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The Sun Valley Guide magazine is distributed free twice yearly to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area communities.

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Photo by David N. Seelig
Photo by David N. Seelig 

"The most abnormal of hippies"

Patty Parsons’ long journey to her musical home

by Dana Dugan

"West, by God, Virginia” is the way Patty Parsons refers to the state where she was born and raised.

It was a childhood that sounds a bit like a storybook. Her father, the Rev. Parsons, was a Southern Methodist preacher in a small town. The children grew up singing and giggling in his church. The Parson clan’s favorite song to sing together remains a little ditty called “Mama Don’t Whoop Little Buford.” And, ultimately, all the siblings went into music. For Parsons this meant graduate school in Dallas, where she earned her master’s in vocals and choral technique, and a stint as a rock and roller in San Francisco.

Fortunately for the Wood River Valley, Parsons wound her way west and north. She was first introduced to the valley as a member of a soft rock band that performed at The Ram in Sun Valley. Since the early 1980s she’s been the choir director for the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood, the music director for Laughing Stock Theatre Company, as well as the annual holiday productions of Handel’s “Messiah” and “The Promise.”

Just out of graduate school, Parsons tried her hand at conventional life: She became a seventh-grade algebra teacher in Florida. It did not last long.

“I pretty much hated it,” she acknowledges with a laugh. “I bought a one way plane ticket to San Francisco. It was when that song came out: ‘If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear a flower in your hair,’” she sings in her lilting soprano. “It was my little girl dream to live in California, and I thought San Francisco was the most charming city I’d ever seen.”

The year was 1967 and she had wanderlust. It was also the Summer of Love. Among the bands that spent their infancy in San Francisco were Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and the Steve Miller Blues Band.

They were heady days. A new psychedelic form of rock ’n’ roll was everywhere. It was a time of anti-war marches and flower power. Line-ups of dream bands at famed venues such as the Fillmore West, the Carousel Ballroom, Winterland and Haight Theatre were ubiquitous.

“When I moved there it was the right time,” Parsons recalls. “But I was the most abnormal of hippies, I never was cool.”

Cool or not, she snagged a singing job at the Drinking Gourd, where Marty Balin and Paul Kanter, of Jefferson Airplane, met and decided to form a band. Other musicians performed there, and the Smothers Brothers used its tiny stage to work on their comedy act. Located in the heart of San Francisco’s Cow Hollow section, “It was the hippest coffee shop,” she says. Parsons’ first song was Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” which she performed a cappella.

On her second night, a guitarist, with very long hair, sat in with her. “I got 10 bucks and all I could eat or drink. They were all hippies. I wanted to be one so bad, but I didn’t know what it was. I still wore a pointed, padded bra. They told me ‘you’ve got to burn your bra,’ and I did.

“My first hippie thing was not wearing shoes. The other thing you did was sit around cross-legged at the Golden Gate Park and listen to people play conga drums and the flute. The most boring thing was to be a hippie.”

Parsons initially bunked on a sofa with a girl she met through a choral group, The Song Weavers, which she was briefly a part of.

“I had a lot of help from friends. Then I lived in an old speakeasy with 16 people. One of them was Norton Buffalo, though, that wasn’t his name then. We had cinderblocks separating our cubicles. There was a Hispanic girl who cooked for everyone. It was like a commune thing.”

While performing with An Exchange, Parsons was asked to join Jefferson Airplane and replace the briefly retired Grace Slick. Instead, Parsons packed up her bags for Sun Valley.

As more people heard the lovely and vivacious Parsons, more musicians joined her. Eventually they formed a band called An Exchange. Jack Schaeffer joined the band. He was notorious for playing five different horns, wearing leather shorts and thigh high boots.

“He was the hippie of all hippies,” Parsons says. There were two guitars, horns, and then, as rock became more folk oriented, they added drums, a bass and piano.

By then the band was based in Marin County, just north of San Francisco. Parsons lived in Sausalito and swore she’d never leave. Press clippings from the day inevitably referred to her as “lovely and talented.”

In its peak year of 1972, An Exchange opened for Ike and Tina Turner at the Circle Star Theatre in San Francisco. Ike was late, he and Tina were fighting, the microphone power failed. A San Francisco Examiner reviewer called the Ike and Tina Turner Revue “sloppy.” He added that An Exchange, which was forced to play extra numbers while the Turners carried on backstage, “sounded beautiful. Singer Patty Parsons is a talented beauty with an impressive voice.”

A mere 30 years on, Parsons, who generally can be found in jeans or a tennis outfit, hoots as she recalls her outfit: “I sang in hotpants!”

An Exchange also opened for the Everly Brothers, and for Joan Baez at the Edmonton Folk Festival. The good reviews and comparisons to Janis Joplin’s singing style mounted.

They were on the brink of stardom, everyone said. Everyone was wrong.

Though they were popular in their realm, Parsons says, “We thought it would all fall in place, but we never had good management.”

Around the same time, members of the Jefferson Airplane band came to see her sing at the Ancient Mariner in Mill Valley. The band was reforming under a new name, Jefferson Starship.

