The Night I Beat Minnesota Fats

Minnesota FatsSometimes you can’t make this stuff up.  In the passing of the incomparable Etta James, whose music was the truth; mystery surrounds the folklore of who her father actually was.  I might have encountered him once late one night…

Yeah, if you are of a certain age, you remember the legend, the folklore, and the tales of the infamous Rudolf Wanderone Jr.  He was a character who became known through his own cunning, cleverness, and ability to assume any truth.  You may know him as Minnesota Fats.  Lore has it that Etta James was his illegitimate daughter.  And Etta James believed that he was her father.     

Well, let me assume the truth and tell you that there was a night some 20 years ago when I met up with Rudolf Wanderone, Jr.  That’s right, the self-proclaimed Minnesota Fats and I ran into each other in a bar.  …And that night I beat the legend.  

Most people became acquainted with the wily Wanderone through the classic Paul Newman film The Hustler.  Wanderone was originally known as New York Fats among other aliases and nicknames.  However, some said he appropriated the name to anoint his own fame.  He was a conversational opportunist.  If there was an opportunity that arose amidst any chin wag, Fats was ready to go with it.  Truth was what you made it.  Fats was every bit the persona portrayed so brilliantly by Jackie Gleason.  Was the movie made about him or did he just assume the role? The Hustler

I was in Nashville for a day or two attending a Christian music sales meeting two decades ago.  I managed a joint venture between Word Records and Sony Music.  Word’s point man was Tom Willett, a music guy who ran with Tonio K, T Bone Burnett, and Mark Heard, among many other superbly talented music makers.  He was an unlikely character, and yet maybe the perfect one to lead his company into the wider mainstream music market.  He loved a cigar, a good glass of wine, and his wonderfully irascible personality won the hearts and minds of us music heathens at Sony Music.  

This joint venture made Tom and I running buddies.  One of our ongoing tasks was to determine what Word acts to release into the mainstream retail market.  When we would attend these periodic two-day Word Records sales meetings, we might be confronted with 20 or 30 new albums with artists campaigning us relentlessly to escape the humble Christian bookstore marketand get into the “real” music business—whatever that was..  So Tom and I would spend two days getting “worked” by many of these artists.   

On this particular occasion, we spent the entire day listening to new music, watching videos, and reviewing marketing plans, and the entire evening attending a private showcase of a half dozen artists at a downtown Nashville club.  After all the ‘grip & grins’ and backstage promises, Tom and I escaped about 11 PM in dire need of the grape.

Hermitage HotelAlthough we both knew our way around the clubs and bars and restaurants in Music City, we ended up stopping by the bar in the Hermitage Hotel, a venerable, but weathered downtown hotel.  The intimate bar was located on a lower floor below the main lobby, and a handful of quiet drinkers were nearing their last lap before closing time.  This wasn’t a music business hang-out.  Tom and I were off the path.  

As we embraced our first glass of chardonnay, a rotund man, slightly seedily dressed and easily in his 80’s approached our table.  He was obviously the host of the bar and took theatrical pride in announcing to us that he was the legendary Minnesota Fats.  

And this boastful codger did it with style.  He had clearly assumed the style of W.C. Fields, and the words of Mohammad Ali in declaring “My boys, I’m the greatest that ever lived!”  Word has it that even Ali declared that Fats was the only braggart greater than himself.   

Well, the round man had me at his first exaggeration.  Yeah, I had spent the day at a Christian music salesCicero Murphy meeting, but I grew up with pool stick in my hand and with a small-town gambler’s heart.  I’d spent the day listening to Jesus music, but I was about to spend the night listening to the tune of the devil.  I knew about all of the billiard legends – the Cicero Murphy’s, the Luther Lassiter’s, the Willie Mosconi’s.  These were the genteel men of the cue who had battled the likes of hustlers of Minnesota Fats’ ilk in sleazy pool halls and elegant ballrooms from Chicago to Norfolk to New York.  Those were the big names on the billiard circuit of the ‘40s and ‘50s.   These were the men who created the storied world that was portrayed in the seminal film The Hustler.

Yeah, Minnesota Fats knew that I knew.  When I spouted the names of Lassiter and Murphy, the old man looked at me curiously.  I quickly asked him for his autograph.  And he responded like he was at the beginning of a deal.  “I don’t sign autographs my boy.”

In 40 years of being in the music business, I don’t ever remember even once asking any artist for an autograph… but I was asking for one from Minnesota Fats’.  This was like meeting Capone or Gandhi.  The fact is, Fats was a little of both.   

A second glass of wine and I was engaging the confidence man in a playful debate for his autograph.  He liked it.  In the meantime, Tom seemed to fasten his seatbelt for my sudden obsession with this braggadocios codger 

Minnesota FatsYou see, Rudolph Wanderone Jr. was now a resident of the Hermitage Hotel.  He graced the barroom every night to pay his rent.  It was just another hustle in his eighty some years of survival.  I’m sure many of these nightly patrons just didn’t know the legacy of the man.  He made a living from racking up the balls and separating young sailors ready to ship out to a World War from a paycheck they might never have a chance to spend.   

“I never lost a game for money in my life,” The King of Pool extolled.  

