In the late 70’s I got a job with S.I.R. (Studio Instrument Rentals) in Nashville. My main job was to cart drums that we stored for some of the best drummers in Nashville to their studio gigs ahead of time and set them up. I had to learn exactly how these drummers liked their setup so they didn’t have to adjust anything. They could just arrive at the gig and play. I met some interesting people and got to hear some extraordinary music. One time I got to be one of about eight other people witnessing the live, direct to disk recording of Dave Brubeck and sons at RCA. I’ve played on the B3 that once belonged to Issac Hayes. Lot’s of good memories from this time, but the strangest story was when the management asked me to drive to Birmingham, Alabama with a van loaded up with gear for a tripleheader show of “The Commodores”, “LTD”, and “A Taste of Honey”.
Early in the morning of August 11, 1978, I loaded up the van with all the gear, filled the tank of gas, and ‘hit the road’ to Birmingham. I had $20 in my pocket. It was a beautiful day with clear skies and the traffic was minimal. The drive down I65 is very scenic with rolling hills covered in trees.
All was going along smoothly until the van’s engine made a loud “CLUNK!” The van was still moving but was decelerating. I made it to the top of a hill and could see a sign for an exit one mile up ahead. Praying I could make it didn’t work and the van came to rest on the side of the road near the sign. Back in those days, there were no mobile phones. The only thing I could do was leave the van loaded with the expensive gear and hitchhike in hopes of getting help at the next stop.
I was about 40 miles outside of Birmingham. The exit was for some tiny little “podunk” town but there was a picturesque little gas station where I made a “collect call” to my boss. He said he’d get someone to come by morning and to find a way to get the gear to the concert!
The guy running the station took me back to the van and towed it back to the station and determined that the van was going nowhere. After I told him my plight he was kind enough to take my $20 and stacked the gear onto the only truck he had… the tow truck, and off to the Birmingham BJCC Coliseum we went. It was really a sight to see. Amps, cases, gear, all strapped in a lump around the lift as best they could be.
When we arrived, it was not as early as we had hoped but not so late that it was troublesome.
I found my contact, gave them the gear, and hung out backstage hobnobbing with the crew pre-show. I recounted my tale of woe and since I was supposed to drive back that night that I had no room reserved to sleep. “Don’t worry, they’ll take care of you. Go out front and enjoy the show.” Which I did. It was a great show, starting off with a super deep rumble you felt more than heard. The tone slowly rose in pitch creating intense anticipation. The audience was becoming very restless with some people beginning to ‘dart’ here and there. Pushing more and more as the sound whooshed up until it climaxed with a boom and BAM! the music started into a very funky groove and all was well! The Commodores were great! It was a very tight show. I made my way backstage after the show. Management was scarce as they were attending to the band. The crew pretty much disappeared because it was a “walk away” show meaning ‘we’ll pack it up tomorrow’. Where was everyone? Where am I going to sleep? Next thing I know, the security guards are saying, “l don’t know, kid, but you can’t stay here!” What to do? I walk into town to see if I can find out where everyone is staying. They said they’d take care of me, right?
Birmingham is not a small town. Fortunately, I’m about as downtown as it got so it wasn’t far to walk. Here I was with no money in a strange city trying to find out where the crew from the concert was staying? The search was fruitless.
I found myself wandering into the park to try and find a place to sleep. A park bench looked okay and as I settled in some told me, “Nope! Get up! That’s my place!” Maybe over here in a church alcove, nope, already full. It was really late now and as I was walking past a little diner, I realized I was also hungry.
A big black man with a chrome pith helmet saw me staring longingly at the burger diner and said, “Son, what’s a white boy doing out here in this neighborhood at this time of night?” So I told him my saga of woe and he said, “You need a burger! I’m buying.” So, we sat in the diner and talked about life for a while. Then he asked if I wanted to hang out with him for a while and I said sure, why not? I’ve got nothing else to do. He said he knew a good place to have a little fun. We walked down some streets until we got to a place where I heard music and people laughing and having a good time. We went in and I saw people crowded around tables drinking and gambling. My benefactor pulled a huge wad of money out of his pocket like he was going to bet on something, but he didn’t and went to another table. I thought, he sure is flashing the cash around. Then he turned to me and said, “Let’s get out of here, ain’t no good action here tonight!” And we left.
As we left, I noticed a couple of other guys leave not far behind us. We turned left down a street, they turned left. We turned right down another, they turned right. We walked into a dead-end alley and I thought, this can’t be good! The two men stepped into the alley and said, “I think you might want to give us that money.” To which my friend said, “Maybe you want to come and get it.” They pulled out knives. My friend pulled me behind him and said, “Wait here.”
What followed looked like something out of a Bruce Lee movie. Arms cracking, painful howls, bodies flying, and landing in a pile in the middle of the alley. My friend straightened his chrome pith helmet and explained, “I was a Green Beret. Sometimes I get a little pent up and need to unwind so I find me some bad people that need their asses kicked. I feel better now!” We left them in the alley moaning and walked into the red light district. He went to his favorite girl and turned to me, “This is far as it goes with me tonight. It’ll be light soon. I’d head back to the auditorium. Your crew folks will be showing up shortly. Good night.” I thanked him and did just that.
People did start to arrive and someone said, “Where were you? We couldn’t find you. You could have gotten a free room and partied with us and the band last night!”
I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.
My boss showed up with another van, we loaded the gear and drove back to Nashville. I slept the whole way and he dropped me off at home. What a night!