Sunday, April 20, 2014

A decade passes, and then...

In 1983, with the encouragement of Judy, I entered a contest put on by El Paso radio personality, folk performer, and big band leader, Bob Burns, trying for an opportunity to open for The Kingston Trio.  I thought it would be an excuse to be around for the show and probably get to see Bob Shane again.

(This week's installment continues a series of Whitt's reflections on becoming a folk music addict and performer.)

The idea was pretty good, as talent contests go.

Each single or group got to present a half hour set.  Every entertainer (as differentiated from singers) knows a single song won't begin to show the range and variety an act works so hard to achieve.  Half an hour gives some time for the relationship, and a good handful of songs of different types.

I had an old Wollensak (you heard me) reel-to-reel recorder left from radio days. 
I lugged it out to the garage, along with my old J-200, to see what the truth was. 
The contest was two weeks away. The tape was humiliating, but there was hope, and I had two weeks.

The day came hot and sunny and my nerves and copious perspiration brought back memories of opening at the Marriott with Barbara after sweating in the sound closet with the custodian for half an hour.  (He didn't even buy me a drink!)

I think there may have been half a dozen acts.  Between my experience putting folk shows together, and my on-and-off adventures as a radio disc jockey, I put together the best set and seemed to pretty much have it until the very last act.

During the penultimate performance, the seats began to fill.  About 75 more of them, in fact, outnumbering the day's average audience by a multiple of three.
The last act in the "contest" was "Springfire," an all-male trio of high energy pros with an act similar to Pat & Barbara. They also had (and still do) their own club, and brought 75 of their fans

It was El Paso, 1983, and they opened with their fire-hose version of "Low-riders In The Sky."  (I know an duo who shamelessly milk their own parody, "Ghost Chickens.)

So, a trio opened for The Kingston Trio.

In Bob's room later, he explained why he had finally sprung for the original name.
One of the weirdest things that happened to a lot of big name folk acts was having to negotiate later in their careers for the use of their own names. Pat & Barbara had a similar clause laid on them.

Then we went to hang out in the lounge.  When the one-man-band guy with a chorus on everything who was working the room saw Bob come in, he dedicated a song to him and then sang one written and recorded by John Stewart.

Bob Shane has a great sense of humor in every situation, by the way.
I have also seen him, after hours at P & B's, hold a room of lingerers spellbound as his a capella, unamplified voice rang the place with a powerful, plaintive Hawaiian traditional song, in the native tongue, followed by one of the freestyle, ad-lib hilarious rants he called "toasts."

So, after the approval of a single small audience, I had contracted the disease. 
With Judy's faithful help and support, I was going to try to "do a single."

Perhaps the greatest benefit of that whole little experience was
the lifelong friendship formed with Bob Burns--a class act to this day.

Here are the guys, and the song, that blew me out of the running that fateful day: 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Starting slow and then fizzling out

So, Barbara and I worked on an act for a year, helped by a joint where Barbara had been a hit a few years before, The Jockey Club in Lexington, KY, who were so glad to see her again they didn't mind I was along.  After a few gigs I was catching on to the extent we decided we could pick where we wanted to headquarter, and we chose Tucson, because we loved it.

(This week's installment continues a series of Whitt's reflections on becoming a folk music addict and performer.)

There we were given an opportunity by Travis to do a middle set in his evening of shows at a very nice supper club, Don Quixote's. 
This would allow us to invite bookers to see us work with a live audience (who had just been "warmed up" by one of the world's best).
It was both generous and crafty on Trav's part, and resulted, I'd say from the packed houses and the response, in a great evening for everyone involved.

It just didn't work the way we had hoped, largely due to our being (in 1972) in the "middle class" of an industry in flux.  Enter the Food and Beverage man.

"There was a time," as the songs say, when people who presented live entertainment had an interest and some understanding in it.  No, really!  They could watch a performance and evaluate it in light of their own critical facilities and a familiarity with certain standards of excellence and professionalism.  I promise you, I am not making this up.

Were it not for such actual people, many music clubs would have closed long before becoming the legendary landmarks and career starting points they are known as today.  And many an artist would have starved out of a career before anyone heard them.

On a recommendation, usually, one of these guys would come catch your act, preferably unknown to you, and give you a shot.  If you could hold and build an audience, they wanted to latch onto you and help you succeed, keep you happy.  Doesn't sound so crazy, does it?

