Little Bill and His Bass
There is no denying that Little Bill Engelhart is a giggin' maniac. I've never seen the equal of him when it comes to filling his gig calendar early. Most year's Bill has the WHOLE YEAR booked by the end of March. For most of 50 years Little Bill has made his living as a professional musician, no easy task.
This is not to say that there still aren't plenty of possible opportunities to cram a few more dates in his already busy schedule. Last summer 2006, we were booked for this particular weekend, Fri & Sat at "The New Orleans" night club in Seattle's Pioneer Square. It's run by Bill's old friend Gaye, who books us there a lot.
It's not an easy gig by any means. The Square can get out of hand fast, the crowds from the basketball, football & baseball games can fill the Square and it's many nightclubs and bars (about 6 square blocks) regularly with party minded people. Sometimes they are rowdy but in control, other times they are completely nuts.
I've seen a mob of kids come swarming into the New Orleans, eye us up on the bandstand, and take a good long look at Bill sitting there, playing Bass and singing, from a wheelchair....and I swear I can hear 'em thinking.."We're gonna tear this little guy apart!"
Well folks, I can say I've never seen that happen. Matter a fact it's a rare night with a rowdy crowd that Bill doesn't leave 'em panting. Bowing at the front of the stage and chanting "we're not worthy!" (ala 'Wayne's World') on set brakes has become commonplace.
LittleBill doesn't screw around, kids. He'll count off the first tune (shuffle in G) and from then on for the rest of the set, there are rarely brakes between songs. He will cue us while we're playing,..... as to what the next song will be, we hit the cord for the last song and, boom!,...... we're into the next tune. Time changes, key changes, stops, starts, breaks, yah gotta watch the little guy, the band has literally no idea what the next song will be, or if the arrangement is exactly the same as the last time we played it. Every night it's always different.
When the kids get a little nuts, it's like Bill has a whip and a chair up there, he just wears 'em out. "Keeping the crowd" is what it's all about in the Square, there's lots of clubs, they get bored..they leave. Bill knows just how to work it, some night's we'll do and hour or hour & 15min first set, just to get their attention. (We have played a four hour gig in only two sets, The Bluenotes is not for sissies!)
But I digress. We had a weekend booked at the New Orleans as I said, which we've established, is a workout. So Bill calls me up the week before and sez there's a wedding gig available on that Sat afternoon 12 to 4pm, $200 a man, am I interested? And I'm thinking, let's see.........
Drive to Pioneer Square Friday night around 7pm. Set up the PA & all the gear, eat and play from 9 til 1am (1:30 with encores), tear everything down,.... load it in the cars, get home around 2:30 or 3:30am...... Wake up at 10am, shower and get dressed,.... drive over to Renton (30 miles)...... set up all the gear,.... play the wedding from 12 til 4 in the afternoon...... Tear down the gear, drive home, ....collapse until 7pm,..... drive downtown,..... set up all the gear again ......and play til 1:30 in the morning????? (not to mention tearing it all down again & packing up).
I knew as a younger man I wouldn't have even thought twice, but at 57, I just said, "I'll pass, man."
Bear in mind that Little Bill is 67, his drummer, Tommy Morgan, is the same age, as well. Bill calls his A list of subs and gets the great Rod Cook on guitar to play the wedding date with him and Tommy Morgan, (Bill's drummer for over 43 years) and they're gonna do it as a trio, fine.
I keep tellin' Bill & Tommy "Man you guys are gonna be BEAT Saturday night, and you're still gonna have to play until one thirty!"
"Nah, we can handle it,..... it's Two Hundred Dollars Man!"
So the Bluenotes play Friday night, good crowd, we all played well. Dick Powell & I felt sorry for Tommy & Bill afterwards so we helped them load up Bill's van for the wedding. I'm still thinking to myself, "Those poor saps are gonna be wasted, come tomorrow night."
Well.......around 11 o'clock Saturday morning, it's quiet and sunny at my house, the phone rings. I'm having a cup of coffee and 'shaking the night before off' as well as possible (I don't drink, so it's just fatigue). Bill's pretty upset, no hello, no nuthin:
"Do you have my bass?"
"Why would I have your bass?"
"Because it's not here...it didn't get packed in the van!"
"It did too Bill, I put it in there myself, right on your back seat."
"Well, it's not here now,...... it's gone.....Dick must have it."
"Dick, doesn't have it Bill,..... I put it in your van, myself, I swear!........ have one of the guys look again, I know it's in there!"
"Do me a favor...(you)call Dick, see if it got loaded in his van by mistake."
Dick Powell our extraordinary keyboard player, harp player & singer, sleeps late after a gig, noon or one at least, and isn't gonna be too thrilled, .....waking up to a phone call at 11am,..... getting out of bed,...... getting dressed..... and going outside to look in his van to see if Bill's bass is in there.......but that's what happens anyway.........no bass.
By now Bill is beside himself (it was like seeing double I'm told) his cel phone is going non stop. He's at the wedding in Renton with Tommy & Rod Cook. He decides that a drive to our friend Kevin Fallon's store, North West Guitars, in Bellevue (20 miles from the Renton wedding) is his only hope, he calls ahead, gets the always helpful and professional Kevin to agree to loan him a bass.
He takes off like a bat outa hell, roars up to the store in Bellevue, Kevin brings the bass out to the car and tells Bill he needs to call me.
"I just wanted to tell you, that Dick saw me put the bass in your van, it's freakin' in there!"
"No it ISN"T!"
"It has to be, under the seat or something........"
"Look, I'm not accusing you of losing my bass!"
"Actually, yes you are......
"I gotta go....click"
I should mention here, that Little Bill's bass is a custom made, one of a kind 5 string "R&B" Bass, handmade here in Seattle by guitar player, Mark Riley. Pretty much irreplaceable.
So with the borrowed bass, (from North West Guitars) our hero screams back down the road to the wedding in Renton, where he finds his loyal drummer of 43 years,...... his best friend on earth,......... a man who he calls "brother" and means it,.........a man who's drumming has been like a metronome for nearly 43 years........an honest man who is truly a fine human being......a man who was present for Little Bill's baptism..... pacing back and forth in front of the wedding hall, with a sick look on his face.
It seems that Tom was pretty freakin' tired himself, and unloaded the bass into the wedding hall, FIRST THING..........and then forgot that he DID IT!!!!!!.............. opps.......
Well after Bill's head exploded...........he fired Tom........then he hired Tom back,........... played the wedding,........ the boys tore all the equipment down,......... loaded the van,...Bill had to drive back to BELLEVUE and return the borrowed unplayed bass...... then drove home.... collapsed til 7pm,.......... drove downtown,....... set all the gear back up and played til 1:30am.............tore all the gear down, packed it in the cars and went home......ALL FOR TWO HUNDRED FREAKIN EXTRA DOLLARS!!!!!
I have to hand it to Tom & Bill though, freakin' beat as they were (The amount of stress on Bill alone would have fallen a lesser man) they played a helluva show Saturday night. I was so glad I passed on the wedding, I can't tell ya........ beautiful.
Guitar Stories & Little Bill and his Bass © 2007 Billy Stapleton. All rights reserved.
Tommy Morgan, Little Bill & his bass