On Stage Looking out - Stories, Adventures and Experiences on the road. The journey is it's own reward
“The Best Seat In The House”
My adventures as a music lover and a musician started in the 1960’s. I’ve played guitar with many musicians and over 30 bands since then. Some are world famous or well known, some are original artists, entertainers or professional musicians, and others are striving to “grab the brass ring” of fame and fortune.
Almost all are enjoying their experience “living the life.”
When the music, band and audience are all in sync, I’ve often felt as if I’m in the eye of a hurricane or part of a timeless storytelling tradition where our modern electric gear has replaced the fire in an ancient cave.
As I stand on stage and look out, I wonder if anyone in the audience is aware of how entertaining it is to watch all that’s going on from the musician’s point of view.
For me, it’s the best seat in the house.
These are a few of my stories, adventures and experiences.
Los Angeles In The 1980’s
Travelling – The Sergio Mendes Gig
Crossing Paths with Stars
LA 1995 – 2010 Smooth Jazz, Originals, Standards
The Wheel Turns In Mysterious Ways
Jimi Hendrix, Humperdinck & The Same Stage
Some of my gigs during the years 2006 - 2010 were playing guitar for the British singer Engelbert Humperdinck on three of his records and on world tours.
My first concert gig with him was at Araneta Stadium in The Philippines and I was amazed when nearly 10, 000 people came to the show and spontaneously started singing along with us. The sound of all those musical voices together was incredible.
Engelbert was full of surprises. About a week before that gig, when I was in Seattle visiting The Guitar Museum, I saw a poster from 1967 that billed Jimi Hendrix as the opening act for Humperdinck on Jimi's first tour in England!
So, when I was sitting next to Engelbert on a plane I asked him about Jimi, the 1967 tour, and the 60’s scene in London.
Engelbert, who called himself Jerry back then, told me that he knew The Beatles, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. He laughed and said that when he lived next door to Lennon sometimes his dog would go through the hedge into Lennon’s yard to do it’s business, and John would yell, “Hey Jerry!! .... get your fucking dog out of my yard!!!”
About Hendrix, Engelbert said, “Jimi was a beautiful guy. He gave me a coat, but somebody stole it... why did he give me a coat?”
Then Engelbert told me an unusual story about that 1967 tour in England.
At the gig at De Montford Hall in Leicester Engelbert's guitar player didn’t show up and he was panicked, but Jimi volunteered to play guitar saying, “ Don’t worry man, I’ll play for you”. Because Jimi had already performed his own set that night, when he played with Engelbert he was hidden behind a curtain to avoid confusing the audience.
When we played that same stage in Leicester on our 2009 tour in England, I asked Engelbert to show me where Jimi was standing when he played with him in 67’.
Jimi Hendrix is one of my favorite guitar players. His recordings and artistic freedom have inspired and influenced me since the 1960’s. Though he was gone before I had a chance to see him play live, I felt a re-connection to him and my past, that night on stage.
It was a good feeling and I had to smile when I realized that I was having an unexpected and unique experience in common with Jimi Hendrix of playing guitar on the same songs, and the same stage, with the same singer.
For a few moments I felt like I could step through a time portal to the 60’s again.
On that tour, when we played classic venues like The Palladium in London and The Hippodrome in Birmingham, I’d hang out in the empty theaters before the show, soak up the vibe, and imagine when The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and other musicians played on those same stages.
I’ve seen pictures from that 1967 tour of Jimi Hendrix, Engelbert Humperdinck and Cat Stevens all sitting together.
Take Your Time Engelbert
In Engelbert’s show, he and I performed a song that I began on solo acoustic guitar.
One night at The Orleans in Las Vegas in 2010 when Engelbert was introducing me before my guitar intro, he suddenly lost his voice mid-sentence, started choking and tried to clear his throat.
The show came to a halt.
So, I quickly moved next to Engelbert, patted him on the back, and said, “Take your time, take your time …...”
The microphone in Engelbert’s hand picked up what I said and the audience exploded in laughter! When Engelbert recovered his voice he started laughing, too.
Later, in the dressing room, he said, “You saved the show. I owe you one, mate.”
Eliot Wiseman, Englebert’s manager, and legendary manager of Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli, shook my hand and gave me a big “ Thank You”, too.
Roy Radin's Vaudville Review 1979
On The Bus
In mid June 1979, I boarded a rented Greyhound bus in Boston with eleven other musicians to play guitar for a month long variety show tour featuring Sherman Hemsley, Barbra McNair, Smokin’ Joe Frazier, Tiny Tim, Dennis Day, Homer & Jethro and The Marvellettes.
We traveled to New York City and picked up Tiny Tim (the original) and The Marvellettes (not the originals) on the steps of the NYC Public Library.
Then we rode through the night to a Holiday Inn in Akron, Ohio.
We got there just before sunrise and rehearsals began that morning in a large function room. Our 12-piece band backed up all the acts except Homer & Jethro.
It was a wild ride with an unusual cast of characters.
We played 31gigs in 29 days.
At our first rehearsal I was warming up playing blues-rock licks when a big guy I'd never met before walked right up to me and pronounced, ”You’re good!”
I soon found out that he was Roy Radin, the boss.
Sherman Hemsley’s manager, Jan Mollenelli, overheard what Roy had said to me, so she asked if I could help Sherman with a musical problem he was having singing his opening number, “Moving On Up.”
Sherman was the star of the hit TV show “The Jefferson’s” and he was the MC on our tour but he had never sung “The Jefferson’s” theme song before that first rehearsal.
Later that afternoon I got together with Sherman and was able to figure out a way to solve the musical issues he was having with the song.
Jan was interesting to talk to and Sherman liked to have a good time. Sherman also had a large ball of Moroccan hookah smoke that he shared freely with any of the musicians who liked to ride on the Marrakesh Express.
I felt like I was having a good first day.
All aboard the train!
It was a packed house on the opening night of the show and I was trying to concentrate on playing guitar for Tiny Tim's set but my eyes were on Roy Radin, who was standing out of sight of the audience, in the wings off stage.
Roy was wearing a bathrobe over his tuxedo, snorting something from a plastic vial, and shouting through megaphone-cupped hands at Tiny Tim,
“Freak!!!... Tiny!!.... Freeeeak !!!!!! !! !!! !! ! ! ! ! ! !”
Tiny was on stage, singing and playing a parody of his hit song,“ Tip Toe Through The Tulips “, rewritten as “Tip Toe To The Gas Pumps “ (inspired by the gasoline shortage and lines at filling stations throughout the US in 1970’s).
Roy wanted Tiny to do more than sing and play, so he kept shouting again and again until poor Tiny fell to the ground and started writhing and spinning in circles in front of the audience, crying out, “Oooooh, Ooooooh!”
Apparently, this was what Roy wanted, because he stopped shouting after that.
I was now convinced, that this tour was going to be an unusual experience.
Tiny Tim was a man who marched to a different drum. The only clothes I ever saw him wear, on stage or off, were two tuxedos; one was pink and black, and the other was lime green and covered with Batman comic book characters and words like, Bam! and Shazaam!
Tiny was polite and shy. He didn’t eat at the backstage meals with the band and crew and always took his food wrapped “to go.” He called me “Mr. Vin” and sometimes I’d sit next to him on the bus. Once, he offered me something he called his “medicine” that he sipped from a brown paper bag but I declined.
Tiny played his ukulele on the bus and seemed to have an encyclopedic repertoire of the instrument in his head. The Library of Congress should have recorded him for ukulele music posterity.
