Guitar Stories

Flying V story #1

In the early 80’s I was still living in San Francisco. I’m pretty sure I was working in the computer room at Mt. Zion Hospital, playing in my original band “Billy Blastoff & the Retro Rockets” dealing guitars, collecting guitars, etc.

Another little side line I had picked up was doing “insurance replacement” work with a couple of insurance companies. I had made the contacts when I worked for Don Wehrs’ Music City & Leo’s Music in Oakland (a vast treasure trove of Gibsons, Rickys, De Angelicos and Fenders that we will never see again). If an insurance customer had a 70’s ES335 stolen, for instance, the list price (and insured value) was around $1,000, the list price of a new 335 back then. But, I could get ’em for 40% off retail ($600), brand new, sell ’em to the insurance company for 25 to 30% off ($700-750) and keep the change, everybody was happy. Client got a new guitar, insurance company paid out less than expected, Stapes made some pocket change. The music stores I had worked for apparently didn’t want to deal with that stuff after I left, so I kinda inherited the biz.

So one day I get a call form a guy who ran a big Allstate office in the East Bay. He tells me that his client has lost a very valuable old guitar, can I help? I ask what kind of instrument it was and he tells me a Gibson Flying V. I start asking all kinds of specific identifying questions, and the agent finally sez “I’ll just put you in direct contact with the client and you can meet with him, and see which model flying V he had stolen.”

I arrange to meet with the client in Oakland one day soon there after, most likely at Leo’s Music. He looks and talks almost exactly like, Smokey and the Bandit co-star, and Nashville, super picker, Jerry Reed. He is pretty bummed out. His home was robbed of all kinds of valuables that he was getting replaced but the only thing he was really depressed about was the guitar, and he was really down, kids. He brings with him, a Gibson promotional magazine from 1959, with a full page picture of a local music store’s front window display that won “best promotion” by suspending a Flying V with fishing line over a big moonscape, with planets and sputniks in the air surrounding it, actually very well done, pretty cool for 1959, well friends and neighbors that was the exact guitar that the client lost, he bought it new from the store, and had it ever since..

What kind of guitar?………..,a blonde 1959 Gibson Flying V. He also has a Polaroid picture of an oil painting that hung over his fireplace, of him playing the Flying V!!! Now we’re freakin talkin kids!!
We parted and I called the insurance broker the next day, because…….because…..because I knew where there was a V. The guy didn’t want to sell it, but I said, “name a ridiculous price” and he said $20,000 (pricey in ’81).

I told the insurance broker I had located one of “the 75 ever made…… Gibson…… Korina Freakin Flying V’s,…….. that it was in fabulous shape and it could be had for……… $30,000!! The guy never batted an eye. “Fine, if my client likes it, Allstate will buy it for him!” Apparently the client owned a pretty big company, many hundred employees, did all his biz with Allstate, personal, business, employee, auto, fleet of trucks, the whole enchilada.

Well I’m countin my chickens, their little toenails and any other chicken paraphernalia that may be applicable, I’m so sure my ship has come in I keep going down to the Marina and gazing longingly out at the horizon. I set a meeting with the fella who had his V stolen in San Francisco, at my parents house. I remember it like it was yesterday. 42nd and Taravel, heart of the Sunset district, beautiful summers day around noon, temps in the 70s. I had the garage open and the guitar sitting on my dads’ big workbench. I heard him drive up and walked out to meet him. He was a little antsy, but that’s how he’d been the last time I met him. We shook hands and walked into the garage, I proudly showed him the immaculate Flying V.

He looked it over for a long time, turning it in his hands, studying every nook and V cranny, and finally said in a very low voice.
“This isn’t my guitar………”
“Pardon me?” I asked.
“THIS ISN”T MY GUITAR!!!” He fairly screamed at me.
Completely confused, I said ” How on earth could this be your guitar? Yours’ was stolen, this is the one the insurance company will buy to replace yours.”

I continued cautiously, wondering if I was dealing with a certifiable nut job or what,….. explained again how rare they were and all,….. and thats when he thrust it back in my hands and reached for a handkerchief in his pocket as he began to weep uncontrollably. As he reached for the handkerchief, his jacket brushed back and I SAW THE GUN TUCKED IN HIS PANTS!!!

It suddenly dawned on me, like the big light bulb over King Kong’s’ head on the tippy top of the Empire State building, that somebody was a fixin’ to shoot me!! He had thought I had his stolen guitar…….most likely that I had stolen it!!………and that I was trying to sell it back to him through the insurance company……..I believe he was also under the assumption that he was going to take matters into his own damn hands and put a few well placed holes in my young white ass in righteous retribution!!

I tried to talk to him, (visions of dollar signs keep a natural born salesman talking in the worst of situations). I pleaded that, he most likely would never see his old guitar again,…….. this was surely better than nothing,…… a free 1959 Flying V for Chris Sakes!! but he brushed by me, walked briskly out to his car, started up and roared away. Visions of hatched chickens, sinking ships & dollar signs fluttering in the noon day sun.

I called the insurance agent, we talked, but nothing more came of it. I never heard from the guy again, nor was the claim ever settled to my knowledge. The whole thing sounded like an inside job to me. Disgruntled employee who knew what would hurt that guy the most, and it certainly did. They don’t tell ya the dangers of the vintage trade in the magazines, kids.

Billy Stapleton with his Gibson Flying V

Guitar Stories & Flying V Story #1 © 2007 Billy Stapleton. All rights reserved.

 

“Keep pickin’ … “
– Billy Stapleton

Flying V story #2

It was 1971, I was just into the first stages of the tendentious that would eventually put my playing to an end to any guitar playing for 5 years. Young, cocky, devilishly good looking and Mr. Know-It-All when it came to guitars.

I had done business with a store in New Mexico for years called Blackjack music, the owner Bob Gawlick became friends with my biz partner & I, when we owned Bananas at Large Music, and he eventually traveled out to see us a bunch of times. He basically had a giant Pawn, Indian Silver, and Music store in Albuquerque.

Well I had always wanted a 50’s Flying V and after 2 or 3 years he said he had found one. I negotiated a price and he sent it out, only when it got there, it was one of the red “Big pickguard” models, the second version with the vibrola. I called him and told him he had missed something. That it wasn’t a 50’s V, well he lost it, said it was absolutely a 50s V and I didn’t know what I was talking about!! (really?) Bob had yet to come to CA and got his dander up over the San Fran hippies that were tellin’ HIM what was what, “fag flag burners.”

Nasty argument ensued and we did no biz again with Bob. Well time passes (as you know) and word comes to me that Bob now has a real V, and he’s still pissed at me (for being right I might add) and wants big dough for it. Well sleep becomes an option, my thoughts can only be of the V, for the V and how to get the V from Bob, (who won’t talk to me.) I used to be an incredible schemer and here’s what I came up with….

I had played with the Mendocino All Stars (they were all from New York) for years, and had picked up a fairly believable New York accent (if you had never been to NY, spoken to anyone from NY, or actually knew anyone from NY) soooooo… I call the store up and announce that I’m looking for vintage guitars and I’m put on hold and given over to Bob Gawlick, the man in charge. I then proceed to introduce myself as AL KOOPER (Blood Sweat & Tears, Blues Project) and how nice it is to talk to him. We shoot the shit, I tell him where I am (Philadelphia or some such baloney “on tour”) and never mention the V, because this is only the first of many calls I plan to make. Or “only dah foist ‘ah many cawls, ef’ yha know wad I’m sayin’?”

Over the next month I keep callin’ telling him stories of the road, gigs, girls etc. (I even sent him and autographed BS&T album, God I’m terrible) I call from phone booths, busy stores anything with different background noise (one from a rehearsal of my band that Bob was SURE was BS&T) As the imaginary “tour” progresses across the US, Al meets and jams with Albert King, (it’s possible, right?) and is very impressed with his Flying V, (who wouldn’t be?) does Bob know where Al can get one? (This is like the 20th call, I can’t beeelieve this guy is…… a.) falling for this……. & b.) doesn’t recognize my voice…….)

Sooooo I make a deal for 4 guitars to be “sent ahead” on the “tour” to San Francisco, (method to my madness, ehh?) I pay by money order, signed by Al, of course (the V was $1,000) and they are shipped to Leo’s Music in Oakland. I am now the champion skunk of all time, my friends, who are all in on it, can’t believe my hutzpah, they are in awe, they have all heard my “New York Vinnie” show on the phone, as I grease Bob, and I have become legendary. I AM the man.

A year later Bob and I actually patch things up. I never mention “Al” (who had promised to mention Bob’s store in his next Rolling Stone interview) and I actually wind up in Albuquerque for a year, playing on records (some beauts) doing commercials and such. I live with BOB!!

As a daily reminder of my duplicity, there, proudly displayed on Bob’s office wall, is the autographed (by me) Blood Sweat & Tears album…

I can finally stand it no more, and one day at the store I get on the extension phone and call him as “Al”, I tell him to step out of his office and see who’s on the phone at the counter…he rushes out, eyes wide, huge grins and sees me on the phone. I frankly didn’t know if he was going to kill me or what. We sit down peacefully in his office and he quietly, sheepishly asks “was that you on the phone the whole time?” I fess up, and tell him it’s true. He gets up, goes out to the pawn part of the shop and comes back in with a 100 year old, silver capped, supposedly from the civil war, meerschaum pipe I had admired. and said. “Please accept this, man you are GOOD, too good, I’m outa my leauge here, please don’t do anything like that to me again… or tell my wife that YOU were Al!”

True story annnnd, although the V was snorted many years ago, the meerschaum pipe is on my desk as I write this baloney down.

I’ll tell you the “Wavy Gravy” story next… “Ray, A little traveling music please……..” Gleason

 Billy Stapleton with Flying V

Al Kooper (Stapes)

Guitar Stories & Flying V Story #2 © 2007 Billy Stapleton. All rights reserved.

 

“Keep pickin’ … “
– Billy Stapleton

Flying V story #3

There once was a traveling guitar buyer (not me) who literally drove around the US in his new Volvo station wagon searching out vintage guitars. He would stop in every little town, pick up every newspaper, flyer, phone book, church circular and scour every bulletin board, his patience was endless. If there was a band playing that night he stuck around, made friends, sat in and pried many a Martin from under a farmhouse bed. (helluva player too) He had found hundreds of instruments this way and loved the solitude of the open road.

Well he’s in Idaho going though a small postage stamp of a town and he stops in the local coffee shop and picks up the local paper, flips to the classifieds (1/4 of one page) and it sez, cryptically, “For Sale: Gibson Flying V guitar, $350 or best offer”. His curiosity peaked, he pulls out his trusty cell phone (this is maybe 15 years ago, so it’s like a steam powered phone, but it works) dials the number and the hunt is on.

The story: The fella with the V, has had it literally under his bed for 30 years, it was left as security on a loan from his brother in law, all those years ago. The amount of the loan? $350. He nor his wife have heard from the black sheep brother in law for 30 years and assume he met his demise in the bars and rough jobs that peppered his life.

The guy with the V wants to put an addition on his house and figures the “gee-tar” ain’t doin’ anybody much good under the bed and puts an ad in 5 of the local papers,…. our hero is calling from almost 150 miles away!!

The phone call is polite and informative, a description of the guitar is given “Sota’ yellah’ colored,…….. metal “V” nailed to the face,……. raised silver Gibson logo on the arrow shaped headstock,………… serial number? sorta like ink, in black, starts with a 9″.

Gentlemen, start your engines!

Our hero wastes no time and tells the owner, the guitar is sold, he’ll drive in with the cash as fast as his Volvo will carry him, he gives the guy his cell number and he’s off.

Now let me just say that this starts around 8am in the morning and is the first day of the adds’ run. Well, he’s on the road no more than a half hour when the cell rings, Mr. V sez, there’s been another call and someone has offered him $450, our hero sez he’ll give him $550 just hold on til he gets there.

10min later ….ring!……Mr. V says he’s got an offer of $1,000, our hero trying to get a foot hold offers $2,000. 5 min later….Mr. V has an offer of $5,000….our hero offers $7,500. The Volvo is plowing through inclement weather, wind and rain and racing to what is a destination for several vintage buyers.

He’s within 60 miles…the phone rings and exasperated Mr. V sez….”you might as well save your gas, son, I answer the phone, someone offers me more money…I hang up, and the phone rings immediately….they offer me money…I hang up, it rings again…..I had no idea this thing was so valuable!”

“What’s the offer now?” our hero asks breathlessly.
“$20,000……see I told you,….. just let it go”
Our hero has $30,000 on him, the whole roll, all the marbles, if he could just freakin get there!! He could close the deal, none of the other dealers has made it there either.

