I rediscovered something last week that I hadn't realized I had lost; the redemptive power of music, and particularly, playing music. I was asked to participate in a reunion of musicians that were popular in the "garage band" era of the mid-60s. I had been asked to take part in similar gatherings in the past and respectfully declined, but this time I was asked by Larry Raspberry as part of a free outreach for his local church, Heartsong Church, who's motto is "The Church That Rocks." I have known Larry since we were both 11 year old students of the same guitar teacher, Lyn Vernon. Our teenage competition between the Gentrys and the Radiants and Larry's formation of the Highsteppers and his unequaled live performances made me a fan as well as a friend. So even though I couldn't field a team for the event from a combination of my founding partners being out of town and the loss of four band members in the last 15 years, I agreed to represent the Radiants even before I heard the stellar line-up.
Of news to a particular generation of Memphians that will befuddle everyone else were the announced reunions of Flash and the Casuals/Board of Directors and the first full performance since 1967 of Tommy Burk and the Counts. These are the bands that provided the music for our precious memories before an unpopular war forced the end to our innocence. My eagerness grew when I heard the musicians who were coming in from out of town were dear friends from a half dozen different combinations of acoustic trios to electric bands that I worked with over the last 40 years. Raspberry organized the event from Los Angeles while the church provided the hall, sound, multi-media screens, and house band; Wing and a Prayer, consisting of perennial premier players Dave Smith, Gene Nunez, Freddie Kirksey, and Greg Lundy. I was given an hour to rehearse the afternoon before Rosh Hashanah.
I spoke with Flash,(David Fleischman), about my reluctance to participate in any actual proselytizing for the church, especially on the Jewish New Year, but we were both assured that it was a free show with no strings attached, and besides; George Klein had agreed to MC the event now called "Talent Party Time Travel," for the popular TV show of the 60s that regularly featured local bands. I selected my songs to sing, the band charted them up, we ran through them twice at most and said, "See you at the gig."
It rained hard the day of the show, yet there were still more than 200 people there for the 6:00 PM start. First up was Eddie Harrison, former leader of the Short Kuts, one of the most popular club bands of the era. I first worked with Eddie in 1963, when I was a sophomore at segregated Christian Brothers High School, and Eddie was a sophomore at integrated Christian Brothers College. I've always believed he was one of Memphis' most electrifying singers and I love to sing with him. Unfortunately, I had to follow him because he was booked at a wedding, but we arranged to sing some harmonies to some old Soul favorites and Eddie left to a standing ovation while I stayed in place onstage.
I have not played with an electric band in at least nine years, and had to bring my electric guitar out from under the bed to do it. But there's something about strapping on a Fender Stratocaster and standing with musicians that you admire and in whom you have confidence that is thrilling and empowering. Their professionalism allowed me to concentrate on staying on pitch and the variety of our songs, from original, to the Kinks and the Rascals before an attentive and appreciative audience caused me to remember why I started playing music in the first place; because it was just so damn much fun. My thirty minutes flew by. I had a ball.
Raspberry was up next playing a variety of material including the Gentry's "Keep On Dancin'," which I hadn't heard him sing in 30 years and brought the audience to their feet. It wasn't exactly like one amazing gig I saw him perform with the Highsteppers at the High Cotton Club in the mid-seventies when his combination Southern Preacher-Carny Barker non-stop patter and the bands' continual driving music caused several male patrons to spontaneously rise from their seats, grab their wooden chairs, and smash them over the tables. I saw Larry cause a clubful of people to destroy the furniture. Of course, there was whiskey involved then. The people at the church were just there for the music, but Larry reached them just the same. He was accompanied on keyboard by fabled Memphis producer Jim Dickinson, who also sang his Sun Record from 1965 with the Jesters, "Cadillac Man."
The Flash and the Casuals/Board of Directors reunion was sentimental to me because of old friendships with members of that band. Original drummer John McNulty played; Mark Tidwell came from Nashville to play guitar, and Flash even called up Charlie Fineberg to sing back-up reaching all the way back to 1962. Flash is still a magnetic showman and received his standing "O" for a moving version of "St. James Infirmary Blues." Along with slides and film of a mop-topped Flash on Talent Party in 1966 with George and the WHBQuties projected on either side of the band, the audience seemed transported to that time and responded in kind.
Anyone who did not grow up going to dances featuring Tommy Burk and the Counts can't totally appreciate how heartwarming it felt to see them onstage again. When Flash was a guest on my former radio program, we deemed Tommy Burk, "The Godfather of the Garage." The skinny kid with the prominent Adam's apple is now Professor Tom Burk of Christian Brothers University's Department of Germanic Language. And the rest of the Counts, from Thomas Boggs and Mike Stoker of the Huey's Corporation; to Wayne Thompson, John Greer, and Steve O'Keefe, are all professional men who gave up music long ago. Yet, when they began playing and got into their second song, you could see a spring in their step that the audience's response only encouraged, and by the time they played their signature song, the huge Memphis hit garage band version of "Stormy Weather," the crowd was again on their feet.
Interstate 55 completed the show and continued to play for a jam for all the participants, who were reluctant to leave. The audience's kindness to me personally, left me buzzing for a week afterward. The flurry of e-mails exchanged between all the musicians and singers was universally positive and we agreed to consider the possibility of doing it again. I told Larry that we may well do it again, but we'll have a hard time matching the joy of that night. And for me, the most uplifting part was that money took no part in the equation. I understand that musicians have to sell what they play, but for this one occasion, we did it as a favor to a friend and his good work. And I learned that all Christians are not, by definition, Conservatives. And that there are progressive churches that encourage free expression and the use of music as praise, much like some of the more contemporary efforts of the Reform Jewish movement. And most importantly, I was reminded of that basic tenant of all religions; that the most rewarding work you can do is that which you do for others without expectation of reward. At Heartsong Church, the applause was sweet; the chance to see old friends and musicians and watch them entertain their appreciative audience one more time was sweeter. I was uplifted, invigorated, and proud to be included, and am now prepared to re-enter the fray. Thank you, friends. I think I remember now.
Hail, hail rock and roll
Deliver me from the days of old
Long live rock and roll
The beat of the drums, loud and bold
Rock, rock, rock and roll
The feelin is there, body and soul
Chuck Berry, "School Days"