bio info....inspirations, beginnings, successes and failures
Elvis and My Life in Music
Preface to these autobiographical musings
2001, a pain odyssey. During my recovery from heart surgery on February 12, 2001, I was, naturally, reflecting on my life and lamenting that I hadn’t kept a record of every gig I’d played. I wanted to remember my life through those thousands of gigs. That would have steered me through the cobwebs. Without the benefit of a diary, I started jotting down my earliest music memories in hopes of at least finding a somewhat accurate chronology. Those earliest memories were the most significant and memorable because they molded and pointed me to a life as a professional musician. I think I’ve unraveled the high spots. I do this for me in case I ever forget who I am! And, for any family members who may be interested. I don’t regret my life as a musician. I do wish I’d had more ambition, a longer view and been smarter about it. I wish I had taken Bob Conti’s advice when I was 19, to go to a music school. Or, taken the advice of Bill Davis when I was in my early 30s to finish my degree while teaching at JU. Insecurity and pride is a bad combination. In spite of some poor decisions, I have had some marginal successes. I have taught at a university for 30 years without a music degree (I consider that a success. It’s much easier to do with legit credentials). I have supported my family playing jazz music in a city known more for rock and roll and country music. And, somehow I’ve done this without much forethought, planning or extreme effort. Again, my regret is that with forethought, planning and effort I would be a much better musician and after all, that is what the goal was and still is. So, in that regard, my personal shortcomings have had the final say. Cause and effect is a bitch. I took the road less traveled when I should’ve gotten on the interstate.
Elvis? Yes, he may have been my earliest musical influence. As a 5 year old I heard and procured the 45rpm recordings of “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Hound Dog”, “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Love Me Tender” (I suspect my mother was a willing accomplice). In fact, there is a home movie of my mom and me dancing on the beach in West Palm and of me gyrating and playing air guitar ala Elvis. Additionally, there were the Ed Sullivan Show appearances during the mid-fifties where Elvis was only shown from the waist up. However, Ed said he was a “fine young man.” Be that as it may, the guitar seed was planted…and Elvis was the father!
My grandfather on my father’s side, Ed Nolan (we all called him Pa), and his son, my uncle Bo, were both guitarists. Pa, whose snoring scared me as a young boy on sleepovers at my grandparent’s house and whose only vice was Swisher Sweet cigars, was a gentle man who had worked very hard in his life. In the 1930s he hauled and laid railroad ties, but during my youth, he was a park worker (landscape artist). Most of his tenure was before power mowers and riding mowers and he would mow Willowbranch Park with an old circular (non-powered) push mower. He planted and cared for the beautiful rose beds there as well. Later, after he'd retired from the city, he kept the grounds at the Cummer Museum. After work and on weekends he would often go to the bedroom to play his old Gibson flattop and sometimes sing. Occasionally he and Bo would play at family gatherings. I did not, of course, realize at the time that this was a real southern working man tradition. It’s how folk songs and blues grew and evolved. Regular people singing and playing guitars, shaping and moving the music of the “folks.” It was both literally and figuratively music to my ears and I wanted in. Around the age of 10 or 11, I asked and Pa showed me how to play “Boogie Woogie” and “Wildwood Flower.” I was a quick study and enthralled by the sound and, that I was making it. If I asked first, I was entrusted with the guitar and spent much time fooling around with it. It felt good and natural and I respected it as I respected the players of it, my grandfather and uncle. It seemed like more than an instrument for musical expression. Without it, there would be no music and Pa would not be the same person. It was enriching and magical.
Bo played with my grandfather and alone. He had a Gibson archtop acoustic from the mid fifties. It had a beautiful sunburst finish and a distinctly Gibson guitar smell. Later, in the mid sixties after it had been replaced and was just a closet guitar, my cousin Danny finagled it and refinished it…a disaster…in southern speak, he “roined it”. Bo sang and played, but his repertoire, while retaining some of what he had learned from his father, was decidedly more modern. “Two Sleepy People” is more to chew on harmonically than “Boogie Woogie.” So I bugged Bo to show me things. Both he and Pa taught me chords and simple songs to play. I never had the urge to sing. I was too self-conscious and shy and singing never appealed to me. Plus, I wanted to hear the guitar, not my voice. My cousin Danny who was a few years older was also showing interest and we competed for time with the guitar. Eventually we were allowed to use both Bo and Pa’s guitars and play together. During this time in late fifties, I lived in Williamsport, PA, my mother’s hometown. My grandfather and uncle were in Jacksonville, my father’s home. So this tutoring really only occurred during summer vacations in Florida, generally two weeks a year.
During the summer of 1959 or 1960, the Florida side of the family came north to Pennsylvania for a visit. I had just received my first instrument. My mother’s father played tenor banjo semi-professionally around Williamsport. After he died in 1956, my grandmother passed the banjo on to my father who was in construction work and who didn’t have the time or inclination to learn an instrument, so I gradually inherited it. Not so gradually I began plucking around on it and when my Florida grandfather and uncle visited us in Pennsylvania, the timing was just right. The stars and planets had aligned perfectly. Bo showed me a slew of chords. They had to be adapted to the 4 strings of the banjo and we tuned it like the top four strings of the guitar. I learned the chord progression to “Five Foot Two” and played it over and over again. At this point, I wasn’t completely obsessed, but I had the ability and now a little knowledge. The seed was now watered.
We moved to Yulee, Fl. in 1962. My father, who had been a lather, was recruited by his brother-in-law, Eddie Klempf, to manage a new chicken farm that was part of his business, Dixie Egg Co. My dad’s mother, we called her Ma, was anxious to have us move to Florida. All of her other children lived near her and I suspect she may have masterminded the relocation, but I was happy with it partly because it got me closer to the guitar action, Pa and Bo. We lived on the farm for about 4 years.
