Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Excerpt from "The Last Balladeer: The Johnny Hartman Story"

Several years ago I was riding in a car to a jazz gig with a few cohorts when “Lush Life” from the iconic John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman album began playing on the stereo.
  

“I heard everything on the album was recorded in one take,” said my friend in the driver’s seat.

“You know, Johnny Hartman was only 17 when he joined up with Earl Hines,” said another.

Still one more passenger chimed in, “Hartman never got more famous because he spent too much time overseas.”

The conversation then waned into silence before shifting into a 30-minute discourse on the merits of Coltrane’s use of the Phrygian mode. That summed up nicely the situation for Hartman. There he was, the beloved vocalist on one of the most important vocal jazz records ever made and all he elicited among our small group of ardent jazz fans were three brief comments—and all incorrect comments at that.

Hartman had somehow escaped the glare of jazz journalism since his death from lung cancer in 1983. In 1995, his career enjoyed a posthumous spike in popularity following the use of his recordings in Clint Eastwood’s The Bridges of Madison County but at the time, the press reported on him in near mythical terms using only one or two error-ridden articles as sources. Hartman was described in ghostly, beyond-human terms which excluded reliance on the earthly reality that he might have merely been a man who worked hard, walked his daughters to school, still passed out business cards with his home number, and had a wife with a day job.

Hartman had become more legend than man, and legends don’t need to have their stories straight. Within the liner notes for each new CD reissue, his story got increasingly vague. The same few quotes were regurgitated, and sometimes even mutated, making their next appearance still further removed from the original intent. Suppositions reported as fact became fodder for the next writer unwilling to check the source material. Legends don’t need inconvenient details to get in the way.

And now, after several decades of mostly inadvertent mythologizing, even Hartman fans with the best of intentions don’t really know anything about the man they so adore when hearing his “My One and Only Love,” “I’ll Remember April,” or “I See Your Face Before Me.”


I decided in early 2010 to clarify Hartman’s legacy by documenting his life's story while I could still track down enough of his family, friends, and peers. The resultant book, The Last Balladeer: The Johnny Hartman Story (Scarecrow Press “Studies in Jazz” series, 2012) is the result of two years' work, and worth every minute to me. I won’t say I uncovered every fact and figure on the man, but I damn well gave it a shot. If nothing else, I found Hartman's prized recipe for gumbo in an obscure magazine now long out of print so I’ll at least get a good meal out of the effort.
  
To me, Hartman has grown to represent the very voice of romance in our times. The unadorned, molasses-sweet, sanguine tone of his baritone voice transcends the years to share stories of love and hope in a century he never saw and yet perfectly understood. He knew love would still fill our dreams, and hope would still keep us searching for that very love we crave. Hartman died all too young at the age of sixty, but the secrets to life were already his, and we can hear about it anytime one of his ballad recordings is nearby. And now you can read about it too.

Below is an excerpt from The Last Balladeer: The Johnny Hartman Story in which Harman gets his first booking at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1975. Please visit www.johnnyhartmanbook.com to order a complete copy of the chapter (and the book it comes wrapped in).

Chapter 12 (excerpt)
Looking Bright: 1975–1977

In the summer of 1975, New York City smelled bad. The wildcat strikes of the sanitation workers caused the trash to pile up on the sidewalks and the resultant odor became front-page news. In the midst of this predicament, Hartman made his first appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival, a major opportunity for him to re-connect with jazz fans and parlay a solid performance into years of gigs. But if the printed reviews are to be believed, he did little to sweeten the city air. He took the stage during the evening of July 1, as part of the “Schlitz Salute to Jazz and the American Song” at Avery Fisher Hall. Each of the various acts was expected to interpret the music of a well-known composer of popular song, and for Hartman that meant his idol, Duke Ellington.

Other artists on the bill included Zoot Sims with Jim Hall, Cy Coleman, Helen Humes, Margaret Whiting, and Chet Baker. With such a stacked billing, the evening received copious press coverage and was well attended. Considering the importance of the concert for Hartman, it’s inexplicable that he chose to stray from the assigned Ellington material and thus raise the ire of several men with mighty pens. New York Times critic John S. Wilson was in attendance and, although he often made vociferous efforts to praise Hartman, of this night he wrote, “Johnny Hartman, an effective singer who was scheduled to do Duke Ellington’s music, fluffed off the Duke with only two songs and filled out his segment with such things as “On a Clear Day.”(1) Respected jazz writer Whitney Balliett dryly recalled several reasons the evening was a let down, among them Hartman, who, “struggling with his intonation, celebrated Duke Ellington by singing two Ellingtons, one Billy Strayhorn, one Kurt Weill, a blues, and “On a Clear Day.”(2) Photographer/graphic designer Burt Goldblatt, who had a soft spot for Hartman since their days with Bethlehem Records, couldn’t bring himself to specifically criticize the singer and instead simply lamented, “It was not one of jazz’s finest hours.”(3)

