Short Tales

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Archived Short Tales

Early Years
1958: Really Playing

1960: A Life-Changing Event
1961: And the Winner Is...
1970: Becoming a Mad Dog
1971: Backstage with Bob
1971: Playing on Freddie King's Albums

Early Years

Q: How did you start playing the guitar?
A: When I was 4 years old, living in Denver, my parents had a couple of friends who were musicians—Tom and Bob from Tennessee. They would come over to the house and play country music. One day they let me hold a guitar, and that was it.

Q: What was your first gig playing with a band?
A: Pontrolli’s Ballroom at Brooklyn and Ford in East L.A. That was in ’58. The band was called “The Dominoes” (or "The Riffs"?). It was a wedding party—that turned into a brawl.

Q: Have you ever played with Frank Zappa?
A: No. Although we were both living in L.A., I never saw Frank Zappa play live. There is another musician, a keyboard player named Don W. Preston, who played with him. People have been confusing us for more than 50 years.

Q: Besides the blues, what other styles of music do you listen to?
A: Jazz, western swing, country, classical—anything good.

Q: Who are some guitar players who influenced you?
A: There are so many… Merle Travis, Les Paul, Barney Kessell, Chet Atkins, B.B. King, Albert King, Freddie King, Tommy Crook, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Bryant, Billy Butler, and Wayne Bennett, to name a few. 

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1958: Really Playing

When I was 8 years old in 1951, I began taking guitar lessons from an older gentleman named Doc Binkard in Whittier, California. His task was to teach me to read and play chords. I didn’t make it easy because I wanted to play the fastest boogie in E and figure out songs. But he basically got me started. I took lessons for four or five years from Doc. He then turned me over to a teacher named Bob Thompson who could really play. He exposed me to BeBop, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, “Honky Tonk,” and so forth.

I started playing in a couple of big bands in East L.A., and then joined Don Julian and the Meadowlarks in 1958. I got booked with a pick-up band around that time to do a rock ’n’ roll show with The Six Teens, whose hit was “A Casual Look,” and with Bobby Day, who sang “Rockin’ Robin,” as well as with others I can’t remember. On the poster I was billed as “featuring Don Preston and his swinging guitar.” At that time I was 16 and knew about eight solo turns.

So the show starts, everything goes along nicely, and then it was D.P. and his swinging guitar. Naturally, I did a fast blues. My friend Scott Wilson had gone with me to the gig. He said he went outside, and when he came back in, he thought he was hearing a different guitar player. That was the night I actually started “playing” the guitar. Finally, what fun.

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1960: A Life-Changing Event

Here's an example of how one event changed my whole life. This way or that, we careen through life, but we all have one. It was 1960-61, I was 18 or 19 and had been playing in the Masked Phantoms band (we wore masks), doing stage shows with the likes of the Coasters, the Olympics, Vernon Green and the Medallions at El Monte Legion Stadium, Long Beach Auditorium, Harmony Park Ballroom, even the Palladium. Three months after my high-school graduation, the Phantoms (no longer masked) took a job in Tucson, Arizona, at the La Jolla Club. We played there for six months.

When I came back home, I’d lost touch with everything. I was living with my parents in Whittier, CA, going to jam sessions over in Norwalk and Downey, but getting no work. So, I went down to the Sackett & Peters hardware store to get a real job. I fill out the application. Mr. Sackett or Mr. Peters looks at it and says, "I see you've been playing music. What would you do if someone called you for a job?" I tell him, "I'm done with that," and he says, "You can start tomorrow." So, of course, I ask, "What’s it pay?" "$82 every two weeks," he says and takes me down to show me the paint and wood. "See you tomorrow," I say as I leave.

That VERY night a bass player named Gerald Goodwin calls me. He wants to know if I want a gig. He tells me their guitar player Johnny Cale is married to a stewardess, and he can fly for free and wants to go to Philadelphia or somewhere. Made perfect sense to me at the time. So I ask, "What's it pay?" He says, "$100 a week." No contest. "When do I start?" "Tomorrow night." No Sackett, no Peters. I drive down to Imperial Blvd. and Carmenita St. in Santa Fe Springs to do the gig. That was the first time I ever met and played with Russell Bridges (aka Leon Russell) and Chuck Blackwell (aka Charles Edward Blackwell). So, if JJ Cale had not wanted to fly away, I wonder, would I have ever met Leon?

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1961: And the Winner Is

In 1961, I was playing at Le Crazy Horse nightclub (formerly Ciro’s) on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood with Donnie Brooks—another story. We played a party at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for a bigwig named Joe Pasternak. Apparently, someone liked me because a couple of months later, we were playing in Lake Tahoe, and I got a phone call from my mother. She said someone had called from the Academy Awards. I called them back, and they told me “Town Without Pity” by Gene Pitney had been nominated for Best Song—and they wanted me to play the guitar part on the show.