There were 70,000 chickens to oversee; seven chicken houses, each 220 yards long and about 20 yards wide and each housed 10,000 birds. During that time, I learned and experienced a lot. I explored the woods, saw snakes and alligators, bobcats and deer in addition to the ubiquitous raccoons and possums. My Dad and I went into the woods to find our Christmas trees. We planted a garden. I had a .22 rifle with which I shot rats and tin cans. I learned to drive a tractor and my dad’s 1956 Oldsmobile. After dinner I would make him give up the keys and drive it up and down the 3 mile long dirt road we lived on…great fun. I also pored over Sears and Wards catalogs admiring the guitars. In order to buy one, I began working on the weekends, picking up eggs. Some of the regular workers got off on weekends and subs were used. I started doing this when I was 12 or 13. The routine was to pick up the eggs 3 times a day, morning, noon and late afternoon. I would be assigned one of the 7 chicken houses... A chicken can only lay 1 egg a day maximum, so with 10,000 chickens, there were between 4 and 8 thousand eggs to gather throughout the day. Imagine small wooden nests about 1’ x 1’ concurrently running the 220 yd length on both sides of the chicken house. The nests were chest high and just in front of them was a 10-12 inch wide rail/shelf that I would slide the egg flats (square cardboard tray that holds 30 eggs) along as I went down the line reaching into each nest and pulling back up to 8 or 9 eggs (multiple users…guess the chickens had favorite nests). Occasionally a chicken would fly out into my face or if they didn’t fly, I had to reach under them and risk being pecked to get the eggs. Under my left arm was a stack of egg flats so that I could stack a new one on top of the last one when it was full. When the stack of filled flats reached 10 high, I would store them in a pickup area. Each egg house had about 4 pickup areas spaced along the way. A stack of 8 to 10 flats full of eggs can be heavy and cumbersome. Two or three times a day all seven workers would all take a flatbed trailer pulled by a tractor around to each pickup area of each house to collect the stacks of eggs. They would be brought to the egghouse and unloaded into a candling area and then into a cooler. The next morning they were on their way to the Dixie Egg plant in Jacksonville to be packaged and taken to supermarkets and stores. Each day that I worked, I made about $12. That was $24 a weekend, nearly $100 a month.
The first guitar I bought I ordered from the Montgomery Ward catalog. It was an Airline (probably made by Kay or Harmony) archtop acoustic with sunburst finish and it set me back about $60. It came one day when I was at school and my mom had opened it and placed it on my bed. When I got home and went to my room…wow! The banjo went into the closet and I began adjusting to having two more strings to play with.
During this time of the early sixties Danny was getting me into the Ventures’ music. The Ventures were a four piece instrumental surf/rock band. They had two guitars (lead and rhythm), bass and drums. The Beatles also invaded in 1962, giving me more guitar music and their strong melodic influence (although their earliest stuff was pretty simple they soon began composing winners like “Yesterday” and “Michelle”). Running parallel to these influences were Chet Atkins, who Bo and Pa admired, and the records my mother played at home. Fortunately, she loves good music and besides the Mantovani, Ray Coniff Singers and the like, she spun jazz albums like Thad Jones, Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong. I know the Brubeck came from Bo, who was getting into jazz. Hearing my Mother’s music played frequently, developed my musical appreciation and discernment.
In 1963 and 64 since we now lived in Florida, we spent our two week summer vacation in Pennsylvania. One of those summers, my mother’s brother Wayne had taken up electric bass and got together with some buddies to make music. I don’t know if they played gigs or not, but I dug listening to them and my uncle taking interest in my playing. There was an explosion of music and musicians in the early 60’s and I suppose the Beatles and others were the catalysts. Wayne hadn’t played an instrument prior to then that I knew of. He also played a little bit of guitar and showed me some barre chords. They are difficult chords to finger, but are very useful, especially in rock music. I learned Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” and a few other ditties from him and maybe shared some of the Ventures stuff I was getting into. Now there was music flowing from both sides of the family.
Bo began taking lessons from Fred Arnold who had a studio at 1633 San Marco Blvd. This was about 1963 and Bo had an early Fender Stratocaster. He bought it new back around 1960 or so. It probably cost between $200-300. Today that guitar would be worth 20k or more! On the weekends that I wasn’t picking up eggs, I would come into town with my family. Always to Ma and Pa’s house where all of their children would congregate with their families and throw down, which for me, at that time, meant getting together with Danny, fishing in the lake out back, lots of talk, and beans and rice, chicken and biscuits. I would bug Bo for guitar info and he would leave the adult conversation for a while to show me something. And, I would hear about his lessons and all that he was learning. I wanted some of that too. So in the summer of 1965 when I was 14 going on 15, I started lessons. My dad drove me in to town for my 6:30 lesson every Tuesday at Fred Arnold’s studio.
Fred was a nice seeming fellow probably in his 40’s or even 50’s. Although I wasn’t aware of it then, he resembled Django Reinhardt. I remember his dark mustache and hair and his beautiful red Gibson ES-335. He started me out learning to read notation. At first simple things like “Little Brown Jug,” but I quickly progressed to “Vilia,” “The Happy Wanderer” and “Carnival of Venice.” He was encouraging and made me feel like a star pupil (I probably was). His method was good because he would comp chords to my melody and help keep me in time. I would master a new piece each week and seldom took two weeks on a piece. Even though I’d practice a lot at home, I never thought of it as practice. To me it was “oh boy, I get to play.” I played before school and after school and at night, hours a day, every day. I was becoming consumed. All the while, I was listening to and copying Ventures, Beatles and Chet Atkins music.
Around that same time, I saw in the newspaper that my guitar hero, Chet Atkins was coming to the Jacksonville Coliseum along with Boots Randolph and Floyd Cramer. I immediately bought two tickets and asked my dad if he would take me. My folks were always supportive in ways like that, responding to requests, but not really initiating challenges or goals. Their loving, yet bystander posture would serve me well within a couple of years when I took off to play jazz in the Atlanta ghetto in 1967. I was counting down the weeks and days until I’d get to hear and see Chet. I was very excited about the whole deal because it was Chet Atkins, guitar god. Also, a fact I did not realize then was that I had never heard live music performed by pros before.