In Hartman’s defense, these gentlemen missed the mark on several points. Of the six songs performed by Hartman, two were by Ellington and an argument could be made that Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” counted as a third. Second, Hartman justified his inclusion ofWeill’s “September Song” by sharing how Duke had specifically requested that he sing it at a previous gig. Third, Hartman’s intonation was excellent throughout the concert (better than many instances heard on I’ve Been There anyway) and what may have sounded to the audience like pitch problems was more likely the result of technical troubles mixing the voice in the sound system. Another irritation to the crowd might have been the awful jokes and abrasive voice of the emcee, Phyllis Diller. One journalist wrote, “She was vulgar, tasteless, [and] foolish. A complete waste of time on everyone’s part.”(4)

Before introducing Hartman, Diller attempted to ingratiate herself to the audience with some of her nightclub punch lines but the crowd’s response was tepid at best. Faced with the difficult task of following Diller’s stale humor, Hartman led off with a rare (for him) reading of Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.” Opening with a ballad is always a challenge but, making matters worse, several phrases went by before Hartman’s microphone level was adjusted loud enough to be clearly heard over the piano of Ellis Larkins. The audio mix was corrected by the song’s bridge section but Hartman elected to only present one full chorus so by the time bassist Milt Hinton and drummer Walter Bolden joined in, it was nearly time to finish. Hartman’s last note could be interpreted as off-pitch but the problem is more accurately placed in Larkin’s choice of improvised chords that didn’t support the sustained vocal note. This kind of spontaneous imperfection is an undesired but typical aspect of live jazz performances where rehearsal might consist of nothing more that a “talk through” moments before taking the stage. Perhaps Larkins played a chord sequence that was perfect for a typical last note from Ella Fitzgerald (for whom he often played) on the same song but not the one Hartman chose.

Hartman’s second selection for the evening was puzzling. With well-known Ellington rhythm tunes available like “Satin Doll” or “You Better Know It,” (both of which Hartman would record for a radio broadcast the following year) it made no sense that he so quickly abandoned Duke for a rendition of “Sometimes I’m Happy.” The opening sixteen bars featured only vocals and walking bass and if anyone was having intonation problems at that point, it was the normally impeccable Milt Hinton. The veteran pro played as if he couldn’t properly hear Hartman’s voice, or his bass had simply gone out of tune in a hall packed with heat-emanating bodies. He fared better on “Don’t You Know I Care,” just as he had on 1963’s I Just Dropped By to Say Hello. Hartman’s confident and rich delivery of the clever lyric only raises the question, “Why isn’t this song performed more often?” His ruminative take on the melody was probably all it took for Balliett to confuse it for a slow blues.

Once more dismissing Ellington, the group next played a swinging version of “On a Clear Day,” a song consistently included in Hartman setlists throughout the 1970s. Larkins laid down a fiery piano solo that earned a burst of applause but, once again, the ending was hindered by lack of rehearsal. Next, Hartman offered an abbreviated version of his typical spoken introduction to “Lush Life” before delivering a stunning rendition. Although Hartman didn’t feel it necessary to regularly perform all six songs from his Coltrane collaboration, Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” became a fixture of nearly all his appearances and his masterful experience with the song showed. Hartman described how he kept his approach fresh for a song he sang so often: “I think I’ve changed the way I sing it over the years…the more you sing a song, you are apt to change it. It reflects the moods that you’re in.”(5)

After five selections, Hartman had warmed up to the audience and shared a brief story about Ellington once requesting that Hartman sing “September Song” as long as he could include the introductory verse. He gladly complied. Compared to his 1955 version on Songs from the Heart, Hartman now presented “September” with a seasoned maturity that caressed every nuance in the lyric. When Hartman sang about precious and vintage years, he now possessed a hard-earned credibility that was unavoidably absent in the earlier draft. After decades of singing to people all over the world, Hartman had become a master story teller and the reverence awarded him by the subdued Newport Jazz Festival audience was palpable. A rancor may have hung over the city that night, but during Hartman’s four Ellington-related performances, the air above Avery Fisher Hall was pure delight.

Notes:
1.  John S. Wilson, “Song Salute Swings, Then Melts,” New York Times, 3 July 1975, 22.
2.  Whitney Balliett, Collected Works: A Journal of Jazz, 1954–2000. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000, 448.
3.  Burt Goldblatt, Newport Jazz Festival–The Illustrated History, New York: Dial, 1977, 238.
4.  Patricia O’Hare cited in Goldblatt, Newport Jazz Festival–The Illustrated History, 234.
5.  John S. Wilson, "Hartman Singing in 'Voices Of Jazz,'" New York Times, 21 May 1982, 21.




Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Young Jazz Lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina

April 13, 2012 has been designated by the U.S. Council of Mayors "Jazz Day" and the Jazz Journalists Association is celebrating that fact by sponsoring the First JJA Jazz Blogathon. Anyone who writes, blogs, or tweets about jazz has been asked to contribute an article related to jazz in their local community. This ties in perfectly with the fact that I just got to witness a beautiful example of how jazz is moving the lives of so many young musicians in Spartanburg, SC.

