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It’s been a long, strange musical journey, only to arrive back near the beginning. Most of my relatives were involved to some extent in music. Kentucky banjo player and irish dancer grandparents on one side. Trombone and piano dance-band players on the other. A singer and a harmonica player as parents. The family was encouraging, to say the least, in my musical pursuits. I joined my first band as a drummer in the 9th grade. As adolescents we had a hard time finding singers. A couple months into the venture we got a hold on the right guy.
Bill Graham, later to be known as Billy Blue in the Northwest music scene, turned us into a blues band because that’s what he liked to sing. We were doing our best to put across the material of Jimmy Reed, Lowell Fulson, Muddy Waters and other ‘popular’ blues and R&B players. I have no recall of how close we came, but I know Bill came the closest of all. Although most of the dancers of Tacoma, Washington, wanted the radio-style rock and roll, most of the better musicians wanted to play blues. Tacoma was a blues town in the late fifties and early sixties. I started learning guitar during this period.
Bill Graham went into the Navy before I got to high school and the band split up. The next band I played in was one of the highlights of my musical life. I was the only white member of a classic R&B band. Guitar, bass, piano, drums, and two saxes. Russell Adams, the piano player, was New Orleans bred and played in that great rolling style of the area.The bass player was a fine singer in his own right, but we usually had the services of the great Johnny Moore as well, a singer who could have gone on the road with the big names but chose to stay around home. These guys played! I don’t know how I kept up at all, but they let me stay around. After a year or so my mind began to wander. I was loosing interest in drums; it was melody I needed to create. I fumbled with piano for a while but didn’t have the discipline to learn enough to play jazz, and then folk music struck me in a big way.
I already had the basic guitar chords, then I got a mandolin, and when I went to work in a music store the first thing I bought was a Vega banjo. What a world of music that scene opened up. I was frailing old-time music like my grandfather played in back in Harlan County, as well as drifting into country blues. Experimenting with open tunings on guitar, I naturally had to try bottle-neck playing. I used a piece of copper tubing that I still have around somewhere. I didn’t really get very far. I knew no one who played the style. Having a background and love of blues, I discovered a related sound in the form of jug band music. Our old-timey group shifted into a jug band called the Lydia E. Pinkham Memorial Orchestra. Bob Page, who now owns Buffalo Bros. Guitar Shop, was transferred on his job from Los Angeles to Tacoma. He played a few jobs with us, then hightailed it back to L.A. He stole our name, changing it to Lydia E. Pinkham Superior Orchestra, but made it up to me by inviting me to join. The big time, right? I moved to Hollywood in 1967 and met up with a great bunch of musicians, a couple of whom I’ve continued to play with on and off since those days. After a year of playing around southern California and having a record contract blown by a disinterested manager, the band members got restless. I know I was ready to play something of a more contemporary nature. I moved back to Tacoma and started writing and playing with Dudley Hill, who, as a teenager, had played in our early string bands. Dudley became one of the first few of the great flat pickers. (His album “From A Northern Family” is available again on Voyager Records.)
I stayed a year and when I needed to get out of town Joel Tepp from the Pinkham Orchestra rescued me. On the way back to Los Angeles we stopped at Joel's alma mater, UC Berkley, and played on campus. We passed the hat and made all the gas money for the trip and then some. All future trips to Washington were financed by street playing in Berkley. We even put an ac/dc converter in Joel's van and played electrically by opening the door at a parking spot on Telegraph Ave. I think we enjoyed the street playing as much as clubs.
