Watching the SNL anniversary show, with the Belushi clips, brought to mind an encounter I had with him in NYC, before the Not Ready For Primetime Players burst into our consciousness. I was in Manhattan with a business partner, pitching some new r’n’b product to the labels, and one evening we dropped by a modest comedy club that was featuring a revue by the name of “The National Lampoon Show.” Many of the future SNL troupe were in the cast, including Gilda Radner, as I recall, but the shining light, already, was Belushi……until he broke out the Cocker bit, to which I took offence, Joe being an acquaintance of mine and a good lad.
It was an informal place, with no backstage to speak of, so, emboldened by certain substances, I wandered back to take issue with the Cocker bit. I button-holed him, and as soon as I started in he said ” Is that accent for real?” and immediately assumed a credible Fab Four voice as I berated him for what I considered, at the time, a cruel parody of Joe.
“No! No! You got it wrong….I love Joe Cocker. That’s why I do the bit!”
We had a drink and he went back for the second show. I hung around, as my biz partner was away for an early night. Another drink was had, the way you do, after the second show, and he and I strolled out into the Manhattan night.
We ended up in a bar somewhere in the West Village until the wee hours, in most stimulating and stimulated conversation lubricated by nectar and the occasional Peruvian moment. Mostly the conversation was about music. He was extremely knowledgeable, and liked that I was a Liverpool guy who’d moved to the American south to realize my dream of doing r’n’b and rock ‘n’roll in the cradle of the form. When we reeled out in companionable disarray, he made sure I got a taxi back to my hotel, and that was that.
When I first watched SNL, it was like…I know that fella…then a couple of shows in, he did the Cocker bit for the first time on national TV, and the rest, as they say, was history. I never ran into him again and never tried to connect through channels.
It was a one-off, a wonderful, cool one-off, when he was on the brink of so many things, good and bad. I hadn’t thought about that night in years, but last night’s show brought the memory back.
RIP, Belushi. RIP, Cocker…..yiz were made for each other!
Since recording The Skelly Trilogy (1999-2005) I’ve fielded this question more than once, so here’s the lowdown.
In 1998, some local developers in Nashville were creating a high-end Irish-themed pub and restaurant at a prime site on Lower Broadway. The place was to be called Seanachie (Storyteller) and it was a no-expenses spared venture. Irish artisans were brought over to hand-build the interior, and the man in charge was a fellow from Northern Ireland who’d successfully brought the concept to various locations in mainland Europe and the Far East. One of the investors was a lawyer with whom my wife was acquainted, and as a result I became an unofficial consultant as the project developed, advising on the entertainment aspects of the venture.
The first time I met the Ulsterman, he heard my Liverpool accent and said what I heard as “Ah! A skelly scouse….I love you skellies” The phrase was new to me, although the word scouse was not, so I asked “What’s a skelly ?” “Well, you are” he replied “A Liverpool-Irish lad, a bit of a rogue, y’know.” Although I’d never heard the term used in Liverpool, it had a nice ring to it, and as Skelly was a fairly common surname around our patch, I assumed what I’d misheard was correct, and in no time I’d written what became the title song of the first record “Here Comes The Skelly”. More importantly The Skelly became a character, an all-purpose Liverpool-Irish Everyman on whom I could hang the various narratives in song that were manifesting themselves at an alarming rate.
After the first album was issued I started to get queries about who or what The Skelly was. I did a bit of research and to my dismay, discovered that the phrase, coined by native-born Irish to denote their Liverpool cousins, was actually scally scouse, scally being a shortening of “scalawag” … but the Ulsterman’s accent had rendered it as skelly to my ears.
Well, The Skelly Scouse had become a cornerstone of this particular musical endeavor, so I was happily stuck with him for two more albums, and I simply explained the character away as a bit of a lovable Liverpool rogue, so I was true to the original intent, although I’d misheard and consequently misspelled the original word.
When Seanachie was completed, and a wonderful place it was, I had the pleasure and honor of assembling and leading the backing band for Matt Molloy, the Chieftain’s esteemed flute player, who was the guest artist on the gala opening night.
Sadly Seanachie is no more, but that’s where The Skelly originated.
