Terry Dolan’s Redemption Song

After more than four decades, the Marin singer-songwriter's lost album has finally been released, thanks to a friend who never gave up.

“Hey listen to this! They’re playing your theme song!” Greg Douglass yelled to Terry Dolan at a house party in Mill Valley around 1975. Blasting through the speakers was the Doctor Hook & the Medicine Show song “Everybody’s Makin’ It Big but Me,” a tongue-in-cheek track that carried a little too much truth this time.

“It didn’t go over real well, but that’s the way we were,” says Douglass, who one of Dolan’s best friends and who also played for acts like the Steve Miller Band and Hot Tuna. “Believe me, Terry could give it as well as take it.”

That song was just one of many reminders that, quite literally, all of Dolan’s musician friends had made it big but him. Had things transpired a little differently, the 27-year-old Dolan could have been the most successful of the bunch, but unfortunately, a single decision made by an unknown Warner Bros. executive at the tail end of 1972 changed his life forever.

On the heels of his local radio hit “Inlaws and Outlaws,” Dolan signed with Warner Bros. and completed Terry Dolan, his major-label debut. He worked with English producers Nicky Hopkins (the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Beatles) and Pete Sears (Jefferson Starship, Rod Stewart) at the famed Wally Heider Studios on Hyde Street, the birthplace of some of the biggest albums in rock, like Credence Clearwater Revival’s Cosmo’s Factory and Green River, Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu. The session players for Dolan’s album included a 15-year-old Neal Schon (who would later go on to play with Journey and Santana), Lonnie Turner (the Steve Miller Band, Eddie Money), John Cipollina (Quicksilver Messenger Service), Prairie Prince (the Tubes, Journey), the Pointer Sisters, Douglass, and more.

Terry Dolan and Greg DouglassTerry Dolan and Greg Douglass

 

 

They created an eight-song record filled with thrilling guitar solos, piano ballads, and heartfelt lyrics that perfectly encapsulated the ragged, amplified folk-rock sound of ’70s Marin County, where Dolan lived alongside Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Van Morrison. The album vacillates among heartfelt ballads, like “Angie,” named after Dolan’s soon-to-be wife; Western rockers, like “See What Your Love Can Do;” and Joe Cocker-esque piano ditties, like “Burgundy Blues.”

After the album was mastered, the cover art completed, and the liner notes finished, Dolan and his girlfriend, Angie, took a vacation to the East Coast to visit family. When they returned in early 1973, Dolan called Warner Bros. to check in on the record. A Warner Bros. executive on the phone responded, “Oh, don’t you know? We dropped you and shelved the album.”

“It had to have been heartbreaking for him, to be so close and having the rug pulled out at the last moment,” Sears, the album’s producer, explains.

As Dolan grappled with the news and slipped into a deep depression, his collaborators were forced to move onto his or her respective projects. One by one, they became incredibly successful.

“He could just see things unraveling,” says Angie Tuscana Dolan, Terry’s former wife. “The longer things dragged on, the more difficult it was for Terry to book gigs because people were off doing other things. It was really frustrating for Terry.”

Worst of all, Warner Bros. never gave Dolan a reason for why the album was canceled. Everyone I spoke with — none of whom worked at Warner Bros., which didn’t respond to my inquiries — has their own hypotheses, such as the label running low on advance money, an overall lack of energy toward the finish line, a changing mainstream sound, or the abrupt departure of big-name producer Nicky Hopkins, who had produced Dolan’s demos. But at the end of the day, none of the players, especially Dolan, ever got closure.

About a year later, Dolan formed Terry & the Pirates, but he never truly recovered from the incident with Warner Bros. He kept writing music, but the gigs became fewer and farther between as his bandmates moved on. Angie filed for divorce in 1988 after 20 years together. Their relationship was strong, weathering depression and career changes, but as Terry drifted into drug addiction, Angie and their two kids, Jessie and Jamie, had to get out.

“When the cocaine took over, then it started going downhill,” she says of the habit that Dolan picked up about five years after the album’s cancellation. “During that period of time, it was so rampant. It was so accepted in society; everyone was doing it.”

Terry started dealing cocaine because his source was a close friend, according to Angie and others who knew him, and the money was so good that it was nearly impossible for him to stop. Since he only sold to his friends who would constantly stop by and socialize, he eventually became addicted himself, spiraling downhill into what became a vicious cycle of selling and using.

As time progressed, Dolan’s health — both physical and mental — started to wane. He kept writing music though, releasing a handful of records with the Pirates throughout the ’80s and early ’90s. But as friend and guitarist Douglass explains, “There was a very dark side of Terry, and as a close friend of his, I got to know it. His father died of a heart attack when he was 50, and Terry, on some level, thought that the same thing was destined to happen to him. He kind of lived his life that way, like ‘Fuck it, I’m going to go out and be crazy, because I’m going to die at 50.’ Well, 50 rolled around and he was still with us, but I know, at some point, he gave up.”