I continued to dog the old man for his signature.  Each time he turned me down, and he got more and more proud of it.  Yeah, he was Minnesota Fats.  He didn’t sign his name for the unwashed!  Didn’t have time.   Couldn’t stoop that low.  

But as the lounge crowd diminished and the evening passed midnight, I saw the man start to cave.  He went off to some cloakroom and came back with a bar napkin.  “Here ya go kid.  Here’s my card, he said with a slight ‘get off my back’ sentiment.  The napkin was stamped “Minnesota Fats” with no other information on it.  It was clearly his hand-out to avoid the unnecessary effort of signing autographs that would become a burden to a man whose priority was to extract the cash from your wallet.

So I was blowing off steam from a long day.  Now on my third glass of vino I was getting bolder with the old braggart.  I had the stamp, but I wanted the real deal.  I wanted that autograph!  I challenged him.  “Come on Fats!  How about we play a game of pool for that autograph?”  

Yeah, I was getting brave and bold and giving the old man a little bit of what he dished out.  I asked him if he’d rather get beat at 8-ball or 9-ball.  He just smirked and said “Go away kid!”Minnesota Fats

There was no pool table in the lounge, so I had him at his own game.  He couldn’t stand up to the challenge because there was no table to fend off another Young Turk who called out the legend of Minnesota Fats.  Yeah, I had him, now gimme that autograph!

Then, I remember somehow we were climbing the stairs up to the cool air of a dark, expansive empty lobby.   Fats wanted to show me something.   The old hotel seemed to go back in time.  What year was it?  And then the man in the old crumpled suit coat reached up and turned on a lone light… over a pool table in that lobby of the Hermitage Hotel.  

“Holy S___!  The old man had me.  Here I was three drinks in, bragging, and he suddenly had a pool table.  Now, he was asking what was I going to put up against the chance to win his autograph?

Yeah, we played pool that night.  He suckered me in.  My head was spinning.  I racked the balls.  

“Make it tight son… don’t give me no loose rack,” he ordered.  Then he acquiesced.  “Go head kid, you can break,” as if that might be my only shot.

I broke, but nothing dropped.  Fats looked at the spread on the table as he slowly chalked up and in his best W.C. Fields, commented on my break, “All that meat and no potatoes…”

His first shot was a little shaky. As the ball he struck gently buffered off of cushion and hung on the pocket for what seemed like an eternity before dropping.  It almost didn’t fall.  I looked at him and said, “Scrape your leg.” 

He laughed.  Nothing better than getting a little static.  It gave him complete license to give it back. 

We played into those earlier hours of the morning.  Me against this 80-some year-old man.  He was surgical with that cue.  I battled him shot for shot. 

I can’t tell you exactly what happened.  I don’t remember.  It was late.  I was drinking.  Did I beat the biggest legend in the history of billiards?  I’m going to tell you I did.  And if you want to know any different, you go ask Fats.  He’ll tell you.  

Autograph  And if you need any further proof.  I got that napkin with the Minnesota Fats stamp and right next to it is the sprawling signature of the man himself.You could ask Tom Willett about the game, but I think he went outside and smoked a cigar.  You know there is truth in a good cigar.

fats & etta



And maybe Etta found some truth this week.  Yeah, the fat man won big too.  Say hello to your Dad for me…

“…and here we are in Heaven.  For you are mine at last.” 





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After The Rumble And The Roar…

One of my favorite people and favorite music journalists, Jim Bessman, tweeted a note marking the passing of Charlie Collins, the last surviving member of Roy Acuff’s Smokey Mountain Boys.  It reminded me how often we brush near people in the music industry, but maybe never directly connect… and yet you have incredible connection. 

Fact is I never met Charlie Collins.  However, as a young journalist myself, I saw him perform with Roy Acuff the many, many Saturday nights that I hung out in a dusty corner, next to dark bundled and roped velvet curtain backstage at the old Ryman Auditorium.  These were the days when Roy Acuff was the absolute reigning King of the Opry and the Senior Statesman of Country Music.  He presided over the last show at the Ryman on March 15, 1974, before the Opry moved to the new Opryland complex the next evening.  I had the opportunity to be in the audience for both of those shows, including Roy’s presentation of his yo-yo to then President Richard M. Nixon, who highlighted the nationally televised festivities.  And though I never thought a moment about it until now, Charlie Collins was on the stage for all of it.  

Those were memorable times, but my most memorable and probably only albeit indirect encounter with Charlie Collins and his fellow Smokey Mountain Boys came in 1978.  And I didn’t think of this one either until Jim’s tweet on Charlie’s passing.  

It was early that year that I started a fledgling artist management company in Nashville, with a business partner Don Cusic, who is now a long-time author and professor at Belmont University.    We started managing country/pop/rockabilly great Dickey Lee and we added one of the original country/rock successes of those days the Tennessee Pulleybone to our roster.  Still looking to get our struggling company off the ground, Don and I were scouring the streets for someone, anyone who might be able to generate some revenue.  

One Sunday, Don and his family were having dinner with friends and they invited me over.  The friends were the Doug Green family.  Doug was the Audio Historian at the Country Music Foundation.  His job was essentially to tape interviews with all the old cowboy music and film stars before they went to that big cattle drive in the sky.  It was a Sunday afternoon on the porch and Doug was strumming a guitar, reflecting on some of these old-timers he had met, singing in that pure, smooth voice of his, and even yodeling a little bit.  Doug was wearing a white cowboy hat and he had the rosy cheeks of those lily-white heroes of the Saturday matinees.   Somewhere in that casual encounter, one us, Don or me, proclaimed, “Doug, you know, you’re an act.”

