The story of River Phoenix and Aleka’s Attic

When Josh McKay’s friends learned that the 22-year-old guitarist was considering moving to Florida to play in a band with teenage actor River Phoenix, they suggested he might be crazy. Movie stars, they said, can’t make music. You’ll be back in Texas in a month.

But in 1988 Denton, a suburb of Dallas, was nowheresville as far as Josh McKay was concerned, and the primitive recordings he’d received from Phoenix were encouraging. “It was really nice, these really tight jam-box garage tapes,” McKay remembers. “It definitely struck me that, ‘This is about music. It’s not about some hobby trip.’” He’d had a couple of long, deep phone conversations with the young actor, about music, and creativity, and what they meant. He hadn’t seen any of River Phoenix’s movies.

River Phoenix, 1988 in Micanopy, photographed by John Moran.

Phoenix, who was not yet 18, had recently moved to a farmhouse near Micanopy, Florida – a rural town outside of Gainesville – with his family. At the time, he was onscreen in Running on Empty, which would bring him an Academy Award nomination.

River was passionate about music. He’d been playing guitar since the age of 4, and wrote his first song when he was 8. As a teen, his obsessions were punky singer/songwriter Elvis Costello, Ireland’s deep-thinking U2 and the feisty British pop band XTC.

On the basis of his original songs, Phoenix had secured a development deal from Chris Blackwell, president of Island Records, which had U2 on its roster. Island laid out funds to put a band together, to rehearse and record demos, and – provided the music was good enough – they’d promised to record a proper album at the end of the two-year deal.

So when the Phoenix family relocated to Florida from Eugene, Oregon in 1988, the first thing River did was claim the detached garage behind the house as his rehearsal room. He called it the Attic.

One of Blackwell’s A&R reps knew Josh MacKay and his (defunct) Texas band, Joshomisho, and thought she heard a similar, free-form element in River Phoenix’s songs.

Phoenix was making his home tapes with Josh Greenbaum, also 17, who came up from South Florida just to help his friend start the band. Greenbaum’s mother had grown up with Arlen “Heart” Phoenix, River’s mother, in the Bronx, and the families stayed close through the years.

Greenbaum had drummed for a metal band – after he left, the group changed its name to Saigon Kick and got famous – and he had to learn a whole new way of playing, softer and with complex rhythm changes, to jell with River.

Greenbaum’s fondest memories are of the days he and his friend sat on the trampoline in the Phoenix back yard, working out songs.

Out in Texas, McKay was half-heartedly taking anthropology classes and wondering what to do next. He found himself drawn in by the songs on the cassette tapes, and began inventing basslines around them, although he was a guitarist by training and hadn’t ever seriously played bass.

Still, he was intrigued, and once he discovered that he shared other interests with Phoenix – a vegetarian lifestyle, and a strong belief in animal rights – he decided it might not be so strange after all.

“I left as soon as my finals were done; I wasn’t really thinking about it too much,” McKay recalls. “I just said ‘this is a very unusual thing to fall down from out of nowhere’; some people down in Florida, in Gainesville where I’ve never heard of, want me to come out and hang out, and maybe play together. I didn’t have anything in Denton happening that looked like a musical forward motion.”

Included in the development deal was a retainer fee for the chosen musicians, so McKay’s room and board was picked up as long as Island remained on the line. Both he and Greenbaum lived with the Phoenix family for the first year.

Josh Greenbaum and River picked him up at the Gainesville Airport, and McKay loved the area, the home and the family – River, his parents and his four siblings – as soon as he got a look at them. It was very much a ‘Yes,’” he says, smiling at the memory. “Really, really good feeling together immediately.”

McKay was accepted into the extended family; he and River hit it off and furiously began writing and singing together. Sister Rain Phoenix, two years younger than River, was recruited to play keyboard and sing harmony, and the band was completed with the addition of 17-year-old Tim Hankins, a Gainesville native, on viola.

Hankins met Rain through a mutual friend. A member of the Gainesville Chamber Orchestra, he’d never before played pop music – a good thing, because the band wasn’t about to do things in the usual way. The key word was experimentation.


Toys in the attic

Clockwise from left: Tim Hankins, River Phoenix, Rain Phoenix, Josh McKay and Josh Greenbaum.

Aleka is a poet and philosopher. The Attic is a meeting place where he lives, and he has a secret society. They come and visit him and read his works.

He then dies, and they meet regularly and continue the readings of his works, and from that learn their own, and become filled with this new passion for life.  And they express it through our music.

River Phoenix, 1989, interview with the author

Following a two-week tour of east coast clubs in early ’89, the band – now called Aleka’s Attic – joined the Gainesville music scene. River, his bandmates agree, was dedicated to his craft and paid little attention to those who said Aleka’s Attic was nothing more than a vanity project.

“He was the most annoyingly committed guy you’ve ever met in your life,” says Greenbaum. “Nonstop, every moment.”

Adds McKay: “For him, everything that mattered, he would cram in at the same time. So each limb was independent, because his time was precious. His time to enjoy was just as precious as his time to be creating music.”

The pattern began almost immediately: River was off to Los Angeles to make another movie, and then another, and each time Aleka’s Attic sat dormant in Gainesville for months at a stretch. The two-year development deal was frozen each time he left on a film assignment.

“There was a lot of change and readjustment of lives,” Greenbaum remembers. “It became a problem at times, it definitely did. Never to the point where there were big fights or anything.”

McKay: “He was at the mercy of a lot of other forces, and we were second generation from that.”

Greenbaum: “We were kind of at the mercy of his career.”

Tim Hankins, in particular, grew to resent the interruptions. “We’d practice for six or eight months, and we’d kind of reach this apex … and then he would go off for three months and do a film,” he says.

“It was like coitus, you know? It was like we worked toward something that never came to fruition.”

Hankins says River went out of his way to be nice to fans, to distance himself from the 40-foot-tall guy on the movie screen.

“He always took this posture of trying to dissolve this myth that had been created,” Hankins explains. “If you saw the way he dressed … if you didn’t know him, you’d think he was a homeless person.”

Likewise, he didn’t play bossman with his bandmates. “River was one of the most diplomatic people I’ve ever known,” Greenbaum says. “He had a way of making things flow – of taking energy from one place and driving it in another direction. He was constantly trying to keep things peaceful.”

In 1991, the Phoenix/McKay composition “Across the Way” appeared on Tame Yourself, a benefit album for People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals. A multi-layered, stream-of-consciousness piece about hypocrisy, it is the only Aleka’s Attic song ever to be officially released in River’s lifetime.

That year, Phoenix made the films Dogfight and My Own Private Idaho back-to-back. “After we did two-and-a-half months’ touring, up the East Coast twice, then we came back and  did the ‘Here’s where we’re at’ demos,” Greenbaum says.

“But as soon as we finished it, River went off to do press stuff for three months. And so Island was just sitting there with the demos. That was really the big period of change.”

Tim Hankins says he “just couldn’t get along” with River any more, and by late spring he’d left the band.

In August, Aleka’s Attic re-convened as a quartet, with the intention of really getting their album into gear. River returned all excited, McKay recalls, because he had ben offered the big-budget movie Sneakers.

“We started talking about going to L.A.,” the bassist says, “and instead of making the record the band would practice when he wasn’t doing the film. And I just sort of crumbled under that concept.”

Remaining in Gainesville, McKay and Hankins put together another band, Emperor Moth.

Greenbaum went to California with River and Rain; with T-Bone Burnett producing, they cut a couple of demos for Island while Sneakers was in production, using guest bass players.

“Those two demos that we did in L.A., those were pretty much the crux of the deal,” according to Greenbaum. “This was it. We had already gone over the two-year thing, and we had got to the point where we had to make a decision. It was overdue.”

Island heard the tapes – and passed. “It wasn’t like they just dropped us; they heard the demo and it wasn’t – in my opinion – marketable enough for them.”

A man possessed

River was actually relieved; he decided to finance and record the album on his own, at his own pace.

Today, there are 20 or more incomplete songs “in the can” at Pro Media Studios in Gainesville, the result of several furious months of recording in 1992 and ’93. Those who were at the sessions say River worked like a man possessed, as if he knew his time was short.

River Phoenix played his last two Gainesville shows in October 1992, with Rain, Josh Greenbaum and a bassist named Sasa Raphael.

“We still considered ourself a band – it was Rain, Sasa, River and I,” Greenbaum explains, adding that the group billed itself as the Blacksmith Configuration.

“It was rawer, and I think more nitty-gritty than ever. We became the tight garage band that we’d started as. We came full circle, in a way, but more mature.”

Hollywood beckoned again, and this time River accepted three movies in a row. “At that point, I began to look for things to keep myself busy,” Greenbaum says. “I decided I just can’t live for this one thing any more. I gotta make stuff happen.”

Greenbaum joined the jazz group Scarf & the Happy Dragons (later renamed Mindwalk) and Big White Undies.

River died Oct. 31, 1993, two months after the last session at Pro Media. A lethal combination of drugs killed him on the sidewalk outside L.A.’s Viper Room nightclub; he was expecting to jam that night with the house band. He was 23.

Josh Greenbaum maintains his friend didn’t abuse drugs. “I know that the time I spent with him was spent trying to be as healthy as we could,” he says. “Not only physically, but in lots of other ways, mentally.

“He was totally pro-life, and pro-happiness, and was constantly trying to make himself and everyone around him better.”

He wasn’t an angel – name one musician who is, Greenbaum asks– but he wasn’t a junkie. Josh believes River simply got run down on the Los Angeles fast lane.

“L.A. is a swamp, it’s a pit,” he says. “And I think it was just one night of … having too much fun. Simple: Young person making a mistake.”

Tim Hankins had settled his differences with River – he even played on some of those last sessions – and was chummy with him again before leaving in the spring to study music at the University of Miami.

“I spent three years of my life devoted to this thing, and we had some pretty amazing adventures,’ Hankins explains. “Some pretty difficult times, and some pretty great times. It was just a really amazing journey to be on.”

Josh McKay was two weeks into an extended tour of Indonesia when he got the news. On Nov. 5, he was scheduled to check in with his brother in Gainesville, for the first time since he’d left. His travels were taking him through jungles and over mountains, away from telephones and newspapers.

Before he left Bali for Sumatra, Josh intended to give his brother a forwarding address – River had expressed an interest in joining him, and McKay was hoping to spend some “quality time” with his former bandmate and songwriting partner.

Over dinner in his hotel, McKay struck up a conversation with a man from Finland, a musician and composer. They talked about music, mostly.

“Our conversation was just a real nice exchange,” McKay recalls. “And it ended up turning very abruptly and very unexpectedly, with him mentioning having read an article about some young American actor who died.

“And instantly, the hammer struck.”

@1994 Bill DeYoung/The Gainesville Sun













Billy Joel: Words and music … and no more words

(The Gainesville Sun, 1996)

Like everyone else in New York, Billy Joel is sick of the cold, sick of the snow. Fortunately, leaving it all behind for a week in Florida is an option he can afford. Millionaire rock stars get to do things like that.

Joel checks into Gainesville’s Center for the Performing Arts Thursday on his four-date whistlestop tour of the Sunshine State (the first show is tonight in Melbourne). Billed as An Evening of Questions and Answers … and a Little Music, it’s not exactly a concert. He’s coming, he explains, to talk to music students, aspiring songwriters and would-be Billy Joels. He’ll use an onstage grand piano to help illustrate his points.

“This isn’t a lecture, per se,” Joel says by phone from his home on Long Island’s East End. “It’s more of a dialogue. I hate to use the word ‘interactive,’ ‘cause that’s been beaten to death. But it’s an opportunity for people to ask questions, regarding different aspects of the job that I do. I know that there’s curiosity about it.”

A born talker, the Log Island native has been explaining himself on college campuses since the mid ‘70s, when “Just the Way You Are,” The Stranger and “My Life” were making him a household name.

“The first time I did it, I was amazed at how much I enjoyed it,” Joel says. “At one time, I had harbored notions of being a teacher. A good teacher made a big difference in my life: There was a music teacher, when I was in high school, who advised me to actually go in the music business. Which was sort of unheard-of at that time.

“Maybe that was the one thing I needed to seriously go ahead and do it, because I always wanted to. It’s just that everybody told me I was crazy.”

At 46, Joel can look back on an astounding 32 years in the music business (he joined his first semi-pro band, the Echoes, while in high school). He had taken classical piano lessons since age 4, but the band experience kindled a passion for rock ‘n’ roll, and rhythm ‘n’ blues, that all but extinguished his classical dreams.

“When I was starting out, there was nobody to ask about this particular job,” Joel reflects. “I admired the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones, and Ray Charles, but you could never talk to those guys. You sent ‘em a letter and you asked ‘em all these questions, and they sent you back fan mail stuff.

“I’ll never forget, one time I wrote the Beatles this impassioned letter about how important they were to me, and why did they write this, and I got back a pamphlet about lipstick and dolls … I got kind of disheartened. And I thought to myself ‘Look, if I ever get in the position where I can advise people, or be some kind of counselor to people, I’d like to do it.”

He was offered the opportunity by Paul Simon’s brother Eddie, who invited Joel to speak at one of the classes he taught at New York’s New School.

Since then, he’s taken his show on the road to Princeton, Harvard, Columbia and just about all points in between (he even did one at Oxford). Of course the way he made a few albums (including his most recent to date, 1993’s River of Dreams.

An Evening of Questions and Answers, Joel explains, “re-focuses what I really do. It’s all based on being a musician, and the art of music, and the craft of music.

“It makes for an entertaining evening. I find that he people who go to these things enjoy them as much as, or maybe more than, concerts. The concerts after a while become rote. You can only really deviate to a certain extent – people want to hear their favorites, and after a while it gets little tiring.”

He has, for example, retired “Just the Way You Are” from his in-concert set list; he hasn’t played it for a decade and doesn’t miss it a bit.

“This is different every night,” he says, referring to his Q&A event. “It depends on the questions that are asked – the audience sets the tone.”

Joel’s reputation as a scrapper is legendary – he’s sued and been sued by several former managers, one of them his ex-wife, and only recently settled a $3 million suit against his former lawyer and business advisor. Add to that his messy (and very public) divorce from his second wife, model Christie Brinkley, and you have an artist who’s no stranger to conflict.

“I have a lot of information that I don’t get asked about by journalists,” Joel says. “Usually, a lot of that stuff is more celebrity-oriented. The questions you get at these situations are more technical. I get asked why I write songs in certain keys, why do I make certain chord changes. How do you work with record companies? How do you avoid getting ripped off? Those kinds of things.

