The question was asked of me just recently “What was the strangest gig you have ever played?” Now I know that this could turn into one of those old guy giving you some’ Back in my day!’ tale that just might boor you to death. I have been performing and songwriting since the 60s and it was entirely a different world back then, not the re-packaged version of the gritty, where-am-I , what –am- doing, psychedelic 60s history the neo hippie is told (I like the new version) – more to the point the music business was completely different than the technology driven ambiguous thing it has become. In fact the coming tale’s very character, fairy tale like, is I think the charm and value of the tale I am about to impart. I promise I will do my best to bring my writing skills to bear so that it will hold your attention or at least keep you from falling asleep.
It was in the early 70s the best selling albums were movie theme and soundtracks, most bands never even broke even. In spite of the harsh reality of the ‘free love- music is free man ‘mentality. I believed I could be an artist who made money. I believed I had my sh*t together and was in LA doing my best to get signed by a label and prove it.
One thing that stays the same, decade after decade, for any singer/songwriter/performer is the need to hone your skills – perform for any audience when and wherever you can. There is one difference between then and now – there were more places to play, perhaps the competition in those days wasn’t as fierce – the smaller the talent pools the better the chance for an artist. Spontaneous gatherings were ‘happening’ all the time. The trick was being mobile and flexible enough to go when and where these happenings took place, most dinner houses had lounge performers and paid pretty well, almost all small local bars in California would book singer/songwriters on weekends. (Tips, free beer, appreciative audiences, and a little money from the bar pour), and there was always a party somewhere. When I couldn’t find a place to play I would often produce a show for myself, with a little promotion, a good working ego, and a little money these shows turned out well attended, satisfying for the band, but not always profitable.
So after forging myself in the fire of performance and carrying a hand full of demo tapes I headed to LA with an appointment to meet a Talent Manager who had decided to take me on. I was booked as a solo act in all the usual places and was received with lukewarm to outright appreciative applause, depending on the venue and the crowd (That never changes – thick skin is still needed today). I did have some A&R folks stop by here and there and a little buzz started. In those days the starting point to signing with a label was to get a showcase scheduled, with reps from the labels, and that was what I was expecting.
I went back to San Diego and waited for weeks for my manager to call. The frustration was mounting to the point that I had decided that I had better go back to doing construction work – something I did stay with all my working life as a Contractor. I did get the call one Thursday and was told I had an important gig on Saturday night in Beverly Hills at a posh club. I told him I wasn’t that posh – I was long haired and bearded:
“She asked me why, I’m just a hairy guy
I’m hairy noon and night, hair that’s a fright
I’m hairy high and low, ask me why, don’t know”
He said, “Clean up a bit, wear clean bell-bottoms, boots, a flower shirt and lighten up on the beads. I didn’t wear beads and the beard, in a spirit of cooperation, was reduced to chops. I pulled up in my ‘61 Econoline to the ‘40s like, fancy landscaped, sea rock faced club in a neighborhood that my kind was more often Rodney King-ed and hauled off to the drunk tank with a bruise or two, stinging from slanderous comments about my manhood, and ( I swear) a planted bag of weed. This night I escaped that experience. I picked up my guitar case and entered through two eight foot oak doors, replete with stained glass, into a scene from a Bogart movie. The 1940’s motif was carried with red leather booths, low light, oversized crystal chandeliers , dark walnut grand bar, covering the whole south wall, red lipsticked waitresses in black and white maid’s outfits, very short skirts with petticoats, black seam lines down to red spike heels serving Manhattans, Rob Roys, Martinis, while giving a clear view of their décolletage(no doubt a tip giving incentive). The waiters all wore black tuxes and slicked back hair. The patrons were movie star- made-up women of indiscriminate age, with half revealed buxom, coifed hair, wearing evening gowns, diamonds, and furs; the men were all balding, or corn-rowed, paunch-ed, cigar smoking, Armani wearing, diamond pinky rings a-flash, and donning ten thousand dollar watches. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
My Manager pointed toward the raised stage and I moved my ‘out of place’ self through the club with winks in my direction from both male and female, and my glad-handing all the men as I went. On the stage was a small electric piano, a stand up bass, a mini-drum set with snare, tom, and high hat. – oh and one mike. A big guy in a tux stepped in front of me, smiled and put out his hand. He graciously told me the location of the green room. I made my way through the kitchen and the storage room and found the afore mentioned green door with a gold star on it (I guess that was for me) that same door right next to the lidded garbage cans. The door suddenly opened and an afro wearing white guy, in a tux, threw his arm over my shoulder saying, “Come on in Kenny and meet the guys. We love your stuff.” I asked if he had gotten to one of my shows. He said no but that Phil, my manager, had played a tape to them. I sat down and was handed a can of coke and a turkey croissant. “So have you all memorized my music?” I said between bites. The bald headed guy said that it wasn’t necessary because the boss believed that any artist worth their salt had to be able to convincingly deliver the epitome of popular contemporary music. Honestly, I was worriedly thinking Paul Anka, The Four Seasons, Bobby Vinton , none of whose songs did I play. The ridiculously tall and skinny guy with the impossibly big nose said,” We always do CCR on Saturday nights.” I would have loved to have a picture of my face. So much for making assumptions and thinking God doesn’t do miracles anymore. I probably knew and sang most all Credence tunes – ‘cause I like them and I sang them pretty well. If I hadn’t it would have been a disaster. I never thought to ask if the boys had charts. We waited and chatted till the phone rang – we were on. I pulled out my Yamaha twelve strings, checked for tuning and followed my ‘band’ to the stage. The big bouncer guy in the tux put out his tree limb sized arm out, clothes-lining me. “Hey Kenny, wait here till your introduced.”
I couldn’t hear the intro other than a low drone. I was concerned at its length, thinking that I hadn’t done enough of real merit to warrant whatever was said. I walked up the stairs to the stage and endured far too much unwarranted applause. Behind me the ‘band’ started Proud Mary; I lifted up my un-mic-ed guitar, leaned into the mic and sang. I and the band did an hour-and-a-half of CCR, repeating those tunes that the club’s well heeled and surprisingly rowdy clients yelled out. When the set was done I schmoozed and took the compliments, business cards and phone numbers on lipstick printed napkins (I wasn’t sure about these), with promises of lunch dates, well as back slaps and cheek smooches with my best ‘It’s all groovy!’ gracefulness.
I went home feeling a bit discombobulated.
The next morning I got a call from Phil and was told I had a meeting with a label. After his pitch all I could think to say is, “What the hell was that?” He laughed as long and as loud as I have ever heard him. He then told me that my audience was, for the most part, underwriters to the music business. It was no wonder I couldn’t put my mind around it – it was not so much a weird audition as it was a business meeting with talking points: 1. Could I sing? 2. Did I have the look? 3. Was I personable? 4. Could I interpretCCR in a way that worked?(still don’t know about that.)
What happened later on is another tale. Oh, did I mention that between a percentage of pour and a huge and stuffed tip jar I walked out with more money for a single gig than I have ever been paid – I guess I owe John Fogerty a couple bucks.
Verse from the musical ‘Hair’
Originally published at http://kenlehnig.com