Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Day the Music Died

One of the problems with getting old is that friends you have known for fifty years or more start to die off.  Those who have smoked for most of their lives get to go to the front of that unfortunate line.  So it was with a man who was a big part of my life for a lot of years.

In 1968 I was a junior in college.  I had been playing the drums for about three years and was really caught up in the excitement of it.  Starting with a local garage band called the "Destinies", we were a completely typical kid band who played the basic rock and roll songs of the day.  We rarely earned any money for our efforts, but I would have crawled through broken glass just for the chance to play.  It was like a fire that burned inside of me and refused to be quenched.  That basic rock and roll was fun but I felt the drive to play something more creative.  It did not require watching too many jazz performances on a show presented by what is now Public Broadcasting, to realize that jazz was the creative outlet I was yearning for.

I was home on a weekend when my mother showed me an ad in the Uniontown, PA newspaper, telling that there was a Saturday afternoon jam session at a bar in Uniontown.  Dressed in my best 'hipster' black turtleneck sweater and burgundy blazer, I set off to see what a 'jam session' was actually like.  I finally located the club and made my way in.  On the stage was a beat up old drum set and what appeared to be a spinet piano.  Anyone who has seen the back of a spinet piano knows that it looks more like a shipping crate than a musical instrument.  I would later learn that the 'piano' was actually a Hammond M-3 spinet organ.

I sat at the bar and drank my beer while trying hard to be inconspicuous, no easy job as the sole white face in the place.  Shortly, a boy who appeared to be about high school age entered the club leading an obviously blind guy about my age.  That was the first time I saw Bobby Reed.  After some adjustments and sound checks, Bobby took the stage with his young drummer.  He kicked off the set with a tune called "Green Onions", originally recorded by Booker T and the MG's.  I could not believe my ears.  The club was filled with an amazingly full sound of lead, rhythm, and bass, every bit a duplicate of the recorded song.  The young drummer was tentative, struggling to keep up and sounding like he had been playing for only a few weeks.  But the song, dominated by the full Hammond organ sound, was like nothing I had ever heard in a live performance.  After the first three songs, I was hopelessly hooked.  THIS was the jazz I had been seeking and never expected to find.  I wanted to be a part of Bobby's music SO desperately, but I could hardly go charging up onto the stage and throw his struggling drummer out no matter how badly I wanted to do just that.  After six or eight songs, it became evident that there were no other musicians in the club.   At the end of a song, I went up to the stage and introduced myself, asking if I could sit in for a few songs.

"Sit in" typically consists of three songs:  One very basic song so that the leader can evaluate your skill level; a second more challenging song; and a third, either a killer song to show off your ability (if the leader determines that you have ability), or a mushball song to get you off the stage without too much more embarrassment (if you had no ability).  When we hit the second song, the magic was there.  The song had texture and punctuation, volume changes, and a perfect ending.  The third song was a Jimmy Smith jazz organ tune that I was familiar with and knew well.  It was like musical sex!  Even with 'pingy' cymbals and untuned drums the song was splendid.  As difficult as it was to leave, I thanked both of them and left the stage.  I was completely stunned by Bob's ability.  I knew that there were masters of the instrument but I would never have expected to find one in Uniontown, PA.

That was the start of a great friendship.  Bob called me several times and we played engagements when I was not at school.  By December of 1969 I was finished with school and ready to pursue my passion full time.  Bob had a surprise for me in the form of his brand new Hammond B-3 organ with two Leslie speakers.

Hammond B-3 and Leslie Speakers

I had never seen such a beast!  It weighed about 150 pounds, but it made the most incredible music in the hands of Bobby Reed.  Now we had become furniture movers who played music.  We started out playing 5 nights a week at a club in Everson, PA.  That lasted several months before it finished, but it gave us the chance to polish our music.  Like any partnership, the success of the product depends upon the strengths of one partner offsetting the weakness of the other.  And a most splendid product we did produce.  We offered a variety of music ranging from schmaltzy dance music to hard driving organ jazz.  As you might imagine, two young men following a shared passion preferred the jazz as a medium to show off our talents.  I never ceased to be in awe of his ability.  Night after night I would sit behind him, listening to the magic he created.  Every time he would take a song to a crescendo, I would wonder where he could possibly go from there.  But he never failed to pull up some key change or chord run that would take the music to yet another level.  What a privilege it was so spend so much time watching pure genius at work. 

Our music put us on both sides of a racial divide.  We would sit and play 'whiter than white' country and dance music for one show, then pack up and head for what was commonly called the "chittlin' circuit".  There we were free to express our real passion with organ jazz played at the volume we wanted to one appreciative audience after the other. 

