My uncle Sterling was the lead singer, the lead guitarist, and the main songwriter in a traveling band, and that shaped my earliest memories of him.
I remember he put himself and his wife through college playing venues up and down the West Coast from Seattle to Bakersfield.
He was a contemporary of, and shared influences with, Linda Ronstadt, the Eagles, Loggins and Messina, among others. I always noted a bit of Elvis in his voice and demeanor. Sterling was a big guy with a big presence, everywhere he went. His presence demanded attention.
I saw his band perform only once at the Village Inn in St. Helens, Oregon. They played covers and originals, getting an enthusiastic response from the patrons that eagerly got up to dance. They were impressively talented, dubbing themselves "The Sterling Generation."
Though I am not of his generation, trailing him by 15 years, I aspire to reach the age of 75, like he did. And, I hope to still be playing songs on the guitar he inspired me to purchase and learn.
I know that my mother did not approve of his influence on me. Who wants their son to grow up dreaming of becoming an artist? Maybe those same kinds of influences are what kept Sterling from pursuing stardom. He chose to be a working songwriter on the payroll of leading publishing companies in Nashville.
Many times I have modeled my uncle's courage and confidence in my own life. I took off one summer to sell books door-to-door in Minnesota much to the greatest displeasure of my mother.
I abandoned college to serve in the Air Force. Sterling told me later that military service was not a tradition in our family since his uncle Floyd had returned from WWI, shell-shocked and suffering from what we would call PTSD today. He told me how my grandfather was prepared to do almost anything to keep my father from being drafted for the Korean War and keep him from going to Vietnam. Such was the impact my great-uncle's troubles had on my family's view of military service.
I have a great uncle on the other side of the family who also served in the Air Corps in WWII. He came back a damaged man. Despite these stories, in many ways, I've followed my uncle's path, and my passions.
I remember in 1970, when Sterling took his big leap of faith and moved to Nashville. He was armed with over 100 demo songs. Regrettably, none of them were ever recorded. But some of his original lyrics and melodies are indelibly engraved upon my heart, mind and soul.
In Nashville, he continued to play in bars to survive. He even sold instruments in music stores to make ends meet, admitting that he at times had to sell his own guitars to eat.
Periodically, Sterling would send me a cassette tape filled with his best demo songs. I played those cassettes until they wore out, and unfortunately, they are now lost forever.
Periodically, Sterling would come back to Oregon. On one of his visits, when I was around 15, he handed me a yellow legal pad and a pen, advising, 'You'll be a man soon... A man needs to have a plan, a five-year plan is a good start. Make a plan and work towards it. It's okay if it changes over time. The important thing is to always have a plan, son." He had started calling everyone "son" as he picked up on the southern way of speaking.
Sterling wrote his songs on yellow legal pads. I write my plans on them. You can find the note takers all over my house. A simple legacy to a true influencer.
Five years after his move to Nashville, in the dive bars, on his couch and on the couches of fellow songwriters, Sterling sharpened himself into a songwriting sensation, writing hit after hit for roughly 30 years.
I remember some of these songs playing on our local radio station in St. Helens, KOHI (1600 AM), 29 miles north of Portland, on U.S. Route 30.
Here are a few I could find.
The Blind Man in the Bleachers | Ain't No California | Thunderstorms | The Silver Ghost | Then You'll Remember | Forever Lovers | In Some Room Above The Street | Silence on the Line | The Heart That Time Forgot | Those You Lose | Nothing To Do But Just Lie | Better Me | Low Class Reunion | The Calico Cat | Love Is A Two Way Street | I'll Be Coming Back For More | Don't Let Our Dreams Die Young | Cheap Perfume and Candlelight | Night Flying | Don't You Want To Be A Lover Tonight | Dirty Work | Lightning Strikes A Good Man | Prisoner of Hope | Gimme Little Night Time | That Old Cold Shoulder | Freckles | Now You See 'Em Now You Don't | Show Me A Man | Makin' Love Don't Always Make Love Grow | EXIT 59 | Third Rock From The Son
Sterling drew inspiration from diverse sources. He wrote songs based on Reader's Digest stories he had read, like "Forever Lovers," which was later recorded by Mac Davis. Forever Lovers
Mac Davis later asked him to write an edgier song and Sterling wrote "Dirty Work." Mac rejected the song as it was too edgy. Nonetheless, Sterling's publishing company, without consulting him, put out his demo as a single and he rode the charts to number one singing his own song. He told me he was not proud of that song. He didn't think it was an appropriate song for a "Mormon" singer-songwriter to be recognized for.
"The Last Game of the Season" was inspired by a sermon he once heard in church. David Geddes recorded it, but we always preferred Kenny Starr's rendition titled The Blind Man in the Bleachers. It's a tearjerker and highlights my uncle's love of sports. Sterling was a star basketball player in highschool and was almost drafted as baseball pitcher.