So he’s still thinking about being a teacher. “Look, I’ve made every mistake in the book. So learn from me! I’m the perfect example of how much can go wrong with a musical career – but also, how much can go right.”

Since he charted with “Piano Man” in 1974, Billy Joel has been a constant presence on the pop music scene. He is a delicate songsmith, a craftsman, capable of turning out profound ballads (“She’s Always a Woman,” “She’s Got a Way”), catchy and anthemic rock (“You May Be Right,” “We Didn’t Start the Fire”) and deeply-felt socio-political songs (“Allentown,” “The Downeaster Alexa”) with equal precision. He has been in virtually a class by himself for 20 years.

He’s also one heck of a piano player, as he demonstrated on his recent 18-month coheadlining tour with Elton John.

“I was pre-disposed,” Joel relates, “to thinking ‘Well, he’s Elton John, he’s English, and he’s going to be a sissy.’ Well, he’s not a sissy. He is a professional, he’s a much better piano player than I thought he was. He didn’t throw any little sissy fits. He was always on time.

“He was kickin’ my butt playing the piano. A couple of times, we’d be jamming, and I’d have to keep up: ‘Man, this guy’s good!’”

Joel says he and his British counterpart developed a deep friendship. “He was a good human being – a really decent, kind, considerate man. I was going through a rough time, going through a divorce and all that, and he went out of his way to do kind things for me. And I always appreciated that.”

Joel says he hooked up with Elton John to have an adventure, to see what would happen, and to take some of the pressure off of his solo career. “Bands break up because they start hating each other’s guts. What does a solo artist do – I can’t break up! So all I can do is join something.”

After so many years, he explains, a recording artist – even a successful one – can find himself on a treadmill. “You have to re-invent yourself constantly. This Billy Joel guy, I’m not impressed with him. I start an album at Ground Zero – I don’t start at the end of the last album. I start from scratch, and I do it purely for my own entertainment and my own intellectual stimulation. I don’t really do it for an audience, or for critics or radio stations. I do it just for me.”

He lives alone on Long Island, playing the piano and watching the boats go by. He has no idea what his next musical project will be. “I’m always trying to change and do something different,” he says. “I have an attention span of about 10 seconds, and I just can’t stand doing the same thing over and over again.

“Some people will write ‘Gee, I loved your last album but I hate your new one.’ Well, sorry about that, but I’m not gonna keep doing the same album just because you liked it. What about me?”

He hasn’t written a pop song since “Famous Last Words,” the final cut on his last album. “I’m not writing the same way I was 20 years ago,” Joel explains. “I’m not writing the same way I was five years ago! Right now, lately, I’ve been writing classical music, piano sonatas. I’m writing a piano concerto. I haven’t written lyrics. I find words are sometimes not adequate to express what I want to express. And classical music does.”

Since day one, he’s written music first, lyrics second. “Sometimes I ask myself what I’m writing lyrics for – the music is evocative enough already. Sometimes I resent the tyranny of the lyrics.

“And then, on top of that, I gotta make a video to explain even more.”

Once a song is done, recorded and in the stores, it can lose its meaning for the artist. “Just the Way You Are,” Joel explains, was written by a different person in a different situation.

He still plays “Piano Man,” though. “You have to balance them,” he says. “People go through all kinds of crap to hear a concert. They gotta drive through a traffic jam, they gotta hassle to get the tickets, sometimes they gotta pay scalpers stupid money, and then they sit next to some guy who’s throwing up on them … and they don’t like their seats. It’s a drag.

“And then you read: ‘He didn’t challenge the audience.’ Like they’re not challenged enough just getting there!”

He illustrates with a favorite anecdote. “I went to see Led Zeppelin once, and I was dying to see all my favorite Zeppelin songs. And they didn’t do any song I knew – they just did these blues jams. And I’m yelling out ‘Whole Lotta Love! Dazed and Confused!’ And they didn’t do none of it.”

OK, so what does Billy Joel say to those fans who went through hell on the highway to see and hear him play “Just the Way You Are”?

“Well, the artist chuckles, a little sheepishly. “You can’t please everybody.”













Steve Earle on Townes Van Zandt

©2009 Connect Savannah


Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that. (Steve Earle, 1995)

On his current cross–country tour, Steve Earle is performing solo, just his voice and acoustic guitar, the way his hero and mentor always did it.

Townes Van Zandt was at the epicenter of a loosely–knit group of Texan singer/songwriters who came together periodically in the mid 1970s — usually at Guy Clark’s house in Nashville — to drink, smoke, tell tales and try out their latest compositions, into the wee hours.

Clark and Van Zandt, old friends from the Lone Star folk–club circuit, were the veterans in the gang. Earle was the “kid,” and he idolized Van Zandt, who’d been making records (albeit without commercial success) for several years, and was considered by many to be the consummate songwriter — his oeuvre included “Pancho and Lefty,” “To Live is To Fly,” “If I Needed You,” “White Freightliner Blues” and dozens more.

Earle was still a decade away from “Guitar Town,” “Copperhead Road” and the songs that would make him an alt/country superstar.

A lot of water has gone under Steve Earle’s bridge, not all of it pure and sparkling. These days, he’s clean, sober and happily married to singer Allison Moorer, and his two most recent albums (The Revolution Starts Now and Washington Square Serenade) won Grammy Awards in the Contemporary Folk/Americana category.

Out now is Townes, a collection of mostly solo covers of Van Zandt songs.

It is a loving tribute to Van Zandt, who’s become quite the legend since he pretty much drank himself to death in 1997.

Earle’s performance will consist of a number of songs from Townes, “but it’ll be mostly my songs,” he says. “Townes is in most of my songs. Especially when I play ’em solo.”

Bill DeYoung: For all the praise everybody heaps on him, Townes — especially as a singer — was something of an acquired taste. Many of his songs were dark and inscrutable. Sometimes, particularly in his final years, it was hard to figure what all the fuss was about.

Steve Earle: Everybody’s kind of known what Townes was like at his peak by hearing me, and Guy, and a lot of other people — we were members of a cult, Hoss. We’re cult members — in truth, that word’s misused, but we were members of a cult.

As listening experiences, Townes’ recordings weren’t nearly as enjoyable — or as successful — as Guy’s, for example. Or yours. That commercial thing just didn’t happen for him.

It was his fault. Look, he didn’t make great records. And even at the peak of his power his records are really spotty. There are moments in ’em that are brilliant.

Record–making and songwriting are two different things. Townes, I know for a fact, was only interested in writing songs. For whatever reason.

I don’t think Townes was a misunderstood genius and a victim, I don’t buy that. I think he shot himself in the foot every single fucking chance he got. Even the people he associated with were part of the ammunition he used in taking these potshots at his feet, fucking constantly.

Townes was an alcoholic, and there was lots of other stuff going on. He was also brilliant, really smart, and one of the best songwriters that ever lived. And those are all separate things — they aren’t rolled up together into this big package. It’s real easy for people to sit around and talk about that shit…

They talk about how combustible he was…

The truth of the matter is, I’m pretty fucking good, and one of the main reasons I’m as good as I am is that I met him when I was 17 years old. And I saw someone that was making art at this incredibly high level — and did not give a fuck whether he ever made any money. And that’s what I aspired to. That part of it I kept, and I keep to this day.

Now, as to the rest of it. I had the same disease Townes had. I had one of ’em. And I, for some reason, survived it. I managed to get sober. And I still think I write pretty good songs. But nobody can answer that question, and where we get lost, I think, in trying to sort out what and who Townes and people like Townes were, is when we get too … all of us were caught up in the romance of it when it was going on.

But Townes is literally legendary. And Townes is getting more famous the longer he’s gone; that’s real–life legendary shit. But the fact of the matter is, there’s kind of a handful of us that saw it. And we’re all not going to be around forever, either.

I wanted to make a record based on what I saw. It’s not based on Townes’ records. It’s based on my recollection — to the best of my ability — of Townes performing these songs, solo, when I first met him in 1972.

Keep in mind, we were all alcoholics and addicts. Because my fuse was a little longer than Townes’, it took a lot longer for my life to blow up. But I’m definitely guilty of saying “Well, I’m OK because I’m better than he is,” when it came to the way that we behaved. But I always knew that he was a better songwriter than I was.

I heard that he was tough to get approval out of, when everybody was sitting around playing their new songs.

Townes either paid attention to you or he didn’t. Guy would say “That’s a great song.” I don’t think Townes ever said that to me. The only thing Townes ever said to me about one of my songs was, when I wrote “The Devil’s Right Hand” in ’77, he’d become concerned about my fascination with guns, which he didn’t have any room to talk about. He just remarked “Hell, he’s even writin’ songs about guns.” That’s the only comment that Townes ever made about any song that I ever wrote.

But Townes knew who was good and who wasn’t. I knew when I impressed Townes and when I didn’t. He didn’t say it, but I knew how to gauge his reaction to my songs and incorporate that at times — or not incorporate it — into how I proceeded.

Did Townes know how good he was?

Oh yeah. Look, I know Bruce Springsteen fairly well, I know Bob Dylan as well as you can know Bob Dylan — he’s a hard guy to know — but the one thing that impresses me about those two guys when you meet ’em … Bruce knows he’s Bruce Springsteen, Bob knows he’s Bob Dylan. But by the time I met them I’d seen that before: Townes Van Zandt knew he was Townes Van Zandt. And he knew how good he was.

How could he not? He didn’t do anything else! He didn’t put any energy into anything else except for making songs. Everything else was just killing time. I think there is some truth to the idea of Townes being a little Vincent-esque, in that he maybe was not quite wired for this world, in a lot of ways. I think Kurt Cobain was that way, I think Vincent Van Gogh was that way. That’s very romantic to look at, but it’s really not anything but sad. It probably wasn’t a lot of fun to live. And we all suffer for it when it happens. It took Townes a lot longer to die than Kurt, and a fair amount longer than Vincent.

I have to be nothing but thankful that it didn’t happen to me that way. There’s a lot of survivor guilt in this record, Hoss. I don’t know why I’m here and he’s not. Why did I get sober, and why he never even fuckin’ try? He wasn’t interested.

From a songwriters’ point of view, why was he great?

He was a post-Bob Dylan songwriter who took it to heart that songwriting had been elevated once and for all as an art form, and he approached it as art. And he did it at this incredibly high level. He didn’t say “I’m gonna give myself three years at this, and if it doesn’t work out I’m gonna get a job,” he burned the bridges and the boats.

What’s easy to misinterpret with Townes is to think that alcoholism and – well, just say it – mental illness, were part of that. They were not part of that decision. That’s coincidence. And that’s what everybody misses.

When I was 17 I met this guy who was making art at this incredible level. That’s why songwriters are in awe of him. Bob Dylan didn’t hear about Townes Van Zandt from me! He already knew about Townes before I said what I said, trust me. When I was touring with Dylan in ’88, he played “Pancho and Lefty” the second night of the tour, just to let me know that he heard what I said and that he knew who Townes Van Zandt was.

I remember asking Townes why Lefty had double–crossed Pancho, and he shut me down with “I don’t think there’s any evidence that Pancho and Lefty even knew each other.” So, you tell me — what is that song about?

You’re thinking it’s about Pancho Villa and Lefty Frizzell?

No, oh no. I always thought it was about an outlaw who betrayed another outlaw, then spent his blood money until he was destitute and miserable in Ohio: “Where he got the bread to go, ain’t nobody knows.”

He got to the point where he’d set up the song by saying “It’s about so–and–so and so–and–so,” and he’d change it every time. My favorite was Billy Graham and Guru Maharaj Ji.

It’s about Townes. They’re both Townes. That’s my theory. More than any other songwriter or artist you’ll ever meet, Townes’ stuff is about Townes. And it takes an incredible level of artistry — it could be incredibly self–centered and hard to listen to if he wasn’t as good as he was. But he does it so well; he always finds what we relate to in his experience. He’s looking inward and describing what he sees in such detail that he can’t help but come up with stuff that we all have in us. And I don’t know any other way to describe it.

He was so funny. I play a little bit, and I sometimes will tell some of those same jokes and one–liners Townes used in his onstage patter.

I was there, opening for Townes, the night he played at the Texas A&M University coffeehouse. He walked onstage and the first thing out of his mouth was “So, I hear y’all want to be called Agro–Americans now.” And one guy laughed, besides me.

I liked the version of “Tecumseh Valley” you did on your acoustic album Train a Comin.’

I had never even considered recording a cover, except for a few live things and stuff for movies. I had just gotten out of jail; I had written some songs, and some of ’em I wanted to save for a rock record. The covers I recorded were one Townes Van Zandt song, one Beatles song and “The Rivers of Babylon.” And then some older songs of mine that I had written before I started making records: “Tom Ames’ Prayer” and “Ben McCulloch” were both written when I was 19 or 20. They’d just never gotten recorded. “Mercenary Song” was the same thing.

Was it important to you that this be a solo acoustic tour?

Solo, I think, is the way to tour with this record. There isn’t any doubt about it. I wouldn’t have known what to tell a band to do with this stuff, either in the studio or onstage. It’s really weird — I didn’t write a note, but this might be the most personal record I’ve ever made.


When Elvis followed his dream to Florida

@1999 The Gainesville Sun


On a lonely stretch of State Road 40, the pine forest gives way to sawgrass and sabal palm as the Gulf of Mexico draws near. A concrete bridge spans the Withlacoochee River, angling slightly left before the road flattens out again and continues toward the big water. Eleven miles to the south, the twin towers of the Crystal River nuclear power plant loom like smoking concrete volcanoes. These days, nobody comes out here much, except fishermen looking for a boat ramp or teenagers looking for privacy.

For six weeks in the summer of 1961, however, this place had everyone’s attention. It was here that Elvis Presley, at the height of his fame, brought a whole Hollywood contingent to make a movie called Follow That Dream. Before he left, Presley had Levy County, and much of North Central Florida, all shook up.

Eugenia Burns was 14 and lived in Cedar Key; her mother volunteered to drive her and some friends the movie set. Off they went one morning to Yankeetown, four in the car with Mom at the wheel, followed by a load of girls in another car. “We drove up there, and they must have been between takes,” Burns recalls. “We could see Elvis, and my mother cautioned us about being real quiet and not screaming and yelling. Well, he looked up and he saw us, and we were being calm and everything.

