It was a good thing I had nearly twenty years of gigging under my belt by the time I met female impersonator Craig Russell. It would have been near impossible deciphering each unpredictable moment spent in his company.
My first gig paid $2.40 a high school prom in a dance band led by our trusted bandmaster Mr. Hugh Scott. Scott was a nervous fellow who tolerated me but never fully engaged and swing was not his thing. It was 1960 and rock and roll was here to stay and Scott was more in tune with music with a bit of a march to it. I even remember him throwing the baton at me, I don’t recall the reason other than he didn’t like the way I looked at him and the fact brother Wayne and I were in orchestra together and that meant trouble. I truly believe he raided the band cupboard and collected a few parts from the Sound of Music for the prom gig. By senior year he tossed both of us out of band. He just couldn’t take a good laugh and a couple of unstoppable pranksters.
A year or so later I get a call from Mingus tenor sax man Bobby Jones to play a strip bar - Iroquois Gardens. I was truly not versed in life much more than a trip to church and or a run up the river in dad’s cabin cruiser. Jones was crazy insane. I knew possibly three songs and a bunch of Scarlatti. The stripper wants 'Shangri-La'. Nothing like the sound of drums, piano tuned to A 330 and clarinet. Jones doesn't give a shit he wants the stripper. We're playing along - me in some foreign key clueless of chord changes. Jones would yell ‘G7’ and laugh his ass off. As we conclude the rhapsody when stripper yells.. ‘You stink! Jones looks at her and says, ‘You stink too, I can smell you from here.’
Not long after I'm at the coliseum in Louisville and Jamey Aebersold is opening for the Count Basie Band. His bassist is a recovering addict. After Jamey's set bass man comes and sits by me. Basie is killing. Bass man leans over and whispers 'can you feel the vibrations? I haven't a clue what he's getting at. He then looks at me and says ‘Orange’. We are vibrating orange in here.’ Ok.
That's just a sample of the necessary steps needed to endure and appreciate a Craig Russell. I always say the two craziest music icons I've ever worked for we're Ronnie Hawkins and Craig Russell. You couldn't tell them apart. Every moment in their company brought hilarity most would grimace or dial 911.
I’m down in Boston with Craig and we’re playing a gay disco converted to show theatre this occasion. I’ve already spent six months in gaydom which I will admit at first uncomfortable but after playing for drunken rock crowds brought serious comic relief.
Russell began as Mae West’s biggest fan and president of the Mae West fan club. I think he eventually moved to Hollywood for a time and hung around West. It was the indie movie 'Outrageous' that would launch his career a brief but roaring one it was.
For the Boston gig we needed a big band so I hit up Pat LaBarbera for names. Pat was with both Lionel Hampton and Buddy Rich bands so he still had a directory of first call musicians. I made contact and band was organized.
We rehearsed the first afternoon absent Russell for ten day stint. Way cool – no mishaps.
The night of opening I’m in dressing room with players just chatting and run my hand across a wooden box and come across a quarter of a joint with a bit of lipstick on it. I think – this is crazy if I light. Back then one never gave a second thought. I take my prize to a corner and have a couple hits. In the background the hall is bouncing to ‘Another One Bites the Dust.` A minute or so passes when suddenly my heart starts pounding a hundred thumps a second – five minutes to show time. Fuck me – what did I do?
I walk through crowded room heart jumping from chest and banging tables. It dawns on me that hit was PCP – something I’d been given once before that was way beyond fear weed – horse tranquilizer.
I steer myself to piano bench and sit there while band takes stage. I keep talking to myself – ‘you will live to see another day – you will never do this again, you are loved.’ The next three minutes stretch into ten as we wait for Craig’s arrival, meanwhile, ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ is swirling in my brain like a noxious stew. I’m beginning to think the song was scripted for me when the front door pops open and the queen arrives. And yes she arrives full costume and dressed as Bette Midler – Yes! Bette Midler.
I could judge Craig’s mood depending on costume – Bette fun – Judy Garland – lights out!
I count the overture in flip open score and there before me is a dangling pair of testicles cut from a porn magazine. I look up at band and it was like facing a dark mountain side inhabited by racoons just flickering eyeballs. I start laughing uncontrollably from whence drummer hits a body switch and a round of colored lights clinging to neck starts flashing off and on. Then the whole band starts laughing and can barely play. Craig just parades on oblivious to happenings. By now I’m laughing so hard my teeth stick to piano wood.
Next up – ‘The Rose’ – perfect Bette showcase. I flip page and there’s a long schlong taped the length of page. I sit there startled and start flipping through the evening’s score and notice every page had body parts perfectly cut around song titles. By now the band was on the floor and drummer flashing like he’d hit Vegas jackpot. There was nothing one could do but laugh and try regain control.
Somewhere half way through Craig reaches for glass of water resting on piano lid. He holds up to lights – sips and has a second look. ‘My, my I’m drinking dick juice. Tasty, tasty.’ Funny man had cut a penis part and stuck to bottom of glass. Craig looks at me and says – you hired this band for ten days?
Every night was wickedly insane. Craig got even with one of the sax players during the Peggy Lee medley. He slipped next to him bent down and drove his tongue through eardrum to the inner part of his brain. The guy flipped out. Band was on fire.
A few weeks pass and Craig calls about a gig in Saskatoon. By now price is becoming an issue. It was going to take a fair bit more money to endure the weird stuff. Craig agrees and off we go.
A stretch limo pulls up outside and I catch a view of a giant white wig with a big mouth red with lipstick. This is seven in the morning.
Russell is in full Mae West mode. He’d been up all night coking and drinking and was in fine form. “Come sit back here with me big boy.” It was if Mae was going into overdrive and there was no point of return. I figured as long as Mae was in room and not Judy we could maintain.
Imagine standing at ticket counter at Pearson with this costume shouting at everyone who walks by. Embarrassment with a triple E! ‘Where do you want to sit, I’m sitting with the pilot– you with the stewardess.” I knew better than sit close by so I booked front of room.
So we’re flying above the clouds when I hear – ‘Bill’s my music director – he’s from Indiana – Bill stand up and take a bow.’ I don’t dare look back. “Hey Bill, Mae calling – back here honey.” I turn slightly and every passenger was either laughing or in fear. “ If you don’t take a bow, I’m coming up there.” I raise my hand. “There you go, the boy’s in show business and he just showed some.”
We arrive to another stretch limo with a female driver. Bags were near curb and she ignores. “Honey, pick those bags up and be careful my toys are in the purple case, don’t harm and put gently in trunk.” The woman ignores and gets in limo. By now Craig is situated in back seat killing the bar. “Honey, we are not leaving with bags sitting on curb.” I interject – ‘I’ll take care. “No, I’m paying her so get your ass out of the car and take care.” The woman just sits there. Craig gets on telephone and calls her employer. A bit of chatter and then she grudgingly stuffs trunk.
We’re cruising along when Craig says ‘You know your trouble bitchy – you need a man – Bill she’s all yours.” I ignore but Craig persists. “You ain’t never had a man – that’s your problem – and you won’t ever be Mae, I understand women and you are not getting laid and that’s a problem.”
Craig eventually turns his attention to the road. He opens back window and starts yelling at everyone – “It’s Mae – come see my show – I’m not dead – see me -believe me.” Hey soldier, I can get you in for half price, you can take me home on a stretcher, I’m into bondage, bandage me - please.”