They were one of the most successful folk-rock duos of the 1970s. Michael Brewer and Tom Shipley—Brewer & Shipley—are still making music together more than 50 years after they first teamed up. They’ll play a concert here in Springfield (Brewer says it’s the first time they’ve played here in a LONG time) next Saturday April 20 at the Fox Theatre on Park Central Square. In a phone conversation this week, I asked Michael to talk about how he and Tom first got together.
“We both ended up as staff songwriters for A&M Records when it was brand-new label,” he said. “And we didn’t plan to be a duo, but we’d go into the studio and record demos on our songs for the record company to pitch to other artists. It didn’t take long to realize—both ourselves and A&M—that we kind of had our own thing happening. So A&M said, ‘Well, why don’t you guys record your songs?’ So we did. That’s how our first album, ‘Down In L.A.,’ came about, and that’s how we became Brewer & Shipley.” Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the “Down In L.A.” album, but as Brewer says, “We’ve been together 52 years.” And they’re “Still Smokin’,” as this year’s Brewer & Shipley national tour is nicknamed.
The duo’s third album, “Tarkio,” came out in 1970. And it contained what Michael Brewer to this day insists was a fluke… a lark… a novelty number. But it has had long-lasting effects in music and pop culture: “One Toke Over The Line.”
It was a huge hit, peaking at number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in April 1971. I asked Michael if he and Tom Shipley were prepared for that level of success. “I have to say, it came as a big surprise to us, because we hadn’t even planned to record the song! We literally wrote the song just entertaining ourselves and to make our friends laugh. And the first time we performed at Carnegie Hall we were opening for Melanie. And we went over really well, we had a few encores. We basically ran out of songs, so we thought, ‘Well, let’s do that new song.’ We did, and everybody just loved it. The president of the record company we were with came backstage and he said, ‘Aw, you need to record that—you’ve got to add that to the album!’ We were working on an album called ‘Tarkio.’ And so, it kind of took us by surprise. But we recorded it, and then the record company decided to release it as a single. And it went shooting up the charts… and we were in big trouble with the Nixon administration! He took offense; he tried his very best to have our song banned. Well, Randy, you’ve got to remember, this is when Richard Nixon had the FCC threatening radio stations with their licenses if they didn’t censor so-called ‘drug lyrics’ in rock’n’roll. And it was ridiculous, because I mean, that even included ‘Puff the Magic Dragon,’ John Denver’s ‘Rocky Mountain High.’ It was ridiculous. To us it was the equivalent of burning books! But thanks to some brave radio station heads, and people who wanted to hear the song, they played it anyway.” There were stations that refused to play “One Toke Over The Line”… and considering that even with the controversy it still peaked at No.10 in Billboard, Michael Brewer added, “Everybody thinks it probably could have gone to Number One had it not been for the controversy.”
Being placed on President Nixon’s “White House Enemies” list is a badge Michael Brewer and Tom Shipley continue to wear with pride. Now, at the same time the controversy surrounding “One Toke” was peaking, the song was performed on, of all places, the Lawrence Welk TV show. Welk had two of his squeaky-clean vocalists sing it, and Welk actually referred to the song as “a modern-day spiritual.”
I asked Michael Brewer if anyone ever told Welk what the lyrics actually referred to. He laughed and said, “I have no idea! We were in London at the time, so we didn’t see it, and didn’t even believe it. We went, ‘You’ve gotta be kidding—LAWRENCE WELK played it?!’ And he referred to it as a ‘modern-day spiritual.’ Well… it’s ‘gospel’ to us, I’ll put it that way.” Indeed, the song became an anthem of the 1970s counter-culture.
After well over a decade of writing, performing and touring, the two Missouri residents got off the road and pursued various personal interests. Michael Brewer continued to make music with colleagues like Linda Ronstadt and Dan Fogelberg. Tom Shipley became a television producer/director, eventually starting his own video production company, Tarkio Communications, which has produced projects for PBS, commercial television, and industry. Shipley later founded the Oral History of the Ozarks Project, a non-profit organization producing documentaries about life in the Missouri Ozarks.
