Power Pickers
of the '60's

Musicians of the Flower Generation


Archive for December, 2008

Jose Feliciano Challenged Me to a Guitar Duel!

My first exchange with José Feliciano-I guess technically it was with his manager-went something like this:

Me [from the stage of a folk music club]: “Requests?”
José’s Manager: “Yes. Play the fastes’ thin’ you know.”

I played and sang a famous railroad song at, for me, too fast a clip. There were clams aplenty, but I don’t think many people cared, because I got a good hand from everybody in the audience except the manager. She just looked daggers at me and then held her nose.  And that was my welcome to José Feliciano’s world.

It was 1965, the club was the Ash Grove, LA’s number one roots-music venue, and I was accompanying an ancient, alcoholic Uilleann piper named Seamus Ennis. The headliner on the bill was José. It was three years before his giant hit covering the Doors’ “Light My Fire,” and, outside of Latin America, he was almost unknown except to pop-folk fans and other guitarists.

Among the latter he was getting a reputation for having a deadly accurate ear and a pair of the fastest hands around, at least in “our” circles. Understand that our circles didn’t include nylon-string guitar players because of differences between their instruments and ours too vast to go into now. Suffice it to say they just didn’t play the same music we did.

But Jose sometimes seemed to transcend the difference. It’s not that he ever sounded like a Bluegrass flat-picker trying to muscle a big, steel-strung, high-action Martin Dreadnought around. But what he played didn’t sound half bad. And he was fast. Very fast. And in our circles speed was the holy grail of guitar picking.

I was opening the show’s run as well as the night, and I was warming up for my set with Seamus in a small alcove off the club’s kitchen, because José had been given the club’s one dressing room (Yeah, right. Anyone who tried dressing in that dark broom-closet would have come out with their clothes on backward, blind or not).

Ed Pearl, the Ash Grove’s owner, knew much of American genre music came directly out of Scots-Irish instrumental tradition. He thought having a local Bluegrass player pick some tunes on the guitar would be a good change of pace from the dark sonorities of Seamus’ Uilleann bagpipes.

So I’m sitting in this corner within earshot of everyone in the club, because there was no sound insulation in the building, trying to grab a bunch of guitar notes that were just a bit beyond me when Ed Pearl tells Seamus and me it’s time to go on. It’s a middle-sized audience, but growing larger as the time for José’s draws nigh.

We’re about ten minutes into the set when I hear this heavily-accented Latina voice from a row near the stage-I can’t tell exactly where because of the footlights-goes, “Let the guitar player play!”

Seamus either doesn’t hear or pretends not to. We play the next song, him piping and moaning some lament, me strumming along, the audience applauding politely, and we hear the female Hispanic voice call out again, “Listen, man, let the guitaris’ play, okay? We wanna hear the guitar player, you know?”

Now Seamus says, “I hear you madam. Just as soon as I’ve finished celebrating Cuchulainn’s defeat at the blah blah blah, etc., etc..”

We finish the next song, a real dirge, and she’s at it before Seamus can set his pipes on the floor. “You promise’, mister ‘ccordion man.”

“Yes, madam, so I did and so I will,” says Seamus to the voice. Then, projecting to the audience, “I think nowwould be a propitious time to call on my old friend, Country Al, to play-”

“You promise’, man!”

“And take it, Country Al. Please.”

By this time I’m used to the footlights, and I can’t help noticing the guy sitting next to the Latina, coiffed ala the Beatles and wearing shades in a room as dark as a movie house.

I pull the mike closer, murmur something about guitarists Doc Watson’s and Clarence White’s effect on the folk music environment, blah, blah, blah. “So,” I say, “if anyone has a favorite tune-”

“Play the fastes’ thin’ you know,” says the voice.

I really cannot believe she says that. “What?!” I say, looking straight at her. She was attractive in a hard-edged way, a talent-peddling mujer who probably came up the hard way, with a ravaged complexion, possibly a memento of some Third World plague. Some schmuck at the club described her as looking “like someone put out a fire on her face with a hammer.”

“I’ve never heard a request like that,” I say.

“So now you ha’. What are you gonna play? Everyone wanna know.”
I look at her for a long moment, for audience effect-they’d become completely still by this time-before saying, “Okay, ma’am,” [long pause] “here’s something I learned from Doc Watson just a couple weeks ago.” I take one more dramatic beat, then tear recklessly into “Wabash Cannonball,” faster than I can comfortably handle it.

“Cannonball” is a song that has lots of resonance with almost any audience you play it for, country or otherwise, don’t ask me why, it just does. And if my frantic, if flawed, rendition of it didn’t bring down the house, the applause was at least extended. I know I heard one whistle, maybe two.

