Saturday, March 6, 2010

Brushes - Part 3

This is another installment from the musical memoir I wrote in 1998 (and have been tweaking ever since), called “Brushes with the Great and Near Great,” chronicling some of the famous folk I got to meet during my 13-year career in music retail.  Today’s story is about moving to Cleveland to take my own store, learning about the “record biz politics” of getting what you want, getting into the blues and meeting a couple blues guitar legends.

GETTING IT DOWN: THE CLEVELAND YEARS
Taking my own store and moving to Cleveland was like going to a whole other world, as far as perks go.  In Toledo, I had to make do with the generosity or connections of others.  Usually if there was a show I needed to see, I’d ask Mike, who then was my store manager, to see if he could get them from some of his old time record biz connections out of Detroit.  More often, a label or radio guy would just bring some by and Mike would just say “Who wants them?

All the major record labels had offices in Cleveland and they treated the local store managers well... very well, if you reported to a radio station.  And if you reported to Billboard, you were a god.  These were the days before SoundScan, when the album charts were derived from collating list of what store managers said they sold, rather than taking the actual sales numbers directly from the cash registers, the way they do it now.  If the manager didn’t like it, it “didn’t sell”.  If it was his favorite, gee it was always Top 10.  But if the manager, or label people wanted something, sales reporting was highly negotiable.

The label guy might say, “I need you to report the new Bon Jovi at Number One,” or Vanessa Williams at Top 5.”  (Remember, this was the 80s.)  To which one replies, “I could do that.  By the way, I’d really like tickets and passes for the Moody Blues,” or some other act that belongs to their label.  Or maybe you said nothing, and called it in later.  But it was clear, you help me and I’ll help you.

Now I was never a Billboard reporter.  That honor, (or curse- it was always an extra thing to do, on limited payroll hours) belonged to the Peaches in Parma.  At my store in Maple Heights, I merely reported to the local FM Top 40 station.  But there were other ways to score tickets and swag. 

Our big Peaches (soon to be Coconuts) stores had loads of display room.  And the big display window was always in demand.  I found that if I always go out of my way to accommodate the label reps, they did the same for me.  So I developed outstanding relationships with all of the label folk and was treated to listening parties, promotional records and CDs, posters, parties and about 40 pairs of concert tickets.  In my four years in Cleveland, I paid to see exactly 2 shows.  (Meat Loaf, because he was without a label at the time, and Joan Jett in Akron, because she’d already been through Cleveland on that tour.)  And one of the best benefits was being able to get stuff for others, or include friends in what I was doing.  In Cleveland, I became, in a small way, The Man.  I was able to do for my staff and others, what Mike had always done for me.

The best thing about Cleveland as a music town, was the diversity of venues it offered, attracting a large assortment of acts.  Anyone who toured came through Cleveland.  There were small clubs like Peabody’s Down Under, who booked new acts on the way up, to old acts playing out the string, to blues acts that stayed on the circuit forever.  Barney Googles was a Holiday Inn ballroom that booked blues acts from Alligator Records on a regular basis. (I’ll get to them shortly)  The Hanna Theater booked comics and classic rock, reggae and R&B. Most metal or arena bands played the 16,000-seat Richfield Coliseum.  And for the superstars, there was the Olde Hellhole, Cleveland Stadium.  It held close to 80000 for football games, and who knows how many when they put seats on the field.  If you liked a group that was touring, they were coming to Cleveland.  And if you played your cards right, you could see them all and meet some too.

As I was leaving Toledo, I was just getting into the blues, but it was in Cleveland that it became my dominant choice.  As a fan, I learned of Alligator Records by reading album jackets.  When I moved to Cleveland, Kenny the Viking, who was running Maple Heights before me, was already in tight with them and gave me some names and numbers to call.  Alligator is an independent blues label out of Chicago that went gangbusters for in-store promotion.  In me they found a walking, talking commercial for their product.  They provided me with posters, tee shirts and promotional albums and CDs of everything they released, as well as guest list passage to any of their shows that came to town. 

I caught guitar legend Albert Collins twice, once at Peabody’s, but the first time was with my brother Ed, at Barney Googles.  (To non-blues fans, Albert is best known as the blues guitarist that Elizabeth Shue joins onstage in “Adventures in Babysitting”, as he tells her, “Nobody leaves this place without singin’ the blues!”) 

