Anyone visiting the rock clubs and music scene hangouts in Los Angeles in the 1970s and early ‘80s encountered the memorable, albeit creepy, site of the skeletal, tall and pasty-looking man lurking behind the scenes. That person, who died Thursday of bladder cancer at age 75, was Kim Fowley, an odd puppeteer behind the scenes who became a rock legend as a music producer, songwriter and producer.
Fowley was known as a huckster and Svengali figure in his heyday, when he created the iconic all-female ‘70s punk rock band, the Runaways. (Fowley was portrayed by Michael Shannon in the 2010 film about the group that starred Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart.)
At a time when the punk scene thrived and new groups were regularly launched at the Whiskey A Go Go, the Starwood, the Roxy and the Troubadour in the West Hollywood/Sunset Strip-area, Fowley was a familiar figure. “Kim was a real rocker. Knew everything about any record from the label artist to the music publisher’s email and address,” commented fellow Sunset Strip club scene habitué Rodney Bingenheimer, who is a DJ on KROQ in L.A. He also noted that Fowley had a “tough exterior, (but) many of us know he had a heart of gold while helping introduce many new artists and songwriters over 55 years.” The duo were actually pretty funny together, with Bingenheimer barely 5 foot 3 inches and Fowley a 6 foot 5 inch beanpole.
Fowley never had any major hits on his own as a recording artist, but he co-wrote many songs for others. Besides the Runaways, he helped several artists, such as Cat Stevens and Warren Zevon, achieve their initial success.
The gangly pale-skinned Fowley was raised in Southern California. His father, Douglas Fowley, was second-tier actor in film and TV. Kim went to high school with surf duo Jan & Dean and the Beach Boy’s Bruce Johnston as classmates. Like them, his dream was to make it in L.A.’s music industry. During his career, Fowley wound up working in every possible industry capacity including studio janitor, protégé of DJ Alan Freed, associate of Frank Zappa’s and eventually writing and producing successful records.
In his teens, Fowley co-produced the hit Alley Oop, a 1960 novelty single by the Hollywood Argyles, a studio group. In the mid-’60s, Fowley hit the London music scene, where he penned the flip side of Stevens’ first single. He went on to work with Zevon, Alice Cooper, Blue Cheer, Kiss and even Helen Reddy.
Fowley’s biggest notoriety, however, was as the creator of the Runaways. In 1975, he put 15-year-old guitarist Joan Jett with fellow teens guitarist Lita Ford, bass player Jackie Fox, drummer Sandy West and singer Cherie Currie. Fowley co-wrote and produced their initial 1976 and 1977 albums, The Runaways and Queens of Noise. He co-wrote their most well known song, Cherry Bomb, with Jett.
After the Runaways broke up, Fowley promoted “new wave nights” at the Whisky to showcase up-and-coming punk acts, created other girl groups, made several indie films and hosted the Underground Garage show on Sirius Satellite Radio. Steven Van Zandt, the E Street Band guitarist and Sopranos actor who worked with Fowley on the radio show, noted that Fowley was “one of a kind. He’d been everywhere, done everything, knew everybody….We should all have as full a life.”
Currie was helping care for her onetime manager and mentor as he battled cancer. In announcing the rock legend’s death at age 75, Currie thanked Kim Fowley for “starting my career when I was just a child.” Commenting on hos many careers he affected, she added, “You are a genius… you are loved. You will be so missed. Rest in Peace my friend.”
By Dyanne Weiss