HIRTH’S HEART FULL OF SOUL 1945-2015 (PART TWO)
Now for Hirth’s Heart Full of Soul 1945-2015 (PART TWO). Hirth’s Heart Full of Soul 1945-2015 is about a very special interview with songwriter/guitarist Hirth Martinez. My brother Edward Huerta did the interview with Hirth a few months back. At the time none of us here were even aware that Hirth was ill. I have since learned that Hirth didn’t even know he was ill at the time of the interview.
This was most likely the last interview that he did. The interview was over an hour and sixteen minutes and so that’s why we have it running as two parts. As the interview was done by recording over the phone, and probably Hirth’s last interview, some nuances and exchanges were left in and not edited out.
Hirth passed away a short while ago before we could even get this story together and PART ONE of the interview transcribed and put up.
Thank you for the interview Hirth. You and your wonderful songs will always be remembered and may you rest in peace.
We’ll bring you up to speed with the tail end of Part One:
NORMAN’S RARE GUITARS, & ROBBIE ROBERTSON
HM: I don’t know if you are aware of a guitar store out here called Norman’s Rare Guitars. I met Norman before he had the store and I was selling a Gibson dot neck 335 that I had and I put an ad in the paper. Norman saw it and called me, came over and looked at it, and said, “Oh yeah, I want to buy it.”
My table was covered with songs and lyrics and he asked me about it. It turns out Norman doesn’t play guitar, he plays keyboards, but he likes collecting. He had a warehouse in Florida full of guitars that he had bought from people that he was looking to sell and they all happened to be antique electrics, vintage electric guitars.
So he bought my dot neck 335 which even at that time it was already old. I think I got that guitar the first year that the dot neck 335’s came out. That was about 10 years. My Dad found it. A friend had a music store and was selling it so he bought it for me for a hundred bucks. With a case.
So anyway Norman found out that I wrote songs. He said I have a band and he listened to a couple of my songs and he said, “Wow, why don’t you come over on Saturday and bring a tape of your stuff.” At that time I was writing 10 hours a day, every day.
AND NOW… PART TWO:
HIRTH’S HEART FULL OF SOUL 1945-2015 (PART TWO)
HM: So the following Saturday I went over to his house in the valley and brought the thing over and he showed me some of the new guitars he had acquired. We were talking and he fell in love with my songs.
He called me one day and he said,”What are you doing Saturday morning?” I said,”Well I’m gonna sleep late.” I had a 5 nighter out at The Beverly Hilton Hotel. I was playing with a band over there 5 nights a week and on Saturdays I wanted to sleep late, but he said,”No, no. I want you to come over because Bob Dylan called me and he’s coming over and he’s gonna buy a guitar. The black Stratocaster.” So I went over. He said bring me one of your tapes. So I brought a tape. I’m thinking I wonder why he wants me to bring a tape.
I brought it and he tells Dylan… as it turns out it was Saturday, but Dylan came over on Friday and found the guitar and wanted to buy it and tried to give Norman a check. And Norman told Bob Dylan that he doesn’t take checks.
(Both Ed and Hirth are laughing).
Dylan said,”Well let me go see my accountant and I’ll come back tomorrow morning. So Norman knew he was coming back with money to buy the guitar. When Bob came in he introduced me to him. Bob said,” I gotta kinda get going so here’s the money,” and they did the transaction.
Norman said to him,”Yeah, yeah, we’ll do it but I want you to hear some songs first,” and I got embarrassed. I said,”Oh no, Norman, what are you doing?” I got really embarrassed because…he blackmailed him…basically. Dylan was salivating for that guitar so badly…and Norman insisted…and it was a 90 minute tape.
In those days I was writing about 40 songs a month. So I had all these 90 minute reel to reels. He started to play the tape and I sort of inched my way to the back of the apartment like I went into the bathroom and locked the door and went in there and I thought,”Aw man.” This went on for 45 minutes and then when that side was over with, he flips it over. And Dylan was really impressed. He said,”Wow, I wish I could write that much.” We talked and laughed about that. I said,”From what I understand, you do.” He said,”I really don’t. I don’t have time. I’d love to but I don’t have time to do that anymore. I’m constantly busy.”
As it turns out, Norman says to me,”We’re going to Robbie Robertson’s house next because Robbie’s wants to buy a guitar and I’m bringing ‘em over and and I want you to come too because I want Robbie to meet you and hear your songs.” This was all in one day.
It’s gettin’ to be one o’clock in the afternoon. I kept telling Norman,”Look, I’ve got to work tonight at the Hilton. And he says,”No, no, you’ve got to come along.” So he took me to Robbie’s house in Malibu. I got to Robbie’s and “Ho, you must be Hirth.” I looked at him,”Well how do you know that?” He said,”Bob already called me and told me that I should hear your songs.”
The way it was planned out…I went in and we spent another two or three hours listening to my songs. At the end of the first tape Robbie said to me,”So what do you want to do with these songs? I said,”Well I guess make a record.” He said,”Okay. Well let’s work on that. I’ll help you with it.” He said,”How do you make a living right now?” I said,”I play guitar on sessions and society bands. Wherever they need a guitar player. I do okay. I do pretty well.” He said,”Well why don’t you quit playing and just write. We’ll go through the songs you’ve got and see what we need and see how much, if you need to write new ones. We’ll get you a record deal.”
