If Larry E. Williams had written just this one song, he’d have probably been okay with it.
Williams wasn’t even a songwriter by trade, but a guitar tech for Neil Diamond across much of the star’s touring career. Their relationship was such that in the mid-70s – undaunted by his employer’s own way with a melody – Williams felt comfortable enough to present Diamond with a song he’d written with him very much in mind.
Let Your Love Flow was a gently upbeat piece with a smile on its face. A simple, three-chord, three-minute-and-change ride with a southern-country lilt and summery vibe, it had a sweet verse, an uplifting chorus and a positive, almost hippie lyric about letting your love flow like a mountain stream, like a bird on a wing. These were dark times – Watergate. Saigon. OPEC shenanigans – so any consolation or hope music could give were welcome.
At the time Diamond was busy turning his slowing career around with his ambitious Beautiful Noise album, produced by The Band’s Robbie Robertson. Williams’ song wasn’t for him, but Diamond did see to it that it was publishet by Bicycle Music Company, the boutique publishing imprint set up by Diamond’s manager, David Rosen.
The song got its first bite from pop/folk artist Gene Cotton, best known for subsequent US Top 30 hit, Before My Heart Finds Out. With its staccato brass, rather stilted rhythm section and workaday female backing vocals, Cotton’s recording for ABC Records failed to trouble the chart on release in 1975. But around that time some of Diamond’s band had begun to hang out with two musicians, twenty-something brothers, who’d come out to LA from Florida to make it big.
David and Howard Bellamy had played live music all their lives. Growing up near Tampa they’d been taught the ropes/strings by their rancher father, who was an enthusiastic amateur country swing musician on the side. The radio at home only ever played country music, but by high school David was playing in a gospel group and Howard was getting into soul, and they wrote songs.
The band they formed together, Jericho, played clubs across the south, with a set covering quality soul acts such as Percy Sledge and Otis Redding. At Studio 70, a small-town studio in Tampa, they played sessions for other artists, and wrote and recorded jingles for local TV and radio too.
A demo of a David-penned tune, Spiders & Snakes made it to record producer Phil Gernhard. He had made his name recording Maurice Williams And The Zodiacs’ 1960 doo-wop classic, Stay, and by the 70s was working with singer and TV star Jim Stafford, who’d had a US Top 40 hit with Swamp Witch. Released in January 1974, Stafford’s recording of Bellamy’s Spiders & Snakes hit No.3 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and No.14 on the UK singles chart.
“That sold a couple of million records,” David said later, “and Phil suggested that we should move out to LA. I didn’t want to at first, but when we started making money from the sales of that record, I knew things would be pretty good in LA.”
With the brothers signing to Curb Records, David’s own debut song, Nothin’ Heavy did nothin’ much, but through the recording he befriended some of Neil Diamond’s group, including drummer Dennis St John. It was through him that the demo of Williams’ Let Your Love Flow got to – depending on who you ask – either the brothers or Gernhard. Either way, David and Howard loved it.
In the autumn of ’75, despite Curb’s reticence about the viability of the song, the Bellamy Brothers convened at LA’s Wally Heider Recording Studio with Gernhard as producer and some of Diamond’s seriously talented band around them: St John, bassist Emory Gordy, guitarists Doug Rhone and Richard Bennett and keyboardist Alan Lindgren. David has said that it only took the group a few takes to cut the song that would launch their career, and make Larry E. Williams some serious royalties.
"I would say the guy who wrote this song is the wealthiest roadie now that ever was," said Howard.
With their plangent two-part harmonies and country twang, The Bellamy Brothers channelled Let Your Love Flow’s pure-heartedness beautifully. Their producer and elite group cottoned on to the crucial, elegant simplicity of the song’s groove and arrangement, and their easy, laidback recording found unexpected favour on US radio, then across the world.
In the States Let Your Love Flow hit No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100 that May (sandwiched between the likes of Johnnie Taylor’s Disco Lady and Welcome Back, the theme of John Travolta-starring sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, performed by ex-Lovin’ Spoonful frontman John Sebastian). The following month the song peaked at No.7 in the UK charts, sharing an eclectic Top 10 with The Wurzels’ The Combine Harvester, Diana Ross’s Love Hangover and Cliff Richard’s superb Devil Woman. Over 30 years later, in 2008, it would re-chart in Britain at No.21, after its use in a heavily rotated TV ad for Barclaycard.
Back in ’76, the international success spread to Holland, Switzerland, Austria, Norway, Sweden, all the way to New Zealand and Australia. Germany offered a testament to the song’s musical appeal: after the song’s five-week run at the top slot in that country, it was replaced by a German-language version of the tune, by Schlager singer Jürgen Drews, which stayed at No.1 for a further six weeks.
The song’s popularity caught both the Bellamys and their label by surprise. The downhome duo had just had a worldwide pop hit, and this apparent contradiction flummoxed their marketing bods. The debut album – called, inevitably, Let Your Love Flow – was rushed out that year, bouncing just shy of the UK Top 20, and barely making the US Top 70.
It didn’t matter. The Bellamy Brothers career was set. Their first major tour was with fellow crossover duo country/pop duo Kenny Loggins and Jim Messina. They played with The Doobie Brothers (whose own life-affirming Listen To The Music makes a neat segue into Let Your Love Flow). Whereas their debut single was sweetly callow, the Bellamys’ subsequent hit, 1979’s David-penned If I Said You Had A Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me was gleefully cheesy. Still, it was also the first of a strong run of US country No.1s across the 1980s, which helped them seal their reputation. They still tour today, with Let Your Love Flow tucked away, their encore-friendly ace card.
Joan Baez, Tom Jones, Ray Charles and Bowling For Soup are among the many artists who've tackled the song over the years,, but it’s hard to separate that song from the duo it suited so well. Thanks to them, in 1999 the single made the list of BMI’s most played songs of all time on US TV and radio. In this ‘Top 100 Songs of the Century (opens in new tab)’ it landed in a respectable 68th place, right behind Take It Easy by – another band who blurred the boundaries and understood the power of a crossover tune – the Eagles.
And as for Larry E Williams, he did write other tunes, but his only other major writing credit was for Gentle On Your Senses, Easy On Your Mind, a Country Top 20 hit for Mel McDaniel in 1976. But what an incredible life Let Your Love Flow must have given him. Wherever he is now, odds are it’s somewhere nice, and he’s not tuning another man’s guitar…