Tom Webb teaches me how to play “Blackberry Blossom”

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I mentioned a band “Shagbark Hickory” in “How to Train a Sound Tech.” Here’s another “Shagbark” story…

When I sat in with them they played a bluegrass standard “Blackberry Blossom.” Onstage communication was the best I’d ever worked with.

However, when “Blackberry Blossom” would come up I would opt out because I hadn’t worked out a solo for it yet. It’s a complex sounding song but is based on a simple descending scale.

Their pedal steel player, Tom Webb and I, liked to needle each other a bit and one night, as Florie started the song Tom leaned back and said, “You gonna play it tonight?”
“Naw, I don’t think so.” I said.
Tom leaned back again and with a twinkle and a grin said, “Jerry DOUGLAS can play it!”

That did it!

So when Florie made eye contact asking if I wanted in, I dove into the tune and, if I say so myself, pulled it off quite handily. I still play pretty much the same break when called on to do that song and think of those guys every time I play it…

To this day I still haven’t had the opportunity to hear the Jerry Douglas version.

How To Train a Sound Tech

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This is one of my favorite “war stories” from my days of playing in public.

I wasn’t working at Barney Steel’s yet. I still worked for Gelb Music at the time but I was a steady habitué of the place.

There was a pretty hot modern country/folk group called “Shagbark Hickory” that I became sort of kissing cousin to. This was because their waist-length-haired fiddler, Florie, was in desperate need of a string replacement mid-gig one night and I saved her bacon by making a nocturnal sale at Gelb Music being as how I had keys to the place. Because of this they liked me a lot and often they would let me sit in with them on Dobro for two or more sets.

Once they got a booking at this really nice, brand new, state-of-the-art venue. Great ambiance, good seating, really nice stage, good monitors, great sound system, individual mics
…and a clueless sound guy.

Every time it came for my solo, even with Florie, the fiddler frantically pointing at me, the guy wouldn’t bring me up in the sound system until I was a measure and a half into my solo.

On break I looked the guy up. I stand 6’2″ and look like my avatar…black hat, beard and long hair and back then I was around 200 pounds. I told the guy “If you cut the front off one more of my solos I promise you I will put my guitar down and will FIND you!!”

End of problem. We played (and sounded) like a well mastered CD the rest of the night.

La Grange

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Rumor spreadin’ a-’round in that Texas town
’bout that shack outside La Grange
(and you know what I’m talkin’ about.)

Just let me know if you wanna go
to that home out on the range.
They gotta lotta nice girls.
Have mercy.
A haw, haw, haw, haw, a haw.
A haw, haw, haw.

What in the world does a song by ZZ Top about a bawdy house in a little town in Texas have to do with one of the best known music stores in the country?

Well it goes like this…

Gelb Music was started by one Sidney Gelb back in 1939. He actually called it Gelb Music Studios because in his day the Hawaiian guitar had the country in thrall and his store made its foundational income on students harvested by door to door salesmen sent forth by the “United Institute of Music” in San Mateo. Sid had a working deal with those folks and did a nice, steady business teaching youngsters first Hawaiian, then later, Spanish guitar in a classroom setting as well as individual lessons at his store/studio. Along the way he would sell or rent the required instruments as the kids needed them.

His business prospered then went into a slight decline. Sidney was feeling his age and wanted to retire. He had no heirs and might have just closed the place or sold it to strangers had it not been for two of his ace guitar teachers, Kevin Jarvis and Henry White.

It was Kevin’s idea to buy the place and bring it up to date. Henry caught on to the idea and set aside his career plan to teach history and, starting in 1972, the two men made history in their own way.

Gone were the group lessons. They still had guitar lessons there but single lessons only. The two young men overhauled the inventory broadening its scope. Soon their new attitude about music and guitaring started to gain notice. There was a Fender franchise that came with the store and along with a ne’er do well of a certain charm, Norm Van Maastricht. Kevin and Henry had their own high levels of musical skill on guitar and Norm was a country/finger style specialist which meant the store was conversant in rock, jazz, country, even banjo and Dobro.

So what did that have to do with ZZ Top and La Grange? Be patient… it’s coming.

Kevin adopted a puppy, a marvelously intelligent Shepherd /Lab named Jessica (named after an Allman Brothers song). The three men shared training of her to be a perfect Store Dog. She became a legend in her own time and there are some who have a hard time talking about her without choking up, so loved was she.

Three young men, knowledgeable about guitaring and a Wonder Dog in the making. We have close to perfection here.

In the foggy mists of memory not much is remembered about what they may have used for background music in the place but that changed one auspicious day.

