Friday, February 26, 2016

Daily Dose #72: Rock and Roll College, St. Louis Style

Old St. Lou

Wedding Band Perk: THE TROUGH
Back in 1987, I was playing for the first time in my life in a commercial cover / wedding / party band with Gary Frenay and Arty Lenin (The Neverly Brothers) and actually making a decent living playing music. So much so, I decided to ask my girlfriend at the time to get hitched, and so we did. We didn’t have a lot, but money was consistently rolling to the point that we could fund our own wedding, save up and maybe buy a house someday. Start an adult life, albeit a little late in the game.

The Neverly nights were filled with club work, and our weekends with double days of weddings, where usually the budget for plastic garbage bags exceeded the budget for the band. But no matter; we ate well (I really learned how to stack a plate in buffet lines for maximum power eating in one pass during this time), and we still made a few shekels and simoleons. Enough not only to pay the bills, but to accrue some savings and still have enough left over for new gear and personal entertainment.

As a full time working, paid musician, if you really wanted to see a first run movie, you had to hit a matinee in the middle of the week at our friendly local neighborhood monument to corrupt, crass commercialism: The Carousel Mall.

Some flicks took precedent over others. Whenever a true rock and roll movie hit town, I was there. When “Hail, Hail Rock and Roll” was theatrically released, my bandmate Gary and I were intent on experiencing it on the large screen. It doesn’t get more rock and roll than Chuck Berry and Keith Richards, Peep-A-Roos. We were there at the first day, first screening, and were the first in line at Ye Olde Multiplex.

As a kid voraciously reading anything he could get his hands on to learn the secret codes of rock and roll, every once in awhile you could pick up a tidbit in an interview that might appear in such mags like Crawdaddy, Creem or Rollingstone (Back when music journalism was a serious art form). 
Best Rag EVER

Those rags could lead you down the real and righteous path. Usually it came from a British rocker talking about American Blues, Soul, R N’ B,  and Rock and Roll. Being born well after the golden age of rock and roll of the 1950’s ( In my case, I executed the reverse vaginal canal spelunk in 1960), one first learned about Elvis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Early Motown Artists, and The Everly Brothers through interviews with Beatle people, and you learned about Muddy Waters, Chess Records and Chuck Berry through interviews with Stones people, specifically Keith Richards. He was always generously intent on citing influences and main contributors to his listening diet of major influence. But in a little piece probably buried in the way back of some article back when I was 13 and just starting to play piano, I read a little paragraph quoting Ian Stewart (The Stones’ original piano player and then road manager), citing Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, Meade Luxe Lewis, and Johnnie Johnson as the only piano players you ever had to listen to to master everything you needed to know about rock and roll. All the rest “were shit”, in the Sixth Stone’s book anyway.

My Trusty Pioneer Tape Deck
When I was 13, I thought I was going to end up PLAYING in The Rolling Stones (Curse you, Chuck Leavell: You took my gig!)) so of course, this is where I had to start; picking apart their styles note for note on a reel to reel tape recorder set by the family piano, with the tape playing back at half speed to decipher screaming velocity old school Kansas City boogie woogie and Johnnie Johnson’s swinging St. Louis style.

Johnnie, by 1987, was just a major part of my musical DNA by then. To get the opportunity to watch him finally play, and play within the context in which I spent countless hours studying his style? Priceless. I was ready to see the movie multiple times at the multiplex.

Chuck and Johnny: The Architects
I can’t say that I was overly impressed with the flick. It had its moments of authenticity, but ultimately Chuck Berry came off as kind of a prick, and the concert footage (especially with the “guest vocalists” and “ringers”) was rather an obvious, slowly lobbed, marketing cheese ball deluxe; the aesthetic equivalent of drizzling melted Velveeta on an already gilded lily, and shriveling its petals.

Just give me the rock and roll, straight with no chaser. Too much monkey business, for my tastes anyway.

But there were two elements in that film that changed my musical quest, and my life’s trajectory, forever.

One was seeing and hearing Johnnie Johnson, up close and personal, the piano mixed up front with true sonic integrity. His hands were the size of canned hams! No wonder he made it sound so effortless.

The other was the rhythm section of Steve Jordan on drums and Joey Spampinato on bass. It was ear opening and enlightening to hear a relatively modern duo of players that absolutely and completely “got it”. They did not forget “The Roll” in the crucial equation of “Rock and Roll”, as defined by one of its architects, Chuck Berry. The casting of these two players in the section was a stroke of musical directing genius on the part of Mr. Richards. They were THAT perfect.
Steve Jordan
So when the accompanying disc and VHS cassette were released, it was back to the half speed mastering deck, but this time to dissect what Jordan and Spampinato were doing, as well as Johnnie Johnson. The closest thing I could ever do to fantasize playing with these masters. I knew I’d be chasing the elements of that groove for the rest of my life.

