I was born and raised in Providence, a big, cold, gray, dirty, typically Northern city of the time, long before the urban renewal craze. It was a city of contrasts between the ghetto squalor of South Providence and the Ivy League university surroundings and mansions of the East Side. Federal Hill was Old World Italian, complete with street pushcart vendors, and for many years Raymond Patriarca ran the entire Northeast Mafia from his small pinball machine company there. Italian restaurants occupied every block and the people spoke mostly Italian, much the same as the Hispanic community here in Texas. "Old school" gangs, leftovers from the 50s, still proliferated the city, usually named after their neighborhoods...Charles Street gang, Valley View Boys, etc. However, there was also a rich music and arts environment, having always been a big jazz town and home to the Rhode Island School of Design, where I would be a student many years later. Newport, the longtime home and playground of true Yankee blue blood, was a mere 45 minute drive away. Some of the houses in Providence, beautifully restored by the Historical Society, dated back to the original Pilgrim settlers. It was a city of immense contrasts.
My mom raised my two brothers and me by herself, having divorced my dad while I was still a pup. It was a Herculean feat, since she worked full time to support us while taking care of three rambunctious boys who were usually out on the streets somewhere. We were one of a very few white families living in a mostly black neighborhood on the East Side. My brothers and I always worked, starting with paper routes and leading me to a job in a Kentucky Fried Chicken when I was 14. That's also when I began playing bass, buying my own equipment with earnings from the Colonel, and abandoning the tenor banjo which I had tried to master. There was always music in our house. Mom was a fanatic for musicals, sang in the civic chorale, and could play the old upright piano that she had moved into our second story living room. Dad's idols were Gene Krupa (a lowlife drug addict, according to Mom) and Benny Goodman, who he miserably failed at trying to emulate on the clarinet. But there were always great big band (albeit mostly white), pop, and Broadway show records around the house.
When I graduated high school, I worked in a warehouse to save money for RISD, where I had been accepted on partial scholarship and would later attend for two years with Tina Weymouth and Chris Franz, from the then not-yet-formed Talking Heads. I started the Blue Flames, a quartet, with my high school friend Scott Hamilton, who has gone on, after taking New York by storm, to be an international jazz star and Concord Jazz label's biggest selling artist.
We began as an R&B band, but over a five year period metamorphosed into a straight up mainstream jazz band. Standards and ballads. We turned our backs on rock music, cut our hair off (it was not a fashionable thing to do then), and became total jazz Nazis. It was all good, though, because we were focused, and I really cut my teeth on that shit and got serious about the bass, especially the upright bass. We were thrilled and honored to back Roy "Little Jazz" Eldridge for a week once, with Charlie Watts in attendance one night, and I even got to smoke weed with Roy in his hotel bathroom! I would later be lucky enough to play with many greats and idols of mine.
Heady stuff for a 20 year old jazz fanatic! There also was a black club in Providence back then which we frequented, called Al Fisher's, that held weekly Sunday jam sessions hosted by a tenor player named Willie Love, and you had better know your shit when you got on that stage or your ass was gone! We were young, bad motherfuckers and knew it. Too bad the rest of the world didn't.
Roomful of Blues had morphed into the now legendary big sound horn band and was extremely popular all over the Northeast. They were in the big leagues! One day their bari player's girlfriend told me that they wanted me to play bass, but wouldn't ask for fear of ruining the friendship with Scott and between both our bands. I didn't think twice, called to confirm this tidbit, and took the gig immediately. Scott and the Flames understood completely, and went on with Phil Flanagan, a young prodigy who was also one of my big influences.
Roomful was a hard partying, hard gambling, hard touring, and definitely hard
playing band. We ran on booze, coke, Qualuudes, and girls. Nobody, but nobody,
could play like us! Island records ultimately signed us and put out two
classic records, but had no idea what to do with us. Disco and 70s rock ruled
then, but, despite that, we had a huge following and were soon leaving the
Northeast behind and touring nationally. Roomful also became known for backing
up and putting on big shows with many of the legends, such as Big Joe Turner,
Cleanhead Vinson, Helen Humes, Red Prysock, and Fats Domino, to name but a
few. We even did Roseland Ballroom in NYC with the great Count Basie, bringing
one of our dealers and a load of coke down for his band. It was around this
time that we met and became fast friends with the original Asleep at the
Wheel and first started hearing about Austin. As far as we knew, Texas was for
steers and queers! John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd,
among others, had become huge fans of ours, and the next thing we knew, the
Blues Brothers had become the biggest thing on SNL. We did their first live
gigs at the Bottom Line in NYC (snorting coke in the kitchen with Belushi),
and became the model for their backup band later on. We were supposed to be
their band, but Duke and Belushi got into some kind of shit, it escalated into
a press war, and the whole thing fell apart. Major fuckup!
point, our friend Muddy Waters told us about a rockin' band out of Austin
called the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and that we both needed to hook up.
