Those poor musicians. They have to play at the drop of a hat even with stomach flu (Bring the bucket!), honor repeated requests for crappy cover tunes (“I Will Survive” again?!), and keep the show going no matter what (anybody ever hear of the Titanic?). Along the way, management underpays them, drunken customers try to hit on them, brides starve them to death, and everybody expects them to take it with a smile and the right notes.
Oftentimes, musicians encounter the kind of gigs that make for good anecdotal stories years later. My keyboardist husband was playing his regular weekend gig at the Hale Koa in Waikiki with a singer and a band, when this spastic, drunken couple came up to dance. The woman flailed around so much she swung one of her arms and knocked the guy’s toupee off, sending it flying across the dance floor. The band didn’t miss a beat, but inside, they were convulsing.
Back in the 1990s, when Seattle saxophonist Chuck Hickman (Northwest Jazz Collective) played with the Convertibles, he experienced his own surreal gig moment Eastside when a customer dropped dead on them. Wait, it gets better. “The bathrooms are directly at the back of the room across from the stage. A guy comes out, stands next to the audio booth and falls flat on his face,” described Hickman, also a pastor at Port Gardner Community Church in Everett, WA. “Paramedics come and take him outside while we play on. On the break, we go out and the paramedics are having a smoke before they head back to the barn. I ask how the guy was doing… They said he died at the scene. The dead guy is in the emergency vehicle resting comfortably (so to speak) while the EMTs enjoy a smoke. I guess if you’re gone you’re gone. No rush to get you to your next appointment.”
Musicians have a million stories like that. Here’s a sample, from their mouths to God’s ears:
R&B guitarist/vocalist Del Riker (Sly & the Family Stone): THE ONLY GIG FROM WHICH I’VE EVER BEEN FIRED — Our band went up from L.A. to do an afternoon gig at a small Mom-&-Pop club in Ventura, CA, I believe. The owner, who tended the bar, specifically stated he wanted us to play dance music that his wife, the only dancer in the joint, could dance to. Since we were primarily a funk-oriented band (before funk was), our repertoire was mostly R&B, but they apparently wanted discotheque. So for one full set, we wailed away, whilst this scantily clad, skinny gimpy white chick is trying to keep up. What a sight: the smiling, apron-clad bartender is behind the bar polishing beer mugs, gazing lovingly over at his wife, who is herking and jerking, writhing and squatting on the tables of beer-guzzling gomers — most of whom they both knew — who are cheering her on, fixated on her crotch, trying to stick folded dollar bills in her … costume. It was all we could do to keep straight faces. After the set, the bartender came up to us and said, “Pack your stuff — you’re fired. She can’t dance to that shit.” We couldn’t pack out of there fast enough.
Jazz entertainer, the late Jimmy Borges (Na Hoku HanoHano lifetime achievement award winner, Hawaii Five-0 actor): I won a contest sponsored by the Oakland Tribune when I was 18 and I got to sing with the great Illinois Jacquet, an all-black swing band (much like Count Basie) at Slim Jenkins. Slim’s was a black-and-tan club in West Oakland, which was then known as the “black section” of the city. I went there with my two Irish buddies. They were the only two white guys in the place except for a couple of platinum blondes. The dudes were all dressed to the nines with pomaded, slicked-back hair. I imagine that’s what the Cotton Club in Harlem looked like…lots of good-looking people. I’m sitting next to the bandstand and the MC comes up and says, “And now, ladies and gentleman, the winner of the Oakland Tribune singing contest. Let’s have a nice round of applause for Mr. Sandy Mitchell.” I immediately look over to my buddies and say, “Wow man, I thought I won the contest!” The MC then looks over at me with his hand on the side of his mouth and says, “Say man, das you. I cain’t remember yoah name!” From then on, I was Sandy Mitchell to my buddies…yeah! I really look like a Sandy Mitchell, don’t I?
One more. I was the opening act at the famous Hungry i in San Francisco. The late great Tommy Leonetti was the star and we became pals. His big ending song was “The Impossible Dream.” On his closing night, I secretly took the jazz quartet’s music and right where they turned the page for the dramatic and powerful ending, I taped pictures of nudes, covering all of the music. When that moment came, Tommy was wailing and all of a sudden, the music stopped and the guys were laughing so hard they were almost crying. Tommy was so pissed! He was so angry that I never confessed that I did it. When I think about it, that was really unprofessional of me and cruel (but it really was funny at the time).
Jazz trumpeter Mike Lewis: The weirdest place was the stairwell on the sides of the [Neil] Blaisdell [Center] stage [in Honolulu]… This cat named Vivek and I were supposed to play some classical distant trumpet parts with the Symphony… I didn’t know Vivek that well at the time, had a real sour stomach, and let a bomb go right before we had to play… That poor cat.
The weirdest thing was a recent gig with my brother’s big band. While the band had just taken a break, a really wasted chick came to the front of the bandstand to ask my brother if she could sit in. At that moment, she fell backwards, smashing the sax section and microphones to smithereens. Of course everyone one in the bar got silent, so I quoted that grandpa line from the movie “Moonstruck”: “Somebody tell a joke,” and some dude at the bar says, “A skeleton walks into a bar and orders a beer and a mop.” Once again, dead silence until the entire place erupted into hysteria.
Grammy-award-winning violinist Mads Tolling: I once had a gig on a boat — it was a private boat, and you couldn’t actually stand upright to play. The boat went around the San Francisco Bay going right next to windsurfers surfing under the Golden Gate Bridge. It felt bizarre playing “Stella By Starlight” with that kind of scenery passing by. But that’s not all. The waves were significant that day, so since I get seasick easily — it wasn’t all that easy to play and feel OK at the same time. The real challenge came on the way back to shore. At that point, the guests had gotten plenty to drink, and there was one particular drunk woman, who kept requesting songs while we were playing. She ended up swinging her body from side to side while holding onto a bar in the ceiling in a room the size of a bathroom while three musicians were trying to play “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy!” I must admit getting to shore was a relief, but we all could laugh about it later.
Smooth jazz saxophonist Darren Motamedy: Hey, when my buddy and I were in college, we played Fiddler on the Roof. When Tevia was singing a song, he went over to get some water from a large bucket, and in the bucket was also a nude. Not a happy Tevia.
Jazz guitarist Frank Vignola: The weirdest place I ever played was a biker bar in Long Island, with a four-piece swing quartet that featured 78-year-old (at the time) clarinetist Clarence Hutchenrider. They actually loved it. Whew! And the weirdest thing that ever happened at a gig was on a New Year’s Eve. At midnight, they pulled down netting from the ceiling of a huge hotel ballroom, releasing thousands of balloons. One the spikes holding the netting in place came flying down hitting and ricocheting off of the sax player’s back right into the double-bass, putting a huge crack in a $50,000 French bass.
Article first appeared in Examiner Oct. 13, 2012.