Last Thursday, April 5, three student-based small combos from the University of South Carolina Upstate took over the local jazz club called Blues Boulevard and played excellent sets of material for the packed room. This kind of "real" gigging experience is a direct outcome of the emphasis on commercial music skills found at USC Upstate. Their music majors are not only trained to perform, but given guidance on how to manage a career and what to expect from performance venues typically found in jazz.

Blues Blvd. played the perfect host by allowing the local university groups a place to stretch their wings. The club surely enjoyed seeing so many bodies in the room and we all hope to see the collaboration repeated in the future.

USC Upstate Vocal Jazz Group directed by Dr. Tish Oney
The first ensemble of the evening was a recent addition to the program: a vocal jazz group under the direction of Dr. Tish Oney. The performance was their maiden voyage and offered a swinging set of cozy jazz-vocal harmonies and solid solo features. They started off with a smooth blues tune and backed it up with standards like "Cry Me A River," "Autumn Leaves," and even Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm." The climax of the vocal set was their smokin' take on the Jon Hendrick's tune, "Your My Centerpiece." Dr. Oney will be taking over a full-time, tenure track position at USC Upstate in the fall and what she has put together with this group in her first semester is a sign of many great things to come out of her presence on the campus.


Jazz Combo directed by Shannon Hoover
The second group of the evening was an all-instrumental combo that focused on funky grooves and hard-swinging bop. The quintet is led by stellar bassist Shannon Hoover who can be heard at gigs all over the region. He brings a seasoned professionalism to his students that is rare to find among university faculty. Highlights of their set included the under-performed "Minority," and a version of "Sissy Strut" that had heads throughout the room bobbing to the nasty groove. Although lead sheets were scattered among them, it was nice to see that at least a few of the better-prepared musicians in the group took the time to memorize the tunes and really bring out the best in their playing. Hoover has done good work with this young group and they are well worth taking the time to listen to. 

The closing act of the evening is called the "Commercial Music Combo," directed by guitarist and full-time faculty member Adam Knight. The group focuses on learning gig-ready material across various popular genres and this semester they've tackled the Beatles. Although the set list fell outside the jazz spectrum heard in the earlier groups, it's exciting to see a younger group of musicians having such a good time playing the classic music. Highlights definitely include "Come Together," "Don't Let Me Down," and their closer "Hey Jude." The guitarist in the group, John Gibson, wins the prize for bringing in the noisiest support group that never let his riffs go by unloved.
Commercial Music Combo directed by Adam Knight
This May will mark the first graduating class of Commercial Music majors from the program at USC Upstate and this night of music at Blues Boulevard bodes well for their prospects and for those of their classmates. Jazz is sometimes a tough sell in Spartanburg and a rare specialty for musicians of the twenty-something crowd. But, as seen and heard on this recent night, the local community has the opportunity to swing madly whenever they have the chance to hear music this good.


[On another topic, my Johnny Hartman biography has been typeset and is in the process of being indexed. We're still on schedule for an early summer release and a book reading/signing is in the works for July 10 in Spartanburg. More details to come.]

Sunday, March 11, 2012

5 Things I Did to Get My First Book Deal

Do you love lists as much as I do? When a lack of motivation washes over me, I make a list of all the things that absolutely must get done. Then I spell check the list. And change the fonts. And move the title from the center to the left and back again. And then I move everything from Word into a spreadsheet where I work on the layout for an hour and a half before realizing it was fine where it started. Then I print it out three times because I noticed little glitches that somehow were missed in the hour of micro-editing. Four hours later, I'm finally ready to tackle the lead-off item on my list...right after lunch.

Assuming you too enjoy lists, I thought I'd look back on what I've been doing the last couple years as a writer and share the process as five easily digestible but critical-to-know components. I landed a deal with a well-known publisher and my first book will be released this summer, and here's a list of how I did it.

#1: Don't get sucked into believing "list" articles before you've even begun writing!
If you're thinking about writing and getting published, then the first priority for many months of your life is WRITING, not thinking about writing. I went to a writer's meeting once where a gentleman showed the same chapter he had brought in three times before and previously paid two editors to review for him. After a year, he had yet to begin writing a second chapter. Instead, he just kept thinking about someday perhaps considering the option of possibly writing more. He was looking for others to tell him exactly how to proceed in very small steps, guaranteeing success because each step had been so meticulously calculated. In reality, he wasn't moving anywhere: forward or backward. So, don't look for the perfect sequence of events laid out in articles like this one. There's no such thing. Just write and then write some more. When the craft starts coalescing and accumulating, then it's time to go out and see what can be done with it.

#2: Pick a great topic that you'll love for the next couple years!
This was easily the most important step for me. I dismissed several book ideas before moving ahead with the winner. The other ideas weren't bad and I will reconsider them later, but I wasn't IN LOVE with them at that time. I didn't want to invest two or more years into a project unless I knew it would excite me the entire way. I wanted a topic that would eventually make all my friends and family avoid me because they knew I only had one subject on my mind and that nothing else interested me. If you can find a topic like that, the act of writing becomes vastly easier and finding extra time to write becomes a daily goal.