A month or so before the big concert I accepted an invitation from Bo to come over and spend the night and listen to some music. He was now married and lived in a nice brick house in Arlington and was growing weary of me always going on and on about Chet or the Ventures and wanted me to hear something different. I was eager to hear it if it was guitar music, but I could not have anticipated the profound affect that visit would have. There may have been others, but I only remember listening to Johnny Smith and Barney Kessel records. It was so swingin’! The phrasing of the lines and the mellow, dry tone of the guitar along with the more complex harmonies (my mom’s records had prepared me for that) were overwhelming. There was an immediate metamorphosis. I became possessed and my head did a 360 like the little girl in the “Exorcist.” I was entering a completely new realm. That weekend Bo taught me, a chord melody arrangement of “Early Autumn”. It utilized major 7th chords; jazz chords. There was that sound I had heard on the records! I was possessed and had no choice. I had not chosen jazz; it had chosen me. Well a few weeks later, I had to go see square old Chet Atkins. I already had the tickets, right? Actually, my dad and I did go and it was an enjoyable concert, but I only dug it about 1/10 the amount that I would have had I not just discovered jazz guitar. The harmonies and lines were not interesting to me anymore. In fairness, Chet Atkins was a great musician in his style. It just was not my style anymore. The seed planted by Elvis, watered by Pa and Bo earlier, was now sprouting, and growing in a decidedly jazz direction thanks to that night.
That awakening dovetailed nicely with a new guitar teacher. At the beginning of 1966 at one of my lessons, Fred told me he had to go away for a while for family reasons. He was vague, but I didn’t press him. I was just a kid and it wasn’t my business. He assured me he would be back in a few weeks and in the meantime, a young fellow named Robert Conti would be filling in. As it turned out, the reality was that he had sold the business to Bob and Fred was gone for good. The change was another stroke of good timing in my development. Bob was about 21 and a brash Italian from Philadelphia (he said Philly, of course). He was the quintessential 60’s playboy with the Corvette, sharp clothes; like a rat pack loving, cocky Italian George Hamilton. To say that he was sure of himself would be a severe understatement. He may have been a megalomaniac, but he had chops of fire and he was a jazz guy! I soaked up the jazz chords and repertoire he showed me as well as a couple of scales for improvising. Looking back on it, his approach to teaching was inexperienced and there was little emphasis on reading (only a couple of exercises from a violin book in order to build chops), however, the chords, which he made me comp while he practiced soloing were the key to jazz harmony. After I mentioned that I had just been turned on to Barney Kessel and Johnny Smith, he suggested I buy a Wes Montgomery album and for even more blues inflected jazz guitarists, to check out Grant Green and Kenny Burrell. I was a sponge for all this material. I remember buying “Bumpin’” by Wes and being mesmerized by his tone, phrasing, octaves, and melodicism. Then I got “The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery” which is one of his very best. I literally wore that record out and had to buy another copy years later. Along with Wes, I loved the Kenny Burrell and Grant Green approach, which is more blues influenced than the Johnny Smith and Barney Kessel records that introduced me to jazz guitar. I immersed myself in that style of jazz guitar, predominately played by black musicians.
I started buying Downbeat magazine and it was there that I noticed an ad from Berklee School of Music for a jazz correspondence course. I signed up and began learning music theory. After completing a lesson, I would mail it back to Boston ( Boston to Yulee and back…that sounds funny). It would be graded and returned with comments and the next lesson. I believe it was a 20-lesson course and I got through lesson 7 or 8. At that point, the lessons began addressing arranging for horns and I wasn’t interested. That was shortsighted, but for me it was all about guitar! I had received a good foundation in theory in those first 7 or 8 lessons. This was all happening during my last year or so on the farm. I was 15.
Near the end of our life on the farm, I bought my first car, a 1959 Rambler station wagon, for $50. My Dad did a lot of restorative work on it. He even painted it. When I got my restricted license I began driving it (with my Dad bravely accompanying) into town for my 8:30 Wednesday lesson. Conti set my lesson at the end of the day so there wouldn’t be time constraints. I was his best student; he said it and I knew it. Bob called my car the “Battlewagon.” It had a 3-speed column shift that jammed up every now and then. Down the street from the studio was a great mechanic. Henry Koenig was a character. He was from Pennsylvania, I believe. He would joke and tease like some people I’d observed up north when I lived there. His language was coarse and he would tease so you weren’t sure if he was serious or not, but his heart was huge. My Dad did most of the repair on my car, but in a pinch or emergency, Henry would always come through and never charge me much. His helper/sidekick was Earl, a quiet type. Earl took a lot of guff from Henry. They were a comical pair. Henry’s garage isn’t there anymore, but I always have warm, grateful thoughts when I pass by that corner of San Marco and LaSalle.
In the summer of 1966, we left the farm and moved to Miramar St. I was about to enter 11th grade at Wolfson High School. Bob wanted me to start teaching beginners for him and at that point my regular lessons ceased. I would grab a lesson when we both had some free time, but it was unstructured at best. The studio was originally a one-bedroom apartment. The living room was the waiting area, the bedroom was where Bob taught, and the kitchen was where I taught. At Wolfson, I signed up for a program called DCT (Diversified Cooperative Training). It was designed so that I would take academic classes in the morning (no electives) and then work in the afternoon. I was out of there by 12:30 every day. My first lessons were not until 3:00 or 3:30 so I would have a few hours free. I also taught on Saturday mornings. Bob and I both had early students, like 7 am! Once or twice, there were even 6:30 am students (the Mosely brothers). We usually got out of there by mid afternoon; Bob to his swinging bachelor pad and me home to practice, listen to a new record or maybe hook up with my cousin Danny for some 60’s teen action: driving around, doing something totally goofy or stupid (or better yet, both), trying to get a hold of a Playboy magazine, driving around, bowling, going to the beach, surfing (one summer only), driving around some more, etc.