Shortly after we arrived at Joel’s little house in Hollywood (Joel slept in a spacious day bed in the corner of the living room and I had a narrower bed in a long closet), we got a call from the Buffalo Nickel Jugband.They wanted Joel to play with them, but he told them we came as a team. They were familiar with the Pinkham Orchestra, so I wasn’t an unknown commodity and they agreed. We had a wonderful time with another bunch of great guys. We played the legendary Ashgrove in Hollywood several times. Owner Ed Pearl seemed to have a soft spot for us, so we were called to fill in for emergencies as well as our regular bookings. We also played McCabe’s, which always had ideal audiences. Some venues just felt like home. The Ashgrove and McCabe’s were two of those. We did an album for the new record company started by the Flying Tiger Airlines corporation. The writers in the band were signed to Tree Music of Nashville. Happy Tiger records certainly had money to back us, but we never hooked up with an agency to book us around the country so we settled for a loyal southern California following. Our record, “Buffalo Nickel Jugband,” is, by the way, a collectors’ item on internet record sites, by virtue of the fact of limited production. Oh well, at least a record company isn’t stealing most of the money, as is their tendency and mission.
The next move was back to Tacoma, where Tom Martin, from the Pinkham Orchestra, had moved after saving the world for the U.S. government. I felt we had the makings of something special in a band with Tom, Bill Graham, and Dudley Hill. Somewhere in here was a hot trio with Dudley Hill, Kurt Brame, and myself. We played all original material acoustically with electric bass. We made a demo tape and were invited to be featured at The Troubador in Los Angeles for a showcase night. Both Dudley and Kurt were married with small children, so it was financially and logistically impractical for them to leave.
We played in various combinations, with Tom and I ending up in a band called Road Apple, which was as roots as you could get. It had bass, drums, two guitars, with me playing electric fiddle, electric mandolin, electric dulcimer, electric banjo, slide guitar, and guitar with a home-built B-string bender. Brian Rohan, San Francisco music attorney, was representing us to labels, but alas even that kind of fire power doesn’t always raise anything but smoke. We didn’t give them the right thing at the right time. After too many of the same local jobs, I bowed out and joined the newly formed Blueport News with my old buddy Bill “Billy Blue” Graham. This was to be the last electric music I would play for quite a while.
While playing with Road Apple I was starting to get hooked by traditional Irish music. I had met Bill Jackson, who was one of the pioneers of Irish fiddling in Los Angeles. He would visit Tacoma often and bring his fiddle and concertina. I wasn’t capable of playing fiddle in the Irish style, but fooled with it anyway and then shifted to bouzouki and cittern. These two instruments were not traditional Irish instruments, but they were fast being adapted to the music by players in Ireland. I also took up concertina and Irish pipes. The Irish Union pipes, more commonly called uilleann pipes, are the musical love of my life, but my fingers disagree. If I had had any success with them, I might not have written the material for Nite Cafe. I started making bagpipes. Mostly to keep from buying too many sets. I managed to wean myself, but not before manufacturing more than 70 sets of pipes representing styles played in Scotland, Italy, France, and Belgium. I’ll tell you, this can get out of hand. I didn’t even own a working guitar from about 1978 to 1995. We had a traditional French band for about 8 years and another band doing original fantasy-based music for several years. Conan’s top forty. I hope to make this music available on this web site in the future.
My struggles with Irish pipes made me wish for success. It seemed logical to try something with which I was more adept. Slide guitar. My old friend Joel Tepp was living in Seattle by this time and doing great work on slide--this inspired me. My focus on slide is pretty much country-blues oriented, with a bit of early R&B influence thrown in, but since I can’t sing blues any better than the average white boy ( I wasn’t born on the Delta but I’ve been close enough to know the difference) I write my own material. That way, if I’m screwing something up ... so what. Along those lines, my theory of recording is: if you cover someone’s material you at the very least need to do it as well as they do. To make it really legitimate, it would be good to do it better than they do. If neither of these options works, why do it at all? Is it just filler? What would be the purpose for a lesser version? Would we want to prove we weren’t up to the task?
Anyway, here I am back near my beginnings in music with a bunch of way outside influences mixed in. I’ve pleased some people I respect with this music and I hope you will find something that appeals. That said, of course somebody’s gonna want to puke, too.