Monday, August 30, 2010

Dancin' With Wilson

Lynchburg Virginia in 1967 was not a great place to be black. However if you were up on stage with a rack of brass horns, a throbbing bass line, a wicked guitar wailing away, and you were singing about the fact that you just “gotta have it”, you were loved.

In December of 1967 when Otis Redding died in a plane crash the one thousand students of Lynchburg College went into mourning. Most of them were dead set against any civil right legislation, but when it came to soul music, well that was a different story.

We drank a lot in college and that made soul music sound oh so good. And when we drank we would dance, and when we danced, we would only dance to rhythm and blues. Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Roofus Thomas, Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gay and Martha Reeves they were our dance heroes.

While people our age were tripping out in California and fighting in the jungles of Vietnam we were drinking Bourbon and Ginger Ale and doing the “Monkey” and “The Funky Chicken to the music of Sam & Dave and Wilson Pickett.”

In February of 1968 word got out that Wilson Pickett would be performing just seventy-five miles west of Lynchburg at a little redneck school called Ferrum College. This was a major deal for all lovers of R&B as the big acts like Pickett usually only worked the larger cities.

Wilson Pickett was 26 years old at this time and at the peak of his career. Like many of the great soul artists Wilson came from the gospel tradition. He had initially worked with a group called The Falcons who were one of the first vocal groups to bring gospel into a “pop” context. After departing from The Falcons Wilson wrote a few minor R&B hits for small independent labels. In 1964 Pickett was signed to Atlantic records and in 1965 he broke into the charts with a song he co-wrote with guitarist Steve Cropper titled In the Midnight Hour.

I had a friend, Ron Monk, who was from southwest Virginia. Between his thick Appalachian drawl and my Brooklyn utterance we could hardly understand each other but we were buddies and we both loved Wilson Pickett. Ron had a sister, Edna, who attended Ferrum and she not only got us tickets to the show but also secured us with dates.

When the day of the concert arrived we were extremely excited. We picked up our three-piece suits from the cleaners, shined up our wing tips and put on our ties. On the way out of town we made an important stop at the Alcohol Beverage Control store to pick up our Bourbon. We had our own unique and original way of applying spirits into our bodies. We employed what we known a “drinking machine” which in a very real sense was an alcoholic bong.

It was shaped like an hourglass. In the bottom we would pour in ginger ale and in the top portion would go the Old Grand Dad or the Jim Beam. It was extremely efficient. Just when the shot of whiskey would become overwhelming, the ginger ale would kick in and quickly deliver the mixture of sugar and grain into one’s vessel. One drink would get the party going, two would alter the senses and three, well you just didn’t drink three shots out of a drinking machine.

We headed west on Route 460 in my pearl white 1959 Buick Skylark and quickly drove the 75 miles to Ferrum College. Before we picked up our dates we decided to have a quick go round with the drinking machine. After our short libation I asked Monk if he know where we were to meet the appointed women. Monk looked at me funny as he was lighting up a smoke and said “well Neal I wrote it down on a piece of paper and gave it to you before we left, didn’t I?” Already feeling the Bourbon kick in I replied “I remember the paper but the last place I saw it was on your desk in the dorm room.” We both gazed at each other in silence and realized we had no idea where our dates were. We stumbled to a phone booth and called Edna. Edna was not in a good mood. Apparently we were to show up at 2:00 to take our dates to a party, it was now 6:00 and just two hours before show time. “Well Ron” I overheard Edna say “you boys can get your sorry asses over to the Omega Nu Phi Delta Lamba frat house and see if Becky and Fran are still available but you know this is a big party night and you just might be too late.” Ron replied “but we have their tickets, they won’t be able to go without us, would they?” I could hear Ron’s sister laugh through the receiver as she said “Ron are you listening to me? There’s plenty of boys over at that frat with tickets and lots of booze, you know what I mean little brother?” Ron nodded as he hung the receiver up and said “let’s give it a shot, maybe they have a live band and some free food.”

There was a band and they were loud and everyone was dancing. We waited for the song to end, jumped up on a ratty old couch and announced that Neal and Ron have arrived from Lynchburg and were looking Becky and Fran. As the music was starting up again we heard a girl’s voice shout out from the crowed “you jerks are three Bourbons and ten songs too late.

We didn’t know if that was Becky or Fran but it didn’t matter. The music got louder and the entire room was doing this thing called “Dirty Dancing” which to Ron and I seemed like some type of South West Virginia mating ritual one in which we were surly not participating in. I turned to Ron and said “well shit what should we do now?” Ron took a drag off his Marlboro and replied “well at least we don’t have to worry about our dates, so lets eat some food and have another round from the drinking machine.” At that stage of the evening it sounded like a very logical idea.

We looked up at the clock and it was 7:30, we looked at each other and said “show time.” With Tennessee whiskey running through veins and food stains all over are now rumbled suits we proceeded to stumble and weave over to the auditorium for our date with Mr. Pickett. Before entering the concert we had one last taste of the drinking machine and we were ready to dance.