A the height of his fame, he married a woman called Miss Vicky, on TV’s “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.” At the time, the media perceived it as a publicity stunt, but Tiny still talked about her and seemed heartbroken that she had left him shortly after the marriage.
In 2005, I played guitar on records by Rod Stewart and Carly Simon for producer Richard Perry. During a casual conversation Richard mentioned that the first hit record he produced was, “Tip Toe Through The Tulips” by Tiny Tim.
Joe Frazier, the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion who beat Muhammed Ali at Madison Square Garden, was performing as a singer and entertainer on the tour.
Smokin’ Joe drove a big red Cadillac convertible behind the bus, and usually some of his buddies would ride along with him, smoking cigars and laughing.
During his act in the show Joe would say, “Paul Anka is a very good friend of mind,” and then he’d proceed to sing “My Way” in a very strong but rough, passionate voice.
Whenever I saw him backstage, I always said, “Hey!” and Joe always smiled and replied, “What it look like!”
What it looked like to me was that Smokin’ Joe was having a good time.
Barbra was the closing act of the show. She was a lady of classic beauty, and a very good singer. She was also an actor and had her own TV show. Playing guitar with her was my favorite musical part of the show.
Off stage, Barbra liked to have fun and shake things up, too.
One day she got a round of applause from everyone on our bus when she flashed her boobs at a truck driver passing us on the New Jersey Turnpike.
In Norfolk Virginia, after checking into a motel on a hot June night, we were heading to our rooms and I heard Barbra let out a big yell. I turned around and saw her join in with the other musicians who all jumped in the pool in their skivvies.
Towards the end of the tour, I was hanging out with her and the bass player Andy Mazzone in a bar, and she was having some fun teasing with me in a flirtatious way. I was a bit evasive and she misunderstood, and asked if I was a snob. I told her, truthfully, that I was getting over a mild case of STD I’d acquired from an admiring fan on the road, and I didn’t want to get too close. Barbra laughed and said, ”Thanks!” and we had a drink.
The next day, at a truck stop on the route, she bought a book about guitars, and gave it to me. I still have it.
Homer & Jethro and Chet Atkins
Jethro Burns was the mandolin player of Homer & Jethro, a comedy duo that mixed banter and jokes with country music.
His partner, Homer, had passed away, so Jim Schwall, guitarist of the Siegal-Schwall blues band, was playing Homer’s part in the show.
Jethro played great and was a very friendly guy. He showed me his favorite jazz chord progressions and he told interesting personal stories about his time in the Pacific during World War II. I really liked him a lot.
He and Chet Atkins, the country music guitar legend, had married twin sisters. Jethro said that even when separated by hundreds of miles, the sisters often knew what each other were thinking.
Years later, I had an endorsement deal from Gibson for a Chet Atkins Model guitar which I played in Sergio Mendes’ show. One day I was at the Gibson repair shop in LA, trying to figure out a problem that I was having with the low “E” string on that guitar, and to my surprise the guitar tech called up Chet Atkins to ask for his input!
I spoke with Chet for a while, and he suggested a way to fix my guitar. I wish I’d thought to mention to him that I’d known Jethro!
Roy Radin & The Cotton Club Murders
Sometime after the 1979 tour ended, I read in a newspaper that a catatonic, teenage girl had been picked up by police on a Long Island train. She told wild tales about parties, sex and drugs at Roy Radin’s house in the Hamptons.
Roy’s final act came in Los Angeles, in an incident that became known as The Cotton Club Murders.
Reportedly, Roy wanted to break into the film industry and was involved in deals with Hollywood movie producer Robert Evans and others to make the movie, “The Cotton Club.”
A 1989 article in The LA Times described the scenario that Roy was in the middle of as, “international cocaine trafficking, high-life courtesans, low-life prostitutes, chauffeurs, limos, porno, mob muscle and money.”
Someone wanted Roy out of the deal permanently.
Thugs shot and killed him when he got into a limo for a business meeting on the night of Friday the 13th of May 1983.
Roy’s body was found a month later in a canyon in northwest Los Angeles County. Four people were convicted of his murder in 1991.
Ironically, when “The Cotton Club” movie was finally made and released in 1984, it bombed at the box office.
Go West Young Man
Meeting Jan Molenelli on Roy Radin’s Vaudville Review 1979, led to my moving to Los Angeles.
JJan, Sherman Hemsley’s manager, often spoke glowingly about life in California. She said, “You’d do great in LA. Call me if you’re ever in LA,” and she gave me her phone number and address in Sherman Oaks.
When the tour ended in July, I went back to Boston and found out my landlord was selling the house I’d been renting with some other musicians, so I had to move.
I’d lived in Boston since I left my home in NY to attend Berklee College of Music in 1973. Berklee and club gigs were both part of my education in being a musician. Pat Metheny was my guitar teacher at Berklee and I played jazz fusion, funk and R&B in Back Bay clubs, Jack’s in Cambridge and all around New England with different bands. My experience in the African American community playing Roxbury clubs and touring with The Hitchhikers was particularly enlightening. I was a white boy in the ‘hood, having a great time playing and hanging out in a different culture.
After living in the dorm, apartments and houses in Back Bay, Dorchester, Cambridge and Allston, I was pondering where to move next when I got the idea that, as long as I was moving, I could move anywhere.
I remembered what Jan said to me about Los Angeles, and on an impulse, I decided it was time for a whole new adventure. I wanted to move to LA.
My girlfriend Leslie wanted to go too, so we packed up her big blue Ford LTD, put our cats George and Max in the back seat, and set out driving from Boston to Los Angeles playing 8 track tapes all the way.
We pulled a small U-haul trailer packed with a few guitars, amps, clothes, and pieces of furniture, and we took about a week to cross the country to California. I had a little over $1000 and two LA phone numbers, one of which was Jan’s.
When we got to LA, I pulled off the freeway in Sherman Oaks and called Jan from a pay phone. She couldn’t believe I actually showed up, but she invited us over and arranged for us to stay at an apartment in Mar Vista, which Sherman’s friend had recently vacated with two weeks rent still paid on it.
On that day, in September 1979, it was over 100 degrees with second stage smog alerts in Sherman Oaks. It was my first exposure to the LA smog and I was amazed that I could barely see the hills that were only a few blocks away. My eyes were watering and my throat was scratchy as Leslie and I left the San Fernando Valley and headed for Mar Vista.
As we drove over the Sepulveda Pass and came down the other side of the hill, I felt the temperature drop at least 20 degrees. I decided right then that I was going to try to live somewhere near the Pacific Ocean in LA.
As the days went by, we looked for an apartment and answered ads but kept striking out because we didn’t have California driving licenses or TRW credit reports. Many rentals wouldn’t even consider us because of our two cats.
On the day before we had to move out of the Mar Vista place, I called another ad from a phone booth at Venice and Lincoln Blvd, and found an apartment on Century Blvd that was under the LAX flight path and across the street from Hollywood Park Racetrack.
It wasn’t perfect but it was good enough. A few months later a musician I met invited us to move into a vacant house in a compound of houses in Inglewood that was built in a bygone rural ranch era of the 1920’s.
Leslie and I stayed together for a few years and we had some fun and good times, but we began moving in different directions and eventually split up.
In June 1982, I was playing at The Sunset Saloon in Venice with my band Kamp Squeebop, and Sally walked in.
