Allan Thomas

Behold

Recording an improvisational vocal with the Cannonball Adderley Quintet. 1972


Cannonball was glad I had come to Los Angeles and told me to meet him at the landmark Capitol Records building just north of Hollywood and Vine, where the recording sessions he wanted me to join were taking place.

Julian and I had had some pretty esoteric conversations those late nights after the shows in Denver when we had first met. I had received Knowledge from Guru Maharaj Ji almost a year before, and was getting a lot out of the meditations, so I was coming from a place of experience rather than theory regarding matters of conscious awareness and the related realms and rhythms of the inner world. He loved to query me on my master and the meditation techniques, but since it was forbidden to describe the ancient techniques in detail, I could only talk about what they were on the surface, and how they affected me. And this he drank up and got a kick out of talking about. It was all about inner peace and the soul, and who else but Cannonball would understand soul?

When I arrived at the session all the musicians were at their stations, as they had already been recording. George Axelrod was the producer and I liked him right off. He appeared to be a very cool guy. All of the musicians had a fun, lose camaraderie going, and they welcomed me like a long lost younger brother. Cannon and his brother Nat explained the nature of the session to me so I would know where I was to fit in.

The album was a concept record, the second one in a series. The first one was called Soul of the Zodiac. For that album they had recorded a bunch of improvisational music and later added the well-known L.A. DJ, Rick Holmes. He recorded his part, reading about each sign of the zodiac. The producer then edited Rick’s voice-over into the beginning of each song. So you had a little dialogue about the zodiac, followed by this great jazz that would underscore the theme.

The album they were recording now was to be called Soul of the Bible, and Rick Holmes would be reading from different scriptures this time. It wasn’t just Christian though, as he would also be reading from the teachings of the Buddha, Mohammed, and other Perfect Masters.

Cannon explained that I would be situated in a vocal booth with a microphone. I would be able to see the band, and hear them through the headphones. The band was to play whatever groove they had chosen, and at a given queue from Cannonball or Nat, I was to begin singing whatever came into my head. What if nothing came into my head? I didn’t even want to think about it. This was an opportunity of a lifetime for me, and I didn’t want to blow it.

Since Cannonball knew I was having a deep experience of whatever you want to call it; soul, truth, meditation, he had faith that I would be able to let the words come, and he was right, they did.

The band began playing a wild improvisation that must have had some kind of structure as Nat was directing it in some unfathomable way I couldn’t detect. After about ten or fifteen minutes of this orgy of sound that went from being boisterous to calm to celebratory, they came to a pause and Nat pointed to me.

I opened my mouth and the words “There’s an energy that flows within every living thing…” came out, and I just went on from there telling a story, improvising. For four minutes!

I was listening intently to George Duke on grand piano at the same time I was singing. We followed each other, me leading him with my melody, and him leading me with his chords, back and forth in a timeless dance, blindly with no idea what note, chord, or words would come next. The other musicians followed us. After I hit the last high note I ended the just born tune with … “And we’ll never be alone”.

There was dead silence in the studio. We got up from our positions in the room and took a break. I started apologizing for what I thought might have been a flat note and they all looked at me like I was out of my mind. They told me it was more than fine, and that I had done a great job. We listened to the playback of the tune we had just recorded, and they congratulated me again. I could hardly believe my ears, but there it was captured forever on tape.

About six months later Cannon called me and told me I could pick up a couple of copies of the album at Capitol records. I rushed down to Hollywood and got my copies. When I looked at the credits I saw that the song I had sung was titled ‘Behold’, and I was given the name Arthur Charma by Cannonball. Because I was still legally under contract to Sire records at the time of the recording, and because they wanted to avoid any legal hassles, Julian decided to give me a nom de plume. On the writing credits I was given a fifty-fifty share with Nat Adderley.

Recently I received a royalty check for royalties from that album for overseas sales. This happens every few years; it’s a sweet reminder, of an unforgettable experience. And all I have to do is play that song and it takes me right back to that magic day at Capitol studios some thirty-four years before, a beautiful moment frozen in time, and one that I will always hold sacred.

Have Guitar Will Travel

Further travel adventures in Colorado, Tennessee, and Southern Oregon, winter of ’71-’72. Sweet Cindy


After the opening-act gig with the Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Denver I made for the Rockies. In a small town called Allen’s Park, a few hours west of Boulder, was a log cabin restaurant that also served live music. It was called the Bluebird Café. Even though I was blackballed from the major club circuit in Colorado, I still had some connections in the smaller venues and this intimate gig was one I was looking forward to.

Magic Music, an acoustic folk-rock group from the Boulder area invited me to crash at their mountain retreat. They had a great little scene going on up there – living and playing a gig out in the mountains, and jamming at their house till sunrise.

The snow never let up it seemed, but a warm fire raged in the fireplace at the Bluebird. They had the best home cooked meals you could find anywhere, and the ambiance was delightful. You could hear folk, blues, country, singer-songwriter, and even Sitar music played by this cat named Jonathin. Part of your pay was a meal or two, plus a small amount of cash and tips. But that was fine as the gig and place was pleasant to be in, and the jams we had went on for hours.

A tall, rangy, deep-voiced girl named Cindy slept on a couch a few feet away from where I was crashing. One late night she accepted my offer for a massage. One thing led to another, you know how the story goes. Next thing we were sleeping together every night. Aside from the obvious benefit of having a nighttime companion it was much warmer than sleeping alone on those numbingly cold Rocky Mountain nights.

After a few days Cindy told me it was time that she headed back to Southern Oregon. But she did invite me to visit her in should I happen to be passing through. Turns out she lived about ten miles from Takilma, my place of refuge after I hastily left L.A. two years previous. It wasn’t very likely that I’d be passing through, but I certainly considered making a special trip to visit with her, as she was a wonderful girl, an enthusiastic lover, and a superb cook. She was also learning to play flute, and wasn’t too terrible.

After a week or so in Allen’s Park, the Bluebird gig over, I hitched down to Nashville Tennessee to visit with a couple of musician friends of mine who were guitar players with the Tracy Nelson band Mother Earth. Robert Cardwell and Jack Lee were two of my guitar gurus, as well as good buddies. Besides being phenomenal guitarists they were cool brothers to be around. It was always a good hang, and they weren’t stingy with their licks either. I had been to Nashville a couple of times previous and really dug it. The people were warm and unpretentious, and the southern belles hospitable and friendly. I could listen to that Southern drawl for hours, especially if it was accompanied by a pleasing tone of voice and an interesting face.

This was a real musicians town, a songwriters heaven. It was the only town I knew where nearly everyone was a songwriter. If you were at breakfast with a friend and were talking about a good line or title or idea for a song, you had to be careful, because the waiter, or the person sitting at the next table might hear it and possibly snatch it. Maybe not, but you had to be alert just in case.

For my money the premier venue for singer-songwriters in Nashville at that time was the Exit In. And that is where my next gig was. Jack Lee played electric guitar, harp and piano, and Sylvia Caldwell – another Mother Earth alumni – sang backing vocals. Cardwell sat in on the last set as well. It was one of my favorite gigs, and we were well received. Besides playing my original tunes we sang, The Fiesta’s ‘So Fine’ in three-part harmony. As an encore we sang ‘Amazing Grace’ with the audience joining in.

On a different night at The Exit Inn I met a thin wisp of a woman whose name I have forgotten. We found ourselves willing participants in a fit of lust by nights end. She left me with something to remember her by in the form of a dripping shaft days later. The funny part was knowing that she got it from none other than old Bob Cardwell. What goes around…

I was invited to a New Years Eve party given by that rapscallion Travis Rivers; manager of Mother Earth. My friends and I couldn’t stay long, as we had tickets to go to the Grand Old Oprey, at the original Ryman auditorium. We stayed just long enough for some punch, light snacks, and one or two of Travis’s usual far-fetched yarns about one thing or another.

In the car on our way to the Oprey, I discovered that my vision was either playing wicked tricks on me, or I was hallucinating. I was hallucinating. My friends were too. Turns out that bastard Travis Rivers had spiked the punch at his party with LSD. We should have known. Since we were already in motion when the acid started coming on we decided to just stick with the plan.

I can’t remember all the artists who played that night, but I do remember Buck Owens, and Porter Wagoner, plus old Grandpa and Minnie Pearl, who were hilarious. Between each act a billboard would drop down from the ceiling advertising one thing or another. One advertisement was for something like Stuckies candy, and every time the sign was unfurled my friends and I – for some dumb reason not even known to us – would howl with laughter. The people sitting near us kept giving us strange looks, like “What’s so damn funny”. But we were beyond being fazed. It was a fun night, but I learned the hard way why Travis Rivers was considered a wily character.

Much later that evening I hung out with David, one of my fellow fruit-punch-spiked brothers at Slyvia and Teppers leather workshop/store on 16th Street. He was on holiday from university where he was studying to be a doctor. Sitting next to a wood-burning stove, we wound up getting into a long conversation about oil, a simple thing – oil. 
But he got way into it, describing it in great detail, breaking it down to molecules, and on and on for like hours. Was it really that fascinating or was it the power of the dose? Who knows, it was a great way to ring in the New Year.

David and I both had a crush on a tall attractive back-up singer named Darleen. After he crashed, deep into the early morning, I composed an up-tempo song about her, with rhythm and chord changes that Cannonball would have been proud of. It helped to pass the long night and eventual come down.

It didn’t take long for me to feel like it was time to move on. That’s just how it was. I’d get an urge to travel, and the next thing I knew I’d be out on the highway with my guitar and backpack, thumb already twitching to flag down a ride. It was such a great feeling to have no responsibilities or ties. The best part was not knowing what possible adventure lie in wait, or whom I’d meet, or even knowing where I’d spend the night. I didn’t care because I had some kind of faith that it would always work out, and always it did. These leaps of faith, and my trust in the power of the unknown, I can see now, paved the way for how I continue to live even today.

I’d been thinking about Cindy from Oregon. Who wouldn’t have? So I phoned her neighbor to tell her I’d be passing through. (Cindy had no phone) I wasn’t really passing through, but she’d gotten under my skin, I missed her sweet sensuous body and her good sense of humor, and since I was between gigs, I thought it was about time to resume our friendship. It turned out to be a great idea too. She received me with open arms, and smothered me with affection. It’s always nice to know you’re wanted.

Cindy lived in a small hamlet in southern Oregon called Selma. It’s near the Siskiyou Mountains about forty miles southwest of Grants Pass. If you went to the tip of northwest California you’d hit Crescent City. There you would take a right at Highway 99 and travel northeast following the Rogue River till you hit southern Oregon and Selma. I don’t know how the area is now, but then in 1972 it was a spectacularly beautiful rural region, except for the incessant logging. And logging was big in this part of Oregon. All day long you’d see huge double tractor-trailers loaded with fresh cut logs, barreling down the roads. Sawmills with noxious smoke belching out of chimneys were scattered along the main routes.

Cindy was 5’9. She had cerulean blue eyes, a high forehead, dimples and long wavy chestnut hair. She was originally from Chicago but now lived in a shack. No use trying to make it more than it was, it was a shack. It leaked in the rain, had no insulation, and had two small plastic covered windows. But it did have two crackerjack wood-burning stoves. One stove was for keeping the place warm, and the other was for cooking, at which she was a marvel. She made me feel like a king with her splendid home-cooked meals, including homemade bread.

Some mornings were so cold that we’d have to start a fire to make it comfortable enough to get breakfast going. We had playful fights over who would get up out of that toasty warm bed first to start the fire. It was she who usually started the fire.

Her shack was backed up against a vast pine forest where we picked wild mushrooms for a sorrel soup she’d make from time to time. Wild black bear could sometimes be seen up in the trees, and you had to be real careful not to get in between a cub and it’s mother.

Cindy had an improvised plywood sweat lodge that was heated by starting a log fire in the customized fifty-gallon steel barrel. The stove was set on its side and had a lid welded on one end for a door. Since her place lacked hot water it was nice to be able to take a sauna, then stand outside in the Oregon night unfazed by the cold, gazing up at the million and one stars pulsing on the roof of the black sky.

This was funky country living at its best. Beautiful girl, home cooked meals, and a quiet place to write and practice. But one thing was wrong with the picture: the rainy season was approaching, and it would last for five months. A couple of weeks of gray downcast skies with rain water dripping into pans in the shack was enough to get me thinking about moving on.

About this time a letter from Cannonball arrived. He said he was recording in L.A. and if I came down I could do some singing on the record.

That was all I needed to get me rolling. Cindy, dreading the months of rain ahead, wanted to come with me. It was my pleasure to have her join me, as we were still enjoying each other’s company immensely.

We found an old sixty-two Chevy Impala that looked like it had been through a war or two. It was painted in the Rasta colors of yellow, green, and red, by what must have been a couple of six year olds in kindergarten class. We called it the Schmata. (In Yiddish that means a rag, or something old and used) We paid all of $65 for it, and they told us it burned a little oil.

A little oil my ass! We were stopping every seventy-five miles to put a quart in. Other than it smoking like a rubbish heap and smelling like an oil sump, with fumes enough to sicken an entire city, the Schmata was all right. But the clutch, a Hurst four speed, froze up about fifty miles outside of our destination. Welcome to LA. We left the Schmata where it died and got out and hitched the rest of the way to Malibu.

Breaking New Ground

Denizen of the West Village coffee house circut.  Recording first solo album A Picture.  A night at the Fillmore East with John Lennon and Frank Zappa.  Meeting Cannonball Adderley and band. 1970-1971


After camping out in the woods of Southern Oregon for a couple of months and going through a cathartic healing process, I was ready to strike out and play gigs as a solo artist again. Hitchhiking around the country I played wherever I could, working on my song selection, between-song patter, and delivery.

My path eventually led back to NYC and Greenwich Village, where I played the coffee house circuit regularly. The Bitter End, Café Fenjon, Café A Go Go, Gerdies Folk City, and especially the Gaslight were the places where I really honed my skills as a troubadour.

The Gaslight was a classic Village coffee house: a little hole-in-the-ground basement club frequented by the usual tourists and an assemblage of colorful local characters including poets, comics and mainly folk and blues musicians. This was 1970, already nine or so years after Dylan’s arrival and subsequent meteoric rise. But it was still essential to play the Gaslight. The room was tiny and cramped with maybe half dozen wooden tables and benches, the audience only three feet away from the small stage. Yet so much magic transpired there night after night year after year.

Next-door was the Kettle of Fish bar and grill – a major hangout for the denizens of MacDougal Street. I met composer David Amram, songwriter Len Chandler and poet Charles John Quarto there. Dylan’s one-time cohort Bobby Neurwith livened up the joint from time to time. The sawdust-on-the-floor place vibrated with raw creative energy.

One night between sets at the Gaslight my sideman Steve Burgh and I slipped outside and sat down on a stoop on a quiet street around the corner. We lit one up and within two seconds a couple of undercover narcs jumped in our faces and threatened to haul us off to jail. Talk about a bring-down. We somehow convinced them that we were just a couple of musicians playing at the Gaslight, and not big dealers or anything. To our shock they took our film can of stash and let us go>

Everybody came through the Village to play when in NYC. A young Bonnie Riatt, Kris Kristofferson, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Mose Allison and a holy host of other artists could be seen on any given night. In ’67 I had seen Van Morrison with his group Them at the Bitter End, singing ‘Brown Eyed Girl’. Within minutes you could walk over to the East Village and catch John Coltrane’s pianist McCoy Tyner, playing at the Five Spot. Or head up to Bleecker Street to the Top of the Village Gate and hear Bill Evans playing deep solo piano. If you were a songwriter this was the place to be. The whole neighborhood oozed creativity and art. The Village was legend, and a great place to work on your craft.