“We went to the end of the road and turned around, and we were driving real slow, and when we came back to the set he had walked up to the side of the road as if he was waiting for us. My mother stopped the car, and he reached into the back seat where my friend Susan was sitting, and he squeezed her hand. She wet her pants, she was so excited. He reached in and squeezed my hand, too.

“The other carload of girls were screaming and yelling and that kind of stuff,” Burns says “and he wouldn’t even go near their car.”

Based on the novel Pioneer, Go Home by Richard Powell, Follow That Dream is a comedy, the ninth of Elvis’ 33 movies. He stars as Toby Kwimper, the eldest child in a hillbilly family that “homesteads” on a remote spit of land, much to the consternation of the state government. There are only five Presley songs on the soundtrack.

The film – which was almost titled Here Come the Kwimpers – was budgeted at $1.5 million, one-third of which was spent in Florida. Presley’s salary at the time was $500,000 per picture. “Since the book was set in the Fort Myers area, they wanted to capture the Florida scenery,” explains Gainesville writer Steven Opdyke, who’s working on a book about Elvis movies. “They were looking for a river, and they started down along the coast from Fort Myers on up and found everything too populated.”

Heading west along State Road 40, the filmmakers discovered what they were looking for at Bird Creek Bridge, at the tip of marshy Little Pumpkin Island. Producer David Weisbarth’s location scouts wound up in the Yankeetown office of realtor Ollie Lynch. “They came in and asked who owned that land,” Lynch says. “And I told them that I did.” Most of the three-acre set where they made the picture, Lynch recalls, was sawgrass, almost totally submerged at high tide. “They didn’t pay us anything for the use of the land; they just paid us in fill dirt,” he explains. The Florida Development Commission spent $8,000 to haul in sand, plant palm trees (all of which died before filming was completed) and re-surface the asphalt in front of the set. In the movie, it looks like a tropical beach on the side of the road.

The filmmakers were not permitted to remove a power pole near the bridge; they simply “dressed” it as a palm tree, complete with attached fronds. It’s clearly visible in Elvis’ first “fishing” scene.

Lynch became the moviemakers’ local liaison and arranged for extras. “I was in four different scenes, three of which were cut out before they showed it,” he chuckles. “They used to come into my office and say ‘Mr. Lynch, we need 10 men dressed like fishermen tomorrow morning.’ So then I’d get on the phone and call people. They got paid $10 a day and lunch, if they were there for the lunch hour.”

Presley was put up at the Port Paradise Motel in Crystal River. The star had his 20-foot Century Coronado speedboat docked behind the motel. Reportedly, he rarely ventured out in Crystal River or the nearby towns, preferring to take his boat out into the Gulf and waterski with his co-star, Canadian actress Anne Helm, and members of his omnipresent entourage, the so-called Memphis Mafia. “They basically stayed in their rooms,” says Opdyke. “They had their meals delivered. Anne Helm later said that they would do Dexedrine to stay up, and if they wanted to go to sleep, Elvis would give her Valium.”

Omnipresent too, on and off the set, was Presley’s manager Col. Tom Parker. “The colonel,” Opdyke reports, “was here for the duration, and several people have said that he stuck pretty close to Elvis.” Parker arranged several “publicity stops” for his client; Presley was photographed at Weeki Wachee Springs, and crowned the first king of Tampa’s Latin Festival (the crown was reportedly lost in all the confusion). One Sunday, Presley spent hours signing autographs at a park in Brooksville (according to Opdyke, Parker exacted a hefty fee from the town council for the Elvis appearance).

Mary Ellen Boyette, the 1961 Chiefland Watermelon Queen, visited the set and posed for photos with the star and a very large melon. “He was such a nice person, but I was just completely tongue-tied through the whole thing,” she says. “But it’s one of my treasured memories.”

On July 15, the production moved to Ocala for the first of four days’ shooting at the First Commercial Bank on Silver Springs Boulevard. Hundreds of spectators stood in a roped-off section; many more watched from the library steps across the street. Elvis’ dressing trailer was parked alongside the bank, in the drive-in lane.

“All the girls and boys were watching, hoping for a glimpse of him,” remembers Joanne Parramore, who was 15 at the time. “And he’d stick a hand out, or he’d stick a foot out, and everybody’d scream.”

A police escort would rush Presley inside the building when he was needed. Parramore’s mother worked at the bank, so Joanne and a friend were allowed inside to watch the filming – so long as they remained quiet and out of the way. “When they took a break, he came over to us,” Parramore recalls. “I distinctly remember him saying something like ‘Boy, these lights sure are hot.’ He was very nice and signed the back of a deposit slip.

“My mother was real impressed with how polite he was. They had lines for the lemonade, or water or whatever they had to drink, and he’d stand in line. He wasn’t the first guy in line.”

Earl Jernigan (1997 photo)

With members of her family, nine-year-old Shirley Darnell of Gainesville stood in the crowd outside the bank, after a morning’s fun at Silver Springs Park. “We only really saw him from a distance,” says Darnell, who’s now Capt. Sadie Darnell of the Gainesville Police Department. “My sister and I stared at his chair, the stereotypical movie chair with the name on it, and watched for when he’d come and sit in it.”

Darnell’s uncle, Earl Jernigan, had a job as assistant set decorator and prop man on the film. “I remember we were very proud that our uncle was involved in such a major production,” she says.

In the family group that day was Darnell’s 10-year-old cousin, Tom Petty. “My sister and I weren’t all that impressed about Elvis being there, but we knew that Tommy was very excited about being a part of what was going on,” Darnell says. “He was absorbing it all. It was one of the few times I ever saw him kind of serious.”

Joe Stewart, then 21, had come down from Gainesville with his sister and sister-in-law, and he brought his 8-millimeter movie camera. “Word on the street when we got there was that Elvis and Anne Helm were having lunch at the Marion Hotel on Magnolia Street,” Stewart says. “Locating the hotel, we went around back and discovered Elvis’ white Cadillac parked at the loading ramp. We camped outside the fence surrounding the area, and were lucky enough to catch Elvis and Anne on film as they came out the door.”

In Stewart’s dim, scratchy home movie Presley – still dressed in his blue Toby Kwimper shirt and jeans – feigns surprise as he and Helm, accompanied by their driver, spot the crowd and climb into the Caddy’s back seat. The next shot shows the big car passing through downtown Ocala on its way back to the Commercial Bank. “The temperature actually reached 102 degrees before the day ended, Stewart says, “but it did nothing to disperse the crowd outside the bank.”

The film’s finale was shot in the county courthouse in Inverness, with dozens of local people hired as extras.

Presley left Florida after six weeks in front of the camera; the film’s interiors were shot later, on a California soundstage. Within a month he was knee deep into his next movie, Kid Galahad.

Follow That Dream had its world premiere April 11, 1962 at the Marion Theatre in Ocala. Presley was in Hawaii, working on Girls, Girls, Girls, but he sent a telegram thanking everyone for their help on the picture. The movie opened a week later in Gainesville, at the Florida Theatre, and shortly thereafter around the country. It was, at one point, the No. 2 box office attraction according to Variety. “It generally got good critiques,” Opdyke says. “Variety equated it to Lil’ Abner and The Real McCoys. The Hollywood Reporter said Elvis did well playing comedy.”

It’s not much of a movie, but among Elvis aficionados it’s considered one of his better vehicles. “Most of his fans said, all we wanted to see was Elvis three times a year, performing new material,” reports Opdyke. “We didn’t care what it was, we just wanted to see him performing.”

Thirty-eight years after Follow That Dream came and went, Ollie Lynch still owns the land by Bird Creek Bridge. It’s overgrown with trees and weeds now, but he can still find the place, just off the set, where Presley’s personal trailer was parked.

“My mother was up in her 80s, and she’d always read how wonderful Elvis was to his mother,” Lynch says. “So she thought he was pretty fine, and she wanted to bake him a pie.

“I pulled up there and went around the corner, and Elvis was just coming out of the trailer with those hoody-looking friends that he traveled with. I told him ‘My 80-some year-old mother’s out here, and she’s got a pie for you.’ And he said ‘Well, bring it around.’ He was very gracious.

“So I got mother out with the pie and took her around there, she gave the pie to him and he handed it to these guys and said ‘Take that in there; we’re gonna have some of that real soon.’ And then he leaned over and kissed mother’s cheek.

“And I swear she didn’t wash her face for 3o days after that.”

Chicago: The Fellowship of the Logo

© 2004 by Bill DeYoung

If American history has taught us anything, it’s that democracy comes at a price.

Over the course of 37 years, the members of the band Chicago have clung to the principles by which the group was formed; at times the bloodletting was fierce, at times the institution itself was shaken to its foundation. But like the United States, Chicago has survived and continues to change and grow and learn from mistakes made.

To date, the band has sold more than 120 million albums around the world. Their catalog continues to sell briskly.

“There’s something about this music which I don’t understand, that keeps people coming back,” said James Pankow, trombonist, songwriter and longtime brass arranger for Chicago.

“This music remains timeless, and it has no demographic. We look in an audience and we see four generations. Name another artist whose music appeals to children and grandmas.

“When we wrote this shit, we had no idea it would become this. It was just another pop song.”

The original seven Chicagoans – drummer Danny Seraphine, pianist Robert Lamm, guitarist Terry Kath, bassist Peter Cetera and the up-front horn section of Pankow, trumpeter Lee Loughnane and sax/flute player Walter Parazaider – first played together in 1967 in the Windy City.

The idea – credited to Parazaider – was to blend rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm & blues, jazz and pop into a heady stew, with the horns playing a major role. Originally called the Big Thing, and (briefly) Chicago Transit Authority, Chicago chose to use the horns as another voice, rather than just punctuating the songs.

There was no leader. Everyone contributed equally.

The sound was distinctive out of the gate, and the band’s producer, Parazaider’s old DePaul University pal James William Guercio, made their 1969 debut Chicago Transit Authority an audio astonishment.

“His drum sounds were pioneering in those days,” said Pankow. “Stereo drums. And what he did with eight tracks was amazing.”

Guercio, who’d honed his production skills on Blood, Sweat & Tears’ second release, double- and triple-tracked Chicago’s horn section in New York and Los Angeles studios.

With the second album, Chicago, the band was embraced by FM radio, and when AM Top 40 got on the bus, Chicago began hemorrhaging hits.

Lamm, Kath, Pankow and later Cetera were prolific writers, and Chicago’s hits came from all four. The band’s musical identity became so strong, so identifiable, that people loved Chicago records no matter who was doing the singing.

“Make Me Smile” was written by Pankow and sung by Kath; Lamm wrote “25 or 6 to 4” and Cetera handled the vocal. Lamm sang his own “Beginnings” and “Does Anybody Really Know What Time it Is,” but gave “Dialogue (Parts One and Two)” to Kath and Cetera as a duet.

“I was always very open to casting the song,” said Lamm. “I knew I was never going to sing ’25 or 6 to 4.’ I wrote it for Peter to sing, because in my very naïve way I would sit down to write a song and never think about the key or the range. It was ‘Here’s a song; who’s going to sing it?'”

It was a bit dicier for Pankow, who didn’t sing. “When Terry or Robert or Peter wrote a song, they wrote it for themselves, because they were singers,” he explained. “When I wrote, I didn’t have any particular voice in mind – I just had the melody, and the lyric, and so when I brought my stuff in to be recorded we basically had a sing–off.”

In the case of “Make Me Smile,” said Pankow, “Robert sang it, it wasn’t quite right. Peter sang it, it wasn’t quite right. Terry sang it, bingo. On the money.

“I think it was probably an awkward thing for the singers, because they were actually being auditioned for their own record. Because I didn’t know who the hell’s voice was right until I heard it.”

For “Just You & Me,” another Pankow tune, “Everybody wanted to sing it,” according to Parazaider. “So we had Open Mic Night. I sat there and watched all three of those guys have at it. The three of them were fighting to get into the vocal booth. I think even Jimmy went ‘Let me try it.'”

Singer and keyboardist Bill Champlin, who joined Chicago in 1981 (more on that later), heard a story about “Colour My World,” Pankow’s romantic ballad from the early days.

“Nobody liked it,” Champlin said. “Terry drew the short straw, and he sang the wedding song for a whole generation.

“If you listen to it closely, him and Jack Daniels went to the mic. It was a definite duet. And Jack was actually kinda singing more than Terry.”

“Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World” were edited from Pankow’s “Ballet for a Girl In Buchannon,” a four-movement piece on the second album.

“None of us knew what editing was in those days,” said Pankow. “The first time I heard ‘Make Me Smile’ edited as a single was on the radio in my car. I’m going ‘How’d they do that? They butchered that fuckin’ thing.'”

“We thought it was a travesty to be editing ‘art,’” Loughnane said. “We had to grow up and learn that a single on the radio is an advertisement for the band. Which then gives them the possibility of coming to a live show and hearing the whole piece.”

This was one of de facto band member Guercio’s ideas – he did the early edits without consulting the members of Chicago.

“It really didn’t bother us,” Parazaider said. “When that first album hit the charts at 39 or 42 with a bullet, we just went apeshit and were ecstatic. We had hit records and we were out working, and it’s something that we had really hoped to do, all of us, for a while.”

(Pankow’s multi-part song was actually titled “Ballet for a Girl in Buckhannon,” named for his girlfriend at the time, who lived in Buckhannon, West Virginia. It was misprinted on the album and has remained misprinted ever since.)

Chicago was embraced by the catchy tune-loving radio crowd and jazzbos alike – the former sent 35 singles into the Top 40 between 1970 and ‘91, and the latter dug their virtuosic ensemble playing. Horn players became something more than the geeks in the high school marching band.

Guercio – also band manager – had convinced them to keep their faces off the album covers and use a ubiquitous logo instead, like a brand name, instantly recognizable. And the albums didn’t have titles, but sequential numbers, like volumes in a library. With one or two exceptions, the logo and number have appeared on every one of Chicago’s twenty-something albums to date.

“It’s helped the band to continue on through some personnel changes,” Parazaider explained. “They know the music, and they know the logo, the quality standard is there. The logo is the standard.”

The logo became the umbrella for Chicago’s all-for-the-band, the-band-for-all approach.

Pankow said anonymity never hurt the musicians as they barnstormed the country. “Believe me, there was no problem being recognized,” he laughed. “We had to have security wherever we went. In a hotel in Pittsburgh, women were scaling the friggin’ building trying to get to us.

“I remember gigs where they had to put us in a linen truck, or a plumbing van, to get us in and out of the gig. We had police stationed on the stage just to protect us from fanatical fans.”

