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.
“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!