“I really want that guitar, I’ll give you $25,000, just don’t sell it before I get there!!
FINALLY he pulls up into the small town Idaho-ian town, finds Mr. V’s house, and staggers up the front steps. Mr. V is a pleasant man who hasn’t had this much excitement in quite a while, maybe WW2. The guy has a forlorn look on his face and tells our hero he has driven all this way for nothing. A fella from LA is flying in with $50,000 CASH!!

Taking, what must have been the deepest of deep breaths, our hero plows ahead, he plops the $30,000 into the guys lap, and goes for one last close (as the phone rings incessantly in the other room).

What figure could we agree on, that would be fair to you, and consider the guitar sold?? Just name the number.”
“If there was an offer,….. and I’m not sayin’ there will be,….. of $75,000, I’d consider the guitar sold……. and unplug the phone.”

Ok …….it’s a deal……take the $30,000 as a down-payment, keep the guitar and I’ll be back in 2 days at the most with the cash.”

Suddenly this guy from a small town grows even larger nuts than mere moments ago when he asks for 75 Large, and sez he doesn’t think that’s good enough!! Our hero, to set the deal in stone (phone ringing madly in the other room) hands over the pink slip and the keys to his year old Volvo station wagon for security!!

You would think that no man could take much more, endure much more, even on the quest for a ’59 V, but the story does not end here, constant reader, oh no, it goes on.

Mr. V drives him (in his Volvo “nice car, young fella”) to the nearest RENTAL CAR AGENCY where he rents a car and heads out to, yeah, you guessed it Seattle. Cell-Phoning like mad ahead he contacts his sometime investment partner in Los Angles, who owns a prosperous vintage store.

The LA guy streaks to the nearest jet pointed North, and is sittin’ on a plane to Seattle within two hours, with as much cash as he can cram into his lucky “Greyhound Bus” travel bag.

Sooooooo now we have , our hero (in a rental car) driving from Idaho to Seattle WA,…….. Mr. LA flying from LA to Seattle…… (Mr. V sitting in Idaho with a ’59 V, 30k & a nice Volvo) and everybody’s meeting at Guitarville, owned by Vallis Kolbeck (who’s picking Mr. LA up at the airport) in the North end of Seattle. No more than 20 minutes after Vallis returns from the airport with Mr. LA…..our hero drives up (looking like a an extra from a disaster movie, unshaven, hair in a twist, no sleep, bleary eyed from the road) and the deal unfolds.

Mr. LA drops his bundle on the counter, and counts out $30,000…….THIRTY THOUSAND??? (30 down already, 45 to go) The deals’ for $75,000!!!

It seems Mr. LA didn’t bring quuuuuite enough moolah. Enter Vallis Kolbeck, owner of Guitarville, the 3rd investor, who’s dying to get on board, what with all the excitement and all.

Val pitches in the extra $15,000….all money is crammed into a Guitarville shopping bag.

Our hero, has to sleep, he’s had it, so with a night’s rest he piles back on the road…wid’ dah cash ‘inna sack.

He drives to Idaho, gets the V, (returns the rental car, which he drove there almost nonstop and is smoldering in the rental car lot as he checks it back in, hotter than a home made hash pipe) and heads back to Seattle.

I can’t recall a more convaluted deal, right at this minute, but I may think of one. I can only say, that when I plugged that guitar into an amp…..”it spoke”…what tone! whadda neck, whadda axe, cheez.

As a last note on the deal, Steven Segall, the movie actor is quite a guitar collector, and he had wanted an orig V. When Mr. LA got back to LA, he called him and told him he had the ultimate Flying V.

Steven Segall, sez “I think I just bought, the ultimate Flying V.”

Mr. LA sez, “I dunno, this is the coolest one I’ve ever seen, how could the one you just bought, be better than this?”
“Well…” Steve sez “it was Albert Kings!”

Nighty nite, my little guitar buck-a-roos, tuck your selves in tight, and dream of pretty guit-tars, til mornings light.

Stapes (I’m on the far left, the traveling guitar buyer, Lloyd & Vallis)

 Billy and the 1959 Flying V

Guitar Stories & Flying V Story #3 © 2007 Billy Stapleton. All rights reserved.

 

“Keep pickin’ … “
– Billy Stapleton

A Romp With Cream Behind the Scenes

Cream, Winterland 1968
“Wheels of Fire” recordings

My old friend, and constant reader, Ian Bonner requested a “behind the scenes with the stars” installment, here’s the one I remember best.

It was 1968, I was a year out of St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco. I worked as a young (19yrs old) salesman at Don Wehr’s Music City, the hippest music store of that or any time. Don had Santana, Big Brother, the Dead, Quicksilver and anybody who was anybody as his store accounts. Don was decked out with huge mustache and the latest duds at all times.

One of the perks to being the young “guitar know it all” was that on weekends the local ballrooms, the Fillmore, the Avalon & California Hall all would rent various pieces of gear from Music City. We delivered tons of stuff in the Music City van, Fender Twins, Hammond B3’s (groan) big Acoustic bass amps, the works. The after hours driver would get an extra $20 and get to stay for the show.

At the Fillmore, Bill Grahams’ Ballroom, you could deliver the stuff……. and if they needed another stage hand you could not only stay for the show but be onstage & backstage…as long as you behaved yourself and actually helped out. I took advantage of this generous situation when ever possible.

March 7th1968 approached and was duly noted on my calendar. My heros, Cream, were playing at the Fillmore and Winterland through March 10th. I was absolutely beside myself, I’d seen their first US tour and was impressed to death (along with every other guitar player in the world) and was getting my finances together to see how many nights I could go.

At 19 years old I had a lot going on, I was enrolled in San Francisco City College (which I attended sparsely as possible), had a steady girlfriend, had my part time job at Music City, took guitar lessons & practiced furiously, and needed to keep the smoke and mirror show going to make the parents think I was contemplating SOME form of gainful employment,….. but energy?…man I had energy.

About 2 weeks before their four day stand, I was at my City College Tennis class…… (hey, we all make mistakes, ok?) and the court was a bit on the wet side…and going for a wide ball (make your own jokes) I slipped on one of the rain slicked painted lines…..and kaboom!….came down on my left wrist…and broke one of the little bones in there…like, ouch, man.

So, I get plastered up (fitted for a cast) at the doc’s from my wrist, past my elbow!! Great. As the weeks wear on, little slows me down and I’m doing all my activities (sans guitar playing).

Well as luck would have it, Don Wehr comes to me, and asks if I can manage the weekend delivery to Winterland with the cast on my arm and all? I believe it was 3 stacks of Marshalls for one of the opening acts “Jeremy and the Satyrs” (horrible), they were from New York and insisted on renting Marshalls (unheard of in those days) Don had originally turned them down, but then someone waved big wads of money at him…PLUS….as a provision to the rental, Don insisted that they pay ME $20 extra a night (plus the delivery fee, we’re talking $40 a night here kids) to baby sit the stuff and make sure it came back in perfect shape. Jeremy was the opener and I can’t remember a single thing about him, but his name is on the famous 3 headed yellow poster of the concert (way to go Jeremy!) Also on the bill, The James Cotton Blues Band and the original Blood Sweat & Tears, quite a show for 4 or 5 dollars.

So that Thursday we loaded up the Music City Van, and I and my broken wrist was off to the Old Fillmore……and paradise. I knew all the stage hands, so getting some help with the gear was no problem. I told family and friends I would be gone as much as possible and not to worry.

Wait a minute…you said “The Old Fillmore”……then you said “Winterland”??? Stapes, you old duffer…which is it? Has one of the big carriage bolts that holds your brain in place fallen out? No kids, wacky as it seems this day in age…Cream opened their shows in San Francisco…Thursday night at the Fillmore…and then moved across Geary Boulevard to the big venue “Winterland” for Fri & Sat …annnnd back to the Fillmore for Sunday night. Why for? Rent at Winterland was most likely the issue…Bill Graham watched every penny, very shrewd guy. The posters and biographies all say different stuff as to the venues & dates, but the most reliable sources bear out my memory of Thursday night at the Fillmore, Fri & Sat at Winterland, and for sure…(you’ll see why Sunday is indelibly etched) Sunday back at the Fillmore.

I found a friendly Fillmore stage hand that afternoon who helps me get the Marshalls upstairs (2 flights). Marshall cabinets have two big handles, one at either end, so you really only use one arm if some ones else has the other handle. I waited that afternoon, while Creams’ two Roadies. Micky & Peter loaded Cream’s gear first up on the stage and watched in awe as they nailed Ginger Baker’s drum set to the floor!!! (fahbulous)..the other acts gear (backlines) went in front in layers that were removed as each act played,…. headliners in back.

I struck up a conversation with the two British, scrappy roadies and we soon became friends, joking and getting things set up. With everything ready, I drove the Music City Van back to the store, got my car, a ’65 Ford Galaxy 500, and drove out to the Sunset district,…… home to my folks house, (at 19 I still lived at home), had dinner……. jabbered away incessantly about Clapton etc, and split back to the Fillmore around 7pm, so I wouldn’t miss a thing ( told’jah I had energy!).

My first interaction with any of the actual band members was with Ginger Baker. A fearsome guy at times, he could just bore holes in you with those eyes. The opening acts had played, and he was onstage with the road crew getting his drum set comfy before they went on, and turned to me.
“I want free Cokes..” He uttered in spectacular Cockney.
“I’m not sure what your arrangement, regarding beverages, is with the people here…” I began as apologetically as possible.
“No..I want free Cokes….” He stated again with absolute command.
“Mr. Baker…if I have to BUY them MYSELF…you’ll have Cokes!” I blurted.
Exasperated, Baker turned to face me and gruffly said, “NO!….I want free Cokes! One!..Two!…’Free!”

The large light bulb usually reserved for massive realizations went on with a visible spark in my young head. Baker didn’t care whether I or anyone was paying for Cokes…he merely wanted three of them! (the Cockney ‘free for ‘three’ completely threw me.)

Without further ado I scurried off for Cokes. That night, I sat on Clapton’s side of the stage! ….10 feet from him…..Marshalls singing their powerful arias….Cream at the height of their improvisational powers…..the meat of their career….I was in HEAVEN!! I tell yah. HEAVEN!

Well…..just as everything was going GREAT about 5 songs into their set…..Jack Bruce blows his 2 Marshall heads out!! Blooey!….Cream is looking around for their 2 loyal roadies (Micky& Peter) who are not to be found!! …..(off getting loaded and chasing the San Francisco girls, it turns out).

So who springs into action? That’s riiiight…me.

I quickly move to Jack’s side of the stage and pull the main fuse in his Marshall 100 watt Bass Plexi, and to my horror find a fuselike length of heavy solid copper in the fuse socket. Apparently blowing fuses was something Cream frowned upon, so they just basically “hard wired” the safety fuse (everything they had was “plexi” as well (priceless, these days)…what the heck?).

(Sorry 2-second tech lecture here). A regular amplifier fuse, 3amp 4amp, will blow to protect the amplifier’s circuitry from damage in case of overheating, shorting, tube failure or other circuitry malfunction. A length of solid copper in a fuse holder was something I’d seen many times before (no fuse? the show must go on!), that ,and an old blown fuse wrapped in tin foil, …..and …if the amp wasn’t workin’ with one of these “hard fuses” in place… it only meant one thing…your amp was fried, brother.

So broken wrist & all I replace Jack’s two heads with 2 of the 3 we were renting Jeremy & the Satyrs (in front of a packed house at the Fillmore stepping over cables and lights) and aawwwaaaay they went……. Back in business.

After the show (I am a hero) Jack Bruce comes up to me and sez, “Are you doing anything else this week?” In a lovely Scotch accent.

“Hoping to see you fellas a few more times.” I replied. “Any night you’d like to come, you’ll be our guest….thanks.” Well of course I took full advantage of that invitation, and I was “in”. And when Cream moved to Winterland Friday night I was in the fold, mate.

Not only was I now a “behind the scenes guy” at the rock event of the year, but local Recording Wizz “Wally Heider” had his huge mobile-truck-recording-studio outside, and patched directly to the stage. Recordings from these four nights would become the “live” record in the 2 album set “Wheels of Fire”. Could it get any better??

Fri & Sat night were just the best, the band played superbly, light show goin’ the whole deal man. Before their set on Saturday night, I was moving stuff around on stage, when promoter Bill Graham who was looking at his watch (who knew me for years as the “Music City kid”)….. told ME……. to “go tell CREAM”….. that they were “on”! Now there’s cool errand for yah. So I run like a rabbit though the crowd and into the backstage area. The first two dressing rooms are filled with imbibing, bedecked, revelers… some famous… some not so. In the 3rd Dressing Room……lights down low…..no one but Eric, Jack & Ginger…huddled around a small black & white TV set, Cream…glued to the set…as they watch Paul Newman & Jackie Gleason in “The Hustler”…they’d never seen it!