I played in the West Village for two years off and on. During a weeklong gig at the Gaslight Seymore Stein’s Sire Records offered me a four album record deal. This was a major boon, a huge opportunity and a boost to my self-confidence. I felt fortunate to be chosen because there were so many other gifted artists in the Village that would have given anything for a record deal. Deep down I always knew I wasn’t one of the most talented of writers or singers by any stretch of the imagination, but still felt there was a place for me somewhere in the realm of recorded and live music.

The producer was Richard Gottehrer, a cat probably in his mid-thirties who was soft spoken but knew his shit. I appreciated his laid-back but all-business attitude and enjoyed working with him throughout the whole process. Having been a recording artist and writer himself he knew how to coax the best performances. He’d had a hit in his youth with a group called the Strangeloves, and would later produce the Go Go’s and Joan Armatrading among others.

Richard agreed to fly in three of my musician buddies from around the country for the sessions. They would be the main players and rhythm section. The boy’s stayed at my folks house in Brooklyn, and Sire had rented a car for me to bring us all to rehearsals at Baggies in the Village for several days.

Multi instrumentalist Jack Lee came in from Nashville where he was working with Tracy Nelsons band Mother Earth. Bassist Steve Edelman flew in from L.A. and Bill ‘Fuzz’ Weicht joined us from Dayton Ohio to play drums. These were brothers I’d met while hitchhiking around the country the previous couple of years. I felt a special energy with each of them when we played my music and thought they would play well together on the album regardless of having never met.

This is the way I wanted to record rather than using all NYC session players. We did have overdub sessions with studio heavy hitters Buddy Lucas on tenor sax, and George Devins on cabasa and vibes. Ellie Greenwich and crew sang back up vocals on a couple of tunes as well. They were Richard’s choices and their addition to the album was perfect.

Richard and I picked 10 of the thirty or so songs I had written in the 1967- 1970 period. The sessions were at Media Sound on west 57th street. Veteran Neal Ceppos was the engineer.

The title track ‘A Picture’, was written on Halloween in Boulder Colorado in 1970. The lyric endeavors to paint a picture of slices of life using colors and images as a metaphor for things I have seen and experienced.

Richard asked me if I wanted my photo to be on the cover of the album, and after some thought I declined. I actually had reservations about being recognized in the street should I achieve fame, losing my anonymity, but I didn’t tell him that.

He suggested having Frank Gauna – a noted painter living in New Jersey – paint the album cover. He was supposed to have been a compadre of Andy Warhol. This idea struck me as novel right off the bat.

The lyrics had to do with “painting a picture for you so you can see what I’ve seen too”. Frank, during a handful of sittings, painted a portrait of me with a brush and easel in my hands, my face and head in the center of a gold painted picture frame, with the sky behind me. He had painted the main lyrical idea. I loved it. Pretty cool for a record company to have initiated that kind of artwork I thought.

Later the painting would win Frank an award, and it was displayed in an art gallery in Manhattan for a while. Frank was a personable man and left a good impression on me. He’d put on classical music and jazz to paint to, and we would go on about our perspectives on life in general, and music and art in particular. He also told me about a great little Cuban Restaurant on Tenth Avenue.

After the main sessions with the rhythm section, I recorded ‘A Picture’ and also ‘Circles’ with another friend and sideman, Jack McGann. We played acoustic guitars and I sang live.

‘Circles’ was written on a foggy day in Venice California in 1969 while tripping alone. I was staying in a small house only 2 blocks from the ocean at the time. The rent was dirt-cheap. I kept thinking how everything moves in circles and cycles and always leads back to the center in endless repetition. The earth spinning, the breath moving in and out …

‘D Train’ is a shuffle in E. about the subway line I would ride late at night from my folk’s home in Brooklyn to Manhattan and back. How you would bump into characters of every stripe, and you never know what might befall you. It was one of the very few times I modulated key in an original song.

‘Ridin’ was a groove shuffle in A major which came to me all at once while playing for change on the campus at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The song promises to take you on a ride, and all you have to do is listen. ‘Ridin’ was also a metaphor for making love, and for the energy that is everything. That’s what I like, an all-purpose word. Buzzy Linhart performed the tune later as an opener in his electrifying live sets.

‘Nine to Five Routine’, a slow blues in A minor, opened the album and was my declaration of independence. I’d decided that I’d never work normal hours again, and just spend my time working on my craft. The tune was written in Central Park, where I was prone to write from time to time.

‘Headin’ for the Open Road’ was my usual state of mind in those days. I looked to the open highway for freedom and release. My need for the unpredictable and mysterious could always be satiated by just picking up and leaving wherever I was.

‘Hitchhiker Song’, was completely autobiographical. With a Richie Havens-type acoustic guitar blazing away in D. It was about the means of transporting myself from one place to another, and the lessons, interesting people, and situations you find yourself in when trusting in your Karma on the road. I was searching for something and didn’t know what but if I just kept in motion all would be known and experienced. The song was born in a farmhouse in Southern Wisconsin in the spring of 1970 while visiting Jack Lee and friends. Jack played kick-ass Hammond B3 on the track.

‘Let it Flow’ was a bossa nova groove in A minor; a tip of the hat to the music of Brazil which I so resonated with at the time. Bob Cardwell, a Chicago-born guitarist and friend was instrumental in turning me on to Brazilian guitar rhythm grooves that are plucked first thumb, then three fingers simultaneously. Later I would learn and perform the Antonio Carlos Jobim tune ‘Aguas de Marzo’ (Water of March) in this same mesmerizing type groove.

In those mellow days of ’69 “let it flow” was a hipster’s phrase like “chill out” is today. I used the analogy of planting a seed and nurturing it, in order to allow it to grow to it’s fullest potential, as you would do, or hope to do, in a relationship with someone you loved. Session master George Devins played insanely beautiful vibes on the song, and with Jack Lee’s melodic nylon string rhythm/lead part the track had a great feel to it. Unfortunately for me, my vocal was so-so.

My Aquarian nature – whatever that is – must have been responsible for the song ‘Communication’. Which lamely but earnestly pleas for us all to reach out and try to communicate better with children. The tune was written in jail just before my release. I was worried that if we don’t reach out to young kids they might end up where I had just been. This is however, no excuse for poor writing. The track had dynamics all right, but was slow in tempo and took forever getting there.

The ballad ‘In The Rain” was one of my favorite tracks, a ‘Mother Natures Son’ type sentiment. Again George Devins played Vibes and Jack Lee Nylon String, with Steve on upright bass bowed. Fuzz played some nice brushes on this one. I was real happy with my vocal performance. The jizz factor was way up the scale on this one. The tune went out with a building improvisational tag. It was raining the day I wrote it in my fathers ’67 Plymouth in Brooklyn.

‘Walls’ was also one of my favorite tracks. A mid-tempo finger picked groove in D, written in Coldwater Canyon Southern California around 1969. An allegory involving my coming split with my then manager Val Williams, about how misunderstandings can devastate a relationship.

In the end I wasn’t all that overjoyed with a couple of my vocals, and never did get them 100%. I hadn’t a lot of experience working with headphones and singing to tracks, but I nailed a few of them for sure. At one point I took the rental car and drove way out to the tip of Long Island to practice singing with the tracks.

All in all I was pretty satisfied with the albums performances. It was definitely an accurate picture of where I was at as a singer and songwriter only three years into my game. There was a long way to go but I felt like I was growing and stretching my wings.

During breaks in the sessions I met Richie Havens, one of the few black solo singer songwriter’s wielding an acoustic steel string in the folk world. Richie was a charismatic, big-hearted cat, who had played at Woodstock and who was recording one of his albums in another room.

Downstairs in the church-like basement Stevie Wonder was recording his ‘Talking Book’ album with Bob Margouleff and Malcom Cecil producing and engineering. Bob and Malcom befriended me and over the years I was a guest of theirs at several Stevie Wonder sessions.

Just before the release of my Sire album I met a fellow artist who was also recording for Sire. I won’t mention his name because he was a big hashish dealer in the city at the time, and always had the best fresh stash.

Through his connections he’d gotten tickets and back stage passes to the Frank Zappa concert at the Fillmore East, down in the east village. My brother Richard and I met the dude at his apartment not far from the Fillmore, where after pleasantries were exchanged he fired up a bong with some of the most potent hashish I’d ever had the pleasure of tasting. That out of the way he gave us the tickets and we were off to see the wizard, I mean the show.

Rich and I made our way to the theater but security was being real assholes. After much finagling we got backstage. We followed the scent of hash, and the sound of music up a staircase until we found ourselves at the entrance to a small room where John Lennon, Frank Zappa, and Yoko Ono were jamming.

What unbelievable luck. We edged our way into the doorway and stood there transfixed. Lennon and Zappa were sitting down on a couple of chairs jamming on a Chuck Berry tune. Yoko was doing her weird high vocalizing trip. I don’t even know what you’d call it, screeching is closest to the mark. It sure didn’t sound like any singing I’d ever heard before or wanted to hear again either. But it was easy to forget her and hone in on John and Frank.

I had recently been practicing a type of vocal yodel that I learned from Buzzy Linhart. Buzzy had copped the lick from a John Coltrane record that Pharaoh Sanders was singing on. You could call it a jazz yodel; saxophone players do this scale as well. Out of nowhere I had the bright idea that now was the perfect time to try it. Boldly in the middle of John and Frank’s riffing I let out this yodel. No one gave any indication of noticing it; they just kept on jamming and having a ball. Guess I wasn’t meant to get discovered right then, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except seeing these two icons at play.

The show started with Flo and Eddie, a couple of real cut-up’s, doing lead vocals with the Zappa band. They sang their Turtles hit ‘Happy Together’ which they portrayed as a funny parody. Later during the show John and Yoko joined Frank and the band.

During the jam that ensued Frank and John started singing “Scumbag Scumbag”. I couldn’t believe what they were saying. Was it “Scumbag Scumbag”? Yes it was. Then they had the whole audience to join in with “Scumbag Scumbag”.

A night of nights. Rich and I were in high spirits as we rode the D train back to Brooklyn late that night.

Sad to think that both John and Frank are gone now, but you can bet if there is a Rock and Roll heaven they’re up there trying to get the angels to join them in a rousing chorus of “Scumbag!”

Upon releasing an album you are obliged to play as much as humanly possible to promote the record. Touring with an album under my belt had it’s benefits. I was able to travel – which I loved to do anyway – get paid well, and play for new enthusiastic audiences all over the country. Most of the time the venues I performed at hired me in part because I had a record out. They’d advertise my gig, and my albums could usually be found in the local record stores.

My booking agent at the time was Shadrack Artists. They booked me on the college, club, and coffee house circuit, with the occasional opening act slot at concerts. The money was decent and sometimes fantastic. Many times the venue would provide lodging.

I opened shows for a diverse group of artists including Joe Zawinul’s jazz group Weather Report, jazz singer Carmen McRea, the English pop group Mark Almond Band, Richie Havens, singer-songwriter Livingston Taylor, and blues singer’s Bukka White and Arthur Cruddup. One time I even opened for bluegrass legend Bill Monroe and the Kentucky Bluegrass Boys out at Stony Brook University in Long Island. They were something else.

It was great fun and I was always meeting interesting characters, something I’ve always been drawn to. Sometimes I lucked out and met women with a weak spot for musicians. I worked on my rapport with the audience, and as most of the gigs were in intimate settings it was easy to feel comfortable and look them in their eyes. I started telling stories between songs about my traveling adventures. These gigs took me Boston, Albany, Nashville, Chicago, Washington DC, Philly, Dayton, Boulder and Denver Colorado, and of course my native Manhattan.

Having spent all of 1968 and half of 1969 in jail, I was now fulfilling my dream of traveling, and at the drop of a hat I’d hitchhike across the country for a gig. My sound at the time was acoustic guitar based so I was usually billed as a folk artist, but because of my rhythm and blues, and jazz leanings, I was way left of the folk world, as such.
I used a lot of major seventh, minor seventh, and ninth chords so I was more of a jazzish folkster, and occasionally I would scat improvisational solos to make up for the lack of a sideman.

As usual no one knew how to classify my music, but this never stopped me from anything. My usual attire was a blue denim shirt with blue jeans. I had a mustache, beard, and bushy afro-type hair, with rimless glasses. I was thriving on the energy exchange between performer and audience.

Like a rolling stone, I wound up in Boulder Colorado, a great college town with heaps of beautiful co-ed’s and fun places to play. My first album was out and I had no trouble getting good gigs. I’d signed a contract with a prominent local booking agency to open for the jazz vocalist-pianist Les McCann, at a club called Tulagi’s. Les had had a hit with ‘Compared to What’ recorded live at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, with Eddie Harris playing tenor sax.

A couple of nights before I was to open for Les I went to Marvelous Marv’s in Denver to hear the Cannonball Adderley Quintet. Cannonball Julian Adderley was my all-time favorite alto sax player. Originally from Tampa Florida, he had played with the legendary trumpet master Miles Davis, and the groundbreaking tenor sax player John Coltrane. They were at one point all three in the same band in the fifties, and recorded the classic album ‘Kind of Blue’.

Cannonball had had a hit in the sixties with a Joe Zawinul song called ‘Mercy Mercy Mercy’ and was considered to be one of the seminal alto sax players of the time. His gift for extended improvisations made him renown. His sound was soulful and exuberant, and his stature as a human being immense. When he spoke he was very articulate, especially to an audience.

The intelligent presentation of his music (often explaining what he and his musicians were going to play) helped make him one of the most popular of all jazzmen. In his playing he was articulate as well, bringing forth all the emotions from the dark, to the light, and all moods in between.

Cannonball’s brother Nat, another warm-hearted unassuming cat, who played cornet, usually played in Cannon’s ensembles, as was the case when I first went to hear them that fated night in Denver. I had a few of Cannonballs records back at my parents house, and used to play them in my basement bedroom late into the wee hours.

A few months before I had played at Marvelous Marv’s, opening the show for Carmen McRae, one of the top women vocalists in the jazz world. I was on good terms with the manager of the club, Casey, who said he would book me again if he found the right act for me to open for. On the Cannonball Adderley Quintet’s opening night a comedy act opened the show, but they were bombing. No one was laughing at their jokes.

Casey rushed over to me in between sets and asked me if I was interested in opening for Cannonball for the rest of his six-night stand. I was honored but I was under contract to open for Les McCann in Boulder starting the next night for three nights running. He told me he knew the booking agent who booked Tulagi’s, and that he would speak to him on my behalf, to get me off the hook so I could do the Adderley gig.

I readily agreed that if he could square it with the Tulagi’s booking agent I would do the gig. It would be a dream come true to open for the Cannonball Adderley Quintet. I’d be able see them for six nights in a row, and maybe even meet the great man himself.

The next day Casey told me it was all set for me to open the show. The audience was responsive during my thirty minute set, and I was happy to be there. With all the great talent in Denver you would’ve thought that someone entrenched more firmly in the jazz idiom would have filled the slot better than I, but here I lucked out again and slid right in with my neo-folk-jazz sound. It was also cheaper to hire me, a soloist, than a full band. My set over, I put my guitar away and prepared myself for the musical feast I was about to devour.

Watching their set was a total experience, mind, body, and soul. Their relentless soaring music took me away and brought me back changed. The live playing was so much more immediate than just listening to a record. There was so much dynamics to the music, one minute slow and bluesy, the next a riot of notes cascading up, down and even sideways.