“Thank you very much,” I say, looking sideways at Seamus, who was either playing possum or actually asleep. He was capable of doing that on stage. “Seamus,” I said, pulling on his jacket sleeve as we’d rehearsed, “Seamus, it’s ti-”

“Tha’s not your fastes’ thin’, mister guitar man,” comes the voice now nasally because la mujer is holding her nose. “I heard you play faster before, when you were practicin’. You afrai’ to play your fastes’ song for us?”

I just look at her. And by the way, all this time, Shades is chuckling away and not trying very hard to hide it. He certainly wasn’t stopping her. I looked at the audience. I should not have done that. They saw the brewing showdown as a referendum on their own feelings.

“Go ahead, Country Al, blow ‘er away,” someone shouted. “Yeah,” another voice yelled, “don’t let her get away with that bullshit!” People love a street fight, even in your Kumbayah folk music clubs.

“You heard ‘im, Cawntry Al,” rasps the voice, “don’ let me get away wi’ tha’ bullshit.” Now, Shades is laughing openly, so I’m sure to see it.

I look at Seamus once more. He rolls his eyes in tedium, and I am sure he is going to come to my aid with some tart riposte or dismissive wave of the hand. But instead he turns his palms up and shrugs. So much for “Get us a half-pint of Sandy Mac, old son, and I’ll have ‘em call a street in Dublin after ye.”

Fiddle tunes adapted to the guitar range from very easy to really hard to play. The trick in going for pyrotechnics is to split the difference between the two. For you guitarists it’s all about finding a piece that sounds like you’re all over the fingerboard but still takes advantage of open strings. Black Mountain Rag is such a tune.

I am now resigned to my fate, whatever it may be. “Okay,” I say, “here’s a little tune my Lithuanian great-grandmother often heard on her way from the shtetl to the potato fields,” I say. “The local townspeople would dance to it every time a Jew was drafted into the Tzar’s army. I hope you like it.”

Black Mtn. Rag has four parts that gradually build to a dramatic closing run that starts on the guitar’s low E string, works its way up the scale and ends with a fancy fiddle flourish. I play the song three times, faster each time, with a mistake-tolerance ratio of about 1/25, low enough for the piece to sound like recognizable music to most.

The audience seemed appreciative, if hoots, hollers and guffaws counted for anything. It took awhile for Seamus to get them back into his embrace of pain and depression. And two seats in the second row had become conspicuous by their emptiness.

* * *

I never gloat over these things when they occasionally go my way because they often don’t, as every musician knows. José certainly did, and nodded, smiling, when he and his manager, Maria (not her real name), were introduced to me after his set. She was stone silent and looked the other way whenever I tried to talk to her. José was cordial. We exchanged a little guitar talk-“Have you played the Martin D-35?”-and then went our separate ways, me to my off-kitchen nook and him and her back to their dressing room.

The last set went smoothly enough for both our acts. José had a loving and noisy crowd, and he knew just how to play to them. He was, and still is, a superlative performer, sometimes mesmerizing.

But as I walked by the thin-walled dressing room on my way out at the end of the night I could hear a long, familiar guitar run with a fiddle arabesque at the end being practiced. It was well executed but didn’t sound quite right on nylon strings.

One-liner Notes:

Barney Kessel, heavyweight LA ’60’s session -and- jazz guitarist, on being told about a scary new player on the block,  young George Benson : “Thank God I’ve got Blue Cross.”

”When the Bus Broke Down:” PLAYING WITH BILL MONROE

Most professional musicians from a certain era (mine) have all kinds of stories about what happened “when the bus broke down,” i.e., when some of the band didn’t show up for the gig. Playing a set with Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, is one of mine.

May 17, 1963 (I Googled it): the weeklong booking of Bill Monroe and Doc Watson as ostensibly different acts at the Ash Grove, LA’s legendary folk and roots music venue, started off with a whimper. Bill Monroe had arrived for his first night’s performance, but he’d come a different way from the rest of the band, probably by air. As always, the Bluegrass Boys traveled by bus.

But the bus broke down somewhere nearer California than Tennessee, though still too far away to get the band to the club in time for their opening night’s first set. Ed Pearl, the Ash Grove’s owner, figured Doc could certainly play with Bill Monroe until the rest of the Bluegrass Boys arrived, even if that wasn’t until the next night. Which, in fact, it turned out to be, serendipitously triggering a week of Bill Monroe-Doc Watson performances that became legends in the world of what I call American Roots Music. I don’t know if it was Ed’s secret intention to-uh oh, hold on, there, Sparky, I’m getting ahead of myself.

It was a perfect solution, Doc filling in for the rest of Bill’s band, except for one thing: Doc hadn’t gotten to the club yet, and Bill was scheduled to go on in half an hour. Remember, we’re talking about the days before cell phones,  we had no way to get in touch with Doc to see where he was and when he might get there.

