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Oil Heir Ned Doheny Should Have Been Famous Decades Ago

Ned Doheny -- August 1972

Photo courtesy of Numero GroupNed Doheny -- August 1972

[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]

Until recently, Ned Doheny never knew he’d been born three decades too early. The now 66-year-old man, who is undoubtedly the funkiest singer-songwriter from Laurel Canyon’s 1970s musical apex, had this epiphany shortly after being anthologized by Chicago restorationists Numero Group.

“I apparently belong to a different generation,” Doheny says, wearing a white dress shirt and a sly smile at a Silver Lake café. “Everything has its own time. Over the last few years, I’m seeing a love shown toward my music that reminds me why we turned ourselves upside down to do good work in the first place.”

His hair has whitened from the shaggy, leonine shock he sported in press photos taken for early records on Asylum and Columbia Records. But his brown eyes retain the mischievous playfulness of the kid whose alacrity on rhythm guitar dazzled friends and collaborators, including Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Glenn Frey and J.D. Souther.

“His grasp of rhythm and harmony is on a footing with the great record-makers of the last 30 years. He sings higher and stronger than just about anybody,” Browne wrote about his longtime friend in Rolling Stone last month. “That widespread recognition has eluded him has more to do with his luck, or the lack of it.”

It might have something to due with the leeriness toward fame that he felt as the heir to the Doheny oil fortune. His great-grandfather was implicated in the Teapot Dome scandal and his grandfather and namesake was slain in an infamous proto-noir double murder in 1929. (Doheny Drive in Beverly Hills? Yep, that’s his family, too.)

Local radio and an acoustic guitar he was given in elementary school triggered his calling. By the time Doheny finished high school, he’d jammed at Peter Tork’s mansion with Jimi Hendrix and a coterie of nude California girls. Shortly after relinquishing a musical scholarship to CalArts, Doheny staked a virtuosic reputation within the burgeoning Canyon scene.

Ned Doheny

Photo courtesy of Numero GroupNed Doheny

A yearlong sabbatical in England followed, where he met The Beatles and wrote a never-released record with Traffic’s Dave Mason and Mama Cass Elliot. After returning home, the “avatar for casual vulgarity” (as Doheny has described himself) linked up with Browne, who steered him to David Geffen and his incipient Asylum Records.

Rolling Stone hailed Doheny’s eponymous debut as “a Southern California Astral Weeks,” but lack of promotion or a hit single sunk sales.

“Most Asylum artists played straightforward acoustic songs in 4/4,” Doheny explains. “But my music has a dotted groove to it, just like hip-hop. I felt estranged until I realized the rich tradition of musicians who felt out of time.”

His 1976 sophomore album, Hard Candy, enlisted Muscle Shoals legend Steve Cropper to produce. Domestic impact was minimal, save for a Boston ban on single “Get It Up for Love,” due to explicit lyrics. However, it gained Doheny a foothold in Japan and England.

“The first time I played [“Get It Up for Love”] at the Troubadour, David Geffen’s head just snapped,” says Doheny, who still lives on a ranch in Simi Valley and likes to surf. “There were certain things you weren’t supposed to say out loud, but I thought it was hysterically funny.”

His final major-label work, 1979’s Prone, was released only overseas, but single “To Prove My Love” eventually became a sampled and chopped acid-house DJ staple.

In any case, the long-delayed payoff is his recently released Separate Oceans, a compilation of singles and previously unheard demos, which exerts a rightful historical revisionism. Doheny’s jazz- and soul-inflected “Marina Pop” achieves buoyancy alongside stylistic kinsmen Steely Dan, Boz Scaggs and Todd Rundgren.

To celebrate, Doheny played a release show last month at Silver Lake’s Virgil. Music supervisors, radio hosts and crate-digging DJ deity J Rocc all came to pay tribute. But for Doheny, the best compliment came from an impressed friend of his 26-year-old son, who after the performance told him: “I’ve waited for this my whole life.”

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