Roy McCurdy, played drums, with Walter Booker on upright bass. Nat Adderley played cornet, and George Duke was on piano. What a dream rhythm section. They were conversing with each other on their instruments, communicating wordlessly. Taking the audience along with them wherever they went. It was soul food, and I ate everything on my plate.

The following night Cannonball and some of the band caught my show. Afterward Cannon invited me up to the hotel room they were using as a band dressing room. There I was, a young twenty-three year old singer-songwriter hanging with some of the greatest jazz musicians of our time. I was quietly in awe, but they acted just like regular guys and made me feel at ease in their presence.

Taking a shine to me, Julian gave me a standing invitation to hang with them after each evening’s performance. It was always a scene too, with delicious women coming to pay respects to the band. One night I managed to reap some of the spillage.

A few nights into the gig Les McCann showed up in the band room. He and Cannonball were the best of friends. After a while Cannon introduced me to Les, and Les said, “Oh you’re the guy”, meaning I was the guy that was supposed to open for him in Boulder. I didn’t know it then but I was in deep shit with the booking agent who had originally booked me to open for Les. Turned out Casey, the manager of Marvelous Marv’s hadn’t really squared it away for me, and so I was blackballed from playing in all the clubs and colleges in the Denver/Boulder area.
But it was worth it in the end to have opened for and met Cannon and the band. I wouldn’t have traded that experience for anything in this world.

Cannonball asked me to play a song for Les right there in the dressing room. So I got out my Gurian acoustic and sang ‘Comfort’, one of my up-tempo swing songs. A sweet seventeen-year old girl I’d had a memorable night with inspired the lyric. The drink Southern Comfort had something to do with the inspiration as well, as the two had gone together quite nicely.

I played the song about two feet from Les’s face, with Cannonball standing right there grinning and swaying. Afterward, Les slapped me five and said in his deep raspy voice, “Cool!”

The gig went on for six nights and every night I stayed to hear the band. And every night it was a different show. That’s the thing about real jazz; the real jazz purveyors never play the same thing twice. I was in school again at Marvelous Marv’s, and was paying close attention.

After the gig was finished Cannonball gave me the phone number of Amber, a lady friend of his, to call when and if I should get to L.A. I gave him my address too, as I didn’t want to lose touch. There was a party in the band room that last night with some fine Columbian and Courvoisier. Cannon played albums of his favorite newly discovered artists including the Brazilian singer-songwriter Milton Nascimiento.

I hated for that gig to end because I really loved those cats and they inspired me to dig deeper. But all good things must pass. I wouldn’t forget this eventful time however.

Later in L.A. Cannonball made sure I was given a handful of albums to check out, and Nascimiento’s album ‘Colors’ was one of them. I had been listening to Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell for a year or two, but Milton was new to me and it was an honor to have Cannonball personally turn me on to him.

It was time to move on but my association with Cannonball Adderley was just beginning.

Youthful Indescretions

Hi-jinx in flight to Southern California.  The saga of Lynn Kellogg and Val Williams.  Sam Taylor.  Touring the heartland.  Another brush with death.  Winding up in the woods of Oregon. 1969-1970


After a few of months back on the street, I reconnected with artist manager Val Williams, and singer Lynn Kellogg. My previous manager Bob Richards had introduced me to Val and Lynn just before I was sent upstate. They had taken me with them to Los Angeles for my first trip west, a month before my sentencing.

We stayed in Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles for two weeks, and it was a real eye opener. I had taken in the scene at Sunset Strip, met and made love to a flower child in Topanga Canyon, and was turned on to the music of the west coast group Buffalo Springfield. I loved the palm trees, un-crowded highways, and the moist sea air of Southern California, and couldn’t wait to come back. This was late’67.

On that first flight to L.A. Val shared a little secret. He said if I was cool, I could take a quick toke in the airplane lavatory. What he didn’t tell me was to make sure I had some Ozium air freshener, to rid the lavatory of the reeking telltale smell. I took his advice, went to the restroom and lit up, taking a couple of hits. Thinking how clever I was I went back to my seat with a good little buzz, nobody the wiser. Wrong!

One of the stewardesses came right up to me and asked me if I had just smoked in the toilet. I lied through my teeth straight to her face and said “No”. That really ticked her off, and rightfully so, but I wasn’t about to admit it to her for anything. She threatened me with the warning that it was against federal law to smoke “Maryjuana” on an aircraft, and told me that she would see to it that federal agents were waiting for me when we landed at LAX. Then in a righteous huff she walked away. I lost my high real quick. Fabulous, just what I needed. From cockpit to tail, the whole plane was reeking of cigarette smoke, and somehow she has to bust me for taking a couple of hits of grass in the lavatory.

I was paranoid the whole trip of course, but miraculously I wasn’t arrested when I got off the plane. Val saw the whole confrontation with her and told me it would have been wiser if I had admitted to her that yes, I had smoked, then she wouldn’t have taken it so personally. But I wasn’t convinced. That upper-altitude high jinx was one of the dumbest moves I ever made, and to make it even worse, I was out on bail when I did it. Makes me wonder.

Now it was spring of ’69. Val, Lynn and I had stayed in touch when I was at Camp P. Val even driving up for a visit at the camp, to the amazement of the black brothers. Lynn’s career was doing well, and they were living in a nice apartment building in Manhattan, on east 76th street by the East river, right down the block from where I was born. They were soon moving to L.A. and arranged with my parole officer for me to join them. I was ecstatic.

Val Williams offered to become my manager, and I gladly accepted. He’d led a diverse life. At one point he had been a football player with the Rams. He had also been married to and managed the career of R&B singer Maxine Brown. Val was an urbane black man, about 5’10, built thick and solid.

He was a sharp-eyed, handsome, svengali-type, in his mid-thirties. A snazzy dresser with impeccable manners, he had a penchant for things white: cocaine and beautiful white women.

Val also loved to smoke reefer, and after I finally relaxed my paranoia to a degree about being sent back to jail, I smoked many a joint with him. He could be a real charmer when he set his mind to it, and this helped him to open doors for some of the artists in his stable. A six-inch scar flamed across his neck from a knife fight, and he was rumored to have had ties with the New York underworld, for which he had taken a rap and done some time.

The man loved music though, and knew music deep in his soul. He didn’t play an instrument, but he could tell you what notes to play on yours, or how to phrase your singing so it was believable. He was a great advocate of Ray Charles, whom I learned to listen to very closely. Being managed by Val Williams was like being in school, and he was a great teacher. And I had a lot to learn, being twenty-one, and still wet behind the ears.

He also managed Lynn Kellogg, and Sam Taylor as well. Lynn was a tall attractive blonde blue-eyed folksinger who had been in the New Christy Minstrels – a wholesome all-American folk ensemble. But she became famous for her roll as the female lead in the original Broadway production of the rock musical ‘Hair’. Lynn was related to the Kellogg cereal family, and was from Appleton, Wisconsin.

Sam Taylor was a fantastic soulful black singer-songwriter-guitarist, who always had a big smiling grin on his cherubic round face. Short and stocky, in his youth he’d been a prizefighter. His father was the famous sax player Sam ‘the Man’ Taylor. Sam was full of stories about his life as a blues and R&B recording artist and touring performer. He was also full of tales about his affairs and betrayals with the women that came and went in his topsy-turvy love life. He left us recently and will be sorely missed my his many ardent fans and family. I will miss the man and his giant spirit forever.

Sam turned me on to the shuffle groove of which he was an absolute master, and taught me to sing and play songs like ‘So Fine’ originally by the Fiestas. His spirit was unsinkable and he had a way of drawing you in and making you his confidant and best friend. I loved this cat, and we had some real fun times in the years that followed. Sam had written songs for Elvis, Sam and Dave, and The Beach Boys, and he played guitar with Otis Redding and the Drifters. He began singing at church when he was five years old.

Val and Lynn were lovers, and he managed to get Lynn TV gigs on the Johnny Carson show, and other TV shows of a similar ilk. He also found her work touring the US playing nightclubs. Val had rhythm section and horn charts made of the arrangements of Lynn’s songs, and put together a real fast paced show. Some of the artists Lynn covered were Peter, Paul, and Mary, Elvis, and the Supremes – real diverse. I was her rhythm guitarist for a time.

We played some really classy gigs at the Copacabana in Manhattan, the Phister hotel in Milwaukee, and countless other up-scale nightclubs across the country, including clubs in Houston Texas, Madison Wisconsin, and Dayton Ohio.

Things got a little hairy for us in Houston, as the management of the club didn’t appreciate a black man not only managing this beautiful white girl, but sleeping with her as well. We split as soon as the gig was finished as things started to turn ugly. There were some not-so-veiled threats, and though Val wasn’t one to back down from a tiff, he didn’t want to go back to jail either.

Working with Sam, Lynn, and Val, was a great experience for me; touring the country, playing rhythm guitar, and meeting cool musicians and great people. Sometimes Lynn and I would practice the upcoming show for twelve hours a day. Lynn treated me like a younger brother, whereas Val treated me like a son. He tried getting us record deals, but somehow nothing ever panned out.

Years later I learned the record executives didn’t like dealing with Val because he could be pushy, and they didn’t dig it. That charm of his would only go so far, till it became ingratiating and awkward.

I worked with Val and Lynn for about two years, during which time they had lived in Manhattan, Coldwater Canyon in L.A. and then way out in the San Fernando Valley in Mission Hills.

They always made sure I had a bed to sleep in, clothes on my back, and food in my belly. I didn’t see too much money, but since they took care of everything, I didn’t need much, besides it was like going to a college of music, the Val Williams College.

Hard to believe it now, but for a while Val made sure I was tucked in nightly by his accommodating red-haired secretary, Collette, who came to my bed each night and topped me off. Talk about fringe benefits! You could say I was a tad spoiled.

While living with Val and Lynn in Coldwater Canyon, I got a phone call from a musician friend who asked if I wouldn’t mind filling in for him on a recording session date in Hollywood. I told him I’d be delighted to. The session called for an acoustic rhythm guitarist on some R&B tunes a guy named Barry was producing. Sounded right up my alley.

Arriving at the session I was greeted by a large black man, hair done in a conk, with a real deep voice. It was Barry, he slapped me five and began playing the tracks for me so I could learn the chord changes. Very patiently he coached me as to what he was looking for as far as the guitar arrangement went. The tracks were already recorded, so it was just he, the engineer and I in the studio.

Barry was real friendly and cordial; a sweet man, and we worked well together. We finished recording the tunes in about four hours, and then he thanked me, paid me in cash, and that was the last I heard from him.

About five years later as I was watching TV I see Barry with an orchestra, singing a huge hit of the time: ‘Never, Never Gonna Give You Up’. I realized to my amazement that the producer I had been recording with was Barry White! The orchestra was The Love Unlimited Orchestra.

One afternoon after rehearsing for hours with Lynn, I said something nasty to her inadvertently making her cry. We’d had some kind of spat like sister and brother’s do, and I made some disparaging remark. I don’t remember what I said, but I hurt her feelings, and I didn’t realize how much. I knew it would get back to Val, and I wasn’t looking forward to his reaction. Lately, Val had been telling me how fucked up I was, how unaware and insensitive. One night in Houston he really lit into me, and I could feel him approaching the boiling point. He made oblique threats, and it seemed like the writing was on the wall. I could never have guessed how angry he would be when he found out that I had made his woman cry.

Lynn and I had a gig that night at the Troubadour, opening for Tiny Tim, the whacked out longhaired ukulele-playing singer. His repertoire consisted of old songs from the thirties and forties, songs like ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’. He had been a regular guest on the Johnny Carson show.

I went to the Troubadour in the late afternoon for the sound check, and found my way upstairs to the dressing room to put my guitar case away. Just then Val stormed into the room, an angry lover hell-bent on revenge. Yelling and cursing, he called me an ungrateful motherfucker, and then kicked me in the throat hard. I went down. He jumped on top of my chest and pinned my arms down, and pulled out his knife. The madman put the knife to my throat, screaming that he was going to fucking kill me. At that very moment the soundman burst into the room, and wanted to know what the ruckus was about. Here we go again, saved by a hair’s breath.

Val quickly hid the knife, got up and stormed out of the room. If you really want to hurt a singer, where on the body do you try to aim for? The throat. He kicked me in the throat, and then he was going to cut my throat. I believe if the soundman hadn’t come in there at that moment, I wouldn’t be here writing this book all these years later. I thank God for the guardians keeping an eye out for me. Bad luck, good luck.

Val had a mean temper, and was enraged. I had gone beyond the beyond realm of what he considered right in his world by disrespecting his woman. In his eyes I deserved to die.

I was shaken, in shock and pain, but the show literally had to go on. I didn’t want to leave Lynn without a guitarist, as we were doing the gig as a duo. I don’t remember much of that gig, as I was on autopilot, but I made it through it somehow by sheer force of will.

After the show I called my buddy John Danduran, (a singer-songwriter-dulcimer player) who picked me up in his Citroen and drove me out to his pad in Santa Monica. He counseled me about leaving Val and Lynn, gave me some strong pot and a couple of pain pills, and I crashed heavily.

The next morning, abandoning all my possessions in Mission Hills, I left Los Angeles without looking back, and just kept hitch hiking north till I wound up in southern Oregon. There was a group of hippies living in the forest near a tiny town called Takilma, and there I settled down for a while and healed my throat and bruised ego. I camped out under the stars, and cooked my food on an open fire. I was through with touring, and cities, and mostly Val Williams.

I never saw Lynn Kellogg again, but I did write Val years later and apologized. Ten years later I ran into him at a club in Venice California where Sam Taylor was playing. He bore me no ill will, and I was glad of that. He gave me his phone number, and told me to give him a buzz, but I never called, as I was through with school, didn’t need a teacher anymore, and wanted to leave well enough alone.

Long Story Short

Reflections of time spent in the New York State prison system at age 18. 1967-1969


My mother thought life was sweeter anywhere but where we lived. She had wanderlust; only it wasn’t for traveling to other countries, but for moving back and forth between Brooklyn and Long Island. My father went along with her flights of fancy so as not to ruffle her feathers. He was patience personified.

At the end of ‘65 we moved back to Brooklyn yet again, this time to Bay Ridge. The Ridge is so close to the North Atlantic Ocean, you can smell the salty air mixed with the scent of pizza and bagels. Within a two-mile stretch you can ride the Cyclone at Coney Island, or cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge into Staten Island.

While living here I had the terrible misfortune of being arrested for telling an undercover agent where he could by $7.00 worth of pot.

About a year previous I had been listening to the Young Rascals in concert at a nightclub in Port Jefferson Long Island. A distant acquaintance at the concert introduced me to someone who wanted to buy heroin. I didn’t know anything about heroin, but I pointed across the room to my friend Rodney who was selling seven-dollar bags of reefer.

I forgot about the incident till eleven months later. Cops came screeching up to my house warrant in hand. The police mistook my father for me and started to take him away, but Dad finally convinced them that he was Carl Thomas not Al Thomas. I was rousted from bed, arrested, and then handcuffed before I’d wiped the sleep from my eyes. Another hundred and fifty people would be arrested before the day was over, including my boy-hood friend Rodney. The sting was called Operation Snowflake.

The person who introduced me to the narc, was, little known to me, a junky looking to get a shorter sentence by ratting out anyone who was stupid enough to help him procure drugs for the man. I had been a punk and small-time crook in my adolescent and early teenage years, acquiring a minor police record for loitering, stealing a car battery, and forging a credit card signature for $4.00 worth of gas. Even though these were petty offenses it wouldn’t look good in front of the judge.