Once upon a time many years past, I found myself being a tour guide of sorts to a wealthy American studio owner, making his virgin voyage across the pond. For some reason he’d decided that this pilgrimage would be enhanced by my presence, particularly as far as Liverpool went, but also on side trips to London and Ireland. Well, business was a little slow at the time in question, so the prospect of an all expense paid trip to the old stomping grounds, with first class transportation and hotels, plus a most generous per diem, was rather hard to turn down, so I signed on. As he was an avid collector of all things Beatle, and generally infatuated with the mystique of the old home town, Liverpool was the main focus for him, and there’s more than a story or two about our time there, and similarly about London, but my focus here and now is about the adventure in Ireland, most specifically when I shepherded him to the Wild West of County Mayo, to sample the traditional Irish music that is so plentiful in that area.
Flying into Dublin, seriously stoked on early morning pints after pulling a cocaine-fueled all-nighter at Liverpool’s four-star Adelphi Hotel with an Irish comedy troupe who’d been performing a few gigs in the ‘Pool, we checked into Blooms Hotel in the heart of Temple Bar, down by the Liffy, fired and wired. We careened around the town, Dame Street, Grafton Street, over the Ha’penny Bridge to the rough and tumble of O’Connell Street and so on, for forty-eight hours, barely seeing the inside of our hotel rooms, much less disturbing the perfection of our expensive bed linens.
In this long gone time the marching dust was not only legal, but barely known in Ireland, so we tooted and booted with no concern at all for legal repercussions, which made it possible to put the bevy down in spectacular quantity, while remaining relatively sharp and on the case.
On the third morning we repaired to Amiens Street Railway station for the trip west, a journey I was most familiar with, having done it year after year in my childhood. We had first class tickets, but soon repaired to the bar car, via smoking carriages that were blue with fumes, Ireland still being a resolutely tobacco-using nation at the time. Drink was taken as we rattled along past the areas and stations that had been long implanted in my consciousness (The whole route is memorialized in “Haveran’s House” from my album “Here Comes the Skelly”). We finally pulled into Westport, County Mayo, at about four in the afternoon, the fresh sea air from Clew Bay an immediate bracer.
My man, in his particular fashion, approached the only cabbie on station, as there wasn’t much call for independent transportation at that particular time of the year, and immediately hired him, Declan being his name, to be our personal driver, on call at all times, sealing the deal with two hundred crisp Punt ( the Irish currency before the Euro). Well, Declan was immediately our man, as they don’t breed fools in the Far West, and after bringing us to our luxurious hotel overlooking Clew Bay and the wide western expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, he assured us that he was totally at our service at any hour, giving us his card with its minimal phone number.
Westport is a lovely town, the first planned town in Ireland, built from scratch in the mid nineteenth century, but like many things Irish, it had attained an age and mystique in a hurry, so by this time it inhabited it’s space most enchantingly, and, along with Doolin down the coast, had become a hotbed of the resurgent Irish traditional music scene, anchored by ‘Matt Malloy’s’, an eponymous pub owned by the celebrated flautist of the Chieftains, with whom I’ve shared a stage from time to time.
There were many venues featuring the trad. however, and after a freshener of sorts, we summoned Declan to take us down the hill to the bounty of music pubs that awaited. After a skim around, it seemed like Matt’s place was already besieged by tourists, so on our chauffeur’s recommendation we landed hard by The Octagon (the town square, basically,) at Dunning’s.
It felt and smelled good to me from the get-go, and as it was only about six, we settled in at the bar for a little sustenance, both solid and liquid. We chose a couple of pies and a couple of pints that were served by a barmaid equipped like the figurehead of a Viking long ship….flaming red hair, sea-green eyes, sturdy and sensationally shapely, standing a good five ten in her cuban-heel boots, with an accent you could spread on your morning toast…it was that buttery and tasty. A bit unusual in that part of the island, as the Viking strain is usually more prevalent on the eastern coast, but there she was, and my traveling companion was immediately gob-smacked. Like many an American tourist, he wasn’t shy about flashing the cash, which I’d tried to advise him against, to no avail, in Liverpool, and he seemed to think that a display of largesse might be a path to this young lady’s bounty.