Gary, of course, knew how moved and now motivated I was. Over time, he couldn’t help but notice just how much my playing had improved. As a wedding gift, he did a little research through some relatives in St. Louis and produced Johnnie Johnson’s home phone number. I could actually talk to him, if I screwed up enough courage to do so. You know me. I went big, called him and pitched him on me coming out to St. Louis for a week to study with him. Slightly bemused, and in retrospect, totally drunk he said, “Sounds like a winner to me!”. I told him I would make some plans and get back to him.

So plans were made. Plane tix bought, Cadillac rented, Wads of whatever available spending cash accumulated, accommodations at Gary’s brother-in-law accounted for; all the while continuing my conversations with Johnnie to keep him abreast of the dates, and all the while selling the idea of spending the collective marital cash to my blushing bride on going to the college of rock and roll knowledge, in lieu of an actual honeymoon.

Two days before the flight, I called Johnnie to tell him the exact time I would be arriving. He then said, “Who?”

Not taking no for an answer, I just asked him where he would be at 10pm on the date of arrival. He gave me a name a club his combo was playing at, and I told him I would be there.  This was going to be a total improvisation that could go south at any moment, as the trip was already well on its way of being a total bust.

I arrived in Old St. Louie under the cover of darkness. Grabbed the bag, scored the rental Caddy, and headed out to the “club”, which turned out to be a ramshackle wooden shed that sat in the shadow of an oil refinery belching flame into the night sky, located in East Jesus Bumfuck, Missouri.

Upon entering the shack, I spotted Johnnie. He was in the corner propped up against the wall, three sheets on the way to four to the wind. A pickup band was playing a slow blues, and the bar had about four totally inattentive greasy roughnecks downing shots and beers after their shift.
I waited for the band to take a break, and talked to the guitar player. He explained that Johnnie often checked out during a gig, but he would try to wake him up for me. Johnnie mumbled something I couldn’t understand, but then said, “Sit in with the band and finish out the night.”

So I did. He soon nodded out again, so I don’t know if I actually proved anything to him, but the band seemed pleasantly surprised. Too late to wake Gary’s relatives, I slept in the Caddy that night.

The next day, I picked Johnnie up which was basically a project tower building for old folks. We went to Denny’s for breakfast, and thus my adventure with Mr. Johnson officially took flight.

First stop, a drive through at a package liquor store, something in my tender years I did not know existed, let alone question the overall insane concept that it was actually legal to score a quart of Crown Royal, a personal baggie of ice, and a go cup like you were picking up a Big Mac and fries “to go” behind the wheel of a car.

This was always the second stop of the day. We drove around St. Louis all day in air conditioned Cadillac comfort as he introduced me to all his friends and relatives. At first, he would say “This is my friend Gawge...he came all the way from Seeeracyoose New Yo-wuk just to study piano with ME!”. He was so proud of that fact, it didn’t really matter that we never really did seem to get around to actually playing piano together. He was having a blast being chauffeured around in a brand new Caddy showing off his freaky little long haired white boy disciple to all of East St. Louis.

At night we would maybe go to one of his gigs, where he would promptly play a couple of tunes, cede the piano chair to me, and then find another corner to prop himself up upon and promptly pass out.

I spent the week sleeping it off in the parking lot of his building after somehow miraculously driving the Caddy back to his apartment to drop him off for the night. He finally took mercy on me and allowed me to crash on his couch for the remainder of my visit.  I was starting to get a little ripe by then.

So a week turned to two, then to three, and finally edging towards four. Every day followed the same pattern, with a couple of exceptions; one was that during his introductions of his little long haired friend, my location of origin became further and further distant until it became, “This is my little friend Gawge...he came all the way from Istanboool just to study piano with ME!”

The other was that he introduced me to his inner sanctum of family, both past and future, in the form of his son that he hadn’t talked to in several years, and his future wife Frances and step daughter Chaz (Of which I still maintained a friendship with long after he died). He was that proud of my appearance in his life, and to this day, that still makes me feel good.

My future ex-wife Penny was very understanding at the time. I did get to play with some of St. Louis’ finest blues musicians, and I sure as hell was learning how to function completely soaked in scotch 24/7, but I still hadn’t succeeded in getting an officially taped interview, let  alone significant time seated at the piano with him; which is why ultimately, my stay became an extended one. Every time I called home to break the news that I once again changed my return flight home she just said, “Do what you hafta do”.  She knew I was on my vision quest.

But I finally had to set a hard date for return. Life couldn’t be put on hold forever.

I was finally scheduled to fly out on a Sunday night. On Saturday Night, we partied particularly hard. We both ended up curled up in two separate balls of red hot drunk mess, he in his bed, and me on the roach infested couch. At 7am, there was a violent, constant knocking on the door, a woman’s shrill voice screaming Johnnie’s name.

Disoriented and still smashed, I opened the door a crack. Before me was a variation of Moms Mabley: a little old lady in cat’s eye glasses, in all her gummy denture-less glory; decked out in a blue, stained tuck and roll house coat, fuzzy slippers, and support hose that, elasticity exhausted, had settled in rolls around her ankles.