Sally and I were married in1988 and we bought a townhouse in Mar Vista in 1989. It’s just a few blocks from the apartment where I stayed that September with Leslie in 1979.
Hope you’re well, Leslie! Thanks again, Jan!
Los Angeles In The 1980's
My first gig in LA was at The Troubadour in 1979, with Chris Rhodes, a singer/songwriter that I knew from Boston. We played on two Monday’s at Hoot Night, a long running talent showcase.
Playing at The Troubadour and hanging out in the bar, where so much music history happened, (look it up!), was a great introduction to LA.
The Troubadour had a real lived-in, played-in, music club vibe back then. The stage, and the seats at long tables were in a large barn–like room. The band dressing room was like a closet with graffiti, holes in the walls, a ratty sofa, and a funky smell.
Rock & Roll!
Too bad someone re-modeled it years later.
The Willy's & Robbie Krieger of The Doors
In 1980 I wanted to meet new musicians, so I put an ad in The Recycler and started auditioning with different groups around LA.
The most promising situation came when Kyle C Kyle, drummer in the band The Willys, called and said he liked my ad. I don’t remember what I wrote but I liked them and their music. The lead singer/guitar player Charles Duncan’s songs reminded me of Dire Straits.
After I joined the group, I was surprised when they told me that Robbie Krieger, the guitar player of The Doors, was backing The Willys.
Robbie was cool and he treated us well. He put the band on a small retainer and we rehearsed at a warehouse he had on Lankershim Blvd in the Valley. He also bought me a Yamaha SG1200 guitar.
Occasionally Robbie sat in and played guitar with us. It was a trip to hear the original Doors guitar sound coming from his amp next to me.
When I first began playing in the 1960’s, I liked and was influenced by many records, including The Doors first two albums. Hearing his sound took me back to my rock music roots and made me smile at the circuitous path that brought me to that moment.
The Willys gigged at some rock clubs and bars around LA, like Blackies on Main Street and The Club 88 on Pico in Santa Monica, and we recorded a demo at Mad Dog Studio in Venice.
Robbie set up a showcase for us with some record people but a deal didn’t happen. Like so many bands that weren’t able to move up to the next level, The Willys eventually broke up, and we all moved on.
Though we didn’t get a deal, it was a great experience playing around LA in the early 1980’s. There were nightclubs and showcase rooms everywhere in town, and a feeling was in the air that anything was possible.
People and places that had been part of Los Angeles earlier show biz eras were still to be found around town, too.
Robbie told us stories about playing with The Doors and showed us where Jim Morrison lived at Venice Beach.
The Doors music was having a revival in the early 80’s, and there were new books and movies in the works.
Robbie said he was making so much money from The Doors royalties,“ it’s embarrassing.”
In 1981, Michael Thompson, a friend from Berklee who later became an LA studio guitar ace, left his gig with actor/singer John Schneider to join Cher’s band and he recommended me for the Schneider gig.
I auditioned for Al Delory, Schneider’s musical director and pianist, and a few days later I was on a plane to Kansas City for my first gig with John.
I didn’t know much about John Schneider other than he was an actor and had recorded a couple of songs that were playing on country music radio. I’d never seen his TV show, “The Dukes Of Hazard” (I didn’t even own a TV), and I only vaguely remembered seeing his picture on a TV Guide cover and on teen magazines at the Seven Eleven.
When I arrived at the concert venue at Six Flags, I was amazed to find the seats filled with scores of screaming girls throwing teddy bears and other stuff onto the stage. I wondered, “Who is this guy, Schneider?”
I thought I’d come to play a country/pop music gig but with all the excitement and swooning girls, it felt more like I was in the Beatles or something.
All that summer, we traveled around the USA, playing mostly at outdoor amusement parks like Disney World and Disneyland, and at State and County Fairs. At every gig, John’s adoring female fans were there and sometimes even the band got lucky, too.
John was a nice guy and generous. He paid us well, treated his fans great and gave away those teddy bears to hospitals. One day, we all went to a barbecue at country singer star Dottie West’s house near Nashville. She had a bowling alley in her basement!
After the first tour ended, John hired limos to take the band to LAX and fly to Atlanta, just to stay at his house and have a good time.
I played with John on his next summer tour in 1982, and some other gigs around the US, including Nashville TN, a benefit for miners families in Hazard KY, and at the legendary country music club, The Palomino, in North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley.
John also took us to the Universal Studio lot to see a shoot for “The Dukes Of Hazzard” TV show and he introduced us to Catherine Bach, the lovely star and popular pinup girl who played Daisy Duke.
I haven’t spoken with John since I ran into him in a bar in the Valley years ago, but I see him acting in TV shows sometimes.
Thanks for the ride in your Lamborghini, John!
Al Delory & Tommy Tedesco
Al Delory was the musical director and piano player on John Schneider’s gig. He was also one of the famed Wrecking Crew LA studio musicians in the 1960’s. He played on The Beach Boys, “Pet Sounds,” Phil Spector hit records, and Al was the producer and arranger of Glen Campbell’s enormous hit records “Wichita Lineman”, “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”, “Galveston” and “Gentle On My Mind.”
I had a fun time with Al on that first summer tour in 1981. He asked me to play on The Merv Griffin Show for a live TV performance with him and Schneider and also on some tracks for a solo record he was recording in LA.
When I told Al that I’d like to be a studio musician, he gave me Wrecking Crew guitar legend Tommy Tedesco’s phone number, and said to tell Tommy that I was working with him.
I called Tedesco and left a message. The next morning my phone rang early and woke me up. I was half asleep but my eyes popped wide open when I heard the voice say, “Hey Vin, it’s Tommy Tedesco!”
Before the 1982 summer tour, Schnieder replaced Al for reasons I don’t know and, as often happens in show biz, we drifted apart when Al moved to Nashville.
I learned recently that Al passed away a few years ago. I wish I could tell him this in person but I hope he can hear it somewhere… Thanks again, Al!
Kamp Squeebop & The Sunset Saloon
In the spring of 1982, Leslie and I broke up and I rented a room in a Westwood apartment from an entertainment lawyer named Don Drysdale (not the ballplayer.)
I was stretching my playing and song writing with a jazz-fusion group that some friends and I had put together called, Kamp Squeebop.
From 1981 through 1983 we played mostly on weekend afternoons at The Sunset Saloon, a bar located where Washington Blvd meets Venice Beach.
By day, The Sunset Saloon was a casual beach bar and people would roller skate in from the Venice boardwalk and belly right up to the bar. At night it was a very different and grittier scene on Venice Beach and The Sunset Saloon had more of a blues, rock and biker bar mix.
On the afternoon of June 19 1982 while Kamp Squeebop was playing, Sally, my future wife, walked in with a friend and caught my eye. Our first date ended in a strip club….. but that’s another story.
Some gigs were more unusual than others. There was Arco Iris, a small band that combined ethnic Inca music with free form jazz, and there were many songwriters and singers who created original music and put together bands of freelance musicians for showcases, recording sessions and gigs. Two of the Big Bands I played with occasionally were, Ollie Mitchells Sunday Band, a Big Band full of great LA players including Dave Garibaldi of Tower Of Power on drums, and Glen Garrett’s, Feijoda Completa, that played classic Brazilian songs he arranged for full horn and rhythm sections.
Some bands and musicians were experimenting and searching musically, others were trying for fame and fortune, but many were just happy to be on the gig and looking forward to the next one.
At it’s best, being a freelance musician could be fun, creative, interesting and challenging, and it was always a good way to meet musicians and make new contacts.