V (1972) was the first of five consecutive No. 1 albums. The singles, including “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” “Saturday in the Park,” “Old Days,” “Free” and “Call on Me,” had been hitting bang, bang, bang, one after another. Pankow said the band felt it had the Midas Touch during this period.

The collaborations continued: Cetera and Seraphine co-wrote “Lowdown,” Pankow and Cetera came up with “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day,” and “No Tell Lover” was a three-way between Loughnane, Cetera and Seraphine. On Cetera’s “Wishing You Were Here,” Kath and the composer shared the microphone.

Cetera’s “If You Leave Me Now,” from X, became Chicago’s first No. 1 single, in 1976.

“We probably could’ve done a whole album of crap by the fifth album,” Lamm said, “filled it out with long solos, and stuff like that, which is some of what we did on the other albums. But that was the intent, to stretch out and have long solos.

“But by 1972, there really just wasn’t the time. And that’s just not what was written.”

V had been the band’s first non-double album (the fourth release, Chicago at Carnegie Hall, clocked in at an endurance-testing four LPs).

“When we started, the record companies were paying unlimited copyrights,” Loughnane said. “And I think people took advantage of that by naming solo sections as a different song. By V, they went to paying for just 10 copyrights on an album, and that changed everything musically.

“Then we tried to accomplish the musical statements we’d done before in a shorter period of time. Say the same thing but condense it. If you can’t say it in three minutes, you shouldn’t be saying it.”

The endless cycle of recording, touring and more recording was beginning to take its toll. “We worked our asses off,” Parazaider said. “We were on the road so much, we didn’t know anything but each other. You want to talk about burnt.

“We’d wonder sometimes, looking out the plane window going ‘Will there be a day where we don’t have to face this deadline, and really get into something?’ So we really cut down on the afterthoughts – you get done with a record, it’s mixed, you hear it once and you OK it. And then I would never revisit the album again.”

According to Lamm, the seven midwestern musicians thought they were hot shit.

“It wasn’t so much arrogance as it was being young and stupid,” he said. “We had become conditioned, by this point, of ‘Everything we do people seem to like. Let’s just keep doing this.’ And when suddenly a single came out and it wasn’t Top Ten, just Top 40, it was like ‘What the fuck is this? Don’t they get it?'”

“When the seventh album came out,” said Loughnane, “all seven albums were on the charts. I thought we were pretty hot. You think this is never gonna end.”

Life was good. Still, with their corporate-stamp look and Roman numeral titles, Chicago albums – filled with great songs and performances though they were – began to become predictable.

From all accounts, the one who most resented adhering to Chicago’s hit-making blueprint was guitarist Kath, who preferred the longer, more improvisational pieces.

“The commercial part of the band bothered him,” said Parazaider. “I think he had the hardest time with the fame and all of that stuff. He just wanted to make music, and in his words, he didn’t give a shit if it sold or not.”

Cetera – in a separate interview – said the fellowship was already starting to unravel by this point. Group unity, he said, had its drawbacks. Behind the logo, unseen by the adoring public, things were strafing.

“The truth of the matter is that we always came off like this boring ensemble, everything seemed like goody two-shoes, when in fact it wasn’t,” Cetera explained. “There were inner turmoils. Every bad thing you could think about in a group was happening in our group – you just didn’t hear about it because we were very good at hiding it.”

Touring behind VII, Chicago – at Kath’s insistence – played entire shows of lengthy jazz pieces, leaving out most of their many hits. Critics and audiences hated it.

Said Lamm: “I remember smoking a joint and getting really high and calling Terry and saying ‘Terry, you know what? I think we’re completely fucking up. We should play every one of our hits, because the jazz thing isn’t working.’ He got completely angry with me, because he wasn’t there. He really wanted to just play.”

Success, inevitably, went to their heads. They acquired the usual problems of the rich and famous. “You can see some of our old TV specials, and people are shaking because they’re so wired from blow,” said Pankow. “I look back and I don’t know how the hell I did what I do when I was screwing up like that. Because it’s a demanding gig.”

The bloom came off the rose in 1977, when the band hired outside counsel to look into their contract with Guercio.

“It was so one-sided,” Pankow recalled. “Danny Seraphine was driving home in his little second-hand VW to his two-room home in Sherman Oaks, realizing that our producer was living on 3,000 acres in Colorado and driving around in Cadillacs and flying in Lear jets. And Danny’s going ‘What’s wrong with this picture?'”

When the band’s lawyer re-read the management contract from ’69, Pankow said, “he laughed in our faces. He said ‘You guys are fools. This guy is fucking you every way from Saturday.’

“He owned everything. He’d said ‘You guys make the music, and we’re going to do the business so you aren’t sidetracked by the business and you can concentrate on being creative.’ Translation: ‘We’re going to hide all the business from you so we can steal from you, and rob you blind.’ He got 100 percent of the publishing, for songs that he didn’t write one note of.”

Guercio, Loughnane said, “had an idea that the artist should be paid for their art. And he lied, plain and simple.

“We were very malleable at that time. All we wanted to do was write songs, go into the studio and play. And we trusted that they were taking care of the business.”

Guercio declined to be interviewed for this story.

“My theory is that he had some kind of brain aneurysm,” Lamm explained. “And he just stopped thinking logically. Instead of just being a talented musician who was a brilliant producer, and someone who had some great ideas, he kind of became megalomaniacal. To the point where he could no longer be brilliant and productive. And we were his tool.

“We had no experience in any other world, other than the world he introduced us to.”

Chicago settled out of court with Guercio in 1978, regaining most of their publishing (Guercio, Pankow said, “will own a piece of it for the rest of his life”).

The sudden betrayal and loss of their Svengali was a stunner. “Basically, it was called growing up,” Pankow recalled. “We weren’t naive little kids any more. I was 20 years old when this started; I didn’t know shit about the business. I knew how to play the damn horn, and I knew how to jump around on a stage.”

Still, worse things were to come.

In the early morning hours of Jan. 23, 1978, Kath died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound at a friend’s house in Woodland Hills, California.

“I know in my heart that it was an accident,” said Pankow. “If he hadn’t been up for three days, and acting crazy, party hardy … he was a gun enthusiast, and he had gone to the shooting range, which he did regularly. He came back – this is on no sleep – and he was cleaning his gun, and there was a bullet still in the chamber which he had forgotten about because he was wasted. He put the clip back in, it chambered the round, and it went off.”

Like most of the other band members, Kath was no stranger to alcohol and drug abuse.

“That incredible, terrible loss due to carelessness, it was the biggest wake-up call we could ever have,” Pankow stressed. “We realized ‘Hey man, what a bunch of assholes we’ve been. We’ve been taking our audience for granted, we’ve been taking our gift for granted, we’ve become a bunch of spoiled, delusionary brats.'”

Kath’s loss, Pankow added, “took the wind out of our sails. We got a major slap across the face when that happened, because his death was a careless death. He didn’t need to go.”

It was the late ‘70s. Cocaine, said Pankow, was a part of a working musician’s life. “What a vile thing. I’m so glad those days are over. We survived. Terry didn’t. And in his death, we all became stronger, more responsible people. So his death was his gift to us, at the risk of sounding macabre.”

With both Guercio and Kath out of the picture, Chicago hired the first in a series of new guitarists and producers and came up with Hot Streets – the start of something new. No Roman numeral, and a photograph of the band on the cover.

Hot Streets produced no major hits, and was one of their least well-received albums. According to a record-label fan poll, the logo, and the numbered titles, were touchstones. They wanted them back. The musicians’ egos were bruised, but they followed up with 13 and XIV, each of which sold less than Hot Streets.

“The day after Terry Kath passed away, I got a call,” remembered Bill Champlin, a killer white-soul singer who’d been gigging for years around San Francisco and Los Angeles. “And I said ‘Yeah, I play guitar, but I can’t fit in those shoes.’ I thought I was being offered an audition, at least.”

Although he was quite an accomplished guitarist, Champlin wasn’t a lead player and considered himself a singer and keyboardist first and foremost. He passed on the invite.

Through his friendship with drummer Seraphine, Champlin came in to work on the sessions for what would become Chicago’s first album with Full Moon/Warner Bros, 16 (Columbia having unceremoniously dropped the band after their recent poor sales). He and Seraphine enlisted David Foster to produce, and before the record was released, Champlin had become a full-time member of the band.

The last song written and recorded for 16 was “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” a lush ballad co-written by Cetera and Foster. The two became fast friends during this period.

The song went to No. 1, and Chicago – without founders Kath and Guercio, and without the mighty muscle of Columbia Records – was reborn.

Still, the Foster sound was, well, it was different from vintage Chicago. “Some of the songs just didn’t lend themselves to horns,” Parazaider said. “On some of the Foster stuff, we ended up picking up guitars and keyboards, and that was frustrating for us.

“Lee and Jimmy and I were saying ‘Maybe we don’t fit into this any more.’ We had a conference call between the three of us, and we said ‘Maybe we should do something else together.’ This was our worth for all these years, and it wasn’t being used. And it really bothered us.”

Champlin: “To give him his due, David actually did some really great work. On the 17 album there’s some horns that are just so sweet. It was Jimmy Pankow’s chart, but he (Foster) truncated everything seriously to make it fit correctly. Rather than just saying ‘I don’t understand it, let’s get rid of it.'”

Many of the band’s longtime fans considered the switch to a softer, ballad-heavy repertoire (orchestrated by Foster, who would later make his name producing MOR hits for Cetera and other vocalists) something of a sellout. “To me, commercial is really more about people liking what you’re writing as opposed to trying to write what you think people are going to like,” said Cetera, “which is what happened towards the end. For Christ’s sake, we had a disco song on one of the albums after Terry died, a year after disco was over. Just because somebody wanted it on.”

Sellout or no, Chicago had its second wind. 17, released in 1984, became the biggest album of their career, and sent three singles (“You’re the Inspiration,” “Hard Habit to Break” and “Along Comes a Woman”) near the top of the charts. 17 went platinum seven times – and one can imagine Columbia executives kicking themselves for letting Chicago go.

These were the salad days of MTV. Although Champlin had sung part of “Hard Habit to Break,” the Foster-produced hits were all voiced by Cetera.

“When you make a video, the lens goes to the lead singer,” Loughnane explained. “And it makes it look like that person is the leader of the band. However mistaken that might be.”

According to Champlin, Cetera – who’d made a solo record in between Chicago albums – was giving off ‘I’m leaving’ signs for a few years. “He’d really gotten himself under control,” he said. “He’d quit smoking, drugs and drinking, he really got into good shape. He was making a run at it.

“He knew band rhetoric as good as anybody, and could spout it. He knew how to make it sound like a band. But he really saw himself as a solo artist.”

In the summer of 1985, Peter Cetera quit Chicago.

“It wasn’t amicable in any way, shape or form,” Cetera recalled. “I was led to believe one thing, as far as letting me do my solo stuff, when there was time. And when there was time I wasn’t allowed to do my solo stuff without everybody kicking and screaming. And that turns into not a very good situation.”

Lamm described a band meeting in their manager’s office. “Peter said ‘I don’t really like where the music is going. To be honest with you, I never really dug the music that much anyway.’

“I remembered there were things on VII or something that he maybe didn’t like, but why wait 10 albums to say something?

“In every group context, there’s a certain chemistry. And I think Peter felt like he wasn’t getting along with everybody like he wanted to. I think Peter was a guy who couldn’t sit down and say ‘You know, I’m just not comfortable with what’s going on, or with you,’ or whatever. He was the guy that said ‘It’s hard for me to say I’m sorry.'”

Cetera’s exit was a bitter pill for the remaining old friends. “Before he left,” said Pankow, “he was making demands, like ‘I want 50 percent of the take because I’m the focus, I’m the guy, I’m the voice of Chicago.’ He wanted 50 percent of the gross receipts from the road, top billing.

“Our answer to that was “Hey dude, we’ve been a democracy since the beginning. We’re a team here. There’s no lead, there’s no focal point. We’re a band and we’re all equal partners here.'”

Cetera: “Nobody really wants to hear what really happened, and how it really happened. They always want to hear how everything was good, and we’re gonna get back together, and that’s just not the case.

“I’ve tried over the years to do certain things that would’ve made that happen, and I’ve been rejected. I’m not really interested in reunions, but there have been certain things over the years that would have been fun to do.”

He dislikes answering too many questions about Chicago. “The only thing I can equate it to is constantly talking about your ex-wife, and the new wife doesn’t like that too much,” he said. “In my instance, my new wife is what I’m doing now.”

Lamm: “The guy is a great singer, and a great songwriter. He’s just so talented, and on that level all of us have tremendous respect for the guy.”

But fans shouldn’t look for a reunion anytime soon. “In 1995, we threw out the olive branch,” Loughnane said. “We had just gotten our masters from Columbia. That presented an opportunity for the first time where we could put the Warner Brothers and CBS years on the same discs, on Chicago Records, which we had just formed.

“For Heart of Chicago Volume 1 we were going to do two original songs – and we asked Peter if he wanted to sing them. He said no, he didn’t think the songs were good enough.

“So what are you gonna do?”

For a 2001 Behind the Music show on the band, Cetera declined to talk and was conspicuous in his absence. “Not only were they not gonna talk about me, they were going to diminish my role in the group,” he said. “And they did fairly well in that thing. Making it out to be that Terry Kath was the heart and the soul of the music – well, he wasn’t. He was one of us. So they did a fairly nice job of expunging me from the record.

“Basically, what Chicago was, was a group of guys that were musically democratic. Which, in the end is not a very good idea. What happened was, we got together, Bobby would write these fabulous songs, and he would have Terry sing one song, me sing one song, and it was a great thing. Everybody wrote songs.

“And then ego started getting in the way of ‘He’s got a song on the album; I need one.’ And then stuff started getting on the album that had no reason to be on the album. People started thinking they were something that they weren’t. The fact of the matter was that before Terry’s death, he was probably the first one that wanted out of the group. He wanted to be gone. He hated it.

“I think had Terry been alive, we would’ve probably broke up anyhow. That’s where it was heading.”

For his part, Pankow has very little nice to say about his former bandmate. “I remember he said to Walt once, ‘You horn players lead a charmed life.’ In other words, I’m the lead singer, I brought all these hit songs to life with my voice, and you guys just blow on a pipe.