Terry Dolan died of heart failure at the age of 68 on Jan. 15, 2012. But if you think the story ends there, you are sorely mistaken.

Almost 30 years before Dolan’s death, a music obsessed 20-something named Mike Somavilla from Arlington, Virginia, entered the picture. In 1983, he caught Quicksilver Messenger Service’s John Cipollina in concert at a now-defunct Washington, D.C., venue called the Wax Museum. After the show, Somavilla asked Cipollina about his favorite musician, Terry Dolan.

“‘I’m trying to find out information for Terry & the Pirates,'” Somavilla remembers asking Cipollina. ” ‘Can you help me out? Is there any way I can talk to a manager, agent, or anybody?’ ”

Cipollina — whose famous Fender amplifiers and custom bat guitar are now enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — responded by writing down a phone number and an address with no name. When Somavilla called it the next day, a voice on the other end picked up and said, “This is Terry Dolan. What can I do for you?”

Terry Dolan (left), Mike Somavilla, and John CipollinaTerry Dolan (left), Mike Somavilla, and John Cipollina

 

 

Somavilla asked to start a fan club for Dolan, and the two began trading records through the mail. They became good friends, and after work one fateful day in August 1987, 10 days before his 30th birthday, Somavilla packed up all of his belongings and moved to San Francisco on a whim.

Dolan and Somavilla, who was 14 years his junior, became inseparable. Somavilla helped secure record releases for Dolan via obscure European labels, while Dolan provided him a gateway into the music industry. For Somavilla’s first birthday in the Bay Area, Dolan gave him the ultimate gift: the original test pressings of the lost Warner Bros. album, almost 15 years after the release was canceled.

“I was in total awe and in shock,” Somavilla says. “I couldn’t believe I was getting one of these things. It was the holy grail of the San Francisco music scene!”

Two years later, Somavilla surprised Dolan by contacting Warner Bros. in the hopes of getting the rights back. They ignored him, but he couldn’t let that be the last answer.

In 1991, he tried again. This time, he got a response. “No, Mr. Somavilla, you read the contract wrong. This belongs to us in perpetuity,” he was told by a Warner Bros. executive. More time passed and in 2002, Somavilla called the label once more and got a more encouraging answer. According to the label, if he could commit to 3,000 record sales over a three-year period, pay X amount of money, and jump through many different hoops, they could release Terry Dolan, now 30 years after it was recorded. Unfortunately, this coincided with the collapse of the tech bubble, and the financier that Somavilla had found for the project had to pull out.

Just before Dolan died in 2012, Somavilla was finalizing the album’s release. In 2011, he met George Wallace, the head of High Moon Records, a label that specializes in re-releasing underappreciated and lost albums from decades ago. Somavilla played him the original test pressing, and Wallace loved the record so much he agreed to release it.

Forty-four years after it was recorded and 27 years after Somavilla first contacted Warner Bros., Terry Dolan, unchanged from its final test pressings, finally saw the light of day. On Friday, Nov. 25, the album was released, complete with demos and a massive booklet featuring pictures and letters from many of the musicians themselves.

Especially in the wake of Dolan’s passing, the release is bittersweet for everyone involved. Many of the album’s key characters — guitarist Cipollina, producer Nicky Hopkins, and bassist Lonnie Turner — have also died, leaving painful memories for those still around.

“I’ll be honest, I’ve listened to it twice [since it was recorded],” Douglass says. “It brings back a lot of stuff. There was so much fun and so much joy, and now Terry’s gone under such sad circumstances and John [Cipollina]’s gone way too prematurely. But I’m glad for Terry.”

Producer Pete Sears feels similarly. “I thought it represented a time capsule, a period of the Marin County music scene of the early ’70s,” he says. “When you think of the San Francisco Bay Area’s music scene, you think of Haight Ashbury and that area between ’67 and the early ’70s. But a lot of the major acts were all living in Marin County: Mill Valley, Larkspur, and Fairfax. Terry was a strong part of that scene. He’s not a failure for not getting in the big leagues.”

Angie, Terry’s widow, is overjoyed. “It’s meant so much to me because I still remember how excited we were when we were young and felt like the world was at our feet, thinking that all the hard work Terry put in would pay off,” she reminisces. “When [Somavilla] said he was talking to George Wallace about the Warner Bros. album, I wanted to be excited, but I also didn’t want to be disappointed and relive that. Just the fact that it’s been brought from the vaults, I’m thrilled. I can’t even believe it!”

It’s been a long road, but Dolan’s redemption is finally here in the form of an actual, physical copy of the album. And though he died almost five years ago, the release of Terry Dolan is still cause for celebration.

“He’s looking down going, ‘Cipollina, look what Mike did for us!’ ” Somavilla says. “I can’t stop smiling.”

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