Back in the early 70’s, fresh home from two tours of combat duty in Viet Nam, my dad decided he’d get back into the music business and wanted to make a professional recording of some of his songs in an effort to land some local gigs in Memphis. This may have been the first time he’d ever ventured into the recording side of things, as much of his experience playing music had taken place on the road and on the bandstand. I think it’s safe to say that Dad was excited about the possibilities, as I’m sure his day-job was driving him nuts and music had always brought him joy. So, he looked around town and found this cat named B.B. Cunningham who agreed to record a demo for him and the session was booked in a studio called, Stairway.
He had a notebook full of wonderful songs he’d been working on, including this great little country number called, Please Daddy, Please…a tune about a man struggling with alcoholism where I sang the chorus with him (a child’s voice is always a nice touch). We’d been rehearsing this song together at home and it was sounding pretty good, so he brought me along with him in hopes that we’d get that one down, as well. To be honest, I really don’t remember much about that day…I was only three or four at the time… this would’ve been 1971 or ’72 but I’m pretty sure I was there with him because the one thing Dad remembers is the studio folks taking a liking to me. He even laughs when telling the story of how B.B. Cunningham & Knox Phillips both joked with him afterward, saying they thought I had a good little voice. Funny.
But this is all we’ve ever had. Memories and stories. Nothing to listen to or hold in our hands or share with others. Throughout the years, whenever I’ve asked Dad about the session, he says he doesn’t remember anything ever getting recorded, which is very sad. Maybe they had a problem with one of the tape machines, or perhaps the studio closed down before he could get a copy of the tape, or maybe the money got weird. No one knows for sure and for the past 40+ years, all anyone has ever been certain of, was that there is absolutely no record of him having been there, except for one single photo…
Well…about a month ago, my good friend, Joe Restivo called me from Memphis, saying he’d just been on a recording session in a studio where they’d found an old dusty 1/4″ reel of tape at the bottom of a closet with “George Sluppick” written on the front of it (but no other info at all) and they wanted to know if Dad had the same name as me. One of the engineers there, Adam Woodard, was in possession of it and wanted to talk with me about what might possibly be on this reel. I just about dropped the dang phone! How could this be?
Now Adam is a real sweet cat but told me he was super busy with session work and would give it a listen just as soon as he could. He said that if anything was on it, then he would get me a copy of it right away but that I would need to be patient. Mind you, this is a virtue that doesn’t come easy for most Sluppicks, as we’re not known for having a great deal of patience and given the possible contents of this long lost reel… Well, let me just say that the poor guy suffered through a barrage of emails, phone calls, Facebook messages and texts from yours truly, fussin’ & cussin’ up a storm but he remained cool through it all and although I nearly lost my mind waiting, I somehow managed to keep it together, as I knew the end result would be sweet. It took more than a month to get a digital copy of the master transferred and the process wasn’t easy for him, as the tape itself was more than 40 years old and required some gentle handling. Analog tape has a shelf life of roughly 30 years and tends to break down if it’s in storage any longer than that, so if you are getting nervous just reading this, then imagine how I felt. Yes, it was stressful! However, once the work was finished, they uploaded the entire file to a website with a nice letter to me, telling the story of how the leader tape (which is the nonmagnetic plastic tape that you see at the beginning and end of the tape, that acts as a protector) accidentally broke during play-back, which was frightening to hear but he assured me that everything on the original tape survived.
The only bad news was that, Please Daddy, Please was nowhere to be found and after speaking with Dad about it, he said that I had the story a little bit wrong and that that particular tune had been cut in an entirely different session and there’s no recording of it anywhere. The good news of course, was that now we have an entire session of Big George, all by himself to enjoy forever…roughly 25 minutes worth.