I approach warily…..as quietly as I could…I tell them they’re “on”… Eric raises a hand (still glued to the TV) to let me know he’s heard…and I tiptoe out and head back out to the main stage.

Well…….about 5 minutes later……. Bill Graham steams up to me, and sez, “Where the fuck are those guys?” As only Bill could say it. “They’re watching “the Hustler”..” I state as evenly and honestly as possible.

There was no actual response, …..Grahams’ eyes bugged out and I knew somebody was gonna get yelled at… I was only happy it wasn’t gonna be me. (Grahams temper was legendary, as we’ll see). Bill bounded off stage to the dressing rooms like a track star…..no more than 30 seconds later Cream is sprinting towards the stage through the crowd… Graham hot on their heels still lecturing them sternly,……but his words are soon lost in the cheering of the crowd as they spot the band …beautiful……they take the stage… Graham, regains his composure….. introduces them…and “Tales of Brave Ulysses” comes wah wahing out through a dancing light show that runs across the stage and crowd, just like “tiny purple fishes”…I can’t really forget it, kids.

They play their hearts out,…. applause for solos, ….applause for ensemble improvisation,….. Eric plays Crossroads,…they play I Feel Free…… they do Spoonful …..Ginger plays Toad…..they do encores……they are GODS!!

Sunday morning……Eric wakes up with a beautiful woman (most likely after noon) after huge parties that rage all over San Francisco’s hippest of the hip until dawn. Cream has conquered San Francisco.

The equipment needs to be moved from Winterland to the Fillmore for Sunday NIGHT. I show up around four and find Peter arguing with a caretaker at Winterland who refuses to open a roll up cargo door because of some stupid regulation, not union, not authorized, I can’t really remember.

The BIG problem is all equipment trucks and other roadies are in Sausilito, where the bands are staying. There is some big problem with the Golden Gate Bridge and traffic is snarled throughout the rest of the afternoon. There IS, however; a giant dolly (10′ by 6′ at least) with huge wheels, that we could move the equipment on…., but it won’t fit through the side door, a regular size door, even sideways (it also musta weighed close to 600 pounds!). We need to open the freight door and get the dolly out….but we are refused.

Around 6 o’clock Eric Clapton shows up with a beautiful girl in tow, to fetch his guitar which was left backstage, in their dressing room, on a sofa.(I had waited around for hours for the equipment issue to get resolved….I explored every nook and cranny of Winterland in that time…and yes, I was in their dressing room…..and YES I played the painted SG, “The Fool”……….as well as my cast would let me, it was just layin’ there being magnificient….and I tell you I can still remember the feel of that guitar like it was yesterday….it played like a rocket fellas…who ever set that thing up, knew his stuff!!! )

“Mr. C” asks what’s going on, Peter and I fill him in. Eric proceeds to tell us he and his girlfriend will go distract the caretaker and tells us to “break the lock” that goes though the chain of the roll up door.

“Break it with what?” Peter asks…
Eric reaches into a wooden box, that contained various shipping implements (crowbar etc.) that was by the frieght door, and sez, “This ought to do it….” And hands Peter (his trusted roadie) a nice sized hammer!

Eric and the absolutely stunning woman he’s with, go off to distract the caretaker….. and Peter…well Peter takes a mighty swing at that lock ……and it breaks apart like a tea pot!! (We had hoped the lock would just ‘open’ as opposed to shattering, this left the ‘cover up’ portion of the plan obviously in question.)

We had all the equipment piled by the door in case the trucks showed up….so we piled the stuff on the gigantic dolly rolled the door up….pushed the dolly out side….rolled the door down……and Peter and I gingerly pieced the lock back together and threaded it through the chain…..we stepped out into the afternoon sunlight through the side door…just..in…time…to…see…a…young…kid…STEAL GINGER BAKERS 1948 LEEDY LUDWIG SNARE DRUM!!… AND TAKE OFF DOWN The STREET!!! AAHHHHH!!!

When I was a young man, before my knee got mushed I could run like a freakin deer, people. And I lit out after this kid for all I was worth….all systems go….I caught up quick and got right up behind him and grabbed his jacket collar…which is when he threw the snare drum INTO THE STREET!! (Geary Boulevard to be exact). Peter, who caught up with us, had saved it from being run over!…I was dangling the kid off the ground who was “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry….” There was a big hole in the snare drum head (perfect, can’t wait to tell Ginger) …and Peter just sez…”Let him go…” I gave him an extra shake and turned him loose…he was gone like a jackrabbit.

Peter & I push the giant dolly across Geary Boulevard and up to the doors of the Old Fillmore. We begin loading all the gear up the front steps….we are pretty beat by this time…but…the show must go on.

We’re half way though the load-in when Bill Graham himself comes out of his office, walks up to us, and wants to know what’s going on. We tell him there’s no trucks and all the other road crews are stuck in Sausilito,…… it’s just us…moving it all. Graham then asks..”Is there anything I can do to help?”

Let me take a second to say that Peter, Cream’s roadie, goes about 5’6″ maybe a 150 pounds of absolutely solid muscle. He grew up working on the docks in Liverpool, has nice cloths, shoulder length hair and a good mustache and is a very nice bloke…….until…..

Peter, sweating his way though his satin shirt sez, “Well, could you give us a hand then?”

Graham. who’s tough-guy-hair-trigger-temper, is famous, FLIPS! “Really? It’s not enough I pay you people, promote the shows, fly you over from England, collect the money and pay the fucking acts… NOW you’d Like ME to Help Load the Equipment IN???” He’s screaming at Peter now.

Peter, who doesn’t like being talked to like this….and grabs Graham by his shirt front and lifts him to his toes, saying… “Look PRICK!…you ASKED all friendly like, if you could help…now PISS OFF before I knock your soddin’ bloody teeth out!”

Having seen Graham berate artists and support people alike, with great gusto I might add,….. I relished the sight of him, terrified of this little British dynamo. Waving his open hands like white flags in front of his face, he backed down immediately repeating “It’s cool…it’s cool man!”

Peter released him and he scurried into his office and slammed the door (presumably locking it behind him). We loaded the rest of the gear in and finished around 7pm, when a bunch of support people showed up and helped out. We were beat. I had brought my dad’s Kodak instamatic camera the night before and had taken a bunch of pictures. I was spending my last night with my new friends and it turned into quite a doozy. Cream had sold out every night, and Graham was mostly pleased.

The lock? Well when Micky, Cream’s other roadie finally showed up with the trucks from Sausalito…. along with the other acts and their crews….they went up to the freight door and tried the chain pull….just as the maintenance guy walked up…..and the security guy showed up…and the lock disentigrated…….as Micky barely touched it!!

Micky, was read the riot act, chapter and verse…he was absolutely aghast that he was taking the wrap for our vandalism…but he never blamed anyone else…he just denied any wrong doing and took it.

A lock was bought, the lock was replaced, order was restored. Micky knew who must have broken the lock, but he said nothing……until he caught up with US………. but…. when he saw all we’d been though…let it go……mostly since he hadn’t been arrested!

Robert Stigwood, Creams’ manager, was given all the information regarding the roadies’ adventures… including Peter threatening to knock Bill Graham’s teeth out. And was giving Micky & Peter a stern talking to back stage at the Fillmore as Eric and his girlfriend came by….Eric at first gave Micky & Peter a look that said “I could save you….” and kept going….to his credit he came back and said to Stigwood, “I told ’em to break the lock, ok?” and breezed off.

Stigwood still had a few choice words for Peter, for threatening Graham and all, but it was mostly for looks, as Graham had snubbed Stigwood when he had asked Graham for seats onstage, so Stigwood stood onstage throughout the concerts. I tell yah, folks, what all goes on.

The cast on my arm? I had everybody autograph it, Eric, Jack, Ginger, Mike Bloomfield…and yes…I still have it! I got a great shot of Eric that night with my dad’s camera (see below) and Eric gave me one of the giant tortoise shell picks he used at that time,……… plus a nice big autograph, which are framed on my desk, as I write this.

Jacks broken bass heads were tossed in the back of the equipment truck prior to Saturdays’ show, where 2 more were pulled from a STACK of Marshall heads…there musta been 10 of ’em, extra cabinets too.

Ginger was pretty good natured about the broken snare drum head (we never told him the drum was stolen, he’d have killed us!) his other head had been nice and broken in, he wasn’t exactly pleased……but, I had the guts to ask him to autograph the broken one! Which he did …(imagine)…… and yes, that’s on the wall in my den. Quite a weekend for a nineteen year old, I don’t know if I ever got over it really…… OK, Ian?

The first shot is my fave:
Eric and the painted SG, taken by me, Micky has his back to us.

 Eric Clapton - Winterland 1968

In the second picture note the recording mics, and just over Ginger’s cymbals is a figure in a suit…Robert Stigwood

 

 

A Romp With Cream Behind the Scenes
© 2007 Billy Stapleton. All rights reserved.

“Keep pickin’ … “
– Billy Stapleton

Alex and the '63 Strat

Alex Bendahan was quite the player in San Francisco; great singer, tremendous guitar player. For many years we were rivals (he had too much talent, I had too much attitude) and gradually became friends at one point sharing an old house in the Mission district around 1979.

But a few years prior in 1970, I (in what can only be described as generosity & guilt) gave Alex a ’63 Lake Placid Blue Stratocaster. Why? Because I was working at Leo’s music when we were rivals and a young Alex came in with a pile of stuff and some dough to trade for a guitar, the owner left the deal up to me and although I could have given him a better axe (an SG custom) than I did (a 63′ Guild Starfire 6, sorry all you Starfire fans out there) I gave him the lesser of the two. My conscience got the better of me and a couple of years later in my old friend Leo’s office, I did a deal for the Strat and a couple of days later, gave it to Alex and told him why.

Annnnyway. Alex loved that freakin’ guitar he took it everywhere with him, and I mean everywhere. He played a million nights in a SF band “Elvis Duck” and jammed with everybody all the time.

In 1970 we were in a music class together at San Francisco City College that started around 1 in the after noon. We had some morning classes and met up (to smoke things over) and to drive out to the lower Mission (20mins from school) go to Alex’s loft, pick up his guitar and hit El Faro for the best Mission style burritos on the planet (the carne’ estada will kill ya!) on the way back to school for our one o’clock class.

Now the lower Mission is a lot of warehouses, industrial stuff, that eventually connects to Market street, none of what I would call a nice neighborhood by a long shot. In fact after dark, a little on the dangerous side. But during the day, the streets around El Farro are always packed with cars, jockeying for a space near burrito heaven, Spanish, White, Asian all swimming in the same stream, no pushing no shoving…

So we drive to El Farro, burrito up, (had a puff or two on the way) Alex’s loft is a block away, so we walk, go upstairs (had a puff or two) got his guitar, walked back to the car and took off for Music Theory 101 at SFCC. (No wonder I couldn’t get much theory as a kid).

We’re half way though the class, a bit zoned out but conscious, when Alex jumps out of his desk and screams “Fuck! My Guitar!!! and runs like a madman out of class, doors flapping in his wake. I of course, hot on his heels.

It seems we have forgotten the Stratocaster somewhere along the line! Opps. Alex (who on a normal day drove like Paranelli Jones) is pushing his yellow Volkswagen like a test pilot at NASA with a license to kill, stop signs, oncoming traffic, pedestrians, crosswalks, red lights…all meaningless to us and our quest.

We screech to a halt roughly where we had been parked across from El Farro……….and there sitting on the sidewalk………standing upright, I might add……just like it belonged there waiting for it’s master is a black Fender hard-shell case, right where we left it AN HOUR AGO!!!

After reclaiming the missing axe, regaining our composure and normal breathing patterns, we pretty much blew school off, went back to the loft and jammed the day away. And the last time I checked (1995 or so) he still had it!

Alex Bendahan

Alex Bendahan

Guitar Stories & Alex and the ’63 Strat © 2007 Billy Stapleton. All rights reserved.

“Keep pickin’ … “
– Billy Stapleton

Billy Roberts

Thanks to those of you who have read an old road dog’s (me) stories and have responded favorably…
and even asked for more.

Spending 25 some years “chasing it”, as most of you know,…….. you do run into an amazing array of people. And one truth you come to find out in the entertainment business, is that people who you thought were “famous” and “well off” are out on the same circuits as you, playing the same places (presumably for better money) and are gigging to keep a roof over their heads.

One of the favorite people I’ve met,……. and later would come to call my friend, was Billy Roberts. To inform those of you who don’t know who he is….., (cuz Billy is a bit older than me, even…. are there any people older than you Stapes?)

Billy Roberts wrote the classic “Hey Joe” in 1962……yeah! …royalty battles raged for years….originally it was stolen by an LA group “The Leaves” who hadah big hit with it in the early 60’s…..but Billy thankfully had it copyrighted…….and it all was finally put to rest when a fellah named Jimi Hendrix recorded it on a little LP called “Are You Experienced?” and gave the publishing rightfully to Billy. The song has long been praised by musicians and composers for its “backwards circle of 5ths”.

