“‘That’s some tale, old timer.’ Yeah, and it gets better everytime I tell it.” Where this conversation came from doesn’t pop to mind immediately, but I know that it has served me well for several decades. Not the part about ‘getting better every time I tell it’, mind you. I use it to remind myself of just the opposite. Stories I have picked up along the way don’t need to be ‘improved’ to make them good stories. When writing down anecdotes from the music world, I have found that doing the Jack Webb thing (“Just the facts, Ma’am”) serves the purpose just fine. It seems I have been in the right place at the right time to discuss music with a host of artists and the stories they impart are a lot of fun to hear. Scanning the index of past FTVs looking for a specific date that one article had gone to print, I kept getting side tracked when certain titles recalled some of my favorite musical tales. Most of the following stories have appeared in this space in some form or another over the years, but I couldn’t help digging them up again.
Back when the Los Angeles based trio Trees made an appearance at the second Porcupine Mountain Music Festival, we were lucky enough to begin a long association with their leader, former Houghton native Lindsay Tomasic. Before Lindsay’s mother, Helen (The Keweenaw Pasty Queen) moved west to live with her, Trees would make appearances in the area when Lindsay came home to visit her mom. Naturally, we made it a point to get Trees on stage in Ontonagon whenever we could get our schedules to match up. On one such trip, we were able to bring Ontonagon Area Schools students to the Ontonagon Theater of Performing Arts for an afternoon matinee. This particular version of Trees included ace pedal steel guitar player Dave Pearlman. Most of the kids had never seen a live steel guitar player on stage, so he was a highlight of that visit. It also turns out that Dave’s many years as a first call studio player and touring musician made him a font of interesting stories.
Dave mentioned that as a younger man, he had a session at the RCA studio in downtown L.A. It turned out that the Rolling Stones were also recording in another studio in the same building. Dave said, “I still smoked then, so I went outside and sat down on a bench in front of the building. It was kind of dark, so when two guys sat down next to me and lit up, it took me a while to realize that it was Mick (Jagger) and Keith (Richards). Being young and a tad brash, I handed Mick my card and said ‘If you ever need steel guitar on a song, give me a call.’ Keith looked over and said, ‘Yeah, thanks, but Ronnie (Wood) plays steel guitar on our records.’ I didn’t think I had anything to lose at this point and I couldn’t resist telling them, ‘Yeah, I am sure Ronnie owns a steel guitar, but I PLAY steel guitar.’” Though the Stones didn’t call on his services, I can vouch for his skill on lap steel. His contributions to this version of Trees were memorable.
The other story I remember Dave Pearlman sharing involved touring with Merle Haggard. Everyone seems to know about Haggard going missing during one tour. For a period of time no one really knew where he was. Some wrongly assumed he had died, and a host of interesting theories were laid to rest when Merle reappeared as mysteriously as he had vanished. Again, I will let Dave tell the tale: “I was playing with Merle just before he disappeared. He showed up to some of the gigs in pretty bad shape and not always on time. The last gig before he went missing was at a little club somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Just before showtime, Merle showed up in real bad shape. He staggered in, banging into tables as he made his way to the stage. We looked at each other thinking, ‘Oh boy, this is not going to be good.’ Merle got up, strapped on his guitar and played a flawless show. One of the best on the whole tour. When we were done, he staggered and stumbled his way out the front door and disappeared. That pretty much ended the tour because he went missing for a long time.”
Lindsay Tomasic has put on enough musical miles to be a well of interesting stories herself. When Trees was still operating out of Ann Arbor, Michigan, two of her bandmates were drummer Don Kuhli and bassist Randy Tessier. I ‘met’ Lindsay via email while researching Kuhli. Both Kuhli and Tessier had played in the fabled Marquette band Walrus before joining Trees in Ann Arbor. I was curious where drummer Kuhli had landed after leaving Michigan and I finally found a Detroit guitar player who mentioned working with him. This reference led me to his involvement with Lindsay and Trees. I discovered that Lindsay Tomasic had her own label, Datolite Records, which made me think she had a Copper Country connection (datolite being a mineral found in association with copper deposits). One email led to another and Trees were soon booked to play at the second PMMF.