I have to tell y’all it was rather emotional as I sat there listening to my then 25-year old father singing his heart out, sometimes a little flat, with a slightly out-of-tune acoustic guitar, and some shaky rhythm. But I’ve never heard a more honest and true performance from anyone. As an added bonus, I’d also never heard most of the tunes and was taken by surprise at the diversity in his songwriting. You can clearly hear his influences, ranging from country to blues to folk to some straight-up rock-n-roll. I remember when we would play shows together, many years after this recording and the set list always included a little something for everyone. But that’s just the kind of guy he is.
And that’s the story. Pretty unbelievable, right? My gal and I edited everything, titled all the songs and put a nice little homemade CD booklet together for Dad and the rest of the family. I’ve been getting phone calls and letters from everyone, telling me how touched they were and that it’s an amazing stroke of luck that some analog tape survived at the bottom of a closet for 40 years. I am grateful.
A good one, that is and I couldn’t be happier. This recent CRB tour began last Tuesday and so far I’ve played four shows in three cities, had a new record come out, saw some family that I’d not seen in years, was awarded an amazing gift and got the chance to hang with two of my mentors. I’m still pinching myself and we’ve still got three more weeks to go on this run. How lucky I am.
Here’s the tale of my week, along with some back story…
Two years ago in March of 2010, I was approached after a performance in Nashville by a young man named Jake who said he’d been following my career for several years and was looking to take some drum lessons with me. I was flattered to say the least and although I’ve never been much of a teacher, seeing as how this kid seemed sincere, eager and humble, I agreed to teach him and so we set up a time to get together in the coming weeks. At that point, I was living in Memphis and he was in Murfreesboro, TN, which isn’t a short drive by any means and it took him several hours to make the drive east on the day of the lesson. But he made it and we sat at my friends’ rehearsal studio for more than two hours, working on touch, technique and going over the finer points of developing and laying down a solid foundation behind the drum set. I turned him onto Idris Muhammad, Clyde Stubblefield, Levon Helm. It was a good lesson, for me too.
He seemed elated afterward and wanted to know when I would be free for more lessons in the future, so I decided that since he’d driven such a long way to study with me, I’d treat him to a burger at Huey’s in Midtown, where singer Di Anne Price just happened to be performing that day, along with the great reed-man, Jim Spake, bassist Tim Goodwin and fellow beat maker, Tom Lonardo. My reasoning was to give him an opportunity to see and hear some of what I’d just shown him in our lesson, even though I would never pretend to be in the same league as an elder statesman like Tom Lonardo.
But Jake got the idea and was more than grateful we’d gone there. Not only was the band swingin’ its tail off, but Jake also knew Tom’s son, who lives in Nashville. Jake had been on a session where Tom’s son was the bassist and so they both had stories to tell one another. Small world. Anyhow, it was a great day but I was exhausted and needed to get home to my own Sunday chores and things, so I shook Jake’s hand and agreed to meet with him again very soon. “Before I go” he said, “I need to show you something”. We walk out to his station wagon in the parking lot, he opens the trunk and pulls out a bass drum case. When he opens it up, I cannot believe what is inside…a mid-60’s mint condition 20″ Rogers bass drum in the identical finish as my own, blue onyx. I am completely floored as he relates the story of how and why he ended up owning the same drum set as me…”I wanted to be just like you”, he says!
How sweet is that?