For the next seven years we were a traveling show, hauling that heavy hardware from town to town, club to club.  It was during those long drives in a rusted-out old pickup truck that I really got to know Bob.  Despite his limited education, I found that Bob had an inquisitive mind that absorbed information like a sponge.  Hour after hour was spent in conversations suitable for a graduate level round table discussion.  Bob loved philosophy, although I doubt he recognized it as such, but he also enjoyed history, sociology, physics, geography, and several other topics.  More often than I cared to admit he would better me with, "If that is true, then why is...?", leaving me without a solid answer.  Our times together were so much more than work or performance.

In 1974  two eventful things happened.  One was I got married to a woman who hated my music and everything associated with it (I can't explain why I married her either), and the other was that we met a singer named Bobby Nicholas, whom we called Robert to avoid confusion.   The weakest part of our performance was singing.   Bobby Reed tried singing and did what he could, because I had nothing to offer.  If Bob and I completed each other musically, then Bobby Nicholas opened an additional dimension musically.  He had a deep, mellow voice and a stage presence that brought sorely needed polish and excitement to us.  After  Robert joined us things started to take off.  We landed a contract with Crown America Corporation to play two weeks, six nights a week rotating among their Inns in Uniontown, Indiana, PA, Johnstown, PA, and Cumberland, MD.  That was a problem for me since I had a day job and could only play on the weekends.  Fortunately, the two Bobs were able to find a fill-in for the week nights when I could not make it.

In the mid seventies something called "Disco" was sweeping the country.  With that style of music came the rise of the "DJ", one individual with a stock of records and tapes (later CD's) who could provide an evening's entertainment at a fraction of the cost of live music.  As the DJ market expanded and more people entered it, the market for live music shrank dramatically.  What had been a steady source of, at least, weekend work all but dried up.  With little work out there, Bob did what he could to earn a living by working with other bands.  When he did call me with a job, my (then) wife was quick to berate me for leaving my family to run off to some sleazy dive.  Eventually she won, and Bobby Reed and I parted ways.  In the following years I played with a few pickup bands, did some amateur theater pit bands, and played with a college jazz ensemble.  The playing was very infrequent and eventually the lack of practice cost me my skills.  The flame of passion gradually went out, extinguished by the cold hand of reality. In March of 2009, the treasured drum set that had been so much a part of me, was donated to the Pennsylvania School for the Blind.

It would be 35 years before I would see my friend again. 

A mutual acquaintance had been on a job with Bob and Bob asked if he knew me.  That acquaintance relayed Bob's message to me, telling me that Bob was playing one night a week at one of our old haunts from 35 years ago, the Holiday Inn in Uniontown.  Now with my second wife and packing a lot more pounds from the last time he saw me, I finally got to see Bob again.  As if all those years had not existed, two old men approaching Medicare age renewed the friendship they had when the heat of musical passion drove their lives.  Gone was the massive B-3 and Leslie cabinet speakers, victims of obsolesce and replaced by an electronic keyboard that could create the same sound and dozens more at a fraction of the size and weight.  All the skill was still there, his hands apparently free of arthritis, injury, or indications of old age.  He now worked with two new players, a very talented saxophone player and a drummer who made me wish I was him.

Bobby Reed at Christian Klay Winery

Bobby Reed worked hard to become the self-taught master of a complex and difficult instrument.  He spent his youth learning and practicing, ever improving and honing his God-given ability.  He taught himself to arrange music and to record music.  He was an amazing talent who never really knew how great he was.  He used to send me musical cuts from other bands and tell me to listen to the organ parts.  He would be so impressed with other players without ever realizing that he was already much better than that player ever would be.  I wanted to scream at him, "YOU ARE BETTER THAN HIM!", but he would not have listened anyway.   It was like super-ego in reverse.

Music defined him and he became an icon in the local music scene.  The problem was that the local music scene was constantly shrinking.   It's very frustrating when you are the absolute best at something that few people care about.  As Bob's audience continued to shrink, his passion also began to wane.  He battled depression, especially in the cold winter months when he could not even go outside.

We had moved to South Carolina in 2016 but I was still able to talk to Bob regularly.  We were so far separated that there was honestly little for us to talk about.  I think he just needed to be able to reach back and grasp something from those glory years so long ago.  To be honest, I think I needed the same thing.  On February 16, 2018 Bob sent me an email followed by a telephone call.  For a blind man, Bob was really good with email.  His typing skills were surprising, with very few typos.  The gist of the email was that, in the course of diagnosing ongoing breathing problems, they had found a tumor in Bob's lung that was threatening to shut off the blood flow through his lungs.  The doctors had installed a treatment port in his chest.  When he called me, just before going into the hospital, I could hardly understand his raspy and broken speech.  His last words to me were, "I'll tell you more about it when I come home".

He was supposed to come home.  He was supposed to get out of the hospital where I could visit him and we could reminisce about our shared years.  Instead, he never came home.  His Sister-in-Law Suzie was really good about keeping us advised about his condition, but apparently it started off bad and went downhill from there.  On March 14, 2018  Robert D. Reed died from the effects of lung cancer at age 69.    The Day the Music Died.