A guy came into the store looking for a new Martin D-28. One of the more expensive models Martin makes. A state of the art dreadnought size acoustic guitar that was and is world famous.

The store had the guitar but the guy had no money. What he did have was a Very Good Stereo System with a superb turntable. The turntable was a bit of a prima donna, very sensitive to being jarred. The least little bump would send the needle hopping rudely so staff and customers had to be sure to avoid offending it in any way.

But its sound and power was awesome. The swap was made, everybody was delighted with the barter.

Over the years that turntable played just about every recorded guitarist available on 33rpm vinyl. From Django Rheinhardt to Segovia and Bream. Herb Ellis, Lenny Breau, Chet, all the rockers of The Day and everyone in between. They all took a turn on that machine.

One fateful morning soon after acquiring the new stereo setup Kevin put on La Grange.
And cranked it.
The raw power and humor of ZZ Top playing that tune just hit a chord (pun intended) with the store crew.

It became the opening song, the ritual paean that was further nuanced by careful manipulation of the volume knob because in the studio the engineers faded Billy Gibbons exiting solo. Kevin and Henry liked to keep it as loud as the main body of the song as long as they could.

The block was never the same as we three opened the doors and La Grange let the world know Gelb Music was ready for business.

The turntable was so touchy it was enthroned on a cabinet with a carpeted top. People kept bumping into it anyway!. Norm came up with the idea of getting hold of a decal that said Danger, High Voltage and putting it on the top face of the cabinet tucking a wire under that carpet top with about two inches of it stripped and bare. It didn’t stop the bumping altogether but the natural human fear of electrical shock went a long way to reducing the clumsy collisions…

Gelb Music thrived for many years. Over time, Henry and Norm went their separate ways, Henry eventually succumbing to cancer in 2014.

Kevin kept the store and made it into the well known entity it is today. The turntable got moved to safer quarters and the La Grange ritual ceased being a daily thing.

All things, even good things, must come to an end and Kevin decided to retire after the long tour at the end of 2014. He sold the store to a kindred soul, the man who owns Haight Ashbury Music. He decided to keep the name on the business so the name Gelb Music is will continue to assist musicians of the area as it has for so very long.

Today Kevin sent this writer an email which said, in part:

La Grange, became, in the last decades, the annual Saturday before Christmas opening anthem, 42 years and running. The legacy of you, Henry, Trini, Dick, continued on. Every year without fail La Grange played on, and the song still sounds awesome which is totally amazing in and of itself.

Yesterday, (12/20/14) the staff totally aware, all gathered for the final playing at 10:20. Adam even came down for its final performance. Thinking of Henry now gone, those Saturdays in the beginnings all the way to this moment…….our friendship, and all the years gone by in my tour of duty as “Mr. Gelb”, very reflective moment…….what a song, what memories.
It ain’t over until Billy Gibbon’s growls, they got lotta nice girls out there!

_____________

This blog has other Gelb Music stories. Do a search for Tiger Tiger or The Lunch Break or Once Upon A Time or Jessica Dog

The Lunch Break

Back in the seventies, shortly after Sidney Gelb sold his music store we three, Kevin Jarvis, Henry White and myself were caught up in the hirsuteness of the day. Kevin had longish hair and a mustache, I had long hair and a trimmed beard and Henry, he of the red locks, had a trimmed beard and longish hair too.
Kevin and I went to hair stylists which were legion back in those days but Henry used one of the razor combs you can get that allow you to trim your own hair.
We were truckin,’ as they say… up to date….in Style!

On this particular day, both Henry and Kevin decided to take lunch at the same time. Kevin had an errand to run and Henry wanted to go home and eat and had it in mind to give himself a trim while he was there. It was a quiet day so I didn’t mind.

I guess I was looking at a catalog or something when Henry came back from lunch and breezed through the door. I remember I didn’t even glance up and didn’t give a thought to him going behind the counter to stand behind me.
But his silence was off putting so I looked up…

He looked like a Parris Island boot! All of his beautifully maintained hair was Gone!

He stood there with an abashed grin on his face. I was momentarily speechless. But only momentarily…

“Don’t say a word,” I said, “Kevin will be back shortly and you can tell us both at once.”

Almost on cue, Kevin came in and he too was momentarily speechless. So then we heard the tale, which is now legend.

It turns out, what had happened was that when Henry went home he had decided to take a shower. While in the shower he decided to put his razor comb to use. This was something he normally did when his hair was dry.

