It’s just another Sunday, the air cool and crisp on this kinda nice spring day… and I had a memory surface unbidden and, as far as I know, without any external provocation. So here goes…
For those who don’t know, I’m a musician; I started playing trumpet when I was seven and then moved on to learn how to play many other instruments, just immersing myself in my love for music. While I was taking formal piano lessons (even though organ is my real love), I also got hooked on being a drummer and with a kit someone had just given me gratis, I set out to learn how to keep the beat while also learning that, um, it’s not as easy as it looks. Anyway…
One of my life-long friend was a self-taught percussionist, his specialty being bongo and conga and as he taught me what he knew about these very different drums, it wasn’t unusual for us to wind up in my yard or his, me behind my kit, him surrounded by congas and we’d just play, improvising the beat and just getting carried away by it.
One day, we were out in his backyard, kicking the beat and drawing quite a crowd and one that couldn’t help but sway to the beats we were laying down when this one guy stepped to us and asked, “Yo, you guys gonna be here for a while?”
My friend said that we would be there (and without missing a beat); the stranger nodded and said, “We’ll be right back…”
I looked over at my friend with a questioning look; he just shrugged and we kept on playing. I guess it was like ten minutes later when the guy who approached us returned with two other guys – and they were all carrying guitars and amps. Well, okay, this was about to get interesting…
We stopped playing long enough for the guitarists to get plugged in and tuned up, taking that time to introduce ourselves; the bassist – the guy who had approached us – looked at me, smiled, and said, “Kick it…”
It was the moment the band was formed and I thought it was pretty fucking cool that five guys who had never met – let alone played together before – was rocking shit so much that we’d drawn a huge crowd and one big enough for the cops to show up, not because of the music but to find out what all these people were doing blocking the road and sidewalks. They didn’t, however, make us stop playing.
We worked through most of the popular music at the time from the likes of Kool and The Gang to James Brown before we just did some amazing improv and you’d think that we’d been playing together for years instead of the couple of hours it actually had been. It was great… it was musical magic. However, it was getting late and we decided to call it quits – but we were also talking about hooking up again because we knew that we had something good going on.
That was about the same time when a guy pushed his way through the remaining crowd and asked, “Who’s the leader of the band?”
Everyone looked at me – and I have no idea why; I said we really didn’t have one and asked what he wanted. It seemed that he was looking for a band to replace a group that was supposed to perform at a local club and how would we like to make some money?
“When?” I asked.
“Tonight,” he replied; I didn’t know about the other guys, but I was stunned by the proposition; having been in band and orchestra in school, I knew it took planning and rehearsals to put on a show… and we were being asked to do it on the fly… and for $250 each for about three hours of work.
I think it took us about two minutes to decide, what the hell… sure, we’ll do it. The guy was happy and told us where we needed to be and at what time even though we had no idea how we were gonna get ourselves there… and then I had to figure out what I was going to tell my mother who was probably not gonna give me permission to go play in what amounted to be a nightclub. She surprised me, though – she said I could go; I got cleaned up, dressed, packed up my kit and waited for the ride we had obtained to come get me.
As I waited, I felt a familiar nervousness and one that kinda didn’t make sense to have because I was used to playing in front of audiences; I pushed the feeling to the side when the van showed up, my friend and our new friends already piled up inside. As we made our way to the club, we put together a quick list of music we knew and thought we could play – that was pretty funny since every part of the conversation started with, “Do you know…?” It took us maybe twenty minutes to get to the place but we were about as ready as we were gonna get.
The guy who hired us came out to greet us and to hurry us inside to get set up and asked me what the name of our group was… like we really had one. Now, at that time, there were a lot of groups in the city and they all had sexy names, like the Soul Sextet; while we got set up behind a red curtain, we came up with the name “Them Changes,” borrowing it from a song by the same name and one we had planned on playing.
We got set up and waited for things to jump off; backstage, we could hear people on the other side of the curtain; my nervousness exploded through me, complete with sweaty hands and an incredible urge to pee – and I wasn’t the only one; the guys with me were pacing back and forth and looking pretty worried and I thought, “I don’t want to do this…”
“Get ready,” the guy who recruited us for this gig said as he handed each of us $250 as promised (of course we wanted the money up front!); we took our places and went through a little tuning and warm-up session. The crowd on the other side of the curtain was oozing anticipation; I don’t know about the other guys, but I could feel it and, well, it just made me even more nervous.
“Curtain in five,” we heard someone say… and I really and seriously had to pee.
John, our bassist, looked around and said, “Shit, man, let’s not fuck this up!”
A voice was speaking to crowd, introducing a newly found group for their entertainment and the hope that they’d enjoy our music; the curtain parted and, fuck me, there were a lot of people out there, looking back at us with anticipation! I know the five of us froze in place for a moment… then John muttered, “First song… and one, two, one, two, three, four…”
And we started playing even though I was about to piss my pants; I kept glancing to my right, where my friend sat, his hands moving across the heads of his congas and he just smiled and nodded as we all got into the song. People were bipping and bopping in their seats; a few people actually stepped to the dance floor to get their groove on… to our music… and to my beat.
We somehow made it through our first set without getting booed or asked to leave. The staff of the place had fixed us a little something to eat and I was cool with that… after I came back from making my bladder happy, which had finally threatened to embarrass the hell out of me in front of all those people. To say we were hyped doesn’t begin to describe how we felt; we kinda nibbled at the sandwiches we were provided and we pretty much inhaled the water and soda given us as we went over the songs for our last set.
We got back in place, the curtain parted and, after soaking in some nice applause, jumped into Sly and the Family Stone’s “Sex Machine.” Now, anyone who remembers this song knows that it’s just over seventeen minutes long and has a driving kind of beat, the kind that’ll get you nodding your head unconsciously. Now, seeing as how I had never even played the drum parts for this song when I practiced, well, I wanted to pee again because I had to perform that flawless snare roll that’s in the beginning of the song; I knew that if I screwed either of those rolls up, we were dead meat.
My hands were sweating like they were underwater as those first five notes sounded; I started the roll, willing my wrists and fingers to please not fuck this up and, blessedly, I made it through the first roll, smiling like an idiot because I knew when I got through the second one, we were gonna rock the joint.
As the audience heard the opening of the song, people were shouting out their approval and as we got into the song proper, I think I came in my underwear – a musical orgasm – because the people were yelling and shouting and dancing either in their seats on crowding onto the dance floor, dancing to the improvised music of five teenagers who had only met – and played with – each other just mere hours ago.
Honestly, I don’t remember how we finished our first show together; all I seem to remember is the five of us working through “Sex Machine” and getting lost in the music we were making. That we were kinda faking our way through the song didn’t seem to matter to anyone (except us); unless you’ve ever performed for an audience, you can’t begin to imagine how seeing people responding positively to your music can make you feel; it’s a rush and that doesn’t do the feeling any real justice.
We not only got invited back to play for the Saturday show, but the five of us went on to play together for another three years before other and more important priorities life had for us came to the front. We perfected our style of music and were getting paid enough to either get better gear or to improve on what we had. At one point, we added some horns and we even learned to switch between instruments, showing our musical flexibility and, keep in mind, of the original five of us, I was the only one who had any formal music training.
But, despite this, my band mates were talented artists in their own right and although we were fairly successful as a group and made some kinda decent money, I realized that the thing that drew us together was our love for music and it didn’t matter how we got that way. At some point, we changed our name from “Them Changes” to “The Soul Breeze,” after a song the five of us kinda threw together and, oddly, one that I still remember today…
I’m not sure why this popped into my head – but I’m glad it did…