Similarly, he had told them about us. We finally met in Boston one night. I
thought they were the weirdest bunch I had ever seen! Here we were, a big,
slick Yankee horn band in three-piece suits and Italian shoes, and there were
the T-Birds...Jimmie in an orange jumpsuit, Kim in a dashiki, and Keith
sporting tattoos and women's perfume. But they were bad motherfuckers, and the
bond between bands was immediate. We started bringing them up to New England
and they us to Texas, where we first met Stevie, Lou Ann, the Cobras, and all
the greats from the old Austin. The gigs with both bands were incredible, both
musically and the level of debauchery. In fact, both bands were so close as to
eventually develop an inbred relationship with each other's wives and
girlfriends. This was the time that Jimmie and I started discussing my
eventually joining the T-Birds.
In the interim,
while on Roomful's first major swing through the South, I met and fell deeply
in love with a girl in Atlanta. We carried on an expensive and time consuming
long distance relationship, the first but not last for me, with a lot of long
distance calls and airline flights. She would spend summers in Providence, on
the road with me, but couldn't leave her home and job in Atlanta. So I did.
Roomful called it "musical suicide", but I burned off anyway, after 4 years
with the band, and arrived in a musical wasteland. Stevie would later call me
to join Double Trouble, but as I was in love, settled, and waiting on the
T-Birds, and he was still touring in a van without even a record contract yet,
I turned down the offer, whereupon he hired his longtime bass player, Tommy
Shannon. Also, I had hooked up with a fledgling band called The Alley Cats,
and although it was a constant struggle, I had more fun and camaraderie with
these guys than with almost any other band. Fueled on Quaaludes, provided by
an Atlanta clinic to which we all went, and cheap wine, we toured relentlessly
and were beginning to break in the Southeast when our guitar player quit to go
to law school, and we were
unable to replace him. End of The Alley Cats. Ironically, Tinsley Ellis went
on to a big career in blues.
So, I took
a nightly gig as part of a duo with the old time great Piano Red, but he was
getting increasingly more feeble and the sets more tedious. I was still deeply
in love with Julie, but just couldn't make Atlanta happen for me, much as I
loved it and considered it home. With a terrible, tearful goodbye, I moved up
to Boston to play with a popular rockabilly band, making a lot of money over
the next year and putting out one record in France. Julie and I drifted apart
over time, mostly because of my darker lifestyle, but always stayed in touch
and ultimately reunited for a bit. And then came the second stint with my old
family, Roomful of Blues.
When they called, I was more than ready to come back to the fold. Rockabilly was fun, but neither the band nor the music was up to par with Roomful. We went back out on the road, as always, and signed with the Rounder label, putting out a few excellent, albeit overlooked, records. I then met my future ex-wife on the road in Toronto, thus beginning another long distance romance. She was a wild child punkabilly, to whom I introduced heroin, something I came to deeply regret. Roomful also recorded with the late, great Big Joe Turner on his last brilliant album, which was nominated for a Grammy. We did it in New York, with the Roomful bus dropping me off to score en route, which was becoming a frequent drill.
My habit was quickly increasing and our junkie crew started making runs into NYC, leaving at 3am to arrive just as the drug "companies" opened, so we could compare brands, score, and head back to Providence, fixing on the way. I got very adept at fixing while I was driving, a skill that would later serve me well when on tour buses or mid flight in airplane bathrooms. It got to where I could fix anywhere, under any circumstances. New York was wide open in those days, the American capital of china white, which was sold in ten dollar glassine envelopes, each with that particular company's name and stamp on the bag. We would line up with ten or twelve other people, from all walks of life, to be served on park benches throughout the Lower East Side, and buy dope with names such as "Poison", "Mr T", or "Red Stripe".
The T-Birds and Roomful still
worked together whenever and wherever possible, and I would always score for
Keith, as he would never venture out himself. He would return the favor in
Austin, hooking me up with his people. Jimmie and I still talked about playing
together, but I was believing him less and less. Just drunk talk! But,
unbeknownst to me, it was fixing to happen and forever change my life.