Friday, November 25, 2011

Memphis In The Meantime

About five years ago, I was killing part of an evening in the Columbus, Ohio airport. Typical business trip. Suit and tie, brief case, bad airport food -- the whole deal. I'd just finished taking the deposition of a hydrogeologist, who had spent the better part of eight hours trying to duck and dodge my questions. My brain was fried, and I was looking forward to napping on the plane ride home.

Just before boarding, I got a phone call from Mark Morse. Mark is one of my youngest brother's buddies, and (like me) he's a music geek and a hack guitar player. He was calling to tell me that he was heading down to Memphis the following week to produce a record by Rockin' Billy & The Wild Coyotes, a top-shelf Chicago rockabilly band.

Mark had already blocked out studio time at the historic Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis, and he now wanted to know whether I'd be interested in coming down there with a couple of my friends to check out the session. He knew that geeks like us consider Sam Phillips Recording Service to be sacred ground. He also asked whether I could coax my old Missouri-based horn section, The St. Louis Horns, into making the trip south down I-55, so that Rockin' Billy could put some horns on a couple of his tunes.

The Yardbirds, John Prine, Charlie Rich, and Sam the Sham all cut here.

Mark didn't need to ask twice. The next week we were all there.

We hung out at the studio by day and had a ball. Since a few of the guys had never before been to Memphis, we also made it a point to hit some of the city's hotspots: Sun Studio, the Stax Museum, Charlie Vergos' Rendezvous, etc.

I learned a lot about recording by watching Rockin' Billy and his boys cut a whole slew of great sides. And at some point, when their band was taking a break, my friends and I got behind the microphones and did our own quick take on an Eddie Cochran classic, which, thanks to the YouTube link below, is finally seeing the light of day. Rockin' Billy was even a good enough sport to play electric guitar on the track for us.

Did I mention that the man behind the glass working the faders while we recorded was none other than Roland Janes?

I sit in awe of the great Roland Janes.

Mr. Janes is a rock-n-roll legend, having played guitar on most of the 100+ sides that Jerry Lee Lewis cut for Sun Records. It was a real treat to meet him and to talk with him about music.

But he wasn't the only heavy-hitter at the studio that week. We also got to spend some quality time with the late Dale Hawkins (whose "Susie-Q" has been a radio staple for fifty years).

Mark Morse, Dale Hawkins, and I mug for TMZ.

In addition, we got to listen to and learn from Hayden Thompson, another of the original Sun rockabilly cats.

Hangin' with Hayden Thompson.

It was one of those strange, unplanned adventures that keeps life interesting.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

In Way Over My Head (Once Again)

A few weeks ago, I walked out of my downtown law office at noon and saw that the company that manages my building was throwing a lunchtime party for its many tenants.

The complimentary warm lemonade and cold nachos on the building's south plaza weren't, by themselves, going to be enough to keep me around. But the party planners did see fit to hire one hell of a guitarist to play for the event, and that sealed the deal for me.

So I skipped lunch, grabbed some free nachos, planted my rear end in a plastic chair and listened to the music.

Even though it was a frigid fall day, the building's hired gun was burning it up on his Gibson ES-335. But while he was busy conjuring up Freddie King, Wes Montgomery, the boys from Steely Dan, and a host of other greats, a largely oblivious work force was going about its mid-day routine. For the life of me, I'll never understand how folks can walk past a guy playing so beautifully and not stop to listen.

In any event, during a break I asked the guitarist his name. It rang a bell, though I couldn't quite figure out why. Turns out he's a longtime member of the faculty at the Old Town School of Folk Music, where I occasionally hang out.

After his set, he and I talked for a few minutes. Seemed like a real nice guy. One thing led to another, and I swooped in for the kill.

"I work in this building as a lawyer, but from time to time I play music in local bars. If you'd ever consider playing a gig with me . . . ."

Now the key to this deal is to let a musician know up front that you're gonna get him paid a decent wage. I've got a lot of friends who are professional musicians, and I know it's a brutal way to make a living. I assured him that if ever I called him for a gig, he'd get paid in U.S. dollars that same evening.

He graciously told me to call him anytime.

Two weeks later, while I was down in Atlanta taking a deposition, I did just that.

And that's why, come Wednesday, November 23, I'll once again be plugging in with a musician with whom I have absolutely no business sharing a stage. A Berklee-educated guitarist who toured the United States with soul great Otis Clay. A guy who's played with Percy Sledge, The Coasters, and The Platters. A guy who's jammed with Otis Rush and performed with the Wrecking Crew's Hal Blaine (the world's most recorded musician).

A guy who has assured me that he knows each of the three chords that I know.

This year, I'm excited to have Chris Winters joining me for my annual after-work, pre-Thanksgiving show at McKellin's Pub (2800 W. Touhy Avenue) in Chicago's West Rogers Park neighborhood.

Chris and I will play from 6-9 p.m., and there's no cover charge. Stop by and request a song or two. Just make sure those songs contain the three chords that I know.