Whenever we would get to see Trees perform in the area, I would tell Lindsay, “Hey, next time I visit Elizabeth and Todd (the WOAS West Coast bureau was still located in L.A. in those days), we should do lunch.” Of course, everytime I went to L.A. to visit, she was out of town. Finally, one trip found us both in town at the same time so Elizabeth, Lindsay, and I met for lunch at The Newsroom. We had a great time over guacamole, chips, and lunch as we talked about the U.P. and a host of other topics. I mentioned reading an interesting article on the plane ride west about Richie Sambora from Bon Jovi. Sambora was going on about a unique acoustic guitar technique developed by former Wing’s guitarist Lawrence Juber. ‘Oh, I know Lawrence. He is a great player,” was Lindsay’s response. I have always enjoyed relating stories I have read or heard about famous musicians, but it is even more fun when they are first hand accounts. I don’t play the ‘I am three degrees away from knowing Paul McCartney because I know Lindsay who knows Lawrence who used to play with Wings’ game, but I do like the stories that come one or two steps from the source.
Original Measured Chaos drummer Bill Gordon is one of those musicians who likes to talk about drums and drumming (in other words, my kind of man). The first time we booked the band to play at the Ontonagon Theater, we had a lot of time to talk. On that trip, he didn’t mention that he had played in a 1960s Detroit band called Frijid Pink. The Pink were well known for their psychedelic hit version of The House of the Rising Sun but I didn’t learn about Bill’s participation in that band until after they made their first visit to Ontonagon. Storing this bit of information in my mental file cabinet, I was ready to get the skinny on Bill’s time with Frijid Pink when we were able to get the band back for a second concert a couple of years later. Unfortunately, the downturn in the auto industry had forced Bill to relocate down south when his day job disappeared, and I was not able to ask him about Frijid Pink in person. We have stayed in touch off and on, so I guess the answer will have to be found out via the internet, but that is another story for another day.
Bill told an interesting story about The Beatles’ drummer, Ringo Starr: “Ringo decided that he wanted to show everyone in England how well he was doing by playing a drum set made in America. Most English drummers used Premier drums, but Ringo settled on getting a set manufactured by the Wm. F. Ludwig Company in Chicago. To make the point really obvious, he glued a Ludwig company logo near the top of his front bass drum head so everyone would know he could afford drums made in America. Watch any clip of The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and you will see Ringo flailing away on a Ludwig drum set with a black oyster shell finish. This particular model became so identified with Ringo, people began calling it ‘The Ringo model’.
Old Bill Ludwig was no doubt honored that Ringo would choose his drums over the other major brands of the day (Rogers, Gretsch, and Slingerland), but he got it into his head that Ringo would come calling for an endorsement deal someday. Ludwig should have been happy to have such a problem, but Wm. F. ducked out of many chances to meet The Beatles face to face for fear that Ringo might ask for something in return for all of his free promotion of Ludwig drums. Ringo never asked for a cent and to this day, he still plays Ludwig drums. It didn’t take long for all drum manufacturers to begin putting their logos front and center on their kits.” If one thinks about what Michael Jordan wearing Nike shoes did for their business, you will get the picture of what Ringo could have done for Ludwig. I never did understand Wm. F’s reluctance but that was the way it was back then.