True to how we know him today, Ranger Doug smiled and said kind of sheepishly (No pun intended!), that he would like to be a performer.  Thus began Riders In The Sky, and the three us started a dialogue of ideas to build an act with Doug.

We borrowed two of Dickey’s band members, including bass player Fred “Too Slim” LaBour to test out the idea.  Slowly, we began to get them a gig or two around Nashville, including a weekly residency on Monday nights at Wind & The Willows, which was the living room of a house one block east of Elliston Place.  They only served popcorn and beer, but it was an ideal place to drag a couple of music business people to illustrate this crazy cowboy band idea.  In the meantime, Doug and Fred and later that year Woody, steadily developed the harmonies, nostalgia, and humor that has become the trademark of Riders In The Sky.  It has made them one of the most uniquely smart, and entertaining acts to grace thousands of stages over nearly 35 years.

So what does this have to do with Charlie Collins?  Well, there was a night in 1978, when this new idea called Riders In The Sky was given a guest shot on the Grand Ole Opry.  We had no record label.  We had no agent.  We had very few dates that we had booked ourselves.  However, somehow we got this Opry date.  

We were all SO excited to get this guest shot!  The band went on and performed an old cowboy chestnut, but I can’t even remember which one.  We had actually invented an act that was on the Grand Ole Opry.  Man, was this novel!!

After their one-song shot, we went back to a green room area backstage at the gleaming new Opry complex.  However, within minutes, we were confronted by an Opry official, who announced that Mr. Acuff would like to see the band in his private dressing room immediately.  

Our heads spun for a fraction of a moment.  People in Nashville in those earliest days of the Riders tended to think of them as a novelty act, particularly because the guys inserted such great humor in such a contemporary way.  My first thought… I was stricken.  Was Roy Acuff calling the boys into his dressing room to chastise them for making fun of cowboy music and subsequently country music?  Would Doug be put on the carpet to explain that he really did love it and was honoring it?  Would they even believe him?   Had we offended The King of Country Music?  My initial thoughts were of dread and concern.  Between Doug, Fred, and Woody, I believe we had three Masters Degrees and a Doctorate.  Would the man who was crowned for all of history as the King of Country Music be giving our boys a lesson in humility?

Don and I led the Riders into Roy’s dressing room.  In the blur of the moment, I saw Roy and his royal court of sidemen sitting in a semi-circle like a High English Court awaiting our band of paupers.  Certainly, Charlie Collins was one of those Cardinals in consultation with the Pope.  

In an instant, Don and I knew we were not to be a part of this meeting.  We backed out to the hallway, where we waited for what seemed to be a couple of hours.  The big, thick doors closed.  We had no idea what our band had encountered.  

And what happened behind those closed doors that night, I never really heard the details.  However, the upshot was so very special.  Roy Acuff, Charlie Collins, and the rest of the Smokey Mountain Boys embraced Riders In The Sky.  They were moved that these young, educated musicians, had so honored cowboy music and they were there to take it to the next generation with special care.  THEY were thankful.  This was humbling.  To enter the musical world of these legendary players, all members of the Greatest Generation, was awe inspiring.  It was like looking up at Mount Rushmore.  That night the Riders were anointed.

Riders In The Sky became official members of the Grand Ole Opry a few years later in 1982.  Now, 30+ years later, they have shared American cowboy music with its cultural connection to Tex-Mex, early Hollywood, and Saturday morning TV.

And Charlie Collins has now ridden that Great Speckled Bird to his Maker.  How quickly these lifetimes pass.  But he can fly knowing that it was his generation’s shoulders that others now stand upon.  He spent a lifetime performing “Wabash Cannonball” with Roy Acuff, a song that was published in 1882, over 50 years before he was born!  He knew how to carry the torch.  He was one of the scholars of country and bluegrass music who presided over the passing of the mantel to a young cowboy band some 34 years ago.  And I had the good fortunate of being there… just outside that room.  

Somewhere, there’s a young performer or band listening to some music history.  Respecting it like it deserves to be… and hopefully learning how to perform it with the ability and care so that the music lives on.  

Thank you Charlie Collins.  Will The Circle Be Unbroken?   


Bruce & The Red-Headed Stranger

Willie Nelson (painting by anna bleker)When I came to Nashville in the early ‘70’s, the Outlaw Music scene had long been percolating, but still had not become a commercial force in Nashville, and certainly not on a national level.  Johnny Cash had launched a prime-time network television show that was more Middle America than outlaw.  He was solidly ensconced in Hendersonville, TN, and though actively recording, seemed more into staying close to home and his wife and family at the time.  

Willie Nelson had fundamentally “retired” from the Nashville scene, left his RCA recording career under producer Chet Atkins, and had gone back to Texas.  It was his appearance at the 1972 Dripping Springs Reunion that I believe was the demarcation point in the outlaw movement, and inspired the Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnics that began in 1974, where I had the unique experience of coordinating the press.  

