Who is Terry Reid? It’s a fair question. If you’ve heard of him, the one thing you probably know is that he could have been Led Zeppelin’s lead singer. (Busy at the time with his own band, he suggested a young bloke from Kidderminster called Robert Plant.)
If you haven’t heard that little anecdote from the classic rock archives, then chances are the name Terry Reid won’t ring a bell. But it sure should.
A genuine double threat as a free-flowing guitar player and an iron-lunged singer, Reid, who plays two shows at City Winery on Sunday, was on a fast track in the British rock world of the late 1960s when his career was hobbled by disputes with his manager. But the names of those whose paths he’s crossed clearly indicate the respect he earned long ago from so many of his fellow musicians.
No less an authority on the human voice than Aretha Franklin, on a visit to England in 1968, declared that there were three things happening in London at the time: “The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Terry Reid.” Reid and his band were about to tour America as the opening act for the Stones and also for Cream, at Eric Clapton’s request.
He and Graham Nash, good friends, would co-write several songs together, including one, “Be Yourself,” on Nash’s 1971 solo debut. Reid was a featured performer at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival alongside Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis, among others, and he sang at the wedding of Mick and Bianca Jagger in St. Tropez the following year.
Yet despite all these feathers in his cap, Reid, 69, has spent the past five decades in relative obscurity, living in hot desert towns in southern California, painting and puttering, and cutting an occasional album (just four in the studio since 1973). He’s got four grown daughters and plenty of old friends. He’s not bitter, not by a long shot.
One reason he demurred on that Led Zeppelin invitation (and another from Deep Purple) was that he wasn’t interested in the restrictions of the hard rock world in which he came of age. His music has typically blurred all kinds of lines, between folk, country, R&B, jazz, and Latin rhythms.
“The whole concept was, I didn’t want to play the blues,” says Reid, on the phone from his home in La Quinta, in the Coachella Valley. It’s as though he feels he didn’t have the right: “ ‘I’m so happy I got the blues’ — that wasn’t my thing.”
Speaking in a husky British accent that has lost nothing to his decades in America, Reid laughs easily, and often. Even when he’s talking about his career-derailing lawsuit against his manager, the late Mickie Most, who wanted to dictate what kind of music he could record.
“He would not let go,” Reid explains. “It was [Atlantic Records cofounder] Ahmet Ertegun who got me out of the whole deal. He didn’t like the idea that [Most] was trying to kill me,” he says, with a hearty “ha ha! . . . Not literally, but it was getting a little ridiculous.”
Reid gained the nickname “Superlungs” after Donovan’s song “Superlungs My Supergirl,” about a schoolgirl who just wants to get high. Most, who was also Donovan’s manager, refused to let him release the song, fearing it would tarnish his image. So he offered it to Reid, who’d already heard Donovan’s side of the story (while sharing a hash joint, Reid says).
Clearly, Reid jokes, the manager was less worried about his reputation than that of the Scottish folk-pop singer. (Donovan would eventually release his own version.)
“I ended up doing the song. Donovan was over the moon.”
Reid’s Atlantic debut, “River,” held up in litigation, didn’t come out until 1973. By then, he had lost two-thirds of the backing band he’d assembled — drummer Alan White left to join Yes and multi-instrumentalist David Lindley went off to work with Jackson Browne. (Reid maintained a long professional relationship with the third member, bassist Lee Miles, whom he’d recruited away from Ike and Tina Turner.)
No commercial success at the time, the funky-pastoral “River” has been recognized belatedly as a gem of the era. In 2016, the reissue label Light in the Attic put out “The Other Side of the River,” a well-received collection of outtakes and alternate tracks.
Reid says he already had the title “River” when Joni Mitchell released her album “Blue,” with the classic song “River,” in 1971. They were acquainted through her romance with Nash.
Reid had visited the Sag Harbor home on Long Island where Crosby, Stills and Nash holed up to write and rehearse the songs that would make up their debut. “One special memory — Graham has a tape — they were all in the bathroom doing ‘Blackbird,’” the Beatles song, with Mitchell and Neil Young there, too, as he recalls. “It was, like, five- or six-part harmony. Just unbelievable. To this day, it’s one of the most superb things I’ve ever heard.”
Mitchell, he says, “really influenced me in the sense that she’s so free when she sings. She goes anywhere she wants to go, like a bird.”
Frustrated by the business, Reid eventually resorted to session work, singing and playing on albums by Browne, Bonnie Raitt, and others. In recent years his songs have been covered by acts including the Raconteurs (“Rich Kid Blues”) and the British singer Rumer (“Brave Awakening”), and he sang several songs for Joe Perry on the Aerosmith guitarist’s most recent solo album, “Sweetzerland Manifesto.”
He may be a well-kept secret, but there’s one thing that Reid does not regret: declining to join a big-name band.
“Every really successful, famous band I know all hate each other,” he says. “They can’t even stay in the same room for more than a half-hour. The only time it really makes sense is when they walk onstage and do what they do.”
When old friend Nash joined Reid onstage in New York City a couple of years back, they sang “Brave Awakening,” which they had co-written. Beforehand, Nash requested that they run down the song in the dressing room: “I know you change everything,” he said.
“Which is true,” Reid says with a laugh. “I do. Terrible.
“I never could do the same song twice the same way.”
Terry Reid and the Cosmic American Derelicts
At the Haymarket Lounge, City Winery, Boston, May 12 at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets $30, www.citywinery.com/bostonJames Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.