And so that’s how I met Robbie and it just all started from there. Before that Saturday was over, Robbie had arranged to have me put on a retainer. He was going to pay me a weekly retainer to do nothing but sit home and write songs. Not playing or doing anything else. That’s how it happened.
EH: That’s cool.
HM: The American Dream.
EH: Yeah. That’s pretty amazing. Wow, all in one day you meet Dylan and Robbie Robertson and get a record deal.
HM: And a record deal. Yep, yep.
EH: That’s quite a day!
HM: Yeah, yeah. He told me,”When you go into work tonight, he said give ‘em notice. Tell ’em that you’ll give ’em two weeks. After that the checks will start coming like Monday.” And that’s exactly what I did. I just followed his advice. It took us from that day about a year and a half to two years to do. We started working the very next week on songs. I ‘d come over to Robbie’s house every Thursday morning at 10:00 o’clock and we’d sit there and go through song tapes that I had. I had written about 800 songs. So that was a lot of listening to do. We sat there and went through ’em with a fine tooth comb and Robbie would pick out the ones he liked. He made an A,B,C,D,E list of those than we broke them down to A,B,C then A, B, and then A.
Finally when we were about 2 years hence, we decided it was time to go into the studio. We hadn’t found a producer yet that we liked. At that time there were a handful of producers that were producing everybody like from Richard Perry, Lindy Warker, for Warner Brothers, Henry Lewy who used to do Joni Mitchell, John Simon who used to do Leonard Cohen. We couldn’t find one that we both agreed would be the guy to do it. So Robbie said,”We’re doin’ a project with Bob Dylan. We’re doing the album called “Planet Waves“. If you wait until we’re done with that,” he said,”It’ll take about a month. I’ll produce it for you.” I said,”Whoa, sure. I told him I’ll wait six years.” You just keep getting the retainer so don’t worry about anything. Just keep writing.”
So I waited. The month flew by. Robbie called me one Sunday morning and he said,”I scheduled our studio for tomorrow morning. Just come in.” In the meantime we had gotten an arranger and gone through the tunes we were going to do and we wound up with thirteen songs for that first album.
EH: That’s just amazing.
HM: Yeah. We started that particular Monday. We went in the studio and started the sessions and almost exactly one month to the day we finished it…mixing and everything…we did the whole thing in a month. We worked everyday except Saturday & Sunday. Saturday and Sunday we were off. We worked Monday through Friday nine to five. Everyday. We had it catered. We had people come in and cater meals so that we wouldn’t have to leave. We could just stay in there.
EH: That’s pretty cool. That’s pretty amazing man.
HM: It is pretty amazing. I know. It’s kind of is a manifestation in theory of the American dream that things can still happen through some sort of magical mystical avenue because this totally as far as I knew, just went on its own because I was not very aggressive. I had gone to see many many publishers and producers before I met Robbie Robertson. They all liked my stuff but none of them knew what to do with it. I told Dylan that story. He said,”What do you mean they don’t know what to do with it? Just tell ’em make a record.”
EH: Dylan has all the answers for sure.
HM: “Don’t worry about that. Make a record.” Robbie asked me that. He said,” So what do you want to do with these?” Make a record. So that’s exactly what happened. It was like the starting bell just rang and boom we were off and running. It was through my association with Robbie Robertson and Dylan, people that I met, many other song writers like Paul Simon, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Maria Muldaur, Dr. John, Paul Butterfield. He used to record a lot of my songs and I got to know him pretty well. Phoebe Snow. She and I intended on writing a song. We always talked about writing this song but we never did. We’d always get on the phone and just talk about flying saucers. Then she passed on. I met all of my contemporary writers, I met Leonard Cohen and all these people, I met them all through this connection with Robbie and Dylan.
EH: That’s pretty amazing…the cream of songwriters.
HM: In that era, that was between 1973 & 1978 probably when that was happening. I did “Hirth From Earth” and then I took a big break and then I did a 2nd album for Warner Brothers. That was about 1976. I don’t really enjoy being in the studio so I don’t record that much. I like recording live. I went to Japan and did a live album there and then I went back in the studio probably around the year 2000 to record a studio record in New York with John Simon as the producer.
I got to use anybody I wanted to use I could use on these records so I got a hold of the heaviest players there were. Steve Gadd, David Sanborne, Ron Carter. Anyone I’d name they’d get ’em. It was like doing a painting and I think we’re running out of colors, needs this color over here they’d go okay let’s get ’em and they’d call up and get ’em for me. I even did one recording with Joe Pass, who was a very famous jazz guitar player.
JOHN SIMON WITH HIRTH MARTINEZ Photo by YOSHI NAGATO
EH: Yes, yes.
HM: That one’s never been released. That one I intend on releasing. It’s a big band, a really gorgeous arrangement of a ballad that I wrote called “Me and My Shadow“. The lyric is way out there and Joe Pass played on it. Anybody knows guitar players, all they have to do is here the first note and they know it’s him.