“As far as Walt’s concerned, the farther away that guy is, the better. And as far as I’m concerned, anybody who thinks their shit doesn’t stink, and they’re more important than the whole …”

Cetera’s successor, Jason Scheff, has now been in Chicago for 18 years – longer than the man he replaced. A bassist and singer of considerable ability, he wrote and sang “What Kind of Man Would I Be,” a Top Five Chicago single, in 1989.

The son of Elvis sideman Jerry Scheff, Jason grew up a Chicago fan. “If somebody confuses me for Peter or anything else, it’s a great problem to have,” he said. “We’ve maintained a sound, and I’ve never tried to sound like Peter. I sing it the way it’s been loaded into my DNA, and anything else would be a lie.

“If anything I wish I was more like Champlin, who is so stylized.”

(Champlin’s “Look Away” hit No. 1 in 1988, and he and Scheff shared vocal duties on the Top 20 “If She Would Have Been Faithful” in the same period.)

In 1990, another founding member left the group. According to Pankow, drummer Seraphine had “sabotaged” a U.K. tour with his playing, which had become lazy and uninspired.

“Every one of those gigs, it was an eternity up there,” Pankow said. “And if the drums ain’t playing the tempo, there’s nothing you can do.”

Seraphine, said Pankow, was given six months to get back in shape. When the band reconvened to rehearse, the drummer still couldn’t keep his tempos up.

“It was really a difficult, difficult situation,” Pankow explained. “We had no choice. We would have been committing career suicide had we kept him. The rhythm section was just plodding along. People were walking out of the shows.”

Seraphine, whose precise jazz drumming had given Chicago its sparkplug in the early days, was summarily fired.

“I’m still bummed,” Pankow said, “because we’re talking about one of the most innovative pop drummers in history. In the beginning, nobody could hold a candle to this guy. And to this day, I don’t know how he lost that chop.”

In came Tris Imboden, who idolized Seraphine’s musicianship. Imboden had been touring for years with the likes of Kenny Loggins and Al Jarreau.

“What I saw as my responsibility was to try and make the songs feel as good as possible,” Imboden said. “But I also tried to keep some of those thumbprints that Danny had made an integral part of the song. The guys from Day One encouraged me to make it my own.”

Added Parazaider: “You have to travel well to be in this band. If you don’t, and we’ve had ‘em, you’re gone. This is hard enough to do .”

After that, the road was not without its pitfalls. Pankow explained that his alcoholism had gotten so out of hand by 1991 – “I was drinking onstage and making a pretty big ass of myself” – the other band members staged an intervention in a Nevada hotel room. “I was basically confronted with my problem: Either you stop what you’re doing or we’re going to have to replace you,” Pankow revealed.

So he cleaned up his act. Guitarist Keith Howland joined the ranks in 1995, cementing the steadiest Chicago lineup since the beginning.

Today’s concerts are joyous and celebratory affairs. The three “new guys” – Scheff, Imboden and the wickedly talented Howland, who plays like the young Terry Kath – give the “old songs” freshness and muscle.

Chicago’s catalogue, including a gold Christmas album from 2001 and a five –disc box set – is now distributed by Rhino (Guercio, predictably, sued the band last year, claiming a piece of the deal. The band won the lawsuit).

The band members know they probably won’t have any more huge hits, what with the current music scene, but they swear they’re OK with that. “Look at Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Frank Sinatra,” Pankow said. “These guys worked into their 80s. They didn’t need a hit record, because they had developed this legacy, just by virtue of staying out there and for the love of what they did. And we love this.”

“What’s really fortunate is that we don’t need a hit record to sell a lot of concert tickets,” Scheff observed. “Careers evolve and go to different places. For me, personally, everything is gravy at this point. We played Jones Beach last summer and nearly sold it out – 11, 12,000 seats. I’m so grateful, man.”

Pointed out Pankow: “We have reached a legendary status, by virtue of staying together. By doing it well for years.

“They say the nice guy finishes last. Well, we are finishing last. It’s karma, and our reward is the fact that we can go out and work as long as we want to, because people want to come hear it.”

Chicago was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014; although Danny Seraphine was present, Peter Cetera declined to participate.

 As of this writing (2023), Bill Champlin, Tris Imboden, Jason Scheff and Keith Howland are no longer in the band. Walt Parazaider retired in 2004.

Tom Petty/Mike Campbell ’86: Rednecks in space


To set the stage: This freewheeling, slightly intoxicated interview was conducted around midnight July 16, 1986 in Tom Petty’s suite at the Omni Berkshire Place in New York City, after the first show in a three-night stand at Madison Square Garden, which New York Times reviewer Jon Pareles would describe as “oddly paced and willful.” Bob Dylan with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers were playing three-hour concerts that summer, with no intermission. This was, Petty gleefully told me as he strummed an unplugged Fender Telecaster, the only interview he’d agreed to do on the entire tour.

(Intro from I Need to Know: The Lost Music Interviews)


So what have you been up to?

Since I’ve seen you, I did the Southern Accents tour, I did a film of that tour, then I mixed the double live album. I did Farm Aid with Bob, then a trip to Australia, New Zealand and Japan with Bob. Mixed the HBO thing. Did a double album in four weeks. I did a single for Bob in Australia, called “Band of the Hand.” What else did I do? I did a part in a movie called Made in Heaven. I did that and flew right back to the studio and got the ol’ double LP done. It was cut between the Australian and the American tour. I produced two songs for Bob on his album, and we wrote some songs together that are gonna be great, that we ain’t got around to doing yet. And then I jumped on the bus for this.


So you’re going to make this a double album?

I think I have to. You always hear “there’s a bulk of material,” but there really is a bulk of good material. Real rock ‘n’ roll stuff. I think just one slow song on a double album. It’s real barrel-out stuff.


Why did that happen?

I don’t know! I’m still mystified by it.

(Mike Campbell enters)

Ladies and gentlemen, Mike Campbell. Mike, you got anything to say to the newspapers?

Campbell: You want to write some songs tonight?

Petty: You never know, man. I’m a songwritin’ machine!


So, this new stuff is full-steam rock ‘n’ roll?

Campbell: Is that what you called it, Tom? Full-steam rock ‘n’ roll?

Petty: Well, full steam hasn’t really come out. It sounds kinda like a redneck bar band, or a garage band. It’s real light stuff …

Campbell: With a little bit of a cosmic edge to it.


Stan (Lynch) says it sounds like the first album.

Petty: It sounds better than the first album. It’s a lot more raucous than the first album. You know how they always say “God, I wish he’d make a rock ‘n’ roll record like he used to”? Well, this is a lot better than the rock ‘n’ roll records we used to make. This just happened, in the studio. I’d say – (he plays the opening chords to ‘Can’t Get Her Out’) – and the band would start playing. Then I’d start singin’ a little thing, you know? And then it’s done.


Why hadn’t that happened for years? What got in the way?

You gotta be kind of good to do that, and you gotta have a band of a certain mentality to do it. We’ve been fuckin’ around together 10, 15 years.

We just felt like playing. We weren’t even meant to be there. We went there because I’d booked the time for Bob, and he wasn’t ready to go in. So we just jumped in there to try out some songs me and Mike had written. We went in with about four tunes and left with 35. We’re gonna put a number of them out.


You’ve cut “Got My Mind Made Up”?

Yeah, there’s a Heartbreakers version and a Bob version. We wrote that together, and there’s a lot more verses. So I think in our version there’ll be a lot of the extra verses that didn’t get on Bob’s.

Campbell: Bob wrote the verse about Libya.

Petty: I wrote the verse about Libya.

Campbell: You did?

Petty: I did. Well, if the truth must be known … Bob says “Let’s write a song about Florida!” And I said no. He goes (singing) “I’m going to Tallahassee ..” and I said no, “I’m going to Libya.” And he sings “There’s a guy I gotta see/He’s been living there three years now/In an oil refinery …” Great! And then we did another one.

Writing with Bob is great, because if you throw one line he comes back with three great lines.


Could you tell him if he came up with a lousy line?

Oh yeah, sure. No, no, no, you don’t want no lousy lines.


Well, Dylan has written some bad songs too …

Petty: What great man hasn’t?


You’ve written some bad songs. Both of you have.

Campbell: I’ve never written a bad song in my life!

Petty: Well, so has everyone. I think Ludwig Van had a few clinkers. Lennon, certainly.

You can’t be great if you don’t show your ass now and then. Or you’re not trying to do anything. I mean, Bryan Adams might not ever write one that you notice is bad, because they’ll polish that turd to a high chrome!

Come on. This is the only band in America who doesn’t know who’s gonna take the solo. Fuck ‘em! The name of my album’s called Let Me Up I’ve Had Enough.


You’re gonna call it that?

Petty: That’s right, because I’ve had enough. It’s called Let Me Up I’ve Had Enough, written by me and Brother Campbell.


You’ve got a song called “Let Me Up” and another one called “I’ve Had Enough”?

Campbell: No, they’re one song, in two parts. A “Let Me Up” part, and then an “I’ve Had Enough” part.

Petty: It’s heavy art! (laughter)


How can you guys stand each other after so long?

Petty: Oh, we hate each other. We can’t fuckin’ deal with each other. I don’t know how the fuck I put up with you after all these years!


Campbell: It must be ‘cause I’m so good-looking!

Petty: Looks is a good part of it.


There’s a lot of talk right now about Jagger and Richards not writing together any more. And you guys have been working together for a while ….

Petty: Since 1970, if we must reveal it …

Campbell: See, the thing is, we don’t write together. We write apart, and …

Petty: Not till we’re in the studio do we look eye to eye and try to bang it out. Unless I’m doing something and I can’t think of a bridge, Mike’ll think of a bridge.


I’m curious about this new stuff. It sounds like it’s “The Heartbreakers, Mach II.”

Campbell (to Petty): What does he mean by that? Mark 2?

Petty: “Mach.” Mach II. It’s another era. “No more funny glasses and backward tapes,” is what he means. I see people in New York wearin’ them glasses now.


So we’re back to playing live in the studio, without overdubbing?

Petty: There’s hardly any overdubbing. But we never did that much overdubbing anyway, really. We tried a lot but it never got on the record most times.


Do you think Dylan’s slash-and-burn approach – “go in and do it” – has rubbed off on you?

Petty: It’s too early to tell. I could tell you in a year, maybe. We’ve been running around with Bob for about a year now. I think we rub off on him more than he rubs off on us. You know, you can slash and burn but it’s still gotta come out good.

I think it’s just a real good band, you know? This band keeps getting better. Another thing was, me and Mike are producing this record, and there was never a producer there to sort of like throw a wrench in the works, or suggest another idea. Or make it feel like you were making a record. We didn’t ever talk about making a record!

If you hear the tapes, I’m calling the chords. Some of them we only ever played maybe once or twice. And that was the writing and the playing of the song. So when I hear them, they’re still real fresh to me.

Campbell: In Bob’s defense, that was something we learned from him.

Petty: We probably did learn that from Bob. We learned the joy of throwing some chaos in any time things … Bob will never let things get too settled. When all of a sudden you feel like “I got this thing down,” he’s gonna change it. And that may sink, but if it really happens it REALLY happens. You can’t fake it then, buddy. You really got to do it.

I’d rather hear somebody try, and sink, than turn on their fuckin’ computer and just drift by. I’m not into that. That shit’s gonna die. People are gonna catch on to that.


You have these raw tapes now. If you sit on them, will you start thinking “Ah, I could do this better,” or do you want to get them out fast before you start to think?

Campbell: You don’t want to think. If you start thinking, you’re in bad trouble.

Petty: There’s no thinking involved. If you’re thinking, there’s something wrong. We’ve done some of those intellectual albums. Southern Accents was a real production piece. Two years of production.

And we’re not in the mood to do that. Not that we won’t do it again, no promises, but this is what we’re doing now. We’re “Rednecks in Space,” you know? It’s a garage band, but a good one.


It’s very kamikaze. You cut all these tracks in such a short period of time. It’s unlike you guys.

Petty: Well, I’m sure it’ll come out that Bob Dylan did that. Maybe he did do that.

Campbell: And we might throw all those tracks out and start all over again.


Petty: You never know … we might go back and do something else. But I think we won’t, because I really like this album so much. I really do. I ought to play you some of it … but I don’t know, it might scare Michael.


How is your relationship with MCA?

It’s great. I’ve known Irving Azoff for years and years. I don’t do a lot of record business any more, but I know Irving and he’s somebody I can call up and talk straight with. All he asks of me is to bring him a record. He never rushes me. He didn’t rush me for two years. He’d come down and listen and say “When it’s right …” He knew what I was doing.


So you’re going to try to get this album out this year?

You betcha!


Will Irving let you do another double, after the live album?

I never asked him. I just assume he will. Why wouldn’t he? Irving’s a reasonable man. (laughter)


Irving must’ve been the guy who decided to make “Needles and Pins,” a four-year-old track, the single from the live album?

I don’t know. I don’t pick the singles. I thought they should have put out “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star.” I just thought it was such a great record. And you know what they said? They thought it was too rock ‘n’ roll for the radio. And at that point I said well, guys, we really don’t have anything to talk about. At the time, it was the Number One Airplay song in the country. And they wouldn’t release it as a single because it was “too rock ‘n’ roll.” That’s … you know, let me up, I’ve had enough. (laughter)


What was the inspiration for “American Girl”? There’s always been a story that connects it to Gainesville …

Petty: Naw, that’s myth …

Campbell: It’s got 441 in it …

Petty … and it’s probably got a southern setting. A lot of songs are based around there. I’ve written a lot of songs with a southern setting. “Magnolia” could be that area. There’s a lot of magnolias there.

I’m trying to remember writing “American Girl.” I think I wrote it in an apartment in Encino, California in ’76 or ’75.

Campbell: It was the Fourth of July, wasn’t it?

Petty: Fourth of July. And it came quickly. It was written very quickly. Instantly.


It’s a song about suicide …

Campbell: Naw. BULL-shit!


Well, the story goes that the girl jumped from Beatty Towers in Gainesville …

Petty: No, the line is “If she had to die trying …”

Campbell: Love is dead, that’s what it was about. It’s a figure of speech! “If she had to die trying …”

Petty: “If she had to die trying.” She didn’t have to DIE. “It was one little promise she was going to keep.”


Well, it’s desperate …

Petty: Yeah, it’s very desperate. Well, maybe that’s why they thought she just lept off the balcony. I always pictured her as a much more stable bitch than that.


That was back in the period where all the songs were two minutes, 25 seconds.