Waylon Jennings had, at the time, probably the most active country music recording career, and despite his own battles with the RCA brass, was forging a successful path on the country charts with both singles (the likes of “Hard Headed Woman”) and albums.  

Country music in the early ‘70’s was over-reacting to its own rhinestone self-consciousness.  Business suits had made hillbilly fashion designer, Nudie, a relic that hung on through the careers of artists such as Porter Wagoner and Hank Snow.  It was the era of “countrypolitan”.  The indelible country voices of George Jones and Conway Twitty were restrained by neckties and leisure suits.  The musical formula of successful producers, such as the legendary Owen Bradley and Billy Sherrill had virtually blueprinted the commercial format at country radio.  Billy’s production style was more modern and was on occasion referred to as “the country wall of sound,” in an off-hand reference to Phil Spector’s production template.  However, Billy was far more prolific and focused, and he was on a roll with hit after hit. 

Atlantic Records’ Jerry Wexler was one of the few music executive outside of the country music mainstream to attempt to exploit “new country”.   He launched a new Atlantic country initiative with the signing of Willie Nelson in 1973.  Led by young Nashville label head, Rick Sanjek, the label was greeted by skepticism from many of the Nashville old guard.  However, the new crop of young writer/artists beginning to come to Nashville saw Atlantic as a ray of fresh light outside the inside political control of traditional country. 

Willie’s first two albums on Atlantic stirred the critics positively with “Shotgun Willie” and “Phases & Stages” albums, but sales did not develop as quickly as WEA wanted and the Atlantic Nashville label office light sadly  flickered and died after just a couple of years.  

Already deeply established, CBS Records and its Columbia and Epic labels had a somewhat different approach to growing its Nashville operations.  They were extremely active in crossing over the bigger country artists to the pop world since the late sixties.  Charlie Rich, with “Behind Closed Doors”, Tammy Wynette, with “Stand By Your Man”, Lynn Anderson, with “Rose Garden, and Johnny Cash, with “A Boy Named Sue”, all had spilled giant hits over into the mass pop market.  Other labels such as RCA and MCA were doing the same thing.  Rather than step on this enormously profitable stream of hit product spearheaded largely by Billy Sherrill’s production efforts, the NY brass at CBS signed more pop leaning acts out of Nashville.  They did not want to internally compete, head-to-head with Billy’s acts at country radio, as any encroachment of new country would not necessarily sit well with Billy and his cadre of publishers, producers, and artists.  Acts like Dave Loggins (“Please Come To Boston”) and Dan Fogelberg were not seen as country acts and therefore, Billy could certainly live with them emanating from the same office.  It was a tightrope that Bonnie Garner, Ron Bledsoe, and NY A&R exec Don Ellis, in particular, walked. 

Since Willie had left Nashville and fundamentally turned his back on the country music political machine, it is a safe bet that Billy Sherrill was not particularly enthused when Bruce Lundvall, in New York, wanted to sign Willie.  Willie, after all, had already penned a few country standards, and he could be seen as a threat to garner valuable country radio airplay that was reserved for the much more commercial country hits that Billy was delivering.  

If Billy wasn’t enamored with NY signing Willie Nelson, it was easy to understand.  He was the brilliant writer/producer who had virtually carried CBS Nashville on his back in those days.  Why mess it up?  Why get distracted when he was delivering the hits… and ones that were selling albums.   And Billy’s perceived defensiveness, combined with his success, established an aura that intimidated many New York music executives.   He enjoyed stimulating this aura with sharp-witted comments and an anti-New York sentiment, that in his defense, I felt was very much tongue-in-cheek.  

But Bruce Lundvall also had musical vision.  He understood Billy’s success and position in the Nashville hit system.  As President of Columbia Records in New York, he had to be sensitive to the ego and feelings of Billy Sherrill.  In signing Willie, he was responding to the organic momentum that was ready to spill out of Texas for Willie.  I believe he knew that an artist like Willie needed to be treated more like the pop and rock artists in New York.  Willie also had a New York manager, named Neil Reshen, who aggressively worked the record company, unlike the country artists and their managers who were often more passive in those days.  

Bruce gave Willie creative freedom when he signed him.  As a hands-on producer and label executive, Billy Sherrill must have thought this was insane.  Certainly, he would not be expected to encourage this deal and probably saw it as New York interloping on his territory.   However, if Willie Nelson failed on Columbia, it would only make it more difficult for “outsiders” to penetrate the successful promotion and sales machine that was generated by CBS Records Nashville.  

In the meantime, I had only recently joined CBS Records in Nashville in the spring of 1974.  Along with my assistant, Mary Ann McCready, we launched the first publicity department for a major label on Music Row.  Other than a national country radio promotion head, labels in Nashville in those days had no other marketing oriented personnel in Music City.  Our job was to maximize the media exposure for the country roster.  These artists had extremely dated photos and bios… if they had them at all.  We worked very hard in the first few months of the new publicity department to write new bios and create a basic photo library that presented the Columbia and Epic artist rosters more respectfully.  I think Billy was very happy with our diligence to serve these artists.  The acts were very thankful and enthusiastic about our efforts.  As a couple of Yankee kids in the country music business, Mary Ann and I were earning trust with this veteran roster of mainstream country artists and we had a wonderful time exploring this new avenue of media.  

