Francis Clay Disappears

As Mr. Peabody used to say, "Set the "Wayback Machine for 1968 Sherman". If you're a Rocky & Bullwinkle fan, that's all it took on the "too hip for kids" cartoon show (along with a cloud of smoke & a loud bang) for time travel. Today I take you back....waaaaaay back to the music of my youth.

Stapes, who gives a ratz azz about what you were playing in your youth?" You might very well ask. Well maybe nobody, but at least one or two of yah out there on the growing "Guitar Stories" list. might. Especially if the reminiscences include how legendary drummer Francis Clay disappeared one night while we were playing a gig.

Yes, all of you under the age of 40 can all say at once,.......... "Who the hell is Francis Clay?" Well my little music mavins, Francis Clay...... was Muddy Waters drummer!! Top that!

Francis played on a pile of groundbreaking records with Muddy,..... lived in Chicago and played with just about every blues great in that town at one time or another. Little Walter, Pine Top Perkins, Howlin' Wolf, Buddy Guy, Michael Bloomfield, he knew 'em all. Francis went on in the late 60's to form "The James Cotton Blues Band" with Muddys' long time harmonica virtuoso and singer, James Cotton. They recorded 2 albums that are high-water marks of rhythm and blues. Both are still in print CD wize...... annnnnd if you go to YouTube and poke around Muddy Waters clips...especially "Live at Newport" there is great footage of Francis and James Cotton both in Muddy's band at the time.

Francis and his wife loved San Francisco. Whenever he played there, the two of them would promise each other that one day they would move there, and get out of Chicago. Well in 1968, they did just that. Francis loved playing with the James Cotton Blues Band, but certain habits of the band mates had grown intolerable, their performances suffered and quarrels about material, money and recordings........ increased to an unhappy crescendo.

Francis had been a member of the Musicians Union nearly all his life. And in the 60's the union was still powereful ands provided work for musicians that could read charts and play various styles of music. The San Francisco "Musicians Local #6" welcomed Francis with open arms. Francis was a master drummer, he could play jazz, dixieland, Blues, soul, show tunes, lounge music, ballads...anything...brushes or sticks...he could even play with one stick and small tambourine in his other hand, that he smacked the drums with while keeping a shake rattle going on. Francis even MADE his own drums!! Bent and steamed wood rims himself, and then covered them in white pearl as well. Quite a guy.

I was doing my best to play Chicago blues with singer Paul Cunio, bass player Dave Dunnaway and drummer Steve Castellino. Steve however; hated playing "blues" and wanted to "rock" he was a spectacular drummer and it took little time until he hooked up with a unit he was happy with.

Momentarily derailed.......we searched for a drummer. Our rhythm guitarist and singer Paul Cunio was a blues guy from the soles of his worn cowboy boots to the tip of his wild frizzy hair. He had stacks of Chess and Cobra Albums, he knew thousands of tunes and could name all the players on any given session on all those old bluesy sides.

I can't remember exactly how and when Paul met Francis, but he did. I DO remember the phone call I got after he did however. Paul was levitating, I'm sure, on the other end of the phone! He was laughing he was yellin' he was as excited as a 22yr old could get...he may have been'm sure he wasn't......but he might have been.

Any way, he told me of the upcoming practise/audtion that would take place at Francis's house. And I'm thinking "Are we talking Francis freakin' Clay here?? Muddy Waters freakin drummer........has Paul just gone nutso? a way that eclipses his other nutso behavior?"

As an aside, Paul Cunio was quite the wild and crazy character, ladies and gentleman, meeting him for the first time was quite a ride, please stay in your seats as your cushions may be employed as flotation devices in the event of a water landing.

Man, Paul could be off the wall. This is 1968 now, when long hair and freaky cloths was all new stuff...and a lot of the citizens of the Bay Area weren't none too happy about it either. Peace love and hold the anchovies, as we used to say. Especially out in the Ingleside district where Paul lived.

Re-splendid in black leather car coats, jeans, cowboy boots, long scarves, long hair and an ever present pair of Foster Grant sunglasses, he was there to freak you out, guys and gals.....and not just his appearance...if he saw you looking at him he'd freak out right in your face too.

One of his favorite pranks while eating in a restaurant......was going up to the table full of little old ladies that had been buzzing amongst themselves,...... aghast at what was happening to America's youth........taking a huge purple pill from his pocket and presenting it between index and thumb, other fingers splayed for presentation,....squatting on his haunches tableside and plopping himself on his elbows on the edge of their table.......peering over the tops of his Foster Grants.......and to their horror, would announce...

"This is Acid!!... LSD ladies... that's right... and I'm gonna take it right now!" At which point he would grab one of their water glasses and down the pill with great theatrical tossing of the head.......stab his Foster Grants back on his nose,..... arise,...... fluff himself...... and stalk out of the diner usually singing "The Pusher Man" or maybe "Spoonful"or some such appropriate was always a great show.........he did that one a lot, and had it down to a science........... He was taking his multi-vitamin tablet however! Paul was wild child to say the least. He was also a fah-ahh-buu-lous singer and performer...accomplished guitarist & harmonica player.

Well, we piled all our stuff in a couple cars on the appointed night and went to set our gear up at Francis Clays' house...I kept wondering how soon we'd be tearing it all back down and heading home with our tails between our legs...who did we think we were kidding anyhow?

Having never met Francis I was immediately captivated by his warm open personalility. Always joking about something and making you feel as if you'd known him all your life. We launched into our set of material that Francis and his Chicago brothers had made famous many years ago and much to our suprise it was going perfect!! It SOUNDED about a millon times better than we had ever sounded before...because now the absolutele perfect drum parts were being executed fluidly and with a feeling we had never experienced.

