Today marks what would have been Warren Zevon’s 74th birthday. Zevon died from cancer at the age of 56 on September 7, 2003. Warren was born in Chicago on January 24, 1947. His father, William Zevon, was a bookie for notorious Los Angeles organized crime boss Mickey Cohen and the Zevon family later moved to California where Warren briefly studied under one of the greatest classical composers of the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky. The juxtaposition of gangster culture and classical music is interesting when taken in context with Zevon’s body of work, often characterized by hard-boiled and macabre narratives of the seedy and downtrodden which really pop when delivered in Zevon’s characteristic deadpan wit and buoyed by his skill as a composer.
While attending Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, Zevon formed a group with Violet Santangelo called lyme and cybelle. One day, the pair performed for a group of youngsters that included child actor Michael Burns whose mother worked for White Whale Records. The performance garnered Zevon and Santangelo a contract with the label. The duo had a minor hit with the song, “Follow Me,” in 1966, an early example of psychedelic pop. lyme and cybelle would go on to record Bob Dylan’s “If You Gotta Go, Go Now,” however, the success of the single never materialized when a powerful radio figure, Bill Gavin, claimed the single was sexually suggestive.
But with a bit of success under his belt, Zevon found work as a songwriter. He began by penning tunes for his White Whale labelmates The Turtles, perhaps best known for their hit “Happy Together.” Although he didn’t write that song, Zevon did write the band’s “Like the Seasons” and “Outside Chance.” Zevon’s composition, “She Quit Me,” also found its way onto the soundtrack for the 1969 film, Midnight Cowboy, although it was recorded by Leslie Miller as “He Quit Me.” Warren released his debut album, Wanted Dead Or Alive, in 1969 but received little attention for it.
Zevon cut his teeth as a performer in earnest when he began working for the highly influential duo The Everly Brothers in the early 1970s. Zevon played keyboards and led the Everlys band. He later co-wrote songs for Phil Everly as both brothers explored solo careers. But the work wasn’t particularly lucrative and Zevon moved to Spain in frustration with the music business.
When he returned to Los Angeles, Warren began living with Stevie Nicks and Lindsay Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac and generally began hanging out with the L.A. singer-songwriter crowd where he began to gain recognition among some of its top names. Jackson Browne produced his 1976 self-titled major label debut and Linda Ronstadt popularized a number of his signature songs including “Carmelita,” “Hasten Down the Wind,” “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” and more. In 1978, Warren broke through with the LP Excitable Boy, which contained more Zevon classics like “Lawyers, Guns And Money” and perhaps his most well-known song, “Werewolves Of London,” as well as the title track, “Excitable Boy.”
On April 12, 1980, Zevon kicked off a concert at the Palladium in New York City with the title track to Excitable Boy followed by “Werewolves Of London.” The set also includes the aforementioned “Poor Poor Pitiful Me” and more. Zevon closes the set with “Hasten Down The Wind.”
To celebrate Warren Zevon’s birthday, watch the singer-songwriter perform at New York City’s Palladium in 1980 below for this edition of Sunday Cinema: