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 covers meeting a couple of high-profile acts. For a change.
Far and away the best experience I had at Richfield Coliseum was seeing Lynyrd Skynyrd on their 1987 Tribute Tour. I called back to Toledo and had my one of my best buds, Rik, come out for the show. It was, of course, fantastic. I’d long since given up hope of ever seeing Skynyrd play and this reconstituted effort, with Johnny Van Zandt filling his brother’s shoes on vocals, was an unexpected opportunity. These were legends, playing their legendary songs.
After the show, the MCA rep asked me if we wanted to join a small party with the band in their hotel room at the Hilton. I told her that I thought we could fit that into our night’s agenda. I don’t know if I said that exactly, but I wanted to be nonchalant, as if to show to my friend that this sort of thing happened to me all the time. But inside, I knew this was big. This wasn’t some rising star or some blues relic; this was Lynyrd Fucking Skynyrd! This was “Freebird”, “Gimme Three Steps”, “Sweet Home Alabama” and going down in a plane crash. These people were legends and I was taking my friend to meet them.
It didn’t take many people to make the room crowded. Most of the band was there, so Rik and I found some beers and mingled. Mostly I remember holing up with Billy Powell, their incredible piano player, as he told the story of the plane crash as no one else ever could, from the inside. He said it felt like rolling down a hill in a garbage can, being beaten by baseball bats. He told us of drummer Artimus Pyle’s heroism as he made his way several miles through the swamp, with broken ribs, to find help at the closest house.
Seems that they all found God, that day, one way or the other.
That fact came to light when Billy asked if Rik and I were brothers.
“No, just friends,” I answered.
“Well then, brothers of God?”
Rik, nonplussed, surprised me by answering, “Aren’t we all?”
Later, I told him how I was really into his piano solo on “Call Me The Breeze,” and how my brother used it as a softball psyche-up song. Billy got talking about playing it that night and how his fingers kept slipping all over the place, because of the calluses on his thumbs, which he then proceeded to show me.
The only thing I had with me that night that I could get signed was the little notepad I used to chart their set list. (Yes, I’m really that much of a geek. I almost always brought a little pad to concerts to chart their songs.) After getting Billy to sign, he would flag down every passing band member to sign for me as well. I got just about the whole band this way, including their backup singers.
Speaking of, there was one that I was really looking for. Dale Krantz-Rossington was the lead singer in the Rossington-Collins Band, in which Gary Rossington, one of Skynyrd’s guitarists, also played guitar. The band opened the show and then Dale sang backup, and Gary played guitar for Skynyrd. My interest in Dale came from knowing that she sang a duet with Meat Loaf, on his third album, and wanting to ask her about it. (The song was called “Don’t You Look at Me That Way”, from the album “Midnight at the Lost and Found”. No one but Meat Loaf fanatics has that album.) I had already clued Rik in to it, so he was watching out for her too.
Eventually, she came in with her husband, Gary, who really looked like hell. I heard her say they weren’t staying, I think she just had to get something or see someone. A minute later, as she was walking out, I tried to catch her eye, but wasn’t looking my way. She looked like she wanted so much not to be there, so I decided to let her go. Then I hear Rik holler from the other side of the room, “HEY, THIS GUY WANTS TO MEET YOU.” I said that I didn’t want to keep her, as I offered her my pad, but I wanted to tell her how much I enjoyed her mostly unknown duet with Meat Loaf.
She got kind of a dreamy look in her eyes and gave me a big smile.
“I hadn’t thought about that in years,” she said. She told me how they were looking for someone to sing with him, and almost got Bonnie Raitt.
“I think they passed on her,” she whispered to me, “because they heard she was a bitch.” A year or two from then, I could have disputed that with her, but that’s a story to follow.
She went on to tell me how they got Gary to play on the song and then how when she was singing with Meat, he was just like he is on stage, turning all red, waving his hanky around, pointing at her and getting right in her face at the climax. She thanked me for reminding her of a good time and I thanked her for the story.
