I recently found myself feeling very thankful … for, of all things, a summer Sunday thunderstorm.
That happened about 32 years ago.
I remember it as one of those glorious, near-Biblical downpours – the kind that mid-summer, Southwestern PA humidity teases and taunts until it comes down full-throated and angry. The kind whose sound used to mesmerize me as it drumrolled, fortissimo, the aluminum awning on our tiny front porch, pouring in a sheet over its edge.
I remember that particular afternoon storm being accompanied by lightning that flashed with such frequency and bad intent it made you involuntarily wince as you waited the couple beats to learn from the companion thunder crack if any trees or transformers had born the brunt.
It was mid-afternoon and Mom was getting an early dinner ready. We were to eat early because Dad was playing music that night.
On the surface, an every-third-Sunday-night gig at a Moose Club in Perryopolis may sound more like punishment than anything, but Dad loved that particular job. It had absolutely nothing to do with the money, as once each of the nine pieces of the orchestra had been paid, the cut was a measly $25 for three hours. Nah, for Dad, the payoff was in the freedom the band had on those Sunday nights. Things were looser at the Moose than the typical gigs — the opposite of the structured, 14-setters that dictated what kind of song had to be played when. On those Sundays, Sam, the bandleader, would even let the musicians request a chart that they wanted to play, or hadn’t played in a long time … or a jazzier chart that was more fun to jam on than to dance to. And playing from 8:30-11:30 a short drive down Route 51 was a breeze compared to the four-hour jobs they’d drive an hour or more to.
As Mom got things ready in the kitchen, I remember the phone ringing in the dining room, and me getting up to answer it (days before caller ID when a surprise always waited on the other end). It was Sam, calling to let Dad know that the Moose had lost power due to the storm, so the gig was cancelled.
I relayed the message, and remember Dad being bummed, but also being OK with not having to rush the rest of the afternoon, and getting his evening back.
Though there was no longer any reason to eat early, Mom finished what she’d started, and the three of us sat down to eat at the kitchen table.
That’s when the phone rang a second time, about 45 minutes after the first call.
This time Dad answered. It was Sam again, calling to let him know that the Moose got power back, so the dance was back on.
So, Dad resumed his gig-prep ritual, getting a shower, doing his teeth (which took a good 30-45 minutes. I’m not sure there was ever a trumpet player more meticulous about his teeth), laying out his suit, his mute bag, etc.
No big deal.
Until the phone rang for a third time. Sam again.
He’d been able to reach everyone in the band … except the drummer, Bob, who also happened to be my drum teacher. In the age before cel phones, when answering machines were still a novelty, you either got ahold of someone, or you didn’t. Sam figured that Bob must’ve gone out to eat or something after learning that the gig was off.
“Tell Pete to get ready, just in case Bob doesn’t call me back,” Sam told my Dad.
Now, this was suddenly a big deal.
So, I was 15 years old. I’d been taking drum lessons for about a year and a half at my father’s, um, insistence. I literally came home from school one day to learn that he’d signed me up for lessons. I had never previously expressed an interest in the drums. And there was no precedent for my father signing me up for anything that we hadn’t previously discussed. But I was an agreeable kid, and, hey, drums were cool, so I just rolled with it.
I didn’t pay much attention to the not-so-subtle clues as to my Dad’s intentions. When he signed me up for lessons he informed me that he’d already pre-arranged with the instructor (Bob) that I was to learn all styles of music, not just rock. He wanted me versed in the bossanova, the rhumba, the cha-cha, and of course, jazz and swing.
I humored my Dad by going along with this, though my heart beat more in time to big, fat backbeats.
My Dad had started having me tag along on gigs with him, just to listen. I remember at first feeling awkward riding to gigs with guys 40 and 50 years my senior, and then sipping Pepsis for four hours while listening to old music and watching old people dance. He’d also asked Sam to make me some tapes of the band for me (which he recorded ‘live’ on an old Radio Shack Realistic recorder), so I could play along at home, applying the beats I was learning in my lessons. Full disclosure: I’d always skip past the boring slow ones, and just played along to the passable jump tunes … In the Mood, Kansas City, etc.
But I always assumed that the tapes and the ride-alongs were just for exposure, and really, to humor my Dad.
The prospect of playing an actual gig was not even close to being on my radar when Sam called that Sunday afternoon. For one thing, my drums had never left my practice room in the back. I didn’t even have cases for them. And since Dad-slash-Santa had delivered them already set up a couple Christmases back, I didn’t know how to tear them down.
I remember taking them apart that afternoon for the first time afraid I wouldn’t remember how they went back together. When I wasn’t freaking out, I was praying hard that Sam would call back saying he’d gotten ahold of Bob. Alas, a fourth call never came.