“They asked, ‘Would I join them.’ I looked a little like Grace,” the now blonde-headed choir mistress says, referring to Airplane’s tempestuous lead singer and songwriter Grace Slick, who had briefly retired.

However, An Exchange propitiously gained a new fan. He was Dick Anderson of the Sun Valley Company, and after hearing them sing at another San Francisco coffeehouse, the Coal Yard, he invited them to play at The Ram Restaurant that winter.
Always ready to try a new thing, An Exchange jumped at the opportunity. Fiercely independent, Parsons drove north alone in her white 1956 Dodge with her “constant companions, two white cock-a-poos, Polar Bear and Pooh Bear.

Housed in the dorms above The Ram in the Sun Valley Inn, the band went to ski school by day and rocked the house downstairs by night.

“I’d come crawling in from skiing, take a nap—Joe Cannon was playing après ski—and when I heard him starting his finale, ‘Bye Bye Miss American Pie,’ I’d know it was time for me to get up and sing.”

In its peak year of 1972, An Exchange opened for Ike and Tina Turner at the Circle Star Theatre in San Francisco.

In a town of eccentrics and ski bums who bombed down Baldy in jeans and tee shirts, the longhaired hippies from San Francisco fit right in. Schaeffer, in particular, was known for wearing his miniscule cut-off jean shorts on the mountain.

And the band gained fans. Sun Valley, at that time, was the only place to see live entertainment. Kathy Wygle, who would go on to form the Laughing Stock Theatre Company, remembers the band fondly:

“When I worked at the Ore House, and she played at the Ram with her band, we’d get off work and go there every night they played. I’d sit and stare up at her. I was entranced, she was my heroine. It was wonderful.”

An Exchange spent the next several winter seasons doing what Parsons calls the ski resort tour: Sun Valley, Aspen and Steamboat Springs. After the first year they performed at other Wood River Valley venues, including the Limelight Room of the Sun Valley Inn, and what was then Slavey’s and The Prospector. The band continued to protect her from the evils of the day. “It was like I was their little sister.”

In 1979, the band, now back in the Bay Area, called a rehearsal. Patty didn’t show up.

“I never went back. San Francisco had gotten too crowded. It broke my heart, but I made the right choice.”

That choice included everything a full life could have, minus the pressure to be a hippie.

“My reason for moving here wasn’t about the music. It was about the mountains, the rivers, and the sports, just like everyone else,” Parsons said.

“Skiing was the main sport I pursued here, but now I’m an avid fly fisherman and tennis student.”

But music wasn’t far away from her thoughts.

“I decided I wanted to do theater. I had a trained voice, I had done rock ’n’ roll, a lot of angst, Janis, Joni Mitchell. But I went back and started over, doing theater.”

“When we found out she was going to stay we were thrilled,” Wygle recalls. “A couple years after that she auditioned for ‘Guys and Dolls’. Ever since she’s been the backbone for musical theater here.”

Things were not exactly easy, however. She worked as a maid at the Ski Lift Lodge and sang for a while with a band in Hailey. And she joined the Presbyterian Church.

“My father was a Southern Methodist preacher. I knew how to play church music.” She played on a pump organ for $10 a week. Before long, her part-time gig blossomed. She was asked to form a choir for the church. “It started with five people,” she recalls. Today there are 30 members.

Meanwhile, she became Wygle’s musical director at Laughing Stock. “I can’t get enough of Kathy Wylge,” she says. “She saw me through hard times, remembered my band and always treated me with professional rapport. We have mutual admiration for each other’s work. She’s also been loyal. I feel like I’ll always have it until I say I won’t.”

It’s hard to imagine her doing such a thing. Among the shows she’s been the musical director of are “Mame,” “Oklahoma,” “The King & I,” “Sound of Music,” “Cabaret,” “Man of La Mancha,” “Damn Yankees,” “Oliver” and “Annie,” as well as this past fall’s “Carousel.”

“I like being a director. I love to teach. I get such a kick out of it. And I have a passion to do my music.”

In 1985 her daughter Kodi, who now attends Whitman College, was born. Like the rest of the family, music is in her genes.

“We made a family Christmas album three years ago in four hours. There were 17 of us, all trained voices.” Now retired in North Carolina, her father, at 87, just formed a new band himself, the Oughtabebetters.

In 2002 she was asked to start the Wood River Jewish Community’s choir.

Photo by David N. SeeligPhoto by David N. Seelig

“The church has been my home. They’ve seen me through good and bad, they’re the ones who’ve made it possible.” As well as having her own choir room in the new and renovated Church of the Big Wood, she has produced and directed “The Promise” for over 20 years. This original production, written originally by a friend of Parsons, features seasonal music, dancers and over 100 singers.

“I need the protection of a small town for my own health. I couldn’t do it in L.A. or a big city. It’s this environment. I love to see my friends everyday.”
And that from a wanderlusting, small-town, “West, by God, Virginia” girl. •

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