A loose-limbed, late blooming hippy I met the other nite between sets my band was playing at a diabetes benefit asked me what my sign was. I told her, but I didn’t tell her my famous astrology story. You are not so lucky.
Late one nite, in the summer of 1969, when I was trying to build a reputation for myself as a studio guitarist, I got a call from someone whose voice I did not recognize. This was a little unusual because of what time it was and that it wasn’t a friend. This was in the days before telemarketing and robocalls.
The voice on the other end of the line was Negro, or colored-take your pick: white people didn’t say “Black” in those days and “African-American” was still years away. But the guy’s first few words, and their inflection, “Hey, you Country Al?” said it, for me at least. Plus, as I said, it was very late. Most folks would have been in bed long before that. Sorry if that’s politically incorrect, but this was in the days before that, too, was an issue.
“Right on, man” I said. I wasn’t going to be caught sleeping at the ethnicity switch.
“Hey, how you doin’, brother?” went the other voice.
“Groovy, man,” I said. “What’s goin’ on witchoo?” I wasn’t expected to say a name yet, but I knew I couldn’t let on that I didn’t know who I was talking to. That was part of the code.
“Who you been pickin’ with lately?” said the voice. “Isn’t that what you hillbillies say? Pickin’?”
“Um, different folks,” I said. “No finals or anything. I sweetened some tracks for a psychedelic band that doesn’t have a name. And I did a session for [producer] Dallas Smith; a couple demos for Sam Weatherly…”
“We know Sam, don’t we, Irv?”
“Right on,” said a voice over a speaker-phone.. Now I had a name: Irv. Back to voice one. “He demoed our hit, ‘Think of your fellow man, lend him a helping hand…,’” he sang, the lead line of a Jackie DeShannon single, “Put a Little Love Your Heart.”
“Hey, I played on those tracks!” I said stupidly.
“Yeah, we can dig it, man,” he said. “They sho-nuff buried you in the mix, though. We tried to get you punched up in the final, but there just wasn’t much room for you and Bobby [Womack, the other, and better, guitarist on the date]. Country Al, who you think wrote that song?”
“Um, you guys? “
“Right on: Sam Russell and Irv Hunt,” said Sam. Now I had another name, the person I was talking to, a second Sam. “Anyway, who calls you ‘Country Al,’ Country Al?” he said.
“Well, I guess it depends on what kind of country you’re talking about,” I said. “The day we cut that song I musta been having some sort of white-Soul day.”
“Okay, that’s hip. So, what’s your sign, Country Al?” And even though I knew by this time it was a serious conversation, maybe even with some skin in the game for me, it still caught me off guard. “See, Irv and I are both Geminis,” he went on, “and there are some signs we just can’t have on sessions, right Irv?” “Right on,” from off-phone. “So, what’s your sign?” he said again
I wished I had known what signs were the ones that couldn’t be on their sessions, because I would have had no trouble lying. It was pre-Google days, and I probably could have gotten away with it. But I didn’t have any choice and knew my real sign was going to be as good as any other I could have made up.
I sucked air. “Virgo,” I finally said, and then for no reason I could think of, and regretted immediately, added, “with your anus rising in my third house.” This is the self-destruct mechanism I have mentioned in other posts, wherein I try to discover why I’m such a lousy self-promoter.
There was the briefest of silences, but a silence nonetheless. Then, from Irv, “Hey, Sam, check it out. My man’s a comedian.”.
Another short silence. “Long as he’s not a Scorpio or a Cancer,” said Sam. “We don’t want any Water signs on these tracks, do we, Irv?”
“Right,”said Irv “So, Country Al, we doin’ some demos for Little Richard, you know, songwriter tracks, like that. We got Bobby to play lead, maybe you for rhythm. We got Leslie [Milton, drummer] and Steve LeFever [bass]. Sam and I will do keyboards. You good for this Saturday? It’ll be all day, brother.”
I let out a relieved laugh. “Wait’ll I check my daybook.” Then, immediately (no sense playing games), “OK, yep, I’m OK for Saturday. Do you want me to play acoustic or Telecaster?”
“Bring ‘em both, brother.”
I could hardly hold the pencil steady as Sam gave me the time-“twelve or one o’clock, we’ll let you know.”
They never did, so I showed up at noon; the session started around three- at an address in Watts, now known as South Central. No matter, I thought. This could be a game changer, another phrase we didn’t yet have.
The place was vintage Soul/R&B demo studio, an old, run-down stucco single family dwelling with weeds instead of lawn and one window pretty much boarded up, the other with ratty drapes pulled over it. Nonetheless, it seemed about right. A big studio on Sunset Boulevard would not have been.
I’d love to say the session was magical-it seemed with all the substances put there to abuse it should have been-but it was a pretty much workaday session, laying down guitars, bass and drums, layering on Fender Rhodes and piano, sweetening with percussion, recording the back-up vocals, then the lead vocal-not Li’l Richard; these were demos, remember-, but Sam Russell and Irv Hunt were all business, and knew how to produce successful tracks. We did three that day, par for a single recording session. As I remember, I, personally, thought they were good enough to use for final recordings. But that’s not the way it worked in the record business in the days before synthesizers and basement studios for recording and the streaming for distribution. There were a lot more mouths to feed and jobs to make appear important before any product reached the shelves.
But I did get to see Li’l Richard as he cape-swooped into the control booth, entourage in tow, engaged in some hand-slapping and other (to me) incomprehensible body pressing and rubbing with Sam and Irv, then swanned out again and into a huge, black car I could see when someone in the retinue opened the door. I was in the control booth at the time, listening to a playback of one of the tracks, and I thought about saying, “Good Golly, Miss Richard,” but this time self-preservation won the day and I didn’t. Anyway, this life-long hero of mine was gone before I could have gotten the four words out of my mouth.
But is didn’t matter. For me, for a day, I could be my own hero. I’d played, as far as I was concerned, on a Li’l Richard thing. So what if it was only a demo. It was a Li’l Richard demo, and that was what counted. Something to write about some day.
I was still pretty sure I was not going to end up playing music for a living.