Wilson was smoking, he had a 12 piece horn section and they were all dancing in time to the music. He opened with his current hit “99 & a Half Won’t Do” and went right into “6345-789” and when he launched into his classic “In the Midnight Hour” everybody in the hall (which was the school gym) was up and dancing.

Being just two very inebriated men without any female companions Ron and I made our way up to the front of the stage. We then commenced to redifine the entire concept of The Boogaloo, The Philly Dog and The Funky Chicken.

Our inspired gyrations must have caught Wilson’s eye, for inbetween vairious na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na’s he looked down at us and pointed his long ebony finger our way and said “do you feel it, do you feel it?” We looked up at the almighty Mr. Pickett “Yes, yes, we do, yes, yes we do.” Wilson then screamed into the mic and said “then come up here and show it.”

We didn’t bother with the stairs. We hoisted ourselves up onto the front of the stage and after tripping over the moniters and a few mic cables we managed to right ourselves and started to dance on both sides of Wilson. Wilson was in the middle of “Land of A Thousand Dances” and as he sang out each dance Monk and I would try to do it. We might have gotton The Mashed Potatoes mixed up The Pony and the Alligator with the Watusi but we were holding our own. We were up there dancing with Wilson Pickett feeling the power of the horns, bass and drums pushing away at our backs.

When Wilson launched into “Mustang Sally” we figured our time was up but no one came to fetch us off stage so we kept right on dancing. It was hard keeping up with Wilson, as singing and dancing was his line of work. Halfway thgrough “Mustang Sally” Monk and I decided to do The Turtle. It was actually quite a simple dance. We got down on our backs and then kicked our arms and legs back and forth as it we were an upside down Teripen.

Without any warning Wilson then sequed into “The Funky Broadway” and we both jumped back into the bugaloo mode. We could tell Wilson was reaching the end of the set, he was grunting, “ugh I feel it, it feels soooo good, Lord have mercy, oh, hear me talking, ah-ow it feels so good.” He raised his arms up and said “help me boys, help me boys.” It’s funny how R& B musicians always seem to say everything twice. I got under one arm, Monk the other and we helped Wilson off stage. He then darted back on the stage, blew kisses to everyone and came back to where Monk and I were standing in our glowing post performance high. We had danced and sweated so much we were almost sober, but not quite. Wilson looked at us and said “you guys are a gas come on downstairs and I get you some cokes.”

Wilson brought us down to his dressing room (which was the gym looker room). “Hey help yourself to some sandwiches, pop, whatever you like, I got to jump in the shower and then jump on the bus.” Wilson talked to us as he undressed down to his boxer shorts, and as he was peeling off his clothes they were being picked up by his roadie and put in a bag.

Wilson was built like an athlete, he wasen’t a big man but he was tight all over from all that jumping around stage he did every night. Monk and I were almost tongue tied in his presence but the remaining Burbon in our system kept us talking. “So Wilson, where to next?” Monk and I asked at almost the same time. Smiling in just his boxes and soxs Wilson replied “Well we going north the Charlottsville, then across to Richmond, Washington DC, Philly and then to New York where I’ll be working The Apollo.”

Wilson dryed his sweat off with a beach towel. On the towel was pictured a verluptous black women in a bikini and an inscription that read “be my summer playmate.”

When Wilson was finished with the towel he let it drop down on the locker room bench. His roadie then said something about the shower on the bus, Wilson threw on a bathrobe gave us both a thumbs up and a wink and just like that he was gone.

A very short silence of 3 to 4 seconds followed, before we both grabbed opposite ends of the towel and pulled it tight. “Let go Yankee boy” Monk says “this is my home state and when a famous R&B player leaves a sweaty towel behind it belongs to me.” “No way” I said “remember whose car we came in Monk, and whose sister set us up with those lame dates.” At that moment we both let go and took a major tumble. I hit my lip on an open locker and it started to bleed, Monk hit his nose on the bench and it started instantly swelling. Monk’s got up and yelled “don’t bleed on the towel, whatever you do don’t bleed on the towel.” “Ok, ok” I said, lets sign a truce and agrre on it’s ultimate fate when we sober up.

We were sober enough to drive back to Lynchburg that night, Ron feel asleep with the towel tucked saftly in his arm. We knew what a treasure we had. Wilson Pickett’s towel with his real sweat on it. Sweat that transpired as he sung “Mustang Sally”, “In the Midnight Hour” and “Land of A Thousand Dances”.

The next morning Ron and I went down to the Tip-Top diner for buscuits and gravey and we took along a deck of cards. After a few buscuits and two cups of coffee we played five card stud for the towel and Ron won. He promised that wherever he lived I could come and visit the towel any time. We both agreed that it would never be washed.

I lost the towel but I’ll never loose the moment. The moment I jumped up on stage in a gym in Virginia I danced the night away with the Wicked Pickett and his rocking band doing that Funky Broadway.