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Musician Gram Parsons, long dead, lives on in hearts: His 70th Birthday Bash is Saturday

Gram Parsons often is referred to as the father of country-rock.

The musician who pioneered the concept of a rock band playing country music in the late 1960s and early ‘70s may not have sold many records, but his influence on fellow musicians, from Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones to The Byrds, Jackson Browne and the Eagles, continues to shape rock and country artists.

Parsons would have been 70 in November — he died at age 26 on a trip to Joshua Tree from a lethal ingestion of morphine and tequila — and fans and friends are still celebrating his style of alt-country, calling his sound a mix of country, rock and R&B.

This enduring legacy is why Don the Beachcomber, a restaurant and bar in Huntington Beach, is planning Parsons’ 70th Birthday Bash on Saturday, when 15 regional bands, influenced by Parsons’ hybrid sound, will play three of their favorite Parsons songs in their sets.

“He’s such a pivotal figure in the history of rock and country music, and in my mind is the most important figure in the melding of the two,” said promoter Will James, who brought a Parsons-themed show last year to Don the Beachcomber and is back for a second.

James, of Buffalo, N.Y., is the head of the traveling road show in remembrance of Parsons. He researched bands near the towns on the tour for bookings and also arranged for all the groups for Saturday’s concert. One of the performers on Saturday’s lineup is Kai Clark, the son of original Byrds band member Gene Clark.

James also has organized a petition to get Parsons into the Country Musical Hall of Fame, in Nashville. He has gathered more than 12,000 signatures since he started the effort in 2007.

Saturday’s show, James said, is not a tribute in the strict sense of the word, but rather an appreciation for Parsons’ legacy, with bands performing their own brand of alt-country music.

Parsons was born in Florida to a wealthy citrus-growing family on Nov. 5, 1946, and raised in Georgia. As a child, Parsons learned how to play the piano, and after seeing Elvis Presley perform at his school, he decided to become a musician.

After graduating from high school, Parsons enrolled at Harvard to study theology, but after one semester, he devoted his time to playing music rather than attending classes.

He spent a few months with the Byrds and later joined musician Chris Hillman. The duo formed the Flying Burrito Brothers, and through Hillman, Parsons met Emmylou Harris, with whom he collaborated musically. But though they released an album to good reviews, sales were poor.

Though he didn’t sell many records, Parsons wrote a body of work in five years that he called “cosmic American music,” including the songs “In My Hour of Darkness,” “Return of the Grievous Angel” and “Hickory Wind.”

Pamela Des Barres, author of the book “I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Teenage Groupie,” first met Parsons when she was dating Hillman. She is godmother to Parsons’ daughter, Polly.

Des Barres said she will attend Saturday’s show and showcase shirts she had made for Parsons to wear onstage.

One memory of Parsons particularly stood out to her, she said by phone from her home in Los Angeles, as she remembered watching the Flying Burrito Brothers perform at Hollywood’s famed Whisky a Go Go.

She was standing close to the stage, leaning against a metal fence, and gazed up at Parsons while he sang George Jones’ “She Once Lived Here.”

Parsons had certainly known loss, Des Barres said, and as people danced to the music, she watched the musician weep as he sang: “There must be a tow-own without memories, but not this one, ‘cause she once lived there.”

No one seemed to notice his tears.

“He had more soul and feeling then I’ve ever seen,” Des Barres said. “He was deeply connected to it, and I want people who have never heard of him to come to this concert because then they’ll revere him. I promised him I’d keep his spirit going.”

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IF YOU GO

What: Gram Parsons’ 70th Birthday Bash

When: 5 p.m. Saturday

Where: Don the Beachcomber, 16278 Pacific Coast Hwy., Huntington Beach

Cost: $20 to $225

Information: Call (714) 809-6146 or visit donthebeachcomber.com

kathleen.luppi@latimes.com

Twitter: @KathleenLuppi


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