As we rolled in, we immediately saw a considerable line.  I left Ed in line and went up to investigate.  After securing that we were guest-listed and would be waved through, I went back to get Ed.  I was in a hurry, because I didn’t want the harried ticket takers to forget that I was a guest-lister. 

I said quietly, “Let’s go.” 

He balked, not knowing what I was doing. 

C’mon, let’s go,” I repeated, somewhat louder, but not wanting to attract attention.  I start walking up and I hear Ed ask, in full voice, “You mean we’re going up there in front of all these people?” 

I’d liked to have brained him.  Yes, we’re going in front of all these people, I just didn’t care to let them know about it.

So we got right in without incident and had our pick of spots.  (More festival seating)  We were settling in when I heard some guitar.  I looked over behind a big Marshall stack and there’s Albert, in dress pants and a T-shirt, tuning up.

Great”, I think.  I’d long been carrying album jackets to shows, just for situations like these.  I also had my camera.  I asked Ed to come up with me and take my picture with Albert. 

No.” 

C’mon, it’s no big deal, I’ll go up and ask him, and you just snap the picture.”

No.  You bring him back here.” 

Too shy, I guess.  I’d still liked to have brained him.

So I went up and introduced myself, complimented him on his last couple albums, and had him sign my favorite, Showdown, the one he did with Johnny Copeland and Robert Cray.  He was very gracious, we shook hands and I made my way back to my seat. 
I still wasn't hip to bringing Sharpies yet.

I got some great pictures at that show, especially at the encore, when I joined a crowd forming right up at the stage.  He was quite a showman, with all the crazy faces and guitar tricks and duels.  Would have been great to have that picture of us together.  Albert died from cancer, in 1996. 

My brother was forgiven, eventually.
A staple of Albert's shows was coming out into the crowd to play.  This is him, on his way back to the stage.  His 3 horn players are behind him.

Albert's encore.  "Still a Dog", I know you recognize Debbie Davies on the right.

Don't know who the guy is on the right, but he came on late to play with Albert.

Albert dueling with the Mystery Guy.


Another dynamite Alligator show was Lonnie Mack, at Peabody’s.  I went to this one with a couple guys from the store.  Lonnie is another guy who’s been around since dirt and was famous for pioneering the use of the Flying V guitar.  
I think these guitars were older than ME.

He was enjoying resurgence, of sorts, after cutting the album “Strike Like Lightning” for Alligator that was played on and produced by Stevie Ray Vaughan.  Lonnie was kind of a wooly looking guy, with a snaggle-tooth smile and a scruffy white beard that made him look kind of like Kenny Rogers’ evil twin.
NOT "The Gambler.  The great thing about Peabody's was that if you got there early enough, you could watch the whole show from this close.

We got backstage after the show, and Lonnie was sitting there, still sweating, in front of a big tray of cold cuts and leftover pizza.  He had us sit down with him and told us to help ourselves.  One of my guys asked him a number of questions that mostly served to get him telling stories about the days of old.  I remember him talking about an old album he cut and named Pismo.  

Why did he name it that?  “Because you drink mo, you Pismo.”

Gotta love these old blues guys.
 Me and Lonnie, comparing cool hats.

At one point, Lonnie’s keyboard player wandered in for a snack.  He was an older guy, who looked sort of like a gaunt, hung-over Willie Nelson.  Looked just like his name, which was Dumpy Rice.  He never said a word until someone mentioned that Dumpy looked like he was Lonnie’s brother, to which he replied in a low gravelly voice, “Fuuuuuck you,” and ambled along on his way.  

Dude could really bang that piano though…

All pictures courtesy of ME!  Except the one I'm in, of course, but it was still my camera!

17 comments:

  1. It's interesting to see a bit of how the music stores worked in the '80s, and how record stores' managers' tastes could affect what people in an area listened to one way or another. I remember spending all my babysitting/birthday/Christmas/lawn mowing money at a Peaches in Altamonte Springs, Florida (a suburb of Orlando) when I was in middle school. I loved that place. They always had weekly Top 10 lists photographed on brightly colored paper. Now I feel a little bit duped. :-)

    Our big Peaches (soon to be Coconuts) stores

    Couldn't resist the thought, "From one fruit to another!"

    This makes me want to go shop at a record store--TTG we have a few left in NYC--before it's too late.

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  2. "Photographed". Where's my brain at? I meant "photocopied," of course. *sighs*

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  3. Great story. Too bad we sometimes we have to frame a legend such as an Albert Collins in relation to an Elizabeth Shue to make the unenlightened understand.

