Saturday, May 9, 2020

Little Richard The Bronze Liberace

It's been 25 years since I've smoked a bowl of hashish, and none more exquisite than shared in January of 1971 with Little Richard, the Bronze Liberace. At that time, I was the keyboardist and vocalist for Homestead, a Toronto act that caught the attention of Guess Who producer Jack Richardson in 1970.

Homestead concerts were testimonials against the Vietnam War and the degradation of the environment. I wore more Canadian flags than seen springtime on Parliament Hill.  Jack understood my position and my opposition to the war. He rolled with the situation, doing all he could to calm me --although I made the task nearly impossible.

We’re booked to do a 7:30 pm set at Queen’s University, opening for Little Richard on a stage outfitted with humongous Traynor speakers. Back then, the size of a mid-size car, with sound quality when fully exercised akin to blowing wax paper through a comb.

We’re playing the opening set, at first received as if sentenced to public embalming. Then I gave my “save the planet” pitch, and things began to warm up. Round one: we scored.
Downstairs in the dressing area, Little Richard has yet to show, owing to a bomb scare somewhere over Cleveland. Richard refuses a chartered flight to London, Ontario, apparently fearing the plane would crash. 11 pm, he arrives by car, half an hour after the second set scheduled.

I'm killing time with a quarter ounce of Lebanese hashish. Suddenly, Little Richard's band arrives and catches the action.
“Hey, bro,' what's smoking," says a member of the horn section.
“Hashish,” I reply.
“Les’ has some.”
 Smooth talkers? I cut a couple of grams loose, and the horn guys disappear into the men’s room - unloosen a toilet roll, untangle foil from a cigarette pack, punch a few holes--et voila - big high.

I'm chatting with the promoter when Little Richard walks up and demands his pay. The promoter turns and instructs Richards to play first. Nearby, Richard’s bodyguard looks on taps at his shoulder-holster under his suit jacket as if to say, “listen up.” 

“Pay me, motherfucker or I don't play," says Richard.

The promoter pauses. “This isn’t good; I have to go up to the box office and count the money. I hope they’ll agree to do this."
“Get moving," urges Richard.

I'm sitting, staring at this rock & roll icon, baked in heavy pancake makeup, not knowing what to expect. In a huff, Richards starts lecturing about “taking care of business.” Then the first trumpet player returns hovers above, and says to me -, "Give me more of that good shit." I couldn’t believe the audacity of this snake. Richard jumps into the conversation, "What shit?”

“The hippie got some bad hashish," says viper man.
Richards looks at me. “Is that so, I ain't never smoked hashish - is it any good?"

I look at him, thinking: fuck me, it’s Little Richard! "Yeah, man, this is Lebanese.  It's got a nice froth on it," I say.

“Light me some, hippie guy - I need to get high." I do just that, and LR gets his love on. "This shit is outrageous," he says, wearing a big broad smile. The next 30 minutes, we continue bowl lighting.

 "What's your name? It's Bill! Your band? Homestead, huh? Tell you what Bill - I like you, man. Paul McCartney is playing on my next album and me on his - then I'm playing on yours." I'm young - cynical and don't give a shit. Little Richard is in the house and playing me for my remaining gram.

The promoter returns, Richard collects half-pay, hits the stage, and rocks the room. Next to Little Richard, I felt like a curio figurine, a miniature entertainer – him - long, bold history, and I'm a witness.

The amplified sound was horrible, but who gave a damn. Richard's foot hits the floor like a sledgehammer - he sings in ungodly tones: first “Lucille,” then “Blueberry Hill,”  “Bebop A Lula,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Midnight Special,” “Tutti Frutti” and on and on. Three years earlier, I'd rocked with Chuck Berry, but in no way did it compare to this jam.
 Half time! We're back in the waiting room.

"Hey B, got anymore of that killing shit,” Richard's inquires.
 “Sure do.”
“Then, light me a bowl." That I do, as his band quickly shows up sounding a chorus of “give us more." Are you kidding? I'm with the man, and I ain't blowing the remains on a  greedy horn section.