So, a few days go by and after much deliberation back and forth, Jake convinces me to trade him a series of drum lessons, offering the Rogers as payment. How could I say No? We made the deal and lessons began. I actually think I still owe him a couple, but more on that later. Here’s a photo of the set, taken by the dealer in Chicago who Jake got them from…
Jake had always said that there was a crazy story behind these drums and I wanted to know it but he seemed a little unclear as to all the details, so I just put it out of my mind for the time being and considered myself lucky to be the proud owner of not one, but TWO identical Rogers blue onyx drum sets. Here’s a pic of Jake and me, taken in Nashville not long after we made this deal…
Alright. Let’s fast-forward to last year and me landing this gig. When I got to California, I quickly realized that I needed to have another drum kit at my disposal because the one I was going to be touring with, my other Rogers set, was going to be locked up in a storage unit when we weren’t on the road. And since I left Jake’s Rogers back in my rehearsal space in Memphis (to use for my trips home), I had to get on the ball finding a practice set to keep at home in my apartment in LA. Scouring the internet, I quickly found a dealer in Chicago selling a gorgeous 4-piece Rogers “Mercury” kit in blue/grey duco…I’ve already talked about this kit, but here’s the photo of them just to remind you…
The set didn’t come with a floor tom because, at the time they were being marketed to children and beginners, so Rogers had to make them affordable to folks just starting out. Pretty cool idea. Of course, I needed my floor tom and through the brilliant detective work of my good buddy Bill Maley at classicvintagedrums.com, I got one and here they are altogether…
Lemme backup real quick. I mentioned they came from a dealer in Chicago. Well, Jake’s Rogers also came from a dealer in Chicago and it struck me one day that it was the same exact person, Brian Drugan of Drugan’s Drums in Niles, Illinois. I couldn’t believe that I owned two kits from the same person and it took me a while to figure it out. Anyhow, Brian and his brother Johnny have been buying, selling, repairing and collecting vintage drums for many years and are very soon opening up a large drum store near O’Hare, so anything you need, give them a shout. They are the best folks to deal with and extremely fair.
I started this week off in Chicago and immediately had the great fortune of hanging with and meeting the Drugan brothers for the first time in person. Love these cats…
Then I remembered there being a story about Jake’s Rogers and immediately asked Brian for the details of how he acquired that kit. Basically, he said that several years ago, he saw an ad in the Chicago newspaper…a lady selling a Rogers drum set, so he called her and made an appointment to go see it. When he got there, an older lady answered the door and took him into the room where the kit was sitting, all set up and with a blanket covering it. She took the blanket off and there was a gorgeous blue onyx kit that’s in the above photo but (she said) there was just one thing wrong with them. One of the drum sticks was broken and she seemed very sorry about it, apologizing to Brian. Wow. That was it. A broken drumstick, sitting on top of a mint condition set of drums. Of course, he told her that it was okay, not a big deal and didn’t hesitate buying them from her then bringing them with him to the Chicago Vintage Drum Show, where he set them up in his booth to be sold with the rest of his inventory.
That same afternoon, Brian and Johnny met Jake, who before he became my friend and student, had been living in Chicago and working at a music store that was going out of business. One day he found an old snare drum while cleaning up and asked his boss if he could have it. His boss asked for twenty dollars and Jake took the drum home. Later, he decided to bring it with him to the vintage drum show but when he walked in with the drum under his arm, he was immediately accosted by several dealers offering thousands of dollars for it. Sensing he might be in possession of a rare drum, he waited to sell, keeping the hounds at bay, while he perused the rest of the booths at the show. Then he met the Brothers Drugan. I love this story.
As luck would have it, the drum was a 60’s Cleveland-era Rogers 6.5″ x 14″, wood Dyna-sonic in silver sparkle. One of the rarest snares on the planet and worth a good bit more than the twenty dollars Jake had spent on it, as the company only made a few wood Dyna’s in 5″ x 14″ and even fewer in 6.5″. Also a fierce negotiator, Jake wasn’t going to let such a hot item go for cheap and knowing its value, the Drugan’s made him a generous offer of any kit that was in their booth as trade. Well, low and behold…Jake’s dream kit was staring him right in the face. Rogers blue onyx. The deal was made and that was that. Once he got them home and played a few gigs on them, he realized they had a sound he wasn’t quite used to and ended up going back to using his Slingerland and Gretsch drum sets. Lucky me!
While visiting the Drugans’ shop, I came across that same snare and took a photo of it…
Brian and Johnny came out to see our show at Lincoln Hall this past Thursday and afterward, Brian came up and offered me and amazing gift…the broken sticks that came with my kit. Funny thing is though, they’re not really broken!