Johnny Green was the musical director of the Academy Awards show in those days. So I went to his big ol’ house in Beverly Hills, and there we rehearsed. I still have the sheet music. I had a 4-bar solo. Easy as pie. As we were leaving, Ann Margaret was coming in to do her rehearsal.

The show was at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. They rented me a tux, and I did my part sitting on a mic boom. We finished the song, packed up, and I went to the gig at Le Crazy Horse. After the first show, we went over to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and played the Awards party. Three gigs in one night—I slept well that night. Oh yeah, “Moon River” won the Academy Award for Best Song.

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1970:  Becoming a Mad Dog

A little background… From about ’63 on, I played clubs in Los Angeles for about five or six years, five- and six-nighters, as well as various musician gigs. In ’67 or so, I recorded two albums at Leon Russell’s house in the Hollywood Hills. The albums were sold and released on A&M Records—Bluse and Hot Air Through a Straw. I would work five nights, then write two songs on Monday, and record them on Tuesday. Gordon Shryock put all this together. Time marched on, and around late ’68 or early ’69, Three Dog Night recorded a song of mine, “Circle for a Landing,” on an album called Suitable for Framing. It did well. They also put it on the other side of the hit single “Eli’s Comin’.” That did well, and my first royalty check was very nice.

So, I think, hmm, I’m gonna be a songwriter and quit the clubs. Around that time, Leon knew Denny Cordell and Joe Cocker, whom I'd met and would see at Leon’s house. Lots of laughs in those days. Leon bought an older Rolls Royce in England and had it shipped to L.A. One night, Leon, Denny, Joe, and I were driving around in that car. We went to Tiny Naylor’s drive-in restaurant in Hollywood where you could get car service. Denny said, “We're putting something together for a tour. Do you want to come along?” It's possible we were passing something around, because I answered, “I’ve always said that if a space ship landed, I would get on it—and this sounds like it.” Ha-ha, we all laughed.

A few weeks went by, and I went to play basketball in Silverlake. The next day, Leon called and said, “You let me down last night.” I said, “What do you mean?” He answered, “We had the first rehearsal for Joe’s thing last night. Be there tonight.” So I was. There were like ten musicians and ten or so singers, A&M execs, roadies, a film crew (see the movie), and so on. Mad Dogs & Englishmen—eight weeks—what a tour—nice band, nice people, and mad dogs.

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1971:  Backstage with Bob

During the Concert for Bangladesh in between shows, a small group of people were sitting around, killing time in the locker room of Madison Square Garden. Bob Dylan was there, and he started playing and singing. There was a bass guitar nearby, and Leon Russell picked it up and started playing with him.

So Dylan finished the song, and Leon said, “What was that other one… uh, Masterpiece,” or something like that. Anyway, Dylan started singing “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” I hadn’t heard that song at the time, and I was knocked out. When he finished, Leon asked, “How’d that other one go…?” So he sang another one. We had a mini Bob Dylan concert right there. What a cool way to kill time.

During that break, Don Nix was zipping around doing his impression of a hippie photographer snapping pictures of everyone. When he got to Bob Dylan, Dylan took his umbrella and pushed it up to the lens to block him. Quick as a wink, Don Nix said, “Don’t worry, there’s no film in the camera.” No blows were exchanged—and we all went away happy.

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1971: Playing on Freddie King’s Albums

When I was a young lad, I learned “Hideaway” and “San Jose,” so I was well aware of Freddie King. But all the credit goes to Leon Russell.

The way it worked in the early 70s with Leon’s band was: We would get an itinerary for two weeks of gigs, and I would say, “Ah… an easy one.” Then a week or so out there, we would get another itinerary for maybe three more weeks. Pretty soon we would be out for two months or more. Now, I’m not complaining, but it did get tiring.

So, word came that we had a week off in Chicago—that was good. Just lie around and smoke (another time and place). We were in a hotel corridor, and Leon says, “We’re cutting an album with Freddie King, and I want you to play on it.” I said something like, “Oh, man,” and Leon says, “Come on, it’ll be good for you.”

He was right. We cut Getting Ready in four or five days at Chess Studios in Chicago. Freddie was the most aggressive and confident guitar player I had ever heard—and it was so much fun working out parts with my good old friend Duck Dunn. I’d say the experience of cutting “Goin’ Down” (by Don Nix) is probably the most fulfilling recording I have ever been part of. Six guys playing at peak intensity for one take. Yeah, buddy.

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