Richard seats himself next to the paymaster, who says, “Sorry, Mr. Richard. We have to wait until closing time to pay you.”

Get my money, or the night is over,” says Richard.
The dude reaches over and touches Little Richard.
“Get your fucking fingers off me, queer boy,” says Richard, alerting the bodyguard who moves in clutching a hidden gun.

Richard nods, says to the paymaster, “You get the message? Get my money.” Bronze Liberace looks over at me and says, “Fill the bowl, Bill---looks like a long night. You say that shit is Hebanese?” Eventually, the promoter pays, and Richard rips through a second show.

Afterwards, we're on our way home and stop at one of those unfriendly late-night diners. I walk in with my partner Kristine, and the catcalls start. “Hippie, dick sucker, fuck face...” Suddenly a tall, lanky black man in full pimp stride strolls towards the men's room. It’s Little Richard’s enforcer.  All talk ceases. Catcalls cease as all eyes follow.  Minutes pass, and the guy reappears. You can see the gun protrude under his short jacket. He taps, swings around, gives us one of those stares that freezes the fearful, then exits.

The last words I heard that evening were: "Fuck me, who the hell was that?” I look at Kristine and say, “Shaft!”

Looking out for Little Richard and other black musicians of the time was a full-time job. If you wanted to get paid, you had to have someone with a cold, cold look, an intimidating bulge under the vest and willingness to use it.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Janis Joplin (Memphis Meltdown)

Janis Joplin (Memphis Meltdown)