My first date was a 6th grade dance, which a girl classmate invited me to. I didn’t want to go until Bo offered me $5 to go and have a good time. I don’t dance, but I guess I twisted a bit that night. In any event, I was five bucks ahead! The Battlewagon participated in my second date with Pam Wilson, but it was not the coolest vehicle, so I traded it in for a 1959 Austin Healey 100-6. I really don’t know what prompted my interest in foreign cars at a time when every other kid was hot for GTOs or Roadrunners…what were called muscle cars, but somehow I became fixated and this Healey was the first in a series of Austin Healey 3000’s (2), Porsche 356’s (2), Triumph TR4A, Volvo 122, MGB, Porsche 911, Triumph Spitfire (not exactly in order). My first, the 100-6, the 1959, was from a used car lot. When my Dad and I checked it out I tried the radio and smoke and sparks ensued. The salesman said they would fix the wiring so I took a chance and bought it for $800. Within a couple of weeks, I had gotten a ticket for drag racing on Main St. Danny and I were cruisin’ the Krystal on Main St. when a Mustang pulled up beside us at a stoplight. Danny egged me on, “come on man you can take him,” and I succumbed. A block later, I had my first ticket. My Dad went to bat for me and talked to the judge who only gave me a one-month suspension with an exemption to drive to school. I learned two lessons from that experience; do not drag race and do not listen to Danny. The race was a costly tie.
The summer that I was 15, Conti was approached to play with a young organist named Doug Carn. Doug was from St Augustine. His mother was a schoolteacher and he was among the very first black students to attend Jacksonville University. I’ll never forget Bob’s reaction because it offended me so. Laughingly he declared “I ain’t gonna go out there and play with spades for 10 bucks a night”.....but, he had this student….me. He gave me Doug’s number at the JU dorms and I called. We arranged a meeting and even though he was just two years older, he was far ahead in his playing and jazz listening experience and had come up musically in the black church. He took me under his wing, we practiced, and before long we were playing on the weekends at the Eldorado on Moncrief Rd in north Jax. Doug called it the grease, meaning an entirely black area. I looked like a nerd chemistry student with my black glasses and short hair. That was my first music school. I made $12 a night and I encountered marijuana way before it was commonplace in the high school I attended. I tried it a few times as a novelty, but didn’t partake much. It was certainly a different experience in a different world. In my daytime world, kids at Wolfson High were concerned with Bass shoes, London Fog jackets and Pontiac GTOs. I laughed on the inside at their superficial obsessions. Doug and I had an organ trio in the mold of the Jimmy Smith Trio, organ, guitar, and drums. I remember it being a bit weird being the only white face in the place, but I was absolutely accepted. Given the times, 1966, that was very cool. Maybe they dug the fact that I was a jazz guy (neophyte albeit) and that I was so young and nerdy. I certainly didn’t pose a threat and could hardly be accused of being “the man.” I had to convince my parents to allow me to do this. I believe I recruited Bo to put in a word of support for me. Still, I’ll never quite understand why they let me do it. I was mature for my age, but still….16. We played there through the winter and into the spring of 1967.
After my 11th grade year, Doug had the idea for us to go to Atlanta for the summer to gig. He had a friend, Roland Fleming from St Augustine that had moved there and we could crash with him until we got our own place. So early one June 1967 morning we met at the Phillips Highway Mall. I had my Healey 100-6, 2 seater. Doug’s mom drove him up from St Augustine. I have no idea how we got our suitcases, my guitar, and our skinny selves into the car, but we did. Off we went. We stayed with Roland for a week or two. I slept on a lazy boy.
I never experienced any serious racial weirdness that summer. Only once when I was walking alone to a gig did a group of young black cats give me some lip. I just kept walking. I guess carrying an instrument was my passport, because the times were certainly turbulent. 1967 was the summer that there were race riots in Newark and Detroit, National Guard, tanks, tear gas and more. I remember seeing various rallies as we walked and drove around the grease in Atlanta. We saw Dr King and others like Stokely Carmichael. Before we landed a steady gig, we had to scuffle to eat. Doug and I collected bottles and got change from people we knew so we could buy the most cost efficient meal….a club sandwich, which we would split. There were days when that was all we ate. Once, we played a gig for food at Dot’s Barbeque.
The second week we were in Atlanta the Jimmy Smith Trio was playing for a week at Paschal’s La Carousel. It was a great experience to hear Jimmy in his prime. The power of his playing was incredible and his drummer Donald Bailey and guitarist Nathen Page were super inspiring. I remember that during that week they played at the Atlanta Jazz Festival where I also got to dig, Cannonball Adderley, Sarah Vaughn, Wes, Miles, Nina Simone, and others...back when they had REAL jazz festivals. After the festival, Jimmy appeared to palm each of the sidemen a hundred dollar bill. Later Donald, Nathen, Doug and I went to a jam session where Donald Bailey played some of the baddest jazz chromatic harmonica I’ve ever heard (no offense Toots).
The very next week at Paschal’s Wes Montgomery was scheduled to come in. This was 1967 and Wes had “crossed over” to a larger i.e. white audience with his Tequila album. He was there six nights and a matinee on Sunday. Early in the week, I ran into Billy Hart, Wes’ drummer at the time, along with Monk and Buddy Montgomery (bass and piano). I asked Billy where Wes was staying. Paschal’s was a hotel as well as a restaurant and lounge. Billy gave me Wes’ room number so I meekly knocked on his door. Wes answered and in the background, I saw a woman getting dressed. I, looking like a nerdy young Bill Evans and said “Mr. Montgomery I’d like to talk to you.” He said, “Ok, meet me down in the restaurant in ten minutes.” So I floated down there and sure enough, Wes showed up. We spent at least an hour in a booth. At 16, my questions were not very incisive or heavy, but I certainly let him know how his playing was inspiring me. I asked silly things like why is he recording with orchestras in a more commercial setting. He said he had played for many years just scraping by and now had a chance to reach a larger audience and make much more money….duh. On his later records, he was constrained by the arrangements, but still his genius shone through. He was so very kind to me, a nobody kid from Florida. As I was listening to him, I was staring at the scar on his nose. It was the scar I had noticed on his picture on the cover of the “Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery,” an album I had just about worn out during the first six months I owned it. That’s the same scar…live and in person!