Jimi Hendrix & Billy Roberts met up at one time and apparently they hit it off in a big way. Billy was immediately and immensely likable, he had a huge open personality that dripped with Southern charm and wit. Roberts was born in South Carolina in 1936.

He told me the Hendrix story 30+ years ago and to be honest I couldn’t summon up a detail now to even begin telling that story. But suffice it to say, it is Roberts’ name that appears on the writers credits for “Hey Joe” on the groundbreaking “Are You Experienced”.

Roberts was, for the most part, a folk singer, he did carry kind of a rock and roll band for a while called “Grits” and they mostly played the San Francisco Bay Area. The group recorded one album “Thoughts of California”.

Roberts’ talent was not limited to singing, guitar, harmonica playing and song writing, his booming baritone voice was in demand for radio and TV advertisements, his most famous was a Chevrolet commercial in the 70’s when Chevy first used the “drove my Chevy to the Levy…” line that Don McClein would immortalize in “Bye Bye Miss American Pie”. But this story is about none of that.

This little story is about a clear, slightly chilly, Spring night in San Francisco, around 1972. We were broke,…. all of us,…….flat broke…..no scratch, no bread, no scoots…….(too broke to pay attention)…… harp great, Stevie Gurr, who went on to play with Elvin Bishop for years……barrel chested, song writer, guitarist and spectacular singer Lenny Laks….myself and Billy Roberts. The “Hey Joe” song royalties didn’t keep him totally afloat.

Billy Roberts at that time had taken over the old Santana rehearsal compound in the Upper Filmore area. He had expenses keeping the little magical courtyard facility afloat…and on this particular night..we just wanted to go eat someplace nice and have a drink or two… or twenty…but alas no dough.

Although the jokes and camaraderie were great as we toasted up the last of a loaf of bread on his gas stove in the kitchen…the crushing “no money” atmosphere soon enveloped us.

Roberts, suddenly slammed a big hand down on the kitchen table (Billy was about 6 feet tall, went about 225 of mostly muscle, he was a black belt many times over) and proclaimed in his best Southern Preacher voice (his god given middle name was “Moses”…no kiddin.)…
“Gentlemen!…..there comes a time….oh yes there does come AH TIME!….can I git an “amen”?
“Amen!” we responded
“When yah just….. when yah just …..got-tah go out….. and git….. what has to be got-ten…….are yah with me, brothers?”
“Oh Yeah!” We were hooked on a Roberts ride.

“And so I say onto you……and you too Stevie Gurr……that it is time…… HIGH TIME! ……..for us pickin and singin’……strummin and grinnin’……..purveyors of the Terpsichorean Muse…….”
“Whaah? We asked, in the depths of our ignorance…
“Musicians….” He informed us.
“Ooohhh…..” we affirmed, amazed by his vocabulary.
“To hit the STREET!…” he shouted..”and make us some gawd a’mighty…..mu-f#@*in’ MONIES!!……are yah with me?”
“Hell yeah!” we exclaimed.

We lightly bundled our selves up against the San Francisco night Spring air and grabbed instruments for our outdoor performance. Billy had an old Martin, Lenny had his battered Guild, Stevie had his harps…..but I had nothing remotely acoustic back then, and at the time, due to a hand injury could only play slide guitar.

Roberts said.”Wait right ‘chere, Billy.” I waited. Roberts disappeared upstairs into the old building and emerged with a ancient black guitar case covered in dust. He placed it reverently on a sofa and opened it up.

Inside was a 1930’s National style “O” resophonic, metal guitar, resting in a tight fit of green velvet lining, it was absolutely beautiful. It was the first one I’d ever seen, immaculate condition, gleaming chrome (I was about 22yrs old.) He handed it to me and said he’d heard some pretty good slide players, play old Nationals, where’d he’d come from in South Carolina.

Well one strum told me this was a spectacular instrument, it was unbelievably loud and full. I tuned it to and open E and played a few licks and knew it was gonna be just fine. I was absolutely astonished that this was to be MY guitar for the night, and that he was going to let me play it!

We all piled in my old 65 Ford Galaxy 500 Land yacht, with at least a full mouthful of gas in the tank, and headed out to, not far away, Union street, it was about 6pm, Friday night and people would soon start crowding the street, on dates, off to dinner, frequenting the many music and comedy clubs in the area. Some in suits, some in jeans and sweaters.

We set up shop just as the Bank of America was closing, the bank had an almost “brick amphitheater” type of entrance, with the steps up to the front of the building, acting like a natural stage.

It was a beautiful night, Roberts kept his “gospel” oratory going all night, in between songs….he was truly inspired, getting lots of laughs and “amens” throughout the night from the ever changing crowd. They laughed, they applauded, they cheered… and they tipped like mad.

I got to play slide on an old National, and played until my fingers were beyond sore. At the end, around 10:30 we had emptied the guitar case several times and went back to the car where we counted up the nights’ take. I think we had around $300…a freakin’ fortune in 1970. We went to the Russian Deli, up the street on Union and had hot pastrami sandwiches, piled high on toasted onion rolls and slathered in Russian Dressing…man we we high on the hog…..and of course afterwards we went to our favorite watering hole, the Drinking Gourd and got real happy. We laughed until we cried and told stories til the early morning, it was one of my favorite nights.

So, why the story? A life in the arts, as you all know, can be terribly unrewarding at the end of the day. We play and sing our hearts out for years, doing what we love. Cramming our gear in any number of various vehicles in various states of repair and set off into the night to put on a show….why? Because we love it…we are hooked…and very few of us can ever really “stop”.

I have wondered, as we all have, what has become of people I used to play music with. About a year ago I searched for some trace of Billy Roberts. You can Google him and find any number of references to his authorship of his one and only “hit”. But it took some digging to actually find him.

Well I came to find out that Billy Roberts was on his way home from a gig in the early 90’s, in Northern California and had taken the scenic route home on old highway one…. and was involved in a severe automobile accident, resulting in a debilitating brain injury that has left him confined to a nursing home ever since.

Playing the rock and roll, the jazz, the blues, the music…. sometimes, she not only takes your youth and pays you with regret,….she can lull you into a sense of invulnerability…….sometimes, she can kill yah too……..or maybe like Billy Roberts hurt you awful bad.

Sorry for the sad tale. When I had heard about Billy, all I could think of was that night,….. so many years ago, outdoors in the cool night air, …..playing with my talented friends, on Billys’ magical National, for crowds of passing strangers, trying to put a few bucks in our jeans. So I thought I could maybe write a little story about him, and keep him alive as he was, imposing, charming, funny, endearing and a career musician.

Keep your wits about you, my brothers, in them clubs and them bars….and especially on that ‘ol road.

Bye for now, Stapes

P.S. I should mention that i had looked everywhere for a copy of this picture, which is how I remember him. After spending days online, I had all but given up. But a last ditch phone call to an old friend, the talented singer/ guitarist Lindy Barrett, told me she was listening to “Thoughts of California” only LAST WEEK…there is a cosmic consciousness kids, I’m here to tell you. thanks Lindy, you rock girl!

Billy Roberts

 Billy Roberts

Guitar Stories & Billy Roberts © 2007 Billy Stapleton. All rights reserved.

“Keep pickin’ … “
– Billy Stapleton

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.

 Francis Clay on the drums

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 naked…no…I’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?………in 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 number….it 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.

Francis Clay

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..)
“Billy…….”
“Yeah Francis?”
“Do you sing?” He asked.
Bashfully I replied “No…no,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 tune..ballad…build 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 low…it 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 riser…no 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 forth……like 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 

Francis Clay

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

“Keep pickin’ … “
– Billy Stapleton

Opening for Journey

Opening for Journey
circa: 1984

I may as well tell you the last “Water Brothers” Story. As I had said before, the Water Brothers (name taken from characters in a novel, ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’) was a popular mostly original material rock band in the early 80’s San Francisco rock scene.

Our manager Robert Warner, had bigger and better things in mind for us. I gotta hand it to him, he got us some pretty cool gigs. We did a hour long TV special on Bay Area Channel 20. We opened for the Jefferson Starship in Golden Gate Park, we became regular openers for the legendary “Tubes” (about the tightest rock band I ever saw) and for his finale arranged for us to open for mega rock band “Journey”.

We were given the news of our “impending booking” at a rehearsal and we went nuts,…. guys in the band high fivin’, slapping each other on the back, big smiles, yessiree…gettin closer to the “Big Time”..oh yeah. The “Big Gig” became the topic of conversation, pretty much where ever any of us went that week, music stores, bars, record shops, nightclubs, we were struttin our stuff.

Well, in a favorite North Beach bar of mine, possibly La Rocca’s Corner (faahbulous bar, no frills, great people, movie stars, teamsters, politicians, judges, hit men,TV personalities, stevedores,….. you get the picture) I ran into a musician friend of mine and started braggin’ up the “Journey” gig. He listened with a glazed look in his eyes until I was though….. and then dropped a little bomb of his own. HE was in the band that had opened for Journey’s last Bay area gig and proceeded to fill me in on what I had to look forward to.
“The crew and bandmembers (Journey) are all super nice guys, they bend over backwards to get you sounding good and comfortable.” He told me.(Well this is GREAT…great…great isn’t it?)
“The AUDIENCE,…… however; does not give you a seconds breathing room. From the time the lights go down(or maybe even a bit before)….. for the opening act…the crowd chants…….Jour-ney!…Jour-ney!…Jour-ney!…Jour-ney!”

At this memory,….. he took a long pull from his cigarette, his eyes fixed on a point on a distant horizon,….. and polished off a shot of vodka. They have to stop chanting at some point?..I said…heck it’s a 45 minute slot….they don’t chant for 45 minutes do they?” I asked hopefully, a bit prayerfully I’m sure.

“Well they do stop chanting….” He said, with the crooked smile of a fighter pilot that has stared death in the eye and lived to tell about it, “for awhile anyway…just before they start booing…and throwing stuff!…… And as soon as they see they’ve gotten to you…made a chink in your armor…..the chanting starts and they act like wild jungle cats with a scent of blood in their nostrils…….. It was horrible man,… horrible.” He paused and ordered another drink,…… as did I.

Suddenly the Water Brothers had gone from “Up-and-coming” to what was known in those days as “Bait”. (‘Bait’ bands were used as long as they could stand the abuse on the tours, when they had enough, they were replaced with a long line of “hopefuls”,… sad ehh? The boulevard of broken dreams and all.)

Gone were the days of my youth, in the late 60’s, at the Old Fillmore,…. The Fillmore West,…. California Hall,….. the Avalon Ballroom,….. where no matter WHO was playing on a three act bill, (rock, jazz, country, blues, folk, original, name act, local act, known & unknowns) the crowd was polite, gave the musicians some space, listened, appreciated and applauded, some acts went over better than others for sure, but in San Francisco,…. my home town, anybody had a shot because the audiences were the BEST!!……. well …not anymore, Penelope. Time had moved on, Journey was huge…we were pip-squeaks…the crowd was gonna eat us alive…..no matter what we did.

The next day, after I pried my eyelids open, poured coffee in me, and smoked several cigarettes, I spread the news to my still flyin high bandmates…… and as Chuck Berry said “the rapid tempo of the music fell..” A meeting was called later that day, and the mood was bleak.

Were we going to purposely humiliate ourselves for a foolhardy “second in the spotlight” accompanied by chanting, booing & debris target practice? We were seconds away from a band vote that would eliminate us from the concert bill.

Then in a moment of glory, our manager gave us the big Knute Rockne’ pep talk. He told his glum charges that no matter what we had heard, this was not an easy gig to get. The people he had dealt with would not be pleased……. and future opportunities would not be forth coming. He told us it would be 45 minutes,…go out there….. do the best we can……. and live with it!

Then, saving his biggest news for the right moment, told us our original song “Superman” was being considered by Warner Brothers for the upcoming Christopher Reeves movie of the same name. He told us we were on a roll here! (maybe not a BIG roll) but a roll none the less. And being the ego driven…. attention starved morons we were, we went for it hook line and sinker. (after all no one had actually been killed as an opening act! At least we were relatively sure of that fact.)

Well, you’d think that sort of band room bolstering would only go so far. But our manger was smarter than I ever gave him credit for. As luck would have it, the very next night we were playing on San Francisco’s Clement Street, at one of our strongholds, “The Last Day Saloon”.

Well…this is where his genius rears it’s head. Our manager Robert, has gathered large plastic trash bags filled with crumpled paper and styrofoam pieces and has them stationed all over the night club, maybe 10 in all. And before we go on that Friday night to a packed house he steps up to introduce the band.