I remember when he would come visit, he and my dad would have a catch out front of the house. Sports were big in our family, at least until we went off to find our way in the world.
Sterling's creative spectrum was broad; he wrote songs about his family members too.
One song, "In Some Room Above The Street," was about my father and the old tire shop he owned, complete with the apartment above it where he lived after he divorced my mother. In Some Room Above The Street.
Another song centered around my sister's disdain for her freckles; it was so compelling that the Oak Ridge Boys would receive a standing ovation each time they performed it. Freckles
Some of his most poignant songs were about himself. "The Heart That Time Forgot" still brings a tear to my eyes, as I know the personal story and of his pain that fueled it. The Heart That Time Forgot.
Sterling also wrote songs about cowboys. Notably, the most authentic rodeo star, Chris LeDoux, sang one of my favorites, "Silence on The Line." Silence on The Line.
Beyond being a songwriter, Sterling was a gifted guitar player. I spent hours trying to figure out some of his chord progressions, riffs and licks. He was often asked to play guitar for other artists in the Nashville studios, but he always refused, saying he could never play anything the same way twice. Such was his fluidity and comfort with the guitar.
Others found him to be a captivating performer. I wish I could have attended one of the songwriters' showcases at the homes of prominent music industry figures where he was often invited to play his new stuff.
Sterling once mentioned he had written over a thousand songs. We can only wish they are not lost forever. How I would love get my hands on those demos.
Later in life, Sterling abandoned music. He said the music industry had become corrupt. He told me stories how famous artists would pitch recording his songs, but required half the song-writing credit. When Sterling refused, they would come out with a similar but difficult to prove song based upon Sterling's work. I can name one of the songs and the artist, but what good would it do, here.
So, Sterling became an investigator for child family services for the State of Tennessee. He saved many children from abusive situations and won awards. He once told me that this was the most rewarding and significant thing he had ever done with his life. He had control over it. He would do the investigation, write up his findings and judges would save children and put abusers behind bars. It was very different he said than pulling hit songs out of thin air, and minding the dark processes his muses required of him.
This drastic career change, based on moral and ethical convictions he developed over years, has informed several of my key decisions in life. I've passed on his stories to my sons. I firmly believe we all need to hear about people who made hard decisions based on principle and passion.
A few years ago I flew my dad out to Florida from Oregon for a visit. During his stay with my family, I got a chance to attend a real estate conference up in Nashville. I drove my dad up to see his little brother for the first time in many, many years. Each day, I would drop him off in the morning, and attend the conference, and they would sit and talk and watch baseball. In the evening I would spend an hour or two with them. Nancy, Sterling's wife said it was amazing and so good. I could see and feel the brotherly loved shared by those two old men.
Later my dad admitted to me that they had rarely spoken over the years but now after visiting in person they were speaking by phone almost every day. I'm sure there were many potential hit songs reflected in those conversations.
Dad mentioned to my son how important the visit had been and how appreciative he was that I had orchestrated it.
I'm sure Sterling had no idea how much influence he had and still has on me. My dad always said to be careful about what you say to people, as you can never know how it really affects them.
If Sterling were here before me, right now, I would tell him how he inspired me in so many ways and not just through his music.
In my next five-year plan, I've included learning a few more of his songs, among other activities. I'm sure if he were so inclined, he could have written a hit song or two about my activities. Maybe he did and I just don't recognize them. Such was the universal nature of his craft. Such was his talent as a songwriter.
Even now, I continue to play and sing one of Sterling's earliest songs, "The Day Past Tomorrow." This song was one of the reel-to-reel demo tapes he carried with him to Nashville. The image of him playing and singing this song in our living room, before his departure to chase his dreams, remains vivid and precious in my mind. I believe this is the most fitting tribute to his memory that I can offer. I am 99.9% sure that all recordings of him singing it have been lost or destroyed. This song is but one example of the beauty and wisdom he shared through his songwriting - pure poetry to me.
The Day Past Tomorrow
The day past tomorrow,
I'm going on home.
No pain and no sorrow,
I'm traveling alone.
No ladies awaiting,
With long golden hair.
No sweet celebrating,
Can keep me here.
Cause the day past tomorrow,
Not changes today.
And, I'm smelling the sweet grass,
I find on the way.
No silver and gold, boys,
No diamonds and pearls,
Can make me obey,
The laws of the world.
Got stains on my hands.
Got tears on my face.
I'm taking the hatred,
And putting love in its place.
Cause the day past tomorrow,
Got to walk that long mile.
I don't know what's to follow,
But it's making me smile.
The day past tomorrow. Woo hoo!
I'm leaving the world,
But I won't lay down in sorrow,
But with the peace of a child.
Rest in peace, Sterling.
Your songs live on with me.