Word spread quickly of Janis Joplin's departure from Big Brother & the Holding Company among the musicians in Greenwich Village. I can't say the announcement created the same impact as the Beatles' imminent break-up or Bob Dylan converting to electric. Nevertheless, it did reverberate along Bleecker and McDougall streets, attracting further attention among working musicians and less between street buskers. I, for one, reacted swiftly to the rumour. Janis was assembling a rhythm & blues band, much like those high-flying Memphis bands: somewhere between Sam and Dave and Otis Redding. A sound originated in Soulsville USA Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, and reproduced on vinyl by Stax/Volt records.
        It's 1968, and I stroll into a record store on 8th Avenue, one I frequented for its diversity and rarities, then scan the cover jacket of Cheap Thrills, Joplin's most recent recording. I searched along the back-side of the sleeve, looking for information concerning Joplin's management team. A clerk nearby offers to assist - points to a recording by the Electric Flag, he says shared the same management. It turned out to be Albert Grossman, noted for his successful campaigns on behalf of and among others: Bob Dylan, Paul Butterfield, and Peter, Paul and Mary. I dialled Grossman's office and parleyed with associates Vinnie Fusco and Elliot Mazer, who was intimately involved in Joplin's affairs. An audition arranged at A-1 Studios, the original home of Atlantic Records. Before the hook-up, I'm summoned for an informal meeting with Albert Grossman. I await outside Grossman's office, clutch the sole documented recording of my piano/organ playing, a B-side instrumental single released by California soul unit, Kent & The Candidates, "Whatcha Trying to Do." The song an ode to pianist Ramsey Lewis of "In-Crowd" fame - a mix of country blues and gospel piano.
         On entry to Grossman's office, I catch a glimpse of the man surrounded by towering stacks of papers; positioned around him like a walled fortress. In a soft-whisper, Grossman speaks and waves me forward. I listen to his take on Joplin's radical new plan. I also observe how much he resembled founding father, Ben Franklin, with flowing white locks of hair tied into a ponytail and small, wire-framed glasses. Grossman could have been one of the original signatories on the Declaration of Independence. I can't remember much of that conversation, but it landed me a plum gig - double duty as Joplin's keyboardist and music director for a new band about to be assembled, The Kozmic Blues Band.
       The first audition was little more than a formality meant to assess the compatibility of the players. The second audition involved recording the soulful number, "Piece of My Heart," at the Hit Factory with our trio - a final mix sent to Janis for approval. We kept close to the original version by Irma Franklin. Drummer Roy Markowitz and I landed the gig, with bassist Stu Woods going on to work as a sideman, recording with Bob Dylan, Don McLean, the Pozo Seco Singers, Tony Orlando & Dawn, Janice Ian and others. In many ways, his career fared better.
          After agreeing on wages, management arranged a flight to San Francisco for Roy and me and no accommodations other than a few nights at a studio apartment courtesy, Janis's road manager's mother in North Beach. That was cool with me. I'd pretty much lived out of a suitcase the past couple of years. We soon connect with bassist Brad Campbell of the Toronto based Last Words, the only Canadian in the group, at our temporary digs. Rolling Stone magazine had announced the hiring of both Brad and drummer Skip Prokop from Lighthouse, but the latter player never materialized. Just as well. The three of us had spent our young lives in the shadows beyond the glare of spotlights, and this was indeed Janis's show.
       The following day, Janis invites the three of us to her Noe Street apartment for a 'get-to-know-you' session. After dragging our bodies up San Francisco's impossible steep terrain, we arrive at Joplin's front door, where we are greeted by a snarling dog. Joplin's live-in mate and ex-wife of blues singer Nick Gravenites collects the dog, then directs us to a small sitting room; resplendent in Salvation Army home furnishings. Joplin enters laughing and joking from a side hallway with the force of a Texas "dust devil." Joplin was the perfect host, serving up shots of Southern Comfort whiskey and reefer sticks. I passed on the refreshments. Janis pauses, smiles - then comments, "Who did Albert send me, "Jesus Christ?" Assuring her I wasn't one of those 'Bible-thumping' southerners sent to recuse her from a host of demons, Janis laughs and quickly gets comfortable with me. She then invites Brad, Roy and I back for dinner later that evening, saying: "I've got a few friends I want you to meet."
       The party was already brewing when we arrived. The soulful voice of Carla Thomas blared in the background over the conversation between a few "denim-clad" men. Janis charges in from the dining room and steers us toward something that resembles a large stalagmite ripped from a cave. On closer inspection, it becomes apparent the item was a polished sculpture of a snow-white penis, a gift from a local Haight-Ashbury artist. The coveted centrepiece remained the focal point of conversation throughout the evening.