    Your story also made me realize that I didn't get "Showdown" in the settlement. Time to go see the ex.

    Send lawyers, guns and money.

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  4. Lilo:
    When we went from Peaches to Coconuts, I always said we were going from fuzzy to hairy.

    I know I definitely tried to influence sales, but more by what I played in the store than any reporting.

    I loved the old Peaches, before they were bought out by a large corporation. We had a lot more autonomy back then. Of course, they went bankrupt...

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  5. IKNAB:
    Ain't that the truth about Albert? Everyone should know who he is! I know anyone that knows blues guitars knows...

    Oh yeah, you got to get the Showdown back. (Or at least joint custody.) Playing that album in the store was a guaranteed sale every time.

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  6. That's life... one minute you're onstage jamming with a blues legend, the next you're doing someone else's yard work. Hell, that's a blues song right there!

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  7. Great seeing Albert Collins and Lonnie Mack here! Albert was such a sweetheart, his own roadie, remember?!
    On the Carnegie Hall conert with Albert, Lonnie Mack and Roy Buchanan, we know Albert C. and Lonnie M. are the survivors. Cigs killed Albert. Lonnie's still here. Hats keep you happy.
    Thanks for the priceless pictures.

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  8. Bluz, you are indeed correct. I did recognize that young lady as Debbie Davies.

    I once met her and helped her find her hotel room at the Rocky Gap Resort in Cumberland, MD. She didn't realize that room #210 was on the second floor. So she came looking for her room on the first floor, where my room was, just as I was making my way to the bar. I recognized her, introduced myself and helped her find her room. Later spoke with her after her performance at the now defunct Freedom Blues Fest & Chili Cookoff in Cumberland.

    As for Albert Collins, he was great! And I highly recommend that Showdown! album you posted. It is an absolute blues classic. Very cool that you got to see him play and meet him. I was not so fortunate.

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  9. Dog:
    I took your recommendation, way back when, looked up some Debbie Davies albums and downloaded a fistful of tracks. (as well as from that Brad Paisley album) So I knew you'd know her. Didn't know you'd met. (She didn't know #210 was on the 2nd floor?? Um... how does someone that goes on tour not know that?. Maybe they never let her off the bus.)

    I saw her play with Albert at another show at Peabody's. She did the opening set and then played with the band. Got some good pictures too, as I was up at the front again, like I was for Lonnie Mack.

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  10. Mary Ann:
    That Carnegie Hall concert was brilliant. Seeing those 3 guys on the same stage was priceless. Just wish they'd put the show on DVD!

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  11. The music industry has changed so much. I think today the "small" artist has more of a chance to get his music out there, but the days you describe were pretty cool. I do you a favor you do me. (OK that sounded bad)

    Thanks for sharing this. I like it!

    I loved going to shows in and around Cleveland. We could always get tickets, which is not the case in New England, where I am now.

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  12. It was so much fun to be in that business, back when I started. The big businesses that bought up all the various small chains totally killed the fun and the entrepreneurial spirit that was there. Everything became "all numbers, all the time." And of course, there was all the price-fixing.

    While I may look back fondly on a lot of my experiences, it was really an ugly business. Like I said earlier, if it had been any other industry than music, I'd have quit in 6 months.

    But living in Cleveland, even for a Pittsburgher, was just the best. Best music town I've ever been in. I'll have more Cleveland stories coming up this week.

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  13. Looking forward to them. Yes, I loved Cleveland for the music. Funny that I didn't start my music career until I was long gone. Although, in some ways maybe I did, drinking in all the bands that came through.

    I remember going to The Herbie Hancock Headhunters tour with a friend and my dad. There were enough empty seats so we didn't actually have to sit right next to my dad. He probably slept while we jammed our asses off!

    I hope my kids will want to sit with me though. And it makes me sad to wonder what he was thinking.

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  14. GUY:
    What, Dad didn't tell you on the way home?

    "What the hell was all that noise?"

    Gotta give him credit for going in with you though... AND having to pay for a ticket.

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  15. I'm recommending your blog to my friend Meredith. The two of you would get along like a house afire. She worked at Coconuts FOREVER, and she's seen a ridiculous number of shows.

    Music lovers unite and hold your Sharpies high!

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  16. Well thank you B Girl,
    Any friend of yours is a friend of mine. And if they read this blog, they're a GOOD friend of mine. Thanks for the love!

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