Still screaming, but now in my face, she bellowed, “You tell Johnnie Johnson to get his lazy ass outta bed, and FUCK ME RIGHT NOW!”

Not quite having the faculties to deal with this um, delicate situation at that particular moment, I feebly tried to run interference by making some excuse for him.

“Don’t give me any of your shit, boy! Wake his ass up right now, and tell him he’s gotta fuck me... fuck me good, and RIGHT NOW!”

What could I do? I woke him up.

“Johnnie, there’s a lady out in the hall raisin’ a ruckus.  You better go talk to her”.

He stumbled out of bed and into the hallway. She yelling, he trying to calm her down in his inimitable charming way outside the apartment door, and me on the other side awaiting further instruction.

He stuck his head inside the door.

“Uh, uh, uh, Gawge… I gotta go for a couple of hours. I’ll be back soon”.

The door gently closed, but he did a double back and stuck his head back into the apartment.

As a consolation as my last time, and last chance to perhaps corner him on the piano in the common room of the old folks home was slipping away before me, he conspiratorially whispered, “That’s the widder Whitehead…. she eighty five years old, but she got the pussy of a fiddy year old!”

Come to find out that the reason Johnnie could have had a comfortable life at Frances’ house but chose not to and maintain his own digs, was because his main gig was regularly servicing all the hens in the assisted living community henhouse. He was, if anything, in high demand. Guess hands like canned hams were only just one of his estimable attributes.

I fell back on the couch to sweat it out in the Sunday morning St. Louis heat, stewing in my Crown Royal fed juices, and Crown Royal fed delirium.

He came back a few hours later, refreshed.

“OK, Gawge. Grab your stuff, let’s do this”

We went down to the common room. In the height of hangover the light and stupefying heat was brutal. I set up my Marantz field recorder, and my copy of the liner notes of the Chess Records Chuck Berry box set. And then we both sat at the piano bench. He tuned a small transistor radio to a St. Louis Cardinals game at a low volume to keep tabs on the home team, and then cracked his knuckles.

I can’t begin to tell you what then transpired, but with the liner notes as our guide, Johnnie told all, and played all for about four hours. Every lick, every story, every influence, everything he could possibly recollect, all punctuated by musical examples. The road stories. The stories of being taken advantage of, by the Chess Brothers. By Chuck. The never ending flow of the architectural history of Rock and Roll by one of its more unsung, but acknowledged designers. And tons of four handed jamming duets. A wealth of knowledge and a well I could drink from for the rest of my life. And frankly, a mother lode of validation. When Johnnie Johnson says, “I like how you did it to me”, um, it really doesn’t get much better than that.

And I got it  ALL on tape. Still do, and those cassettes are still one of my most prized possessions.

So I packed up my gear, headed for the airport, returned the Caddy (of which now had a massive crease in the left side front quarter panel, the rear bumper hanging by a thread, and rolling on a donut; Thank Jesus for high limit credit cards and insurance) and headed home.

When I threw the suitcase on the bed, all I had left was my recorder, the liner notes, and the magic beans, the recordings. My cassettes of that four hour Sunday session with Johnnie and what seemed to be hundreds of purple cloth Crown Royal bags with gold pull strings in various sizes. I had pretty much lost everything else, including most of my clothes and toiletries.

My future ex-wife looked at my bloodshot eyes derisively.

“I hope it was all worth it….”, she snarled.

It was, but I really couldn’t explain why. I may not have initially learned much about  Rock and Roll pianna plunkin’, but I sure learned how to drink, and drink big. And I ended up with an epic tale to tell.

I saw Johnnie once after that. I convinced a local Syracuse BBQ and Blues emporium to book him for a Sunday afternoon concert, and The Hungarians backed him up. I fleshed out all the “Johnnie B. Bad”  songs and the Chuck Berry book with full horn charts, a gospel trio, a percussionist, and a B3 player (That would be me). Twas an epic afternoon, the house couldn’t have been packed any tighter, and he was thrilled at the absolute ridiculous hugeness of it all and all the heaps of Salt City love received. We remained phone buddies until he passed away back in 2005.

Although my course of musical study has wandered far and wide since those days, Johnnie is always in there; a part of my creative DNA functioning as an essential amino acid. He’s the foundation of how I interpret and express my soul at a molecular level.

If you rock, then you MUST roll. Them’s the rules, according to Mr. Johnson.

"You may shoot for the stars and end up beaten and bloodied in a back alley behind Pluto, but at least I dare to dream; that’s better than being Earthbound mired in the muck of mediocrity".

I judge my forward progress and success by the crushingly epic nature of my failures.

The more epic the crash, the more I’m convinced I must be doing something right.




Tricia Boutte said...

I loved EVERYTHING about this!! Fiddy year old pussy!!

pmarc said...

Great reading Georgie.....very interesting stuff. I had a similar time in Clarksdale MS. with a well known harmonica player (although mush later in life than your trip). Just substitute the scotch with moonshine !

Rick Short said...

Simply excellent! You made it happen.

Linda Peterson said...

Clearly it was worth it.