My own attention was diverted by the arrival of a gnomic fellow, hovering in the vicinity of my less occupied elbow. He waited patiently until eye-contact was made. “You would be a musicianer, sor.” A somewhat archaic form of address was not uncommon in those parts and as a large chunk of my family hailed from nearby, outside Tuam, County Galway, I was familiar with it. His lilt was somewhere between a statement and a question, without being either, or maybe being both, so I replied in kind “I would, indeed, and thank you for asking.” He gave a satisfied nod “And what would be your instrument, sor?” I replied that I played several. “What would be your choice if you were to play here tonight?”, he persisted politely. “Well, if you were talking a seisun, I’d probably play bodhran, but I don’t have one with me….do have a tipper though.” It’s always been my practice to have a tipper handy in Ireland. The double-headed wooden beater slips easily into a pocket, and can double as a weapon should the need arise. I brandished mine briefly, which once again drew a satisfied nod from the little fella. “ I’ll be back presently, so…ye’ll still be here?” A little bemused, I replied that we wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while, and he scuttled off out the door.
I returned my attention to my traveling companion, who was now focused intently on the barmaid, and tried to divert him a little. “I wouldn’t waste time and money on this one…she’s probably a good Catholic girl, and half the guys in here are probably blood relations, you know?” He wasn’t in the mood to pay attention to any of that of course, so I envisioned a later time in the proceedings when I might have to extricate him (not for the first time) from a social contretemps.
Within a few minutes, however, the little man was back, sporting a beautiful bodhran, which he extracted from a pillow case, handing it to me reverently. It was a finely made drum, with intricate Celtic decoration on the taut goatskin, and I’m sure he felt my appreciation as I handled it, examining the finer points of its structure. I was wondering if he was going to try to sell it to me, but he said “So now, the seisun will be starting beyond in the back room presently. Will ye come along”. I turned to my besotted fellow traveler, asking him to come on back for the music, which was why we were there in the first place, but he brushed me off. “I’ll come in a while. You go have fun.” Fair enough; I’d done my bit in that regard, so I was ready for a play.
My new friend threaded through the growing throng ahead of me, like he was leading a prize horse he’d come upon. The large back room was already well populated and a steady stream of newcomers were finding chairs and tables as he led me to the musicians’ circle. A pair of unmistakable brothers, if not twins, were wedged together on a wooden settee, like Tweedledum and Tweedledee, each with an accordion to hand; a teenage fiddle player was applying rosin to his bow. There was a balding cittern player, who looked like he knew his business, and a young woman sat at a table with an array of musical bones and spoons in front of her. My mentor got me seated without a word to the musicians or anyone else, and the players seemed intent on avoiding eye contact with me at any cost.
There was no P.A. and no microphones, so I assumed that this was going to be strictly instrumental. There was also no compere or apparent band leader; nobody calling the shots, or calling the tune. As a pint manifested itself in front of me, the brothers struck up a jig, and we were off. This team could all play seriously well, so it was no problem for me to grab the groove and get stuck in. Tune followed tune, running the gamut…jigs, reels, hornpipes, ballad airs, and the notoriously tricky slip-jigs, with the occasional refreshment stop the only respite, and all with nary a word or look exchanged, except for a wisp of a smile from her with the bones from time to time when I executed a particularly adventurous pattern. The pints kept arriving on the table around which we were assembled, from whence I knew not.
Playing bodhran is a strenuous exercise at the least of times, but in this context it was turning into a rather intense aerobic workout, so the ale wasn’t having any great effect on me as we burned through the evening. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for lover boy in the front bar, who had not ventured back to the music room as far as I could see.
After about an hour or so of hell-for-leather, there was a respite for a tobacco break, and my mysterious little pal hove to and led me outside to a tiled courtyard where the players were busily firing up pipes and ciggies. I was surprised to notice that the young lady who was so fluid with the bones and spoons walked with a halting spastic gait, which just goes to show you, and the assemblage, though hardly effusive, complemented me on my playing, which was pleasing to me, as I viewed this encounter as the real thing, much more intense than the seisuns I’d experienced in American-Irish pubs. When I mentioned that I lived in Nashville, the atmosphere loosened even more as I found myself peppered with questions about Music City, and we all returned for the second stanza in fine fettle.