In 1986, a classic-rock station in Kansas City asked Brewer and Shipley to reunite for a special concert to celebrate the station’s first anniversary.
“Well yeah, we’ve been together ever since then,” said Brewer “Actually, I can’t even say we ‘went our separate ways.’ We’d been on the road forever. You know, we were on the road before we even got together: we both came from the folk (music) circuit. That’s where we met, eventually, was playing coffee houses across the country as solo artists. And then we both ended up in L.A.”—which is where they both worked as A&M Records staff songwriters. “But we didn’t really go our separate ways. We just needed a break, and Tom had other interests he wanted to delve into. Eventually we decided, ‘We need to start doing some shows again,’ and we did. It was really fun, and we’ve been doing it ever since.”
Both Brewer and Shipley live in Missouri, albeit about three hours apart. “So really, about the only time we see each other is when we both show up for a concert.” Asked how many concerts they do each year, Michael said, “Oh, you know, Randy, it totally varies. We don’t tour anything like we used to. that’s why we ended up taking a five-year break, because we were just burnt out. You know, living on the road is awful. We like to have real lives too—we both have wives and kids. And when you’re living on the road, that’s just not a way to live.”
Reflecting on the 50-plus-year history of Brewer & Shipley, a history they share with numerous veteran rock acts (the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, said Brewer, has been together as long as he and Tom Shipley have), I wondered aloud if any rock acts, including Brewer & Shipley themselves, ever thought they’d still be at it half a century later. Michael Brewer chuckled at the thought. “I don’t think it ever even enters anybody’s mind! You’re just doing what you’re doing at the time, and sometimes it just keeps on going.” But he promised, “We’re gonna keep doing it until somebody makes us stop! We’ve been together for so long, and we’ve got a whole lot of albums, and we have a lot of fans. And we like making the fans happy. There’s nothing like the smiling faces on the fans. That’s the main reason we do it.”
So what can fans expect to hear from Brewer and Shipley when they play the Fox Theatre in Springfield on April 20? “We just kinda start at the beginning and go to the end,” said Brewer. “We’ll do everything we think we can remember! You know, that’s pretty much it. Tell stories—people like stories, because we’ve got a lot of stories to tell after being together 52 years. And fortunately, they like the songs.”
He said he and Shipley are often surprised by the younger fans who attend their concerts. “We have young people coming to our shows too, coming with LPs—I don’t even know where they got ‘em! eBay, maybe, or used record stores. And it’s not just ‘One Toke Over The Line.’ It’s not even one of their favorites, which makes me happy. They’re actually knowledgeable about our whole catalog. You know, there’s a whole lot more to Brewer & Shipley music than ‘One Toke Over The Line.’ To us, that was just kind of a novelty song.” I reminded Michael that sometimes the novelty numbers end up becoming the biggest hits. “Yeah, I know it. Well, who would have guessed that, after all these years, that thing would still be played all over the world in movies, on TV. It’s in books. The phrase itself has literally become part of the vernacular. Here’s a perfect example: a few years ago, when the new Pope was getting ready to move into the Vatican, the old Pope was going to remain living in the Vatican. Stephen Colbert did a thing one night—he said, ‘Folks, for the first time in 700 years we’re going to have two Popes in the Vatican. Does that mean we’re one Pope over the line, sweet Jesus, one Pope over the line?”
Michael Brewer says he and Tom Shipley are excited to play a concert in the historic Fox Theatre. “You know, it closed for a long time, and then I think it was a church, and then it re-opened. It’s a great old theater. And we haven’t played in Springfield in decades, I swear! So we’re looking forward to it.”
The Brewer & Shipley concert, produced by Fernando’s Productions with opening act 83 Skidoo, is Saturday April 20 at 7:00pm at the Fox Theatre in the History Museum, 157 Park Central Square. General admission is $20. For information call the History Museum at (417) 831-1976, or purchase tickest online at 417tix.com.