“Ladies & Gentlemen…could I have your attention for just a moment please?….Thank you. As you may or may not know the band I represent, “The Water Brothers”…(big round of applause)…thank you… is going to open for “Journey” at the Keystone Palo Alto in 3 weeks….(more applause)…..thank you…thank you…. “The boys aren’t going to be treated very nice, by the crowd there….. and we need to get them ready, with your help!…If you’ll notice around the tables there are large bags of debris…share them with your neighbor please…and as the band comes out I want you to pelt them with as much trash as possible while booing and chanting…Jour NEY ….Jour…NEY….Jour NEY as LOUD AS YOU CAN!…….are yah with me?”

Well what bar crowd wouldn’t go along with this? They roared their approval and dug in the bags, and as we took the stage we were pelted, booed and chanted at.

As Bob Goldstien , our singer, tried to say hello and introduce the first song, paper and trash bounced off his head and the crowd (really into now) booed and chanted with gusto. Talk about your reverse psychology…were all laughing and having a pretty good time. Our manager Robert was not content with a mere 5 minutes of abuse and from the audience. From the audience he exalted the crowd to boo every song and solo while continuing to pelt us with harmless garbage.

This went on all night. There was a brief word from Robert between sets pleading for abuse rather than applause…”If you really like these guys…let ’em have it!”

Every gig for the next three weeks went the same way. The audience had a good time and we got used to people yelling and throwing stuff at us… brilliant!!

Came the big night in Palo Alto, we were rehearsed to death and ready to go as we’d ever be. The place was packed to capacity, the lights went down ….as we took the stage and the crowd started up…..Jour NEY… Jour NEY…. Jour NEY….. the lights came up……. we went into our first number…the crowd noise was deafening! They hated us!….. the air was filled with paper cups, wadded napkins, trash….like the “Tornado Scene” in the Wizard of OZ……but yah know what?…we didn’t care……we were so used to it by then….. we were all laughing like loons and had big smiles all around…and tore into our set…..in between songs Bob, our singer, thanked the crowd profusely and told them what a great audience they were! (they bellowed their hatred in return)…..but as the set went on…..the crowd got a little quieter and …..God be praised….actually started listening to us……half way through the set……..THEY APPLAUDED!!! We almost fainted.

As any pro act will do (no matter how unknown they are) we had a set list that ramped up to a big closer….and boys and girls we ROCKED those Journey fans…yes we did. And as if escaping with our skins…. getting though our set and getting the crowd on our side wasn’t enough… (we were high as kites on life, kids)…..we pulled a standing “O” and did an ENCORE!!

We left the stage to a big round of applause and cheering. It really was too much. I was drenched with sweat, my shirt soaked like someone had fire hosed me and fought my way out to my cousin in the crowd, while Journey set up.

My cousin, Jim Stapleton had come with other members of the faithful to cheer us on and had commandeered a table on the back elevated part of the huge club…. here I was pummeled roundly by Jim and my friends in congratulations. Whadda night.

As to the “Superman” song we had written…rather the drummer and I had written, it was submitted to Warner Brothers, and initially, they liked it…..but unbeknownst to me….the demo version that was submitted to Warner Brothers was a DIFFERENT version than the one I had played on, arranged and helped mix…without ME on it!! My song, I might add.

The version Warners heard was a lame mix of a real rocker, with some clown playing guitar trying to sound like Elliot Easton and failing miserably. Not that a rock song had a chance in hell of getting picked for the movie, but the lame version had made it to the Warner Brother’s Friday “Gong Show” as it was called, and had made it though an initial round the Friday before …but was axed the next. I wish they had heard the real mix, but decisions were made by the drummer who felt HE was really the writer annnnnd our manager Robert….. regarding my song…..without my knowledge! Ah…. showbizness. I left the band not long after.

The Water Brothers
The Keystone – Palo Alto

The Water Brothers 

Opening for Journey © 2007 Billy Stapleton. All rights reserved.

“Keep pickin’ … “
– Billy Stapleton

The Booze Brothers

I’m working on almost 17 years clean and sober. It’s a personal thing, I don’t preach, I have enough trouble taking care of me, and keeping myself in a straight line without telling other people how they should live their lives. I can only say that I have a truly addictive personality. There was never enough of anything I liked, to drink, smoke or snort. I rarely suffered hangovers, and I must have hollow legs, as I could always drink more than my friends. That of course has nothing to do with “macho” drinking, only my particular body physiology, and how it processes alcohol. That’s not to say it doesn’t affect me, it did, quite poorly, actually, in the long run.

That said, I rarely ever tell stories that deal with my over-indulgences, I never want it to come off like “bragging”. The way I used to party was nothing short of abusive, I thought I was “the Man” at the time, but I couldn’t have been more foolish.
But…… there is one story I’ll, tell, mostly because it’s pretty funny and absolutely absurd, if I hadn’t lived it, I would have sworn it couldn’t be true.

In 1982, the band I had played in for 3 years or so was breaking up, “The Water Brothers”…boo hoo…sniff ….snarfle. I was looking to rock a bit harder than the “Brothers” and I had my eye on our trumpet player, the dashingly handsome Ernie “Rocko” Langone (as a singer, not a boyfriend,……. I don’t play tennis on that side of the court).

Rocco had invited me to hear a horn band he played in regularly at “The Jolly Friar” on San Francisco’s Clement street. I was up for it, Rocko, was a hoot to be around in those days and we were always looking for an excuse to have a couple of “horns” (drinks). Well the band that Rocko played in, did all kinds of different material, Chicago, BS&T, Latin numbers, Stevie Wonder, very cool, very tight, the singer was pretty good……..and then….. they turned the mike over to Rocko, who sang Toto’s “Hold the LIne”…….well Jesus, Mary & Joeseph….if Ernie “Rocko” Langone couldn’t SING!! Holy smoke, he was murder! He nailed that Toto song to the back wall!! He’d been part of our two piece horn section in the Water Brothers for years, but I never knew he could sing!

Well, once I found out that he knew how to play bass guitar as well, I couldn’t stop thinking about a new band, with Rocco as the front man. (Women…good lookin women…THREW themselves at Langone..day and freakin’ night….it was absolutely amazing, he was our hero.)

At the time, I shared a house in the Mission district with Bay Area Great “Alex Bendahan” or “Alex Guinness” his then, stage name. Alex, ….for those of you who read these things,….. was the subject of a previous “Guitar “story”…”Alex and the 63′ Stratocaster”. He was absolutely brilliant, he could play anything on the freakin guitar and sang like a bird, new thousands of tunes and like myself was half out of his mind.

Somehow I convinced him to be in my new band for a little while, while we got started and got a few gigs under Rockos’ belt. Alex was already in a full time band,”Alex Guinness & the World Records” (whaddah name ehh?) doing his original material and making a run at the “top”. But he liked playing with me too, so for a while that was the line up, Rocco, Alex, our drummer Bernard and myself.

The Retro Rockets.(version #1)
Rocko in back, Alex, Bernard & Billy Blastoff The Booze Brothers

So the real disaster started early Saturday morning,….. Saturday morning the day of our first gig!….right around 10am in the morning, I had my heart broken….I was crazy for this gal who wasn’t quite over her old boyfriend…..I can say no more…but 10 am that morning was when I got the word…… Annnnyway……I thought the best thing I could possibly do, in view of my current situation……after much thought……was to go to the liquor store………get a pint flask of Jack Daniel’s and begin drinking whiskey in ernest (10am? Thaaat’s right…no drinking problem here). And so I drove around San Francisco (open container and all) getting stewed.

My new band,…….wait for it…….”Billy Blastoff & the Retro Rockets” (hey, it was 1982, ok?)…… was due to play that very Saturday night at the Last Day Saloon. So around 10:30am I stopped at a phone booth (no cell phones in ’82 kids) and called Alex, who I knew, was at longtime girlfriend Mary Stewart’s’ house in the Sunset district…and see what was shakin’ with them.

A rather dour Mary Stewart answered the phone and told me that there had been an “incident”…… she was clearly upset, and yet she wanted me to come over anyway……She and Alex might need my support..??? All very mysterious,……… but I was half in the bag by then (no breakfast, 1/2 a pintah whiskey), still smarting in the heart department, and was dying for a distraction. Besides, I was getting the feeling that the “incident” could possibly prevent Alex from playing our gig that night!! Miss a gig? Horrors! The death knell of any musician! NEVER!!

I got to Marys’ rented flat maybe 5 minutes later, she and her new springer spaniel “Maggie” had the lower unit. As soon as the door was opened, I sensed a quite palpable chill in the air…I new something pretty wild must have gone on. Alex, (his hair dyed a fah-buu-lous shade of purple) was grumbling and pacing back and forth and wouldn’t talk,……. so I got the story from, red haired fire cracker, Mary Stewart. Mary went about about 5’4″ and was a kick in the pants.

Apparently, she had gotten up early that morning and let her new young dog, (Maggie, a Springer Spaniel) who wanted to go out, into the flat’s backyard……and promptly went back to bed and to sleep…..the puppy,….. left outside (it’s summer, no hardship on the dog, ok?) starts to wine……..starts to yip and bark…….and wakes the upstairs neighbor up.

The upstairs neighbor is a gal a bit on the heavy side with an unfortunate face…… who’s rather combative on a good day. Well, she decides to get good and uber-pissed at the dog situation. So she motivates her rotund self outtah bed and stomps down the back common stairway…..pounds on Marys’ back door,…. yellin and screamin’ for her to “Shut her F*#@kin’ Dog Up!!”

Alex…..comes awake from a dead sleep like “Boom Boom Mancini” and stalks angrily to the back door (Alex is sort of a bruiser, and backs down from no one, but in his defense is not a violent person) ……he flings the door open and within a nanosecond is in a yelling match with the upstairs neighbor….the shouting and screaming continues (summoning up images of Gleason and the Honey Mooners)…..the woman tells Alex that she’s going to call the cops!! (over a puppy)…..and starts back upstairs to her flat…Alex (showing extremely poor judgment), follows her, still arguing, INTO her flat!!

As she reaches for her wall phone in the kitchen (to call dah cops) the shouting escalates….. and in an effort to prevent her from making the call…..a little pushing…..a little shoving, maybe….(I dunno wasn’t there)….but a blender full of fruit smoothies goes on the floor…..and then the heavy gal slips in the fruit smoothie….and WHAMMO!! hits the deck……bashing her HEAD on the counter top on the way down!!!….perfect.

She’s on the floor crying now….sitting in a smoothie pool……a spectacular black eye coming up on her left eye………. with Alex bending down trying to make “nice” (too late)….she tells him to “Just Leave!!” in between sobs……..he does.

How long ago did this all happen? Oh, about 5 minutes before I called……10 minutes before I got there….annnnnnnnd Mary’s sure the cops, with any luck, are most likely on their way! Charming,……. I pull out my bottle of Daniels and have a healthy pull…. and light a butt…. as heavy thinking is surely soon to follow…. I pick this time to remind Alex that we’re playing tonight….

“Oh Shit!” is all he can muster, and takes a big old pull himself (it’s 10:45 am kids).
“Knock…knock…knock” at the front door……
“Who the f#@k is that?” I ask.
“Most likely the Po-lice. Mary responds dryly.
“Jesus on a unicycle with a bacon and avocado sandwich balanced on his head!! I exclaim.

No one is moving, so Mr. Action…Mr. “Get It Done”….Mr. Baloney…….has to spring forward…I grab Alex by the arm…drag him into the bedroom and fling him into the closet and close the door (as far as I know they can’t search the place without a warrant). I run back to the front door…… after a brief stop in the bathroom to DRINK some mouthwash to hide the whiskey on my breath (blachh!!)……admonish Mary to say “Nothing!” and let me do the talking…(no problem there)

Alex and Mary Stewart

“Pound..Pound POUND!!” At the door…. I move Mary aside and fling the front door open as the men in blue begin knocking anew.
“Good morning officers…” I start out as sunny as a Mediterranean morning in a sun dress….
“You Alex Bendhan?” San Francisco’s finest growled (assault charges on women are frowned upon, by the SF boys) fingering the handcuffs on his belt.
“Me? No…no I’m just a friend! heyah haa haah.” Doing my best Phil Silvers.
“Some ID please…..” I’m asked curtly.
I fortunately produce the necessary drivers license…… without falling over …..and try and stay down wind of the officers. They ask to speak to Alex, I tell them that he’s “gone for a walk” (it could happen)……that he had felt bad about “the accident”…needed to “clear his head”…. and I was sure he’d be back, was there a message?
Eyebrows raised,…… guns still holstered, (I could tell they wanted to pound me into the doorjamb) …but instead….the cops peeled off some kind of ticket or some such…. that required Alex to be in SF Municipal court Monday morning 9am, or a WARRANT would be issued for his arrest for assault and trespassing if he failed to appear. Seemed immensely fair to me.