I’ve just realized that I’m prattling on, so I’ll be quick about the rest of my week. In short, the great Bun E. Carlos came to see us in Madison, WI and he’s a super sweet cat. Showed me a photo of his immense collection that literally takes up an entire barn wall. I dug talking with him and he seemed to enjoy the band. On Tuesday, our second record came out, The Magic Door and so far the reviews have been more than favorable. That night, in addition to some very close Missouri family paying me a visit, one of my all-time drumming mentors and teachers also made it out to our show, Mike Cherry. The man who not only taught me how to play with brushes, but showed me how to play a proper double shuffle and is the reason I am able to do what I do today. He’s been drumming in a group from Columbia, MO called The Bel Airs for many years now and I could not have been more elated to see him again. We’d met in San Diego when we were both living out there in the early 90’s and I took to his style right away and he was always gracious with his time and knowledge, spending hours on end showing me how it’s done. Everything from shuffles, to swing, funk and jazz.
It’s really been one of the best weeks I’ve had in a long time.
This is a great, fresh new blog site and I was asked by my friend Rachel Hurley to write a story about my earliest memory of vinyl. Check it out here… and since we’re on the subject of vinyl, watch this cool video that we posted last year of Larry “The Master” Nix as he’s mastering The City Champs first recording on the original Neumann vinyl lathe that was used at Stax Records back in the 70’s.
And we knew that this was our cue, for what we had been instructed to do next when these words were shouted at my sisters Dawne and Audra and myself from the entry way at the front door, which is where they always came from. It’s where he was always standing when he said these words. After a long, hard day at the office, Merck, Sharp and Dhome, the big pharmaceutical company that Dad worked for, where he was credit manager for nearly thirty years, this is what he had to come home to. Mother screaming at him. It was a dead-end job with no real chance of upward movement, although he tried his best. His days were spent going over numbers and calling people that owed the firm money, which always made him feel bad, but he did it anyway. And he loved his boss and worked till he was blue in the face to please him, but nothing doing. Dad could never seem to catch a break. Hell, he’d already been passed up twice for promotion. Once even by his best friend, Bill Dickerson, who Dad had helped get the job in the first place. Was he bitter? Who knows. But we all felt his anger at the end of those long days, when he’d walk through that front door, on Scottsdale Street and Mom would stop him before he even got both feet inside our house.
“Do you have any idea what I’ve had to deal with, with these damn kids of yours today?”
Shouted our dear mother.
We were never “hers” on those days. The bad days.
“No” said Dad, wearily.
“Well, for starters…”
Then she would proceed to give him, in complete detail, the goings on of the day and “what” exactly, my sisters and I had done wrong. It was never good. We were all bad. That’s what she’d tell him. Something got broken, or spilled, shitty marks on a report card, or a little back-talk. Poor guy. She would blast him in the face and he’d get really hot, immediately. We never knew that he was polishing off a fifth of whiskey nearly every morning before heading into work for an 8-hour shift, so that by the time he would arrive home, he was hung-over, exhausted and hungry. But before he could rest, there were punishments to be administered and we’d hear those words come crashing down, like the volcanoes of Mt. Vesuvius.
“I mean it. I wanna see bare asses in the air. Bend over those beds, right now, goddammit! Butts up!”
Once in a while, he’d pull that belt off, fold it in half and SNAP! That sound was so loud and frightening. And one by one, like an assembly-line in a factory, he’d come down the hall, into our bedrooms and spank our tails red. We were so small that it usually only took two or three hits of his leather belt and we were finished. Little did we know that Dad was getting torn up inside every time he laid a hand on us. Once he even cried after spanking me and I was totally confused. I guess he felt like it was the right thing to do at the time, but it nearly killed him whenever he had to do it. Over the years, we have had many conversations regarding those days and he’s always quick with an apology for ever raising a hand in anger, but I just look at him, smile and tell him that I love him. I think he did the best job he could do and I don’t have any regrets. I don’t see parents spanking their kids as much today as ours did back then and maybe that’s a good thing, who’s to say. I don’t know, but whether we deserved it or not, we knew that we were loved and it was for our own good.
