Lead by the late Gram Parsons, the Flying Burrito Brothers not only defined and transcended the genre of country rock, its members were stylish trendsetters as well. And the disappearance of one of the members' most iconic pieces of clothing has finally been solved.
The band — Parsons, Chris Willman, Chris Ethridge and "Sneaky" Pete Kleinow — came together through shared partnerships: Parsons and Willman from The Byrds, Ethridge playing in Parson's International Submarine Band with Kleinow being invited personally by Parsons and Willman. This iteration known as the "classic" assemblage, released their debut The Gilded Palace of Sin in February 1969.
The band used a portion of the album's advance to purchase embroidered rhinestone-covered suits made by Nashville's famed designer Nudie Cohn. Each member’s outfit reflected something of his personality: Hillman looks regal, if a little stiff, in blue velvet, Ethridge plays Southern gentleman in a long floral-embroidered jacket and rhinestones, inspired by his love of the Hank Snow song "Yellow Roses," Sneaky Pete asked for a velvet sweatshirt with a huge pterodactyl on it, because... why not? The pièce de résistance was Parsons, who, ever the purveyor of self-mythology, requested a personalized collage of all his vices: marijuana leaves, pills, tattoo-style pin-up girls, and sugar cubes dotted with acid proudly defile the pure white sleeves of his suit. The album cover was shot by renowned rock photographer Barry Feinstein.
But that rhinestone-clad suit would have a brief shelf life for Ethridge. In 1969 the suit was stolen from the car of Phil Kaufman, who was road manager for the Burritos at the time. In an interview with CBS, Kaufman said he had left the band's suits in his car at his Silver Lake, Calif. residence to be dry cleaned. "I got up the next morning — I had a station wagon, they were laying out, and next day it was gone," he said. Ethridge's daughter Necia, who had lost her father in 2012 to cancer and then saw the family home plundered of all of his memorabilia, began to see the tide turn last Thanksgiving. A family friend had done some internet sleuthing and discovered his suit was up for auction — with a brilliant twist.
The suit had apparently been returned to Nudie's Rodeo Tailors shop in Hollywood the same year it was stolen and rising pop star Elton John bought it off the shop's rack in November 1970. John can be seen wearing the suit during his February 14, 1971 Top of the Pops TV performance and on the sleeve of his 1972 "Rocket Man" single in the U.K. John sold the suit to a private investor in 1998 and then it went up for auction last year.
Necia was able to acquire her father's suit and then loaned it to the museum. The four suits will be on display as the centerpiece of the exhibit, Western Edge: The Roots and Reverberations of Los Angeles Country-Rock, which opened last year and runs through May of 2025.