Welllll…. instead of a trim the razor comb took a chunk of hair and, panicking, Henry tried to even it up by eye to no avail. Finally he went to a rescue barber he knew who took one look at him and shook his head. “Abandon all hope.” said he… And he gave Henry a burrcut that would have made any drill instructor proud.

All three of us taught guitar so poor Henry got the dubious pleasure of having to relate his tale of woe to maybe twenty wide eyed little guitar pickers…
He got his story down pat and stuck to it.

After that incident it was years before he let anything sharp touch a hair on his head.

Book My Band II~Da Blooze Bands

Another segment of a project The Rise and Fall of a Saloon In The Latter Part off The Twentieth Century. These excerpts are not chronological. In fact very little logic prevails…

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As I said in other missives, it got so blues bands just didn’t cut it at The Bar.

There were, of course, certain blues bands The Mark Ford Band, for one that did do well, or Mark’s second band The Blue Meanies. But that was largely due to Mark’s charm and his ability to make people get up and move.  He played good harmonica and perhaps his voice might have been a bit easier to listen to… his was more of a tenor but I’m not really sure that was it.
 Some bands, like Stu Blank and His Nasty Habits depended heavily on the blues format although Stu did not feature a harmonica in his ever changing band lineup.  But he, too, got people to get up and dance.  Stu’s music was almost perfect as an example of a great saloon band with his earthy delivery. 

 Here are things we all know.  Blues is an art form.  A genre.  It is stylized, rooted in the music of slaves developed and refined over the years and is largely done in a twelve bar format.   We know all that.

I don’t want to get into a deep discussion of blues music here because I really don’t know that much about it and it would serve no purpose in this narrative.  I had a mild dislike for blues because so many blues bands strove for ‘authenticity’ and in so doing tended to sound a lot alike.  Some seemed to go on forever in the heavily accented “BUNK-ka BUNK-ka two-four beat while a singer rehashed how bad it was to get up in the morning or complain because he’s on drugs or his woman left him etc. etc.

One of my friends, K.J., was a legendary local guitarist and owner of a successful music store.  He liked playing blues occasionally in a mixed set list but refused to let his bands play slow blues.
 I found out why when I recently overheard him talking to another guitar playing friend at a local club as they listened to the band play.  The leader called for a slow blues and K.J. turned to his friend and said:
“They really shouldn’t do a slow blues because, first of all the song’s tempo will be so slow that musicians like to do musical masturbation over it…………show off.
 It takes so long to finish the 12 bars anyway but then soloists will often be so taken by their own playing they’ll want to go again and perhaps even again.
 Simple math dictates that what should be a five minute song will now obviously stretch to about 10 minutes, which is too long to listen to…I mean Jeeze, enough already.”
K.J. went on.   “Look.  These guys are playin’ a little amped so I’ll say nine minutes…  They’ll finish in nine minutes.”
So the two friends bet the next round on it.
The band finished the song at 8:55.  Close enough for KJ to get his drink bought on that issue.
 

Even that would be tolerable except for the main thing and that was that blues bands just flat did not draw a crowd at The Bar.
No crowd, no money.  Simple.  It’s a business…

Still, you had to find a way to sort it all out.
In the modern world, with computers social sites and websites, most bands with any self-respect have a URL address that will take you to pictures, biographies and often have music clips or even video clips of the band in action.  A smart live music saloon has a website in today’s world featuring a constantly updating band calendar.
 In the seventies and eighties this magic was not available or widespread as today’s web is…
 
Some blues bands had demo tapes. 
Most did not. 
Some blues bands had promo pictures. 
Most did not. 
Some blues bands had mailing lists. 
Most did not. 
It sometimes seemed that they thought that just getting onstage would bring in the bucks and the babes through osmosis or some other magical voodoo. Or because they were more ‘authentic’…

I keep going back to the core reason for booking bands. 
You play to the women!

Women like to dance.  They want groove and they want some tempo and they want some variety.  Get the ladies having a good time in a saloon and the male money will follow shortly. 

The boys and girls want to engage in The Mating Dance and that is more fun with more people.  More short songs are better for the Party Hearties than a few long ones because they can catch a break.  Rest up.  Schmooze a little..

But please… Make ‘em Dance.

 

When I did the band booking I had to be like Solomon and somehow be able to judge a band on the enthusiastic pitch of the Band Mouth (that being the talker for the band) as he or she yanked my sleeve begging me to ‘book my band’.
Eventually the word got out that I did not care for blues bands and avoided booking them.
I finally hit on a screening formula.