Just look at us now…those were good times and we turned out alright.
Once, when I was a kid, eighteen to be exact, I received a great gift, the chance to play drums behind one of the masters of the blues, BB King. I knew it was a rare event and one that I would most likely never get the chance to repeat, so when the opportunity presented itself, I jumped. Every year in Memphis they have the W.C. Handy Blues Awards Show, or the Handy’s, now referred to as the BMA’s (Blues Music Awards) which in the blues world is like the Grammy’s, and in 1986 BB King was the host and presenter. Held at the Cook Convention Center, it was a raging success, with hundreds in attendance that night to see and hear BB and enjoy the many performances from various blues artists from all over the world. That year Stevie Ray Vaughn was red hot and received numerous awards–Best Album, Best Song, Best Production–he got ‘em all and in Memphis, his music was all over the radio. Also receiving many that year were Memphis’ own Ruby Wilson and Don McMinn, who were two local heroes. Don, in fact, had taught me a great deal about the business and had somewhat taken me under his wing knocking the chip off my shoulder and setting me on a more humble path. He was an inspiration.
As a member of the Blues Foundation, I was starting to become a regular face at shows and events, but for some reason wasn’t able to attend the Handy’s that night. Maybe Dad wasn’t able to afford me a ticket, I can’t remember, but there was still a chance to catch the King of the Blues in action, if I hurried. It had become a tradition that after the awards show, a jam session would take place at the New Daisy Theater on Beale Street and every year, it would attract many famous faces, including the host of that years show. On that particular evening, a rumor started floating around that BB himself was going to participate in the jam session and everyone wanted to be there, especially me. I had only recently become aware of his music and was instantly a fan and having not been able to attend the awards, I quickly made my way down to the Daisy. The session started gearing up at about eight o’clock and many different folks took the stage, one right after the other. Don McMinn, The Fieldstones, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Danny Hawks and Ruby Wilson all performed great sets for the excited crowd, who sat patiently awaiting the arrival of Mr. King. I got there early and plotted myself right up to the side to get a good view and at precisely twelve-thirty, the crowd roared with applause, as BB stepped into the smoky room and took the stage. But something wasn’t right with his drummer and I could tell right away. He was nodding off behind the kit and as BB would try to sing and play, the beat would slow down and disappear. I stood nearby, watching in disbelief as BB would look over his shoulder at the man, drunk with whiskey, who would suddenly wake back up and start playing again.
It was hard to watch, but then I had an idea. As the music rolled on, I stepped up to the backside of the stage and got the attention of the monitor engineer, James, who happened to know me and asked him to go and tell the drummer that there was someone in the audience who was the house drummer for the Daisy and that I was pretty good. He didn’t want to do it, but I wouldn’t back down and so he went up there and did it. Getting his attention, he whispered into the drummer’s ear and looking over at me, he nodded his drunken head in agreement. I got very excited, but when BB counted off the next number, the drummer started playing and I thought that he wasn’t going to let me up, but then he looked over at me again and motioned for me to come up. Unbeknownst to BB, I jumped on stage and sneaked up behind the kit and the drummer, standing up, handed me the sticks and walked away. I sat down and immediately laid into the groove with the bassist and we were off and running. After several bars went by, BB turned around and looked with amazement at the skinny young White kid on the drums and a big smile came over his face. I nearly peed my pants. I played three songs with him that night and when we were finished, I went up to my new hero and thanked him for fulfilling a dream. To my great surprise,
“Young man” BB called to me?
“Yes, sir” I said?
“Listen, I’ve been having a lot of problems with my drummer lately and I’d like to get your phone number, just in case I ever need someone” he said.
“Wow, sure thing” I yelled!
Looking around, there was a brown paper bag sitting on the drum riser. I grabbed it and ripped a big piece off and asked my friend James for a pen, jotted down the information and handed it to BB.
“Thank you very much. You sound good and maybe one day I’ll call you” he added.
I went home elated.