Along with concert tours, occasional recording sessions and songwriting, I played one nighters or weekend gigs at music venues that were listed in the LA Weekly and The LA Times for jazz, rock and blues, and at other showcase stages, theaters, restaurant bars, upscale bars, dive bars, house parties for the rich and not so rich, and nightclub hot spots
During the spring and summer of 1983, I joined a pop/rock band called Commuter, who’d had a song in the original “The Karate Kid” movie.
At the urging of the leader, I cut my hair very short and dyed it with blond patches to fit in with his fashion ideas in the newly emerging MTV and “new wave” music era.
I played with Commuter at The Central on Sunset Blvd (now called The Viper Room), The Club Lingerie, The Music Machine, and other LA and Hollywood venues. We also made a demo for Arista Records.
I like the challenge of playing various styles of music and with Commuter I got to try my hand with a different kind of LA band. It was an interesting experience, but soon I knew that the pop music and fashion scene of that 1980’s era wasn’t going to be an enduring direction for me.
In September of 1983 I was offered a gig playing with Sergio Mendes, so I left Commuter to play Sergio’s Brazilian jazz and pop music and tour the world.
I remembered hearing Sergio’s record, “Mas Que Nada” on the radio when I was a kid. Once again, music from my past was coming back around in a new way.
Travelling - The Sergio Mendes Gig
Around The World - A Part Time Tour 9/83 -12/94
In May 1983, I was playing a gig at the Scotch & Sirloin on the corner of Pico and Sepulveda and John Beasley, who I’d just met that night, was playing Fender Rhodes.
After the gig, Beasley told me he was Sergio Mendes’ musical director/keyboard player and that Sergio needed a guitar player like me, who could play Brazilian and pop styles with jazz harmonies and rock solos. John asked if I was interested and I said, “Sure!”
John and I became friends. We had a lot of fun that summer hanging out at his apartment in Ocean Park and making some original music of our own.
In September, Sergio had an upcoming gig, so I went to his house in Encino for a rehearsal. It all went well, and Sergio asked me if I wanted to play in his band.
I was happy to get the gig, and I liked that he only toured for about six months each year, which left me free to pursue other interests in LA.
At that time, Sergio had a pop hit on the charts, “Never Gonna Let You Go.” His new records were following the current pop trends and we played those songs in the show, but we also played classic Brazilian and pop tunes from his past albums and repertoire. My favorite part of the gigs was jamming on the extended Brazilian songs at the end of the show.
My first gig with Mendes was at Caesars Palace in Tahoe. Over the years we performed at many great venues. We played The Hollywood Bowl twice and it was amazing to stand on that stage and look out at thousands of people. The Greek was more intimate and had a great sound. We played three weeklong engagements at The Blue Note, a legendary jazz club in Greenwich Village in NYC, and in Tokyo and Nagoya at the affiliated Blue Notes. We played on “The Tonight Show” twice, once with Johnny Carson hosting, and at Las Vegas and Atlantic City casinos, jazz festivals, concert halls, private events, and on international tours.
I filled two passports, with extended pages, stamped by the countries where we performed: Japan eight times, France, Thailand, Indonesia and The Philippines, twice, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Spain, England, Monaco, Turkey, Mexico, Canada, Jordan, Morocco and many other places.
Seeing the world, experiencing different cultures, playing good music and unique gigs, were all great aspects of being in Sergio’s band.
On days off, I explored the cities and countries, either alone or with other people in the band.
Geoff Gillette, the soundman, used to say, “Vin, look where we are!”
The Dominican Republic - Altos De Chavon
On my second gig with Sergio, in the fall of 1983, we spent almost a week at Altos De Chavon, in the Dominican Republic.
Altos De Chavon is a village & outdoor amphitheater next to an art college on the south coast of the island. It was completed in the 1980’s but designed to look like a centuries old Mediterranean style European town.
Built on a cliff above the Chavon River, the village is in a sparsely populated area, and the views of the wild jungle below and the Caribbean Sea nearby are spectacular. Casa De Campo, a world famous golf course and resort, is just a couple of miles away.
The travel schedule put us there a few days before our show, so there was time to relax and have some fun. I took a shuttle bus down to the beach every day to swim and snorkel in the Caribbean, and at night we hung out in the open-air bar and enjoyed Dominican rum under the amazing starlit sky in that isolated part of the world.
The amphitheater featured many performers over the years such as Frank Sinatra, Chick Corea, Heart, Elton John and Santana.
On the day of our show, a trickle of people began arriving in the late afternoon and by nightfall the amphitheater was packed to standing room only.
It was an enthusiastic and energizing crowd and we had a great show.
The next day we were back on a plane, and heading to Atlantic City to play a casino.
Jordan - King Hussein’s Birthday Party
One of the most unusual gigs I ever played was a birthday party for King Hussein of Jordan, at his beachfront home on The Gulf Of Aqaba, in November 1984.
The King was a fan of Sergio Mendes records, and Queen Noor wanted the live band as a birthday surprise.
The King’s home in Aqaba was like a Malibu or Riviera estate. It was on the edge of the desert, but it had beautiful landscaping that extended to the beach. The Sinai Peninsula stretched into the distance along the western shore of the gulf.
For our performance, a large stage had been built on the lawn facing the beach, and the lighting and sound gear had come from England. Dressing rooms were set up for us In the King’s private theatre, a small building on the grounds.
After our sound check, Sergio, singer Joe Pizzulo, and I were relaxing in one of the dressing rooms when we heard an urgent voice in the hall saying, “The King!…..The King is coming!!!”
We were not fully dressed yet, but we scrambled up and managed to get our clothes on just before the door opened and King Hussein and Queen Noor walked into the room to greet Sergio.
The King was not a tall man but he had a powerful presence. He seemed kind and friendly, and he smiled, shook my hand, and said, “Hello.” The Queen wore a stunning necklace made of multiple strands of diamonds that covered her whole upper chest, and when she shook my hand, she looked like she was all business.
As I stood on stage, just before we started, I watched the sun setting over the Sinai Peninsula and couldn’t believe where I was.
The King and Queen, and their small group of guests, were in a colorful tent set up on the beach. We played our usual show but, instead of the loud applause at the end of songs in a concert, we’d hear the sound of just a few enthusiastic hands clapping coming from the tent.
I don’t know if it’s true, but Sergio said that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and Kisogi, the infamous Iran/Contra arms merchant, were both guests that night.
After the gig, bassist Charles Meeks and I were crossing the lawn in front of the house and we saw King Hussein closing the curtains of the big picture window. The King looked up, smiled and gave us a thumbs-up, and we waved back!
A few minutes later the chef, who was a little drunk and obviously celebrating that his job was done, came around the corner carrying a case of Dom Perignon champagne. He gave us some bottles and we went back to the dressing rooms and shared them with everyone.
A couple of days later we played a concert for the public in the capital, Amman.
Queen Noor attended the show and gave us each a gold Longines watch inscribed with the Hussein family crest. I still have that watch.
The next day we were on a plane heading for a gig in London.
France - Chateau Lynch-Bages
One of the most enjoyable gigs for a private event was in June 1989, when we played the Fete De La Fleur for Jean-Michel, the owner of the Lynch-Bages winery in Pauillac, France.
Jean-Michel was the host of the event and had also won the award for the best wine that year. He and Sergio were long time friends, and he wanted Sergio to play at the party.