As Rik and I left later, our tremendous good fortune began to sink in. Rik just kept repeating, “I can’t believe I met Lynyrd Skynyrd, I can’t believe I met Skynyrd.” I believe he carried those autographs with him for years. He told me he showed them to everyone he met. A few didn’t believe him. He gave them my number and told me “If anyone ever calls you and asks you about me and Lynyrd Skynyrd, you tell’em I met’em. Those bastards!”
I sure would have, buddy. But you must have sold the story, because no one ever called.
Years later, VH1 featured Lynyrd Skynyrd on one of their “Behind The Music” episodes, and there was Billy Powell, telling that same story we heard in their hotel room. It was cool knowing I’d heard it before, almost the exact same way, right from the horse’s mouth.
A lot of towns have venues like Blossom Music Center, outside Cleveland. Baltimore has Merriwether Post Pavilion, and Albany has Saratoga Performing Arts Center (SPAC). These “sheds,” as they’re known in the biz, usually hold a couple thousand under a pavilion and up to 30,000 on the lawn. Big name summer tours and festivals often book in these places, along with orchestras and the ballet.
These places were terrific for a show on a nice summer night, but could be hell if the weather turned bad. It was somewhere in between, very damp and foggy, on the night I saw John Fogarty with Bonnie Raitt opening. He was touring on “Eye Of the Zombie”, which was the follow-up album to his big comeback hit, “Centerfield”. He was only playing his solo material back then, meaning no Creedence. Bonnie Raitt was touring on “Nine Lives”, which was the album she made right before her big multiple Grammy winning breakthrough album, “Nick Of Time”, so I wasn’t too up on her music. I only knew that she’d cut a whole slew of albums in the past. Meeting her turned out to be the high point of the evening.
She played a set of raucous blues numbers, and played some blistering slide guitar, leaving me suitably impressed. After her set, Kenny the Viking and I were taken to what looked like a big basement den, but was set up with a number of round tables and a drink table. I’d say there were about 50 of us to be met. I don’t know whose organization decided how to run it, but it was one of the best backstage situations I’d ever seen.
Everyone sat at the round tables and Bonnie came around and sat at each table for 5 minutes or so, giving everyone ample face-time. Bonnie was quite charming, and very friendly. She was like “one of the guys”, which I suppose is a byproduct of touring year after year being the only female.
She was fussing a bit about a People magazine review that raked her for using a song that had already come out on a Bonnie Tyler record, when in fact, she’d recorded it first, but her album was delayed in release. For what it’s worth, I encouraged her to write in and set them straight, and People would no doubt print it. She went on to tell of the trouble she was having playing her slide with the heavy moisture in the air, which made her fingers slip around. She signed Kenny’s album for him and I really regret not bringing one to sign. I wasn’t sure I was going to meet her and I certainly didn’t know I would like her so much.
When Fogarty started playing, everyone began moving out of the room and back to their seats. I happened to be going through the door at the same time as Bonnie and I used the opportunity to compliment her performance.
I told her, “I really enjoyed your guitar playing despite all the wetness.”
She just let out a cackle and responded, “The wetter, the better!”
John Fogarty put on a great show as well, despite his not playing his classic hits. His ‘new classics’ went over well and he played several classic R&B covers. His backstage meet and greet took place in the same area as with Bonnie, but there were two major differences.
Most importantly, ‘his people’ instructed us that we were not to mention Creedence. “Don’t ask him about it, don’t talk about it, and don’t even think about it.” Further, instead of the tableside schmoozing, it was going to be more of a wedding reception line. He stood at the front of the room and we lined up and filed by.
When I got my turn, I just complimented him on the show and said that I’d been a fan, “for a long time,” (getting immense pleasure by breaking one of the rules, albeit indirectly.) I shook his hand and after getting him to sign the back of “Centerfield” and had him sign a backstage pass for my Dad.
Still without a Sharpie... This is the back cover of the Centerfield album, along with the backstage pass.
He was a small guy, and very soft-spoken, but you could feel the ‘legend’ radiating off of him. But you could tell that this wasn’t the kind of thing he liked to do, unlike Bonnie, who seemed to revel in the schmoozing. It was funny, though, anyone looking on might think the guy was a baseball star, for all the balls, bats and gloves he was signing.