Exactly one year later, while working as a clerk in the tape department at Poplar Tunes record shop, I received a phone call from a man named Reuben Fairfax, known to everyone as, Ruebaix, asking for me by name.
“This is a combination of my first and last names, R U E B A I X” he said, in a very astute tone. “It’s pronounced, Roo-Bay.”
“Cool” I said. “What can I do for you, sir?”
“Well, George. I am the bassist for Mr. Albert King. I’m sure you’re aware of him and that he lives here at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis?” asked Ruebaix.
“Sure, I guess so” I said.
“You and I played together several weeks back at one of the Blues Foundation events, with Mr. Danny Hawks. Do you remember that? He asked.
“Yeah, I think so” I said.
“Well, Albert is looking for a new drummer and thought that you would like to come down and audition for the band”
“Yes, absolutely. How does tomorrow afternoon look for you?”
“Well, fine, I guess. I need to talk with my boss, but I’m sure I can be there.”
“Great. The audition will take place at the Peabody Alley at approximately three in the afternoon. We will see you there and thank you.”
I got the gig.
“Sixteenth’s, mother fucker!”
This was the phrase he yelled at me, onstage, over the microphone, nearly every single night of the three and a half weeks that we shared the bandstand together, in front of countless patrons of the Peabody Alley. Dressed in tuxedos, fine suits and evening gowns, the audience in the nightclub adjacent to the “South’s grand hotel” would stare in amazement at the towering six-foot-four, two hundred seventy pound figure of Albert King, shouting out the blues in songs like, Born Under A Bad Sign and Cross-cut Saw, while tearing into the neck of his signature Gibson Flying “V” electric guitar. With beads of sweat on his brow, the charcoal skin on his face wrinkled and tense with the aggression and bitterness of someone who, in his mind, had been over-shadowed by younger, more flashy bluesmen like Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughn, the “Godfather of the Blues” would turn his head slightly in my direction, stomp his feet on the stage floor and scream at the top of his lungs.
“Goddamn, punk-rock ass, mother fucker. SIXTEENTH’S” he’d shout!
For those of you not familiar with what that means, please allow me…a sixteenth note, in musical notation, is a note having the time value of a sixteenth of a whole note. On a musical staff, it is usually written as four notes played closely together and oftentimes quite fast. In Albert’s music, many of the grooves written for his songs required sixteenth notes to be played on the hi-hat or ride cymbal, which takes a certain amount of dexterity and limberness to be able to pull off, but at nineteen years old, my lazy ass hadn’t quite practiced enough to play continuous sixteenth notes. Instead, as I began to tire from playing the sixteenths, I would sometimes resort to quarter notes or eighth notes, which gave the music a completely different feel altogether and this would send my boss into a shouting frenzy, at which point, all bets were off. He called me every name in the book, with his favorite one being, “mother fucker”.
“Boy, Albert was cursing you last night, man” said my new friend and band mate, Hubbie. “He really don’t like you! You better stay away from ‘im tonight.”
Archie Turner-Mitchell, aka Hubbie, was the keyboardist for Albert’s band then and one hell of a sweet person. He told me years later that the nickname Hubbie had been given to him by a woman who used to baby-sit him. Apparently, the woman’s husband, whom she referred to as Hubbie, was a playboy and used to run around on her, but when he left for good, she began calling little Archie by the same name and it stuck. Great musician, too and one of the only people in the band who actually spoke to me as if I were one of the boys. I was a little too dumb and naïve to know who he was at the time, but his step-father, the great Willie Mitchell, had taken Hubbie in as a child and raised him as one of his own. Hubbie took to the piano very fast and having Willie Mitchell as his teacher and mentor, he learned to play in that laid-back fashion that has become so familiar in music made in Memphis. When he got older, Willie began using him in his famous Royal recording studio, where Hubbie was to eventually become a member of the Hi rhythm section, a serious group of Black musicians who played on countless recordings produced by Mitchell. I was not only sharing the stage with a blues music legend and icon, but playing with a member of the Mitchell family as well.