One cop had a Polaroid camera…… and had taken pictures of the multiple-bruised-upstairs victim….. that would be presented at the hearing & subsequent trial. ( I saw them as the court case dragged on weeks later, Spectacular shots really, it looked like Alex worked her over with a 2×4″ but they were all from her fall in the smoothie). Let me just say I never liked the gal upstairs but Alex shouldah never touched her, bad form, extremely bad form.

And amazingly…. the Police….as much as they would have loved to pummel me….. took my word for Alex’s absence and left!!! Well, Alex, fresh from the closet, was thrilled! He didn’t have to spend the weekend in jail…. nor any longer in Mary’s closet (“potpourri” made him sneeze)….. and was thanking me profusely for saving him!….We decide, of course,…..to celebrate!…But, it would be best for us, prudent even, to get the hell out of the flat…… annnnnd the Sunset District, before the upstairs neighbor realizes Alex hasn’t been arrested….. and calls the police to tip them off to his whereabouts.

The three of us pile in my Cougar (god, I was a sucker for Fords) and head out to get something for breakfast besides whiskey, chips maybe?

A huge breakfast was consumed by all, at our local fave diner, and afterwards we decided to go the beach with some beer (a half rack)….. all in all we start having pretty good time, Mary finally loosens up and it’s a beautiful sunny day…….we are however; getting spectacularly creamed in the process.

We weave our way, laughing, back to the Mission district around 4 o’clock that afternoon and try and get a nap in before the load in, and the gig that night. At this point we are plenty screwed up, we lapse into a brief booze coma and wake up and start getting ready around 7 or so to go play. There’s whiskey & beer at the house and we’re on a tear once again.

Alex and I have our gear set up at the club by the time that Rocko, who is playing his FIRST GIG as a lead singer and bass player,…. shows up….and notices that we’re a bit “loose”. He wants to go over the song list, ……we buy him some drinks instead.

We start playing, and it was a it shaky, to be sure, but we soon fell into our old grooves and soon had the place rockin’. Someone…god knows who……started sending SHOTS UP to the bandstand….Yeah!! Rocko is looking at us like we’ve gone completely nuts……let’s just say that the performance ebbed and flowed…there was good, there was bad…but one thing was progressing in a bad way…….Alex & I had become absolutely freaking staggering stinking drunk…it’s a miracle that we could stand up, let alone play…and to top it off there’s a photographer there taking pictures!!

By the time the gig is blessedly over, someone should have called the police on us for our own safety. I have been toasted before, but holy cow, there weren’t many nights like that (with the possible exception of the night I won the Jack Daniels Invitational Drinking Competition…a proud moment to be sure). Rocko was mighty disgusted with us, the promised music cues, chord changes and “help” getting though the three hour gig were scant if not totally non existent…he was visibly and justifiably pissed.

Alex I sat at the bar pounding even more down until the club closed…at this point I must confess I don’t remember much…but I do remember somehow winding up back at our house in the Mission District……drinking more, once we got there……and in my long drinking career….. one of my very few appearances in the bathroom…….. to talk to the porcelain oracle…..kneel at the alter of humility……inspect the vomitorium……and there……and there on the floor in front of the toilet……is where I blacked out………cue the whirlly spiral thingy from the Twilight Zone…….(fade to black.)

Unbelievably I woke up the next morning…I had been easily flirting with alcohol poisoning the whole day before, and was pretty lucky to be alive…….how had I gotten into bed? Where were my cloths……and why was there a large damp towel wrapped around my head?……Ohhmygawd…did I fall down and hurt my head??…..I laid there and faded in and out for a while……I had totaled myself severely….. …….20 or so minutes later I finally managed to sit up…..whoa there big fellah…….and then arise (tah dahh!)….ommah god oh mah god I’m hurt….. and stagger like a 2 legged crab with one bad leg to the bathroom mirror and see what the hell I had done to myself.

I carefully unwrapped the towel still tied around my head (brilliant job, really) and to my astonishment, there was no injury…no blood…no nuthin…my hair was screwed up into an unbelievable “pin head doo” and I was the color of old cheese, but other than that, I seemed to be OK.

I took up residence in the shower until the hot water gave out and made some coffee when i emerged. I was able to remain standing for 3 and 4 minutes at a time while I poured coffee into myself (excellent), so things were looking up. Alex was still sawing logs in his room…but little Mary Stewart was up and wanted coffee. When I was able to compose a complete interrogative sentence…..I spoke.
“Whahh happened?” I croaked.
Mary proceed to tell me that she was getting ready for bed around 3am last night and went into the bathroom where she found me…….jammed head first IN THE TOILET choking & bubbling…….basically …DROWNING!! She pulled me out by my collar, sopping wet, and flopped me on the floor, yelling at me, no response from Mr. Baloney……I’m still out…….so she went for help….she ran into Alex’s room and found HE’s passed out on the floor…perfect…she raced back to the bathroom and made sure I was breathing, and propped me up……at this point she has absolutely saved my life!!!

(Imaginary conversation among my friends at my funeral….
“So how did he die anyway?”
“Drowned in a toilet, from what I hear…typical
“Never knew when to quit, did he?”)

She dried my hair with a towel and wrapped my head in it……drug me into my bed room…some how got me on the bed..(bear in mind this is a 105 lb gal doing all this here!!)…. undressed me and got me under the covers… THEN she went to Alex’s room and got him into bed….man whaddah woman.

To tie things up, Alex showed up in court Monday with an old wig of mine (I had to hide my long hair at some family functions in the 60’s..laugh all yah want) to cover up his purple hair and present a more dignified persona (yeah right). He was released on his own recognizance, he had no police record. The case dragged on for months, was finally settled with a hefty fine, an apology & probation. Rocko stayed in the band for 3 years and 3 incarnations. And yes I’m playing real V, in the promo shot and a ’57 Goldtop in the live shot.

It was the last time I ever drank like that. Mary Stewart indeed saved my life that night…and about a month later when we played again, the photographer showed up and gave us shots of what Alex, Rocko and I have come to call “The Booze Brothers”.

Here’s my fave picture, below, out of all of them, Alex and I visibly creamed, while Rocco looks on in disgust. (note cigg stuck in the strings of the Les Paul,… nice!) I’d just like to apologize for my appalling behavior to everyone involved….and wish you all a happy safe summer.

Rock & Roll,

The Booze Brothers

Guitar Stories & The Booze Brother © 2007 Billy Stapleton. All rights reserved.

 

 

“Keep pickin’ … “
– Billy Stapleton

The Greg Keplinger Story

In Seattle, the dean of drummers is Greg Keplinger. He is about my age (57 in 2007) and just one of the most schooled, committed, and principled musicians I have ever met. He’s got chops beyond chops.

I have often said “Greg plays each beat as if it were his last second on earth.” He makes the “Keplinger Snare Drum” by hand for the lucky and the few, his client list is a who’s who of famous drummers, (Charlie Watts, Elvin Jones, Stuart Copeland etc.)

Back in 1990 or so, I was the manager of the American Music Seattle store. One of the owners Reese Marin was going through a difficult divorce, his divorce Lawyer was Ted Barr. Ted was high priced and had the “shark in the courtroom” reputation & demeanor.

Ted also always had the burning desire to be a rock and roll singer, he liked Elvis, Jerry Lee etc. and so it came to be that Reese, for whatever reason, put together a band to back up Ted, who God bless him, could sorta sing, but was no barn burner.

The other “singer” was a gal who took voice lessons from “Maestro” (that’s what she repeatedly called her voice teacher, much to our annoyance) and could at times peel the bark off an oak tree with her challenged intonation. She also wore the most frightening perfume I have ever encountered, it smelled like warm cat urine to me, it absolutely freaked me out.

Her uncanny ability to come in “wrong” (weather we cued her or not) was legendary. On the Pointer Sister’s “Fire” she could cause a train wreck that almost was unrecoverable, if you know how the intro goes, there’s only ONE place to come in, or else.

(How can you tell if there’s a female singer at the front door? ……..ans: She doesn’t know where to come in and doesn’t have the key!)

So she and Ted are front singers in what was an 8 piece conglomeration of some truly awful musicians. Reese played keyboards & sang great, the bass player, and the other keyboard player, horn players etc all stunk (sorry but they made my hair hurt).

The “Ted Barr Band” was always looking for a guitar player (who could actually play the songs) and a drummer who didn’t think “Time” was just a magazine. But when confronted with the amassed talent in the lineup, most guys politely passed on the gig.

So one day Reese comes to me and tells me he’s in a bind for big charity gig at the Weston Hotel, in their main ballroom. The gig pays pretty good dough and they’re hard up enough to pay for rehearsals as well. I agree to help ’em out, just this once, and ask who the drummer is.
No drummer, do I know anybody?
Well……..Greg Keplinger had just come to me the day before and sez
“Billy, things are tight, if you hear of anybody looking for a drummer for money, let me know.”
So I call Greg and tell him to stop in and see me the next time he’s in the store. Greg and I had played a lot of gigs together and loved each other’s playing.

I sit him down and tell him that there is a little gig but not to expect much from the band, they are (except Reese) amateurs to a man. I tell him he has to “relax” is uncompromising standards and just play along. Greg agrees, and we rehearse twice with the “Ted Barr Band.”

The second rehearsal will stay with me til the day I die. The female singer is doing the ballad “Crazy” (in freakin’ Eb I might add)….. and as we finish one pass of the country classic……apparently something in our performance has miffed her …….as she takes the $300 wireless microphone that Reese has set up for the rehearsal and throws it for all she’s worth onto the concrete floor!!

And turns and shouts angrily at us (I’m not makin’ this up either) “Would it BE…. Too Much Trouble……for the BAND to speed up and slow down……. WITH ME???”

Reese patiently goes up to her and diffuses the situation (I’m ready to start howlin’, the rest of the clowns are terrified). He walks her off, and has a little heart to heart talk with her, hopefully explaining that “music” when performed properly (unless there is a scored time change) should basically start and end in the same time signature. Most likely, also, how much the mike she just broke, costs.

But as they walk off, Greg shakes his head and looks down at his drums and sez “The thrill is gone, man.” Which just cracked me up hugely and I thought, Greg’s’ doing ok with these maracas, he’ll be fine. We’ll see.

At this time I need to introduce the bass player for the Ted barr Band. An ex-highway-patrolman with a steel plate in his head (again I’m not makin’ this up) we’ll call him George. George is on permanent disability, and is a nice enough guy, plays better than horrible but doen’t have the best time in the world to begin with.

However: before he plays he likes to smoke a little herb, if ya get my drift. This, on occasion, has rendered his playing somewhat spotty. But we’re assuming he’ll refrain at the “Big Gig”………… wrong.

As memorable as the second rehearsal was, the actual gig is hard to top.

Fast forward to the night at the Weston Hotel. The Weston is a very upscale establishment in downtown Seattle. The main ballroom is a cavernous affair and has been set up for “Casino Night” decorated to the hilt, lighting, the whole works. Gals in sequined dresses, the Mayor will be there, the Seahawks, the Sonics, judges, councilmen, you name it. BLACK TIE, did I mention we were all wearing pre-paid tuxedos?? Well we were, we even had a room to change in, no expense was spared, plus we were makin’ (Greg & I anyway) $250 each.

We hit the stage and crawl though Green Onions, play some Elvis Songs, (Ted, is re-splendid in an all white tux)…….and even as I cue her exactly where to come in, the female singer botches the intro to “Fire” (didn’t feel right, she tells me)…….and head into the meat of the set, about an hour in, there’s this terrific ruckus going on.

I can honestly say I’ve never heard a sound like this in my life, it was this big, freakin huge scraping sound that had tons of low end, like being inside a corrugated metal building while an elephant scraps his butt covered somehow with tire chains back and forth!!
“KAAAARRRRAAHHHHkkKKKKSSSHHH!! scrape…..grind…howl……
WWHOOOMVVVBAGGAHH!!”

I look around and notice that Greg the drummer, has grabbed George, the bass player. Now you have to picture all these elements to get the real picture here:
1.) Greg is standing up…STILL PLAYING the drums with his right foot on the bass drum and right hand on the snare & ride.
2.) He has grabbed George with his left hand by the front of his shirt and lifted him up on his toes, pulling him into the drum kit.
3.) George’s’ Starfire Hollow Body Guild Bass bass is still turned on and the open strings are rubbing back and forth roughly on one of the cymbals and the bass is banging repeatedly on the high hat stand (hence all the unidentifiable noise) as George squirms for release.
4.) George’s hands are dangling by his side in submission, only the top of his head from the nose & eyeballs up is visible over his shirt collar.
5.) Greg has his face screwed up right into to George’s’ ……and…….. as he keeps playing he gestures to the drum kit in between beats with his right hand…
“YA SEE THAT???……..THAT”S TIME!!!!!!