#3: Pick a topic that makes publishers say, "I can't believe no one has done that yet."
Loving the topic is important, but you'll need to convince a publisher that lots of others will love it too. Acquisition editors have the difficult job of finding new book ideas that are cutting edge and exciting while still being based on the same old thing. So it's your job to give them just that. Find a topic that is part of a proven market share but with a unique angle that has yet to be over-exploited. In my case, I pitched a biography of a modestly successful jazz singer who made one album that is considered iconic, and then he seemed to drift off the radar. When the editor sent my proposal out to three expert readers, they all wrote back something like, "I was shocked to realize nobody has written his story yet. If you don't publish this, your competitors will." At that point, the editor had just what he needed to recommend my book to the publisher: a proven genre on an acclaimed artist (something old) that somehow slipped through the cracks (something new). This was no accident. I worked hard to come up with a topic that I knew would meet this criteria while still being something I would love to write about.

#4: Find a publisher with a history of releasing topics like yours
I will admit to you a secret I'm almost (but not really) ashamed to admit: I got signed by the first publisher I approached. I know, I'm supposed to tell you I have a drawer full of rejection notices  that tested my convictions and made me try harder, but that's not the way I wanted to do things. Instead, I spent weeks in libraries looking through books in my genre; I visited websites for all those publishers; I carefully reviewed their proposal guidelines and confirmed if they would even accept submissions directly from authors; and then I crafted a proposal as if my life depended on it. I did not just fire off an e-mail query with half an idea hoping that someone would see the big picture and give me a shot. Although I did indeed only present a snapshot of the entire book, I made it clear that I had the entire book organized and written in my head. My proposal delivered an idea that was ready to be written the moment I was given the green light. The publisher I targeted had been releasing scholarly jazz biographies for decades and had very clear submission guidelines so they were the perfect target for my proposal, and it worked. One proposal led to one signed book contract; that's a pretty good return on the investment of my time.

#5: Agree to what you can realistically do, and then DO IT!
I'll leave the in-depth nuances of contract negotiations for another day. For now, let me just address one component that will come up in the contract: when are you expected to deliver the manuscript. This could be anywhere from six months to two years, but whatever you agree to, make sure you deliver on schedule. Publishers are balancing dozens or hundreds of book projects simultaneously so even if you only need a few extra weeks to finish your manuscript, you may get bounced into another release cycle that is months later. Translation: YOU'LL GET PAID MONTHS LATER! Publishers rarely give advances anymore, especially to unproven authors, so the first compensation you'll get for your months of artistic struggle will be in the form of a far-off royalty check. And if your publisher only pays out royalties once a year, you'll  wait even longer to reach the payment month. So, pick a duration that you know is realistic, and then let nothing stop you from achieving that completion date. When you turn the manuscript in on time, you'll get paid on time, and then you get to take yourself out for that awesome first-royalty-check dinner you've looked forward to.

Conclusions
With the writing of the book behind me, I'm currently going through the typesetting process while gearing up all the PR. That's all the more reason to make sure you love the topic because you'll still be confronted by it on a daily basis long after you've submitted the final manuscript. Check out the Facebook page for my book at https://www.facebook.com/johnnyhartmanbook and let me know what you think.
A snapshot of me in the rapture of making a list on my laptop.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

George Benson Must Think I'm an Idiot

Over the years, I've gathered a few fancy pieces of paper that hang on my wall and purport knowledge gained. I don't dispute that I learned a few things in the hallowed halls of academia, but I had another school just as important. For a while in the early 1990s, I got to study at the feet of a guitarist named Billy Thompson and class met anywhere and anytime he let me hang out with him.

Billy (BT in my mind) was the leader of the Mighty Penguins that were regarded as the top-flight blues act in San Diego, but they hadn't been working much at the time due to some internal differences. For reasons I've never understood but always appreciated, BT took to me and let me play in his pick-up bands for several months while he was trying out some new ideas and deciding what direction to take his material. Getting to jam with him night after night and hearing his blistering explorations and rhythmic ferociousness was sometimes overwhelming. He would wrap up another of his seemingly effortless, bad-ass solos and give me the nod to go next and I'd think, "You've got to be kidding me!" But I hung in there, studied the homework he implied, and kept coming back to the classes he held for me in the various bars and juke-joints we performed in.

Guitarist Billy Thompson

One of the most important things BT ever taught me was to not get caught up trying to be the baddest cat in town. He said, "Man, I don't give a rip if somebody says I'm the guitarist to beat around here. I only compare myself to my heroes, not some fool in a local beach bar." That one has stayed with me everyday of my life for over twenty years now. Any time I get complacent, start to get soft, or stop pushing myself to improve as a man or musician, I take heed of BT's lesson. As soon as I feel like I'm becoming the big fish, it's time to move my tail to a bigger pond.