After the rehearsal went on for more than an hour, we took a break. Paul asked Francis if we were doing everything ok. He immediately complimented us and said we were "the best young guitar talent in the city".........well,after I was revived...... and could once again breathe on my own.....and could guess the appropriate amount of fingers being held up......he then went on to tell us that DYNAMICS were something we had overlooked. He then started his masters class on how songs in that style should be played.

"As soon as the singer opens his mouth...the band comes down." He said. "When you guys take solos...start off easssy...make 'em want to hear more...instead of playing everything you can..all at once..hell we gottah play for 3 hours... hold something back." All sage advice, which we began implementing as soon as the rehearsal started up again. By the end of the night we sounded like a different band...we were pretty stoked.

I was corrected once in the middle of a song, some nights later...when Francis stopped the tune and turned to me (.....I who had been playing riffs a bit too strong that answered in between the vocal phrases...stepping on the singer basically. tsk tsk..)
"Yeah Francis?"
"Do you sing?" He asked.
Bashfully I replied ",I don't"
"Ok......then please shut up while HE is!" He motioned to Paul our singer.

He got us laughing about it, but let me tell you that was the last time IN MY LIFE I ever made than mistake.

Our shuffles really started to shuffle, he showed us "Double shuffles" "Jazz shuffles" "Kansas City Turnarounds". Taught us how to pace sets......Start with an uptempo...go to a rumba....then a slow number....a dynamic tune.....mix the keys signatures up....soul tune...blues it up...let it calm back down.....we were like sponges (no we didn't live in Mediteranian sea coasts under water) but we did soak up everything he showed us...much of which I still use today...timeless knowledge, really.

So we became the "SF Blue Allstars" (The actual real name of the band is far too embarassing to print, and nothing you can say will make me tell it to you, save your fingertips and email sending fingers) and played around the San Francisco circuit as much as we could. Even opened for the Sons of Chaplin once. I was 19 at the time.....we played a lot of colleges, school dances, locally promoted concerts and of course bars, I had my trusty fake ID that had been looked at maybe twice in my budding career and always drew a chuckle from what ever club official looked at it.  Dave Dunnaway and I were the only 2 underaged guys in the band. We were pretty good boys in those days, and wanted to play far more than we wanted to hang out at the bar, so we made ourselves scarce in between sets.

We got good booking from the local rock promoters, and were a good offset sound to the psychedelic and original bands. We got 'em dancin'. And came to pass that we booked at the famous "Haight Street Theatre" on ....where else? Haight Street (that great street). We were the 2nd act out of three. The stage was a pretty pro setup for us, roadies, mikes, monitors, like cool man. There was even a drum riser!!

Francis wasn't too happy about the drum riser though, and requested repeatedly that he be allowed to play on the floor, as he could hear the band better. Well, the mikes were already set up from the previous drummer and it was determined by the stage manager that the drums would go on the big deal.

Francis's kit at the time was a beautiful, double bass drum, white pearl kit, that he had made himself. He sat regally up on the riser and we played quite well that day and were getting really good audience response as well. We had played like an hour and a half set and were closing it down with "Love Light" or maybe "Can't Turn You Loose" and were getting down to the last big chord...we punched that last chord and did the big... "boom boom....... shaa backk..... wat dadda...... dat dat dat...... khablam" .....ending...and at the final drum swat............Francis Clay AND HIS WHOLE FREAKIN DRUM SET DISAPPEARED!!!

The audience went absolutely stinkin' nuts!! They cheered and stomped like wild. What a finale!! We of course were quite astonished our selves...I mean after all.....we hadn't rehearsed anything like that!! They wanted an encore........, but really, how on earth could we, or anyone, top that?

We put our guitars down and went rushing to the back of the stage to find out what the hell had happened. And there...swinging back and some huge jangling pawn shop mobile....hanging upside down........I might add. Was Francis and his whole drum kit swinging noisly back and forth...Francis yelling for somebody to "Help Me!!". We looked at him for at least 10 seconds...mouths slack..eyes agog.

Francis had not wanted to play on the drum riser because it kept him away from the band...but also the surface of the platform was a bit on the slick side as well. This was in the days before drummers started carrying their own rubber backed little carpets everywhere they played. Not wanting to keep adjusting his kit, he had tied his whole kit together with clothesline, yes kids, white clothesline.....where he got the clothesline I have no idea....he may have had it in his trap case for all I know...but regardless, this was how the drums, cymbal stands and drum stool was all hanging together in a big clanging mess...along with Francis in the middle of it, kids...who was ensnared, upside down by his right ankle,...... in his own clothesline web. Which most likely saved his life as well, as it was a 10 foot plus drop from the top of the drum riser.

The stage manager came rushing backstage breathlessly as the crowd out front still howled for more...big smile plastered on his kisser...... saying.
"Can you guys do another number?......" About then he spied the impromtu hanging art sculpture that used to be our drummer and his kit, and said,
"..........never mind." And turned heel and went back around to the front of the stage, just sortah like that kind of thing happened every day.

We got Francis down finally and untangled his kit without damage..... having quite a laugh about it in the process, Francis took a while to find the humour in it,...... he was the ultimate professional, and was rather embarrassed and I just bet nothing had ever happened to him like that, or since.

That was 1968, I've played a lot of dates since then, but that was the best finale ever! Thanks for reading along.
- Stapes

P.S. Thanx to Stan for the "water landing line"

"The SF Blues Allstars"
Francis Clay, Paul Cunio, Dave Dunnaway & Billy Stapleton

Guitar Stories & Francis Clay Disappears © 2007 Billy Stapleton. All rights reserved.

"Keep pickin’ ... "
- Billy Stapleton