I walk over quickly (mind you the band has kept playing though all is mayhem,….. most likely “Blue Suede Shoes” or something)
“Greg…put the bass player down!”
“This Mother Fucker is killin’ me!!!!” Greg snarls….
“GREG, I SAID….PUT THE BASS PLAYER DOWN!!

Greg Keplinger looks like a burlier Bogart, and in his youth was no one to trifle with. His temper and passion for music are legendary. You might think “Whadda asshole!” but if you met him you’d love him, he has a tremendious sense of humor and loves to laugh, he just doesn’t suffer fools on the band stand.

I have always been accepted as a friend and an equal to Keplinger, an honor I don’t take lightly, and with rare acceptation, he listens to me. As to his talent, he is perhaps one of the finest drummers I’ve ever played with, he is capable of playing a press roll with either hand independently!! (yes a press roll with just one hand).
“Pay attention!” He fires at George, as he flings him from his grip back to his original standing place, bumming his high, I’m sure.
“Greg, Greg…” I’m standing next to him, my hand on his shoulder “I told you these guys were amateurs.”
“Sorry man, I couldn’t take any more, I’m ok now.”

I’m trying as hard as I can to keep from laughing, Gregs line “Ya see that? That’s TIME!” Keeps coming up in my mind, but I gotta keep a straight face and get things rolling.

Order is restored. The band is looking at Greg and I like we just dismembered a baby onstage…….respect…….I think might have been partially responsable…..fear………possibly. And everyone plays as good as gold for the rest of the night. ( as if they knew what was good for them).

As we left Greg sez, reffering to band, “Those guys couldn’t swing, if ya hung ’em.” We finished the gig, were paid and were mercifully never asked back.

 Greg Keplinger

The Greg Keplinger Story
© 2007 Billy Stapleton. All rights reserved.

“Keep pickin’ … “
– Billy Stapleton

Would You Like to Meet the Dog's Mother?

When I played in the early days of “the Mark Dufresne (Dufrane) Band” in the late 90’s we were based out of Seattle WA and drove some pretty fair distances regularly between gigs in all directions, Canadian Border to Portland Oregon, the ‘ol I-5 corridor, basically. One of our early jobs in the city of Bellingham, North of Seattle near the Canadian border, was in a little strip mall at a bar called “The Village Inn”……(former Zappa band-mate, Jeff Simmons used to call it, “The ‘Village Idiot’, but he’s much more clever than me). “The Inn” was most likely built in the 50’s and featured pull tabs, pool tables, a microscopic stage that faced a row of dining booths and a mysterious dance floor that was sunk at least 5 feet into the floor, and completely off to the left of the stage (no end of drunken dancers tripped and fell down the 4 stairs that led to the dance floor during our tenure). Not exactly your dream gig by a long shot, but we were trying to make ourselves a name and played pretty much anywhere.

It was the Superbowl weekend, January 26th 1997 and we had been hired to play both Fri & Sat night. The pay wasn’t opulent enough to afford rooms and still make any money… so the club owners…. who were pretty nice to us……. got one room (for drummer Alan Isaacson & bass-player Kelly Leifer) at a local motel……Mark and I were invited to stay that night at their home out on the lake. Seemed innocent enough right?

Well, as they say, “you can’t judge a book by it’s cover”. The clubs’ two owners, a married couple, seemed like the perfect hard working duo. They were crazy about Mark Dufresne, who had lived and played in Bellingham years before. They graciously extended their hospitality and warmth to the rest of the band as well……always greeted us with big smiles and a free meal. Although they did their best, they rarely promoted the musicians & bands that they regularly paid to perform, hence a number of times the die hard fans we had in Bellingham had no idea we were actually playing there.

The Superbowl weekend was upon us, we all had day jobs back then, so by the time we had worked, got home, spruced up for the gig, made the nearly 3 hour drive up to Bellingham and set up our stuff at the club we were already a bit burnt. The crowd that night was better than usual, they stuck around til the end, and we had a pretty good time playing.

The band consisted of drums, bass, guitar, with Mark singing and blowing harp. We played mostly self penned songs and prided ourselves in ultra tight & dynamic arrangements. Billed as a “blues band”, we played all the classic blues feels and ventured into soul, funk, rock and gospel. It was the best original band I was ever in, when we were “on” we walked a musical tight rope that was inspiring to perform, we were anything but boring. The funny thing was, no matter how tight, or how much the audience went nuts for us, Mark would always give us an …”Ehhh…” after most performances, as if to indicate it could have been better or it didn’t “do much” for him…yeesh. Can’t believe I played almost 8 years with him, but such is music, friends and neighbors….. and it was a helluvah band.

Annnnnyway we get through the night just fine and even mercifully got to leave the equipment set up for the next night but we were pretty crispy for sure. The husband-owner & the staff started closing the place down, throwing the last of the bar flys, pool players and pull tabbers out, shutting off the lights, and locking the place up. His wife had left that afternoon and would open the club the next day, so they’re giving each other a break and working different shifts.

It’s about 2:30-3:00 am now, and we’re dyin” to lay down and look at the inside of our eyelids, Mark (perpetually hungry) has been promised food back at the house. Around this time I start to notice that the male owner, let’s call him ‘Mr. Village’ is a tad bit on the inebriated side. I’d never seen him “creamed” before on our other visits, so I was a bit surprised, but figured, …..”hey it’s late, nobody’s on the road..we’ll follow him home and hit the hay, what could happen?.” The drive to his home on the lake took almost a half hour as we followed him weaving slowly along the country roads that circle the enormous lake. Finally we arrive at their house, a splendid affair, very nice, big and beautiful, right on the lake.

Our host, a bit wobbly, unlocks the door and beckons us inside, suddenly seeming twice as drunk as when he left the club. Mark & I are trying to be quiet, they have a young son and we know that Mrs. Village is catching up on some much needed sleep for the day ahead.

As we get inside, and climb the steps upstairs to the main floor that contains their bedrooms, the living room and the kitchen……Mr. Village yells out “Hey Margie! Wake up! Mark & Billy are here!” Mark & and I are taken aback, we really are beat and the last thing we wanted was to disturb the sleepy household. We crest the stairs and view the sleeping Mrs. Village on the couch.

WELL…..from the couch, rising like a halfback that had been gang tackled on the five yard line some hours before, Mrs. Village springs…verily leaping up to greet us, wild eyed…and judging by her breath,…… a bit on the creamed side herself……..and she begins to talk……and when I say talk….I can only say I have never experienced this type of verbal onslaught in my life. She speaks like an Uzi…..She talks like the little mouse in the Warner Brothers cartoon with the barn owl & the mouse.

(I you don’t know that cartoon please read the following as fast as possible the create the effect)…. “Sohowwasthe tripupfromSeattle?Dijjah runintoanytraffic jeez myfriend Suziewaitednearly2hourstheotherday anditwassomeguywithabrokenaxle great tohaveyouguys comeandstaywithus hopethecrowdappreciatedyoufellahs attheclub wasdinnerok? Yahkow I was thinkingtheotherday howniceit’dbeifweallhadChristmastogethernextyear….etc etc etc…….” (Get the idea?)

The woman NEVER stopped talking for the remainder of the night, I was astonished, she could talk the bark offah elm tree. I wanted to hit the hay, but Mark, with the promise of food,was into “visiting” a spell. Trying to get along I propped my eyes open a bit longer.

We moved into the open floor plan kitchen where Mr.Village had plopped down and fixed himself up a homemade supercharger out of an empty Coke can with holes he’d punched in it, and proceeded to customize his buzz by smoking what can only be described as the most noxious substance that resembled pot I’ve ever smelt. He graciously offered the ghastly smelling & dangerously smoking hot can around the table…we “passed” I think even Mrs. Village “passed”. The conversation was absolutely dominated by Mrs. Village (remember kids she never shuts up, going a million miles an hour like a verbal freight train) Mark and I are able to insert a few grunts and nods, but that’s all we could squeeze in. Mr. Village ceases to speak all together, and although there is great rummaging though cupboards and refrigerators by Mrs. Village, as she speed talks on……… no actual food is produced. It seems that promises of eggs and toast were premature,….the frig is pretty bare….. eventually cereal (to Marks’ horror) is consumed while we listen on.

Suddenly, after a brief lull, (as if she weren’t animated enough) Mrs. Village jumps up and sez ..”Oh you haven’t met the dog! You have to meet the dog! You’ll just love her! Suzie! Suzie!” Mark and I are looking up in ernest at the now shouting Mrs. Village making every gesture we can think of, accompanied by feeble protesting, believe me for all we’re worth. We state repeatedly that tomorrow will give us plenty of time to meet the pooch, we’re ready for bed, but we are roundly ignored. Mrs. Village disappears into the house still chatting over her shoulder and calling the dog in her wake.

Mark and I now make a direct appeal to Mr. Village,……. that it’s late and we need to get some sleep…… however; at this point Mr. Village is merely sitting there imitating a conscious person,… we get nowhere. ……Then Mrs. Village returns half dragging a still drowsy large brown boxer……’Susie’, presumably……into the kitchen, the talking (mercifully stymied by the architecture for the past 3 minutes while she roused the dog) as started up in ernest again….. the history of the dog ….dog anticdotes…..dog adventures…..dog foibles…….and suddenly…..as if accomplished by hidden government agents…the kitchen is filled with the most overwhelming, warm, seemly alive, with a mind of it’s own ….STENCH I have even encountered in my then 50 years of walking this earth.

“Whoa!” Mark exclaims as he and I leap up from the table & sprint from the kitchen like it was on fire! The stink was so enormous,….. so all pervading, …….so intense…..it scorched the hair in your nose,…made your eyes water……made you forget your social security number….. I can still smell it now, ……..oh the horror!! (I burned my cloths later the next day in a trash barrel in downtown Bellingham,………. not really, but you get the idea).

“Oh I forgot to mention Susie’s DYING!” Mrs. Village exclaims “Susie (the dog) has colon cancer and just lets off these big ol’ farts,….heh, heh, heh…. we figure she has a couple of weeks left to live,…… Jeff & I let her sleep on our bed because we know she’s on the way out.” At which point (as if on que) another massive dog fart fills the air.

We cough and run gagging for the nearest exit, a sliding door out to the deck and mercifully gulp down some non polluted air. “Get that @#$%*& dog out of here Margie!” Mr. Village roars, he has finally been roused from his stupor (presumably from the all natural animal smelling salts). Whereby Mrs. Village drags the mephitic animal back to THEIR BEDROOM (can you imagine?) and beds him back down. Mark & I are left gasping for breath outside on the deck (probably 20 degrees outside in January at night) and finally, by ourselves, agree that the nights’ late shift entertainment has lost it’s charm for us, and we needed to beg off. We were prepared to drive away, find a Motel….. hell…… even sleep in the same bed if we haftah at this point,…… it’s just too much.

Mrs. Village returns from the bedroom as Mark and I reenter the house, she informs us that there are 2 extra bedrooms mercifully downstairs and we won’t be anywhere near the gaseous animal, relieved we abandon plans to leave (it’s about 3:30 now) and start begging off to go to bed.

But…before we can make a clean get away….. Mrs. Village exclaims “Oh, do you want to meet the dogs mother???” To say we were puzzled by the question was putting it mildly. We did however immediately sense that no good could possibly come from any further doggy business, so we begin to protest in ernest.

“No, no, please, not tonight” Mark sez, hands waving her off. “Nope! we turning in.” I exclaimed. “Maybe tomorrow.” Mark sez with a big animated yawn and a stretch. “That’s enough dog for me for one night..” I say trying to get away…. (wait for it)… “No, no, no she’s not ALIVE..” Mrs. Village explains, ………….creeping us out even further,………are they keeping dead dog somewhere?……… Is she gonnah pull it out of the freezer?

“She’s right here!” Mrs. Village sez. (oh God let it end)

Now at this point in the program kids, you have to imagine the scene. Mark and I are standing just outside of the unwalled open kitchen, which is right off the living room….. ( a faint cloud of yellow gas hovers over the kitchen area)…..Mr. Village is still seated at the kitchen table glassy eyed. (can I have a drum roll please)

“She’s right here!”…. Mrs. Village exclaims, and proceeds to rush to the refrigerator (I knew it was in the refrigerator!)……. she gracefully reaches up on tip toe and grabs a box that has set unnoticed on top the frig, and in one quick smooth spinning movement, sortah like a ballet dancers’ pirouette……..”She died last year and we had her cremated”……. the pirouette continues with the box over her head and she spins towards us……”I just can’t bear to bury her, or disperse her ashes!”……she somehow feels she needs to share this with us…….. then the “dancers twirl” goes horribly wrong and she tangles in her own feet and falls full length…..face planting on the kitchen floor……arms still extended over her head as she goes down………..the box with dog ashes charooms off the floor…..splintering the box into a thousand pieces and spills it’s burnt-ashy-doggy-contents…. fanning out…. across the off-white kitchen floor! KABLAMO!!

