Music Legend Alan Parsons Teams Up with Unity Shoppe
by Brett Leigh Dicks
A few weeks ago, The Unity Shoppe’s food deposit was an empty vault. While the rest of the organization’s Chapala Street facility was buzzing with activity, the storage area lay ominously silent. Stacks of crates sat vacant. Signs labeled soup, vegetables, and fruit presided over barren pallets. With the holidays just around the corner, a hint of nervous resignation resided in the voice of Tom Reed, executive director of The Unity Shoppe. “We’re having a tough time with food right now because donations are way down for some reason,” he said. “This room should be filled with food, so this is a near disaster. … We are going to have to start buying food and we simply don’t have the money to do it.”
Nonetheless, with more than 300 families expected for Thanksgiving and at least 200 estimated to visit in the six weeks before Christmas, The Unity Shoppe is bracing itself for the busiest time of the year. Luckily, help to fill those food shelves is close at hand. December 3 is the start of The Unity Shoppe’s annual telethon, one of Santa Barbara’s most reliable outpourings of community support. This year, in addition to the telethon, music legend Alan Parsons is throwing a special concert at the Arlington Theatre to mark the telethon’s 20th anniversary.
Many performers have helped raise funds for The Unity Shoppe throughout the years, but Parsons’s involvement is special: Though his career spans five decades and he’s lived here for the past seven years, the concert will be his first-ever public performance in Santa Barbara. That’s hard to swallow considering his musical legacy — not only did the Alan Parsons Project create contemporary classics such as “Games People Play,” “Time,” “Sirius,” and “Eye in the Sky,” Parsons has also worked behind the scenes with the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Ambrosia, and Al Stewart.
So how does one of the most influential musicians in contemporary music come to the aid of a grassroots charity? “We had a fundraiser a couple of months back and Alan Parsons wandered in,” said Reed. “We talked and he came down and saw the operation and … he got excited. … [H]e decided that the first thing he does here in town should be something that helps the community. It is our 20th telethon, so we reserved the Arlington for something special. And, as luck should have it, this is it.”
A Dignified History
For 90 years, The Unity Shoppe has been a pillar of support for Santa Barbara’s low-income families. Oblivious to political affiliation, religious belief, or ethnic identity, The Unity Shoppe started out in 1917 as the Santa Barbara Council for Christmas Cheer, providing holiday gifts to families in need. It’s since grown into a year-round operation that distributes more than $2.5 million worth of merchandise to nearly 15,000 people each year.
The people serviced by The Unity Shoppe are directed from 242 referral agencies, including non-profits, churches, schools, and hospitals. The centerpiece is a store that offers free and very discounted food, clothes, toys, and school supplies to families in need. Complete with shopping carts and check-out counters, the shop is exactly like a traditional market, providing customers the dignity of shopping like everyone else in order to meet their needs.
The fundraising focus for the store is the annual Unity Telethon, a telephone drive on KEYT hosted by celebrities and famous musicians. Started with the assistance of Kenny Loggins, musicians such as Clint Black, David Crosby, Olivia Newton John, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and even the Red Hot Chili Peppers, have all come to town to take part.
To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the Alan Parsons Live Project, with Christopher Cross in support, will perform at the Arlington on Sunday, December 3. For Parsons, such an event is the perfect chariot for bringing his music to town. “I think music has always been there as a calming influence, no matter what the context,” said Parsons. “It’s a settlement of conflicts and a means of making people reach into their pockets and be a little more generous than they otherwise might have been.”
The Parsons Program
One of Alan Parsons’s first jobs was at EMI’s West London tape duplication plant. There he encountered the master tape of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a recording that immediately broadened his musical fascination. He was soon working at Abbey Road Studios as an assistant engineer on the Beatles’ Abbey Road album. It wasn’t long before Parsons took the engineer’s chair, laying down three albums for Paul McCartney and giving George Harrison a hand on his musical landmark All Things Must Pass. But it was his contributions to another British band where he really made his mark.
His engineering for Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon garnered Parsons a Grammy nomination, the first of 11 in his career. The record company, sensing the record’s lasting significance even in its infancy, sent Parsons to the ceremony. And although Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions beat out Dark Side that evening, just about every household in the world subsequently came to own a copy of the Parsons-guided masterpiece.