“What did he say” I asked.
“Well, he called you a few bad names, then a few more and then started on how you don’t know shit” Hubbie said, laughing.
I held my head down, feeling terrible, but not knowing what to do.
“You better get your passport together cause we’re going to Europe in a few weeks” he said.
“What, really” I asked?
“Yeah, man. Gonna back up Ron Wood from the Rollin’ Stones!” Hubbie added. “He loves Albert, man and wants to bring the whole band over to Paris to play with him for two weeks. What a break, huh?”
“Yeah, that sounds great!” I said, excited. “I just got back from France last year. Went over there with the gospel choir from Overton, so I’ve already got a passport!”
“Good for you, George. I’m sure Albert will give us all of the details real soon”
The next week, we all flew up to Cincinnati in Albert’s personal leer jet and opened for BB King at the Taft Auditorium. After the show, as the entire band was packing up the trailer to head home, BB came out to say hello to Albert and as the two of them were talking, I was called over to meet Mr. King.
“BB, this is my new drummuh,” said Albert.
Smiling, I took his hand and BB looked at me and said, “I remember you. I’ve still got your phone number.”
Validation from King’s.
We then flew down to Ft. Myers, Florida to play a crawfish festival, where Carl Perkins and Waylon Jennings were the headliners and afterward in the van, Albert said the only two nice words he ever spoke to me.
“DRUMMUH” which was the name he called me.
“Yes sir, Mr. King” I aksed meekly?
“Good jawb, son.”
“Thank you, Mr. King.”
About a week later, back in Memphis, my mother called to say that she wanted to meet Albert and asked if it was alright that she bring her husband Andy and her two children, Richard and Amber, down to the Peabody for an introduction.
“Sure Mom, I’ll see what I can do” I told her on the phone.
“Thank you, baby. I just love his music and it would be so great to meet him in person. I’m so proud of you” said Mom.
That night, at around six o’clock, I called up to Albert’s room and gave him the message that my mother was coming over to the hotel and asked would he like to meet her in the lobby.
“Of course, I’d be happy to meet your mother” he said.
I was shocked and when she got there, family in-tow, Albert came right down to meet them.
“Mr. Albert King, please meet my mother, Rosa” I said.
Taking her hand, kissing it, he said, it is very nice to meet you. Then he met my step-father, my half-brother and half-sister and gave all of them a warm and very uncharacteristic smile. I was completely floored.
“Thank you baby, that was so nice, but we have to go” Mom said, tears flowing down her face.
“It’s okay Mom. Thanks for coming down.”
“Goodbye Mr. King” they all said.
“Bye-bye folks” Albert said, smiling. His normal scowl completely washed away.
Putting his arm around me, he then started walking me back to the club. We walked quietly for a minute, through the Peabody lobby, then…
“You know you’re not going to Europe with us, don’t you” he asked?
“No, sir. I didn’t know that”
“Well, you’re not. And as a matter of fact, this is your last night.”
An hour later, blazing through another intense set, my last one with him, I’m distracted by a White man with long black hair who’s been sitting at the side of the stage, staring at me all night with a strange look on his face. Smiling, Ruebaix looks over at me and asks,
“You know who that mother fucker is over there, don’t you?”
There are reasons why I don’t like cutting the grass, trimming the hedges, raking leaves or doing any kind of yard work for that matter, and they’ve got little to do with laziness. Although, I much prefer sitting on the couch next to a warm gal, watching reruns of La Femme Nikita, eating ramen noodles, with saltines and drinking iced tea to just about any other activity. No, the truth is, cutting the grass gives me nightmares and takes my mind back to a time when completing that one chore meant I would be allowed to eat dinner, or go hang out with my buddies, or come inside the house and relax with the rest of the family, maybe sit in front of the tube and watch a great old movie. Not finishing, meant something entirely different and boy, did she love to yell at me. Jane would tear into me if that yard wasn’t just the way she wanted it. She was something else, Jane. My step mom. Dad loved her though and her word was bond. Do what she says or else.