(OK! Now Let’s start this party!!)

What is this? the Red Skelton show? Sienfeld on steroids? Man, we have our mouths open almost to the dog-ash-strewn floor. If we had indulged in any or all the baloney these guys were consuming we may still be laughing…but mustering King Kong size self control & composure……..

“Woudjah look at the time!” I crow, thumping my watch (and biting myself to keep from laughing) “See you folks in the morning!” Mark sez as the two of us beat a hasty retreat downstairs, cowards that we were, leaving Mr. & Mrs. Village to sweep the dog up, and presumably tuck her into some Tupperware.

*******************************************************

We were never quite sure what exactly we were supposed to do when presented with the dog box that night….. but fortunately that social faux-pa was avoided. You’d think that nothing much else would be capable of happening in that house, it’s comedy quota seemingly used up for decades to come, but the morning did bring a few surprises.

We awoke to, what we would discover was, their son throwing an assortment of toys down the front staircase accompanied with his 6 year old sound effects “eeeerrrrraahhh…crash! Yah ooo weee…KaBOOM! etc…..” As there is truly no rest for the wicked, Mark and I made our way upstairs after a much needed shower, it’s not tooooo early, but I couldah used a few more winks, speaking for myself. We had resolved between the two of us, that we would make a break for it and go get some freakin breakfast.

Mr. Village sits again at the kitchen table (he couldah been there all night for all we know) sipping coffee with what must have been the Mt. Kilimanjaro of hangovers…the kid is hurling action figures at anything that moves and running and screaming thought out the house. We explain our plans to leave…but before we can escape…we are informed that Mrs. Village has prepared breakfast (ratz) for us before she left. (All traces of dog have been removed from the floor) With that………the kid yells “Yay!!” grabs an oven mitt and pulls a little instant blueberry pan cake from the still warm oven. “Everybody sit down!!” The kid shouts.

“Ethan, take it easy…..just try and be a little quiet.” His dad sez, rubbing his forehead and speaking between the throbs of his headache.

The kid responds to dad by running out of the room like a wildebeest and grabbing a fairly formidable couch pillow from the living room, racing back into the kitchen like a little ninja and clobbering his dad from behind…..pow! right in the head in mid-hot-coffee-sip…glasses….coffee go flying……dad does nothing …. Fabulous, really.

The pillow is tossed aside, the rocket powered kid yells “Let’s eat!!” and thrusts his bare hands into the pan cake and dumps handfuls (of what had been fairly appetizing seconds before) still steaming cake unto plates set in front of us!

I’m not sure if we actually ate any of it, the trauma was starting to set in. We had been expected to stay for the Superbowl, but we begged off, enough as they say is enough. I certainly don’t mean to say these folks were doing anything other than trying to be hospitable to Mark & I, but you have to admit, it was a bit on the wacky side. I had been forbidden to write about this for years as they were friends of Marks’, but since Mark hasn’t spoken to me in 7 years,….. what the hell? Hope you had a giggle, kids. For me “Would you like to meet the dogs’ mother?” will remain as one of the more absurd questions I have been asked in my life, and there yah have it.

Mark DuFresne and Billy Stapleton

The Mark Dufresne Band at The Village Inn
“Halloween” Kelly as the Scarecrow, Allen the convict, me as Father William
& Mark, “the devil with the blue dress on” in better times.

 

Would You Like to Meet the Dog’s Mother?
© 2007 Billy Stapleton. All rights reserved.

“Keep pickin’ … “
– Billy Stapleton

Sitting in with Little Bill

Little Bill & the Bluenotes have been around for almost 50 years. Bill’s sets, shows, and set lists have always been challenging to say the least. Always a band populated with the best musicians Bill can find, it’s a badge of honor to have played with him.

As anyone playing with or leading a popular band can attest, no matter how good or tight the band is,…. no matter how complicated or intricate the arrangements……no matter how well you just played……..somebody always wants to “sit in”.

Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t terrifying-ly fabulous musicians out there who can cut the mustard with any band in the world. (Like the time Howard Robert’s son, Jay, walked up to us, we were playing a summer campground gig…in the middle of freakin’ nowhere….and sits in on the toughest tune in the book and proceeds to play his freakin face off…thank you very much!

But all too often, liquor,…. drugs,…. self confidence gone awry….. or just plain mental illness “gets all up into somebody” and the next thing you know they are standing in front of the bandstand, requesting to “sit in…”

99 times out of 100, Little Bill just says “NO.” and that’s that. But on rare occasion “featured guests” like singer/harp ace Paul Green or saxman John Goforth have sat in, and done a marvelous job, pros sitting in with pros……it’s the amateurs yah gotta watch for.

Once, one guy in his 70’s wanted to sit in with Bill & I doing a duo in a restaurant……..a little odd….but Bill sez ok. He’d talked to Bill before, and apparently he’d been a “Whistler” (that’s right, I said whistler) with big bands in the 30’s & 40’s. (I was unaware of the featured ‘whistler’ spot IN a Big Band, but hey who am I to judge?)

So the “whistler”….(who’s had a snoot full of booze) adjusts the microphone (he whistles while standing, apparently)
……resplendent in immaculate summer weight tan suit…with his beaming (and bombed) wife of 50 years seated in front of him….kicks off an up-tempo version of “Bye Bye Blackbird”.

I am anxiously waiting for the whistling to begin,…..really, I mean, heck how many times do ya back up a whistler for gosh sakes? Well this guy starts making noises like Daffy Duck with a beak full ‘ah soda crackers. (ssppaaak…pptt….sppitt…..sppittt) I can’t understand what’s going on. I look up at him (we’re seated) and he’s spraying away, eyes closed in blissful rendition while his wife smiles up at him beautifiously.

I’m at a loss…really I am. I look over a Bill who’s kinda chuckling but hey, the show goes on, Bill starts his vocal verse and our guest “lays out” 2 verses and a chorus….next? Solo time…..Does Bill cue me?…. the guitar player who knows the song….. nope, it’s the whistler on the solo.

He starts spittin’ away again, now bear in mind there are no NOTES of any kind ensuing from our guest, no melody, just wind flapping and whooshing though the loose dentures & lips or whatever has caused this lapse in whistling talent. The song mercifully ends, Bill graciously thanks the ever smiling duo, Mr. & Mr. Whistler and even coaxes a smatter of applause for them from the diners,….beautiful. BUT, when it comes to the BEST tale of sitter’s in, let me just say, “top this one!”

We’re playing as a trio 6/19/2005, Little Bill, bass & vocals, Tommy Morgan on drums and me, Billy Stapleton on guitar, in a little bar near Alkai in Seattle. “the Alkai Tavern” is an old funky bar, that sits in the middle of prime, heavily developed view property. It’s frequented by locals, bikers, blues fans, joggers, boaters etc. I always had fun there, and we drew pretty good crowds.

It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon, we start at 5pm play til 9. Great view of the city….gig going well……and then Bill looses his mind. This incredibly tall (6’6″ at least) 250 pound plus….. black gentleman, in his middle 50’s, EXTREMELY well muscled (he seems to blot out the sun, to me) ….and I might add, pretty stinkin’ DRUNK as well, approaches the band stand, on the break.

He claims he has his CORONET out in the car….. he hasn’t played much since HIGH SCHOOL…and of course….he’d like to sit in. Now I’ve seen guys & gals plead to sit in with Bill, he’s always got a million excuses….the answer’s always…NO.

But….todaaaayyy…the light of mischief shines in Little’s eyes…..he’s a guy known for doing the unexpected…with absolutely NO regard for his fellow bandmates…..and with absolutely no thought given to (what would appear to a child of 5) the impending disaster……he sez, “SURE,….why not?”

I am flummoxed (paralyzed with surprise) I think, well, …..”he must know the guy or something”,….. it’s Bill’s gig, not a democracy, what the hell. We take the band stand for the second set. It’s common with a guest that the band plays a few tunes, and then you bring the guest up with a little introduction. We start playing the first song of the set, a 3 chord shuffle “Move up to the Country” and without being invited, up jumps the guy and his coronet (a battered, tarnished horn, that was rode hard and put away wet) and stands right next to me (thank you very much) and starts a’ playin’.

Meen-kia tu’ catz’ (Sicilian swearing) He’s honkin’,…. he’s blattin’….fleep…baaaq…quaap…haaaank…it was horrible! HORRIBLE! And he goes on..and on,,,and on. Oh, the humanity!

At the end of the tune, the guy starts bawlin’ Bill out for playin’ stuff that was too hard (3 chords)…or not his style (4/4 time)…or not “On Wisconsin” or something….. Bill, now realizing his mistake, gets a little terse and sez, “Ok pal that’s it…get off the stage!”

Amazingly the big guy, walks off muttering to himself and telling other customers that we’re “Assholes!”

I can’t help but feel pretty uncomfortable, but here we are, we try and put it behind us, we keep playin’, the crowd gets into it, we get some dancers…Little Bill’s sister is even in the audience.

Let me just say here, that they don’t call Little Bill, “Little Bill” because he’s huge,…. he’s 5’4″ and plays from a wheelchair. Not exactly the “Rambo “type, if you’ve never visited his web site you should. Never the less, “fearless” would describe some of the things he’s done in his life….”foolish” would describe others, but hey go to MY web page, ya wanna see foolish!

Meanwhile, back at the Alkai Tavern… things are getting interesting… we’re playing away… Bill & the big guy have started this “staring match across the room… the big guy…..drinking more…..starts yelling at the band “You SUCK!”…..telling anyone who’ll listen, in a loud slurred voice, how we don’t know what we’re doing……then he starts dancing with a gal…still glaring menacingly while he’s dragin’ her around the floor,….and he takes every opportunity to get right in Bill’s face and yell at him “YOU ain’t SHIT!!”…dance away and then dance back with another insult……this goes on while we’re playing Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah I Love Her So”.

THEN..Bill stops the band…
“STOP the MUSIC!!! STOP THE MUSIC!!! ….Hey YOU…GET THE F#@K OUT OF HERE!!….I don’t take CRAP from ASSHOLES LIKE YOU!!..Finish your Goddamn BEER…SHUT UP! and GET THE F#@K OUT OF HERE!!…RIGHT NOW!!”

I should mention that the Bluenotes have an excellent JBL PA system that Bill (who has an unbelievably loud voice to begin with) has been SCREAMING at this guy through!! Bill proceeds to read the Riot Act, chapter and verse while Tommy and I look at each other thinking “why exactly is he doing this? Isn’t he mad enough already?”

I should also mention that this drunken giant is right IN FRONT of Bill…hunched over him…massive fists clenched at his side…glaring at him….while bill screams at him OVER THE PA SYSTEM…it waaas beautiful…it really was.

I figure that at the very least we’ll all get beat half to death trying to pull this guy offa Little Bill, I’ve taken the Gibson Barney Kessell jazz guitar I was playing off, and picked up my Stratocaster (9 pounds of maple & ash)…my strategy (if this can be called strategy) was …if all hell broke loose… to clobber him with the Strat……(the big guy, not Little Bill)…and since I was 3 feet from the front door……RUN LIKE HELL!! (brilliant).

Well, as drunk and as mad as this guy is, he is no match for Bill’s legendary mouth AND the JBL’S…. Whenever he starts to tell Bill off,…. Bill yells at him to drink up and get out…..shut up….etc…(Bill’s sister was very impressed) Of course all conversation, dancing, order taking has ceased…and all eyes & ears are on us. (Did any of the dozen pseudo bikers who have sworn their undying allegiance to ‘Little’ millions of times lift a finger….no).

BUT to the large, inebriated gentleman’s credit…. he couldn’t bring himself to beat up a guy in a wheelchair (thank God)…..and amazingly enough…he finished his beer…and left…. I breathed an enormous sigh of relief.
Bill turned around to Tommy Morgan on drums, and said, “Where did that guy go?” Tommy replied, “I believe he’s driven himself home…….to get his GUN!!”

Needless to say, it put quite a pall on the rest of the evening’s music performance. Did we finish the gig? (looking over our shoulders) Absolutely! And , no the fella never returned.

When we told this story to our friend Richard Cantwell, he said,”You should’a announced over the PA “Anybody Else Wanna Sit In??” That would have been perfect.”

 Little Bill

Little Bill, Tommy Morgan and me

 

Sitting in with Little Bill
© 2007 Billy Stapleton. All rights reserved.

“Keep pickin’ … “
– Billy Stapleton

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 cell phone is going nonstop. 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.
“What?” (nice)
“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 him “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.

 Little Bill

Tommy Morgan, Little Bill …& his bass

Little Bill and his Bass © 2007 Billy Stapleton. All rights reserved.

 

“Keep pickin’ … “
– Billy Stapleton