This drama was playing out in the club’s dressing room, a shabby little slot in a wall off the lobby where everybody but the audience hung out in-between sets or whenever. I was a whenever that night, and as the minutes ticked by and still no Doc Watson, the possibility that I might be Bill Monroe’s guitarist for a minute was writing its siren song in my head and heart. This is something every folk-revival Bluegrass wannabe wanted to be. I began thinking terrible things about what could have happened to Doc on the way to the club. Thinking, but not wishing. Karma’s way too big in music to risk fucking with it.

But then, in a rare moment of humanity, Ed Pearl told me to suit up, formally introduced me to Bill (“Bill, this is Country Al, which is a joke, because he’s Jewish and he comes from this neighborhood and I doubt if he’s ever been to the country in his life. But he probably knows your repertoire.”)

Ed was right, of course; all us acolytes were totally on top of the Bluegrass canon, especially the songs and instrumentals Bill Monroe did. If you weren’t, it would be like saying you went to a Kingston Trio concert. “Pleased to meet you, Alford,” Bill said. “Son, do you know Footprints in the Snow?”

“God, Bill, why don’t you ask me if I know the Star Spangled banner?” I thought as I scrambled to get my guitar tuned up to his mandolin. But “Key of E?” is what I actually said.

“Some folks like the summertime, when they can walk about,” the first line of the song, was the next thing to come out of his mouth, and well before I could even get a capo on. (Of course you know I haven’t used one of those in decades, it’s matter of pride; but hardly anybody ever tried to play Bluegrass guitar in anything but “white folks’ keys,” i.e., G, C and D). (BTW, “Alford” was what he called me the rest of the night, starting with my introduction a few minutes later to the audience and ending with his signature on a photograph of himself, which was also how he paid me. Was “To Alford, Bill Monroe” worth more than the $15 or $20 he probably paid the real Bluegrass Boys? You think? Of course I framed the photo, and even tho’ I thought of trying to change A-l-f-o-r-d to A-l-l-a-n, it still says “Alford.”)

We made up a set list of things we could do without the rest of the band, notably the banjo player. He’d ask me if I knew such and such a song or instrumental, and I’d go the right key and play or hum a few bars until he decided I knew the piece, and we’d move on to the next candidate. We ended up with about ten or twelve songs and I asked him if he wanted to have an encore song.

“Well, you know how that works, Alford,” he said, “we just play the last tune again, but twice as fast.” How could I have forgotten?

I’d like to tell you I kept the set list all these years, but I didn’t. And other than starting with, I’m pretty sure, Rocky Road Blues and ending with-I know for sure because my left hand went into spasm on the encore-a blindingly fast Rawhide, the set itself was a blur. And, oh, yes, Footprints in the Snow. I absolutely remember we did that, because when we got to the chorus, “I traced her little footprints in the snow…”, Bill caught my eye and motioned me up to the mike with his head. So, yes, I sang with Bill Monroe.

If you want to know what it was like to be on stage with Mr. Bluegrass, it gave “wind beneath my wings” new meaning, at least for me. The way he dug licks and back-beats out of a pretty small instrument, standing there brace-legged at the mike, punching tight, bluesy vocals like he invented the style, which he did, you knew you couldn’t screw up unless you tried really hard. That’s not a whole band under me, I thought, it’s just one man. But during that half-hour-plus, I knew who owned the idiom someone once called “folk music in overdrive”, in the same way you sometimes knew Michael Jordan owned basketball, knowhuttamean?

Two more things do I remember about that night:

Doc had, in fact, made it to the club in time to back up Bill, which he did for the rest of the night after my set o’ glory. But to my everlasting gratitude he must have sensed what it meant to me to play that set because he found some way to bow out gracefully, if temporarily, something about changing a string or something, I don’t remember. Soon after that I became his West Coast lead boy, and he became a close friend I still talk to today.

The second thing is that when we got back into the dressing room after the set, Bill asked me how I’d feel about playing with him some more, like, on the road and everything. Fortunately, in a weird way because I was just about to plats (Yid.: Burst!), Ed Pearl came into the crowded little room and ordered me to help the kitchen guy, Roger, serve some iced frappés or something to complaining customers before he pulled a knife on them, something he did more often than he should have.

Without a doubt, Ed did me a favor, because I was going to school then and had to stay in to keep my IIs Student Deferment and not go to Nam. Also, who knows what might have happened if I’d had a chance to say yes, and Bill’d made good on his offer, and I’d gone on the road with him and gotten stuck in some awful hellhole of a trailer town “when the bus broke down” and he’d gone on ahead to some other Ash Grove in some other huge, metropolitan center, with…well, you know the drill. So, I guess I’m glad I didn’t.

But you’d think they’d make those busses a little more reliable, wouldn’t you?

One-liner Notes:

“I’d really like to bonk that Drummer; how often do you hear a Rock ‘n Roll bass player say that?”  …Skip Battin, the first time he saw the Carpenters.