Petty: Yeah, we just figured “Let’s get in, get out,” you know? We were highly criticized at the time for that. I kinda miss that, you know? Verse, verse, chorus, solo, verse, chorus, get out. A good rock ‘n’ roll song doesn’t need to be more than a few minutes long anyway.

We got songs on this record now that are nine minutes long. There’s one song that’s probably a whole side. I don’t know, Campbell will probably edit it.

We just play. We record everything played in the session. If one guy’s playing, it’s recorded. And there’s always somebody out there playing. It’s not the kind of band that can learn a song and do, say, 10 takes any more. We’re too impatient. We’ll go on to something else. Because we just want to hit a feel and play it. If we know it too good, we can never record it.


Is the live stuff as much fun now as it was when you first started playing with Bob last year?

I like playing with Bob. Bob’s all right. He’s just a good friend to play music with. And God, he sure has done a lot for us. We’re allowed to do whatever we want. It’s kind of like having another band. We got another singer who writes, you know? We treat it like a group. That’s the way Bob’s arranged it. I respect him for that.

It’s kind of like jamming for three hours. You don’t really know what you’re gonna play, or what rhythm it’s gonna be.


You’re hanging back a lot in these shows.

I like hanging back. I sing a lot in this show, man. I must sing 15 songs in this show. I got at least five songs to sing with Bob, and what’d we do tonight? Eight. That’s a lot of singing.


Still, where’s the ego fit in, when you’re playing a supporting role?

What ego? What are you talking about? Listen, man, if you’re in a rock group and you’re even dealing with ego, you’re not going anywhere. You can’t deal with that and do anything!


That’s not what I heard.

Well, there’s a lot of things you hear that ain’t true. I’ve done this a long time. I’m much too smart to get into ego. I want to make Bob good, and Bob wants to make me good. And that’s why we get along, because we’re way above that.

It’s a matter of feeling, this music. It’s all about feel. To send out something and make somebody feel good. It’s not any deeper than that. And if you can learn that, then you’re gonna be around more than a record or two.


Bob was out there tonight pulling these Jesus songs out of the hat …

And rightfully so!


Right after your second set, after Ronnie Wood came out for “Rainy Day Women,” then there was a Jesus song. I could feel the momentum dive.

Yeah, but see, you’re still talking about it. You know what, the Beach Boys wouldn’t-a done that. They’ve have probably just steamrollered that baby to the end like Bruce Springsteen. But that’s not what we’re doing. That’s not what this is about. He had something to say at that point.

This ain’t show business, man. This ain’t show business. That’s Bob Dylan. He had something to say at that point. He had something to say about Jesus right then. He sang “Like a Rolling Stone,” right? He’d already done that.

Listen, man, you gotta dig that there’s a lot of great songs about Jesus. David Lee Roth might not want to do that. But I admire a man that’s confident enough in himself to do that. And I tell you what, nobody left.

Campbell: He does that on purpose. I know what you mean by momentum. It builds up and it’s boogie till you puke. Bob doesn’t want to boogie till he pukes.

Petty: I respect a man that can bring it down and still hold ‘em. This is not boogie till you puke. We’re not there to do that. We’re there to offer an alternative. To expose people to an alternative.

A lot of times we don’t know who’s taking the solo or what’s gonna happen. This is the only band left like that. And it’s a shame. Except for some of the younger bands that nobody wants to give the time of day to. And I’m real concerned about that.

A rock show’s gotten to be such an organized, routine thing. I don’t know when’s the last one I went to, because they’re so fuckin’ predictable. You know what’s gonna happen. You know they’re gonna play an encore. You know they’re gonna do another encore. Da, da, da, the big lights are gonna come on …

Fuck it! It’s like you may as well watch Johnny Carson. Bob did a great show, and he didn’t concede to anything. And that’s an artist. That’s when you start calling this shit art. (laughter). If you must!

A lot of these guys are great performers and entertainers, but they’re not taking the medium anywhere as far as I’m concerned.


But is Bob’s intention, with those kind of songs, to get people to follow him?

They’re never gonna follow you. Did they ever? If they’d ever followed him, I mean, there wouldn’t have been a war. They’ll follow you to the record store. They’ll follow you to the concert hall. And they might have a great time, but very few retain a sense of “following,” as far as taking the lyrics … but you can inspire them. You can inspire them to think for themselves, which is the greatest thing you can do for them. You can inspire them; you don’t want them to follow you.

Campbell: Even the Jesus songs, they’re not pro-Jesus. They’re just sort of calling attention to it.

Petty: You have to ask Bob those questions, because I don’t really know how to interpret that. But I respect it. And I don’t think he’s ramming anything down anybody’s throat. And he certainly offered a wide variety of his material tonight. Bob’s done 35 albums; if he played one song from each of his albums, that’s the show.

Story and photo 1986 @Bill DeYoung



Eric Clapton, Duane Allman and one historic concert

In autumn 1970, Phil Gernhard booked what would be one of the Tampa Bay area’s most historic concerts. Nobody knew it at the time.

“Phil called me at home one night,” Ronny Elliott recalled, “and said, ‘What do you think about doing Eric Clapton?’ I had pretty much lost my enthusiasm for all the things we’d done so badly on so many shows, but I said, ‘Yeah, that’s great. Let’s do it.’

“He said, ‘Well, there’s a hitch. He’s put together a new band that they’re calling Derek and the Dominos—apparently he’s Derek, but we can’t use his name. The only way we can say “Eric Clapton” in radio spots, ads, and billboards is to list him as a member of this band, Derek and the Dominos. Everything has to be alphabetical. There can’t be a picture of him, just the band.’”

The Dominos album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs would arrive in November, but if the show (Curtis Hixon had an open date December 1) was going to happen, it had to be booked immediately.

Gernhard booked the show. “Nothing was on the radio yet,” said Elliott. “What the hell are we gonna do? It was touchy.” Initial ticket sales, not surprisingly, were sluggish.

Meanwhile, one of Ronny’s musician buddies was Berry Oakley, bassist for the Florida-based Allman Brothers Band, who hadn’t quite hit it big yet—at that moment in time, they were touring behind their second album, Idlewild South.

On the afternoon of November 28, the Allman band played an outdoor show at Florida Presbyterian College in St. Petersburg. Elliott had heard that Duane Allman—the band’s brilliant, incendiary slide guitarist—was featured on nearly every track of the soon-to-be-released Derek and the Dominos album, offering fiery counterpoint to Clapton’s passionate leadwork. Clapton had seen Allman live in Miami, during a break in recording sessions, and, awed, invited him into the studio to play with the Dominos.

Elliott told Oakley that the Dominos’ tour would be stopping there in a few days. Oakley, in turn, told Allman, who made plans to stay in the Tampa Bay area for a while, as the Allman Brothers Band’s tour was taking a break until December 4.

“I didn’t see Barry or any of the band after that, but the next week, when Derek and the Dominos came strolling in, there was Duane with Eric,” Elliott said.

“In the meantime, we had a terrible scene. Some little jackass with an attache case and a British accent came in yelling and screaming and flailing his arms about, saying, ‘That’s it! Nobody’s playing! We’re going home!’”

In an attempt to be helpful, the Curtis Hixon staff—well aware of the show’s pokey ticket sales, and unbeknownst to Gernhard or Elliott – had changed the marquee out front to read “ERIC CLAPTON.”

The little man, who was obviously someone important, was hysterical and ready to pull the plug. “After a lot of arguing and begging and pleading, he said all right, okay, and the show went on.”

Gernhard was nowhere to be found during all the afternoon drama. He did, however, make it to Curtis Hixon that night to witness the first of only two concerts that Duane Allman would play as a member of Derek and the Dominos (he jumped on the band bus and went onstage with Clapton and company in Syracuse the following night) before rejoining the Allman Brothers Band in Columbia, South Carolina.

In less than a month, Derek and the Dominos would cease to exist. In less than a year, Duane Allman would be dead (Clapton described him “the musical brother I’d never had but wished I did”).

Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs was an unmitigated flop upon its release, but over time it came to be considered the high-water mark of Clapton’s recorded output. A lot of the credit was due Duane Allman, who, critics believed, drove and challenged the British guitar god to new heights of greatness.

Of the two Dominos shows that included Allman, only Tampa was recorded – albeit by an audience member on a hissy cassette tape. Still, because of its historical relevance, it is one of the most cherished bootleg recordings in existence.

This story appears in Phil Gernhard Record Man (University Press of Florida, 2018).

Putting the Beatles’ ‘Revolver’ in perspective

What does it say about the Beatles’ seemingly bottomless well of inspiration that their most creative and cohesive album, full of dash, daring, musical innovation and a brilliant explosion of unexpected colors, came packaged in an austere, black and white jacket with a simple line drawing of their four famous faces and a single word – Revolver, the title of the album?

What does it say about Revolver that many consider it the Beatles’ greatest achievement, stronger even than the vaunted Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which followed it less than a year later inside a multicolor, summer-of-love, look-at-me cover?

And what does it say about Revolver that more than five decades after it arrived in 1966, and nearly as long since the band split up, that people are still talking about it as if nobody has yet to make a better pop record?

That last, of course, is arguable, but one thing is without question: Revolver was a watershed in rock ‘n’ roll, and a supernova in pop culture.

Rattle off a few of the song titles: “Eleanor Rigby,” “Here There and Everywhere,” “She Said She Said,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” “For No One,” “Got to Get You Into My Life,” and the groundbreaking – more like ground-shattering – “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which was famously used in an episode of Mad Men to point an otherwise clueless Don Draper, 1960s advertising shill, towards the future of popular music.

These songs are still very much with us today.

Revolver was re-issued this week in what’s known as an SDE (Super Deluxe Edition), over five CDs in one boxed iteration, and four vinyl LPs in another. Each comes with an oversized history-of-the-album book.

Giles Martin, son of the late Sir George Martin, the Beatles’ producer, has re-mixed the album (it’s his fifth such project with the group’s archives). This means he returned to the original 1966 session tapes, separated out each instrument, voices and other effects, and re-assembled them using his father’s much-loved original as a blueprint.

Happily, this doesn’t result in a “re-imagining” of Revolver – it hasn’t been turned into a hip hop record, for example, with suddenly thumping bass-and-drums – but a sort of clean-and-scrub job. The sonic palette in 2022 is infinitely broader than it was back in the day, and Martin the Younger has made use of better studio reproduction equipment (and a new “separation” technology developed by Peter Jackson and his team while tweaking the audio for last year’s Get Back documentary) to make the space between the instruments broader and brighter.

It’s still Revolver. And, somehow, it’s bigger than ever.

As with Martin’s SDEs for Sgt. Pepper, the White Album, Abbey Road and Let it Be, the big draw for Beatles fanatics (and completists) is the inclusion of session outtakes, peeks behind the creative curtain as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr – in their mid 20s at this stage – work (alongside the irreplaceable Sir George) through various arrangements of the songs that would become Revolver.

Such was the Beatles’ level of success that the company bosses at EMI Records granted them unlimited studio time, which they were only too happy to use. This was the album where experimentation became the motus operandi: Guitars recorded and then played backwards, Indian drones, tapes sped up or slowed down, strings, horns, tape loops and eerie sound effects.

On paper, that all sounds terribly pretentious. Without songs this good, maybe it might have been.

What does it say about Revolver that it’s as fresh and inviting as it was in 1966?

Ten top takeaways from Revolver Sessions, included in the Super Deluxe Edition:

Got To Get You Into My Life (Second version) – Unnumbered mix. Before somebody got the idea to add a fiery Motown brass section, this propulsive McCartney number was thick with guitars. Here is an astonishing glimpse into the group’s creative process: It’s already a great recording, but – perhaps because it almost sounds like an outtake from Rubber Soul, their previous album – they decided to take it several steps further.

Yellow Submarine (Songwriting work tape – Part 1). A short demo, discovered among Lennon’s home recordings, in which he mournfully sings the lines “In the place where I was born, no one cared, no one cared …” That, of course, morphed into the opening to the Beatles’ iconic kiddie singalong.

Yellow Submarine (Songwriting work tape – Part 2). Lennon and McCartney, on acoustic guitars, work out the chords and the lyrics, joined at the musical hip. Since “Yellow Submarine” was always thought to be a mostly-McCartney composition – happy and go-lucky – this and the previous track are revelations.

Yellow Submarine (Highlighted sound effects). A remix of the finished, familiar track with the homemade underwater and shipboard sound effects brought to the fore. There are many, and this version sounds oddly like a scene from the 1968 Yellow Submarine cartoon film, with which the Beatles were barely involved. Maybe it gave the filmmakers an idea.

Here, There And Everywhere (Take 6). To this day, McCartney believes this is the best song he ever came up with (Lennon, incidentally, loved it too). Here he’s singing a lovely guide vocal, almost in falsetto, making the song even more delicate. This was released in 1995, as a bonus track on a CD single from the Beatles Anthology project, along with the “sound effects” version of “Yellow Submarine.”

Love You To (Take 1). Harrison’s droning Indian song is a highlight of Revolver, because it works beautifully set against McCartney’s melodicism and Lennon’s glibness. Without its sitar, tabla, tamboura and buzzing electric guitar, this draft is utterly different – it’s just George, playing two chords on an acoustic guitar and singing. (A later take includes a dissonant harmony from McCartney that was ultimately rejected.)

Rain (Take 5 – Actual speed). One of Lennon’s dreamiest, druggiest psychedelic pop numbers came about because the instrumental backing track, packed with jangling folk-rock guitars, loopy bass and Starr’s best falling-down-the-stairs drumming, was recorded at breakneck speed and then slowed down before the lead vocals and harmonies were added. This is the backing as it was performed. (“Rain” and “Paperback Writer,” while recorded during the album sessions, were released as a single and were not part of Revolver.)

And Your Bird Can Sing (Second version) – Take 5. Revolver was created through trial and error. If something didn’t work, they simply changed the approach. The first and quite different arrangement of this punchy Lennon number was released on Anthology 2 all those years ago (it’s included here, too) but the real gem is this early run-through of the second arrangement – the one we know and love. Lennon’s single-tracked vocal is front and center, the bass and drums pulse underneath, and the famous twin lead guitars are still being worked out. And there’s an “ahhhhh” section over the instrumental break, later eliminated, that brings to mind the breathtaking “If I Needed Someone” from Rubber Soul.

Eleanor Rigby (Speech before Take 2). Here, George Martin talks with his hired string octet, asking if they prefer playing with vibrato, or without? They try it both ways, and decide it’s better without. McCartney, from the upstairs control room, tells them he can’t hear the difference. But Sir George can, and moments later he and the players cut one of the most enduring strident string arrangements in pop music history.

