As if to drive home that point, Blue Corn Records has reissued "Alive on Arrival" and "Jackrabbit Slim" as a double-disc package featuring bonus tracks from each album's sessions ("Slim" features a live take on Forbert's lone hit, Romeo's Tune, recorded in New York City just after the album's release).
Although nothing in the reissue could be considered unreleased - the bonus tracks were included in Forbert's "Young, Guitar Days" discs over a decade ago - this is the first time they've been programmed with their respective albums, and the remastering of the material is top notch. And as Forbert notes, it reinforces how spectacular "Alive" and "Slim" were when they first appeared in the late '70s and how well they've aged since then.
"I'm in control of a large part of my Nemperor catalog - myself and the guy that owned the label, Nat Weiss - so Blue Corn decided they wanted to put out these two titles as a set, kind of as a 35th anniversary thing," says Forbert from a New Jersey road date.
"They're aware that they've been released before; they've even been released by me with a lot of extras. I was glad they wanted to invest some energy into it; it kind of validates them. It's one thing for me to release them, and Sony put them beautifully on CD, but this is like they've stood the test of time and deserve the attention."
That could be the understatement of the new century. "Alive" was a revelation upon its release, inspiring "new Bob Dylan" chatter, which Forbert actively discouraged. And although critics chided Forbert for the commercial gloss of "Jackrabbit Slim," which he readily admits was there with the express intent of having a hit, the heart and impact of the album remained Forbert's wonderfully engaging songs.
"I was very happy with 'Alive on Arrival,' but there wasn't anything on there that was Top 40 material," says Forbert. "It was validated, if you will. People understand something on the radio. You get people who come along, you know how it is. The real people sought out and understood 'Alive on Arrival' and were along with the trip, then you get the other people. But it was all good."
Part of Forbert's charm was his incredible back story. A native of Meridian, Miss., Forbert wrote his first song at 14, began writing 2 to 3 songs a week at 17, played in a succession of teenage rock bands and, after getting his driver's license, made his living as a truck driver. After losing his job in 1976, Forbert headed north to New York City to see if he could spin his songwriting into an actual career. He didn't have a single New York contact before moving there; he got a job as a messenger and began exploring the music community.
Even more improbably, Forbert arrived in New York as punk was lurching to prominence in the city's club scene. While Forbert spent most of his time busking in the subway and playing Greenwich Village's fabled folk clubs, he occasionally opened for bands like Talking Heads in legendary punk venues like CBGB and Kenny's Castaways.
A glowing performance review by John Rockwell in the New York Times generated label attention and the frenzy to sign the young folk sensation began in earnest. The only exec who would accept Forbert's demands to choose his producer and maintain creative control was Nemperor's Nat Weiss.
"I was looking to have a lot of control with what I was doing, and Nat wasn't someone with a big ego pushing his own agenda," says Forbert. "He was very likable, and I felt I could trust him. He was good for his word, and he's still a friend of mine. I love him."
The Steve Burgh-produced "Alive on Arrival" dropped in the fall of 1978 and immediately justified the buzz surrounding Forbert. It also set him on the almost endless touring path he's been following for the past three and a half decades.
"I started this thing of touring...life on the road," says Forbert. "There was a lot of demand, and I put together a band and there was a tour bus. It was drastic, but it was real good."
After devoting months to support "Alive on Arrival," Forbert carved out time in the summer of 1979 to begin work on his much anticipated follow-up. Then, as now, Forbert was always writing and had a batch of fresh songs ready, but he was hardly interested in remaking his debut. Forbert decamped to Nashville with producer John Simon and a crack session band to create "Jackrabbit Slim," arguably his most successful album.
"It picked up where 'Alive on Arrival' left off, but it obviously wasn't the mini-autobiography thing," says Forbert. "I worked with a different producer, I wanted a different sound, I was looking honestly to make something that would get on the radio. I was looking to get established, so I was making a change in - what did you call it? - my creative evolution."