If that cat could talk

Following up on Pete’s post on “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo,” here’s one from the great Hoyt Axton. (No, he wasn’t a rock artist. But Axton wrote “The Pusher” and “Snowblind Friend,” both recorded by Steppenwolf, and his mom co-wrote “Heartbreak Hotel.” So he had the credentials, and a decidedly rock ‘n’ roll attitude. Oh, and he also wrote Ringo Starr’s “No No Song,” in which Ringo turns down offers of all kinds of drugs while Harry Nilsson sings a gentle “Ai, ai, ai-yi” in the back, as well as “Joy to the World,” which was of course a big hit for Three Dog Night.)

So anyway, here’s “Della and the Dealer,” which, like the Lobo song, features a man, a woman, and a dog — and also a cat.

Della link for the e-mailites.

And that is about the only thing they have in common, fortunately. This is a story song with an actual story, as Hoyt begins in his signature relaxed style:

It was Della and the Dealer
And a dog named Jake
And a cat named Kalamazoo
Left the city in a pickup truck
Gonna make some dreams come true

Like a good singer of story songs, Hoyt tells it like it happened last weekend:

Down Tucson way,
There’s a small cafe
Where they play a little cowboy tune
The guitar picker was a friend of mine
By the name of Randy Boone
Randy played her a sweet love song
Della got a fire in her eye
The Dealer had a knife
And the dog had a gun
And the cat had a shot of rye

The Dealer — who is “evil and mean” — is jealous and swears revenge, and then:

The stage was set
And the lights went out
There was death in Tucson town
Two shadows ran for the bar back door
And one stayed on the ground

So who won the fight? Hoyt leaves that hanging: All we find out is that “Della and her lover/And a dog name Jake/And a cat named Kalamazoo/Left Tucson in a pickup truck/Gonna make some dreams come true.” (But of course we know it’s Randy; is he gonna let Della get stuck with the coke-snorting Dealer?)

Of course, Jake the Dog and the Kalamazoo the Cat are human, not an actual canine and feline, but the — quite intentional — effect is to give a rather charming mental image of house pets on the run:

If that cat could talk,
What tales he’d tell
‘Bout Della and the Dealer
And the dog as well
But the cat was cool,
And he never said a mumblin’ word

“Della” is a slick little record, and the only really dated thing about it is the generic female backup singers. But that was a plague of the ’70s — one of many — there seemed to be some kind of horror of letting people sing by themselves. The whole thing is way overproduced, actually, with horns and a twittering keyboard thing, but the harmonica is nifty and Hoyt just rolls over all the distractions with that effortless vocal, and of course he’s a genuine baritone. That’s not so rare in country as it was and is in rock — rock is a playground for tenors — but a voice so warm and masculine and smooth as Axton’s is rare in any style.

“Della and the Dealer,” nifty as it is, only reached 17 at country radio in 1979, demonstrating with that mediocre performance that country radio didn’t necessarily have any better taste then than it does now. But Hoyt never had a big hit record as an artist at any format, though he was well known and widely admired. But he ran into something of the same problem Charlie Daniels had for a good part of his career: He had a rock reputation that put off country radio and a country reputation that scared off the rock and pop side (a failure of imagination at radio is not a new phenomenon, alas).

Hoyt Axton died way back in 1999, at age 61. That’s a long time ago, but rock fans shouldn’t forget this great songwriter with the heart of a rock ‘n’ roller.

About Bridey

Bridey has been a music nut since falling in love with Elton John's "Caribou" album in grade school (why that one? I was nine). She's a magazine editor by trade who writes regularly about radio, music, and related industries.
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