Well, that one had slipped my mind but it is worth putting down here I think. Then no more war stories, for a while anyway. Promise!
Back before the strict drunk driving laws of today, which I think have changed peoples' New Year's Eve activities radically in the last few years it was common for many folks to go out on that night and party pretty hard. From the musician's perspective, New Year's was very much looked forward to because it was standard practice to make at least double your usual rate for playing that night. I believe that has not changed.
When I was a kid, my brother and I always looked forward to the noise makers and silly hats that my dad would always bring home for us after playing New Year's gigs, which he did consecutively for something like 40 years. So I knew it was a pretty big deal for musicians.
I played them for something like 15 or 20 years in a row with various groups, sometimes as a pick-up musician with groups who needed a guitarist for that night, sometimes with my own groups.
The one that Andy referred too took place while we were playing with Tim Ling and the others in Bit's n' Pieces. I think it was something like 1982. We were booked to play at the local Holiday Inn, a spot where I'd played in a duo a few years before with pianist Rachel Lefebvre but B&P had never played there. They contacted me and the money was good so we of course said yes.
Now, my first mistake was not asking about what the crowd would be like. I naturally assumed it would be a mix of age groups who would enjoy dancing to our mix of Oldies and classic rock stuff. How wrong I was....
The first clue was there when we went to set up in the afternoon, but I was still oblivious: two big charter buses with New Jersey license plates. We were instructed to set up in a the large function room, which we did, ran a sound check and went home for supper. No problems, so far.
But when we returned and walked into the room I knew we had a problem. A big problem. A big OLD problem. The youngest person in the room was maybe 65. The rest? Well, suffice to say, "Born to be Wild" was NOT going to be on the set list!
We got on stage, tuned up and looked at each other with wide-eyed trepidation. Meanwhile, the crowd eyed us with obvious distrust bordering on disgust. It turned out they were a large Senior Citizen group from somewhere in New Jersey who had booked some kind of New Year's weekend at the Holiday Inn, complete with "music for dancing" on New Years Eve. Uh oh.
We immediately turned the PA down to "barely audible" level and started to play our mellowest stuff. No one got up. No one danced. No one blew the tin horns or shook the sound makers. They just stared. Almost in silence. Double uh-oh.
We finished the first set and Andy and I went out to the hall. Almost immediately an elderly lady approached us.
"Young man! This is the worst music I have ever heard! We are having the worst time we have EVER HAD ON NEW YEARS EVE!!!" And with that she stomped off. Well, stomped may be a bit generous but you get my drift.
We looked at each other in horror. Then Tim broke the silence.
"OK - here's what we do. I know lots of jazz standards on the piano. Let's make a set a list and go for it. What the hell else can we do?!?"
Tim to the rescue. We had no idea he knew jazz standards on the piano. But more importantly, Andy and I had only the vaguest idea of how to play them.
"Don't worry," said Tim. "Just follow me."
We got back on stage and Tim announced into the microphone, "Sorry about that first set! Here are some tunes we hope you'll like better!"
And with that, he turned away from the mic and said to us: "In the Mood! In C! Here we go! One, two, three, four..." and away we went.
Well, let me tell you. We could never be accused of being a jazz band but almost instantly (allowing for the mobility of the audience!) the dance floor was filled, ladies in their funny New Years hats, men blowing those squeaky horns, and the evening had turned around.
"Sheik of Araby in B-flat! One, two, three, four!" shouted Tim. "I am the Sheik of Ar - a - by! (huh! huh!) Your love belongs to me!" sang Tim. Andy and I by this point were doing everything we could to keep playing and not totally crack up. The whole thing had turned into a blast.
My chord changes, were, um... creative, to say the least, as were Andy's bass lines. Some of the tunes we barely knew at all but we forged ahead with Tim occasionally shouting out the changes to me over his shoulder, still singing and doing a damn good Sinatra, Perry Como and Nat King Cole impression. To say he saved the night would be an understatement.
At the next break the same old lady came up to us. "Now that's more like it young man! Just keep playing those songs! We're having a wonderful time now!"
Believe it or not, the oldsters wouldn't let us stop when last call came around. But even Tim was tapped out of tunes by that point. So we shook a lot of hands, said our Happy New Years! to all concerned and packed up as fast as we could.
It turned out that Tim had never told us about the piano bar gig he had done during his college days. It was a revelation and put him up another notch on my scale of admiration. But this was (and is) just one part of what being a musician is all about.
Peace & good music,