 
Let me digress a moment…

Some years later, after The Bar had gone away, I was in a bar watching a “jam” and was approached by a guy that I knew to be an exceptionally fine harmonica player.  He got right to the point.  “What do you have against harmonica players?” he asked.
“Nothing at all,” I said, “I like to hear a well played harp.  In fact I think you’re one of the best I’ve heard in a long time!”
“Then how come you wouldn’t hire harmonica players?”
So I told him about how blues bands didn’t do well at The Bar and described my screening ploy.  It was quite simple and went like this:

“Book my band” the Band Mouth would say.
“I don’t hire blues bands.  Are you a blues band?”
“No, man, we’re not a blues band!”
“Do you have a harmonica player?” I would ask putting an interested inflection in my voice.
“Yeah!  Yeah man, we do as a matter of fact!”
“You’re a blues band.  No dice.  Sorry!”

So there it was.  It is one thing to have a band that possibly features a harmonica solo once or twice a night.  It’s quite another to have the harmonica player be a Featured Instrument.

 

But lest you think I was a total wedgeass I could be talked into giving a band a try. 
Some Band Mouths were very persistent and would relentlessly pressure me to hire their bands even if it was a blues band. 

 

One guy sticks out in my mind.  I had known him for a few years. I had had no real idea he had a band in all the time I knew him.   He was a sack of a guy, going toward being fat and didn’t have any particular charisma that I could see.  He claimed to be a singer and his band “packed them in…packed them in” everywhere they played according to him.  He followed me around and nagged “Hire us and I guarantee we’ll pack ‘em in like sardines in this joint!”
“Based on what?” I asked.
“I’m a great singer!” he said. 
This was news to me because as long as I had known him I never was aware he had any musical abilities at all, certainly not as a singer.
“Do you have a demo tape?”
“Uh, no… we’re working on one but we don’t have one yet.”

So, against my better judgment, I booked them for one night the next month.
Then I had to put up with this guy stopping by every other night or so telling me “Pack ‘em in!  Like sardines!” until I was ready to throttle the bum. 

Finally the Great Night arrived. 
I had booked him on a Friday which is always the primo night for booking a group.  Friday is the Primary Hunt night for those looking to hook up with the opposite sex.  You tend to get a better house on a Friday than on a Saturday because of this.

Well, they bombed. 

The guy was unattractive to begin with and didn’t try to improve his visual by maybe dressing up a bit.  I can still see it…an old looking green tee shirt and faded blue jeans.  The band, as well as his singing voice was really unremarkable and worse of all, only twenty five or thirty people showed up.  At last call there were only ten people sitting at tables and six or seven people at the bar proper.
The next day I got a call from the guy with a list of reasons why he had no house.
It was a fairly impressive list but none of the reasons cited made much sense.  He even tried to tell me he was coming down with a cold although he hadn’t mentioned it the night before.
He asked for a rebook to show me he and his band could really pack them in.
“I think not.” said I.  “Let me give you a word of advice.”
‘What’s that?”
“Next time you go to ‘pack them in like sardines’ ..Use a smaller can.”

 
Then there was the blues guy we shall call Johnny Norbert (not his real name).  Another one of those guys who was relentless in his efforts to book his blues band.  He had played The Bar once before to a mediocre house but he claimed his following had improved.
So, after much pressure and nagging,  I booked him.
He wanted me to book him as Johnny “Harmonica” Norbert but I refused on the basis that I had heard him play and I had heard others play harmonica and to my ear his skill level did not strike me as befitting such a billing.
So we booked him as the Johnny Norbert Blues Band.

We not only got a lame house but the guy’s singing was off.
The next day he called and wondered what I thought.  I told him.  “You need singing lessons.”
Remarkably I saw this guy some ten years after The Bar closed.  He told me that was the best advice he’d ever gotten and he had acted on it.  Big improvement.
Still, I don’t think anyone ever booked him as “Harmonica Johnny Norbert” though.

 
Did I miss some good opportunities?  Probably.  But sometimes even seasoned performers bringing in some of the hottest hired guns of the local music scene couldn’t get a house as a blues band. 

The late Vala Cupp and some of her bandmates come to mind… She was a beautiful lady with great legs and a great blues voice.  She brought in some mighty fine musicians with her but the crowds were up and down even with her great combinations. 
She was the first person I called if a band cancelled on me.  She would get on the phone and bring in the best musicians she could find and she would deliver for me but book a night under her own name and we’d seldom get even half a house most times.

 

It’s a tough life, particularly for the bands on the circuit reaching for the brass ring….

 

“If you have to tell people how cool you is…
  You ain’t…”
The Write Down Book