Travis would find an upscale resort or supper club, depending on his needs at the time, and get lodging, meals, and a percentage of the bar receipts (cash) in exchange for his services as house entertainer. 
I vividly recall a lovely evening in the living-room-styled lounge at the Tubac Country Club when Trav held the room spellbound sitting on the corner of a sofa in front of the fireplace, playing Schubert on the guitar--no PA, no lights, just talent.

It was a win-win wherever he set up, but someone in a position to make the deal had to have the brains to know how it would pay off.  Someone in charge had to know talent when they saw it, and, if they were smart enough to latch onto and help develop new talent, ka-ching!

In other words, you could actually get "discovered" at that level, and no one cared if you could move 400,000 retail units in a year.  There was no internet, so not everyone thought they were an artist.  There were not 150 amateurs in every town declaring, "I just love to play!  I'd play for free!"  (And worth every penny.)

Then came the investors and their bean counters to the business (which became the industry) and artists, performers, entertainers, and musicians became "vendors."  Hotel chains wanted your social security number for their payroll records, when most of them could have paid the rates they were paying out of petty cash.

Twice, during our little run with Travis at Don Quixote's, "Food and Beverage Managers" actually showed up to see us.  Each was "really impressed" and each booked us into their places--one a hotel, one a supper club--and we set a start date and time.

The first time, we actually showed up to set up, only to learn that "He's no longer with us."  Guess he died.  Hope so.  Anyway, the second time I waited until the day and called ahead to confirm.  They claimed to have never heard of our impresario.  We joked that the Bull & Bear bomber was dogging us, but it was we who were bombing.  Very shortly after that our lives changed in ways that took us far from any of this.

Meanwhile, here's a taste of what Pat Horine was doing--no video, but he's on this recording of The New Kingston Trio (Pat's on your far left in the photo):

Next week, we'll fast forward to 1983, when I decided to give performing another try...

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Airport insecurity and the worst opening ever

I mentioned my guitar lesson before--an afternoon of instruction in the fine art of movable chord positions and transposition--the purpose of which was to help me prepare for my new job as Barbara's accompanist and someone to bounce comedy off of and sing harmony.  I had been practicing my new skills diligently, and had begun to learn some of the songs we would be doing. 

(This week's installment continues a series of Whitt's reflections on becoming a folk music addict and performer.)

I got a call from my dear old friend, Joe Monsanto in Tucson.  He and a friend,David John,  who had worked with me when I was the publisher of The Frumious Bandersnatch (oh, yes, I was!), were getting ready to open a non-alcoholic nightclub and they wanted me to help rig some staging and lights,

They wanted to fly me back to Tucson for a few days, and I couldn't wait to get back to the United States; so I packed a green file box with a brass sign on it that said "Danger" in big red letters with a few tools, toiletries, boxers, and socks and when Barbara dropped me at the airport I was wearing white jeans and a T-shirt that had both been tie-died in a striking yellow and brown flame pattern.  Again, I was somewhat medicated, of course.  If you're going flying...

So I went through the Atlanta airport, a two-hour layover in Dallas, and the Tucson airport with no luggage, head-to-toe flame tie-dye, and a metal box with a sign saying "Danger." and no one batted an eye.  No one ever asked what I had in the case--nothing going out, nothing coming back.  1971.

I spent an afternoon with the guys at the club, making lists, gathering materials, working on the basics of some switchable lights that could serve as stage illumination, and we knocked off at dusk and all headed over to Mike Ronstadt's house for "dinner."  Must have been half a dozen of us, or so, and we all pitched in on some home cookin'--Mexican food in the Sonoran style.  The meal was vast and long and we relaxed in a cloud of smoke, listening to music.

The phone rang, and it was Barbara, calling to say that Monk Arnold had booked us into the Club Car Lounge at the downtown Marriot for the cocktail hour gig!  Well, that was wonderful news, dampened only by the fact that we were to start the next Monday.  It was Wednesday.

The next morning I was whisked to the airport for my return trip, got back into Atlanta Thursday evening, and learned 36 songs with Barbara by Monday afternoon. 
(Oh, yes, we did!)

I was a little nervous.  (You may have heard the analogy about the canine and the peach seeds.)  We arrived at the Marriott an hour in advance, just to be safe, and reported to the Club Car to check out the staging arrangements.  Oh, boy.

