December 17, 2015

FTV: Keyboard Players Part 1

    Drummers and bass players always appreciate each other because they are the foundation in most bands.  Without any disrespect to the four and six string guitar slingers out there, I have also always enjoyed my encounters with keyboard players.  My fascination with keyboards may be rooted in my abandonment of piano for the drums way back when.  Some years later, I decided that I should add guitar to my basic musical knowledge rather than pick up my keyboard studies.  Granted, when I inherited my sister’s Airline acoustic guitar, I had already been ‘drum crazy’ for a good six years.   It was just sitting there taunting me so I asked a couple of guitar players for some pointers about chords and tuning before starting a very informal, self-taught guitar instruction course.  I had a couple of signature ‘riffs’ I would play to help me build up my dexterity.  Repeatedly practicing my basic riffs drove my summer job roommate nuts, but it gave me something to do.  

    I picked up the guitar with the idea that I could learn enough to allow me to figure out songs I wanted the band to learn.  My old bass player Mike used to say, “as a guitar player, you are a pretty good drummer,”  but I kept at it.  During my freshman year in college, I also picked up a small, reedy sounding electric organ so I could go back in time and expand my musical education a little further while I was between bands.  I can read drum charts and rhythms pretty well, but have always been a little on the slow side with regard to sight reading ‘musical’ music.  While working out tunes from the song- books for George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass album and The Guess Who’s Greatest Hits, it finally dawned on me that the three note root of most guitar chords fall in predictable patterns on a keyboard.  To anyone who reads music, it doesn’t sound like an ‘Einsteinian moment’, but for me, it cleared away a lot of the fog in the mystical connection between guitar and keyboards.  It also helped me in the ‘figuring out songs to show the band’ department which I put to work in my next band Knockdown.

    It was actually a keyboard player who got me into Knockdown (who were at the time billed as Cloudy and Cool).  I had hung a few signs around the NMU campus (“drummer looking for band”) and the first guy who called was a keyboard player who saw my sign while putting up one of his own.  We jammed a couple of times and I was ready to tell him, “we probably need a guitar player and bass player if this is going to work.”  Before I got to say it,  he showed up at my house with both in tow.  Apparently this was going to be our audition to get into their band.  We played some tunes and when we finished up, the two new guys helped the keyboard player pack up his stuff and carry it out to his car (which I thought was awful nice of them).  When he drove off, they came back for their gear and said, “we have a keyboard player, but we need a drummer.  His mother works at the airbase (K.I.Sawyer) and put him in touch with us.  When we found out he had a drummer, we agreed to give him a listen so we could meet you.  Do you  want the job?”  This was an unexpected turn of events but Ray and Lee laid it out in the simplest possible terms:  “We don’t need him, we need you.  He isn’t very good so you are a long way from having a band.”  Signed, sealed, and delivered!  I was now in Cloudy and Cool (soon to be renamed Knockdown).  My only regret was loaning keyboard guy my copy of the All Things Must Pass’ songbook.  I never saw either of them again, but it was a small price to pay for finding what could only be described as an ‘instant band’.

    I can’t actually remember the name of the keyboard player who was already in the band when I joined because it was only a matter of months before he got transferred to the US Air Force Base in Thule, Greenland.  I put up signs around campus (again), only this time I was looking specifically for a keyboard player.  I prayed that the keyboard guy with my Harrison book wouldn’t call and was quite relieved when one David Waters, pre-med student, called and asked if he could join at least as a fill in.  He didn’t want to commit to a full time gig as he was one busy student (it must have worked as he did indeed end up Dr. David Waters (brother of Ontonagon’s own Jim Waters)), but we were happy to have him for at least a semester.  If he couldn’t make a gig, we also found a high school kid named Nick Spina who played the jobs Dave couldn’t, but we kept looking for someone who could do it full time.

    About a year into my tenure as the bandleader (not being in the Air Force and being a member of the Musician’s Union (AF of M Local 213), I was able to book the gigs and pay the dues for the band), our guitar player Ray unearthed a keyboard player named Rich Patterson.  We met him in a dark, dank walk in basement where the band he was playing with rehearsed.  I remember this well because it was the one and only time I ever played  yellow, see-through acrylic Ludwig drums (the kind John Bonham made famous with  Led Zeppelin).   This was also the first time I jammed with someone playing a Hammond B-3 since my second paying gig with Rex the B-3 player a couple of years earlier.  It went so well that when we asked Rich if he wanted to join, he said , “can we put my organ in your truck and get out of here before the rest of the band shows up?”  Rich played harmonica and did background vocals as well, so we were very happy to have solved our organist du jour problem with a new permanent member.

    I don’t remember the exact time frame, but at some point during my second year in the band, Rich had a serious medical problem that essentially paralyzed his left side.  We used Nick as a fill in for a few gigs and when Rich got back on his feet, he said he wanted to keep gigging.  He was walking with a cane and could only play with one hand but we had to give it a try.  I give him a lot of credit because his condition was serious enough for him to be discharged from the Air Force but he never missed a job once he came back.  Of course, we used to kid him that the cane was just a prop so he could get us to lug his B-3 and Leslie speaker cabinet around, but one handed Rich was still a better keyboard player than some I have heard with two hands and two feet available.

    I still regret that I lost track of Rich when Knockdown disbanded.  He and his wife came to see Sledgehammer the weekend we recorded ‘Live at the Four Seasons’ in the spring of 1975.   He was still using a cane to get around and mentioned he was trying to get a band together.   I wished him well but that was the last time I saw him.   I count myself privileged to have been able to play in a band with someone who was so very talented.  More than that, Rich showed me how one can face adversity with grace and good humor.  After he was paralyzed, I used to tune the band with the organ so he wouldn’t have to make an extra trip to the band stand.  We also helped him up and down if there were stairs to navigate.  At one gig, he missed the last step and went sprawling to the dance floor.  We helped him up and he looked around the room, smiled broadly and announced,  “ If you think that was good,  wait until I actually have a drink!”  I haven’t played in a band with a keyboard player since and maybe that is by design.  How could you top a guy like Rich?     

    TOP PIECE VIDEO – A newer, live version of Albert Hammond’s pop hit of the early 1970s.  When my band Knockdown had to employ a fill in keyboard player, it was my job to show them the basic organ riff to this song.  I often wonder what they thought about having the drummer teach them the organ parts to songs.  For some strange reason, this just wasn’t a song most were familiar with.