I spent the better part of a year on bail. Waking at four in the morning, whatever the weather, I rode the subway into Manhattan where my father had found me work as an elevator operator and janitor. He had somehow gotten me into the janitors union, which seemed to be the domain of the Irish. Abercrombie and Fitch, and Bonwit Teller department stores were my working-world for those months.

It was now December of ’67, and Suffolk County Long Island was not exactly known as a bastion of liberality regarding pot laws.
The courts hardly differentiated between pot dealers and heroin dealers. My parents couldn’t afford to hire an expensive lawyer so the court appointed a free legal-aide attorney. I could smell the alcohol on her breath. As if I needed more drama, my draft notice the arrived the day of my sentencing.

The judge looked sternly at me and barked, “You need to learn respect for the law!” and gave me three years in the New York State penal system. He didn’t want me to go into the Army; he wanted me to go to jail.

I was numb with shock. My freedom, to which I’d never given a second thought, was taken away, and the course of my life’s path wrenched in a new direction.

Handcuffed and head bowed, I was led away as my mother stood there weeping. All for conspiring to sell seven dollars worth of pot! I wasn’t even a dealer, I hadn’t even touched the pot that changed hands, nor did I make a cent from the transaction. I was only seventeen when the deal went down. But it was too late to change anything. It rankles me still. It probably always will.

I was considered a ‘youthful offender’ because I was younger than eighteen when the big crime was committed, so it wouldn’t go on my record as a felony. This good news was like a shaft of light amongst the ominous darkening clouds. I wasn’t going to Vietnam either. Maybe this nightmare was a blessing in disguise? If it was I couldn’t see it then, for fear, anger, bitterness and hopelessness engulfed me.

I remember being hustled back to county jail and taking a shower before being shipped upstate to my final temporary destination and new home. I cried quietly to myself, hoping none of the other inmates could hear me. I had just bottomed out and knew it would be a long time before I’d be free again. Now I’d have to put up a front and be tougher than I really was. It would be fourteen years before I cried again.

Some of the thugs on my cellblock in county jail had talked one of their weaker cohorts into stealing my candy when I wasn’t looking. In jail even little meaningless things like candy mean a lot. I caught the intruder and was livid not only because I was being ripped off, but also because I was still a sugar junky. I ripped the Snickers bar from his thieving brown hands and chased him from my cell. I was off to a good start with my false bravado, though his buddies jeered me and berated him.

First I was sent to Elmira – a maximum-security prison in Elmira NY – to be sorted out. Here I was evaluated to determine where I would do my time. The prison administrators found it hard to believe that I was there for so minor an offense. This bit of commentary made me feel elated.

I was a guest at Elmira for four months, much of it horrifying, and a shock to the system for sure – we were caged like animals and treated not much better. At least I had my own cell. If the guards caught you talking after lights out, they’d beat you with a Billy club.

For the remainder of my time I was sent to Camp Pharsalia, a minimum-security work camp further out in the sticks of upper New York State. The place was situated on a few acres in the middle of thick woodland with no fences or barred doors. I was now stuck inside a dormitory/bunkhouse with eighty other unlucky souls, all of who were innocent of their crimes.

Camp P. had a sawmill and lumberyard, a baseball diamond too. The inmates worked in conjunction with the Department of Conservation. Our main job was cutting down stands of trees for the sawmill. The only days we didn’t go out to work was when it was raining, or below freezing. We were just below the Canadian border so it was freezing cold in the winter months.

When I wasn’t working outside in the forest, I played my guitar, wrote songs and gave my first guitar lessons. I began to read a lot, and started writing my innermost thoughts into poems and stories as well. Nowadays my friends may wonder how I can enjoy living alone. It stems back to when I was incarcerated; there was no such thing as alone. There was always noise and other people around me. And I longed for silence and solitude.

Right next to my bunk was a ping-pong table: a guaranteed noise factory. The stereo was playing non-stop when we weren’t working. People talking, the guards yacking and yelling, it weighed on me before too long.

The inmates formed cliques and stuck together. The Black Muslims gathered in one area, the druggies in another. The brainy type guys grouped at so and so’s bunk, and the hicks congregated somewhere else. You stuck to your clique. Mine was the drug group; pot dealers, amphetamine and heroin addicts.

I was so desperate to leave that place if only in my mind, that once I tried to get high with some hash a friend had smuggled in. But I was so paranoid about getting caught that the two hasty puffs I was able to muster had no affect.

A big Irish kid used to taunt and ridicule me for being a Jew. The warden must have found out. One morning as we were standing at attention in front of our bunks for inspection the warden slapped him in the face nearly making him cry in front of us all. The Mick never made disparaging remarks to me again. I might have done something about it myself but I was trying to be on my best behavior so that when I went before the parole board the might give me less jail time.

I did get into a fight with a black kid named Archie though. We had driven up to the prison together in a squad car after we’d been sentenced from the Riverhead courthouse. We became friends and were tight. He soon became a Black Muslim while at Camp P. There was a lot of pressure within the black community to stick together and become Muslims. They’re frustration was funneled into hating us white boys. This obsession had a way of turning the nicest black kid into a self-righteous, mean and angry dick-head overnight. I’m sure they had their beefs, but who didn’t? More fucking racism, just what I need.

I was working in the kitchen for a short time. While serving Archie his lunch one day I said something that ticked him off. I have no memory of what I said, but I do remember we were all on short fuses because of our circumstances. Even though it was a work camp it was still jail: we couldn’t go home, nor could we get laid or see our families. It was no damn sleep-away camp to be sure.

We lived in a constant state of longing to be free, and an unrelenting fear that we’d somehow fuck up and have to finish our time in jail instead of making parole.

Archie copped an attitude, got hot under the collar and said to meet him in the laundry room where he worked. The laundry room had a closing door, so if you fought there you had a chance of not being found out by the guards.

I couldn’t lose face with the inmates because every dude with something to prove would find a reason to pick on me. So even though I wasn’t a fighter as such, I kept the appointment to fight. I wasn’t angry at all, harbored no grudge with Archie, but I had to go.

Archie had been a Police Athletic League boxer so I didn’t stand much of a chance, but I went in swinging. It didn’t do me much good though as Archie gave me a shot to the eyebrow that knocked me down lickety split. It was a joke, I was stunned for a second then he let me get up, but the fight had gone out of him and he shook my hand and we forgot about whatever had set him off to begin with. Good thing for me. As always, it was bad luck followed by good.

One inmate was a filthy slob, and everybody detested him. A heavy-set pimply-faced Swede whose name was Hefner. We all lived in close quarters, our bunks three feet apart. It would gross us out if someone were dirty and smelly, as we had no choice but to be near him. Some of the black brothers were downright fussy with their personal grooming, using shit like moisturizer, baby powder and the like. So they were on Hefner’s case too.

The guards made Hefner sleep right next to their station so they could keep an eye on him because they were worried that someone was going to hurt him. And they were right.

Every day we’d haul out to the forest with a conservation ranger and cut entire stands of pines down with bow and crosscut saws. Once you knew how to fell a tree properly you could drop it anywhere you wanted. If the inmates didn’t like someone they might try to drop a tree on him, accidentally sort of. You were supposed to yell. “On the wood!” which meant that a tree was coming down so look out. But maybe you’d mutter it under your breath instead of calling out.

After a couple of close calls in the woods, Hefner was quickly assigned to kitchen duty. That was brilliant, wonderful news; just what everybody wanted to hear. Now this repulsive kid would be serving us our meals. But that didn’t last too long as the goofball was so afraid of getting offed he ran away.

Not thinking with much foresight, he chose the dead of winter for his escape, and in his haste had neglected to even take warm clothes. Not the brightest bulb in the lamp. While attempting to steal clothes for warmth off someone’s clothesline he was spotted and dragged back by the scruff of his neck to good old Camp Pharsalia. The guards beat the living shit out of him, and attached another year to his sentence. Pitiful dude, you wanted to feel sorry for him but you just couldn’t.

At Camp you could make money depending on how hard you worked. If you didn’t do shit, the state would pay you 15¢ a day. If you were a decent worker you could make 20¢ a day. And if you were a hard worker you could make as much as 35¢ a day. But only eight super-achievers could make 50¢ a day. Now that’s not a lot of money even though it was 1968, but being a “Raise man” made it look good on your record when you went before the all mighty parole board. I worked diligently at whatever task I was given and eventually became 50-cent man. It really wasn’t the money I assure you; mainly I worked hard because it took my mind off the time.

I can see it as clear as day right now: preparing for my first day of working outside in mid-winter. First I put on long johns followed by cotton chinos over them. On top of that I put on thick wool pants. Next came two layers of wool socks which went under my big rubber steel-toed boots. Then came a tee- shirt, a long-sleeve shirt and a sweater, underneath a huge canvas overcoat. Add glove liners and gloves and a hard hat and I was ready for heavy weather in the high altitudes of upper New York. The clothes must have weighed twenty pounds alone.

Out in the woods they put me on a five-foot crosscut saw with big Rob, a huge, strong black brother. It whipped my ass weary. I was so tired that night I could hardly walk to dinner, and was sore for a week. But after a while I got in shape and loved going out into the spacious white-carpeted woods of upper New York State.

We’d saw or chop a tree down, then limb it, removing all the branches, and finally we’d carry it on our shoulders to where the lumber trucks were. Tough work, but it kept your mind occupied. You’d have to be in synch with the other fellows carrying the log. When it was time to drop it to the ground it had to be done in unison, or it would bounce back at you and there would be consequences without a doubt. After a half hour of work we’d have to remove our coats and sweaters because of the sweat soaking us through and through.

Becoming a 50-cent man had its privileges; one of them was going with the conservation ranger and flagging the next stand of trees to be cut down. Undertaking this task you were hardly under the scrutiny of the guards. It was a minimum-security situation, any of us could have run away at any time, but what was the use? Better to finish out your time and be done with it.

Big Rob and I were the two-man team the conservation man usually chose to go on these reconnaissance missions. Rob used to call me ‘Shine’, short for my biological fathers last name, Scheiner.

One spring afternoon Rob and I were out in the woods flagging some pines, far away from the other inmates. The ranger was not too far away but we were basically alone. I knew that in the prisons homosexual activities were going on, but at Camp P. I wasn’t aware of that kind of shit happening. Maybe there was, but if there was I didn’t know about it, and frankly I didn’t want to know about it.

Rob and I were sawing away and Rob smiling mischievously, said jokingly:

“Shine Shine, ya doin’ fine, ya miss one stroke an ya ass is mine!” Said in rhythm like the meter of a poem, like a modern day rap.

As I said, he may have been kidding around, but I wasn’t taking any chances, so I looked him square in the eyes and warned him,

“Rob you better be willing to kill me if you try any of that shit with me, ‘cause I’m dam sure gonna try and kill you!” He just smiled and continued sawing away saying,

“Ah Shine, I jus funnin’ wid you man.”

Maybe so, but I had to let him know not to fuck with me. And I damn well meant it even though he could have kicked my ass from there to Idaho. It was pitiful to see young blonde pretty boys turned into some big tough guys girlfriend in places like Elmira. I would seriously have rather died than endured that kind of abuse. As I said before, there must have been an angel watching over me because I slid through that place without too much trouble. The mental anguish just being there was plenty enough to deal with however.

I buried myself in books when I wasn’t working. A library on wheels would come once a week and I could get a handful of good ones. I found Autobiography of a Yogi there. That book proved food for the hungry soul because it talked about meditation, a way out of the mind. It described how to meditate on a candle, and since I didn’t have a candle I meditated on the knots in the pinewood walls, anything to transport myself from that place even for a minute. Reading Yogananda’s book prepared me for further enlightenment when at the end of 1971 I received the meditation techniques of Guru Maharaj Ji. So even here every step was leading me to the next.

Charlie Brown, a mellow black kid with coke-bottle thick eyeglasses, was my first guitar student. Who would have known that I was sewing the seeds of my livelihood for the future with that lesson?

Come Christmas I gathered a group of talented singers and helped put on a concert, with me playing back-up guitar.
Aside from the enjoyment of doing the shows, it was always a great boon to be able to see the women who visited their inmate relatives. Girls would also come from the towns nearby to drop off some Christmas cookies to the “poor” boys at the camp. I would watch them wistfully, and think, “What I’d give to be able to touch the soft skin of a woman again, to smell her!” If I was close enough to catch the scent of one of these angels, I would blanche, and become catatonic with a combination of lust and embarrassment.

When we traveled in our converted school bus to and from work in the different forests, we’d pass small towns and hamlets where we’d catch people carrying on with their normal lives. I’d just about jump out of my seat when I saw an attractive woman, all the guys on the bus pointing out this one or that one, jostling for the best view.

It reminds me of that line in a Jackson Browne song “Save me a taste of something fine.” And I’ll add a little line of my own here: “’Cause when I get back out on the streets, I’ll be making up for lost time!”

I began lifting weights, and wound up weighing 175 pounds – the heaviest weight of my life then or now. With a ravenous appetite from the work in the forest, and the three big meals I was scarfing down every day, it wasn’t difficult for me to put on the pounds. My parents hardly recognized me when they came for their fist and only visit. My father had back problems and couldn’t hack sitting in the car for the eight-hour drive.

Over the years I have come to believe in blessings in disguise. Who knows, maybe my jail sentence saved me from going to and possibly dying in Vietnam, – would have I even gone to Vietnam? – But it never lessened my rage at the justice system for dealing with me so harshly. I didn’t learn respect for the law, but I did learn an abiding fear and mistrust of it. I know with certainty the anger I harbored thereafter had a major part, some eleven years later, when I blithely threw pot seeds into my garden in Malibu, and all the reefer madness that followed in the years to come.

I felt as though every time I broke the law regarding pot, I was getting even because of the raw deal I unjustly got. Payback, if you will. Cock-eyed justification most likely, but that’s the drift nonetheless.

I was paroled after serving eighteen months. I’d counted every single day till my release date, fantasizing about the traveling I would do once my parole was finished. I thought long and hard about what most people took for granted: freedom.

I was free all right, but for ten years solid had nightmares about being sent back to prison. The dream was always the same: walking back in through that big heavy steel-barred door, with the guards mocking me, saying, “See, I told you you’d be back again!”

While I was incarcerated Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. The Beatles ‘White’ album and Dylan’s ‘Nashville Skyline’ and ‘John Wesley Harding’ recordings came out. It seemed like the pages of history had turned without me.

I spent a month in Elmira State Prison just before my release, to prepare me for the “world”, and to remind me of where I never want to wind up again. When that big steel door closed behind me I let out the deepest sigh of relief. Now all I had to do was be cool and not fuck up, as I still had a year and a half of parole to do.

It went like this: a commercial bus stopped in front of the prison, and I got on it, no guards, no bars, nobody to tell me what to do and where to do it, a free man. I was now twenty-one and it was the middle of 1969, a month or two before Woodstock. The bus dropped me in Manhattan, and from there I took a subway to Mill Basin Brooklyn; yes my folks had moved again.

On the subway I had to work hard to keep my eyes from popping out of their sockets as there were all these sexy young girls wearing mini-skirts and blouses with NO BRAS!!! I felt shy and self-conscious. My free state eyeglasses with Buddy Holly thick black rims were steaming up, and I couldn’t wait to get the ill-fitting ‘state o’ suit off and throw it away.

Though only a year and a half had gone by, things in the world had changed, and I was enjoying some of the changes right off the bat.

My brother Richard had saved a hundred bucks from his job at a bakery in Bensonhurst. He had slaved away for $1.00 an hour, but took me to the East Village and spent it all on a new wardrobe for me. What a kid brother.

