Bob and Randy
East High School
I had always heard that musicians do well in a Depression because everyone wants to be entertained, but I never imagined I'd be testing out the theory. I thought if bad came to worse, I could always ramble from campfire to campfire, like Tom Joad, and maybe get a skillet of stew if my song was spirited. It's not like I haven't done it before. So, a couple of weeks ago, I stepped away from whining and opining to emerge from semi-retirement and return to my real job as a singer. The semi-retirement wasn't really my idea. I'm just at that awkward age where I'm too old to be musically relevant but not old enough to be rediscovered as a curio by a younger generation. Fortunately, our audience for this gig was there to celebrate an old friend's sixtieth birthday, so we were practically on the cutting edge.
I performed with my old partners, Bob and Reni Simon, with John Grosse on bass. Since tinnitus prevents me from playing in an electric band, we did a seated acoustic show that travelled farther down memory lane than anyone cared to admit. It had been a year since we played together, so a couple of rehearsals were necessary to get our harmonies right and because we refuse to go anywhere and suck. But our main repertoire was at our host's request. We sang songs by Mary Wells, Ruby and the Romantics, the Impressions, and the Four Tops. We played some Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly and a short set of early Beatles, plus my favorite Ray Charles impressions and Bob's note-perfect Isley Brothers' version of "Shout," complete with the Little Richard "Whoos," that had some of the less inhibited souls doing the Bulldog on the living room floor. We even sang a couple by the Tymes and the Fleetwoods; and no, kids, I'm not talking about Fleetwood Mac. I had a great time and no one had to take me to the hospital or give me oxygen. Before the gig, however, I was a mess.
Musicians have a saying, "The music is free. You pay us to set up and tear down all that damned equipment." Although we were well compensated and I'd had two run-throughs, the day of the gig I developed a severe case of shpilkes, and by the time I loaded my own car, I was already exhausted. I refused Melody's offer to call an ambulance and boldly drove through the rain to my afternoon, early set-up rendezvous with my bandmates which, unfortunately, was my idea. I'm a little older than the birthday boy, so I required a nap immediately after all the stuff had been plugged up. I awoke to the intestinal spasms of which I have previously spoken, caused by the criminal Bush, and for a moment, I thought I would have to call in my apologies. But I've never missed a gig. Never. Besides, the host was giving away Radiants CDs as party favors and I already had a gig shirt picked out. Once we started playing, though, I was fine, and the crowd's good spirits lifted me.
The guests came with the intention of having a good time and a main topic of conversation was that there is no place in Memphis to hear this kind of acoustic music anymore. There are still good clubs that cater to younger crowds, but when I went to the Hi-Tone to hear the Iguanas, the opening band roared like a jet and sent me hurtling from the room wiping the blood from my ears. I can dish it out, but I can't take it anymore. My friend Jay Sheffield has generously offered a tour of area Huey's, but I just no longer have the desire to be background noise for family supper. Bless him and good old Thomas Boggs for providing the venues, though. The last time the Simon-Haspel Trio played Huey's midtown, Thomas sat at the end of the bar staring at us intently while the customers were noisy and indifferent. I was certain he was thinking that our act was too tired for the room. When we took a break, Thomas approached and said, "If you ever want a drummer to play that song list with you, I'm your man." I really miss Thomas. Especially when we were reminiscing at the birthday party about our club-going years at Overton Square, when Thomas was often my boss.
On some brisk, March, Saturday night in 1975, six great bands would be playing on Madison Ave. alone. Beginning near McLean St., you could hear Jimmy Buffett, Taj Mahal, or one of the funniest bands I've ever seen, Darryl Rhodes and the HaHaVishnu Orchestra at the Ritz, a club born to fail, but beautifully furnished, both aesthetically and acoustically. Across the street, new bands played in the underground Procope Gardens while upstairs, Fantasia was Memphis' only club featuring live classical music. Perhaps Rick Christian and the White Boys with the late Mark Sallings on sax, or Joyce Cobb and Hot Fun would be playing at Trader Dick's while headliners like Billy Joel, Kansas, or Minnie Ripperton held forth at the lost and lamented Lafayette's Music Room. Across the street at Bombay Bicycle Club, the acoustic group St. Andrew's Fairway was thrilling an audience with harmonies, while, if you were lucky, you might hear a late set of Larry Raspberry and the Highsteppers at Godfather's. Walk the extra blocks down South Cooper to the High Cotton and maybe catch a night when Don Nix or John Mayall was hanging out. Those were wonderful times for live music, but I needed to remind my enthusiastic and nostalgic friends that our audiences from back then are usually in bed by 10:00 these days. And Tunica has laid such waste to the Memphis nightclub business, who would gamble on a music room in this economy?
Still, it would be great if Overton Square could recover like Beale Street, or maybe they don't want it to. Old folks still like music too, however, and most of them carry credit cards. Any potential investors for Randy's Acoustic Deli? Last week's gig was also a milestone of sorts, and I tell you because many of you have listened to us for a very long time and wouldn't otherwise know. Bob Simon and I started the Radiants in 1962 with Howard Calhoun and Mike Gardner, but it was already our third band. After the Silvertones and the Dynamics, with John McNulty on drums, we started the Casuals with David Friener and Gary Hofman in 1961. David Fleischman joined the band as a back-up singer, and became "Flash" when I was grounded for poor grades. But Bob and I started playing and singing together in 1959 and made our first appearance that same year at a summer camp. Now, I'm not fishing for attention or accolades, certainly not from any show-biz type organization, and wouldn't accept any if offered, but the first gig of this year marks fifty years that Bob Simon and I have been entertaining together, and without a single fistfight. Of course, it ain't over yet. I guess someone must have told us somewhere along the line to never give up. Questionable advice. It took me a week to recover. Next time, please let me know well in advance if you want to book us so I can start doing sit-ups.