She Said She Said (Take 15) – Backing track rehearsal. On the last day of the Revolver sessions – they were about to leave for their final European tour – the Beatles cut, in a single session, Lennon’s searing, guitar-drenched psychedelic childhood dream song. There are no vocals on this take, just a cocksure rock ‘n’ roll band making a joyful noise and sending it across the universe.

Bo Diddley: ‘The easiest way to shut you up was to pull your records off the airwaves’

(From the book I Need to Know: The Lost Music Interviews, St. Petersburg Press.)

Bo lived in the country, not far from the Gainesville city limits. I first met him in the early ‘80s, and over the years, I’d check in with him to write this or that story for the newspaper. He was always surrounded by family, but I always had the feeling that he was lonely, like the neighbor kid who’d beg you to stay and play just a little bit longer. He loved to show off his electronic equipment out in the barn – he was usually hot-wiring some amplifier, soldering a guitar body or overdubbing a rhythm track with an old tape machine. He’d say “Check this out,” and grab a handy microphone, hit the playback button and rap over the track. Live. Smiling the whole time. He was always demonstrating something new.

I did this career-spanning story for Goldmine in 2003. I wanted to cover it all, for posterity, and as it turned out, this was the last time I ever spoke with him.

Photo by John Moran.

At age 74, Bo Diddley may not be a spring chicken, exactly, but he’s hardly courting the rocking chair. Although Bo and his wife Sylvia live a relatively quiet life on 80 acres in Central Florida, six nights a month you’ll find the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer on a stage somewhere in America, wailing on his rectangular guitar, pounding out the most intoxicating of primitive rhythms, and singing with all the energy and fervor of a man half his age.

Bo Diddley, he’s a man. Spelled M-A-N.

He’d rather be retired, casting for bass or tinkering with an old car engine, but this is how he makes his living. He receives no publishing royalties, having sold his great songs many years ago to clear up some debts. The terms of the record contracts he signed in the 1950s afford him very little money – if he didn’t perform today, he says, he wouldn’t have any steady income.

He’s been an entertainer all his life, though, and nothing gives him more pleasure than making an audience happy.

And those audiences, they know who he is. He likes that.

“I was first, man,” Diddley said. “Wasn’t nobody doing nothin’ until I thought of it. I was about a year and a half before Elvis Presley. And I don’t like it when they jump up and say Elvis started rock ‘n’ roll. That’s a lie. He didn’t do it. He was really good, a fantastic entertainer, but he didn’t do it.”

Bo Diddley’s great contribution to rock ‘n’ roll was as an innovator. He did things with rhythms that nobody in blues or country & western music had thought of. He figured out how to snake in and out of the breathy rhythm of a tremelo guitar. He introduced a toughness, a pride, into rock ‘n’ roll during its infancy, stitching in the naked, howling urgency of urban blues. Songs spoke volumes with just one chord. The rest – swagger, humor, lust and cool – was all Bo Diddley.

He likes to refer to himself as The Originator. “I think all the time,” Diddley explained. “I’m always sitting somewhere trying to put something together that somebody else ain’t did.”

In his 70s, he’s still as sharp and straightforward as that skinny, nearsighted cat in the checkered jacket and bow tie, crowing about a stripper named Mona, trading musical jibes with a rubber-faced dude named Jerome, or asking a woman named Arline, flat out, who do you love? “I’m just 23 and I don’t mind dyin’,” he boasted.

He still writes music, although he doesn’t realistically expect Snoop Dogg or Eminem to call him for advice. “They’re not breaking down any doors to get cats my age,” Diddley said. “They think that I’m finished. And I’m a tricky son of a bitch. I’m not finished, I just learned what to do.”

He was born Ellas Bates on Dec. 30, 1928, a black Creole, in the southern Mississippi delta land between McComb and Magnolia. Just about everyone in the extended family picked cotton for a living. His teenaged mother wasn’t able to raise a child in that impoverished climate, so at age eight months Ellas went to live with his mother’s first cousin, Gussie McDaniel, and her husband, Robert.

“That’s the way things was in those days,” Diddley recalled. “Everybody raised everybody else’s kids. I knew it as uncles and cousins and all that kind of stuff. There was quite a few of us. We shared everything.

“It ain’t like it is today. If your parents were next door and you didn’t happen to be a relative, if your parents had run out of some cornmeal or flour or bacon or whatever, if your mother was trying to cook, all she had to do was go across the field and ask Miss So-and-So could she borrow something? No problem.”

Robert McDaniel’s death in 1934 meant Gussie had to look for better work; she decided to join the flood of emigrants heading north.

So at age 7, Ellas relocated, with Gussie and her own kids, to the South Side of Chicago. His name became, legally, Ellas Bates McDaniel. They rented a house at 4746 Langley Avenue and joined the congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church.

He loved the urbanity of his new digs and he fit right in. In Chicago, “treatment of black people was better. In the South, things were really screwed up. It didn’t have to be that way, but I guess that’s the way it was.”

It was here, in grammar school, he got his lifelong nickname. “The kids there started calling me Bo Diddley,” he said. “I still don’t know what the hell it means … but I know what it means in German!” (It’s a vulgarity.)

Initially, the kids had called him “Mac,” because of his surname.

Young Ellas announced he wanted to learn to play violin with the Ebenezer Sunday School Band. “I wanted to do what I’d seen some dudes doing, with a stick draggin’ across some strings and makin’ music,” Diddley said. “The church took up a collection, and the violin cost $29 at that time. And they bought me one. The lessons was like 50 cents a lesson. Are you ready for that? You can’t even talk to nobody on the phone for that today.”

He took lessons from Rev. O.W. Frederick – squinting at the dots on the page through his Coke-bottle glasses – and was soon proficient enough to play his instrument in church. He also sang in the choir.

One December five years later, Ellas was out shopping with his sister (technically, his first cousin) Lucille. “We went to this music store to buy some candy,” he recalled. “And they had the ol’ raggedy guitar hangin’ up in there. And I looked at it, and I told my sister ‘I want one of them.’

“I remember her saying ‘You want everything you see.’ I’m the same way today, man, if I see something that looks weird, I want to try that dude out.

“She bought it for me. It cost $29 or $30, almost the same thing with the violin. It was a old Kay guitar with two strings on it.”

Frustrated at trying to play blues and jive music on his violin – he never got it to sound quite right – Ellas was immediately comfortable around the guitar. “When I liked what I heard John Lee Hooker doing, I said if this cat can play guitar, I know I can learn,” he said.

“I tried to play ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ running up and down them two strings. And I finally got enough pop bottle money. Strings were like 12 cents apiece. You’d buy one string at a time, until you got all of ’em.”

Bo Diddley never learned how to properly tune the guitar; to this day, he still doesn’t know the names of the strings or their proper pitch.

“I tuned it by accident,” he said. “I liked what I heard. I tuned the thing, didn’t know what the hell I was doing. It was said that Lonnie Johnson used to tune his guitar that way. I said ‘Who in the heck is Lonnie Johnson?’

“This was before my time. I was a kid, a youngster, dealing with the same things that kids are dealing with today.”

In 1940s Chicago, you had to learn how to fight. “We had a little neighborhood thing; we called ourselves the Golden Gloves,” Diddley recalled. “We beat up on each other, you know? But I wasn’t really what you’d call a boxer. I was what I would call a slugger, something like Mike Tyson.

“Mike’ll hurt you, if he ever gets ahold of you. So the smart thing is to stay away from him. Because the cat is so powerful, he could break something on you real easy. And that’s the way I was. As long as I kept you away from my head, I had it made.”

Briefly, he considered training to become a professional boxer. “I didn’t want to get into it,” he said. “That was just to protect myself from gangs and all the stuff I grew up with. I never ran with a gang. I think a gang of boys jumpin’ on one person is a very cowardly action.”

Around the neighborhood, Ellas was known as the Fix-It Kid, because he could take virtually anything apart and put it back together again, good as new. He attended a vocational school and briefly thought about a career as an auto mechanic.

Music, however, was in his blood. “I started doing this and everybody thought I was the misfit in the family,” he said. “There isn’t anybody else doing it. I’m the only one that’s got any musical background.

“My brother started in the ministry, but he could have played in some big-name baseball teams. They were after him. And he also has a talent for spreading the gospel.” (Bo’s half-brother is Reverend Kenneth Haynes of Biloxi, Miss.)

Ellas was constantly told that music – especially the “Devil’s music” that he so enjoyed – would lead him down a path of destruction.

“I had to find out what I wanted to do,” he said. “I had no idea I was gonna end up Bo Diddley.”

Along with guitarist Jody Wilson, harmonica player Billy Boy Arnold and school chum Roosevelt Jackson – playing a washboard bass that Ellas himself constructed – he started playing the three or four songs he knew on street corners, the way blues musicians did, to get coins out of passers-by. They played them over and over again, and made new songs out of schoolyard rhymes.

At first they were called the Hipsters, then the Langley Avenue Jive Cats. “We did that and passed the hat,” Diddley said. “I was too chickenshit to steal.

“I did it because my mother didn’t have nothing. And everything that I wanted as I was growing up … it meant ‘let me work so I can earn some money, so I can buy a pair of shoes, buy a pair of socks. A handkerchief to go in my shirt.'”

The origin of the famous Bo Diddley beat has been in contention for years; it incorporates elements of the old “shave and a haircut” rhythm, the early ’50s shuck-and-jive hit “Hambone,” Chicago blues and the open-tuning, hard-hitting guitar chords of Bo himself – heavy on the tremelo, once Bo got off streetcorners and went electric. “They didn’t have no electric guitars down there,” Diddley said. “I made my first electric guitar. I built the first tremelo – I actually did it. I built it with some points out of an old Plymouth distributor, and a big wind–up clock. I sat down and I put it all together to make the music go whop/whop/whop/whop/whop. Because every time they made contact, you’d get a sound.

“I figured out how to do this, and a company was building one at the same time. I never went to Toledo, Ohio in my life, but somebody there was doin’ one.”

Then, as now, he was always tinkering. “I used to play by tapping into the audio tube in the back of a big radio. Got shocked a few times before I figured out which of the plugs on the back was the one.”

By the time Ellas was 15, he and the guys were playing 20 street corners every Friday night, after school let out. “People would say ‘There’s them three dudes again,'” he recalled.

“We did something worthwhile, man; we didn’t go out robbing people and all that. The police would sometimes take our little tip money, because they said it was illegal for us to try and make a living to buy bread.”

Ellas left home, and school, at 16 and briefly went to vocational college. He married and divorced a young girl named Louise inside of a year. “She wanted to juke me around,” he recalled. “All she wanted to do was get away from home.”

Eventually the group came to include Jerome Green on maracas and vocals. Jerome would become Bo’s onstage foil during the hit years, and an important part of the sound.

“I met Jerome when I was with my second wife, Ethel Smith,” Diddley said. “I met Jerome when I used to go over to her house to see her. He came up the back stairs with a tuba wrapped around his head, from school. They let him bring it home.

“I talked him into going with us on the street corners. He said ‘Man, I ain’t goin’ out there,’ and I said, ‘Come on man, we’re gonna pay you the same. We’re gonna split up the money.’

“I stole my mother’s cake bowl, and went out there and filled it up (with money). We came back with $15 apiece, for three of us. And the next weekend, Jerome was looking for me: ‘Hey man, are we goin’ back on the corner again?'”

Once the boys had turned 18, they left the street and getting booked into clubs. The next step was to get on record.

“I had an old Webco recorder,” Diddley recalled. “And we made a dub, and I took it to Vee-Jay Records first. They looked at me and said ‘What kind of crap is that?’ I said I don’t know, I just play it.

“They said ‘Well, we don’t know what to do with it,’ because they was strictly into blues. John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed and all that kind of stuff.

“Nobody inspired me. I just wanted to be me. That’s what I wanted to do, me.”

“I figured I had something good enough to make a record. ‘Cause the people on the streetcorner, they was jumpin’ and clappin’ their hands. I said ‘Hey …. I’m making ’em jump.’ So I figured this must be it.”

In early 1955, Bo Diddley was signed by Leonard and Phil Chess, owners of Chicago’s Chess Records (Bo was to record for the subsidiary label, Checker).

The idea of being on the same label as Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters and the rest of his heroes from the Chicago club scene “didn’t excite me. It’s just that I knew I was different from the rest of ’em. I was different from the other bands that I heard.

“I played a different type of music, and people were trying to figure out what the hell was I doing? Because I sounded like 10 people, rather than just three.”

Momma Gussie and the others did not approve. “They said that I was playing for the Devil,” Diddley remembered. “My aunts and uncles, everybody said ‘Why don’t you put that talent of yours to good use and play in the church? I said well, why do you all tell me to do that, and then you tell me I’m God-gifted?

“I said, you all can’t pay me the money that I make in clubs, for playing in the church, no. I’m not gonna do it. I’m just doing it to try and make a living. I’m not hanging in clubs, getting drunk and fighting and cutting up people and cussing. I don’t do no drugs, never have, never will. I’m scared of what the doctor gives me. I have no idea what the hell it is. I’m just what you call chickenshit.”

“Bo Diddley/I’m a Man” was released in the spring and reached the top spot on the national R&B charts. The A side introduced the Bo Diddley beat to the world, syncopated in a blustery onslaught with Jerome’s maracas and tribal tom-toms from drummer Clifton James.

Diddley’s original version of the song went “Uncle John’s got corn ain’t never been shucked/Uncle John’s got daughters ain’t never been … to school.”

At Leonard Chess’ suggestion, he re-wrote the lyrics as a song about himself … about this character he’d created. Bo Diddley. Bo’s legend would become a recurring theme.

“I’m a Man” was another ballgame altogether. Here, Diddley dealt a straight hand of Chicago blues, punctuated by Billy Boy’s wailing harmonica.

“Muddy Waters came up with ‘I’m a Rolling Stone,’ or ‘I’m a King Bee,’ one of those songs, saying ‘when I was 26 years old,'” Diddley recalls. “And I said well, if you’re a rolling stone, I’m a man. You understand? Willie Dixon wrote those – and I thought if he’s that bad, I’m a man.”

Not long after, “Muddy copied it and wrote ‘Mannish Boy.’ There’s only one word in ‘Mannish Boy’ that I never understood. He uses the line ‘woe be.’ I ain’t never figured out what ‘woe be’ means.”

