Steve Rowland wondered why I wanted to interview him.
Well, he has an impressive acting résumé from the ’50s and ’60s. He was the frontman for The Family Dogg, and produced albums and songs for Sarah Brightman, Rodriguez and the group Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich. Finally, he discovered Peter Frampton—and today, he calls Palm Springs home.
So that’s why I wanted to interview Steve Rowland.
He was born into an entertainment-business family in Los Angeles. His father was a film director, and his mother was a writer. He found early success as an actor, with credits including Battle of the Bulge, Crime in the Streets, Bonanza and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.
“I left Hollywood in 1963 to go co-star in a film in Spain called Gunfighters of Casa Grande, and four films later, including Battle of the Bulge, I decided I didn’t want to be an actor anymore—I wanted to be a singer,” Rowland said. “While I was in England, I met a guy walking down the street … and I was carrying my demos. He asked me, ‘Are those your demos?’ and I said, ‘Yeah,’ and he said, ‘I tell you what: Will you let me manage you if I can get you a deal?’
“He took me to Fontana Records and introduced me there to a guy named Dick Leahy. Dick Leahy was an assistant to the (A&R head) of Fontana Records, a guy named Jack Baverstock. Jack was a very gruff sort of guy. He never saw anybody, and you had to make an appointment. It was always very quick, and you were out of there. On the day I met him, it was because someone cancelled their appointment. We played the records for Jack Baverstock, and he was impressed, and he wanted to sign me, but he never smiled. The next day is when the home office came and deported me back to Spain.”
A woman (a friend of Baverstock) with whom Rowland had a brief love affair was able to pull some strings, and Baverstock arranged for a work permit for Rowland to be in the U.K. However, Baverstock soon informed Rowland of what at first seemed like bad news.
“He said, ‘We have a problem: You can’t be a singer. Have you ever produced any records?’ I said, ‘Yeah, as I matter of fact, I had a small hit in Los Angeles called “Out Riding” where I played drums and produced the record. I know a bit about it,’” Rowland remembered. “He said, ‘Well, I told them that I’m going to make you a producer. You’re an American; you’re going to produce some records for us to export to the United States.’
“Then he introduced me to a band called Dave Dee and the Bostons, and they had two shit managers. They were brilliant writers, and the first record we did was called ‘Hold Tight!’; 13 hits later, the home office said, ‘OK, you can have a five-year visa to stay.’ Suddenly, I was a producer in England and had my own group and was the lead singer in Family Dogg. It all went from there.”
Rowland eventually stumbled upon Rodriguez and offered to produce his second album, released in 1971, Coming From Reality. Both of Rodriguez’s albums were commercial failures, but would go on to be bootlegged in South Africa. They wound up providing the soundtrack for the country’s anti-apartheid efforts, and Rodriguez finally earned domestic acclaim thanks to the 2012 documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Rodriguez and Rowland instantly clicked, and even though Coming From Reality was a commercial flop, Family Dogg would go on to record six of his songs. How did his songs do with Family Dogg?
“Rave reviews, absolute raves,” he said. “They had thought I had written them, even though it was Rodriguez, and they thought my name was really Rodriguez. My album did pretty well, and I thought, ‘Well, I could sing, but I’m not a great singer—and they’re raving about the songs and they wouldn’t even listen to Rodriguez?’
“Then I lost track of him. It was 2006, and my phone rings. It was a Swedish filmmaker doing a documentary on Rodriguez.”
Rowland said he’s been in talks with Rodriguez to produce his third album, but is uncertain as to whether that will happen.
“I think, out of all the artists I’ve done, he is the best one,” Rowland said. “There are some great artists, but to me, he’s the best. The fact that nobody recognized it, to me, is insane.”
Rowland offered one piece of advice to musicians.
“A lot of (intellectual) artists don’t want to be commercial; they want to be ‘cred.’ I used to fight with artists all the time with that, given they wanted to be ‘cred,’” he said. “The record companies back in that day would say they’d drop (an artist) unless (the artist) came up with a record that charts. If they’re paying for the record themselves, they can do what they want. But if the record company is paying for it, they want to get a return. You have to look at both sides of the coin. I used to try to tell (musicians), ‘Hey, you want some money in your pocket?’ and they’d say ‘Yeah!’ because they’d always have their hand out. I’d tell them they couldn’t do it until they went commercial. … If you’re trying to be cred, and nobody buys it, the only credibility is in your little crowd, and everybody goes, ‘Yeah, that’s good man! Don’t sell out!’ They aren’t buying the records.”
Rowland, 82, is widowed and lives in Palm Springs with a little dog that he said ‘has filled the house with the spirit of my late wife.’ He’s also dealt with injuries from motocross and skiing; he walks with a noticeable limp.
“As a motocrosser, I was average. As a ski racer, I was average. As a go-cart racer, I was average. You can’t do those things unless you make them primary in your life,” Rowland said. “Everything else has to take a backseat, because you have to work at it. These guys who win championships in all these sports, it’s not by accident; it’s by really hard work.”
How did Rowland end up in Palm Springs after 40 years in the U.K.?
“When I was a kid, my parents used to bring me down, and we’d stay at the old La Quinta Inn, and I remembered it. It was such damn cold and awful weather in England, and I thought, ‘I’ll go back to Los Angeles.’ I had a friend here, and I came over, and I thought, ‘I like this, but I know it’s hot in the summer.’ So I left and said, ‘I’ll get a place in Palm Springs.’”