By the time it came to call it a night, and I handed the bodhran back to my benefactor, I realized that I’d not seen hide nor hair of my fellow traveler for hours. I worked my way back to the front bar, where he was face-down on the counter, dead to the world and legless in the virtually empty room, the Viking barmaid long gone, and his wallet considerably lighter, as the bar-back informed me he’d been buying drinks for the house. My little friend had disappeared as quickly as he’d first shown up, so it was now down to me to get my slathered road kill back to the hotel, which was situated above the town, so walking was out of the question. Fortunately, I had Declan’s card, and he showed up reasonably quickly and between us we were able to manhandle our semi-comatose charge into the taxi, and thence to the hotel.
I bade Declan goodnight with a sense of foreboding, as we were due to head with him to Limerick the following day, via Tuam and the scenic coastal vistas of Galway and Clare, and my co-passenger’s present condition boded ill for the enterprise. I needn’t have worried…the restorative powers of a hearty Irish breakfast and a few stiff toots of the marching dust had him up and at it when Declan’s taxi arrived at the appointed time, and we headed southwest to face whatever adventures lay ahead.
A few days ago, my pal John Dahlman, an excellent bassist, was in touch to let me know he was booked to play at the Edinburgh festival “Fringe”, which would entail his being in that fine city for almost two weeks; he was tapping me for interesting hostelries around the town, so I immediately recommended The Deacon Brodie Tavern, just off The Royal Mile, Edinburgh’s signature thoroughfare.
The pub itself was named for a noted character from the city’s past, William “Deacon” Brodie, who led a lurid double life in the 18th. Century, as both a respected artisan, his title of deacon coming from his position as leader of the Wrights trade guild, and also as a master burglar and libertine, whose excesses were the model for “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, the author of which actually knew the man in question.
The namesake pub not only has a historic location on the corner of Lawnmarket and Bank Street, where the Mile slopes down to The Mound, but also details the life and times of this famous scoundrel, who got his just desserts at the end of a rope in 1788.
It wasn’t until after I had tipped John to this interesting place that the full memory of my own experience there crept to the front of my memory banks. Like John, I was playing the Festival, back in the Sixties, and so Edinburgh was my bailiwick for a couple of weeks, with my days free for whatever came my way, and my nights devoted to treading the boards.
The lunchtime beverage at The Deacon became a pleasant routine after my first visit there, and I became a bit of a regular, I suppose. One afternoon, I was approached by a very large hirsute Scotsman, whose accent was barely intelligible to me, and certainly difficult to do justice to on the printed page….
“ Ye’ll tak a pint of heavy wi’ me”, he intoned in a peaty burr. This was not phrased as a request, rather a command, and being a son of the Liverpool streets, I immediately knew that demurral would not be a good idea. He ordered up two pints of the local high-octane, offered me a Players Navy Cut ciggie, also high-octane, and settled in for a companionable drink and chat, although most of his chat was well nigh indecipherable, but I kept up with the general drift well enough to keep the flow going. At this early hour the clientele was sparse, and I was schooled enough in the etiquette of the ale-house to know that once you were nailed, you better make the best of it.
Another etiquette point I fully understood was ‘standing your round’, which did not involve running a tab…it was cash on the barrel head. My companion inhaled that first pint in alarmingly short order, so I ordered up, realizing that my own intake needed to accelerate in order to keep up. My sense was that this guy would frown upon any lagging behind, and I didn’t fancy seeing a frown clouding that large forehead, starting to show a sheen of perspiration as he bent to the task at hand. At that hour of the day, with barely a bowl of porridge between me and an empty stomach, the bevy was scoring points, along with the coffin nails. As often happens, he became more understandable to me as the drink took hold, and by pint four we were actually interacting rather well, and once he elicited the fact that rather than being a sassenach, I actually had the Celtic blood in my veins, the whole situation began to lose it’s threat factor, as far as I was concerned. Mind you, I was getting ploughed, aided by the fact that this lad had introduced the wee dram into the equation.
Although I was a relative stripling next to that fella, I already had a degree of experience in the ways of bending the elbow, and realized that at a certain point it’s easier to go with the flow, and pay for it later, rather than fight it. I knew that my chance to get out of Dodge would be coming up around three o’clock, when the obligatory closing time would kick in for a few hours. I could slope off and honor would be satisfied.