Since Willie was essentially signed out of New York, and the album had not been delivered yet, I really had not had any specific involvement or any day-to-day connection with anyone in the Nelson camp up to that point.  I had been Southeastern Editor of Record World  Magazine, a business trade publication, so I did know Nick Hunter, who had been head of country radio promotion for Atlantic Records.  Nick had established a very strong relationship with Willie, so when the Atlantic office in Nashville closed, Nick went to work for Willie.  

So the phone rang one day, and it was Nick.  He told me that they had delivered the first Willie Nelson album for Columbia to Bruce Lundvall …and Bruce was very upset.  Nick went on to explain that the album was a concept album that included both songs that Willie had written and some other material written by other writers.  He admitted that it might seem like a bit of a hodge podge.   He said that the album was also a very straight-forward, stripped-down, simple production.  Bruce said something like “It sounds like they recorded it in Willie’s kitchen”, according to Nick’s conveyance.   Bruce was not immediately prepared to accept the album as delivered, perhaps thinking that Willie took the advance money and delivered an album that cost a couple of thousand dollars to produce.  Maybe Willie had simply gotten cynical about a Nashville major label recording deal and was cashing in.  Take the major label advance and give them whatever… without any expectations.  

This whole situation could make Bruce look very bad… when in fact, he had extended himself and trusted Willie and given him unusual creative freedom.  And Willie was possibly laying an egg. 

Nick said, he needed help.  He wanted to play the album for me and have me, as someone young and plugged into Nashville, to call Bruce and reassure him that the album was good and he should accept it.  

After listening to Nick’s exasperation of having to be the middleman for Willie, who was very happy with the album,  and with the volatile Neil Reshen involved, my first thought was who would possibly care what I thought?  I had no clout.  I was a publicist… and an inexperienced one at that.  I also could not get myself caught in between two industry giants the likes of Bruce Lundvall and Billy Sherrill.  

Nick pushed on.  He needed help with Bruce and he knew he couldn’t go to Billy in the Nashville office.  As an A&R person, Bonnie Garner was probably already caught in the middle.  Who could go to bat for a raw, under-produced album, not necessarily made for country radio?

After scrambling for some thoughts, I called Nick back within the hour and suggested the only idea I could think of.  What if we pulled together the local press in Nashville for an off-the-record listening session to get their initial impressions of the album?  We would ask them not to write about it.  We were just looking for their insight.

Nick was game for just about anything that might help avert an ugly stand-off on the first album delivered from Willie Nelson to Columbia Records, and with Neal Reshen likely to pour gasoline on the flames!  

I called Bruce Lundvall.  I’m a kid of 24, a few months into my first job at a major label.  And Bruce picked up my call.  I told him that I had spoken to Nick  and was told there might be a problem with the album.   I added that Nick and I had discussed the idea of pulling together the handful of music journalists in Nashville to get an off-the-record response.  Bruce, always the gentleman, was very warm and friendly on the phone and said he would be very interested in hearing the impressions from this listening session.  I’m sure he was being polite to a young, naive kid just getting started in the music business.

The Nashville music scene in those days was microscopically small.  We invited Bill Williams from Billboard, Don Cusicfrom Record World, Juanita Jones from Cashbox, I don’t remember who from the Music City News, Jerry Bailey from The Tennessean, Bill Hance from The Nashville Banner, and Bill Littleton from Performance Magazine.  Of these publications, only Billboard and The Tennessean exist today.

And today, it would seem remarkable that we could get these people together, on their word, not to write about the album, but help give us perspective and a reaction to it.  In retrospect, I believe everyone there understood the unspoken issues.  The writers wanted a Willie Nelson to happen.  They wanted something new and fresh to emanate from country music and Nashville.  This small group of writers had modest clout, and were arguably viewed as utility media, rooted in the week-in-week-out business of commercial country music.  This was not the root of earth-shatter news reporting.  However, most of these writers had covered music events in Austin and elsewhere in Texas first-hand, so they understood how big Willie’s star was in that lone state.  

They all hurriedly gathered at the Exit/In the following afternoon.  Along with Mary Ann and me from CBS Records, Ron Bledsoe, who was VP of A&R and Operations, and Bonnie Garner from A&R.  Both were the biggest allies to new ideas and thinking in the CBS building in Nashville.  And of course, Nick Hunter was there.  

There was no finger food.  No table cloths.  There was the lingering aroma of stale beer from the evening before.  It was just a dark club with no one there, save one waitress, who came in early to serve drinks in the middle of a dull afternoon.

The album was called “Red-Headed Stranger”.  We knew it was a concept album, but at the time, I don’t think we lingered on the concept too much.  I believe Nick gave a brief and understated overview.  We put it on and let it play!

As cut one faded there was a pause as the needle passed the silent band between tracks on the acetate test pressing.  The room was silent too.  Track two played and again faded to silence.  

I’m not sure what I expected, but as we went deeper and deeper into the record, no one made a comment after each subsequent song played.  It was unsettling and a little scary.   I was starting to think it was going to get a little uncomfortable.  That is, until “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” ended.