My esteem for BT as a mentor is all the more poignant when I recall the unfortunate afternoon when it was me who became the fool at a local bar. Elario's Bistro Sky-Lounge was an elegant dinner-showroom on the top floor of a hotel overlooking the beach in La Jolla, California, and BT had a steady gig there, not as a guitarist, but as production manager and soundman. Besides booking some of the better local talent, Elario's also attracted rising national artists and a few big names. As another component of BT's tuteledge, he called me one day and said, "Hey Bud, I need to get the piano dialed in for an act tonight. Come on down to the club and bang on the keys while I move the microphones around." Always eager to help the man, I obliged and soon found myself entering the main dining room to be awestruck by the gorgeous view that day: crystal blue waters under a tangerine sky.

Elario's Bistro Sky-Lounge was on the top floor of the Hotel La Jolla

I proceeded past the bar and noticed a well-groomed man seated by himself sipping a cocktail. The bar didn't officially open until closer to dinner so I noted that he must be a high-rolling businessman for the management to accommodate an afternoon drinker. I moved on towards the stage and took a seat at the baby grand. "Ready when you are BT," I announced. "Sweet," he responded. "Just play anything for awhile and I'll try some different settings."

It's not unusual for musicians to fall into rituals when preparing to perform. After putting on new strings, many guitarists will go straight to an open D chord to check the tuning. Singers might repeat a favorite catch phrase or melodic fragment when checking microphones. And drummers often have an elaborate series of warm-ups they play while tuning their drums to the room. Somewhere along my musical journey I acquired the habit of getting familiar with a new room or piano by playing the opening two chords that were popular in the smooth-jazz hit, "This Masquerade." Musicians know these chords as F minor 9th followed by B-flat 13th. And so I sat there and began my ritual like I had so many times before without any hesitation. I noticed BT immediately gave me a questioning raised eyebrow, but I figured he was just dismayed by the frequencies coming through the sound system and I continued to plod ahead with my warm-up chords for the next several minutes.

Finally, BT got the microphones set in a position he found pleasing and said, "Okay, that's enough. Come on down from the stage." I approached him thinking I might hear some words of appreciation, but instead BT asked, "So, you think you're gonna get a gig or something doing that?" "What you talkin' about Billy? I was just jamming so you could get a sound check." "Dude," he exclaimed, "That's George Benson sitting at the bar: the guy who made 'This Masquerade' famous, and you just spent the last five minutes stickin' it in his face!"

The words were like a punch to the gut. I was horrified at the thought that I had just spent all that time inadvertently saying to the great guitarist-vocalist, "Look at me, look at me," like some annoying local hack. Now, if this were a 1940's Hollywood movie, Benson would have come over to me and said, "Kid, you've got moxie and I like your style. It just so happens I need a new pianist so give me a call." Well, he did eventually saunter over, but only to talk with BT. Earlier in his career, Benson played Elario's and remembered the incredible view, so while he had some time to kill before his show that night at a larger venue, he came by for a drink. He and BT were soon chatting it up like old friends and doing what guitarists always inevitably do: talk about gear. Meanwhile, I disappeared into the corner and kept my mouth shut.

George Benson

Later, when BT and I were alone, I asked, "Benson didn't say anything about my silliness on the piano did he?" "Nope," he answered. "Never came up." I was immensely relieved and yet slightly disappointed at the same time. Pride and vanity have often battled for dominance in my musician brain.

In the months and years to come, BT and I slowly drifted apart, though there was no malice or disagreement. He had other opportunities and I moved away from blues towards genres that tended to pay better. These days he's tearing it up along the east coast still making great music. George Benson has continued on to be a legendary figure in jazz and popular music. And me, well, I make my way engaging various endeavors in the music world, but come check out one of my gigs sometime to see if I don't still warm up with those same two chords and chuckle at myself while I'm doin' it.

***


[Check out my man BT at http://www.billythompsonmusic.com/]

[The pre-release buzz about my Johnny Hartman book is really picking up and has resulted in me just being offered my own ongoing column in a very prominent jazz website. I'll announce more as soon as the details get worked out. Thanks for your support everybody. www.johnnyhartmanbook.com]

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Gig Most Embarrassing

Once in a while the question gets raised at a house party or barroom gathering:
"So what's the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you on the job?"
The answer is always horribly vivid in my mind. I envision a day when I won't cringe at the very memory, but I doubt it will ever come until I am finally released.

I was a young man of 18 and had spent a few days in Walnut Creek, California visiting with the most darling of young ladies and her family. The drive was shared with her grandparents who lived near me in southern California. I recall some excellent times visiting with all concerned on the drive up and the days spent at the destination, but the return down Interstate 5 began to reveal a dark cloud.

The grandparents and I headed off early in the day to begin what was likely a 10-hour drive. It was only a few hours later during a late-morning stop at a rest area when events soured. Grandpa (as he kindly asked me to call him) became violently ill in the parking lot. As he told me days later, "Son, I think I threw up food I ate in second grade!"