“And I am reminded of that almost every day,” laughed Parsons. “Occasionally, I’m a little bitter about it because, unlike everyone else involved, it didn’t make me rich. It was what came after it that made me comfortable. When I was working with Pink Floyd I never earned more than 50 pounds a week. But … if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you right now. So I have a lot to thank them for.”
Parsons’s appreciation is reflected in the affection he still holds for the recording. Rumor has it that, from time to time, Parsons can be found behind the console at selected clubs around Southern California mixing the live sound for a Pink Floyd cover band. “It’s true,” said Parsons. “They’re called Which One’s Pink? and they’re actually really good. … I mixed the live sound for Pink Floyd as well as the studio work, so this is just like going back 30 years and doing it with Floyd.”
After Pink Floyd, Parsons moved into production and the anathematic sounds of Pilot and Cockney Rebel. After meeting Eric Woolfson in the mid ’70s, the two formed the Alan Parsons Project, a forum for revolving vocalists who colored the duo’s lush musical landscapes. But it also gave Parsons the opportunity to expand his musical armory even more.
“It wasn’t a deliberate act of being a control freak of any sort, it was something that just kind of happened,” said Parsons. “And looking back, I suppose I did have just about every job with my name against it — engineer, producer, writer, and artist. But being the artist was something I never expected. I thought I would be producing a series of albums by various artists and being perceived as the artist was more something that was bestowed upon me. It wasn’t really my choice.”
A string of successful concept albums followed, with the pinnacle being 1982’s landmark album Eye in the Sky. The dawn of the ’90s saw Parsons and Woolfson go their separate ways, but Parsons continued to work with Project inductees Ian Bairnson and Stuart Elliott under the name the Alan Parsons Live Project. Amid a healthy schedule of live performances, Parsons recently released his first studio recording in five years.
The Latest Project
Like his previous recordings, A Valid Path embraces the longstanding tradition of Parsons’s collaborative spirit. Recorded for the most part in his Santa Barbara studio, the album features David Gilmour, PJ Olsson, and The Crystal Method — even fellow English transplant and Santa Barbara resident John Cleese makes an appearance.
Though Parsons admitted he’s far more comfortable behind a traditional recording console than a computer screen, the digital age makes collaborating much easier. David Gilmour, for instance, recorded his contributions in his own studio in England. “Such is the way of the modern recording world that you don’t have to do it all in one place,” said Parsons. “You can do it via the Internet or swapping CDs with people and that’s how I worked with David Gilmour. … It’s a good way of doing things because it wasn’t very likely that David would fly here to Santa Barbara and work in my studio. He’s a busy guy.”
And so too is Parsons. With The Unity Shoppe benefit lurking just around the corner, the Alan Parsons Live Project is also preparing for a series of appearances throughout Mexico. He also recently re-mastered his back catalogue, and is getting it ready for the first stage of its re-release. March will herald the appearance of four classic Parsons albums: Tales Of Mystery and Imagination, I Robot, Eye in the Sky, and Vulture Culture. The other six albums will be released in May and September.
For a man who so influenced studio recording during one of music’s most revolutionary periods, Parsons doesn’t seem eager to be part of the ongoing digital revolution. But living in Santa Barbara might have a great deal to do with that. “I feel more comfortable working with an engineer to operate the computer these days because I wasn’t trained to make records with a mouse and I don’t really feel as happy doing it,” declared Parsons. “It’s very specialized and dynamic and you have to spend a lot of time keeping up. … I’m at the stage where I don’t need to be in my studio every day of my life. I have a very comfortable personal life and that is much more important to me now.”
Hopefully, his helping The Unity Shoppe with the concert next weekend will make some of the less fortunate people in our community a little more comfortable, too, this holiday season.
The Alan Parsons Live Project plays with Christopher Cross at the Arlington Theatre on Sunday, December 3 at 7 p.m. in a benefit for The Unity Shoppe. For tickets, call 993‑4408 or visit ticketmaster.com. For more on The Unity Shoppe, visit unityshoppe.org.