Jean-Michel put the band up for a week at his casual, rambling, country style beach house on the bay at Cap-Ferret. It was beautiful.
His housekeeper cooked for us every night and brought fresh croissants every morning. We went to the ocean nearby, saw the famous Arcachon sand dune, ate oysters at a nearby beach bar, and drank fabulous Lynch-Bages wine every night.
On the day of our gig we drove through Bordeaux, passing famous chateaux along the way. In the late afternoon Jean-Michel’s guests arrived at Lynch-Bages, and drinks on the lawns were followed by a grand dinner in the evening.
As we ate and drank, actors from Paris performed a skit about aliens from space who had just discovered Lynch-Bages wine.
For their finale, the actors led the guests outside to the grounds and then disappeared behind a hedge to depart for their home planet.
Moments later, a helicopter that had been hidden behind the hedge rose up with the actors aboard, and they waved to everyone below as they took off amid exploding fireworks.
Then, it was our turn to play. A stage and dance floor had been set up in the winery, and as we played, they danced, and the party continued into the night.
Wine, wine, wine, pass that bottle to me!
Lost & Found on a Japanese Mountain
I also had interesting adventures on the road that weren’t about playing music. One was on my first overseas tour in Japan in 1984 with Sergio Mendes,
My wife’s friend, Norm, lived in Japan and I invited him to our show in Tokyo. Afterwards, I took him to The Lexington Queen, a popular nightclub in Roppongi that gave out free invitations to musicians on tour and was always packed with pretty fashion models.
We ran into NYC guitarist, Hiram Bullock, who I’d met years before at Mike Stern’s apartment in Boston, and we all had a fun time carousing late into the night. The next morning, I woke up in my room at the Capitol Hotel Tokyu with a hangover, and Norm snoring on the couch.
After we had some coffee, Norm surprised me and said he wanted to go hiking on Mount Fuji. As it turned out, Mount Fuji was closed to visitors that day but Norm still wanted to go hiking on another mountain he knew.
I was happy to just relax in the city on my day off, but Norm was so persistent that eventually I agreed, and we took a train out of Tokyo to a station somewhere in the countryside.
I had no idea where we were, but I followed Norm as we climbed a path to the top of a heavily wooded mountain and hiked along a trail that followed the ridge.
When we came to a deserted rangers station, we went over the chain link fence and climbed a ladder to the top of a viewing tower where we could see for miles in all directions.
As dusk approached we headed back along the ridge trail and Norm, who could read the Japanese trail signs, led the way. It was almost dark, when we came to another trail sign and Norm looked at it, shook his head, and said he was lost.
I couldn’t believe it when he said that he didn’t know how to get back down.
Norm thought we should keep going ahead on the trail, so we kept walking in the dark but we didn’t come across any more signs.
After quite a while, I realized that I was hearing running water somewhere below us. I’d had enough of following Norm’s wandering and, though I knew it was risky, I decided to leave the path and head directly down the side of the mountain, reasoning that the water would eventually lead to a way out.
Norm was skeptical but didn’t have a better idea so over the side I went and he followed. We slipped and slid on our butts, feeling our way in almost total darkness when, sure enough, we eventually ran into a stream. We followed it for a long way until we came out of the woods onto a highway.
Relieved and ecstatic that we were out of the woods and off the mountain, we looked around and saw lights down the road. We headed in that direction, and it turned out to be a remote rural train station.
We were sweaty and dirty from the hike and sliding down the mountain, so we cleaned up as best we could in the restroom at the station.
There was nobody around, but when Norm looked at a map on the wall he said he knew where we were, and that there was a famous traditional Japanese restaurant just a few miles away!
We called a cab to take us to the restaurant and we wound up having an incredible meal in one of the small private traditional houses on the grounds!
When I finally got back to the Capitol Hotel Tokyu late that night, I ran into a Japanese woman from our production crew in the lobby, and told her where I’d been and what happened.
She was amazed, and said that three people had died the past year after being lost on that mountain!
An Anvil Case For Rice & Beans
Sometimes really funny things happen on the road.
On the first morning of my last tour of Japan with Sergio in 1994, I was crossing the lobby and saw him sitting at a table, so I stopped to say hi.
Sergio had a bemused look on his face but he was laughing, too. He asked me if I’d heard what happened with our new percussionist from Bahia.
He told me that the percussionist’s conga had been badly crushed in transit on the plane, and now it couldn’t be played on the gig.
The irony was, that he’d packed the fragile conga in a thin cloth sack when he checked it on the plane, but he’d packed his supply of garlic, rice and beans in a heavy-duty anvil flight case!
So the food was intact but the conga was kindling.
Throughout that tour, when I stepped out of the hotel elevator on the way to my room, sometimes I could smell the garlic cooking throughout the halls of our whole floor.
Crossing Paths with Stars
One of the fun things about being in the entertainment business, or just living in Los Angeles, is that you might cross paths with celebrities when you least expect it.
One afternoon, in June 1987, I got a mysterious phone call. A man said, “I hear that you can put together a Brazilian band for a gig”. I asked him where he got my number, and he mentioned someone I knew, so I asked him what kind of gig it was, and when and where it was happening.
To my surprise, he said he couldn’t tell me!
I’d never heard that before and I wondered what was up, but I was also a little intrigued so I explained to him that without certain essential information, there was nothing I could do for him.
After a long pause he said that the gig was tonight, for one hour, and it was a cast party for Michael Jackson’s, “Smooth Criminal” video shoot.
I called some friends who are great musicians; Claudio Slon - drums, Domenic Genova - bass, Glen Garrett – sax, Leon Bisquera - electric piano, and we all met at The Culver Studios on Ince blvd in Culver City.
The client took us to a wardrobe trailer first, and asked us to wear the hats and jackets that were used in Michael’s video, and then we followed him to an enormous soundstage, that was dark and empty, except for a well-lit corner near a huge stage door.
A few dozen tables covered with white tablecloths were set up there in front of a small stage that had a large, opaque, circular window behind it. It was the stage that Michael Jackson used when he sang with the band in his “Smooth Criminal” video.
As we were setting up on the stage, the client instructed me that we should start or stop playing when he pointed at me.
So we stood ready, he pointed, and we started playing. The big door opened, and the cast and Michael Jackson and his chimp, Bubbles, came in and sat down.
Waiters in black tie served them lobsters and wine as we played. Michael sat at the table in front of us and was moving to the music, smiling, and looked like he was having a good time.
Near the end of our set Michael walked up to me, smiled and said, “I really like your music,” and I said “Thanks! I really like your music, too!”
After one hour exactly, the man pointed at me again, and we stopped playing. The big door opened, and the cast, Michael Jackson, and Bubbles left, and the big door closed.
While we were packing up our gear, the caterers invited our band to sit down with them, and enjoy some lobsters and wine.
Of course, we said, “Sure!”
Nice gig if you can get it.
One night in August 1989, I played a private party with Sergio and the band at Le Dome, an upscale restaurant on Sunset Blvd that was a hot spot for stars.
Our group was sitting at a large table eating dinner before the gig when, out of nowhere, Ringo Starr walked up!
He came to say hi to Sergio and it was obvious that they had met before. They joked around a bit and made small talk,
Then Ringo turned and greeted the rest of us at the table with a friendly wave, hi and goodbye, and moved on smiling.
I was floored….Ringo… the drummer…..a real live Beatle!