       More guests arrive.  With each rap at the door, another group of tattooed 'denim-jockeys' enter each grimier than the last. We looked like choirboys at a prison picnic compared to this. Janis journeyed from lap to lap, kissing and hugging each scraggy guy. The room now overflowing with crazies, Janis introduces her new hand-picked band. The men in denim? The Oakland Chapter of the Hell's Angels.  I was out of my element when the drugs started flowing, and music intensified and booze splashing about. The biker's party escalated at a different temperature than most musicians 'get-togethers,' and through Janis's actions and excitement, we recognized debauchery was about to reach an unforeseen level. The three of us politely excuse ourselves - informed Janis, and told her we'd meet again at rehearsal.
       Rehearsals were put on standby as we awaited the arrival of the two horn players who'd just completed service in the Electric Flag.    
      Brad, Roy and I killed time scouring the pool halls of North Beach playing snooker long past midnight. We listened to jazz, traded road stories accompanied by crippling laughter as we relived Janis' dinner-less, dinner party. We also speculated about the future. Roy and I never took rock music seriously. Miles and Coltrane were the most talked-about players in our sphere. Joplin was merely a quirky individualist with a wide following. For the two of us, it was a better gig than lounging about Grossinger's in the Catskills.
       Rehearsals began early December 1968 at the old Fillmore Auditorium. A floor below us, Carlos Santana was rehearsing his band through final preparations for his Columbia recording debut: Santana. A level below him, It's A Beautiful Day, was putting the finishing touches on material for their first recording under the same title. We shared a great rapport with Carlos and the company. During breaks, each band would filter in, listen to one another restructure tunes. Santana was miles ahead of our newly assembled unit. The group was well-rehearsed, loved playing and did it with precision and commitment. We, on the other hand, had had barely enough time to acquaint ourselves with unfinished and untried material before pressing ahead.
       Day one of rehearsals, band members stroll in just past noon and take their places. As a leader, my job was to bring order to the proceedings and a buffer between band and Janis, a role I'd played many times before, but never on such a grand scale. Eventually, Janis slips in, introduces herself -trades hugs with the horn players before inching my way. Joplin then slides next to me along the organ bench and introduces a modest list of tunes. The message? Janis is hoping to bridge the raw elements of her persona with that of classic soul and rhythm & blues. The marriage arranged in her head had yet to be consummated by the band. First up, Gershwin's "Summertime," her signature wail. Guitarist Sam Andrews played fugue-like intro riff Joplin had grown accustomed to hearing. I then write a counterpoint line meant to embellish. It soon becomes apparent the organ doesn't sonically cut the same as an amplified guitar, causing Janis to rethink the intro. When the full band enters, Joplin all but forgets the odd colouring. I knew it would take some adjustment with her ears accustomed to Big Brother & the Holding Company's version.
      During the rehearsal, I craft horn lines for the Bee Gee's "To Love Somebody," which Joplin quickly transforms into a blues ballad - ripe with guttural cries and evangelical testifying. The song was chosen for its show potential and emotional temperature: great words, good mood and soulful melody. I then convince Janis to give a listen to the old Eddie Floyd soul hit, "Raise Your Hand." It was a crack staple from my days with Kent & The Candidates. The song had the same fat groove found in Wilson Pickett's "Midnight Hour" and "Mustang Sally," with a memorable, gospel-style shout chorus. Joplin listens, smiles, then asks me to script an arrangement. Then the great implosion. "Ball and Chain," another squealing testimonial. Too jazzy? Overdone?
      Rehearsals began to lose their lustre the following week. Gone were the rock celebrities and energized sessions. Trumpeter Marcus Doubleday starts showing up late. Doubleday found a heroin connection, which eventually took precedent over-scheduled rehearsals. Janis was getting agitated, spending more time in pool halls and nightspots than rehearsing. She was also drinking heavily.  You could see the welts swell beneath her deep-set eyes. Joplin was also plagued by acne - nearly every pore of her face scarred.  I was beginning to dread the daily sessions with her.
