Frazier Mohawk: From Record Producer to Circus Impresario and Back Again
This is a story I did many years ago about Frazier Mohawk, an interesting record producer from the 1960s turned circus promoter turned record producer…:
“It’s a spiral,” said Frazier Mohawk, referring to his career. “I keep moving back over things I’ve done in the past, and picking up little bits and pieces of it and taking it on to the next endeavor.”
The spiral has taken the 55-year-old Californian from producing the records of some of the most innovative rock musicians of the 1960s and 1970s, through creating one of Canada’s biggest traveling one-ring circuses, to producing music again — this time in his own fully equipped studio on a working farm.
He is, incidentally, not alone in using abstract images to describe the movement of a career. Richard Nelson Bolles, author of the best-selling careers guide “What Color Is Your Parachute?,” uses the image of a box: People should store their interests in boxes, he writes, alternately dropping them and picking them up as they go through life.
The traditional image is the ladder, although Timothy Haft, until recently a career counselor at New York University, said Mr. Mohawk’s career is in many ways representative of the kinds of career changes being thrust upon a growing number of people.
“There is no longer a ‘straight’ career ladder,” Mr. Haft said. “Paths wind and twist and turn, and it is difficult to know today what career moves will put one in a prime position 10 years from now.”
Mr. Mohawk’s spiral began when he was 10 and still known as Barry Friedman, his given name. He was already producing variety shows at his local theater in his hometown, Los Angeles. Later, as a teenager, he became assistant producer of the “Chucko the Clown” show at ABC-TV, and later of a series called “Stars of Jazz.”
In 1964, Mr. Mohawk — as Barry Friedman — helped a disc jockey named Bob Eubanks promote The Beatles’ Hollywood Bowl concert, acting as publicist. He then started his own publicity agency and met many of the top folk-rock singers of the period, including Stephen Stills.
Mr. Stills wanted to start a group, they started talking, and Mr. Mohawk helped him put together a band. The result was Buffalo Springfield — a name Mr. Mohawk gave them after seeing a steamroller with that name on their street. The group’s first album is dedicated to him.
It was when he produced two songs by his friend Mike Nesmith on the first Butterfield Blues Band album in 1965 that he launched the first twist of the record-producing spiral of his career. He went on to produce some of most important artists of the era, including The Holy Modal Rounders, Kaleidoscope and Nico.
He also toured with The Byrds, doing their sound mix at the legendary Monterey Pop festival in 1967, and sent Mr. Nesmith and Mr. Stills to audition for The Monkees pop group (Mr. Nesmith made it).
Mr. Mohawk sought the help of Jac Holzman, then chairman and owner of Elektra Records, to build a studio in the country on Sacramento Mountain. There in 1969 he produced one of the most important early folk-rock records, “Running, Jumping, Standing Still,” by Spider John Koerner and Willie Murphy.
“What was most salient in those days,” said Mr. Holzman, now chief technologist of the Warner Music Group, was Mr. Mohawk’s “unusual and prophetic take on artists and music. He was way ahead on Buffalo Springfield, Jackson Browne, Neil Young and others.”
By the mid-1970s, however, Mr. Mohawk was so burned out by the music business that he would not even have a radio in his house.
“The business part of the music business became bigger than the music part,” he said. “And it made me very nuts.”
It was time to spiral back. He moved to Toronto and returned to his Chucko roots, creating a business called Rent-A-Fool, a group of clowns-for-hire that threw cream pies at executives. It grew into Puck’s Canadian Traveling Circus, with 35 employees, nine trucks and a big top.
Mr. Mohawk’s father was head of the vocational rehabilitation service for the state of California and his mother was an artist, so he says his circus vocation comes from his godparents, Shirley and Norman Carroll, who were the publicists for the Ringling Brothers, Clyde Beatty, and Cole Brothers circuses.
Puck’s Circus lasted half a decade, ending at the farm in Schomberg, Ontario, a small town 45 minutes’ drive north of Toronto. More than 200,000 school children have visited the 170-acre (68-hectare) site to roast corn, learn about livestock and watch Farmer Clown perform. The milk cows have ranked in the top third in Canada for small herds. The sheep’s wool is used to knit clothes sold at the farm, and Mr. Mohawk himself lives off the produce.
Today, more than 20 years after leaving the music business, Mr. Mohawk’s career spiral has come around yet again with the establishment of The Studio at Puck’s Farm.
Mr. Mohawk and Anthony D’Atri, his partner, began recording, first with a small four-track recorder, and eventually they sold the cows and reclaimed the barn as a studio. Mr. D’Atri himself hewed the 18-inch-wide pine planks and built the floating floor. The renovation cost about $100,000, “a little more than we thought,” Mr. Mohawk said.
The studio features a mid-1960s Neve console, Dolby stereo, a Studer 24-track recorder and a 28-foot ceiling supported by 150-year-old elm beams. Puck’s Farm also has a site on the World Wide Web at http://www.pucksfarm.com.
Puck’s Farm Records’ first offering, a compact disk of children’s songs sung by Mr. D’Atri as Anthony the Singing Cowboy, came out in the autumn.
Since then the label has brought out two other CDs: “Two Pianos, No Waiting,” an hour of boogie, ragtime, and blues from Scott Cushnie (once of Ronnie Hawkins and The Band, and later Aerosmith), Doug Riley, and Joan Besen (of Prairie Oyster), and “Much Too Late,” by a Macedonian blues singer named Danny B.