An attorney I had known from my pre-jail days found me a job in Queens working for a real estate company; answering phones and running errands. Two months later he booked me for a gig up in the Catskill Mountains singing at a hotel in the ‘Borscht Belt’ for one night.

The “Borscht Belt” refers to the Yiddish meal of borscht, which is a cold beet and sour cream soup. The “belt” refers to a long string of hotels in the Catskills where New York Jews go for summer vacation.

It so happened that the weekend of my gig was the same weekend as Woodstock, which was taking place only seventy-five miles away. But I didn’t want to push my luck with my parole officer so early in the game, so we killed the idea of going there immediately.

The Yids who went to the Catskill hotels were used to a different kind of show than my particular act, but it didn’t matter much as they were absorbed with eating and Kibitzing (talking and socializing). I had practiced for this gig and it went of well, with me performing original songs, Beatle songs, and some folk and R&B tunes.

My brother Rich came along to keep me company and do our brother hang, as we had some catching up to do. On the train in route up to the gig we had met some bona fide brown rice-eating hippies.
We jibed with them, and after some small talk they invited Rich and I to their farm should we want to come and hang out after my gig. I scribbled down their address and said we’d give it some thought.

I had the extreme good fortune of meeting a sweet young waitress at the Catskill gig, and we hit it off right away. The next day she and I made love in her cabin to the sound of raindrops falling on the roof. I was one hell of a lucky guy, but she was an equally lucky girl too, as I had lavished all my pent up desire on her.

The following day Rich and I decided it was time to move on – a theme that would be very popular with me for the next few years and then some. Leaving the Catskills we hopped on a train and made for the hippy farm.

They were glad to see us and cooked a special dinner in our honor. They whipped up a sumptuous organic vegetarian meal with apple pie for dessert #1. And for dessert #2 they offered us Windowpane acid.

I was so paranoid of getting busted again at this point, and would have a hard time even smoking weed for a while to come, but I felt safe here, and Rich and I took the offering and went with it.

Rich was convinced he could only feel the acid on the left side of his body. We watched a huge moth in awe at its perfection. It rained that night too, and we listened to The Incredible String Band album and tripped out of our minds.

It felt like the cobwebs were being removed from my soul, and I was home again.

“Try Some Of This!”

Several stories interwoven around the main theme. Including: Smoking the devil-weed for the first time- A not-so-great first lay – Grappling with a live turkey – Sharon’s initiation rite – Getting lost with Nancy and her wonderous breasts – and Performing under the influence. 1965-1971


I was just out of high school when Mike Wallace moved back to East Islip fresh from four-years in the Navy. Things always got interesting around Mike. The guy had a way with women for one thing. With his exotic part West Indian part Scottish look, and his full lips and curly, not kinky, brown hair, he won over many a sweet young thing. He played a Stratocaster and was a good funk and R&B guitarist who formed a succession of cover bands, playing in various dives in Long Island, Manhattan, and New Jersey.

Mike was the eldest of three brothers, all friends of mine, and something of a mentor, being older and having seen the world. He turned me on to James Brown, and Bobby Blue Bland. And on this particular day, he turned me on to something that changed my view of the world.

I hopped in his ’57 Chevy Bel Air for what I thought was a simple joy ride out to Lake Ronkonkoma. The Crestmen were playing at Tavern on the Lake later in the evening. So I was surprised when he stopped in the middle of a field that looked like it doubled as a trash heap, but I didn’t say anything. He turned off the ignition, looked at me slyly and said, “Hey Al, Try some of this!”

In his hand appeared a thin joint. He sparked it, took a huge drag, and passed it to me as he choked, coughed, and tried to hold his breath at the same time. I took hold of it and didn’t think twice as I inhaled with a mighty pull from my as yet virgin lungs – holding it in as he had done. I started coughing too. About ten seconds later I felt as if my head were expanding and lo and behold I was “high”.

After a few hits the littered field suddenly had an interesting aspect to it; as if I were viewing a painting by a master who’s message was steeped in irony. Even Mike’s droll sense of humor had me splitting my sides. Things took on a slightly different hue, and time appeared to slow down. So went my introduction to marijuana.

In time when I smoked, layers of my creative and introspective nature revealed itself to me, and I could hear a little louder the inner dialog. Not only that, but I could get deeper inside of music once stoned.

There was Columbian, Thai, Panama Red, and Mexican weed. And Lebanese, Moroccan, Afghani, and Nepalese hashish could be found too. I soon found myself wanting to get high more and more, though at that point it wasn’t often that I did, as I didn’t have the connections, or the money. All that would all change and soon.

The innocent ride to the trash heap was the beginning of a long journey not without it’s pinnacles and steep precipices.

***

Mike had booked his latest band in New Jersey on the outskirts of somewhere; I hesitate to even call it a town. You could say it was in the twilight zone – very rural in any case. The venue of the gig was a dump of a hotel that had it’s own bar replete with two Go Go dancers, and cages suspended from the ceiling for them to GoGo in.

I had gone along with Mike and the band for kicks, and because they would always let me sit in and sing some tunes. It was good practice, and it didn’t cost me a dime, plus there was bound to be some adventure. Mike and I shared a room.

Mike Wallace was a bona fide ladies man. He had been around. He was like the guy in Rick Nelson’s song Travelin’ Man. Before I could even unpack he had the two GoGo dancers in our room; a joint in one hand, and a bottle of tequila in the other. It was like three in the afternoon. This was looking like a promising gig.

Within minutes Mike was in bed with Marcy, humping away like it was the end of the world. Her screams were deafening and her girlfriend, Mildred gave me the arched eyebrow go-ahead sign, so we lay down on my bed. It would have been nice if my first time could have been with someone I was in love with, but that wasn’t in the cards.

We didn’t kiss, or if we did I don’t remember, we just threw off our clothes and jumped into bed. I don’t know if the weed made my sense of smell more acute, but she smelled like she hadn’t showered in a week, and covered it with a cheap, sickeningly sweet perfume. I wasn’t turned on to her in the least, even with the Tequilla and joint, but I figured this was my golden opportunity so I better try to get some of this. My member however refused to cooperate and felt more like an al dente wet noodle than the rake handle I’d known it to be when fantasizing about this very much-anticipated moment.

I did manage to gain entrance in time, but found her to be wide and cavernous, as if many others had been there before me, and recently. It was the only time I can say I was glad it was over quickly and for that I was grateful. Lying there, Marcy’s voice still filling the room, I knew there had to be more to it than what I just sampled.

***

A few weeks later Mike and I were itching to score some weed. After smoking with him that first time, I had the urge to get high as much as possible, but pot was tricky to find in those days, especially out in Suffolk County Long Island. The boondocks.

I had been to Brooklyn a few weeks prior with a friend where we scored a nickel bag from a dealer who lived in a brownstone in a dangerous part of Brooklyn, Bedford Stuyvesant, better known as Bed Sty.
We had to walk up to the door of the house – a brownstone – and place our order through a metal barred window, sort of the MacDonald’s of the pot world. Or like the modern day crack outlet, only this was 1965.

I told Mike about the Bed Sty stash house and we drove southwest some fifty miles from East Islip, just to score a little weed. When we got into the neighborhood I couldn’t remember which brownstone it was, and to make things worse they all looked the same.

At this juncture in our misguided endeavor we stopped at a streetlight and saw a dude that seemed straight-up. We took a chance and asked him if he knew where the pot dealer’s place was. Was that naive or what? Asking a total stranger in a heavy section of Brooklyn if he knew where to score some weed. Of course he knew where to score.

“Hey, he said, give me a ride over there and I’ll get it for you.”

After getting in the back seat he gave us directions, but at the last minute changed his mind,

“Oh, I just remembered the dealer is in Otis’s bar down the street.”

He seemed trustworthy enough, though we should have read the signs, but because we were so hungry to score we’d have believed anything or anyone.

We gave him the money – seven bucks, all we had. As he got out of the car he told us to drive around the corner so as not to look too suspicious – two white guys in the hood – and he would come back with the weed in five minutes. With that we watched him slouch-off towards the bar. Mike and I parked the car and waited, and waited, and then we waited some more. Finally we decided one of us should go and look for him and as usual, I was the chosen one.

Hesitantly I walked up to the bar and poked my head in the doorway. The inside of the place resembled the bar in the Star Wars movie; all these big bad wacko looking dudes of varied shapes and colors, just waiting for a punk like me to come stumbling in. I didn’t see the nice fella who had our seven bucks; I didn’t see anything, as I was too busy putting distance between myself and that den of cutthroats and bad-asses.

I ran to where the car should have been but it was gone. Or was I lost? This really freaked me out. This is one place not to get lost in if you’re a young white boy.
I started running around that neighborhood like a chicken with its head cut off, frantically searching for my car and my buddy.

Where the hell was he? Did he meet a beautiful black girl, and go off with her, forgetting me, his bro? Maybe, I sure wouldn’t put it past him, the pussy-mad bastard. Before long I was lost. Paranoid, panic-stricken, and thinking that any second I would be jumped and beaten to death, I saw the whole thing playing in my mind like a B grade movie.

The nightmare went on for about twenty minutes but of course it felt like hours. When I finally saw Mike pull up in the car, I could have kissed him, well not really, but you get the drift. Having surmised the situation he went looking for me and somehow through one of those quirks of fate we missed each other. Never mind, we were just glad to get our butts out of Bed Sty never to try to score weed there again.

***

It was late August, a windless, humid as a green house Sunday. We sat on the stoop of the Wallace family’s split-level trying to come up with a plan for the day. Stan Wallace – Mike’s younger brother – our cohort Rusty Britt, and I.

Russ, ever the inventive one, came up with the brilliant idea of stealing a turkey from the local turkey farm. Somehow that sounded like a fun idea. You know like one of those ideas that sound great before you do it, but later turns out to be completely lame. We didn’t even have a clue as to what we were going to do with the poor thing; we just thought it would be stimulating to make off with a turkey. What can I say, bored teenagers. These days a teenager gets bored he starts shooting someone. How often do we find ourselves saying; “What was I thinking?”

We drove out to Patchogue – all Indian names here – thankful for the wind in our faces. The turkey farm, such as it was, was sprawled next to the busy Sunrise Highway. The area was old farm country gradually becoming small towns.

After spocking out the place and spotting no one, we concocted our plan, furtively, as if we were doing a gem heist or something. Stan would keep watch in case the cops or a turkey-farm worker should show up, while Russ and I did the dirty work.

Imagining we were invisible to all the cars rolling by at 40MPH, we made our way over the barbed wire fence, well actually I’m making us look better than we were because Russ had actually caught his pant leg on the barbed wire and fell on his face into a steaming a pile of turkey shit. I never saw him get so riled up. He practically threw a fit, and looked ready to take it out on anyone or anything that got in his way. Unfortunately the only thing that could have gotten in his way was the sorry looking turkey.

Eyeing us like we were aliens, clucking and gobbling in terror, as if the earth had given way, the hundred or so turkey ran around mindlessly making a terrible commotion. This made us antsy to get the job done and get the hell out of there before anyone of the zillion cars on the highway noticed us and called the cops. We tried to grab one but it was more difficult than we’d imagined. Russ finally tackled a big Tom, his football experience coming in handily, and ran with it to the fence, the thing flapping its piteous wings and fighting for its life. In his haste to scale the fence, Russ pulled the bird so hard he broke its neck. Shit, now we had a dead turkey on our hands, and to make things worse, it got stuck on the barbed wire.

What if a cop came along right now, what the hell could we say?

Curious Cop: “Hey just what the hell do you boy’s think you’re doing?”

Me: “Us? Oh hi officer, well, we were driving by and saw this poor old turkey stuck here on the fence so we decided to pull over and get him off.”

Pissed off Cop: “Well is that so, Good Samaritans are you? Get in the paddy wagon you little assholes!”

I helped Russ pull the limp carcass off the fence, and for a second we looked at each other as if to say, “Now what? Should we just leave it here and call it a day?” but we didn’t speak a word, we just took the bird and threw it into the car and told Stan who was watching this whole circus show to step on it. Not the bird, the gas.

We drove around for a while tossing ideas back and forth about what we could do with this dead turkey. Guess you could say we talked turkey. Sorry. We sure as shit weren’t going to go home to our mothers and say,

“Hey mom what’s up? I’ve got this bloody, deceased turkey with all it’s feathers still attached, would you like to cook it for us?”

But once again Russ saved the day with another one of his oh so clever ideas. “Lets put the turkey in Mike’s car.”

As we didn’t have any better ideas and because we’d already gone through so much trouble that sounded pretty good to Stan and I.

Upon driving back to the Wallace home we found brother Mike’s car was locked. He was probably sleeping late from an all-night gig or party. Undaunted, we opened the hood of his car, put the turkey’s body on top of the engine, closed the hood, and left it’s long neck and head dangling out over the grill of the car. A nice ’57 Chevy replete with turkey head.

We laughed so hard we could hardly stand. Seeing the car, and envisioning what Mike’s face would look like when he discovered the new hood ornament his precious Chevy had grown overnight.
One of Mike’s neighbors was just pulling into his driveway next door, coming back from church with his entire family. I’ll never forget the look on their eyes as they noticed the limp turkey neck sticking out of the grill of Mike’s car.

Now you know why I break out into a stupid grin on Thanksgiving when someone carving the bird invariably says, “Try some of this?”

***

As an adolescent I often felt way left of center, like an outsider – a stranger in a strange land. But I loved to dance at parties; it was a way for me to get out of mind and into my body. Little Richard, The Coasters, Chuck Berry, and Dusty Springfield, bring it on. It seemed like everyone was light and carefree when cutting loose on the dance floor. I didn’t dig the uptight dances at the brightly lit school gym; it was the small intimate house parties that gave me the confidence to lose myself.

I used to hop in my Pontiac, and go to dance clubs on Long Island or in Manhattan. Uptown on West 55th Street was the Cheetah. Downtown on Eighth Street in the East Village was The Electric Circus, that’s where I saw her.

I’d driven into Manhattan alone. The Circus was a dance club where most of the patrons came to get high and dance hard all night long. It would open and at around 11pm, and close about 4am. Kids came in from all the boroughs tripping on acid, high on up’s, or down’s – or one thing or another – and just partied. You could buy an LSD sugar cube for around five bucks, and you’d be drenched in sweat and hallucinating your brains out before the night was over.

People like the Chambers Brothers would play. On some nights they’d sing their hit ‘Time’, for up to an hour or more. Or there would be a DJ spinning the up to the moment dance hits.

Some months before, about four-am after a full night of tripping and dancing at the Cheetah, I remember driving home. It looked as though the elevated highways were suspended in a mist with nothing below: a highway in the sky. Get a grip. This is the state of mind I was in when I came home to my mother and fathers house. And I had forgotten my key.

I knocked lightly on the front door, hoping my brother Richard would hear me – and not my mother. The last person I wanted to see while high on psychedelics was my mother. But no, it had to be her who woke up. She hated being woken up in the middle of the night, and she was livid.

“O.K. mom it won’t happen again, let me be already.” I pleaded with her. Once in the safety of my room I could just finish my trip in peace, hallucinating on the visions that appeared in my head. Diamond Kaleidoscope’s gleaming and twirling on the ceiling until I finally drifted off to sleep – just as the newspaper boy throws the Sunday paper at the door.

Back to the Electric Circus: Her name was Sharon, she had short red hair done up in the latest Vidal Sassoon style and seemed very animated. Later I would find out she had ingested a heady concoction of acid and methamphetamine.
She was extremely alluring to me, a naive eighteen year old with an intrinsic eye for beauty. With her Beatle boots, and her tight bellbottomed polka dot pants she had my complete attention.