Liza Minelli, Richie Havens & Gene Simmons
In January 1990, Rio Suites Hotel and Casino had their grand opening in Las Vegas, and they booked Sergio Mendes for the opening weekend shows.The main music hall was still under construction, so we played in a large function room on a temporary stage.
On opening night, I looked out at the audience from the stage, and did a double take.
Directly in front of the band were Liza Minnelli, Richie Havens and Gene Simmons, all sitting together at a small table by themselves! It was a trio that I never would have imagined knew each other.
After our show, Liza, Richie and Gene all came backstage to say hi and I really enjoyed talking with Richie Havens. His dynamic performance of “Freedom” launched Woodstock, the milestone 1969 music festival, and he had improvised “Freedom” on the spot as an encore.
Gene Simmons, the bass player and singer of the band KISS, told me that I sounded like Larry Coryell, which was a comparison that surprised me.
Liza Minnelli was energetic, fun and really sweet, and she invited everyone in our band to come to her matinee show the following day at another casino. Some of our group went to Liza’s matinee show, but I got up late that day and didn’t go.
That evening, at our second night at the Rio Suites, I was amazed to see Liza, Ritchie and Gene back at our show again, and sitting together at the exact same table!
Afterwards, Liza came backstage and walked right up to me! She said, “ You didn’t come to my show today!” I was really caught by surprise and I made some lame excuse, but she didn’t buy it at all!
After meeting Liza Minnelli in person that weekend, I really liked her a lot.
If she ever invites me again, I’ll go. I promise!
Just days after the 1994 Northridge earthquake struck the Los Angeles area, I rode along with my friend, keyboard player Yutaka Yokokura, to Las Vegas for a gig we had with Sergio Mendes.
Frankie Valli, the lead singer of The Four Seasons, was the headliner for a weeklong engagement at The Desert Inn casino, and Sergio was the opening act.
As usual, Sergio’s dressing room was open to all the musicians before the shows, and it was packed with people hanging out and having drinks.
Frankie Valli stopped by one night, and when I saw him sitting by himself on a couch, I went over and introduced myself. Frankie was very friendly and down to earth, and I had a good time talking with him.
Ten years later, Jersey Boys the musical was created, and it began an incredibly successful run that brought The Four Seasons music back in a whole new way.
David Copperfield, Ceasars Palace and the catwalk
Sergio was the opening act for magician David Copperfield twice in the 1980-90’s at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. David’s show and his magic tricks were entertaining, and his style of using contemporary music and costumes was effective.
One night in the dressing room, Carol Rogers, a singer in Sergio’s band, was talking about a trick that Copperfield performed in his show, and she described how she thought it was done.
I told her that I didn’t agree, and she wanted to make a bet.
What Carol didn’t know was that earlier in the week, I was up on the catwalk above the stage during the Copperfield show and I saw how he did that trick.
I used to be a stagehand when I was a teenager and I knew my way around backstage. After Sergio’s set one night, I climbed up on the catwalk on the spur of the moment just for fun. It didn’t occur to me that I’d see things that were considered off limits by magicians. I’m glad that no one saw me that night; David Copperfield might try to make ME disappear!
After some good-natured back and forth with Carol, I finally told her how I knew how the trick was done and that I could take her up on the catwalk to prove it.
I won the bet but I didn’t take her money.
Robert Graham & Angelica Houston, Mick Jagger & Jerry Hall
In 1992 I got a call from Rique Pantoga, a Brazilian keyboard player, to play a gig for the wedding reception of actress, Angelica Houston and sculptor, Robert Graham.
We had a rehearsal at the Musicians Union Local 47 on Vine in Hollywood, and Robert Graham stopped by with some pretty ladies to check us out. Robert sat down in front of us, smoked a cigar, listened to few songs and nodded his head.
The reception took place a block from Venice beach in an empty lot that was the foundation for Graham’s new home. The lot was covered by a big tent that opened to the back of 72 Market Street, a restaurant hot spot for stars, and a fantastic buffet was laid out there for the guests.
Under the tent there was a stage and lots of tables around a large dance floor, and a duo played contemporary pop music in the restaurant. Our Brazilian band was on the stage, followed by a Salsa Big Band.
As we played our first set, everything was going well. There were lots of guests and it looked like they were having a good time, but no one was dancing yet.
At one point, I was looking down and concentrating on reading music. When I glanced up, I was amazed to see Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall dancing about 6 feet in front of me!
I was so surprised I stopped playing for a few seconds.
I couldn’t take my eyes off of Mick Jagger, who was dancing with stage moves I’d seen him do in concert films. He and Jerry danced alone for a couple of songs and then other guests came out on the floor.
When we were taking our break, Robert Graham walked past me and I offered my congratulations on his wedding. He stopped and spoke to me about music and said that he really enjoyed my guitar playing. With all that was going on that day I was surprised he had time to notice and I was impressed with how gracious he was.
Later, as I was in the buffet line, I turned around and Mick Jagger was standing right behind me! I wanted to say something to him about being a long time fan of The Stones, but then I decided not to bother him and just enjoyed the moment.
One day, Sally and I were stopped at the traffic light at Venice and Lincoln Blvd and a convertible with the top down pulled up next to us.
There were two gorgeous girls in the front seat and Charlie Watts, The Rolling Stones drummer, was sitting by himself in the back seat!
Inexplicably, Charlie suddenly stood up on the seat, spread his arms wide and proclaimed loudly, ‘I’m Bill Wyman!” The girls started laughing and when the light changed, the driver stepped on the gas and Charlie fell back on the seat laughing, too.
I said to Sally, ”That was Charlie Watts!”
She said, “Who’s Charlie Watts….and why did he say he was Bill Wyman?”
I read somewhere that Bill Wyman, The Stones bass player, had a reputation as a ladies man. Maybe Charlie’s was joking about being Bill because he had those two beautiful girls escorting him.
I love those random encounters in LA.
One day Michael Thompson, my old friend from Boston, called and asked if I would do him a favor, and give a guitar lesson to Dustin Hoffman’s young son. Mike had agreed to teach the lesson, but couldn’t make it.
I said, “Sure,” and drove up to Dustin’s house in Bel Air. An assistant introduced me to the boy and his brother and everyone was friendly and polite to me. The atmosphere was casual and fun and all was going well until the boy wanted to play me a Chili Peppers song that he was learning. As I listened to the record I realized that he was playing a few notes wrong so I showed him how to correct them.
I guess that frustrated him because suddenly he just burst into tears and said, “I don’t get it!”
I had no experience teaching someone so young, and I was feeling a little panicky because I didn’t know what to do, but within seconds the bedroom door opened and Dustin Hoffman walked in.
He shook my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Dustin,” and then he started calming down his son, who was still crying and saying, “I don’t get it!”
To me, the whole experience of finding myself in a bedroom with Dustin Hoffman and his little boy, who I unintentionally had caused to cry, was truly surreal!
I said some encouraging things to the boy and said goodbye. The next day, I got a call from the assistant who said that Dustin thought perhaps the boy was still a little too young for lessons.
I hope he stayed with the guitar!
Milton Nascimento & Wayne Shorter & Joni Mitchell
I used to play Brazilian gigs with a band called LA Samba, which was mostly Sergio’s band without Sergio. Sometimes we played the Samba E Saudade, a music and dance event that was hosted by a Brazilian woman at different venues around LA.
