of a Traveling Minstrel
"Why don't you write a book?" ...Yeah, right. I'm sure a lot of very bad books have been written upon that advice from well meaning friends and relatives. Especially bad books from non-writers like myself. So this is merely a casual collections of stories, in no particular order, of life on the road. A musician is, in a way, is a storyteller, so I have tried to conjure up that part of myself for this project. This is not an autobiography by any means, although you will probably know quite a bit about me and my friends and associates (and associates that are not friends) by the time you finish this book. Perhaps more than you want to know, in fact. Don’t blame me, I’m merely the messenger.
Most, but not all of these tales come from my time with the Ray Charles Orchestra. My time with the band has been an interesting and varied voyage, and one that most people do not have the opportunity to experience. The journey has its ups and downs, it is true, and there have been times that I would have given anything to be at home sleeping in my own bed. And being sick or broke or exhausted on the road is no fun at all. But I have tried to always keep my life from becoming predictable, and traveling with the band certainly accomplishes that. You just never know what to expect from day to day, and sometimes you're not even sure where you're headed. "I don't know where I'm going, but I'm leaving here!" is something a long time band member says almost every time he gets on the bus, and it says a lot. The people that are able to stay on the road for any length of time are in love with the idea of just going. It really doesn't matter where, just to go, although the time we didn't find out we were going to Uruguay until we were headed to the airport was a little too much. I never did understand what all the secrecy was about. Then there was the time we were either going to Russia or headed home, we didn’t know which. We were waiting at O’Hare airport until an hour before our Aeroflot flight. We were outside by the check-in desk chanting “cancel Russia” to the tune of the Volga Boatman or one of those Russian sounding tunes. It was the end of a long tour and we were more than ready to head home. During that waiting time our manager found out from a State Department missive that cell phones were illegal in Russia. In disbelief we all frantically mailed our phones home, just to find out when we got to Moscow that practically everyone had a cell phone. That’s when we discovered that the State Dept. bulletin quoted was several years old.
The band is as varied a group of characters as you could imagine. If a situation comedy about our lives was ever aired, it would be panned as seeming too unrealistic. Some of the members are veteran "road rats", others come and go, and usually you have one or two that are so miserable with traveling and being away from home that they leave abruptly. Once in Paris we had an assistant stage manager become so disturbed that he was screaming in the hotel lobby for someone to "Call the embassy, Call the embassy, I have to go home RIGHT NOW! We were worried about him, he really was becoming unhinged. We were within three weeks of being home, and we tried to get him to stick it out until we got back to the States, but he did end up calling the embassy, who partially subsidized his trip home. They took the money that he had and bought him a plane ticket to New York, and then he had to take a Greyhound bus cross-country to Los Angeles. It must have been a long and grueling trip. I could see it coming with him, though. For weeks he had just been becoming more agitated every day, and had a screw or two loose to begin with. I’ll admit that the band didn’t help with his problems. Weeks before that he claimed he would not show up on film or video because he was “Creole”. So one of the band shot video of him, which we watched on the bus the next day. He showed up on the video, of course, and he was very silent for the next day or two. Sometimes there is a bit of cruelty to the humor on the road, and he was the brunt of it on this particular occasion. He was not adapting well to road life, and the stress of being in a foreign country just caused him to snap. It happens, and not too infrequently at that. Hopefully he is doing well.
And then our stage manager Carl had to do two jobs for the rest of the tour. Poor Carl always seemed to be doing at least 2 jobs at once. He's been on and off the road for many years, and he really has some stories to tell. Hopefully he will write a book someday himself. It would be entertaining for sure. As a matter of fact, I thought about putting other people's stories into this book, but finally decided to limit it to only those things I had personally experienced. I think it's better that way.
Back to the band for a minute. I like to say that there are 22 members of the band, and 22 different reasons for being out on the road, from almost obsessive dedication to the music to the opposite extreme of really just wanting to see the world (and specifically the female part of the world) and get through the gig somehow. We have musicians that practice 8 hours a day, and others who rarely pick up their instruments between gigs. Some are so reclusive that they never leave their hotel rooms, just ordering pizzas and reading Russian novels, and others are totally caught up in the social whirl of whatever town they're in. Most fall somewhere between the extremes, including me. What we all have in common is a fairly high standard of musicianship and an ability to adapt to the trials and tribulations of traveling. And that's about the only things we have in common much of the time. We come from all localities and walks of life, and are probably more diverse than most bands, because we don't have to live in one area. It's not an "LA band" or a "New York" band, and that is one of the things that makes it unique. And there is always someone on the band that you have a hard time dealing with. We went through an entire 7 month tour with two band members not speaking to each other. It must have been a terrible strain. Such silliness tends to get out of hand easily, but it makes for some good stories in retrospect.
So, I hope that you will be entertained by the tales that follow. Some names have been changed for fairly obvious ethical reasons.