I walked right up to her and asked her to dance, and she gave me a searing look, which I took for a yes because she stepped out on the dance floor with me. We did the Boogaloo, the Watusi, we Shingalinged, and did the Strand, we even had a slow dance or two which rocked my world, as her tight little body was so delectable and fit so nicely against mine. She smelled good too, a scent that woke something in me. I loved watching her face, like an actress emoting a silent passion play: agony and ecstasy, haughty and proud.

Sharon had a flair for the dramatic, and intrigued me immensely with her Lauren Bacall low and throaty voice, and her big, caramel, doe like eyes. She was nineteen, older than me, but I wouldn’t let that stop me, heck older women were supposed to have more experience from what I’d heard! We made what small talk we could over the throbbing music. I was getting swept away, and she sensed it. She held the power to rearrange my perception of life as I’d known it, and I had the feeling she might do just that. When they started to close the place down she asked me to drive her home.

I was harboring a hope. What did I know? I was still at the very beginning of that treacherous road, from which over the next forty years I would go careening off from time to time. Call it the rocky road of relationships, the lost highway of love. Whatever you call it, this was one of my first excursions.

There was something about her that made her seem wise. I don’t know if it was her city sensibility or that she was an old soul in a young body, but I definitely felt like she was the leader in our little outfit of two. I didn’t mind too much either, as I would gladly have followed her anywhere if at the end of that journey I’d somehow find her naked.

She lived in Red Hook Brooklyn, and she hushed me to be quiet as we entered her apartment. “Nice place for a nineteen year old,” I thought, as I peered around the nicely appointed one bedroom flat. I didn’t have time to think of much else as she drew me into her queen-sized bed and initiated me into her wondrous charms. This was more like it, exactly what I’d been hoping for. I still had a sour taste in my mouth from my first sexual encounter with the GO GO dancer, but no longer.

My first girlfriend Eileen and I never went all the way in the three years we had gone steady. We messed around quite a bit, but we were so scared of her getting pregnant, like so many of our friends, that we never crossed over that moat to the palace of pleasure that lie just beyond. I think of that missed opportunity now and kick myself, but otherwise I’d have a forty-year old son or daughter right now, because I sure hated rubbers, still do.

Sharon changed all that in one long night and I rose to the occasion. I became a true believer in the gospel of a young woman’s sweet and tender body. I would come to worship here seven days a week if I could.
The erotic sounds she made that evening were the sweetest sounds I’d ever heard, bar none, and I was already hoping I’d be hearing lots more.

At dawn she suggested I go back home to Long Island, as she didn’t want her neighbors seeing me leave. “How modest.” I thought. Then she dropped the bomb, telling me that she was married, and that her husband was in Vietnam, in the Army. Oh great, I’m falling all over myself for this undeniable beauty only to have my dream of endless sexual fulfillment crushed by the stone-cold reality of her marriage. Did I feel guilt that I was there in her husband’s bed, his young nubile wife in my hungry arms while he was being shot at in the jungles of Vietnam? Nope.

Well, I thought, at least I had this one rapturous night to remember. But as I was leaving she asked for my phone number. She wouldn’t give me hers fearing I’d call when her husband was home. I scribbled it down.

Once in my Star Chief I found my way to the Belt Parkway and headed east. Dawn was coming on and I was woozy from the long and eventful evening. I became drowsy. Suddenly my car was bouncing against the furthest left lane’s guardrail. I woke just in time to veer off to the right luckily no one was in the other lane. That was a wake up call; I pulled over to the shoulder of the road and went to sleep in the car, erotic dreams dancing in my head, and her intoxicating scent all over me.

Evidently Sharon’s husband didn’t come back immediately because she called me and we began seeing each other every weekend or so. A walking pharmacy, she had every drug known to man in her purse. I never knew what she was on, or what she was thinking in that beautiful head of hers, but she always seemed to have it together and be one step ahead of me. But I was mainly interested in pot, and she always had a good stash of the best.

One night we drove to a nightclub called Dean’s in Nassau County Long Island, half way between East Islip and Brooklyn. I was invited there to sit in with a popular rock/dance band called the Down Five. As we drove towards the venue she lit a fat joint of Panama Red, and said, “Here baby, try some of this.” Thinking nothing of it I puffed along with her. But after a few minutes I started to feel it’s strong affects slowly creeping up on me. Before too long I was actually hallucinating on the powerful reefer. I remember driving under an overpass and thinking it looked like a giant turtle!

I should have turned the car around right then and there but we were already in motion and I thought I’d just play this one out. When we entered the club I felt super self-conscious. I couldn’t look anyone in the eye; something I always do. I was paranoid thinking people could read my mind. Everything I said or saw was being blown way out of proportion and I could hardly hold it together, but Sharon, my guide in these matters of the head, told me to concentrate on the positive – easy to say…

Sharon was what we called a ‘head’, a ‘stoner’. I had the feeling that she had put in quite a few hours in the stoned zone, but she was always composed, in charge, and wildly attractive on top of it. I trusted her. I also had a huge crush on this Brooklyn girl.

It was show time and the band introduced me. My legs felt ungainly – like a newborn colt – as I took my place on stage. I fumbled the words to the introduction of the song, and then the band started the groove. I kept having an inner dialog while trying to render the tune. “Are they listening? Do they like me? Do they know that I’m stoned out of my mind? Are the girls trying to guess the size of my penis? Shit I knew I should have put that big Del Monte banana down in my pants like Sharon suggested!”

It was like there were two of me, one singing and desperately trying to remember the words, and the other having this incessant conversation with myself about all the doubts I was having. Never again, I swore to myself. I was glad to finish the short set and get the hell out of that club and away from all those watchful eyes.

In reality no one was interested in my dilemma in the least I’m sure. It was just me being delusional from the strong pot. But you couldn’t tell me that then. I just wanted to crawl into bed with Sharon and forget about everything. And that is what we did as soon as we drove under all those huge turtles on the highway.

I know that pot is way stronger today, but back then smoking it was still a new experience, so it affected me in a powerful way. Like with so many first time experiences, later, we’re always trying to recreate that first time. But it’s difficult if not impossible.

A couple of times Sharon came out to spend the night with me in my parent’s split-level house. I used to share a convertible couch/bed with my brother Richard in the basement. In the day it would be a couch, then at night we would pull out the bottom section and viola, a double bed. Richard was fourteen at the time and probably masturbating nineteen times a day like most kids that age. You can imagine his glee and surprise to see the 5’6” and stacked Sharon in her nightgown crawling into bed with me only inches from his lustful eyes.

We tried to keep our lovemaking as quiet as possible, when we thought Richard was fast asleep, but my poor brother had to endure the squeaks of the springs, and the occasional cry of ecstasy deep in the night. He always looked at me differently in the morning when Sharon had slept over. I didn’t know whether he was thinking “You lucky bastard!” or “You asshole, I couldn’t sleep a wink last night!” It was probably the former.

A few months later Sharon’s husband came home and we stopped seeing each other. A Year or two flew by and I ran into her at the Electric Circus. She was a shadow of her former self: thin, pale, and sickly looking. A mutual friend told me she was using junk. I was saddened by the news, but glad she didn’t take me down that dark endless road with her.
As much as I had fallen for her, I don’t know if I would have had the willpower to say no to the harder stuff if she had offered it. But at least she had initiated me, made me a lover, and for that I’d always remember her with gratitude and affection.

***

While I’m on the subject of performing while under the influence, I thought I’d skip ahead four or five years, and uncover this little gem.

In December of 1970, I was seeing Nancy P. while on one of my visits back to New York. She had gone to the same high school as I, out in Long Island, and was a very attractive warm-hearted girl. But since she was a few years younger I didn’t bother asking her out. Besides, I knew her older brother and it would have been awkward going out with her with him watching our every move. In high school life was difficult enough with out complicating it further.

It was serendipitous bumping into her in Greenwich Village about five years after seeing her last. She had filled in rather nicely and had retained her sweetness, but was now a gorgeous woman as well. Now our age difference didn’t mean diddlysquat. Nancy had an easy-going manner, and her laugh was infectious. I saw that she was attracted to me somewhat, and pressed that to my advantage by asking her out. She accepted and we soon after became lovers.

That was one of the good things about the seventies; on the first or second date if you resonated with someone, you jumped in the sack and became acquainted over pillow talk, a joint, and a bottle of Lancers wine. There was none of this talk about saving it for the future, we didn’t think of the future, there was only now. There were no worries about AIDS either!

Nancy was working as a secretary in Manhattan, and living on the upper west side. Since I was playing music and hanging out a lot in the Village, downtown, she gave me an open invitation to come and sleep with her if I was in the city, should my heart so desire. Well my heart did so desire at least a couple of times a week, and for a couple of wonderful months we carried on like this. Nice arrangement I must say. Nancy with her spiffy little uptown apartment was a nice oasis in the bustling and frenetic city.

Nancy P. had long straight chestnut-brown hair almost down to her waist, with large hands and long fingers. She also owned the most beautifully shaped full breasts. The kind of breasts a young man just wants to just snuggle up to, leaving the fucking crazy world behind.

“I’m here finding solace in the soft confines of Nancy’s sweet full breasts world, so please just fuck off and leave me alone, can’t you see I’m content for a minute?”

Not that breast size ever mattered to me; I could care less, contrary to the widely held belief that all men are big-breast enthusiasts. Don’t get me wrong here, I love big breasts too, but not to the exclusion of the smaller variety as well. As they say nowadays, it’s all good.

With thick eyebrows, long lashes above her bittersweet chocolate brown eyes, and a wide, full mouth, Nancy had the classically beautiful models face. She stood about 5’10 or so and was a very happy-go lucky person, at least then. You know what I mean, before life grabs you and twists you this way and that and throws every fastball imaginable and some not even imaginable, and then bends you all out of shape. She must have been twenty while I was twenty-three.

One night I had a ten-o’clock, twenty minute set to perform at Café Fenjon, on MacDougal Street. MacDougal Street was in the heart of the West Village coffee house scene. Within two blocks were some of the best places to play, or to hear great music. A musician friend had turned me on to some Mescaline, saying, “If you want a really great high, try some of this!”

We planned it so that Nancy and I would take the mescaline just as I was starting my set. Figuring it would take about an hour for it’s affects to start. And then Nancy and I would take the subway back up to her place and have a wingding of a time.

All went according to plan and at 9:55 Nancy and I downed the Mescaline with a shot of espresso. About two minutes later the manager of the Fenjon rushed up to me and told me that I had to go on forty-five minutes later because Eric Anderson had to sing during my slot. I tried my best to talk him out of it, but club owners and managers are notoriously thickheaded so it was like trying to talk to a corpse. I had to do the show. I could have just bagged the whole thing and called it off, but I wanted to make a good impression with the booking agent with the hopes of landing a weekly paying gig at this coffee house. So I made up my mind that I could do it, no sweat.

I was enjoying Eric Anderson’s set immensely, as he was a great folk singer songwriter in the early Bob Dylan mold, but about halfway through his set his hands and fingers started looking as if they were melting. Not the best of signs, not a real confidence builder. And suddenly it was time for me to go on.

As I stepped on stage the first thing I noticed were the lights: overly bright – it was like the floodlights at a penitentiary – I was squinting out into the audience where it had been comfortably dark and dingy. I started tuning my guitar, but for the life of me I couldn’t get it in tune. Being a real stickler about tuning, I just went at it for a while. It felt like an hour went by just trying to tune the damn thing. At the same time I became aware of all the noise in the room; the sound of people breathing, eating, and talking, the vibration of the fans in the room, the sound of the espresso maker in the other room; it was very disconcerting.

I didn’t know how I was going to make it through the performance and I hadn’t even sung a note. That was coming. I looked to Nancy for support but she was in her own reveries, long gone. I somehow got it together enough to play one of my songs, but now I wanted to rewrite it – the words just weren’t right. My fingers felt like rolling pins. A long delay hung between everything I sang and the next phrase. When my guitar started sounding like a tuba I knew it was time to quit. I mumbled something about having to catch a plane and wandered off the stage like a blind man in search of a cane, desperately trying to steady my legs and not to trip over myself.

Nancy woke from her time travels as I grabbed her hand, and we left that place in a hurry. Now we were in the mean streets of New York City at night, and this was normally my stomping-grounds but I didn’t recognize it on mescaline. The streets were filthy, rotten smelling, loathsome and noisy – and I just wanted to be at Nancy’s apartment, losing myself in her wondrous breasts. That’s what kept me going. We dropped down into the bowels of cement and grime and took the subway, a mistake, but it was already too late.

These were some of my thoughts: “What the heck is that high frequency sound down here, doesn’t anybody hear it?” It was a florescent light bulb!

“Look at all the homeless people sleeping on the ground, don’t they have a bed to sleep in?” The usual.

“What on earth is all that earth-shattering rumble?” It was the next train. Everything was magnified a hundred fold.

Finally we got on the A train and sat down. More undesirable thoughts tumbled out of the Mescaline addled corridors of my mind:

“Why are all these people looking at us?” No one could give a shit.

“How come that man is all sprawled out on the seat, spit dribbling from his mouth?” It was just a normal drunk. It was business as usual, but everything looked so different.

After what seemed an eternity we made it into Nancy’s oasis, and I can’t tell you how happy I was to have at long last made it there. Nancy lit some candles, sandalwood incense, and wasted no time in opening a nice bottle of Rose. I fired up a fat joint of Columbian and we took a luxurious hot bath together.

Nancy went back into her reverie, and me, you guessed it, I was as comfy as a suckling new born, content, my head resting ever so nicely on the soft pillows of her warm inviting bosom. Peace at last.

That would be the last time I performed under the influence of a strong powder, by mistake or otherwise, though I know plenty of other musicians who get away with it on a daily basis. I just can’t handle it; I can pass on that experience, thank you.
I never did like tripping in the city either, just too freaky, un-natural. The next time someone says; “Hey try some of this” I’ll think twice about it, especially if I have a gig to play.

Verse Two

Recalling first singing groups, recordings, and early musical influences.  Meeting Ben E King. 1960-1966

 

It was 1960. I was in seventh grade. A huge slice of pizza was 15¢, a bagel a nickel, a gallon of gas 20¢. John F Kennedy was the President. Within weeks of hearing the Camelots I joined an a cappella vocal group of my own, comprised of friends who were similarly smitten with doo-wop harmonies.

We met a few times a week after school to work on our harmonizing. We called ourselves The Paramounts and were terrible. It took us nine months to actually learn how to sing harmony in pitch. The day we finally did we laughed so hard we couldn’t finish the song. It felt so good.

The baritone singer was a squinty-eyed Italian kid named Dennis Zampani. We called him Zimp the Chimp for his loping low-to-the-ground walk. He was a funny guy, always going on about the wonderful attributes of a nice ass on a pretty girl. I didn’t get it then, but I did not long after. Pretty soon I went from singing first tenor to singing lead, and for the next five years, with different groups, this is how I spent my free time.

My first recording session was with The Del Chimes. For some odd reason a lot of groups had the word Del in their name in ’62. We were a group of kids from Mill Basin, in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, channels and bays nearly surrounding the neighborhood. I was now the youngest in the group at fourteen. We sang our own a capella version of The Sheppards song ‘Island Of Love’. It was recorded live in one take in a small studio in Bensonhurst under the 86th street El. We walked out of there jazzed, with a 45-rpm acetate which the engineer created right on the spot using a lathe. It was a major thrill to hear ourselve’s on a record. To this day, recording has that special aura about it: the place in which the mad alchemist tries to change lead into gold. The title ‘Island of Love’ proved apt as well when I moved to Kauai some 21 years later.

