THE WILEY COUSINS STORY
My earliest recollections of childhood are of falling asleep with my Teddy Bear under the baby grand piano in our living room while my Dad played the piano in his Stride style; with Eubie Blake, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Kurt Weill as his friends. A fire roaring in the fireplace, the warm glow was matched by the warm glow coming from the piano. My Dad called these songs from the Roaring Twenties and Depression Era "Sentimentals". In his hands, they were. It was my earliest introduction to Soul music; my Dad played these wonderful songs as soulful as I've ever heard them played. Bouncy... Bluesy... Swaying... Rolling... but always with wistfulness; even a hint of sadness -
I'm a little lamb who's lost in the woods,
I hope I could... find someone good,
Someone who'll watch over me…
My Dad was carrying on a long tradition in my family. His mother had been a professional musician, playing the bars and lumber camps of Northern California with her younger sister, in bands formed by her brother. My Grandmother's Mom and Dad were "Hillbillies" - as my Dad called them - who entertained the locals in the frontier woods of Oregon.
There is something peculiar in the way a child sees the world. I grew up in a home filled to the brim with books and music. While my Dad was caressing the memories of his Depression era youth, my Mom was out in the kitchen with her Perry Como, Dean Martin, and Frank Sinatra, on the huge RCA Console Stereo that sat adjacent to our dining room table. Behind one bedroom door was my middle sister, who was practicing the latest dance moves to Motown's Smokey Robinson. Behind the other bedroom door was my oldest sister, who was practicing her cello part to a Brahms Concerto. As a child, I just assumed that every home was like this. Music was everywhere. In my home it was like oxygen.
The only thing that would quell this constant racket were the musical moments together, singing Christmas carols, while my Mom played the piano, or sing-alongs whenever my cousins came to visit (they were also musicians, with the youngest appearing on Broadway), or when Ed Sullivan introduced a new act. Yes! We even went so far as to sing along with Mitch Miller -
I'll go home and get my panties,
You go home and get your scanties,
And away we'll go.
Mm mm mm...
Off we're gonna shuffle,
Shuffle off to Buffalo.
I began to get an inkling that something was a bit strange with the way I was brought up when I began to visit school friends. In their homes I found no instruments, and very few records. This feeling of being "different" was only amplified whenever a favorite song of mine came on the radio, and I would be chagrined with my friends for talking over the music. On many occasions I would chase friends out of the house because they wouldn't respect the music.
Who wouldn't respect the music? I was ten years old in 1967. The old Philco radio/turntable I had in my bedroom was blasting out James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Smokey Robinson, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones........ and I found it all riveting! The intro to Arthur Conley's Sweet Soul Music (Lifted from the movie Magnificent Seven) still gives me goosebumps! At ten years old, I felt like the music of the day was a magic carpet ride. Who’d have the nerve to talk over that!?!?
In a somewhat cruel irony, I joined the school band as a trumpet player that same year. I was given the magic blessing of radio, but also the agony of the squeaky, squawky, twenty car pile-up that was grammar school beginning band. The little black dots on the music sheet looked nothing but cold to me. They sounded even colder, as our music teacher would turn eighteen different shades of red while yelling out the rhythms that a roomful of ten-year-old kids couldn't fathom, much less play: “Mississippi Bullfrog, Bullfrog, Utah, Utah, Mississippi Bullfrog”. It……... all……….. came……. out…... sounding….. more……. like…………. ………...“Afghanistan-Winnemucca-Someone-Sat-On-My-Peanut-Butter-Sandwich”!
I just could not grasp that the mighty Mississippi River of musical tide I had heard from birth started out as this poor muddy stream of adolescent squeaks. There had to be more to life than this. My mother (also a music teacher) told me that the beginning was where everyone had to start (she always made this sort of maddening sense!), and so I frog-marched to school each day with my beloved trumpet in tow, playing Mississippi's and Bullfrogs during the day, and then returning home after school to figure out Herb Alpert, Bert Kaempfert, and Al Hirt from records by night. I was desperately seeking that magic, and I never believed it came by way of river-dwelling amphibians.
From the first moment I picked up my horn I became First Chair, which was a badge of honor in the band and orchestra system. By Junior High School, I branched out to play baritone horn and then sousaphone for the long parades where they needed a big strong kid to carry that big brass beast the three miles of the parade route.