As this had started around noon, we were approaching three solid hours of no nonsense drinking as the finger hand on the big old clock behind the bar slowly inched towards the hour. And with that inching, my companion’s consumption was taking on an additional urgency, which necessitated a similar intake increase on my part. When time was called, with the additional grace period to finish, we’d been at it for three and a half hours straight, and when the crisp outside air hit me, I was glad to have his musty bulk to provide a little support. Being a local, he knew where my billet was, and we reeled down the Royal Mile, royally cooked, until he deposited me in front of a disapproving doorman at the hotel. As my stage time wasn’t until half nine or so, I was able to sleep it off, more or less, and I seem to recollect it being a rather good gig that night.
Names were never exchanged that liquid afternoon, which was probably just as well, but the memory prompts me to warn John Dahlman to be wary while visiting Deacon Brodie!
Today’s feature in The Tennessean on the efforts of Aubrey Preston and Jed Hilley of the Americana Music Association to solidify The Triangle as a bona fide tourist destination took me back forty years to when I arrived in the States as a true rock ‘n’roll and r’n’b disciple, determined to put down roots in the birthplace of the music which had irrevocably changed my life … the very triangle of which we now speak.
The music had already offered me some success in my native England, where I’d been part of the rock ‘n’ roll boom, then the Soul boom, but with the bloom going off the swingin’ sixties, and waning interest in the gritty, great music to which I was forever committed, I determined that I had to go where that music had emerged and continued to thrive. So, with my young American wife and three-year-old daughter in tow, I set my sights on my personal Land Of Dreams.
With my in-laws’ home in Sarasota, Florida, serving as our staging area, we arrived at Christmas-time 1972 to begin our great adventure. We bought a used Toyota station wagon with the idea of working our way by road to who knew where. But I already had my pilgrimage planned: from New Orleans, Congo Square and the Quarter, to the Greyhound bus station in Macon, Georgia, where Little Richard had been a dish washer (that town also being the birthplace of James Brown and my beloved Otis Redding); to Beale Street in Memphis and Highway 61, with all that those legendary roads implied; then on to West Memphis Arkansas, following the footsteps of Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins up Highway 70 via Jackson, to Nashville- just starting to stake it’s international claim as Music City, U.S.A.
Once we arrived in Davidson County, I realized that Nashville was the geographic hub of it all, in easy reach of all the key areas that embodied the roots and branches of the music that had transformed me. In 1973, Jefferson Street was still one of the great thoroughfares of Rhythm ‘n’ Blues, Soul, and Rock ‘n’Roll, and they welcomed this white boy (with the funny Beatles accent ) with open arms. I felt like I was home where I belonged, and even though the racial situation was still tense, especially to the sensibilities of a liberal Northern European and his Yankee wife, it just felt likethe place we were meant to be.
I had the advantage of an already-established friendship and working relationship with Buzz Cason, the pioneering producer, writer and studio owner, already a great success in the pop, soul and r’n’b genres, so I wasn’t limited to trying to make it in “straight country,” with which I couldn’t claim as much affinity as other genres thatsprang from the fertile lands of the Deep South. But Brenda Lee, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, to name just a few, were classic rock ‘n’rollers in my book anyway, and if Charlie Rich was classified as a country singer, then I was O.K. with country, too.
It was a time of a growing influx of out-of-towners … the Muscle Shoals and Memphis boys, the early transplants from L.A. and N.Y.C., and very soon fellow Brits such as Roger Cook, Ray Flacke, Ralph Murphy, Pat McInerney and Tony Newman, who took care of any pangs of home-sickness I might have felt, although those pangs were always few and far between!
It was inevitable that what is now being labeled as Americana should crystallize as a movement in and around the Nashville area, because all the strains that weave into Americana are from around these parts, as they’ve always been.
The resurgence of the “Americana Triangle” bodes well for the future of music in general, as our region opens its arms once more to those that play it and sing it from the heart. I feel blessed to still be around to see it happen in my beloved adopted home.
Harlan Howard , doyen of Nashville songsmiths, was very generous with his advice, certainly to the group of acolytes he dubbed the “Rock ‘n’ Roll Juveniles”, mostly the first wave of musical carpetbaggers that came to Nashville in the mid ‘70’s; Brits, Angelenos, Yankees etc., who were afforded his hospitality on a fairly regular basis. I was lucky to get one on one with him a few times, particularly when we were writing a song together to lay on Joe Cocker, who had come to town to record with The Crusaders. At Harlan’s request we met at 7.30 a.m. at his place on Radnor Lake, the earliest writing session I’ve ever agreed to, not being a morning person.