It became clear that he could not continue all the way to the Inland Empire where I had a gig that night playing with a top-40 band in Cathedral City. What happened next still impresses me to this day. They handed me the keys to their Cadillac, wrote down the entrance code to the home-security system, gave me some money for gas, and said, "You get on down the road. We'll rent a car tomorrow and be just fine." After some hemming and hawing on my part, I accepted their gracious offer and continued on my way.

Considerable time had been lost during the delay, but finding inspiration in a classic song by Sammy Hagar, I dropped that Caddy's hammer and pulled into Palm Springs to pick up my car, get my gear, and rush to the gig. I was just late enough that the band had to start the first song without me, but I rushed to set up my keyboard rig in record time. The guitarist thought he was going to have to play the keyboard solo in Scandal's "Goodbye to You," but no need: I came in on the second beat of the measure, right on time. Paul, the bass player, just looked at me with a big ol' smile and rolled his eyes.

Me and Paul at the Saddle Bar.

The band was called "MYX." Admittedly, not a very unique name, and every big city I've ever been in has a cover band whose members could do no better, right down to the spelling. But the name was easy to remember and served its purpose. We were a pretty good bar band; all five of us could sing which allowed for variety, and having a girl singer up front meant we could do material that all-male bands couldn't. Besides Scandal, there was Missing Persons, Berlin, Pat Benatar, Katrina and the Waves (quick, name their hit!), the Motels, and my personal favorite trivia answer: Quarterflash.

The gig that night was in what by all definitions must be called a dive bar. Not a dump, mind you--just a highway roadhouse that served two kinds of beer: Miller or Miller Lite. The seats at the bar were shaped like saddles in reference to the name of this fine establishment: The Saddle Bar. The regular patrons were raucous but a generally friendly bunch and that night they did me the greatest of favors by collectively ignoring what was soon to happen right there in front of them.

"MYX" as a 5-piece in 1985

As the set proceeded, I felt myself perspiring much more than I normally do, even onstage. The room felt unbearably warm and I tugged at the grey parachute pants clinging to my moist body. I called out over the music to Paul, "ARE YOU HOT?" To which he incoherently responded, "ABOUT SEVEN." He was no help. Then things got really weird. The lights hurt my eyes. The sounds of the band crashed through my ears. My mind swirled within my tottering body. It dawned on me that I must have gotten the same bug as dear old Grandpa. And then it happened...up came everything! Second grade; first grade; heck, I'm sure there was some cheese and crackers from nursery school in there. And I was right on stage with nowhere to hide.

The only saving grace to that instant of time was that an empty beer pitcher had been left right near me on the stage and I had just enough time to stick my face in it. So there I was filling up some of the Saddle Bar's finest plasticware while the dancers got their groove on to the band's attempt (being one man down) at ZZ-Top's "Sharp Dressed Man." And people wonder why I love show business.

I staggered through the crowd and headed for the bathroom with my near-capacity receptical and made it just in time to continue purging in relative solitude. Now, like I said, I consider this event to be the most embarrassing moment I ever experienced on the job, but I gotta tell you, it could have been so much worse. I could have been the brunt of jokes and ridicule that night and every gig I ever played in town for years to come. But, instead, not one person ever said a word about it. Not ONE, except, "How you doin' there? Feeling any better?" Talk about giving a guy a break when he was down.

So that's my humbling story. I bet you've got one like it. What do you say you share right here, right now?

While you collect your thoughts I'll just harden my heart because I'm a real tough cookie with long history after all this walkin' on sunshine even though nobody walks in L.A. and then suddenly last summer find that I am the warrior.

*** 


[Thanks to everybody who visited the Facebook page for my upcoming book (https://www.facebook.com/johnnyhartmanbook) and gave it a "like." I'm hoping to maintain a little pre-release buzz and you've all been so helpful--THANK YOU!]

P.S. I learned recently that the three founding members of MYX are still making great music in the Palm Spring area. Check them out at https://www.facebook.com/TheMyx.Biz?sk=info and tell 'em Gregg sent you.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

"So Andy, What's A Lipstick Lesbian?"

Every Thursday in San Diego was when the weekly Reader news and entertainment paper was published. Back around 1990 there were three sections in each edition but, as a musician, I was usually interested most in the classified ads. This was where pre-Internet musicians got their gossip and looked for deals. What drummer finally got caught dating the guitarist's girlfriend, forcing a band to advertise for a new member? What locally owned music store had lowered the price of that Mexican-made electric bass yet again? What saxophonist placed a "Reward" notice after he was too stoned to remember leaving his horn on the curb after a gig in the Gaslamp District?

My ad was there every week too. "Modern Keyboard Studies" was the headline. It went on to promise certain advancement at a fair rate: $30 for each hour-long lesson. I never had more than a dozen students at a time, but the ad always turned a profit so I just let it run.

Most the calls I received went like this:
Caller: Hi. Um, how many lessons until I'm good?

Me: Six months to a year. [I had learned long before that no one wanted the truth that it would be somewhere between years and never.]

Caller: Um, okay. Is the first lesson free?