At the same time Wes was at Paschal’s, Charles Earland’s group was at the Birdcage around the corner. His guitarist was Jimmy Ponder who was burnin’ on a Les Paul. I approached Jimmy about a lesson and he graciously invited me to his room and we played a little. He showed me some stuff. He also convinced Charlie to let me sit in one night so I scuffled through a blues. Jimmy was a sweet guy and very encouraging. At the end of that week at Wes’ matinee on Sunday afternoon, Jimmy and I were there. He knew Wes and was asked to sit in. He sounded great with the Montgomery Brothers. I remember that Jimmy and Wes asked me if I wanted to play…..uh, thanks but I’m not ready. Of course, I should have. I did however sneak onto the stage earlier in the week while Wes and the group were taking a break from a little afternoon rehearsal. I picked up Wes’ guitar and played a few chords. Then I nervously put it back. I just want to come into contact with the magic that I had been witnessing all week, front row, jaw agape. Off topic: one of those nights, two dudes came up the stairs into the club. I was seated at the front table five feet from Wes, but right next to the stairs to my left. One cat leaned over and asked me what the time was. A minute later Doug said,”hey man, you know who that was?” “No”. “That was Rap Brown.” He was there with Stokely Carmichael to hear Wes. It was a weird mix. Quite a few white folks ventured to the grease in south Atlanta to catch Wes because that was after he had diversified musically. He would mix in a tune like “Windy” or “Tequila” to appease that sector, but 95% was burnin’, real deal Wes and I saw it 6 nights in a row (the next summer when Doug and I were playing in Birmingham, we heard on the radio that Wes had died of a heart attack. That night at our gig at the Aqua Lounge, across the street from the park where a couple of years earlier riots with the video footage of people being water hosed and beaten occurred, we played “Goin Out Of My Head” as a tribute to Wes. He had just won a Grammy for his recording of that pop song).
Before long, Doug landed us a gig at the Birdcage. It was a nice club and we had a 5 or 6 nighter there. I made $150 for the week. Doug and I checked out of Roland’s crib and got a basement apartment on Fair St. near Morris Brown, Clark, and Spelman Colleges. Doug’s girlfriend Wanda was attending Spelman. We were living and playing in the grease and for some reason decided we didn’t need or couldn’t afford electricity, so we took cold showers and used candles at night for light. To make matters worse we had painted the walls black. I bet the landlord was thrilled.
Several memorable things happened during the Birdcage gig. I had purchased an old Gibson stereo amp at a pawnshop. There was a saying when a musician was playing well that he was “bringin’ smoke.” Well one night I brought smoke. I had my amp on a chair behind me and I started to hear gasps from the audience. Doug looked over and said,
“Hey man, your amp is on fire.” Sure enough, smoke was billowing out. I was really bringing smoke. The next day we took it to some cat who fixed it for twenty bucks or so. During that gig, I had a very nice encounter with an older jazz guitar aficionado who liked to have guitarist coming through town come to his house to feed them and talk guitar. The ultimate compliment was that he said that a few weeks prior he had Grant Green over. He was very kind and owned a beautiful Gibson L5 guitar. Also during that gig Rufus Thomas who had a hit called “Walkin’ The Dog” sat in with us and for a couple of weeks the club owner hired a wonderful singer from New York named Irene Reid. She was a real pro and Doug and I both learned a lot. During our time at the Birdcage, Dick Gregory, Fats Domino, and other black celebs came through the club.
It was during this time that my Healey was hit while parked on the street at our crib. Our drummer was Jimmy Gutteridge from Jax. He was newly married to a Mexican woman. I remember that he loved snakes and kept many pet snakes in his house. Anyway, Doug and I were out on a ride with Jimmy and his wife one day and when we returned Doug said, “Hey man, your short’s been hit.” Naturally, I freaked (on the inside) and we went porch to porch asking folks if they had seen it happen. One person recognized the driver who hit my car and fled as a man from the next street over. We caught up with him and called the police so there would be an accident report. I believe he denied hitting me, but all the signs indicated otherwise, including the fact that he was still way drunk when we confronted him! After I got back to Jax, he was unresponsive about paying for damages so I hired a lawyer who got a court order and amazingly upon threat of losing his license, he began making $50 a month payments and eventually I received $500. The lawyer got a small percentage and that was really cheap justice…1967 style. The car was undrivable and sat on the street until my Dad and I went up and towed it back. I forget what car he had, but we rented a tow bar and brought in home. Dad pulled out the dents to the front as much as possible and I got a new radiator and was back on the road. Months later, I advertised it for sale in the newspaper. A young newbie lawyer, named Stan, came and bought it. He was in a hurry because he had a date that night and wanted to impress her! My folks and I had a big laugh. I think I got about $600 for it.
The summer ended and my senior year of high school awaited me back in Jax. I was hot for the music biz’ and decided to finish high school as fast as possible so I enrolled in Central Adult High School. I took just the courses necessary to finish and was done by the Christmas break. During this time, I delivered drugs in a VW for Fred Ossi at Brookwood Pharmacy on Hendricks Ave. and gigged with Doug. We recorded a demo record at a studio on S. Edgewood Ave (near Roosevelt).