Being a band member was considered "nerdy" then, and the big strong body that carried the sousaphone in parades was also wanted for the football teams. My Dad had been a star linebacker and guard for Amos Alonzo Stagg's College of Pacific teams of the early 1940's, so football was in my blood. More importantly, football was a way to forge a successful social life that didn't involve getting tormented for wearing white pants and band sweaters. Already an all-star linebacker and fullback for the Pop Warner team, I was given an option of either playing football or playing in the marching band. I couldn't do both. I chose football. I quickly became an all-star in High School, making All-League as a freshman, and then All-League (2nd Team) as a sophomore on the Varsity Squad.
My parents had divorced by the time I was 10 years old, leaving Mom in a dire financial situation. I saw football as my ticket to college, and so spent every waking moment dedicated to making a college scholarship certain. Music then became my essential passion, an alter ego of sorts...... the counter-balance to soothe my unleashed football savage beast. I needed music more than ever, and so began a lifelong love of records.
Also about this time, my Grandmother died, leaving me enough money to buy a small stereo and headphones. It was then that I would lay awake at nights, tuning in to the "King Biscuit Flour Hour" and live Gospel broadcasts coming out of Oakland. Music became my guiding light, taking me to that special place, all my own. I would rip people to shreds on the football field during the day, and then come back home to lick my wounds with music. In a way, it was a perfect personal ecosystem.
I had already begun a search for the music I heard on "King Biscuit Hour", and that led me to a small record shop in San Jose. Every weekend I would ride my bicycle to Campi's music store and let old man Campi feed me records that he thought I'd like. It was just mind-blowing. He had everything in the world, it seemed, and he would bring me armloads of 45's, which I would listen to on the small turntables he had set up in the store. I would make a day of it, riding the 17 miles in the mornings, and leaving in the late afternoons with all my afterschool job money spent, a gym bag of records swinging from my handlebars, and a big smile on my face.
Being a "Football Stud" made me very popular with the girls. Bringing them home to a deluge of Fats Domino and Chuck Berry made me very unpopular with each and every girl, who suffered through my musical passion. They always liked the music of the day, which was the early 70's, while I was lost in a past era - when music rocked and rolled and swung and swayed and cried and wailed. I just could not listen to John Denver when Howling Wolf was calling. Sorry John. Sorry Sue, Jane, Mary, .......
Then disaster struck. I broke my vertebrae and crushed two disks while lifting weights. My football career, my college scholarship, my dreams (it seemed) were crushed right along with my body. I was bedridden, then couch ridden. After growing tired of TV and having read as many books as I could stomach from Mom's bookshelves, I was dreading another day of watching stupid game shows and ridiculous soap operas. That’s when I noticed that lonely baby grand piano sitting in the living room, just a few yards from where I lay. Jerry Lee Lewis was playing on the turntable in the kitchen, and what I was hearing didn't sound too difficult. "Ya think…?" I asked myself. There was nobody home, so why not!?!
I gingerly rolled off the couch and crawled to the piano. I then made the strategic Darwinian journey from reptile to upright mammal by using the piano to hoist myself onto the piano bench. Balancing for a moment, to find an angle that provided the least amount of pain, I began trying to figure out what I heard Jerry Lee doing from the kitchen. Within half an hour, I was playing a jagged and lumpy rhythm to Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On. I was hooked!
I soon realized that much of what Jerry Lee was doing with his own numbers was just variations of the same thing, and what I’d heard by other piano players. They, in turn, were doing variations of what I’d heard guitar players doing. Light bulbs were going off in my head like Christmas Eve at General Electric! I had found my life preserver and I was grabbing it with both arms. Within a few months I was playing the rhythms for all sorts of songs. The soloing would take longer to master, but I was just happy as a clam playing the rolling rhythms that I heard on record. Nobody was safe! Jerry Lee, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and even John Lennon got a workout. The depression I had been living through after breaking my back was lifting. Music was literally saving my life.
I spent my senior year in High School wearing a steel corset (Mom couldn't afford for me to have an operation), but happy always to have a song in my head and heart. I took up saxophone at this time, too, and spent the early hours of each morning behind a remote gas station in my pickup truck, practicing saxophone to my cassette player. The cops all knew me and waved as they drove by at 3am!
Gradually the pain in my lower back became manageable. Following yet another teenage rebellious moment with my Mom, I decided to leave home upon graduation. I headed for the hills in my trusty Chevy. I was 18 years old, with a pickup truck, a chest of drawers, my clothes, a mattress, a blanket, and $7.00 in my pocket. A former football buddy of mine had rented an old dilapidated farmhouse on the foot of the Santa Cruz Mountains. He offered me the cozy confines of an upscale chicken coop behind the garage. Having nowhere else to go, I accepted the invitation, set to work converting the coop into my new home, and soon had a set up that included a bed, rug, refrigerator, hot plate, crock pot… as well as my Grandmother's old upright piano that I had been given by my Uncle. Besides freezing in the winter and roasting in the summer, I was the happiest I had been in ages. I was free as a bird and (ironically) learning how to play "Freebird" for the band of ex-High School friends, who had agreed to start a band with me in the adjacent garage. From a chicken coop to a garage - can’t be bad, I thought!