The Thomas’ were big on moving. We moved thirteen times by my seventeenth birthday, always within a fifty-mile radius, excluding a six-month trial run in Miami Beach with my grandparents. Consequently I learned how to make new friends easily, and joined a new vocal group once situated for more than a minute or two. In 1963 we wound up back in East Islip, on the south shore of Long Island, about a mile from the barrier beaches of the Atlantic. I soon joined a singing group from Brentwood, a bunch of characters to be sure, and multi-national at that.

Bobby Delgado, a soulful singer and easygoing Spanish guy sang 1st tenor, and Richie Cunningham; the volatile wise-ass Italian was 2nd tenor. Johnny Perez sang baritone and bass. He was Irish, Mexican and God knows what else, and had sort of a broken neck. His head was permanently twisted to the side, his adams apple poking out of his neck like a stick. It was pretty grotesque but I never asked him about it. Frank was cool in his souped-up GTO, black leather jacket, and dark sunglasses. When you add me, the wandering Jew, to the group you see what I mean about multi-national.

Music had the power to bring us together regardless of our nationality. Otherwise we would’ve been out in the street fighting each other like the rest of the numbskulls in our neighborhoods, and in the world. Get over it already.

The guys goofed on me a lot because I was youngest by two years or so and because I was somewhat gullible and naive. We called ourselves the Gems, and were cocky and proud and thought we had a pretty decent sound, veterans already, between the ages of fifteen and eighteen. For performing we had matching white button-down sweaters with gold, black, and white stripes down the front, black chinos, white shirts, and black bowties.

The Gems entered a vocal group contest at the Bay Shore roller rink. The rink was used mostly for skating, but big name acts like The Shirells, The Exciters, The Coasters, and The Earls sang on the weekends. Local groups from the surrounding areas were featured on Sunday night, backed by a good band.

I won’t go into it in detail right now but the Bay Shore Roller rink was where I met my first love Eileen, the long-legged, green-eyed fifteen-year old beauty from North Babylon. She resembled a young Sophia Loren.

There must have been at least a dozen other singing groups competing for the recording contract. Lou Dean, a popular DJ at WGLI – a Bay Shore AM radio station – was the sponsor of the contest and producer of the shows. With his ever-present sharkskin suit and slick Brylcreamed hair he came off smarmy, and exceedingly gay. No one in the Gems felt comfortable around him and wouldn’t be caught dead alone in a room with the guy. Sure, thanks to him there was a place for us to sing, but still.

The recording contract offered the winners a chance to record two songs on a compilation album that would also feature some of the other groups. When we found out we had won, we were on top of the world, the first sweet taste of success doing what we loved. It gave us a sense of purpose, vindication. But as much as we wanted that inscribed trophy and contract, not one of us volunteered to go to the Sugar Shack to pick them up.

The Sugar Shack (and who knows what really went on there) was the bamboo and tiki motif bar where Lou Dean had his office and held court. What were we afraid of? That he’d try to take advantage of our youth and naivety? Shit, unlike me, most of the guys in the Gems were like coiled springs, ready to rumble. I had to work on giving off a tough demeanor, because in my bones I was not. In the end, of course, I was chosen to go. It turned out a minor event of major proportions. He was a nice enough guy and didn’t pull anything stupid, but I picked up the loot and got the hell out of there as fast as I could just the same. Funny how age and changing times can shift the way we think about others whose sexual orientation differs from our own.

After looking over the contracts, and wondering if they were kosher – we knew zip about contracts – we signed them, figuring what did we have to lose? The recording session took place on Long Island in a sizeable basement recording studio with the backing band from the roller rink.

The two songs we chose were the Ronnie and the Hi-Lites hit ‘I Wish That We Were Married’, and ‘Gloria’, the Passions doo-wop version, not the Van Morrison song. We laid down the vocals live with a backing band in one or two takes. I’ll never forget the magic of hearing our voices coming out of the studio speakers during the playback. Playing the record for friends and family was the icing on the cake. Recording was something I intended to explore. They called the album ‘Night Train’. §

Some of the artists who inspired me at the time included Garnet Mimms and the Enchanters, The Skyliners, Ruby and the Romantics, and the Chicago group, Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions. Curtis’ songwriting hit a nerve, and his electric guitar playing, especially the hammer-on riffs, made me want to get serious about guitar. The “blow” harmony of the two back-up singers had gospel overtones. ‘People Get Ready’, and ‘Gypsy Woman’ remain two of my all-time favorite recordings. There was something indefinable in black music that I could feel and relate to, it was on the cellular level for me, could not be nor need be explained.

Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, and Marvin Gaye were from Detroit, the motor city. I emulated their every lick and vocal histrionic until they were my own, connecting with the sound of Motown music to a large degree. How could they miss with such well-crafted songs, infectious choruses, and stand out lead vocalists? With their 24-karat group harmonies, razor-sharp choreography, and top-notch session musicians? This outfit had it all. I never imagined I would wind up having lunch, and playing my songs, for Berry Gordy Jr. himself, the founder of Motown, eleven years later. But that’s another story.

One of the highlights of my five-year singing group career was meeting Ben E. King: the solo vocalist and one-time lead singer for the Drifters, my most influential R&B vocal group. Ben E King was firmly entrenched in the New York City/Atlantic Records sound, from which a plethora of great artists had achieved widespread success, including Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Solomon Burke.

Donald Height, a black singer/songwriter/hustler who could always be found near or in the Brill building – one of the main music enclaves near mid-town Manhattan – knew that Mr King was looking for a vocal group to produce. Through Donald, and a tangled web of connections I can no longer unravel, my fourth and final group, The Nightlights, was invited to meet and sing for Ben at his apartment in Harlem.

Ben E King is the raspy bluesy soulful voice in the songs ‘Stand By Me’, ‘Spanish Harlem’, ‘Up On The Roof’ and many other R&B hits of the sixties. I would have thought he’d be full of himself, having had a great deal of success. But to the contrary, he was friendly and unpretentious, a gracious host. He smiled a great deal, and his smile was sincere, if a bit toothy.

We sang for him and talked for a while. Though we didn’t get the gig, meeting him was reward enough, and a lesson of sorts, because he was at the top of his game, yet he remained humble and cool. Now when I sing the song ‘Spanish Harlem’ – which is often these days, as I’ve come up with a slack key version of it – I think back to the view from his apartment window, overlooking the very streets he wrote about.

There were a couple of special gigs with The Nightlights I still remember. One night we opened for Jay and the Americans at Stony Brook University. These guys were from New York, and had made it big. Hit records, gigs, girls, and money. Don’t remember much about the gig, but we did meet and shoot the shit with Kenny Vance, and some of the other vocalists in the group back stage. I kept in touch with Kenny for a few years and recall walking with him one time on Broadway when James Brown cruised by and said hi to him. Must be nice I thought.

The other stand out Nightlites gig was at a mostly all-black high school in Nassau county Long Island. We were the only Caucasians to be seen. I don’t know how we ended up getting this gig, but there we were, sweating and not even on stage yet. In our repertoire now were songs by the Flamingos, and other groups whose vocal arrangements were very sophisticated.

Al was our arranger. He was Mr. smooth operator, or so he thought. He gave us sex tips too, like beating off before getting laid so as to prolong the experience when you actually got laid, the older wiser Don Juan at all of eighteen years old. Al’s voice sounded as if he’d been smoking cigarettes for fifty years, but he knew harmony inside out, and would teach us our harmony parts, which at times were incredibly intricate and difficult. I was Al in those days too. Al Thomas.

Most of the gigs we performed were sung with no back up, just three or four of us singing harmonies and me on lead. But on this occasion there was a groovacious all soul-brother rhythm section behind us. The air was charged. We knew we had to be believable. We sang the Drifters ballad ‘Please Stay’, and put everything we had into it. In the middle of the song where the lyrics say, “If I get down on my knees and I beg of you not to go but to stay in my arms”… I physically got down on my knees with the mic and belted it out. A.T. as James Brown! The audience went nuts. They loved us. Not only did their enthusiastic shouts of approval and applause give us a sense of hard-won accomplishment, it also created in us a thirst for more of the same. Only trouble is there’s no slaking of that kind of thirst.

In the summer of ‘65 I went solo. My manager was Bob Richards, who also managed a well-worn hotel on west 45th street, between 6th avenue and Broadway. The semi-dive was called the Peerless Hotel. I had just graduated from high school and Bob offered me a free room in the hotel. I took it. Living at the Peerless enabled me to sit in with traveling R&B horn bands that made New York City one of their stops on the ‘cover band’ nightclub touring circuit. The Peerless was located between two pretty well known nightclubs, and was like a hive of dubious activity, with hookers, pimps, servicemen and mobsters being the regulars at the clubs, with a few tourists in the mix. It made for a very interesting summer for one seventeen year old aspiring singer.

The Peppermint Lounge was the more well known of the two nightclubs on w 45th street, made so by Joey Dee and the Starlighters who were the house band when they had their big hit ‘Shout’. The other joint was the Wagon Wheel, and this was my main hang. The go-go dancers were very friendly with Bob Richards. They spoke with a strong Italian Bronx accent, and wore skin-tight bell-bottom pants, and mid-riff baring bolero tops, with Beatle boots, long fake eyelashes, thick makeup and sprayed Beehive hairdos. The two bands I met were kick-ass, and had a four-piece horn section. They could play R&B or the latest hits with equal verve.

There were eight or nine players in all, most of them based in the South. On contract they’d travel to Manhattan for a week or two gig, then off they’d charge to some other gig down the road of endless gigs. And they loved it, at least then they did. When they invited me onstage to sit in with them, I’d sing then-current soul songs like The Temptations’ ‘My Girl’, Wilson Pickett’s ‘Midnight Hour’, or The Drifters ‘Up On The Roof’. I really dug singing with a horn section it infused the tunes with a whole new dimension. I crack up even now when I think of the moxie that young white boy had, singing all these soul tunes in front of a New York City audience.

Of course this being Manhattan, and the Peerless an inexpensive lodging, the hotel had the full compliment of characters: con artists, musicians on tour, attractive models, hopeful dancers, luckless junkies, the list goes on. I made friends with a couple of young hookers, and made love with one of them when Bob Richards fell asleep with his back turned.

A seventeen year old runaway, Wanda was his special treat, but he made the mistake of leaving me in the room with her while he dozed. Wanda and I were already friends and got to talking and next thing you know… Now Bob might have slept with one eye open, as certain New Yorkers are wont to do, but luckily for me he was turned the other way, ’cause I couldn’t have stopped what we had begun for anything in the world at that tender time and moment.

There was a hamburger joint on Broadway, near Forty-third Street, where you could get a burger or hot dog for a quarter, and with an Orange Julius you had a meal. That’s what I survived on that summer, as I wasn’t making any money and had to stretch whatever meager funds I’d managed to save working as a caddy back home in Long Island.

I remember one night in particular when I went for a walk around the corner from the Peerless, on Broadway. There was a crowd of people on the sidewalk looking down at something in the street. As I made my way through the crowd I saw a young man lying there. He wasn’t moving. He’d just been stabbed to death, a black pool of blood seeping in the gutter.

A cold shudder went through me and I thought, “What an ignominious way to die, an anonymous body just lying there bleeding on this crowded but lonely street in the middle of this big city full of strangers. Shit, what the hell am I doing here in such a cold-hearted place?” But the thought soon passed for I was never fearful in that city, the city of my birth. I should have been maybe, and I think of it now and wince at what could have been, but as I said before there must have been an angel watching over me.

I loved taking long wandering no destination walks in Manhattan, cruising for hours mesmerized by the architecture, the one-of-a-kind stores, the smell of exotic foods, and the interesting looking people, including the fine sophisticated women shopping on Fifth Avenue, surely some of the most beautiful women in the world. A few times I walked by Moon Dog, the guy who dressed as a Viking and stood on Fifth Avenue near the CBS building reciting his poetry to anyone who’d listen.

One afternoon I was exploring the midtown area on West 55th Street near the St. Regis Hotel. I had the habit of walking with my head down for odd some reason, probably because once, years before in Brooklyn, I found a twenty-dollar bill on the sidewalk, and I was still looking for another. In any event I accidentally bumped into an older well-dressed gentleman. He was a rather striking man indeed with a huge waxed-mustache whose ends curled in a circle. I apologized. Grinning mirthfully, he reached out and took me gently by the shoulders and in a strange accent said, “ No harm done.” He followed that by kissing me on both cheeks in the European style of greeting, and continued on his merry way with his elegantly dressed lady companion.

I was planted there kind of nonplussed at having just been kissed by a stranger in the middle of the crowded street. A woman who saw the incident walked up and asked me if I knew who that was, I shook my head. She then smiled and whispered that it was none other than the great artist Salvador Dali.

One sweltering summer night Bob Richards took me to the Apollo Theater up in Harlem where one of my all-time R&B hero’s, Chuck Jackson, was in concert. Bob knew Chuck and had gotten us backstage passes. Chuck and the other acts were suave and impressive with their soulful singing, and coordinated dance steps. I was in heaven. Bob and I were just about the only two white faces I saw that night.

It was black African-American music that really had gotten a hold of me, and wouldn’t let go. First it was the doo-wop groups, and then came the R&B singers, followed by the Motown, Atlantic, and Stax recording artists. Later I would discover the older blues singers, and jazz musicians. The ground-breaking music of Dylan, and The Beatles had still not found me, but that was just around the bend.

Bob Richards told me that if I was going to get anywhere in the music business I had better do something about my thick Brooklyn accent. “What Brooklyn accent?” I asked him incredulously. I didn’t even realize I had one. But I did, and it made me sound similar to Marlon Brando’s accent in A Street Car Named Desire.

There was an acting school that doubled in diction on west 57th street and eighth avenue called the Showcase Theater. It was run by a thoughtful older woman and retired-actress named Sylvia. Her face remained fixed with a thick layer of caked on make-up, which belied her many face lifts. Bob enrolled me there for six months and I became aware of, and worked hard at changing my diction. I also had a small part in our production of the play ‘Barefoot in the Park’.

Through my manager Bob I met the singer BJ Thomas, and his record producer Huey P. Meaux, who was known in the music business as the Crazy Cajun. BJ had just had a hit with a remake of the Hank Williams song ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’, and was in New York doing some TV and live shows. Bob arranged for me to sing for Huey in my room at the Peerless Hotel. After auditioning for him with just voice and guitar, he offered me a recording contract, and invited me to fly to Houston Texas all expenses paid, to record with him as producer. This meant a great deal to me: I was seventeen years old and on my way to Texas to make my first major record!

Not long after, and with my parent’s permission, I flew down to Texas. I stayed at Huey’s house in suburban Houston. He also had a sixteen-year old girlfriend staying there. This liaison with the young girl would eventually lead to his arrest for sleeping with a minor. He wound up doing hard time for a while but I never held it against him as he treated me like a son and was a great producer. Now being an older man myself I can see the attraction one can have for a younger lover, but sixteen is pushing the envelope for sure.

In the span of a week or ten days I recorded nine songs with two rhythm sections. BJ’s band was a caucasian group, and the other band consisted of all black cats. The black rhythm section was called TV and the Tribesmen. They’d had a local hit with a remake of the Robert Parker tune ‘Barefootin’. What an unbelievably exciting time for me, to be able to work out the songs in the studio with these great musicians and have Heuy Meaux produce and record me. The die was cast.