At that point, Bill Littleton, a tall, thin, gentle man, with coke bottle glasses, who harkens up the visual image of fair-haired Abe Lincoln, slowly rose from his chair in the dim shadows of the club.  As he stood towering over the handful of listeners cobbled together at four or five tables in the center of the room, he didn’t speak.  Slowly and methodically, he began to applaud.  And he continued, standing there alone, applauding.  It was a one-man standing ovation!  

Within moments, others began to rise and join Bill in this very deliberate statement about the album we were hearing for the first time.  One-by-one everyone joined him.  As the remainder of the album played, the entire energy of the room turned electric.  This was a great album!  Suddenly, on one listen, no one was afraid of it!  

I called Mr. Lundvall when I returned to the office.  I told him what a remarkable thing that we had just witnessed.  He thanked me for the input and we hung up.  I called Nick Hunter to let him know about the conversation.   It may have been a day or two later that Nick called me to tell me that Bruce had accepted the album, as is.  However, there was never any indication that our little listening session had any influence in Bruce’s decision.  I hope we gave him a little support in a very solitary moment.  It was a decision he probably didn’t relish making, and a decision that had potentially big internal political consequences within the company if he was wrong.

I got to thinking about how Bruce had gone out on a limb to sign Willie.  Certainly, the naysayers in the Nashville establishment could criticize this signing.  Willie hadn’t sold records.  Was it all hype from Texas, and could it really spread?  Was the company going to divert its promotional muscle to work this record?  It was an unpolished recording, unlike the veneer that country radio wanted.  And by God, the man was older, had long hair and a ponytail in an era when some prominent country male artists actually sported flat-tops!  Where was the support from Bruce’s own company in Nashville?  Where was the support anywhere in Nashville?  It only came from a small group of journalists that felt more responsibility to the music than to getting a press scoop.

I am not sure you could get that cooperation and especially that spirit today, that we so thankfully received from that rag-tag group of writers.  We benefitted from  the process of print media.  Deadlines and publishing weren’t instantaneous, as they are today.  There was a measured sensibility that allowed this group to come together, listen, and not write.  The pressure today is to push ‘send’ and deal with the consequences later.  No one felt they had to have the scoop.  No one tweeted from the listening session.  I don’t think those writers ever saw themselves as a powerful group.  However, they gave us validation.   Whether he needed it or not, it gave Bruce some justification in his decision to accept the album.        

The legend is that Columbia Records was reluctant to accept “Red-Headed Stranger” when Willie delivered it.  Bruce Lundvall, a legend and great music man, may have simply gotten tired of taking Neal Reshen’s calls and said, “Okay, okay, I’ll take the record!”  He was surely going to be criticized by the ensconced old-school who had given up on believing Willie Nelson could sell records.   We all know though, that this is an album that swayed and accelerated a new direction for country music, ironically by the incorporation of older songs and with a simple, stripped-down retro recording.   

…But whenever I hear “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain” these 35 years later, I’ll never forget Bill Littleton slowly rising to his feet alone… and being the first to bless one of the pivotal and critical albums in country music history. 

…And whenever people think of Bruce Lundvall, you always hear references to his unfailing support for great musicians who may not have been at the forefront of sales success.  He was there for great music.  He was there for the jazzmen and the blues artists and he somehow made it commercially viable and created an environment where this brilliant music survived and prospered.  

However, in these days when Bruce was recently awarded a Special Merit Award from the Recording Academy for his huge creative accomplishments over his career, we should make sure that his contribution to the evolution of country music is remembered as well.

Willie Nelson didn’t stay “retired” in Texas.  Columbia Records got behind a unique album and a legendary artist and a legendary musical movement found traction.    
  

 C 2011 by Dan Beck.  All rights reserved.      

**MAILBAG**

From Bruce Lundvall to Bill Freston:

Dear Bill,

Dan’s article was great. I enjoyed reading it very much and I had totally forgotten about the meeting of journalists in Nashville. It’s really a fabulous story and a proud moment in my career as well. Did Dan Beck know about Waylon Jennings coming to my office with Neil Reshen? That was the first time that I heard the Red Headed Stranger album. One of my first reactions of the album was that it sounded like it had been done in someone’s living room. Waylon jumped onto my desk, and said “That’s what Willie Nelson is all about. He doesn’t need a producer.” I’m sure that’s why Neil Reshen brought Waylon to my office in the first place. I fell in love with the album over the weekend as I listened to it, and presented it to the Columbia Records staff as something that was near to Willie’s heart and would end up being as a collector’s item. I never thought it would sell at all. I gave everyone a copy of the acetate to listen to. Little did we know it would end up selling over 3 million copies.

Please give my best to Dan Beck. Tell him did a great job on this… it’s a great story, and it’s true.