It all started back in the spring of 1981, when we (me, Dad, Jane, my three sisters Laura, Dawne and Audra, our three cats and three dogs) moved from the tiny little house on Southlawn street, which we had completely outgrown, to our new address on Cottonwood Cove, in what was then known as Parkway Village. Dad, ever the true scavenger, found a repo in the paper for about thirty-five grand, which in those days was a helluva bargain, and he paid cash for it with no questions asked. A canary yellow, four bedroom, California-style home, with a huge backyard, which included eighteen full-grown Pine trees that I would soon become extremely familiar with and that would bring my thirteen year old body, no end of heartache, frustration and anguish. It’s a miracle that I am living to tell this story today, as there was a time when I literally thought that I was going to die in that yard, right alongside those nasty, needle-shedding, good-for-nothing, sap-filled Pines, either by my own hand or more likely, Jane’s. I remember the day we arrived to our new home and Dad took me into the backyard to show me how beautiful it was. It sure was the biggest yard I’d ever seen, nearly half an acre all fenced-in and them trees lining the entire thing.
“Son…” Dad said.
“This is your domain.”
“Yes, sir” I replied.
“Have a good look around. There are Pine needles everywhere, the whole yard is thick with ’em. If you come over here, you’ll notice that in this corner of the fence, there’s quite a large pile of these needles that will need to picked up and put into garbage bags and put out on the curb at the front of the house. You understand?”
“Yes, sir” I replied.
“Now, seeing as how no ones been back here for quite some time to clean up this mess, these things have accumulated and it’s probably gonna take you a while to get to the bottom of this pile, so take your time. But just get it done cause Jane wants it looking good back here, as soon as possible or you and me are never gonna hear the end of it. You understand?”
“Good man. Now, let’s go look at the rest of the house.”
And that was it.
He never offered to help. It was my job and I knew it had to be done. But what I didn’t know was that he wasn’t going to be the one to put the screws to me if the job wasn’t finished in a timely fashion. No. He left the entire thing up to his lovely second wife, my nemesis and personal tormentor, Jane, or as I was so fond of calling her, Jane the Pain. I even wrote a tune about her with the same name, which became the source of a pretty heated discussion and much laughter but that’s another story. Just as soon as one of those damned old trees decided to drop a few thousand needles, Jane would yell my name, “Geeeeeeooooorrrrrrgiiiieee!” And as quick as I could move, my sorry ass was out the door with a rake and a bag, picking them up before they could stick to the ground. If I wanted to eat supper, it had to get done, no matter what. I remember she kept me out there one time, long after the Sun went down and I couldn’t see a damn thing. I’d already mowed the lawn real low and had been raking up needles all day long, but more were falling faster than I could work and she was fired up cause now you could clearly see them on the ground.
“You’re gonna be out here all night if that’s what it takes!” she said.
But I’d had enough and decided I wasn’t gonna be bullied by an insane person any longer and put my rake down and climbed up into the closest Pine and just sat there, out of reach. She was fuming mad, but Dad and my sisters, sitting by the window inside were laughing their butts off at the scene that had suddenly unfolded. Jane was a little woman, maybe 4′ 10″, give or take and I was at least a foot taller and climbed way up in that tree, so that she couldn’t get to me at all. I didn’t move and she stood out there for a little while yelling at me to come down. All this went on for maybe an hour or so, till she got so frustrated that she completely wore herself out and had to retreat into the house, locking herself in her bedroom. I felt victorious, like Muhammad Ali using the rope-a-dope technique on Joe Frazier. I came down soon after, Dad let me in and I was allowed to eat my supper. I still had to get back out there the following day, but she never chased me around again. Although he and Jane stayed married for only a couple more years after that, as a family we spent close to nine years in that house and I don’t ever remember a time when there weren’t any needles on the ground. I was forever raking those things up. Jesus, I fucking hate Pine trees.