      Around December 18, guitarist Mike Bloomfield noted for his ground-breaking work with the Blues Project, Paul Butterfield and others, unexpectedly appear. Bloomfield's turf was Greenwich Village, which led me to question his presence here. Janis arrives, introduces Bloomfield, then asks us to jam a few tunes with him. Before Janis's arrival, we'd already made the Bloomfield connection with a shuttle blues that lasted twenty-something minutes. Roy recorded the jam. She then instructs us to play, "Piece of My Heart." Bloomfield plugs the holes with stinging blues lines and extended chords as we stay relatively close to the original. Once the test was complete, Janis confers in private with Bloomfield, emerges and delivers the verdict: "Mike likes the band." Our momentary reprieve lasted until drummer Levon Helm of The Band fame arrives, and Janis instructs us to play once again. Levon listens, then awards the band a second vote of confidence. I could sense uncertainty in Janis's body language. This radical change and Janis' call, exposing her vulnerability. Gone was the certainty and comfort of Big Brother's blaring amps, plodding rhythms and close relationships. It made me recall a conversation I'd had with producer John Simon, who once confided that it had cost him six months of edit time just to give Cheap Thrills a consistent flow. Steady tempos were foreign to that band.
       Nighttime was Janis' time to roar. Brad and I piled into the back seat of her "psychedelic embellished" Porsche and cruised the seedier pool halls around the Bay Area. Joplin knew every oddball and misfit on the circuit and treated each the same as her band members. To Janis, if you were a friend, you remained a friend. We'd drop-in Country Billiards and the staff would bristle with excitement. Brad and I played snooker regularly, of which I was never able to overcome his skill. Janis wanted the same competitive game with her in the mix. "Don't let me win – make me win on my own will," she would insist. We never backed off.
          One occasion, I accompanied her to the Kaleidoscope Club to hear Texas native, the Johnny Winters band; shortly after, she'd extorted a fur coat from Southern Comfort - payback for her campaign and preference for and in behalf of the beverage. Janis had caught up with her fellow Port Arthur, Texas native Winter, the night before. Throughout the evening, the luxury fur served as a seat cushion and an impromptu floor duster, never a treasured garment. Afterwards, Joplin drags me backstage to greet the musicians before departing.
        Late evening, we surface at the Fillmore to catch the Small Faces, when after, Joplin again pulls me backstage, this time to meet Rod Stewart and Ron Wood, who were performing. Joplin used her quick wit and undeniable charm to break through the indifference of the reticent British imports. She tried to seduce with laughter and genuine warmth with little success. It was an uneasy meet and greeted, one she walked away commenting: "What a bunch of 'tight-asses' these British bands are."
        After receiving an invite to play at the second annual Stax/Volt Yuletide Thing at the Memphis Mid-South Coliseum with stars: Isaac Hayes, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Johnny Taylor, the Bar-Kays, Booker T and the MGs and Eddie Floyd; productive rehearsals soon became imperative. Janis was eager to introduce her new band in an area rich in folk and blues history. After landing and during the Sunday drive from the airport, Janis requests the limousine driver to make an unusual turn and chart a path towards Jackson, Mississippi, where supposedly a bottle of liquor could be purchased on a Sunday. Janis was in severe need of a drink. The mission became more confusing as urgency in her voice increased. A few terse words between driver and Joplin nearly escalates into a full-on confrontation. The escort didn't see driving out of the way for alcohol on the Lord's day of rest, part of the gig. A compromise was struck to let the band off at the hotel, and Janis enlists a driver willing to continue the search for libations. More lousy karma was in store. We are booked into the Lorraine Motel, where only months before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was gunned down. Even creepier, we were booked in adjacent rooms on the same landing. The thought gave me chills. It wasn't until I mentioned at the soundcheck we were staying at the Lorraine someone reminded me of his historical significance.
        Little fanfare greeted our arrival, leaving Janis free to pursue her vices. As we strolled back to our rooms, Mike Bloomfield walks past toting a garbage bag full of pot. Roy stops and asks him for a joint. Bloomfield throws Roy a look of contempt and says, "I don't have enough." A startled Roy looks back at me – busts a devious grin, and the two of us howl with laughter. Then off to rehearsal – Soulsville, USA.
         From the street, it looked like a broken-down cinema. The marquee lettering was cracked and shattered, most likely by kids with rocks in hand. Nothing about the exterior spoke to its recent glorious history. 
         We set-up in the main studio with enough gear to run through an abbreviated set. As I roam room to room, there was ample evidence of those grand soul recordings. Down one hall and rehearsing, Booker T & the MG's. This was a rush. I saw the drum set most prominent on those Sam & Dave recordings. The big deep military-style snare and what looked to be a bass drum the size carried about in marching bands.
          Further down the hall – the Bar-Keys laying down some smacking funk. I no sooner take a seat at the grand piano when singer/songwriter Isaac Hayes squeezes in next to me and smiles. I play a couple of blues chords, and he answers with a riff or two and smiles. I have no recollection after that of the rehearsal. This was all I wanted to remember.