All Best,

Bruce

* * * * * * * * * * 

Dan
I just read your story on Willie!  It is your best story yet!  At least, of the ones I’ve read.  I never knew that part of the story, but I did spend time with Willie and Bruce in subsequent years.  The respect and affection between them was sincere and obvious.Willie always appreciated what Bruce did for him.  I am sure your story played a key role in helping Bruce make a tough decision… and, as usual… it was in favor of the artist.Great initiative on your part!  and at 24!
Of course, your own fascination with music, artists, and the music biz comes through clear as a bell as well.
All best
– Stephen Reed

* * * * * * * * * *

I was writing for the Austin Sun in 1975. Didn’t know what I was doing, but I was their typesetter and also loved music, so they made me the music editor. No writing experience at all. A friend of mine, Bill Bell, made silver belts for Willie, beat out of old nickels. Bill got an advance cassette of Red Headed Stranger from Willie, and asked me if I wanted to review it. I would be the first person in the country to do it. Sure thing! I went home and played the album but didn’t really hear it. I think it was too different for my ears; it wasn’t what country music sounded like then. So I wrote a mediocre review. The next day I typeset it, and the art director pasted it down on my page, called Bentley’s Bandstand. That night, still one day before the Sun went to press, I smoked a joint and listened to Red Headed Stranger again. I was stoned, and of course I immediately got what Willie had done and what a work of beautiful art the album was. Terrified I’d blown it, I snuck into the window at the Sun that night, typeset a brand new review raving about the album, and pasted it up on the page where my earlier review had been. I basically said a new day had dawned in country, and Austin’s very own Willie Nelson was the creator of it. Whew. I still thank my lucky stars I got high that night and heard what Willie had done, and knew how to typeset and paste up my own copy! 

Bill Bentley

* * * * * * * * * *

Dan,  Thank you for sending this.  Whew!!!  I always assumed there were parts of the story I didn’t know, but you have really spread clarity out like laundry on a line on a bright afternoon!!  I’ve long considered that afternoon a major landmark in my life and I’ve endeavored to ALWAYS be free to express my feelings.  I may not say much if I’m not impressed, but you ALWAYS know what I like!!!

Bill Littleton

Songwriting Can Be a Beast

Back in 1972, I was extremely fortunate to land my first job at Record World magazine in Nashville, a music business trade publication that competed very successfully nationally with Billboard and Cashbox.  I had worked for free for several months on their annual country music industry advertorial that came out that October.  Today, we would call that an internship, but internships really didn’t exist then.  However, just as I finished my work on the special issue, the Southeastern Editor, Chuck Neese, announced he was leaving to take a job for a music publishing company.  By the way, Chuck later wrote “Rednecks, White Socks, and Blue Ribbon Beer.”  But thanks to Chuck, suddenly, I was in the music business.   One part of my new job as the new Southeastern Editor was to review the new singles and albums released that week and make my picks and pen a very brief write up on each.  I would rank them from the “Pick of The Week” and “Sleeper” to a list of about 10 singles in descending order.

Part of my week was greeting country radio promotion men (there were no women doing this in 1972), who would stop by to personally give me their new releases and hype me on why it was a hit.  Music publishers, assistants, songwriters, and even the artists themselves would drift into our office every week over the 14 months that I held this job.  The artists ranged from unknowns to Olivia Newton John, Sonny James, Don Williams, Jennie Seely, and even Burt Reynolds.

 Among the songwriters who often stopped by, were two old-timers Eddie Miller, who wrote “Please Release Me” and Vic McAlpin, who had a couple of old country hits including “Plastic Saddle”, “Jackson Ain’t A Very Big Town”, and “Home of the Blues”.  They usually came by first thing in the morning for coffee and told their tales of old Nashville, the days of Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge and Limbaugh’s Restaurant.  They busted on each other as one-hit writers, but they were always working on that next hit.

The legend around Vic McAlpin was that he was a long-time fishing buddy of Hank Williams.  The old saw was that they wrote songs together on those lazy days on the lake.  Supposedly, instead of taking co-writing credits, the songs that they wrote on one day would go to Hank and the songs they wrote the next day would go to Vic.  I wasn’t alone in telling Vic that he obviously picked the wrong days!

 After hearing many of Vic’s stories, I suggested that we start taping them and that maybe there was a book in it.  He loved the idea, and soon we were meeting a couple of days a week taping his stories.

In the meantime, another songwriter who stopped by the office when he was in Nashville, was Playboy cartoonist Shel Silverstein.  Shel lived in New York, but had grown to love Nashville, and came down periodically to pitch his songs.  Shel was one of the first of the shaved-head species, a man more out of the Yul Brynner era, when that look was extremely unique.  His raspy low voice, his full beard, and his darting eyes were the picture of an iconoclast; a unique, even strange intellectual whose creative expression extended from ‘50’s/’60’s adult illustrations, to children’s stories, to country songwriting.  His first enduring copyright was “The Unicorn”, still an Irish pub song and children’s favorites that mixed an Old Testament tale with evolution.  When I heard that song in my teens, when the Irish Rovers had their hit with it, I assumed that it was a traditional song that was at least a hundred years old.  It’s as timeless as Peter Yarrow’s “Puff the Magic Dragon”, which Peter once told me he wrote in his dorm room.

Shel loved these traditional Music Row songwriters like Vic McAlpin and Eddie Miller.  As much of a character as Shel was, he thought Vic and Eddie were the ultimate songwriting characters.  Vic was always impeccably dressed in gray dress slacks, a blue blazer, a crisp white dress shirt, and yacht captain’s hat.  Always with a good tan, he looked more like the actor, George Hamilton, than a country songwriter.