The following summer of 1968 Doug arranged a gig for us in Birmingham AL. Off we went, this time we had a gig waiting at the Aqua Lounge (mentioned earlier). It was in the grease and we stayed at a well-known black motel a few blocks away. It had been headquarters for many black leaders during the civil rights protests. One night Doug found out that Mavis Staples and the Staple Singers were staying there and we got together with them. I guess we “partied” before that noun became a verb. Sometimes we would go to the Aqua Lounge in the afternoon to practice a tune and that is where I first heard Jimi Hendrix. They had a stereo system with speakers in the ceiling, running the length of the club. I remember hearing this music roaring up and down the ceiling. I appreciated that it was new and fresh, but I didn’t run out and buy the album. It didn’t swing, but it did serve as a jumping off point that lead to jazz fusion via Miles Davis and others. Also at the Aqua, one night after the gig, Doug and I were leaving and outside the club there were some pretty “ladies” giving me catcalls. Doug said, “hey man, those aren’t women…keep walking”. I had my first (and last) encounter with drag queens. By that time, I had my third Healey, a 1966 British Racing green 3000. Some nights we would walk back to the hotel and sometimes we would blast into downtown Birmingham, top down at 1 or 2 am. to eat at an all-night cafeteria, top down, one white, one black, both oblivious to very real danger…1968….Alabama. Martin Luther King was about to be killed a few months later. Boy, were we young and dumb. Nothing bad ever happened.
After that summer, I came back to Jax to figure out my next move. Doug was headed for California. In 1968 and 69 the Vietnam War was raging. I decided to go to college in order to get a student deferment. I decided to go to Georgia State University and enrolled for the fall 1969 semester. I was clueless about how to do this and I drove into Atlanta, got a newspaper, and made calls about apartments for rent. For some reason, probably money, I ended up in Hapeville near the airport. It was a 20-30 minute drive on I-75 to get downtown where the campus was. I was 19 and on my own. I went to class and also caught a lot of Braves games. That was when the Braves had Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, Clete Boyer, Felix Milan, and on and on. I didn’t really have any friends there and did everything alone. But, still it was fun. I ran out of money after that semester and could not return for the spring 1970 semester. I ended up going to Florida Junior College in Jax.
Also in 1970, I bought Bob Conti’s studio and began a five-year stint of being a full time guitar instructor and small business owner. Bob was going into the straight business world and wanted $1750 for the studio, fixtures, students, good will, etc. Well, I didn’t have that kind of money so I asked my uncle Eddie Klempf for help. I wanted to borrow the money from him, but he did something very wise and instructive. He did not loan me the money. That would have been easy. He did, however, take me to meet with his banker and co-signed a loan. Now I could establish credit, open a checking account and become legit. I was responsible and payed back the loan with no problem. I remember driving through the drive thru of Sun Bank in my red Porsche 911 and making deposits and payments. Yes, 911! In 1970 I bought a 1966 911 for $3600! A few years later for economic reasons I don’t understand, Porsches began costing 20k and more. The studio teaching went well. I had many students and was able to get my own apartment.
I still tried to get around and play at jam sessions. At the Chatterbox Lounge in Arlington I met a sax player named Don Finney. He invited me to come and play with a new group of musicians he was assembling. I met them at a studio owned by Wally Eaton who was one of the Classics Four, a very big and good pop band. There I met drummer Chip Miller and his girlfriend singer, Leslie Hawkins, who would later be a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd and unfortunately would be seriously injured in their plane crash a few years later in 1977. Also there was bassist George Sumner from Pittsburg, Don’s brother Larry who played trumpet and was a JU student along with Pete Abood on Fender Rhodes. We jammed and things went well. We seemed to have some chemistry. George and Chip were from a rock background and Don and Larry were more into Motown and jazz fusion. Pete was into jazz. Our common ground was black music, from Sam Cooke to Cannonball Adderley. The group we formed played a variation of Cannonball, Blood Sweat and Tears and Otis Redding…. blue-eyed soul jazz. Don was the leader and named the group one of the worst band names ever….No’ols Bard. He said it was a play on no holds barred with a nod to Shakespeare…the bard part. Anyway, it was his baby. For a couple of years we played a lot of clubs and bars in the area as well as road trips to Athens Ga and a frat house at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. I remember on the ride to Tuscaloosa, we had to go through Montgomery. We made some big deal out of traveling through West Montgomery. One of our best gigs was at the Jax Civic Auditorium for the Auto Show. The Penthouse Pet of the Year was there. But really, the best gig with them was opening for Leo Kottke at the Civic Auditorium. We were the first of three acts. Leo was the headliner and on last. We were the opening act and the middle act was a new young singer/pianist named Billy Joel. A few months later, the song “Piano Man” hit big and he “really” became Billy Joel.
The group also played a swanky club in downtown Jax called the Penthouse. It was on top of a tall building and completely revolved once every hour. It was also there that I sat in with organist Willie Cockrell, Fred Bowman and a young drummer named Von Barlow. Von and I would share many bandstands in the future.
Eventually the band split up, Pete and George and I started playing at the Holiday Inn at Jax Beach with Brother Sleepy. Sleepy was a drummer who sang mostly Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye songs along with a few jazz standards like “Misty” and “Route 66.” He was called Sleepy because his eyes looked closed and droopy like he was asleep. It was more pop than I wanted, but it was a steady gig and with guys I liked. During the day, we would listen to a lot of sides (records) and play racquetball.
It was during this gig that I met organist Clarence Palmer. I came to learn that Clarence had recently been on the road with Stanley Turrentine, Grant Green and George Benson. In fact, he was on George’s “Beyond the Blue Horizon” record. He came into the Holiday Inn and heard me. We used to play the Wes Montgomery tune, “Tear it Down” for our break song and Clarence dug it so he asked me to come by and play with his organ, drums, singer (his wife Julie) group at another club on the beach called “A Nice Place.” I did and there was instant chemistry so I bid the pop group adieu. Now I was back in the jazz world and Clarence was a killin’ B3 player. That was 1974. Clarence was black and a very dapper dude who wore suits and ties…in the daytime! He wore Baron cologne and drank Harvey’s Bristol Cream. He had been in the Air Force and told me that one night before I joined the band a group of Japanese sailors were at a nearby table making racist remarks in their native tongue. He just smiled at them and kept playing. They didn’t know that he had been stationed in Japan and had picked up some of the language so he could tell what they were saying. After the set, he went over, spoke to them in Japanese, and sat down and they ended up having a great time.