The Samba E Saudade gigs were always an exciting event and packed with a diverse crowd of Brazilians and Brazilian music fans, with recent arrivals from Brazil mixing in easily with the local LA scene. Our band often included a few Brazilian dancers dressed in their scant Carnival costumes, and a row of four or five percussionists playing traditional samba rhythms. As the night got later, the dancing and caipirinha drinks made for a fun and sometimes wild time.
I saw Joni Mitchell hanging out and dancing at a few of our gigs. At another Samba E Saudade gig, I saw Wayne Shorter and Milton Nascimento sitting together at a table in front of our band.
Later, on a break I said hi to Wayne and he nodded and replied, “Yeah, man,” and moved his hands in a way that seemed to be illustrating something good about our music.
A few years later, I played with Sergio Mendes at The Hollywood Bowl for a Brazilian music night celebration. It was a fun concert and by the end of our show hundreds of people in the audience were dancing in front of the stage and in the aisles.
We shared the bill that night with the great guitarist Oscar Castro Neves, and Milton Nascimento and his band.
Joe Zawinul in Japan, Charlie Parker & My Birthday
In August 1989, I was in Madarao Japan for a week playing at a jazz festival with Sergio Mendes. There were lots of acts on the bill including, Joe Zawinul Syndicate. Joe Zawinul was Wayne Shorter’s partner in the ground breaking jazz group, Weather Report.
Mendes and Zawinul seemed to get along well. One night, in the hotel lobby bar, some of us in the band were hanging out with them when Zawinul and Mendes began alternating playing favorite songs on the piano in the bar. It was a fun night and a unique experience to be there with those two great musicians entertaining each other, and us.
Two other acts at the festival were Jay Mc Shannon and Supersax, and both had connections to the bebop innovator and alto sax player Charlie Parker.
Jay Mc Shannon was a Kansas City big band leader that Charlie Parker played with at the start of his career and Supersax was a group of sax players who played arrangements of Parker’s melodies and solos.
I talked with Jay on the bus ride to the venue one day. He was very friendly and told stories about Kansas City and Parker, who Jay referred to by his nickname, “Bird”.
I also surprised some of the Supersax guys when I told them that I had a unique connection to Parker.
I was born on the very day that Charlie Parker died.
On March 12, 1955, I was born early in the morning at Huntington Hospital on Long Island in Huntington, New York.
On that same day, later in the evening, jazz great Charlie Parker died in an apartment in Manhattan, New York City about 55 miles from Huntington.
My life was starting and Bird was flying away.
The Blue Note & Dizzy Gillespie
Over the years, I played at The Blue Note in Greenwich Village, New York City, for three weeklong engagements with Sergio Mendes band.
The Blue Note is a fairly small jazz club and there were no real dressing rooms. The female singers used the office for changing, and the guys in the band used an upstairs closet that was jammed with restaurant supplies for our dressing room.
After the gig one night in 1986, Charles Meeks, the bass player, and I were changing our clothes in that closet when we heard a knock on the door.
I opened the door, and was amazed to see Dizzy Gillespie, the jazz trumpet genius and legendary bebop duo partner of Charlie Parker, grinning and holding out a pipe as he said, “ Anybody wanna get high?”
Charles and I started laughing and, honestly, I was blown away. I’ve met other great musicians but Dizzy was beyond legendary. And, hey, if you want to catch a buzz at the end of a gig, who better to hang with than the writer of the bebop standard, “Groovin’ High!”
When you’re playing on a gig you never know what doors can open.
Someone told me recently that the picture of our 1985 Sergio Mendes band is still hanging on the wall in the bar at The Blue Note.
I love NY!
Around 1970, when I was 15, jazz really started speaking to me and I began to listen to records by many different artists. Maybe it was my close proximity to Manhattan, but New York City jazz musicians seemed to be making the music that was in the air at the time.
I was particularly into Charles Mingus’ music. I liked his songs and the way he arranged for various sized ensembles. I had a number of his records and I saw him perform at least four times.
One night, in the early 70’s a friend and I took the train from Huntington into New York City to hear Mingus play at a jazz club, The Two Saints. It was actually the legendary club, The Five Spot, but for business reasons the original owners had recently renamed it. They said later that they regretted that decision.
The club was in a funky area on the lower eastside of Manhattan. Danny Richmond was on drums, Bob Mover played sax, and Charles Mingus was wearing a big Bowie knife strapped to his belt as he played his double bass on stage.
Later, when the band was on break, I got a chance to say, “Hi, Mr. Mingus, I’m a fan of your music”, and he looked surprised but said, ”Hi”.
I’m sure that was the first time I ever spoke to someone that I admired and didn’t already know, and even that small personal connection with Mingus was a thrill.
In 2003, Charles Mingus music came back around for me in a new way.
My friend John Beasley, a musical partner and great piano player, was producing a record for a female Japanese singer, Chie Ayado, and he asked me to write a lyric to Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” for her record.
Charles Mingus wrote “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” after the death of sax player Lester Young. I had read that Billie Holiday and Lester Young were close friends, so I wrote a lyric in which I imagined Billie singing the melody of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” to Lester after he was gone and reminiscing about their life in jazz.
Writing that lyric brought back memories of my teenage years in New York, when I was inspired by Mingus and other great jazz musicians.
Before Chie Ayado’s record was released, I contacted Sue Mingus, Charles wife, to notify her publishing company.
Jun Abe, A&R manager at Chie Ayado’s label, EWE Records, sent me an e-mail that read, “ We really appreciate your cooperation. The lyric you wrote is beautiful and really imaginative.”
Thanks for asking me to write the lyric, Beas!
Pat Metheny came to Berklee in 1974 and was my guitar teacher for my second and third semesters.
It was a great time to be in Boston at Berklee. Guitar players, Mike Stern and Michael Thompson were both friends and we were all students of Metheny.
Pat taught me some chord voicings on guitar that I still use. His three note guitar voicings are great for minimal comping, while staying out of a soloist’s way and having an extra finger for harmonic extensions.
He also showed me an exercise for scales or arpeggios, where you play from the bottom to the top of the neck and back, while a song continues in time. It’s an effective way to learn the fingerboard, the scales and the chords and break out of familiar patterns.
It was a real boost for me when, at the end of my first semester Pat said to me, “You’re a natural, you have a good time feel. Only two people I know learn as fast as you do; one is me and the other is you.”
I was taking a lesson from him during my third semester when he got the phone call from ECM records for his first record deal, “Bright Size Life”.
He literally jumped to the ceiling!
LA 1995 – 2010 Smooth Jazz, Original Songs, Standards
Rick Braun, The WAVE 94.7, Will Downing, Pauline Wilson
Smooth Jazz on The WAVE radio station was a hot thing in the 1990’s, and it gave many LA instrumental players who had experience in pop, funk and jazz a way to create CD’s and get gigs.
I played jazz-fusion in bands when I lived in Boston in the 1970’s, and the smooth jazz style, which was a less intense version of jazz-fusion, was a natural fit for me.
Le Café and La Ve Lee were two nightclubs on Ventura Blvd that featured Los Angeles jazz. I played there with different bands and musicians, including Pauline Wilson, singer in the band Seawind, and Dori Caymi a great Brazilian songwriter and guitar player.
I also started placing some of my original songs on records in the 90’s, and began co-writing music and lyrics with other artists.
In 1992, Yutaka Yokokura recorded a song that I co-wrote called “Intuition” for a Pauline Wilson album that he was producing, and “Intuition” became the title cut. Patrice Rushen was featured on piano.
Around that time I met Rick Braun, a trumpet player and producer, when we were both playing club gigs in Pauline’s band.