When Shel heard that I was taping stories with Vic, he flipped!  His raspy voice was breathless with excitement and he offered to write the forward to the book.  This, of course, was a tremendous incentive for me to work hard on this project with Vic.  But lo and behold a few weeks into the tapings, Vic started repeating stories.  And the more we taped, the more I began to realize that as interesting and funny as some of Vic’s stories were… there were a finite number of them.  The book never came about, but I still have those tapes somewhere.  So, if I start repeating myself in this blog, I guess you’ll know I suffer from the same affliction…

However, this little episode with Vic McAlpin lead me to know Shel Silverstein a little bit better.  And there was one story that Shel told me that has stayed with me for years.
I once asked him what it was like to be a New York songwriter coming down to Nashville to pitch songs.  He said he loved the Nashville music scene because everyone was a writer; much like everyone in LA was an actor.  He thought the culture was so rich with talent.  However, he also expressed frustration in pitching his songs.  Beyond “The Unicorn”, Shel wrote another unique song that remains a standard today.  His song, “A Boy Names Sue” was a hit for Johnny Cash in the late ‘60’s.  When I met Shel in ‘72, he was amidst a hot streak as a hit songwriter.  However, he said that when he would pitch a new song to a producer or artist, they would often ask him if he had a song more like “A Boy Named Sue”. 

He said he had heard this over and over again in those years shortly after the huge success of “Sue” in having his newer songs rejected.  He said he finally came to realize that most of these people couldn’t hear a new hit if it hit them in the face, and that they didn’t want a song like “A Boy Named Sue”, they simply wanted the success that the song had enjoyed.  I got the sense that this experience galvanized his resolve when he pitched his songs.  And as so many of us know in this business, rejection is a daily experience that you never get used to, but you have to push past it.  And maybe that ”no” you are getting is simply someone else’s problem and you must have an enduring belief in yourself and your own creative work.  

As I look back on Shel’s career, I wonder if any of those songs that were rejected happened to be “Ones on the Way”, “Marie Laveau” or “Sylvia’s Mother” or “The Cover of the Rolling Stone”.    These were all uniquely Shel Silverstein songs that became big hits for artists such as Loretta Lynn, Bobby Bare and Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show in the years after “A Boy Named Sue”.  Shel knew his songs were good, but maybe sometimes the people who were supposed to be listening were too busy thinking about succeeding and not enough on focusing on what it takes to get there.

Shel Silverstein was a gifted writer and storyteller.  His ideas were unlike any others and his subjects and sources for songs extended from the Bible to a phone booth.  He lived a colorful life and found colorful words to illustrate his lyrical stories.  From his artwork to his songs, the man worked hard to build a body of work rather than settle for one enduring song or even two… or even just one art-form for his creative expression.  He wasn’t awed by his own success or preoccupied by it, as maybe those who were enamored with the unusual success of “A Boy Named Sue.”

The lesson is in the body of his work.  Shel Silverstein was the highly successful adult illustrator, successful children’s book writer, the multiple hit song writer.  He was always working on something new.  He never rested on his laurels, even when others suggested he couldn’t surpass his past achievements.  He worked on and believed, even under the specter of a song that couldn’t be topped.     

Maybe those artists and producers were really looking for that mythical “Unicorn” and just didn’t see all the other animals that were already on the ark…         

***************************************************************************

MAIL BAG

I didn’t know about your new biz Dan until Viv forwarded a copy of your Song Writing Can Be a Beast, blog. I had so much fun reading that one that I read The Lost Liner Notes.

Now I’m hooked and my head is swimming thru Music Row memories – some of which I’m convinced actually happened the way I remember them.

For example, your off hand reference to the success of I Can Help reminds me of my listening sessions with Bob Becham at his Combine Publishing house. After I left the programming gig at WKDA-FM (1970-1973,) I spent six months dealing with the fact that I just didn’t want to leave Nashville. After all, Shelby Singelton’s promo master – Mike Suttle – had warned me of my impending fate. He said, “now that you are here, you won’t be going anywhere – you’ll see – Nashville will get you.” 40 years later, consider me got!

I passed on radio gigs in Miami and Houston and went into business for myself promoting to Pop and Rock radio, music I heard being produced in Nashville that was “not just for Country radio” (in my not so humble opinion.) That music is the part of Nashville that “got me”.

Back to Becham. Bob kept me on retainer to listen and run to radio with anything he had publishing on. One such day (while Dennis Linde was in the basement studio – I’m convinced he lived down there,) I sat in Bob’s office while he smoked non-stop and played 45’s and album cuts with equal vigor. Suddenly, after about 20 seconds, I heard my self yell, “what is this?”

He said “it’s Kristofferson’s band leader Billy Swan, it’s called I Can Help. I said, "so can I – give me dat record!” In fact he gave me a couple boxes. I mailed the record to most of my stations but I delivered the record in person to Tex Meyer at WGOW in Chattanooga and Johnny Randolf at WAKY in Louisville. Much to Frank Dileo’s amazement at Monument, the stations added that day – just as I suspected they would. Ah, the good old days when programmers were free to get excited about the music…and actually do something about it. Oops maybe I can’t say that. Let me check with my consultant.

Now back to the task at hand. I’ve got to read all your yarns in the musicbizzfizz.

Write on Brotherman, write on…

RH  (Ron Huntsman)

Join the conversation by emailing Dan@musicbizzfizz.com.  I will summarize the input in a future Music Bizz Fizz blog.)