Two singles came out of those sessions in 1966: one was called ‘Summertime Monkeyshine’ on the NYC label, Scepter Records, (Dionne Warwick – Chuck Jackson – The Shirelles). The other single was called ‘Didn’t It Rain’, and was released on a small Texas label called Pablo records. These singles found their way to obscurity. Still, I was out there doing it and not dreaming about it, whatever the result. Huey P. Meaux went on to produce artists as diverse as Jerry Lee Lewis, Freddy Fender, and Doctor John.

The need to heal myself after the heart-breaking loss of my first love, Eileen Nodel, near the end of 1966, pushed me to find self-expression in songwriting. Therapy through writing would prove a lifeline for me from then on. Songwriting became a way of expressing myself and exorcising my feelings. I would need these songwriting skills to keep me afloat in some very dark times ahead.

In retrospect, I agree with the saying, “It’s not the destination but the journey that matters.” Because though I may not have achieved the monetary success that I would have liked, as yet, I experienced a rich life full of amazing experiences. And it’s these adventures and experiences that make us who we are.

I dreamt my musical life into existence. So if I should leave this body tomorrow I will do so knowing that I followed my heart’s desire, and this I can live with, and that’s all that really matters.

In the end, how do you measure the quality of your life? Is it how much money you’ve made and what you have acquired materially, or is it the adventures and experiences you’ve had along the way?

§ While doing research for this story on-line, I stumbled upon a doo-wop compilation CD containing The Gems version of ‘Gloria’. How strange that this obscure one-off recording relic that I participated in forty years ago resurfaces on a compact disk at CD Universe. It’s called 45RPM Days, Vol. 1 on Crystal Ball Records.

http://www.cduniverse.com/search/xx/music/pid/1000992/a/Crystal+Ball+Records%3A+45RPM+Days,+Vol+1.htm

In The Beginning

The Early Years – 1948 to 1960


I took my first breath just after sundown on a bone-chilling February 10th in 1948. The big event took place on the upper-east side of Manhattan, the frigid East River a block away. Norma Gordon was nineteen years old, and I was her second.

It wasn’t exactly the smoothest of births. The umbilical chord had wrapped itself around my neck pretty tight. This little episode was the first of many close shaves to follow. Looking back, it’s a wonder I’m here at all.

Upon seeing the two cowlicks on the crown of my head, great grandma Fanny predicted I would become somebody famous. It was an old Hungarian myth – so much for old myths.

Norma and my biological father Sydney Scheiner divorced when I was four. Their agreement was for him to disappear from our lives forever in return for no alimony. He kept his word. I have no recollection of him whatsoever, nor does my sister Jackie.

Carl Thomas was serving customers breakfast in the Tearoom, a Brighton Beach restaurant in Brooklyn, when he met my mother. They fell for each other pretty hard and married within a year. From the pictures I’ve seen of Norma back then she was a real stunner and even with us two kids in tow Carl couldn’t resist. If he had only known what he was getting himself into.

Years later when I was twelve or so, I asked my mother for my birth certificate. Her face crumbled. She looked as though she’d seen a phantom. Reluctantly she explained that Thomas wasn’t my real name, Carl Thomas was not my real father, and there was someone else who came before.

Some how after the haze lifted, in that first moment of recognition all I could think of was how much I loved Carl, my dad, and none of the rest of it mattered. I wanted to give the guy a big hug, and later that day I did just that. As far as I could tell he always loved Jackie and I with the same intensity that he later showered on his own three kids.

With some difficulty I persuaded mom to tell me about Sydney. The short of it is, fresh out of the service he was writing stories in hopes of becoming a professional writer. To support us he worked in a liquor store. Having little or no luck at all in having his writing efforts published he became frustrated, started drinking, and became an abusive bitter young man. They’d had some nasty times and Norma wanted him gone. He acquiesced, end of story. Except it’s never really the end of the story.

I have a few sepia-toned photos of a guy with black curly-hair in his Armed services uniform, with mom, Jackie, and me at his sides. We’re posing in front of the Bronx Zoo. That’s it, nothing more. Mom stayed pretty tight-lipped about him, and I could sense negativity and embroiled emotions when I brought him up. So I didn’t often go there. The few times I did get her to speak about him she’d become deeply sad and brooding. She didn’t paint a pretty picture. I almost wished I hadn’t asked. Will I turn out like him I wondered?

I know there are two sides to every story, but for to him disassociate himself from his own flesh and blood is unthinkable to me, even now some fifty years later.

We all get thrown some curves in life. It’s what shapes us. Is his leaving a good thing, or a bad thing; was he a good man or a jerk? I’ll never know. I do know that there’s no point in questioning destiny. Somewhere along the way I realized this part of me would always remain shrouded in mystery, unresolved, and I moved on.

Luckily Carl Thomas was a good father, and he wasn’t one to raise his voice. He worked ten-hour days, six days a week, as a short-order cook serving customers behind the counter of a luncheonette or diner, yet he maintained his light-hearted demeanor when he came home. He’d kibitz with the customers all day long, and count his tips out of a paper sack after dinner over a Pabst Blue Ribbon and a Cigarillo. We lived on those tips.

A lot of guys wind up following their father’s footsteps, but I figured out pretty quick that I wasn’t one of them. I mean I respected him immensely for always providing us with a nice home and food on the table, but I just couldn’t envision myself in his well-worn shoes. As time went by he and Norma conceived my two brothers Richard and Fred, and my adorable sister Annette.

Carl was a very entertaining character, a real song and dance man. He told us of going to dance clubs up in Harlem when he was a kid, tearing it up all night. He loved seeing Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw play, and could imitate Al Jolson, or Fred Astair to a tee. It was good to have some levity in the house, especially when Norma was in one of her dark moods.

She hadn’t exactly had it easy as a child, and it reflected in the occasional storms of temper that would rain down on us. Not to say she wasn’t a caring, doting mother as well. In today’s world she would have been a good candidate for one of the many anti-depression pills available. Carl’s sense of humor buoyed us through quite a few turbulent moments.

I was a perfect nightmare as a child because I would get into all kinds of mischief, and wind up hurt nine times out of ten. At four years old I managed to get myself stuck on top of a chain-link fence. I was just trying to climb over the six-foot thing, get to the other side. At six, chasing after my sister in pre-school I broke my right ring finger when a heavy door slammed on it. But in 1956, when I was eight, I had the big doozy of them all.

The street was in a rural neighborhood in Long Island, with very little traffic, a few older houses scattered every few hundred yards or so. I was riding my new green and chrome Schwinn Phantom bike home from playing at Deer Lake in West Islip, Jackie trailing behind me. While riding “no hands ” – balancing the bike with my arms stretched out on my sides, like a bird – I abruptly stopped.

The fire department had used an old 1940’s derelict automobile for a practice drill. When they were finished they just left it there, half on the road, half on the roadside, its windows broken. My right arm had ripped across the jagged glass, cutting me open at the inside of my elbow.

I looked down and saw the joint of my arm bone, blood everywhere, and went right into shock. My sister panicked and started screaming, and I told her to go get mom, about a mile away. Norma didn’t drive and would be at home. I held my right arm at the wrist with my left hand and walked across the street to the nearest house and banged on the door leaving a bloody imprint. Nobody answered. Then I let out a howl for help that I’m sure could be heard for miles.

There has to be some kind of angel watching over me. A woman who lived a few hundred yards away, heard my cry and came running. How’s this for good luck following bad? Turns out she’s a registered nurse. This angel of mercy put a tourniquet on my arm, saving my life right then and there. If, like a cat I had nine lives that would have been my second. She then commandeered a car and rushed me to Southside Hospital. I remember lying with my head in her lap, her fingers stroking my hair, the car practically breaking the sound barrier and asking her if I was going to die. I don’t know how she could have been so sure, but she told me I would live.

It was a major operation that lasted five hours and required 65 stitches. Both artery and vein had been severed. According to my mother who first saw me before surgery, I was the color blue from lack of blood. Maybe that’s why I love the Blues.

After a while I was able to use my right arm and fingers again, but it was never the same. For the next twenty-five years I wore long sleeve shirts to hide the long uneven scar. I’d lost a lot of feeling in my right hand fingers, and had to learn how to print instead of using the cursive style. I began casting a fishing rod and throwing a football with my left hand. My right and left arms and hands grew at different rates, or maybe the blood flow was slower in the one, because they became two completely different beings, like they belonged to strangers.

But I’m just glad to be here. A brush with death carries it’s own weight in lessons. I learned how to get back up and keep going forward, and didn’t let my disability keep me from trying new things. This lesson came in handy later when I taught myself to play guitar, even though I couldn’t feel the strings one hundred percent.

According to Norma, I could sing ‘You Send Me’ with Sam Cooke on the car radio about this time.
She was thrilled because she had been a singer at a very early age as well, having once even sung on radio in New York City when she was ten. Of all the things on earth that can befall a young aspiring singer what could be worse than the onset of tumors of the throat? There were nasty scars down the entire right side of her neck from all the surgeries that followed. Self-conscious about the way her neck appeared, she never sang in public again. It was a shame because she was a beautiful girl with a sweet voice.

Consequently when I started singing in my early teenage years mom was behind me a hundred percent. I think, in some small way, she lived out her own dreams of a singing career through me. She was always trying to get me to learn the old ones, tunes like ‘Ain’t She Sweet’, and ‘I’m in Heaven’. Having a mother that sang and an ex-father who wrote was the writing on the wall.

When we lived in East Islip, Long Island – about 50 miles Northeast of Manhattan – I discovered the solitude of the woods. Glad to be out of the city, I’d walk to nearby Hecksher State Park, alone or with my cocker spaniel Buff – a wonderful companion – and find quiet secret places with brooks, spongy moss, and the smell of pines. I’d lie there for hours my mind drifting, watching the clouds roll by, content in my own world, the dreamer.

Buff and I loved hunting for Box turtles in the park. He’d help me find them, and I’d bring them home to a pen I’d made. I spent a lot of time climbing trees, once getting my hands torn to shreds when I tried to take a baby squirrel from it’s nest. I also caught chip monks – fast little devils – ribbon snakes, ducks, frogs, and even a bat. It got itself tangled up in my curly hair and Norma had a bitch of a time getting it out. I wanted it for a pet but it pretended death and I buried it in the backyard only to discover it gone the next morning, a gaping hole in the earth where the gravesite had been.

A friend and I trapped a muskrat in the swamp one time too. Afterwards we skinned and cured the pelt while wearing our coonskin caps and buckskin jackets as if we were Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett.

My mother frequently punished me for various infractions. Being late was a big one, so was stealing more than my ration of chocolate bars and not admitting to it. I was a hopeless sugar addict and a sneak to boot, and when backed up against the wall I’d flat-out lie. So I wound up having to spend a lot of time in my room. I didn’t mind it either, for there I could be in my own cocoon, away from my mother’s tantrums and the tumult of family life for a few hours or days. Eventually I learned to enjoy my time alone, a prerequisite for a songwriter.

Life with Norma was hard at times. I ran away when I was eight and ten years old. She was quick to use her hands, and I didn’t dig it at all. The first time I ran away I’d packed a shopping bag with some clothes and rode my bike all the way back to West Islip ten miles or so. She was relieved to get me back, and for a while was sorry for what she’d done. But it didn’t take long before the whole cycle repeated itself. I became wary of those hands.

It didn’t take much to set her off, and I wasn’t the only offender. Like an alcoholic, she’d apologize afterwards, but by then it was too late, the damage already done. It’s weird to say it, but true none-the-less, I hated her something fierce at times. Later, in my twenties, I forgave her all that bullshit and did my best to forget. Tried to dwell on the good times, remember her sweet side. Certain things you can’t erase though.

My family moved back and forth from Brooklyn to Long Island many times. Brooklyn was a rough-ass place. Street fights were a regular occurrence, and theses were serious fights.

I’d get a queasy feeling when I saw guys furiously banging each other’s heads into the pavement and onto lampposts. I don’t know why, but even though it was sickening to see, something in me would want to watch anyway. I wasn’t cut out to be a street brawler though.

While walking home from Shellbank Junior High in Sheepshead Bay a group of neighborhood toughs spotted me and yelled, “Get the Jew boy”. How did they even know I was Jewish? I was tired of this racism shit already and I was only twelve. Like storm clouds they raced towards me and I ran like hell. Sensing one of the fastest runners gaining on me, I stopped real quick, spun on my heels and stuck my foot into his gut. He dropped like a sac of cement, wheezing, cursing and holding his stomach. With the other kids in hot pursuit I raced to my apartment building and up the five flights of stairs. Winded but un-bowed I collapsed into the apartment. This little episode taught me to always keep my eyes open for any kind of trouble that might have my name on it. They call this street smarts, in the city.

However, street smarts didn’t prevent me from getting jumped by a gang as I walked home from Madison High School one afternoon. The rumor was that a rival gang from a nearby high school wanted to rumble with the thugs in my high school. But I paid it no mind, as there were always rumors of one kind or another flying around.

A popular article of clothing back then was black knee-length trench coats. They matched perfectly with our black pegged pants and black pointy shoes. Even if it was hot weather I loved sporting my trench coat.

I had just left school and was doing my imitation of a black hipster ditty-bopping down the street. You shuffled your feet as you walked, bopping your head and shoulders up and down, like a drunken Penguin or a seasick camel. We white kids thought we were cool, but we must have looked like chumps. Black guys always looked cool ditty-bopping. While bopping along with my hands in my trench coat pockets, four or five guys jumped me from behind and started punching and kicking me. I couldn’t get my hands out of the deep pockets. They knocked me to the ground and repeatedly kicked me about the head and body till they moved off like a pack of wolves to the next unsuspecting victim. I was real lucky not to have been hurt too bad.

Can’t say as I learned much from going to Madison High School, but I did learn to keep my damn hands out of my trench coat pockets when walking around Brooklyn!

I would go out on school nights to an elementary school a few blocks away that was made available to kids for night recreation, to keep us off the street and out of trouble. It was a place to hang out. We were able to play basketball in the gym, dance to the latest 45’s in the lunchroom, that kind of thing. Two things happened to me at that school which I’ll never forget, one really good the other not good at all.

Some kids were playing a serious game of basketball in the gym. When their ball went out of bounds I happened to be passing by and picked it up. I probably should have just thrown it back to them, but instead, acting cocky, I dribbled the ball for a while, and even went for an ill placed hoop. One of the players got angry. A heavy-set boy told me he was going to fuck me up after the game, but I just said something wise-assed to him, shrugged it off, and swaggered away.

I probably should have taken his warning seriously, slipped out of there and gone home, but I was oblivious. Besides he was just a fat kid so nothing to worry about. At the end of the evening I left the building to head home, fat boy’s threat totally forgotten. But he hadn’t forgotten anything. He walked up to me and straightaway punched me in the chest hard. One punch was all he threw, and that’s all it took. I doubled over, my breath a thing of the past. He didn’t have to do anything more because I was incapacitated with that one punch. I just couldn’t catch my breath. My eyes were watering as he walked away, crowing, “That’ll teach you!” leaving me like a fresh caught fish gasping for air.

I learned a couple of things that night. Fat boys have a lot of weight behind their punches, and a well-placed punch to the sternum will temporarily stop an opponent. I looked at heavier guys with a new set of eyes from then on.

My other memorable experience from night school was less catastrophic, but no less dramatic. I was sitting in the lavatory stall when I heard some guys start singing a cappella. Instant goose bumps. A doo-wop group had come into the bathroom to practice their harmonies and take advantage of the excellent echo from the tile walls and floors. They were a group of five black and Spanish guys who were called The Camelots and they were phenomenal.

There was something about those raw harmonies that resonated in me, a frequency that had found it’s mark. I knew right then and there that I had to be part of that sound somehow. Little did the singers know they’d set me on a course for the world of music.