Kim Fowley, the self-mythologizing musician-writer-producer who epitomized Hollywood music biz hucksterism in the ’60s and ’70s, died on January 15 after a long battle with bladder cancer. He was 75.
A ubiquitous behind-the-scenes figure on the L.A. scene, the towering, skeletal Fowley was best known as Svengali, producer and promoter of the all-girl ’70s rock act the Runaways.
“Kim was a real rocker,” said KROQ DJ and fellow Sunset Strip habitué Rodney Bingenheimer. “Knew everything about any record from the label artist to the music publisher’s email and address. He believed in rock ‘n’ roll. A tough exterior, (but) many of us know he had a heart of gold while helping introduce many new artists and songwriters over 55 years.”
“Kim Fowley is a big loss to me,” said E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt, who worked with Fowley on his satellite radio show, “Underground Garage.” “A good friend. One of a kind. He’d been everywhere, done everything, knew everybody. He was working in the Underground Garage until last week. We should all have as full a life.”
Though Fowley never registered any major hits in his own name – his 1969 Imperial album “Outrageous” barely grazed the charts at No. 198 – he had a hand in several ’60s and ’70s chart records. Consistently ahead of the curve as a talent scout, he was involved with artists like Warren Zevon and Cat Stevens early in their careers.
Blessed with a genius for self-promotion, with a sharp tongue and gift of gab that magnetized writers, Fowley styled himself, in English writer Barney Hoskyns’ words, as “the ultimate Hollywood pop hustler.”
Born in L.A., Fowley was the son of Douglas Fowley, a familiar second-tier leading man and heavy in film and TV. He attended West L.A.’s University High, where his classmates included surf duo Jan & Dean and future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston.
While still in his teens, he made his mark on Hollywood’s pop assembly line. He co-produced the No. 1 1960 hit “Alley Oop,” a comicstrip-themed novelty single by studio group the Hollywood Argyles. He went on to write B. Bumble and the Stingers’ Tchaikovsky-flavored instrumental “Nut Rocker” (No. 23, 1962) and produce the Murmaids’ chirping “Popsicles and Icicles” (No. 3, 1963).
In the mid-’60s, Fowley relocated to London, where he penned the B side of troubadour Cat Stevens’ debut single and produced Them Belfast Gypsies, a spinoff of the Van Morrison-fronted band Them.
“One of the first who smelt something going on in ’63 and came to England,” said former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham of Fowley. “Kim Fowley, a leader of that American brigade and a forever part of American music.”
As a Sunset Strip habitué in the mid- and late ’60s, Fowley recorded his cult homage to LSD, “The Trip”; guested on the Mothers of Invention’s debut album “Freak Out”; produced rockabilly pioneer Gene Vincent and garage rockers the Seeds; co-wrote songs for Warren Zevon’s first LP “Wanted Dead or Alive”; and penned songs for the latter-day incarnation of the Byrds.
In 1972, Fowley produced early demos by Boston proto-punk band the Modern Lovers. The following year, he was enlisted to helm rock ‘n’ roll remakes by Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids for the soundtrack of George Lucas’ “American Graffiti.”
Fowley’s greatest notoriety began in 1975, when he facilitated a meeting between guitarist Joan Jett and drummer Sandy West, local teens who were interested in starting an all-girl band. Fowley then recruited singer Cherie Currie, guitarist Lita Ford and bassist Jackie Fox for the group, which he christened the Runaways.
Jailbait pin-ups who could actually rock, the Runaways secured a contract with Mercury Records. Bringing the full extent of his promotional guile to his dream project, Fowley co-wrote and produced their first two albums, “The Runaways” (1976) and “Queens of Noise” (1977), which garnered more media attention than sales. Fowley’s relationship with his headstrong protegees, fractious from the first, ended in 1977; after Currie left the band later that year, he produced her solo debut, which went unreleased in the U.S. Jett and Ford both later mounted successful solo careers, and the band itself is credited for its powerful influence on succeeding distaff rockers.
Though he continued to dabble in commercial projects, such as writing for performers like pop singer Helen Reddy (“Ear Candy,” 1977), Fowley primarily scoured the streets of Hollywood for talent.
In the late ’70s he briefly promoted “new wave nights” at the Strip’s Whisky A Go Go that showcased L.A.’s early punk acts. He also dabbled with other femme rock groups like Venus & the Razorblades and the Orchids, but none achieved the profile of the Runaways.
In later years, Fowley took his hustle to other locales ranging from Australia to New Orleans. Returning to L.A. after the turn of the millennium, he remained active as both a producer and performer (in the L.A. duo Crazy White Man) and hosted a weekend show on Sirius Satellite Radio. He also tried his hand at filmmaking and won a special jury prize from the Melbourne Underground Film Festival in 2012.
Fowley was prominently featured in the 2003 documentary “Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” about L.A. DJ and onetime club owner Bingenheimer, a close friend. In Floria Sigismondi’s 2010 biopic “The Runaways,” Fowley was portrayed by Michael Shannon.