The rain had long since stopped by the time Mac came to pick us up. I remember carrying my cymbal stands out one by one, gingerly laying them down in the back of his Chevy Suburban, and covering them with a blanket so they wouldn’t be tempted to roll.
When we were done loading the truck, Mac commented, “They look like dead bodies.”
Not the encouragement I was looking for.
When we got to the Moose, Dad helped me set things back up, bought me a Pepsi to calm my nerves. Sam loaned me an oversized tux jacket, and a gratuitously large, velvet, clip-on black bow tie that wore crooked.
A veteran professional band leader who had logged decades as a successful high school band instructor, Sam was his usual picture of calm. I’ll never forget his only instruction to me, which he delivered with a wry smile: “As long as you begin and end with the rest of the band, you’ll be fine.”
By the time everybody tuned up and gathered on the bandstand, I was in full panic. I gave my full attention to Sam’s every word and gesture, locking into the tempos as he counted off the tunes. From there, I focused on Ralph, the keyboard player (and Sam’s son). Specifically, I hyper-focused on Ralph’s left hand, which he used to play the bass line. After a couple verses, I’d turn my attention back to Sam and wait for him to signal whether the song ended in tempo, if things slowed down, or if everyone was to play the last notes together.
To compensate for all the tunes I didn’t know (which were legion), I’d exhaust my humble bag of tricks on the few that I did, “In the Mood,” “Kansas City,” etc. Imagine a nervous, 15-year-old rock-and-roller turned loose on Glenn Miller. Yeah.
For the others, it was a lot of ‘boom-chicka-boom’ until a tune came to a merciful conclusion. I found myself regretting skipping over all of those boring, slow tunes in the practice room.
I remember little else other than surviving the longest three hours of my life … thanks to a constant stream of advice and encouragement from Alice (our singer) and the guys in the band.
When it was over, I gratefully collected their smiles and handshakes, and then collected myself before turning my full attention to trying to remember how the heck to tear my drums back down.
Then Sam came over to me. Asked me to put out my hand.
Into which he put $25 … my share of the evening’s take.
I still can vividly recall my 15-year-old self’s feeling of surprise and exhilaration as I stared at the money in my hand. It felt like a million bucks to me.
In that humble transaction, I went from being a scared-shi*tless 15-year-old to being a professional musician.
But that paled in comparison to what he did next.
He asked me if I’d consider being his regular drummer.
He said he was looking for someone who could make all the gigs. Bob sometimes played with other groups, forcing Sam to find subs. He wanted someone steady.
I can tell you with 100% certainty that there was nothing in my performance that evening that earned me the invitation.
But I never gave him a chance to reconsider his offer.
And, for the next 13 years, I rode along in vans with guys 40 and 50 years my senior, playing old music for old people.
And loving every single minute of it.
The long drives to the gigs, listening to my Dad and his musician friends talk music and tell tales of guys they played with and places they played.
Seeing it as my honor, as one of the younger guys, to help carry the equipment up and down the steps of whatever hall we happened to be playing in.
Over time, learning every chart inside and out … not just beginning and ending with the band, but catching every kick and squeezing the juice out of every chart. Laying down a mean rhumba, cha-cha and bossanova for the dancers to indulge themselves.
Delighting in the ritual and routine of it all. The rhythm of the set up and tear down. The meticulous way everything perfectly loaded and packed into Mac and Sam’s vans. The way each musician would warm up (I can still hear Mac playing the Theme from the Godfather every time he pulled his alto from his case). Which halls had the best food. Losing myself in Dad’s trumpet solos.
And, to this day, you could quiz me on the #s of the charts in Sam’s book. “Love” by Nat King Cole? #252. “Two-o’ Clock Jump” by Harry James? #320. Dean Martin’s “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You”? #143. “Cherry Pink”? #125. “Begin the Beguine?” 95.
All of it.
And I hope that, somewhere over the course of the 13 years that followed, that I became deserving of the faith and investment Sam placed in a nervous 15-year-old who didn’t know his Artie Shaw from his Cole Porter.
And for the record, I still have the $20 bill that Sam put in my hand after that first gig. (I recall allowing myself to spend the fiver at the county fair a couple days after the gig.)
A couple weeks ago I heard the news that Sammy Bill passed away at age 89.
My deepest condolences to his son Ralph, with whom I also had the (absolute) pleasure of sharing a bandstand with for many of those years.
Sam was never anything but good to me the entire time I held down his drum chair. Thanks to him, I got to fulfill my Dad’s dream of sharing a bandstand with his son. To this day, it remains one of my greatest joys in life.
I’m just one of probably over a thousand young musicians whose lives Sam enriched through his love and gift of music.
So, for that summer Sunday thunderstorm from 32 years ago …
I am thankful.