When I was in seventh grade, my dad came home from work one day and said, “I ran into the owner of Boerner’s music store and asked him if he has any drum sets in stock. He said he has one right now, so let’s go look at it.” We had visited two other music stores in town but never found what we were looking for. My dad played harmonica so I didn’t know exactly what he meant when he said a drum set looked ‘cheap’ to him. Mom and dad were going to front me the money to buy a set, so I didn’t question their judgement. Our past experience (at other stores) told me not to get too excited. When we got to the Boerner’s, there sat one of Ludwig’s ‘Ringo sets’ in silver sparkle. The owner said, “I suppose you would rather have it be the same color as Ringo’s” and I admitted I was more partial to ‘sparkle blue or red’. Dad pointed out that the silver set would look like any color with the right spotlights shining on it and that was good enough for me. When I told Bill Gordon that I played a 1966 vintage Ludwig ‘Ringo set’, the first thing he asked me was, “What finish? You didn’t get that oyster shell finish, did you?”
The next story happened some three years after I started playing a drum kit. As a sophomore in high school, I had a close encounter with Rick Derringer of The McCoys. They were the headliners at a dance/concert held at NMU’s Hedgecock Fieldhouse during the annual Greek Week Festival. A local band, The French Church, opened for them. I was at my usual band watching station stage side when band leader Gordon MacDonald came over to talk to me. Gordon had been a trombone player in our high school band when I was a freshman and his younger brother, Warren (who wasn’t in the high school band but played the drums for the Church), was in my class. Gordon said, “We have to get our stuff off the stage fast so hang around until our set is done.” As soon as they started breaking down their equipment, they dropped it stage side and I carted it to an area backstage where they could pack it up in a more leisurely fashion. Once we got the Church’s stuff in their van, I went back to hanging around behind the stage waiting for the McCoys to go on. I was minding my own business when a voice from behind me asked rather harshly, “What are you doing back here?”
I turned around and found myself chest to chin with Rick Derringer (my chest, his chin). I wasn’t quite fully grown but I was still a head taller than he was. I looked down and said, “I was humping equipment for The French Church.” Derringer softened his approach and replied, “Oh, okay. Make sure there aren’t so many people back here. We don’t want anything broken or stolen.” Now, the baby faced fifteen year old me wasn’t about to be confused with ‘security’, but I said, “Okay,” before I went back to hanging around. I felt almost like a real roadie!
The McCoys were in a period of transition from their Hang On Sloopy pop phase (and yes, they played the official rock song of their home state of Ohio to close the show) and the period where they band backed Johnny Winter (billed as Johnny Winter And). At the Greek Week Festival, they played some real out there Frank Zappa stuff and were generally a tight, hard rocking band. During their intermission, Derringer was explaining how they were getting burned out being on the road so much. Someone mentioned the keyboard player seemed ‘out of it’ (plus he smelled like he hadn’t been taking care of himself in the hygiene department). Derringer diplomatically said, “Well, some of us have been over using ‘substances’ and when we get back home, some of us will continue with the band and some of us won’t.” I filed this bit of information under, “So if you want to be a rock and roll star, you have to hit the road, stay focused, and keep clean.”
A few summers later, Chuck the pot washer at the Huron Mountain Club was spinning a live album on the stereo in the ‘employees fun house’ (recreation building). I liked what I heard, so I asked him what we were listening to. He handed me the double album cover and there was Johnny Winter And featuring The McCoys’ Rick Derringer on guitar, Rick’s brother Randy on drums, and Randy Jo Hobbs on bass. Derringer has enjoyed a long career as a solo artist, a writer of both hit songs and books, a producer, a talk show band leader, and a first call session musician. It turns out that he is a very nice guy, but my first memory when I hear his music is me looking down at him as I measured how to respond to his kind of angry question all those years ago.
I drive my wife nuts these days when I manage to forget what she asks me to do in less time than it takes to say ‘Jack Robinson’. With that said, I find it ironic that bits and pieces about bands, musicians, and music I have collected along the way remain in my ‘upstairs file cabinet’. Apparently some memories have no ‘sell by date’ attached. Speaking of which, the “It gets better every time I tell it” line came from a Garfield cartoon involving a volcano. Now if I can remember that, why can’t I remember what I was supposed to dig out of the basement freezer?
Top Piece Video: Ringo swings on The Ed Sullivan Show with his prominently displayed Ludwig drum logo .