Clarence landed a hotel gig in Lake Buena Vista near Disney World and off we went for a three-month engagement. It was a six nighter and that was definitely good for me to re-establish and grow my jazz sensibilities. Clarence led by example as a musician and a bandleader. He, and later Bill Davis, were my role models for being a bandleader. Clarence, with his history as a sideman for Grant and George was a guitar player’s dream. I got lots of time to stretch out and grow in a very musical band. Julie sang in a very polished and sophisticated style. I would say she was influenced by Nancy Wilson and Carmen McCrae as much as Sarah and Ella. Julie wasn’t on all of our gigs, but most of our sets at a big hotel involved the organ trio playing a few tunes and Julie joining us for the rest of the set….”the show part”.
Between November 1974 to August 1975, we played at many places in Jax and Orlando. In August 1975, we went to Lafayette La for a nondescript hotel engagement at the Downtowner. After that ran its course, Clarence found a gig at the Caravelle Club in Lafayette. It was a huge room with a restaurant, an area with pool tables and then a lounge and listening area. Wherever Clarence and Julie would land, they would be an instant sensation and be hot for a while. It was a more sophisticated act than most folks in Lafayette (or anywhere outside of big metro areas) had seen. Almost, New York City comes to Hooterville.
We had a great drummer from New Orleans, John Vudocovich, on the set in Lafayette. He and I would mostly shoot pool and talk music on breaks. I wasn’t a drinker or drugger so pool was cool. The most memorable night was when Clarence and Julie began getting heckled in racist language from one particular table. Clarence had a very cool and calm way of dealing with racism. He would try to engage people, from the stage with his mic, on a human level with humor and a sense of equality. I observed him deal with those encounters as sport and he seemed to enjoy it on a certain level. I think it was a challenge he relished, to prove to people that he was intelligent, urbane and their equal, if not their superior! On this particular night that wasn’t really working. These crackers were insistent upon making a scene. It got to the point that Clarence stopped the music mid song and started /discussing/arguing with this table. It was quite surreal. John just sat at his drum chair both amused and disgusted with what he was witnessing. A fight could have easily broken out. I walked a little off stage onto the dance floor and started noodling the “Star Spangled Banner.” Somehow, it seemed appropriate and I suppose my way of saying can’t we just all get along? Here we are, all people, all Americans, just coming together to have a good time. As I recall, that table was “ejected from the club” without violence. No jazz for you.
(A side note: Sometime later, John invited me to come by his place in New Orleans. I tried! His address was something like 4 ½ Mystery St. It’s still a mystery to me).
Finally back in Jax, I prepared to make my journey to the “big time”….not New York because I didn’t know anyone there, didn’t have much money and was basically intimidated by the prospects of survival in 1970s NYC. I had relatives in Los Angeles so I headed west. Actually, I had made a brief stab at LA a year or two earlier, but only lasted two weeks. This time in 1976, I was more prepared. I stayed with my uncle Wayne (the bass player from Williamsport) and his family. They lived in Azusa (an acronym for everything from A to Z in the USA). Azusa was a 30-minute drive from LA. Wayne was very generous with his car. He worked near South Central LA and I would ride in with him and take the car for the day, later picking him up at work and back to Azusa. It didn’t take long to find a job and a place to stay in LA. I got a job at Bill White’s Foods for Health in Sherman Oaks and found a room for rent in a North Hollywood house. My landlady was about five years older than me with an 8-year-old daughter. She was a legal secretary and had a nice little California bungalow in North Hollywood about two miles from Donte’s Jazz Club. She was divorced and there was no man in her life. Enough said.
I enjoyed the work at the health food store. I was a health food nut anyway. I was a stock and produce guy. I had never seen a health food store like this one. They had everything and plenty of it. My co-workers, Pam and a younger girl whose name I forget (we called her “the kid”) had a good time there. A popular TV show at the time was “Laverne and Shirley” and Shirley’s mother worked at the lunch counter of the store so even though I didn’t really care, I met Shirley (Cindy Williams). It was cooler meeting Stan Levey there. He was a jazz drummer who had played with Charlie Parker when Bird made his west coast swings. Stan was a real cat and very encouraging when in the course of conversation he found out that I was a musician, too. It was a happening store. I met/helped Steve McQueen, Mickey Rooney, the guys from Mash, Tom Hayden, and Joni Mitchell among others. Another Mrs Williams, owned the organic bakery that supplied bread to the store and eventually hired me away and I went to work for her in the Burbank bakery. It was closer to North Hollywood and she paid me a little more.
While still at the health food store, I came face to face with real California nuttiness when a cute girl in a VW bug pulled up next to me as I was leaving work and called out my name. Hmmm. She wanted me to go with her to a “meeting” where people chant. Hmmm. It was a bit too weird so I turned her down. All I could think of was the Manson murders. Later on the bus ride back to North Hollywood, I remembered a guy I had played basketball with at the park in North Hollywood. He kicked my butt and as we were resting between games told me how he had improved his game and of this great way to achieve stuff by chanting. He said some guy even chanted for and got a Porsche. Hmmm. We exchanged names and basic info so I figure I told him where I worked and my name so his accomplice could wow me a few weeks later by knowing my name with her super psychic chanting powers! I did not accept the ride to the cult.