Rick Braun’s records were playing on The WAVE and he was becoming popular. When he asked me to play on some gigs and recordings for his own albums, of course I said, “Sure.”
I played guitar on the song “Cat Food,” which was a #2 Billboard hit in 1996. Rick produced “Cat Food” for sax player Bryan Savage, and it got radio play on the WAVE.
It was fun to hear myself playing on the radio and I felt that I was in a place and time where the gigs and recordings I was making were intersecting with the popular culture.
Rick produced and recorded an original song we co-wrote in 1994, “It’s Christmas,” for a holiday themed record and another song I wrote called “ Two Cool “ for Bryan Savage’s 1998 record “Soul Temptation.“
Throughout the 90’s I played smooth jazz festivals around the US, and on other gigs and recordings with Rick, Pauline and Yutaka. I travelled with Pauline to Japan, to play a weekend at Sadao Watanabe’s club in Tokyo.
John Beasley and I co-wrote and recorded a number of original songs, too. Will Downing recorded our song “Bolero Nova” for his 2002 album “Sensual Journey.” Hubert Laws was featured on flute.
Some people love Smooth Jazz and others put it down, but one thing I know for sure is that the musicians who were making records and gigging were happy to be working, playing and enjoying its popularity.
Johnny Rivers, Richard Perry, Rod Stewart & Clive Davis
I have two friends who are named Michael “Mike” Thompson, and they’re both great musicians. I refer to them as guitar Mike and keyboard Mike.
In 2004 Mike Thompson, keyboard player with The Eagles, asked me if I wanted to play on a recording session for Richard Perry. The catch was that it was for double scale or nothing, depending on whether or not your tracks made it on the record. I knew that Richard Perry produced many hits over decades, including records for The Pointer Sisters and Carly Simon, so I figured I’d take a chance with the double or nothing offer, and said, “Sure.”
A few years before, Mike called me for a recording session with Johnny Rivers, the singer of the 1960’s hits “Secret Agent Man” and “Memphis, Tennessee.” The song we recorded that day was co-written by Johnny Rivers and Jack Tempchin, writer of The Eagles “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” and they both were at the session.
At the Richard Perry session we were recording songs for a third Rod Stewart jazz standards album to follow the first two, which had both been hits.
We tracked with a live ensemble and recorded five songs at two recording sessions. Rod Stewart didn’t come to either session, so the co-producer, Lauren Wild, sang demo vocal tracks. He sounded just like Rod.
I brought a few different guitars to those sessions and auditioned each of them for Richard Perry using a pick or strumming with my thumb. Richard wanted me to play one of the acoustic nylon string guitars I brought, and he wanted me to strum it softly with my thumb. I didn’t mention that it was my wife’s guitar, which I’d borrowed.
Unbeknownst to me, Richard had other guitar players and musicians play the same songs that we recorded, but when the record came out, my tracks were on it.
Of the five songs we recorded with Richard, two made it on the album, " Night And Day" and the title cut, “Stardust.”
Lauren told me later that Clive Davis, the legendary record executive, had picked those mixes.
The album was another hit. “Stardust… The Great American Songbook Volume III” placed #1 on Billboard 200, and it won Rod Stewart the 2004 Grammy for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album.
So, I have to smile; I’m the guitar player on the title cut of Rod Stewart’s only #1 and Grammy winning record.
And I played my wife Sally’s 1970 Yamaha that she bought back in high school for less than $100.
Because of the success of the Rod Stewart album, “Stardust,” I was asked to play guitar on Richard Perry’s next production in 2005. It was a standards record for Carly Simon called “Moonlight Serenade.”
Richard and Carly had a recording history that went back to her enormous hit single, “You’re So Vain.”
We recorded the tracks for “Moonlight Serenade” with a live ensemble again, and this time I played guitar on all the songs, including a solo on “Where or When.”
I also recorded some guitar overdubs at Richard’s home studio one night and he was really happy with my performance. He told me that I played exactly as he pictured it would sound when he first conceived the record. Richard invited me to stay for dinner, and we had a good time. He told me that Paul McCartney said he always tracked his bass parts with The Beatles live, but went back afterwards and re-recorded his parts in overdubs.
When the record “Moonlight Serenade” came out, it went to #7 on Billboard 200 and was nominated for a Grammy that year.
Our ensemble went to New York City in July to play with Carly on three TV shows: The View, Good Morning America with Barbra Walters, and The CBS Early Show.
In August we joined Carly in NYC again, for rehearsals to make a DVD live concert recording, “a moonlight serenade on the queen mary 2”. It was a big cast and crew and there was a lot going on everywhere during rehearsals.
My favorite time was when Carly and I got together with our two acoustic guitars, alone in a small rehearsal room, and played through a set of her songs that we were going to perform on the ship. It was fun to hang out and play with her, and it was a welcome break from the controlled chaos going on in the big rehearsal room. Carly was sweet.
For the Queen Mary 2 performance, we boarded the ship in New York City in September 2005, and sailed to England. They filmed the full band playing concerts in the ballroom on two nights, and they filmed the acoustic set that I played with Carly, her daughter Sally, and the other back up singers on the last afternoon in a small bar on the ship.
When we got back to Los Angeles, Richard Perry produced one more recording for Carly Simon that I played guitar on, her version of ”Let It Snow”.
”Let It Snow” went to #6 on The Billboard Adult Contemporary Charts, and I hear it playing every year at Christmas time.
A First Class Farewell
It was Christmas Eve 2010, and I was sitting on my couch after returning from Moscow. I decided that I was going to give my notice to British pop singer Engelbert Humperdinck and leave his touring gig.
I was thinking about the experiences I had as a freelance musician and how the path I’d been on from the 1960’s to the present was somewhat unique.
I’d known musicians who had been on a straight road to success or stardom, and others who found a niche that worked for them and stayed put. I’d also met many who weren’t ever able to get beyond the nightclubs and regular gigs to play in other professional situations.
My mix of a musician’s high life, street life, creative life and professional life was different. It was great for me because of the interesting experiences, places and situations, as well as playing music with so many people over the years. I’m glad I had the ability to follow my road and create a sustainable lifestyle while doing it.
I also realized that because of my inclination to enjoy observing it all as I’m living it, I’d accumulated stories that other folks were enjoying hearing and they encouraged me to write them down.
In Moscow, just a few days before, I came in from a freezing walk in Red Square to my room at The Peninsula Hotel and was ruminating about making some personal changes.
I’d decided that it was time for me to move on from sideman gigs and focus on my own creative direction. It was a leap of faith, but I felt sure that it was the right choice for me.
Our plane left Moscow late and I had to rush to the boarding gate in Munich to catch my connecting flight home to Los Angeles. As a big line of people boarded the airplane, I stepped over to the desk and asked a Lufthansa employee if she would check that my travel miles had been credited.
She looked at my ticket, and the computer monitor, and said, “Yes, you have the miles …… and I think I can give you a better seat.” I said, “Sure, if it’s an isle seat.”
She looked at me, smiled and said, ”Yes, it is.”
I thanked her and, to my surprise, she put me at the front of the line. I boarded the plane and was even more surprised when the flight attendant looked at my boarding pass and directed me to a seat in First Class.
Thank you Lufthansa lady, wherever you are!
That unexpected upgrade for the long flight from Munich to Los Angeles felt like a beautiful gift at the end of a chapter of my life on the road.
I felt grateful and took it as a sign for a First Class farewell and a great new beginning.