The "performance area" was a space at the wall end of the bar, where a stool had been removed to provide room for us to stand.  This sumptuous space was attractively illuminated by a single red light of around 100 watts.  All the bar traffic and all the door traffic would occur between us and the "audience."  We couldn't be seen, so I tracked down a custodian who offered us a stepladder for Barbara to perch on, making her at least visible to patrons.  I would stand next to the ladder, in the dark.  I could barely see the set list taped to the top  of my shiny new J-200.

That's when I discovered that the sound system wasn't working, and there was only one mic.  I found my friend the custodian again, and he shrugged and led me to a little closet in the wall of an adjacent room with an ancient PA amp.

I sized up the situation, told the custodian what we needed, and got another shrug.  He aid "I can't do that."  I said, "Well, get me some tools and I'll do it."  "I can't do that--" my faithful helper said,"--union."

Not having any cash worthy of such a bribe, I made a brief, impassioned speech, he brought me pliers and tape, and then literally looked the other way while I went to work.

We had found another mic stand and mic, of sorts, and I began trying frantically to actually splice wires together to get what we needed hooked up.  Once I had, it was not really adequate, and I was dripping with sweat, my hands shaking with nerves and anger.  We started 45 minutes late.

Look at me, Mama, I'm finally in show business!

Speaking of airport security, here's Bob Smiley's take...

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

There's nothing like Show Business!

...and this is nothing like Show Business.

(This week's installment continues a series of Whitt's reflections on becoming a folk music addict and performer.)

During the Pat & Barbara chapter of my careen, I was back and forth some betwixt Atlanta and Tucson.  When I was in the Old Pueblo, I'd usually pick up a radio shift, and while I was working at KCUB (before they went country) Bob & Travis met for a concert as "Shane & Travis" at the U of A student union auditorium.

When they came by the radio station to see me, Bob had a 45 he was collecting opinions on.  I spun the side Bob thought would be the "A" side, a song Rod McKuen wrote, called "Weepin' Analeah."  Then we heard the other side.  Frank Sanchez (talented and versatile percussionist) was there, too, and he and I both said, "That's the one!" 
Knowing that free advice is worth every penny, Bob decided to go with the McKuen song.  Six weeks later, Bobby Goldsboro released the other song, "Honey."

Like most successful acts that have "broken up," Pat & Barbara eventually got around to a "reunion;" but, Pat was still on tour with The New Kingston Trio, so Barbara and I had agreed to "hold down the fort" with Barbara performing as a single.  The best part of that, for me, was shopping for musicians for the back-up combo.

We spent an evening at "Clendenon's," a supper club owned by Donn Clendenon, the baseball star.  We were the only white faces in the place, and we were greeted warmly, seated at a table with other folks who were genuinely glad to have us join them, and caught up in the appreciative comments and party atmosphere that resulted from the outstanding entertainment.

The house band was up on a balcony/loft, and very hot and hip.  The staging was very organic to the room, including a stairway used to great effect as an entry point for a soloist, and the sound and lighting were actually excellent!.  We saw four incredible acts.  Can't remember the name of a single one, but I can recall highlights of their performances to this day!

We put together a neat "acoustic" trio (electric bass) for Barbara's band and started working on a really classy single.  Since "the corporation" considered this all nothing more than a holding action, there was zero advertising.  The "network" of old friends had been drastically reduced and scattered over two years of nothing like P & B, and Barbara was playing in a very large room to very small crowds.

Finally, Pat was back, being over the thrilling part of his ride with The New Kingston Trio, and rehearsals began for the big reunion.  I don't recall what actually came of that, or how it went.  To do it, I stayed pretty heavily self-medicated.

Honestly, I don't remember the sequence of things; but the result was an effort to make Barbara's act work in other venues.  Times were changing--the listening venue was dying--and the great Monk Arnold wasn't really interested in helping an act that was not already successful.  Barbara began doing gigs with just a guitarist, since most gigs other than dance joints couldn't support a band.  After a while, she said, "Didn't you used to play guitar in highschool?"

Next thing I knew, I owned a Gibson J-200 and actually took a guitar lesson from her accompanist, a guy with a Masters in music, whose name I have also forgotten--Mike something.  He taught me how to transpose using the movable barre chords.  I spent two or three weeks relearning how to play and developing callouses, working on songs from her repertoire I had some chance of being able to play, and got a call from an old, very close friend, Joe Monsanto.

Joe and another cohort from previous enterprises, David John, were opening a venue in the well-known hip district of Tucson that would be a non-alcoholic night club.  He asked me to come help with stage lighting and sound. 
This is one of my favorite memories and stories.
I'll tell you all about it, and my stage debut with Barbara, next week!