of the best things David’s ever written”), but he was becoming increasingly unhappy with his back-seat role and with the group’s static style. “I felt my song represented a good direction change for the group. People would either love it or hate it. You know, we might not get Bread fans, but we might pick up other people.” Gates disagreed and, recalls Griffin: “Everybody felt the tension. The decision was mutual: let’s quit while we’re ahead.”

Happy to be working solo again, Griffin says he’s following the musical avenues that were closed to him as a member of Bread. His first album for Polydor, Breakin’ Up Is Easy, rocks harder and presents more diverse musical fare than did any Bread LP. “I do everything but opera,” Griffin explains. “I want to try out a lot of things. My next album, I hope to do all rock. Call it Hard as a Roll, and just do rock and roll. That’s something Bread wouldn’t have done.”

Besides favoring a softer sound than he does, notes Griffin, the other ex-members of Bread generally don’t share his enthusiasm for touring. “I personally love it,” he says. “1 hope to be on the road doing concerts by early this summer. It’s an immediate gratification trip as opposed to recording, when you wait three months to get some kind of reaction. In concert, you do something good and the audience will respond,”

Despite the preference for touring, Griffin is also excited about the new album, partly because in making it he was allowed full artistic control. For backup, he chose some of his friends: rhythm players Russ Kunkel and Lee Sklar from the Section, saxophonist Curtis Amy, flutist Jim Horn, and ex-Breadmen Mike Botts (drums) and Larry Knechtel (keyboards). Mike Iseberg, playing synthesizer and mellotron, is the album’s one-man orchestra, and Steely Dan’s Jeff Baxter contributes guitar work on several cuts.

The tunes, by Griffin and Robb Royer, include the intended Bread single “Love You Till the Cows Come Home,” the country-style “Someday,” and the funky rocker “Father and Son,” which incorporates a ballad-like bridge.

“Breakin’ Up Is Easy,” the title cut and Griffin’s new single, is by Robb Royer. “He started writing it three or four years ago,” Griffin recalls, “but he had never finished. I had told him that I would do that song one day and, when the group broke up, I got him to finish it.

“I always thought ‘Breakin ‘ Up Is Easy’ was a classic song, a situation that everybody can relate to. And it seemed apropos to the time. It seemed to be a good title for the album. It really was what I was saying.”

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