We had it wrapped by 11, he booked the studio at Tree Publishing for 2, and so we repaired to the much-missed Maude’s Courtyard near Music Row for a pre-session liquid lunch. Over those White Russians he gave me a beautiful nugget “ You know, kid, people ask me why I spend so much time in bars….hell, that’s where all the material is ! Sit in the corner with your ears wide open, and you’ll get all the songs you’ll ever need”.
Fast forward a few years…….I’m in Dublin for the opening shows of Nanci Griffiths’ “ Other Voices, Other Rooms” European tour, not as a participant, but because a bunch of my mates are part of the caravan. I’d just come from playing the annual “Blues Estafette” in Utrecht, and after a few days R and R in Amsterdam, had channel-hopped to Dublin for this much-anticipated event.
As has always been my custom when in Dublin, I jumped on the DART on Day 2, to have lunch in Howth, the gorgeous fishing town 8 miles north of the city, at the northern extreme of Dublin Bay. My hostelry of choice, The Lighthouse, an old pub high on the bluffs overlooking the harbor, the ancient cemetery, and the islet they call Ireland’s Eye. A lovely spot altogether.
At two on a salty wind-whipped day, the clientele was thin on the ground, and as I settled on a stool at the corner of the long bar, the only other customer was an old cove, obviously a local, who was seated about eight stools north of me, applying himself to a pint of the inevitable.
I had just finished a bracing walk along the cliff-top trail, and was dressed for the weather in an ankle-length grey gabardine duster and a brown felt Borsalino, so was making a sartorial statement probably a little far out for The Lighthouse. I ordered a meat pie and a pint of Smithwicks, taking my lunch in companionable silence with the old fella… I’ve always enjoyed the ornate turn of phrase that older Irishmen, especially around Dublin, are wont to display, and after I’d polished off the pie, my companion chose to break the silence in just such a manner.
“You have the look of an international man, sir”, he began. “ Well, I suppose I am”, I replied.
“ If you don’t mind me askin’, where do you hang that very fine hat ?” “Nashville”. “Nashville, Tennessee?” “ That’s the one”, I replied. “Ah, I love the country and western….would you be a musicianer yourself?” “ I would” (Y’see, I was already getting into the cadence and the slightly archaic syntax!) “But you don’t have that kind of accent, do you?”. I explained that my parents were Irish, my home town was Liverpool, and my mid-Atlantic accent after thirty years in Nashville still had more than a trace of Scouse.
“ Liverpool, is it ? The dogs in the street used to know me in Liverpool!”, he exclaimed. I’d never heard that colorful phrase before, but instantly grasped it’s meaning. I ordered up two more pints, indicating that he was welcome to join me, which he did. It transpired that he’d been in the Merchant Marine, shipping out of Liverpool to the world’s ports for many years, as had my own dad, and his knowledge of Liverpool’s geography and environs was strong enough for me to know he wasn’t just springing a line to take advantage of a gullible tourist….
We spent the balance of the afternoon chatting away and bending the elbow, and when it was time for me to return to Dublin City, we parted on the most genial of terms, although neither of us made any attempt to exchange contact information, which is how it should be, given the casual circumstances…hell, we hadn’t even exchanged first names !
On the return trip I jotted that phrase down, knowing that I’d be using it somewhere down the line, which proved to be the case.
When I arrived in Nashville in 1973 I had managed to build a pretty solid studio resume in England, and was hopeful of doing something similar in the States. I was also interested in expanding my arsenal of guitars and keyboards by adding bass guitar to the tools. I’d had a hankering to play bass for quite a while, but the opportunity seldom arose, as I worked so much with George Ford, a superb bassist. As I was the first Brit musician to arrive in Nashville, I figured that the locals who might know my name wouldn’t necessarily know what instruments I’d been playing in the London studio world. So one of my first moves was to acquire a sunburst Fender Jazz bass and an Ampeg studio amp…
My Nashville friend Buzz Cason had been very generous showing me around and introducing me to some of the local movers and shakers, including John Denny of Cedarwood Music. I began spending time over there and figured I’d ease into the bass thing in low profile situations… demos and such, while I was learning how things worked in this new musical environment.