        The Stax/Volt concert takes place. I look across the spacious auditorium packed with a good portion of the black populous of Memphis. This was a hometown, and the hometown heroes were about to take the stage. Enter the Staples Singers. Moments in I detect a flaw in the sound system - intermittent crackling and voices cutting in and out. The system was borrowed from a local church - suitable for a room of 250 parishioners but not the sonic quality to carry the sound of a high-energy Bar-Kays, front to the back of the stadium. The system was atrocious. Locals didn't sit idly by and refrain from expressing their displeasure. They stood and yelled – "fix the sound; I didn't pay all of this money for this."
        We were wedged near the middle of the concert, between Memphis's most excellent blues guitarist Albert King and Carla Thomas. I remember standing nearby and watching King's organist. My main concern was the organ and a reason for that, once on stage, I noticed the organ had been unplugged and needed to be rolled back into position and switched on again. My next concern, the plastic rod leading to one of my preferred draw-bar settings kept popping up, and the manual would go silent. "Tape, please!"
        We played three or four number the finale an original I wrote and recorded by Herb Abramson at A1 Sound in Manhattan, "Hurtin' World."  Janis learned from an acetate I cherished - recorded by singer Charlotte Stokes with Bernard Purdy and J.J. Johnson. Janis loved it. - a slow, 6/8 feel and 'churchified.'
       The performance, with all of Joplin's antics and mad passion, passes with little response. I write it off as retaliation for the shit sound system. Surely, we didn't sound that bad. I would learn there was more in play here.
       Janis's face was pasted all over Memphis. She took prominence over all the local heroes and found her image blown up larger than that of Pops Staples and Carla Thomas and the others. She was truly embarrassed. One end of Memphis, to the other, her image penetrated the retail landscape. After the concert, a distraught Janis asked around and was told folks were pissed. She was devastated. She then found out the insensitive act was crafted and insistence of her management. Joplin's spirit was renewed later that evening at a party hosted by Stax/Volt President Jimmy Stewart.
     Stewart's sprawling ranch-style house, situated among lush tree-lined surroundings were the social epicentre for invitation-only guests from both the black and white communities. Behind these doors, people could mingle without prejudice. The greats - the Memphis singers and musicians, were present. Stewart had rigged various rooms with monster-sized Voice of the Theater speakers. 
      Throughout the night, Stewart played unreleased tapes of Otis Redding, who had perished two years earlier, along with four of the original Bar-Kays, in a plane crash on December 10, 1967. Rivers of tears were shed. As much as it was an occasion to celebrate, it was nearing Christmas Eve, one in which everyone understood only the ghost of the great singer would be able to attend. Otis' music played and played, making the night a sombre and tender occasion.  I walked about shaking hands and putting faces to album covers.
       Janis calls for the band. We gather at a long table in an adjacent room with Stax president Jimmy Stewart at the helm. I recognize bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn, guitarist Steve Cropper, Booker T, and beyond that - the night goes dim. Janis introduces each member of the band by name except me – I'm Jesus to her. "Can you believe, I hired Jesus Christ?" she says with great warmth and humour. The place erupts.
       The following morning, this band meets for a final get together. It was indeed one of the saddest moments of my entire life. After returning from the gig, we heard Janis and Marcus Doubleday had shot up heroin and passed out atop each other were found the next morning in the same position.  Several days prior, Janis briefly stopped over in Dallas to meet a young band she had recently befriended and presented a gift box of twelve syringes. She remarked that she and Doubleday fought over the distribution of the prize. The thought sickened me. I decided I was out of here!
      My new bride Kristine and I would catch up with Janis in 1970, backstage at the Festival Express in Toronto when I was with the opening band, Homestead, booked the same day. The first person I recognize from the Kozmic Blues Band is Brad Campbell, the bassist, now a member of Janis's new band, then the road manager who eventually escorts Janis over.
      Janis was all laughter and hugs---totally optimistic. She told us of a new boyfriend and spoke passionately about detoxing from drugs and only sipping a bit of wine. She appeared happier than I ever believed possible. Janis loved her new group, the Full Tilt Boogie Band and seemed to have a bit more control over where she wanted to go with her career. The blues, folk, rock and soul music concealed in her heart had found a genuine medium for expression. Full Tilt Boogie was the perfect conduit.
        Janis Joplin died later that year, at age 27. The time I spent with her covered a month of a life barely lived, yet so much transpired during that eventful period. Her open-hearted kindness, as well as her naked insecurities, linger in my mind. Above all, I'll remember and cherish the sincerity and joy she brought to the music she loved.