Me: No. I provide a quality product and it has a value. [My main competitor in town had been doing the "Free First Lesson" thing for years so I embraced the tactic that I was above such a desperate plea for new business--it didn't always work, but at least I never wasted my time with one-lesson bargain hunters.]

Caller: Um, when can I start?
Ka-ching! But not all callers stayed on the script. There was the woman who said she had two-inch fingernails that she was not willing to trim and asked, "Will that be a problem when I play?" I referred her to the freebie guy.

And then there was the man who said he wanted to schedule two hours a week but would never actually show up. When I pushed for an explanation he said, "Well, I need a cover story so my wife doesn't know I'm seeing someone on the side." Classy. I passed and he mumbled something about not going to yoga instead.

But one of the calls that had a profound affect on my life came from one John Van Dyke. Unlike most of the inquiries I got from the ad, he wasn't calling about lessons; he was a singer in need of a keyboardist for a gig starting the very next week. John timidly asked, "Maybe you have a student who's ready to start gigging?" Always looking for more paying jobs, I replied, "Well, tell me more. Maybe I'd be interested myself."

John went on to describe a pretty sweet gig: four weeks work at a local club that paid $100 per night playing a combination of show tunes, jazz standards, pop ballads, and a smattering of R & B. I remember thinking, "I've played a lot around town and I can't think of any place that pays that well for that kind of setlist." And then it finally came out. It was a gay bar. "That explains why I've never heard of it," I told my under-enlightened and straight self. It only took a moment for me to reflect that as a full-time musician I was at all times subservient to one maxim: No Gig--No Eat. 

"I'll do it!" I declared.

Rehearsing with Andy, John, and Don in 1991

The band was typical for the regional cabarets of the day: I played all the accompaniment myself with left-hand bass lines, right-hand chords and solos, and a drum machine. We were joined by a second singer: the tall and dark Andy Anderson; and a saxophonist: the tall and light Don Bowman. It was thrown together pretty quick, but we came up with just enough music for the opening night, knowing we'd have to add more material in the following days.

So there I was, all dressed up in my hopelessly hetero clothes having a drink before the show, and looking around the room with wide-eyed wonder. I noticed some very rugged ladies at the end of the bar and Andy caught my stare.

"Straight guys crack me up!" he said. "You all just fantasize about lipstick lesbians." I had no flipping idea what he that meant, but he had my attention.

"Well, on behalf of straight guys everywhere, I'll bite."

I knocked back the rest of my tequila shot, sucked in some air between my teeth as the liquid hit the back of my throat, and tossed him a slow pitch right over the plate.

"Hey Andy! What's a lipstick lesbian?"

"Well, funny you ask Mister Gregg!" he said with a full-voice laugh at the new nickname just bestowed upon me.

"They're gorgeous Penthouse models that in all ways look totally hot for straight men in their high heels and makeup but have a thing for women at the same time."

"Ah yes, I see" I said as I surveyed the rest of the crowded club. "So, when do they get here?"

"Keep dreaming," said Andy. "Come on, show time. Let's give the people what they want."


"Impromptu" at a gig in Long Beach, CA

And we did--not only that night but many days and nights for the next several years. We added a soulful girl singer named Corliss Barbary and, calling ourselves "Impromptu," played what seemed like every gay bar in southern California: The Escape, The Loft, Briefs, The Brass Rail, Bourbon Street, Ripples, and a long-standing run at The Little Shrimp in Laguna Beach.

Private party at a home in La Jolla, CA

I must say, the gay-bar scene was a great education for me. I made some excellent friends, learned a lot of great songs, earned good money, picked up some private party gigs at beautiful homes, and even hooked up with a terrific girlfriend for awhile (the straight girls hanging out with their gay man-friends found me rather enigmatic as the only one in the room whose flirts had any bite).

And while out among the patrons of those many interesting places during those many interesting times, I witnessed extremes of sophistication, and debauchery, and humor, and tragedy, and love, and sadness, and hope: but lesbians with lipstick?--not so much.



[Check out the cover for my upcoming Johnny Hartman biography at www.johnnyhartmanbook.com. I also posted a couple extremely rare Hartman recordings that you won't hear anywhere else.]




Friday, February 10, 2012

Gettin' Naked with the Chieftains

My Dad could talk to anybody. He was fearless when it came to shaking hands and chatting it up with new people. This made him the life of a party, or on one particular occasion, the cause of a party.

I didn't grow up with my old man, but he always lived within an hour or two. As a young kid of divorced folks, you don't have a lot of say in when you'll visit with one parent or the other. It's all pre-arranged and you just pack a couple favorite toys and off you go for the three-day weekend. But at the age of sixteen, a very odd transition occurred that I've never seen discussed on touchy-feely talk shows: as soon as I got a drivers license it was suddenly MY decision when or if I would get over to Dad's place. Nobody talked me through it or tried to help me understand the ramifications of making such an adult decision. I can't be the only teen to ever have faced that dilemma, but I sure felt alone at the time. Fortunately, Dad made one of those early self-motivated visits a no-brainer and eased my unanticipated burst of maturity.

