by Christopher Bacas
“I don’t think everyone should have money. It shouldn’t be for everybody—you wouldn’t know who was important. How boring. Who would you gossip about? Who would you put down? Never that great feeling of somebody saying “Can I borrow twenty-five dollars” —Andy Warhol
It starts with the phone. On a nightstand, in the pocket, or ringing under a falling tree in that hypothetical forest. If they offer a gig, unless it’s on a sacred day, you take it. No, is the road less travelled, yes, an adventure. Not often the trailblazing kind. You may work for intrepid souls, but you’ll be chopping wood or carrying quarter notes.
I got a preparatory call. A pianist buddy sounded me about dates, explaining that Billy, a singer, had been off the scene for a while. He sold me on the band, a very strong lineup. The pay was above average, too. Billy called me in a few minutes. We hadn’t met and he never heard me play, but he piled up awkward compliments.
Billy was the son of diplomats, educated in the finest schools and an attorney. Past, present, future, he never once mentioned his own work. The first gigs were an education. We packed a sextet around a piano bar in the city’s fanciest hotel. Attending, high rollers and local television personalities. Joining us, duetting singers and jazz royalty. The duets weren’t rehearsed, a fact Billy aggressively promoted. The other singers were always so highly skilled and poised that his apologies came off as false modesty. The jazz greats were gracious. Billy also introduced any substitute players with the unsmiling caveat “I don’t know him. My pianist recommended him.”
Billy had a lovely, accurate voice which he propelled with tiny emotional gestures. Aware of his limitations, he coached us to liven up his songs, miming our instruments in turn.
To me: “Don’t wait for me….step on my line….start BEFORE I finish.”
For our virtuoso guitarist: “play an intro…. more lines!…Make a chord melody… keep playing lines, though.”
For the pianist/MD, his closest friend: “ Start on the bridge… but solo, solo!…play more under me…fill in the gaps.”
He knew dozens of tunes and quoted lyrics easily. However, performing necessitated lubrication. Billy liked expensive Sauternes. An ornate bucket, packed with ice and one of his favorite vintages, stood ready. My mother once asked me what he was drinking. Her Yankee frugality ruptured as I reported the label: “that’s a three-hundred-fifty dollar bottle!” Soon, a server rolled up another for the second set.
Facing away from the audience, a music stand was his security blanket: lyric sheets stacked in order, Jolly Ranchers scattered along the edge. Combined with the sweet wine, candy turned his cheeks Gerber Baby pink.
Before a recording session, Billy asked me to make a rehearsal. I didn’t think I needed it, but I drove ninety minutes to his place, a McMansion on a cul-de-sac in a cul-de-sac Northern Virginia development. The place was decorated and clean in ways my Bohemian mind couldn’t comprehend. Each room featured multiple photos of him at various ages, many posed and all impeccably printed and framed. If the pictures were believed, he kept the exact same haircut and smile since puberty. Never a wisp of either out of place. In the music room: professional head shots, Billy singing with eyes closed, onstage with Jazz royalty and posing Zelig-like among other famous folks. Always the quotidian smile.
I unpacked my horns. Billy sat at a massive instrument, the apotheosis of early 90’s music technology: stacked keyboard manuals, toggle switches and a built-in illuminated screen. When he pressed a key, the note rendered instantly on a grand staff, identified by pitch. Any played chords displayed similarly. He admitted the machine was purchased mainly to teach him music reading. It hadn’t succeeded. He chatted about tunes he wanted to do, citing definitive performances for each. Eventually, he told me we were waiting for our guitarist to arrive via Dulles airport. When the guitar player showed and setup, they started.
“Do the intro for “Stardust”
The guitarist swooped down the neck, spilling quick chords between rippling scales, finishing off with a tempo-setting melody leading to the cadence.
“ But that’s not what we talked about before. You said you…”
“We’re not gonna start that s**t. Just listen. I gave you a f***in’ clear downbeat and the key with your note right on top”
The guitarist turned away, annoyed.
Facing me, Billy lit a photo gallery smile and crossed his legs. I was there another hour while we ran a few tunes, checked keys and watched Billy repeatedly fumble through an accompaniment on a nylon string guitar. When I left, the guitarist remained set up. He was going to help our boss with the nylon string, likely for a fee.
Billy followed me to the door. In the foyer, he stopped.
“You want some money?”
“because we didn’t talk about anything. I’m just asking.”
“Well, yeah, something for gas, you know.”
He pulled out his wallet, quickly folding two twenties in half, placing them between middle and index fingers as he extended his hand.
“How’s forty bucks? We didn’t really do much…”
It was true I didn’t do much. I wasn’t asked to do much. Mostly, my presence confirmed my willingness to be summoned.