It was during that time that I called Joe Pass, the great jazz guitarist. I knew his real name was Passalacqua and there it was in the phone book! After getting up my nerve, I dialed and he came on the phone. I convinced him that I wasn’t a rocker and that I worshipped him and Wes and wanted to know if he taught privately. He was very kind and we arranged a lesson at his house in Northridge in the hills north of the Valley. I borrowed Pam’s car and took an extra long lunch one day to go to my lesson. When I got there, Joe answered the door. His family was out, but he was a little freaked. Right away, he asked me if I knew anything about rats. I assured him that I used to live on a farm and in fact had shot them for sport (great fun as a kid, that now sounds disgusting). He said he thought there was a rat in his garage behind the washer so we tiptoed into the garage and I looked behind the washer. Yep, a big rodent, kind of light brown. Not knowing what to do, we decided to open the garage door and see if it would exit and we went inside to play (a few years later, we corresponded and he told me that it turned out that it was a neighbor’s pet guinea pig). So our lesson went a couple of hours and Joe showed me a lot of stuff that I worked on for months. He was a wonderfult and avuncular guy. At the end of the lesson, I asked him how much I owed him and he said, “Are you working”? If not he wouldn’t have charged me, but I was working and there was no way I wouldn’t pay him for the information and just the audience with him. So, he said $40. Such a deal. And, on the way out, he gave me a half dozen Guitar Player magazines from his closet. He said he didn’t subscribe, that they just sent them to him, and that it’s mostly a bunch of rock stuff. He almost gave me one that had him on the cover, but decided he should keep that one. I saw him one other time and many years later in the 1990s when he, George Shearing and Joe Williams were in concert at the Florida Theatre in Jax. Jack Petersen, guitar legend, then teaching at UNF, called me up to see if I wanted to go with him. He said “I know Joe” and I could say, “yeah, me too”. We went and it was great. After the show went backstage to see Joe, sadly, for the last time. He died of cancer a couple of years later.
While in LA, I was able to get around to many clubs and soak up live jazz. At Donte’s I saw Joe Diorio, Herb Ellis, Howard Roberts, Remo Palmeri, Robben Ford, Ray Brown, Supersax, and many more. The Baked Potato was nearby in Studio City and I heard and met guys like Lee Ritenour and other west coast fusion players. Jimmy Smith had a club in Van Nuys and there were the clubs like the Lighthouse and Concerts by the Sea down around Long Beach. As well as seeing a lot of live music, I attended the Dick Grove Music School where I studied with guitarist Jimmy Stewart. I also decided to go to the Tonight Show since I was near Burbank. It taped at 5 and you only had to show up and stand in line to get in. It was fairly surreal. I only remember that Shelley Winters was one of the guests. Johnny was cool and Doc’s band was smokin’.
Also, that summer my former band mate, Leslie Hawkins called and said Skynyrd would be coming to LA to play at the Hollywood Bowl soon. So when the time came, I went to the hotel to meet her. It was a typical rock scene with drugs and booze flowing. From the hotel we rode in a limo caravan to the gig. One of the other guests in our limo was Linda Blair, the actress in the Exorcist movie (her head did not spin on this day). There was super security at the Bowl and I hung backstage during the concert. Afterward, everyone went back to the hotel for the post concert party. The next morning I drove Leslie to the Burbank Airport. She wanted to show me the new airplane they had recently gotten and she walked me through it. Tragically, that was the plane she and the others went down in a little over a year later.
After nearly a year in LA I began to tire of working day jobs and not gigging. I was inpatient and started thinking about a smaller pond. Joe Pass had advised me that it didn’t matter where you lived; that you should strive to be the best player you can be and play as much as possible. Playing in LA seemed years off, so rather than return to Jax, I decided to go to Virginia Beach where my cousin Danny lived with his wife. I was introduced to a nurse co-worker of Danny’s wife and shortly thereafter moved in with her. It was a bad decision, but I didn’t have money and didn’t want to impose on Danny. I was there for about for six months. I played with several jazz guys around there who were or had been Berklee students. One band was named the Buster Henry Quartet. There was no Buster. Sometime in mid 1977 I got a call from an old student who asked me if I would play for her wedding reception in Jax. I wasn’t too thrilled with Virginia Beach so I went to Jax and assembled a group with Brother Flute on organ and Geno Gonzalez on drums and we played the wedding.
At that point, I was searching for a direction and taking small temp jobs for pocket money. One day in December of 1977, I wandered into a used bookstore in San Marco called Bookends and met the owner and love of my life. Nikki and I were married in 1983 in Vermont. The student whose wedding I had returned to Jax to play for, which led to me meeting my wife, now lived in Vermont and offered us their house while they were away. So we house and dog sat, and got married and honeymooned in Vermont. We had our son Nathan in 1982 so he was with us and was my best man!
I played with Clarence Palmer again between May and September of 1978 in Orlando at the Holiday Inn at I-4 and Colonial. It was a five nighter and one night the great John McGlaughlin and his band came in. They were in town for a concert and were staying at the hotel. John was over his Maharishi Yogi phase and even drank some wine. I was never a huge Johnny Mac fan because I preferred a clean jazz guitar tone, but on this night…wow! He sat in and played my old Gibson ES-295 straight through my amp, with no effects and he was incredible. Stu Goldberg and drummer Sun Ship played too and they were smokin’. John was very supportive and encouraging to me and I gained a new appreciation for his talent.
It was during that engagement that pianist Bill Davis from Jacksonville was in Orlando and came into the club. We were only acquaintances, but he said that when I came back to Jax he would like to use me in his group. He was well established as the best jazz musician in the Jax area….and he was. When that Orlando gig played out I returned to Jax and began a six year stretch of playing with Bill. He was a teacher at Jacksonville University and told me they needed an adjunct guitar teacher. He arranged a meeting with Fran Kinne who was then the Dean of Fine Arts and even though I didn’t have a degree in music, she hired me in 1980. That began a long day gig for me, 30 years at this writing. The first few years were building years as far as student load, but through word of mouth, soon my schedule was full and grueling. I taught five days a week plus half a day on Saturday.
There was a brief time in late 1982 when Clarence asked me to join him again for what was to be a long running engagement at a new club in Fayetteville, NC of all places. I was too naïve to realize there are no long running gigs in jazz, so off we went with our baby in tow. It was a bizarre week and when things looked shaky, back we came. Since we were away less than a week, I was able to get my job at JU back and our apartment. How young and naive we were.
To be continued………….