"Gregg, come on over to Hemet this weekend, and bring your keyboard: you know, that big one you've got."

Dad knew my weakness. Ask me to bring my black-beauty "suitcase" Fender Rhodes to make some music and I'm there. He loved to jam on classic country (Hank Williams SENIOR), could strum a guitar just fine, and had a smooth, nearly pitch-perfect singing voice. The guy never took a lesson in his life, but I'm sure I never heard him sing one note off key. Some of the best music I've ever played was "Watermelon Wine" with Dad and his cohorts getting together for a potluck and hootenanny. Damn, those were good times.

"Sure man. What's the occasion?" I asked him.

"Oh, you never know," he said with a hint of gleeful evasion.

Loading up the car with my Fender Rhodes in the early 1980s

Sure enough, come Friday afternoon I packed up the four-door Chevy Citation hatchback with my keyboard gear, a brand new Night Ranger cassette, and a couple clean shirts. After putting a little bit of Interstate 10 and Lambs Canyon behind me, there I was at the horse-ranch home of Dad and my Step-Mom which they had built up from the dirt some years before. I let myself into the backyard and heard the familiar paternal voice:

"Hey there! Don't get too comfortable. We're going to over to the community college for a concert; I scored tickets for some band from Ireland that sound like fun." That was Dad: always on the lookout for some new people to meet.

At the time, I had never heard of "The Chieftains" and it would be years before I heard of them again and started to put it all together. They had already been together for nearly twenty years, were a major act in Europe, and within another year broke a cultural barrier by performing several concerts along the Great Wall in China. But that night, amid the chill of late-fall in small-town southern Cal, they were an unknown entity touring college campuses in a small van.

The Chieftains in the early 1980s

I recall the music as being exotic, playful, and even a little moody. As a teenage Tolkien loyalist, I could easily imagine the melodies and harmonies as a sonic backdrop to Hobbits and wanderlust elves (an association that would bare out decades later in the Lord of the Rings movies). As soon as their show ended was when my Dad's performance began. He promptly approached the musicians and crew:

"You fellas are terrific. So where are you staying in town? How about you come on back to my place? Cheaper than a motel and we'll have ourselves a little party 'round the pool."
By the backyard pool with Dad and my brothers, 1982

That last word sealed the deal. I grew up in Palm Springs, California where swimming pools were a boringly common backyard embellishment. If you had weeks every summer of 120-degree heat, you either had a pool or spent all your time with the neighbors who did. No big deal. But to these guys from Ireland, a private, southern California swimming pool was almost mythical, and they were not about to pass up the opportunity to check it out for themselves.

Flash forward a couple hours and there we all were in the backyard of Dad's ranch, instruments set up between the patio furniture, and I'm jammin' with the Chieftains who would go on to be nominated for eighteen Grammy awards and win six of them. Being from Europe, they were keenly interested in American music instruments, and the keyboardist in particular was fascinated by my electric piano. Suddenly, I had a new-found pride for what was moments before just a heavy, beat-up, cigarette-burned keyboard I had found in the classifieds of the Press-Enterprise newspaper. Turns out it wasn't old and tattered but "vintage" and "care-worn." The "oohs" and "ahhs" continued when my Dad brought out his classic, cherry-red Gibson ES-335 guitar (like Roy Orbison used) and a Fender speaker cabinet with the beige covering. Now it was the guitarist's turn to be awestruck.

"Oh my, you've got yourself a beige!" he said with a profound mix of wonder and envy. It turns out that when said by an Irish musician with a couple pints already behind him, the word "beige" actually has three syllables: "bay-ee-zha." That's when I knew I was completely in love with these guys. I wanted to load up my rig and two shirts and travel with them the rest of my life.

I remember making a lot of pretty good music that night, but since I didn't think they were more than an Irish garage band, it never ocurred to me to take any photos or make a recording. Whatever notes we put together were given up to the stars above and the cool breeze blowing down from San Jacinto Mountain.

As the evening progressed and the beverages had their intended affect, the magnetic attraction of the pool became too much for these wandering troubadours to withstand. The roadie for the band was the first to crack.

"I'm goin' in. Who's with me?"

Not waiting for a repsone, he took it to the next level and began shedding layers of clothes. It was cold enough that we were all wearing coats, but he was on a mission and would not be denied. Standing in only his droopy boxer shorts, he gave a whelp and flung himself into the deep end.

He splished and splashed, called everyone cowards, and proceeded to have a glorious time. It worked. Clothes began flying in multiple directions. Shoes here; socks there; coats, shirts, and pants everywhere, all to be sorted out much later. Soon, a pile of us were in the pool singing and carrying on as if all the troubles of the world could be set aside for a while and we could just enjoy the company of new friends and new songs.

I was sixteen, I was immortal, and I was gettin' naked with the Chieftains.


[for a teaser look at my upcoming book on singer Johnny Hartman, please visit www.johnnyhartmanbook.com ]