EH: Being this is a guitar based website, are you a guitar collector?
HM: Well I collect them only because I use those guitars. I don’t collect them just to collect them. I have a few collector type guitars. Every guitar has a story it seems. At least mine do.
Like right now I think I’ve got about 8 guitars and I use every one of them for things and I have a couple of ukuleles. Some ukulele company in Japan gave me, the last time I was there, they presented me with this beautiful ukulele. I have some very old: I have like a real old steel string acoustic, a big Epiphone, jumbo guitar that I use on certain sessions. Of course I have a Les Paul Custom. My working guitars…I still do gigs…I do jazz gigs. Every other Friday or so I play at a place called “The Olde Ship“ and it’s in Santa Ana.
EH: I see that on your website. So you still do that?
EH: Ok cool! I live in Long Beach and I work out in Orange County so I’ll stop in some night.
HM: On 17th Street near Santa Ana College. We’re there this Friday in fact. There’s two bands. It’s the same band only we change leaders. The one I’m working with on Friday is a man who’s about 89 years old or so, plays clarinet. He plays traditional kind of jazz music – a little bit Dixie, and some straight ahead…but it’s a little older style. On the 29th (I think) we’re playing with the same guys – only we get a sax player that sounds like Stan Getz – We play more bebop there.
EH: That date…that’s on the 29th.
HM: I think. I can check for sure and let you know.
EH: Ok. Yeah. I’d love to see you and meet you. That would be really cool.
HM: That band I’m a side man. I just play guitar and I do some singing. I play gigs with a couple of the local bands here in East L.A. They get 2 or 3 gigs a week. There’s a band called “The Latin Gents“. It’s made up of some of the best players in East. L.A. I’m also playing with them next week at a place called The American Legion Hall in Montebello. So for my working gigs, when I’m not doing concerts, I work as a side man.
I still do session work now and then. I use a 335 which right now I have an Epiphone 335 but it has Gibson innards and it’s modified. I put Gibson Humbucking pickups and Gibson wiring in it as opposed to the Epiphone wiring. That’s one of my most favorite of the working guitars. If I have a jazz gig and then a commercial gig later on the same day, I can take one guitar and that covers me.
And then I have a classical guitar that I got from Norman. Way back before I signed to do the first record, when I first met Norman I was looking for a classical guitar and he sold me this one for five bucks. I wrote most of my songs that are recorded… I’ve written them on this guitar. I use it on concerts. I have a Fishman pickup on that one.
I have a Gibson 175. It’s around a 1960. It’s my favorite guitar. It records beautifully and it’s a great live guitar. John Sebastian from “The Loving Spoonful” gave me a Heritage Guitar. It’s an L5 and it was custom made for him and I had the Gibson I was telling you about, the dot neck 335 that Norman wanted to buy. He bought it for about three hundred bucks and then a few weeks later Norman sold it back to me for a dollar.
EH: Wow! Okay! That’s nice!
HM: See that. Yes.
EH: I can’t imagine what it’s worth now.
HM: What happened was that he said to me,”I’ll sell it to you for a dollar, but if you ever seriously want to sell it, let me know first before you let anybody else know.” I said,”Sure.” So I used it for years, maybe over 30 years after I had bought it back from Norman.
And then I was playing at an Indian Reservation. I think it was the Pachanga Reservation. When I got home, somebody stole my car, and the guitar was in it, and I had just had it appraised. The guitar was worth over ten grand. And I never got the guitar back. It was just gone.
Sebastian heard about it and he called me and he said,”Before you get anything, let me take this one guitar, this Heritage L5 that I have.” I said,”Well, what’s it like?” He said,”It’s an arch top and it’s solid maple.” He said,”They made it for me. It says John Sebastian RS Model on the top.” He said,”I think it would be perfect for your concerts you do.” I said, “Why don’t you send me a catalog?” He said, “Okay, I’ll send you a picture of it.” Well the next day a UPS truck shows up with the guitar. He sent it to me.
EH: How nice.
HM: That’s my Heritage guitar. I love that one. I use it a lot on my concerts. Although this time in New Hampshire, I’m gonna take and use a Joe Pass Epiphone that I’ve been using because I hurt my back back around January and my 175 is too heavy to carry so I started using the Joe Pass because it’s a little easier and it’s an arch top as well. All my guitars I have special uses for them. I have a couple of Ibanez’ that I like a lot.
EH: I have one more question for you Hirth. Do you have any messages or thoughts for would be promising young Hirth Martinez’s that are out there? Any words of wisdom?
HM: I would tell my students to just welcome the songs in…just let ‘em in cuz there there. They just want to come through. A lot of people just don’t know how to open up. What I try to teach the writers that come around me is to…I let ‘em see how I do things. I don’t know how to explain it myself. There was a point in my life when I was very young, I was probably 10 years old when I realized those songs are there aching to come in. Do whatever you have to do to calm your mind and let them come in and then start playing ‘em.
They don’t have to be so perfect and you don’t even have to understand them. Certain things about the writers will get in the way and block