Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Old Pueblo and an old friend

Though it was obvious I would never have the gifted, wide-range voice I had before the great USMC laryngitis attack, I was able to sing serviceably, and what I lacked vocally would have to be offset by my skills at stealing and writing .

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

I mention stealing because it was long accepted that a repertoire of the best songs of others was quite enough for a group to succeed.  (It was sort of like the plethora of websites now that just "curate" the creativity of others who need and appreciate the exposure.)  If you had original material, you worked it into your show, usually after your strongest numbers so it would be well received (or, at least, tolerated).  No one was labeling him or her self as a "singer/songwriter."   Wasn't that what we all were?
Well, that was before the songs stopped being about anything substantive.

Once the secret got out--that a song that didn't have to be well constructed or have much to say--the small venues began to fill up with "artists" who would play for next to nothing.  The end result of that was audiences who didn't bother to listen, a situation exacerbated by a new disregard for "continuity"--putting a show together with themes and pacing, interspersed with patter that highlighted content and/or entertained comedically.  Why bother?  Indeed.

So into the rapidly shrinking market I stumbled, blissfully ignorant of what was actually happening.

Since Tucson was surrounded by fine, luxurious resorts and guest ranches (more than El Paso, certainly) we moved there again and I began to beat the bushes for berries and nuts to sustain us.  Naturally, the place to start was "The Cup," a coffeehouse started in the Campus Christian Center in the 60s.

The Cup was started, everyone thought, as an outreach place that presented an open-mic type program every Friday night.  I recall (perhaps in '65?) my friends and I plunking down our 25 cents each, then rounding the corner and seeing Linda Ronstadt on stage and literally trying to get our quarters back.  She sat, with a guitar, blonde and chubby, singing "The Great Silky" and "Silver Dagger" ala Baez.

Our disdain would be blown away just about a year later when she came back into town as the protege of Bobby Kimmel and a member of his new group, "The Stone Poneys."

At first, we didn't realize who it was. She was svelte with natural raven hair cascading down her back, hip clothing (she even pulled off wearing a cape) and that voice!  She had discovered her "chest voice," and could belt it out or slip into the soprano falsetto for effect.  We were pretty sure Bobby was the catalyst in all this; but, not only did he not get credit for that, he was out soon after the group returned to L.A. and Kenny Edwards left the group.  Promoters and producers knew what they wanted, and it wasn't showmen or folk rock innovators.  It was babes, and this babe had a voice as great as her ambition.

So, anyway, in the early 80s I went to The Cup, now in a big slick facility right across from the U of A main gate, to perform and hang out among those who might know what was going on in the area gig-wise.  There they were, most of the players trying to make a living at it as well as the usual line-up of complete amateurs.

What was missing was the public.  The audience of performers and a few friends and girlfriends sat through it all, waiting to enthusiastically support their champion when it was their turn.  It was a sweet group of true music lovers, and a nice sharing experience.

The real musicians in this family of folkies formed a group they modestly called "The Tucson Kitchen Musicians Association" (TKMA) and this was their event now.  Some of these folks exhibited musical prowess to which I still aspire, and a few were well-known (if not well paid) in the area.   They were chewing on getting a folk festival going, so I joined up.

Trying to rebuild a fanbase for "folk music" was a daunting task for an outfit with no money to speak of.  My advertising experience told me we needed a more visible profile.

Travis was living in Tucson at the time, having had a devastating stroke that had utterly obliterated his phenomenal skill as a guitarist and left him with the typical speech impairment.

Being from Nogales, Arizona, Trav had gone to highschool, and performed, with Roger Smith, the film star who had been the prime romantic lead on the TV show "77Sunset Strip," and married Ann Margret.  When Roger heard about the stroke, he sent Travis one of the first electronic guitars so he could relearn how to play.  It wasn't long before Trav realized he would never come anywhere close to the skill level he considered minimal, and really couldn't muster the motivation to pursue rehab with the effort required.  The payoff was never going to be good enough.

I went to visit Travis, campaigning for him to come and emcee The Cup. His nephew, Earl Edmonson, (a fine musician and performer) said he'd never do it; but he did.  I'd pick him up, bring him to the event a little early, and we'd go over the line-up, me making notes for him, and sometimes supplying him with relevant one-liners between performers. We put out a press release about the "ongoing Tucson tradition" being hosted by a "local  living legend" and attendance picked up.

When the Tucson Folk Festival materialized, I was introduced on the Main Stage by Travis.  For me, it was historic.  Even though, like most of the big-timers I've known, his ego was insufferable at times and he was ruled by emotion, Travis had appreciated and helped me.  But, what I loved most was the incredible music and the carefully crafted comedy.  I learned much from him, and I miss him.

Here he is, the year before he died, singing with a group he loved, Los Mariachis...
Next week:  Meetings with The Smothers Brothers and The Limeliters.


  1. Great work, Whitt! I love these recollections, especially when they take me back to earlier Tucson times.

    1. Coming from an award-winning author, that's a welcome compliment!
      I'm really glad you're enjoying.
      Some of my memory's lanes aren't this pleasant a stroll. :-D