The steel corset was, by now, falling off. I had lost so much weight that it was useless. I got a job as a musical instrument repairman’s apprentice, and moonlighted as a band leader. The rent in my chicken coop was $13 a month. This included the garage rental. Meals were often a single box of "Rice-a-Roni", supplemented by apples or walnuts, or just about any fruit or nut I found from people's yards along the way. Sometimes the paycheck at the musical instrument shop was so meagre that I just ate walnuts. I’ve not eaten walnuts since that era!
As my musicianship got better and better by leaps and bounds, the High School musicians seemed to become worse and worse. It was funny how that worked. Soon I was replacing a lot of guys in the band with better musicians. Eventually, there was nobody left from my High School. Soon, however, they also became marginal in my ears. I wanted more than they could give, so I began to join other bands.
The wave of freedom that the Hippie movement glorified had turned sour by the mid 70's. The murders at Altamont and in Manson's Los Angeles had been a sign that things were out of control. Sadly, the bands I joined were heavily into the drug culture. It just seemed unavoidable at the time. Every party, every bar, every restroom in a darkened club were all laced with drugs. LSD was everywhere. Cocaine was just then making it into the mainstream... and was soon to become a deadly business. Bikers were pushing meth. It was ugly and it was everywhere. I began to fall into the trap. The gauntlet was always thrown at my feet; join in the party or be an outcast. Guns began to show up at band rehearsals. It was obvious where the guns and cocaine were leading. I wanted out of it all, so gave up music to live in a tent at the top of the Santa Cruz Mountains. After a year of soul searching and working as a lumberjack, I was ready to try it all over again. I moved back into the city for a second go at it.
I searched the music newspapers I found at the local music stores, checked all the “musicians wanted” ads, looked on every bulletin board, went to every bar and dive to listen to every band....and finally lucked out when I called a bass player who was feeling the same frustrations as I was. He had a drummer friend who was looking to form a new band. I just so happened to have a lightning rod for a guitar player, and so my first “real band”, The Fur Trappers, was formed on a single phone call. Soon we were blasting out all sorts of cover and original material. For the first time in my life I felt that I was a “proper” musician. Playing with talented people was all it took. They lifted me up to places I had never been before. Even though I was singing lead vocals by then, I thought that we should have a better singer, and we placed a call out to Louisiana for a singer - someone the bass player had met years ago. He had a magic voice. I gladly gave up my lead singing to concentrate on piano, sax, harmony singing, and writing. We then had a band that could compete with just about anyone!
Soon we started to get offers to open up for big name touring bands. We had quite a run doing this until our guitar player fell off the wagon, for good. Growing tired of the locked down organized crime aspect of the Bay Area clubs, we decided to go try Austin, Texas in search of a guitar player. The great music that was just hitting the airwaves told us all we needed to know about Austin. The band loaded up our equipment into the van, I hopped on my Harley, and away we went. Texas or bust! So began a long series of successes.... followed by agonizing periods of bad luck and hardship. That's how the music business is. Ask anybody who’s ever been in “Da Bizz”.
After a while, our band broke up due to health issues. The traditional roots band, The Rhythm Rats, that I joined afterwards, achieved a lot of recognition in the Texas club circuit. After a five year stint with The Rats, I left that band to follow my own dreams again with my original music, which eventually took me to Finland in 1997. I’ve made my home in Finland ever since.
It has been forty years now since I joined my first band. To be honest, it seems like forty minutes. Music has a funny way about it. Just when you think you've heard it all, another artist comes along and blows your socks off. Just when you think you've written your last song, you wake up one morning with ten new songs bouncing around in your head. Just when you think you've played your last gig, lady luck comes along and jump-starts your career. Just when you think the stories have ended, along comes another horizon to open up another chapter. The road goes on forever, and the music will never die.
Eubie Blake and Frank Sinatra are living on my turntable right now. Speckled Red is right next door. Little Brother Montgomery is in the kitchen making coffee. Freddie King just stopped by for lunch. Ike Turner is telling jokes to Elvis in the living room. Ukulele Ike is singing in the shower. There is laughter in my heart. And so it goes, around and round and round…