Billy recorded a half-dozen records in less than two years. From the control room he’d lay down scratch vocals, minus lyrics: “boo-boo-bay-bay-boo, bay-boo-buh-boo” We learned to play for keeps with those baby talk tracks. Absent a train wreck, the first band pass ended up on the record. Our work completed in a few hours, Billy’s stretched for weeks. Our producer/engineer used the studio time and vocal recording/editing as a piggy bank. After a hiatus, we returned to the studio and found a brand new Neve board installed and a couple of vintage tube mics ready to go.
The guys around the board had inside jokes and plenty of downtime to tell them. Sometimes, it was a major distraction to look their way. I once saw the crew transfixed by a laptop perched on a monitor. In a double reflection on the glass, hardore porn gnashed while we recorded Gershwin and Cole Porter to gibberish vocals.
Those records got airplay and Billy received nominations for a bunch of local music awards. Billy readily paid our membership dues so we could vote. He strenuously lobbied other nominees and then gave us “suggestions” of folks to vote for. Then, encouraged us to attend the award show. The obsequious speeches and glib performances evoked memories of humiliating junior-high dances and my struggles after choosing an unpopular music and politics. At evening’s end, Billy juggled an armful of plaques. His smile exceeded its rotogravure limit.
Billy had been a bachelor more than thirty adult years. His girlfriend was a tiny woman, much younger, avian and quite shy. When they hung out, and only when, he drank from a small vial of machismo kept under a pocket square. After some early jealousy, she appeared at a gig with a massive diamond and forty-carat glow. Their invitations came House of Windsor formal. Billy called me a few days before the event.
“Make sure to bring your horn.” He said puckishly.
“The rest of the guys will be there. I might sing a couple tunes. Not a lot, I want to enjoy myself.”
“Right. Where you two going for your honeymoon?”
He mumbled. “Uuuh, Fiji.”
“Wow. How long you gonna be there?”
“I don’t know when we’re coming back (chuckle). We’ll be in a very nice hotel for a week, then I rented a house afterwards. They’ve got a sailboat we can use and some vehicles…” his voice trailed off.
I tried to think of something appropriate to say.
“Sounds amazing, Billy. See you guys Saturday.”
The joint was white-columned plantation house in Prince George’s County. They had the ceremony outside. The perfect lawn dipped and rolled down to well-kept stables bordered with HO-gauge fencing and hedges. I saw Martinez, drummer on all our sessions. He told me Billy asked him to bring drums “in case we want to play a couple tunes. Martinez told him,
“I’m a guest, man. I’m gonna eat, drink and be merry”
After some jousting, Billy offered him a hundred bucks to schlep a kit to the venue. Tommy, the piano player, who was closer to Billy than any of us, had already wired up an electric keyboard and complete PA on the grass. As Billy’s contractor, he always hired us with solid dates, times, bread, and music. A bass player, who never worked with us before, appeared with his axe. He definitely wasn’t donating his services. Billy had scabbed an entire band under Tommy’s nose. At the bar, in advance of the ceremony, we squared up who was getting paid what. I had been too awed by their idyll in Fiji to ask for anything.
The couple arrived, holding hands as they carefully descended the hill. We noticed Billy held a compact video camera in his free hand. He extended camera arm and panned the estate, doubled back for tables and bar, finishing on his stoic, beautiful bride. As he approached us, he let go of her hand, brought the camera to his face and slowly spun around, taking in the veranda and columns.
He was going to video his own wedding. The bride was blushing, but not with joy. Martinez fell out. We gripped our drinks and turned away. It was a beautiful day, and storybook setting, if you overlooked the groom constantly pointing his camera at anything that moved and plenty of things that didn’t. Playing with those guys was pure joy, though Billy just wanted to show us off to his civilian guests.
As the party finished, the bass player and Martinez waited for their bread. The Groom wrote checks for them. I was standing nearby, so he dashed one off for me, too. I didn’t hear from Billy for a while. His new wife didn’t enjoy his stardom. Between Fiji and editing his video footage, he was in another time zone.
Not long before Christmas, I was in a head-on collision. The ambulance took me to Howard University Hospital where a brilliant orthopedic surgeon inserted steel screws into my broken pelvis and wrist. Billy visited me early in my stay. He brought a short, wiry man, a lawyer pal, who could represent me. It took a few months and much anguish until I could walk unaided. Billy checked in throughout my recovery and performed at my fund raiser. The guy who hit me was uninsured. Billy’s pal negotiated a settlement with my insurance company. I’ll always be grateful for the referral.
From my vantage point, Billy’s sun set quickly. Fame quickly lost its shine and making music with an excellent crew didn’t have lasting value. Musicians joke that we’re in it for the money, a definition of both insanity and innumeracy. We have the greatest teachers of forbearance: black folks who invented and innovated this music while living as aliens in a country they also built and sustained.
Making a life in music requires luck, human and financial resources (though many of us develop crippling deficits in one or both areas), bonafide skills, and faith manifesting as flatfooted stubbornness. On the way to the shoe store, then, some stories…
“What we’re all looking for is someone who doesn’t live there, just pays for it.” —Andy Warhol