Didn’t quite work out that way.
My first studio call was to play on a Floyd Cramer track at R.C.A. Studio A. Serious deep end, but I’d worked in all the key London studios with various high-visibility artists, so the chutzpah kicked in and I went for it. On the appointed day, I showed up an hour before the 2 p.m. downbeat in my London work clothes… midnight blue velvet jacket, black silk pants etc. etc. with my extremely long hair flowing free. The sound engineer was the only one there, and he didn’t seem to be too taken aback by my costuming choices, and we worked quickly and efficiently to get the bass sound, so by one thirty I was on my stool with a music stand before me, feeling pretty confident, as the Nashville Cats began wandering in. They were all extremely casually garbed, with overalls and ball caps seemingly the rule. I was eyed with curiosity, but they all seemed friendly enough, and too professional to question my presence. The producer was an Australian named Bill Walker, and as he got settled behind the console, in walked the great Floyd Cramer, looking like he’d just finished the back nine at McCabe. He exchanged pleasantries with some of the players, glanced briefly in my direction, then sat at the piano and began playing. Hearing that famous slip-note technique in the flesh was very cool, so I sat and enjoyed it, figuring he was warming up.
What I didn’t notice was that the local boys were scribbling away on available scraps of paper, the back of an envelope, the long bill from a grocery store cash register etc. Meanwhile I was waiting for my chart to be delivered to me.
You see, in London, if it wasn’t strictly a head arrangement, one was usually provided with a formal notation chart, or at the very least a chord chart on staff paper, and I always carried staff paper with me to sessions. As the clock hit 2, Mr. Walker hit the intercom button, saying “ O.K., Lets run it down” The drummer, who I soon learned was Larry Londin, started to count it down, but I had no chart, so I felt obliged to interrupt. “ I’m sorry, but I don’t have a chart yet “
Voice on intercom “ Didn’t you get it down while Floyd was playing?’ “ Noooo”
“O.K. Just copy Jerry’s chart “Jerry was Jerry Shook, a great acoustic rhythm guitarist, with whom I later worked a lot. He leaned across and presented what looked to me to be some primitive computer code, rows of numbers grouped in columns of four, with gaps after every four lines, and arcane little squiggles and arcs in the margins. My mind froze… I looked with total incomprehension. Bill Walker, sensing there was something afoot, called me into the control room. “You don’t know the numbers system, do you?” I replied that I didn’t know what he was talking about. “O.K. You got any manuscript paper?” Of course I did, and he kindly sketched out a formal chart, as he was also a locally prominent orchestral arranger, so I was able to complete the session, although in less than the style I’d envisioned. I immediately realized that I hadn’t researched the Nashville studio scene sufficiently, as our landing up in Nashville had been a bit random, and country music had not occupied large areas of my listening or playing experience.
For starters, the numbers system was, and largely still is, confined to Nashville, and back then there was no book to crack the code… you could only get it from another muso, and some of the locals weren’t necessarily falling over themselves to pass it on to an interloper. I also soon realized that there was a very formal protocol, particularly with bass, involved in Nashville studio sessions at that time. Transitional walk-ups and walk -downs had to be whole tone on the way up and the way back down… a flat third going in either direction was frowned upon.
At the ripe old age of 29 I realized that I had to learn a whole new music methodology, and quickly at that! Initially, I picked up bits and pieces hanging out at Creative Workshop (Buzz Cason’s studio), but in a working environment, guys didn’t usually have time to pause and answer my questions about “the numbers”. Luckily for me, there was a much more laid-back shop, Pine Brothers, right next door to Creative. It was home base to the great Muscle Shoals r‘n’b songwriting team of Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, who were, like me, recent Nashville transplants. Spoon was a particularly easygoing fellow, in addition to being a renowned studio keyboardist, and he unlocked the mystery for me in about twenty minutes flat with no fuss at all, illustrating the nuances of the system at the piano. His patient though succinct explanation showed me how beautifully simple yet infinitely adaptable the numbers system was, and I’ve used it almost exclusively ever since. Once I had the numbers cracked, I was ready to go, and I vowed I’d never get caught on the hop again.