The record was like nothing heard before. There were no complex changes, just gut-busting emotion on “I’m a Man” and shuffling energy on “Bo Diddley.”

The success of the single meant live appearances, and Diddley’s group hit the road, getting farther from Chicago with every performance. On Aug. 20, he played the legendary Apollo Theatre in New York City. “And destroyed it,” he recalled. “People was trying to figure out, how is three dudes makin’ all that noise?”

In those days, Diddley said, the national speed limit was 45 MPH. “I mostly drove with my band. I had a 1941 DeSoto station wagon; they called it a Stagecoach. It had a rack on the top, and we used to tie all our stuff up on top of it. And away we went.”

In November, the band returned to New York to appear on Ed Sullivan’s TV show. This story has become an integral part of the Bo Diddley legend; this is the artist’s own version:

“Ed Sullivan heard us in the dressing room practicing ‘Sixteen Tons,’ Tennessee Ernie’s song. He said ‘Can you guys play that on the show?’ and I said ‘Yeah, we can play it our way.’ But I was there to do ‘Bo Diddley’ by Bo Diddley. So I did two songs, and he got pissed.

“But it was their mistake, the way that they had the program written up. I did it the way that the program said: Bo Diddley and ‘Sixteen Tons.’ As far as I’m concerned, that’s the name of the song – and, ‘Sixteen Tons.’

“Ed Sullivan said I was the first colored boy that ever double-crossed him on a song, or something. And I started to get on him, just to tell this old man the truth, right in his fuckin’ face. Because I hadn’t ever been said nothin’ to like that, and I didn’t double cross him. They made the mistake, and I lived with it for a lot of years.

“He said I would never work again. And I got 48 years of rock ‘n’ roll. I’m not happy that he’s dead, you know, but I had something that I perfected. And I did my best. And I think that’s the reason why I’m still here.”

History always seems to contrast Diddley with his Chess labelmate Chuck Berry – the two even issued a patched-together duet album in the early ’60s – but Bo Diddley sees this as an apples-and-oranges thing. “We were writing different,” he said. “He was writing about school days and stuff like that, which was very interesting. And I wrote comical-type tunes. He couldn’t be funny; I could. I could make you laugh.”

Berry also crossed over to a white audience in those heavily segregated days, something Diddley never really managed. Although he made a respectable showing on the R&B charts, only one of his singles, 1959’s “Say Man,” made a dent on the pop side.

“Say Man” was a series of good-natured back and forth insults between Bo and Jerome, what they used to call “signifying” back on the streets in Chicago.

He considers “Who Do You Love,” first released in the summer of 1956, a “funny” song. “Well, it was serious and funny at the same time,” he said. For the record, there never was a woman named Arlene in his life. He just made it up.

As his fortunes faded in the United States, as Presley, Berry, Holly and so many others brought rock ‘n’ roll to an insatiable audience, Bo Diddley struggled. “Say Man,” “Crackin’ Up” and “Road Runner” were major hits, but by the early ’60s, it just wasn’t happening.

The live show continued to generate excitement. Guitarist Norma Jean Wofford joined his band in 1961 (following a short stint by another woman stringbender, Peggy Jones). Wofford became known as The Duchess; it was whispered that she was Bo Diddley’s sister.

“We told that lie so much that it started sticking,” Diddley said. “But we’re actually no kin. I had started adding different people to the group. It was just guys at first, and I said ‘I need some glamor on the stage,’ so I started putting the girls in the group.”

Novelty had always been important for Diddley – his classic 1960 album, Bo Diddley is a Gunslinger was inspired by the movie The Magnificent Seven and had a Western theme – and his act had always included a little comedy, a little dancing. “Didn’t none of us stand still,” he recalled.

Diddley was surprised to learn, during a 1963 trip to Great Britain, that he was held in high regard by the young, rhythm ‘n’ blues worshiping musician crowd. The Rolling Stones, one of the tour’s opening acts, dropped all Diddley covers from their set as an act of respect.

The young Stones viewed Bo Diddley with awe; Brian Jones, Diddley remembered, had an insatiable curiosity about the rhythm and the blues. And “Mick (Jagger) is like a loner; he stays by himself all the time. And you don’t impose on a person like that – if that’s his way, that’s his way. I don’t fault him for it.”

Diddley’s relationship with the Stones continued over time – in the ’80s, Diddley and guitarist Ron Wood toured Japan together, and Bo joined the band onstage in Miami on the 1994 Voodoo Lounge tour.

In 1965, he appeared in the legendary TAMI Show, and four years later played the Toronto Rock ‘n’ Roll Festival, on a bill with the Plastic Ono Band. Diddley can be seen in D.A. Pennebaker’s film Sweet Toronto.

Overall, though, the ’60s were rough. Diddley continued to record and perform, but his records had little impact. The British Invasion, followed by the psychedelic and hippie movements, left little room for the pioneering rock ‘n’ rollers.

Diddley watched attitudes and fashions change all around him. “My generation wasn’t into that shit,” he laughed. “So I’m sitting outside going what the hell’s going on? I’m starving in my own world, my music world. But I found out something: If you can’t beat ’em, you gotta join ’em” (see the Chess albums The Black Gladiator; Another Dimension).

Strapped for cash because of an investment scheme gone wrong, Diddley sold his publishing in this period.

And like many artists who rode in on the first wave in the ’50s, he got paid a ridiculous royalty rate. He was never a math whiz, so he signed whatever contract had been put in front of him. “The Chess Brothers were very secluded about telling an artist,” he said. “It looked like to me that they were afraid somebody would step out of place and start asking for more money. I was just interested in playin’ for the people. I had no idea about the business, how it worked and all this.

“They were beginning to set up little things here and there that would elude you from the right things – in other words, while you sleep, we’ll figure out how we can not pay you something.”

The winter of Diddley’s discontent began in the glory days and has yet to blow over. He remembers precisely when he first realized he’d been short-changed:

“When I started to asking about royalty checks and all this kind of stuff, my stuff started getting played less and less,” he said. “And I didn’t understand. And after a while it looked like it was set before me so that I could plainly see it, that I was becoming a troublemaker because I started asking about royalty checks. This meant that I was going to cause problems. And the easiest way to shut you up was to pull your records off the airwaves. It’s called blackball.

“When the people buy your stuff and make you earn the name ‘So-and-so is really great.’ But when your record company don’t acknowledge that you got a contract with ’em, and so much revenue come in that they’re supposed to give you this and that … this didn’t happen with me. Instead, they put the money in their pocket. I guess because I was a little country black boy in Chicago, I got ripped off. Because they figured I didn’t know what time it was.”

Then, as now, the only real money that came Bo Diddley’s way was from live shows. And if somebody’s making money off those classic records, it’s not him. “I ain’t seen shit,” he said.

And so he works, flying hundreds, thousands of miles, equipped with only a guitar and a suitcase. Although he has a semi-regular group for big shows, he does most gigs with a pickup band, hired by the local promoter in each town he plays.

After Chicago, he lived in Washington, D.C. (the Gunslinger album was recorded on a two-track Presto machine in his basement), then Los Angeles and, ultimately, Florida (he spent a year or two in Las Lunas, N.M., too, where he was deputized and walked a sheriff’s beat). He was married to Georgia native Kay Reynolds for 20 years, and bought his first Florida property from her dentist.

Every few years, some music business sharpie with a few bucks in his wallet signs him up for an album; without fail, they make little or no commercial impact.

Diddley cares very little for the 1973 The London Bo Diddley Sessions, which paired him with a contingent of hip young English rock players. “When you turn your back, they do whatever they feel like doing,” he said. Since the end of Chess in the mid ’70s, he’s drifted from label to label.

In 1996, producer Mike Vernon put out the Bo Diddley album A Man Amongst Men, which featured “collaborations” from the likes of Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Richie Sambora.

Trouble was, Vernon assembled the tracks from pieces; Bo was rarely in the same room with his guest stars. “It just never occurred to them that maybe Bo doesn’t want it that way, you know?” Diddley said. “So it would be my mistake if I fucked up. But they fucked up, and I still bear the cross of them messing up. And the public don’t know that I had nothing to do with it.”

He has a handful of bedrock songs that continue to reverberate today (“Who Do You Love,” “I’m a Man,” “Before You Accuse Me,” “Mona”), and the “Bo Diddley Beat” is a cornerstone of rock ‘n’ roll (see “Not Fade Away,” “I Want Candy,” “She’s the One”).

His 1987 induction into the Rock and Roll of Fame was logical – and, perhaps not surprisingly, Bo Diddley took it with a grain of salt.

“The way I look at it, the attention is really great,” he said. “But the reward in what I have done is not a plaque sitting on my wall, because I can’t do anything with it. They’re worth a lot of money to a collector, but to me they’re not worth anything.

“It doesn’t really mean anything to me. It don’t pay none of my bills. Take the actors who got the Oscars and the Emmys, they don’t mean nothin.’ It’s just that people can come to your house and see ’em and go ‘Wow, you got an Oscar.’ What does it mean? Is it worth a thousand dollars? $400? $200? Or worth a million dollars?

“What is it worth in dollar bills, because this is what you need to survive. Not a medal with your name on it.”

Back surgery slowed him down in the ’90s – he had to sit in a chair onstage for a while – and a recurring bout with high blood pressure caused him to cancel a few dates in 2002.

Otherwise, hell, he ain’t slowing down.

“I figure I got 15 or 20 years, maybe longer than that,” he said. “If I take care of myself. But it’s winding down. I might as well face it. I don’t look to kick off, but when you get to my age you start getting’ scared and you start realizing that the day is coming, and that’s a guarantee. We’re all gonna leave out of here.

“As you get older, things become more clear to you about everyday existence. Am I going to be able to wake up in the morning? Am I going to sleep and … you don’t know that you’re gone? That’s the way I feel.

“That is the most scary thing in the world. You take me, traveling on the road by myself, and getting a hotel room. Go to bed, go to sleep, and I don’t know if I’m gonna get up and go catch the plane in the morning. I used to not worry about that.”


On the road again: A conversation with Sister Bobbie Nelson

For more than 30 years, Willie Nelson has performed onstage with the same ragtag gang of bearded, road–hardened musicians.

Look closely, however, at that petite piano player, with long, auburn hair usually topped with a wide–brimmed hat. That’ll be Bobbie Nelson, Willie’s older sister. She is not only his blood kin, she’s his oldest friend and the one musician who’s played alongside him since virtually the beginning. Her piano is the backbone of the band, which is officially called Willie Nelson and Family.

Bobbie and Willie were raised together in tiny Abbott, Texas, midway between Waco and Dallas. Raised by their grandparents, the siblings picked cotton, milked cows and faithfully attended the local Methodist Church, where Bobbie played the organ and they both sang in the choir.

At 76, Bobbie has just made her very first solo record. Audiobiography includes two guitar–and–piano duets with her brother, and a number of instrumental piano pieces ranging from church music to boogie woogie to Willie’s lounge classic “Crazy.”

“Whenever our band plays,” Willie Nelson said, “Sister Bobbie is the best musician on the stage.”

Q. Why did it take you so long to make your own album?

A. Before I went out on the road with Willie, I used to play in hotels, supper clubs, churches and all of those things. I had thought a long time ago that maybe I would have a record for sale, but I never did do that.

Then I was on the road with him all those years, and I was happy recording with him, and I guess I just didn’t feel the need to make an album on my own then.

When I was asked why I never wrote my autobiography, I said I thought I could do it best with music, because my whole life has just been music. I don’t separate myself from that piano.

Q. You and Willie started playing and singing together when you were very young in Texas. His career in Nashville started in the early ’60s; what were you doing then?

A. Well, I had never dated anyone in my life, because my grandmother was very strict. I married Bud Fletcher at 16; he was 22. Willie was 14. I was playing revival meetings with a minister; Bud organized our first band, with me and Willie and our father on rhythm guitar. Then Bud was killed in a car accident, and I had three young sons to take care of. So I moved to Fort Worth and taught music for Hammond Organ, and played in the church. I spent 10 years there.

In Houston, Willie was selling encyclopedias, sewing machines and vacuum cleaners, and playing some music at night. I moved to Austin in 1965 to play piano at the El Chico Restaurant. I opened a lot of hotels and taught music, and took a job playing piano at Lakeway Resort. Then he came to Austin and started playing at the Armadillo Word Headquarters, where he joined all the forces of the cowboys and the hippies … (laughing).

Q. Willie had already been in Nashville, making records, for years before you started working together professionally in the early ’70s. How did that come about?

A. Willie said “Sister Bobbie, would you like to record a gospel record with me in New York City?” I was tickled to death. I’d never been on an airplane before. I’d never been anywhere except my trips to Nashville to visit him.

I farmed out my little job playing piano at Lakeway and flew to New York City and did the Troublemaker album, the gospel album. Willie’s wife took me up to the Empire State Building — it scared me to death going up there — and then they asked me to help on the Shotgun Willie album. And that went very well.

Then Willie said “I sure have missed playing with you.” I said, I missed playing with you, too. He said “What in the world are we waiting for? Let’s just don’t stop.”

Q. And you’ve been on the road pretty much without a break since the 1970s. Was that lifestyle tough to get used to?

A. Our first band, we played about the same stuff we’re playing right now on the road. Some of the very same songs — “Down Yonder” and “Under the Double Eagle” and a lot of the country music we play.

But it was a new experience, because I didn’t drink, I didn’t do any of the habits of all of the musicians on the road, and I certainly didn’t dress the way they wanted me to dress, either. I’m use to getting dressed a little bit when I go to these cocktail lounges and perform. Or church.

Willie said “Just get you a pair of jeans, Sister Bobbie.”

I really did want to be a part of these guys. I didn’t want them to feel weird. Girls on the road, it’s another story. That used to be the rule — no girls on the road. Somebody asked Willie, what about your sister? And he said “Sister Bobbie’s not a girl, she’s a piano player.”

Q. What’s it like playing in that band?

A. You know, we are so bonded. Those guys have been so wonderful to me. In February, after we got back from Europe, I had a couple of strokes — I played three nights without anyone knowing — and when I got back to Austin, I went to my doctor and I ended up with a pacemaker.

By April I was back on the road with everybody.

Q. You’re very protective of your brother, aren’t you? Is that part of your job?

A. It’s not part of my job. It’s that I’m older than Willie, and I took care of him from the time he was born. And later, he took care of me. We took care of each other. And we still do. That bond will always be with us.


@2008 Bill DeYoung