BACKSTAGE With 21 MUSIC LEGENDS

 From:  70th Birthday Tribute, January 2005

 

by Phil Arnold

 

It’s been a real kick contributing to Elvis International magazine for six years, and my best fringe benefit so far happened in Memphis during Elvis Week 2004.  It was probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.   Darwin Lamm, Editor/Publisher of Elvis International, put on the two biggest concerts of the week … back to back on one night.  Darwin is exceptionally organized, and he has been promoting concerts since 1988, but he still needed two “Production Assistants” for these shows.

 

Gary Olsen, a Vancouver, BC, disc jockey and experienced concert promoter, was the number one man.  I was the go-fer.  Gary carried around a stack of papers, referred to them often, made decisions and gave orders.  I went for ice.  I also went for sandwiches, sodas, and Xerox copies (three different times).  If Scotty Moore wanted a bottle of water from the VIP room, I was tickled to go-fer it.

 

The first of the two concerts was “The Legends Salute the 50th Anniversary of Rock & Roll.”  The title, of course, was tied to the theme for this year’s festivities, a celebration of the 50 years since Elvis recorded his first release “That’s All Right (Mama)” in 1954.   The Legends concert was scheduled to start at 6:30 PM, but Darwin, Gary and I got to the venue at 9:30 AM.  And what a venue — The Cannon Center for The Performing Arts.  This theater is almost brand new and there isn’t a bad seat in the place.  It is home to the Memphis Symphony, so you know it has superb acoustics. 

 

When we arrived backstage, the two biggest names on the whole program, Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana, were already there. There wasn’t any of that big-star-late-arrival stuff for these good old boys. 

 

Also on the scene were several members of Ronnie McDowell’s band.  Steve Shepherd, keyboard player in the band, quickly assumed the role of floor manager, as he put tape down on the stage to mark where the vocalists and other performers were to stand.  It looked like he had plenty of experience doing this.  Later, I learned he is also a superb keyboard player, and he contributed significantly to the quality of the music that evening.

 

Scotty and DJ supervised the construction of the riser, which is an elevated platform, three steps above the floor, on which DJ would do his magic.  It was at the back of the stage, but the height enabled the audience to see him. 

 

As time went by, other performers strolled in.  Bob Moore, who was Elvis’ bass man for 18 years, was an early arrival.  Billy Swan, one of five featured vocalists, showed up soon afterward.  One by one, the four Jordanaires joined the group.  Millie Kirkham, who did back-up vocals for Elvis for 15 years, was warmly received by all the men.  Everyone was in a happy mood, catching up with the others.  It began to resemble a family affair.  Each new arrival made the rounds, talking with the rest, just like at a reunion.  Obviously these folks were dear old friends.

 

Lee Rocker, fresh off the Straycats reunion tour in Europe, added his unique presence to the swelling crowd of performers. He sported black leather and lots of sterling silver ear-rings.  Ronnie McDowell, who would be the surprise vocal guest of the night, dressed another way with shorts, tee-shirt and sandals.

 

Stan Perkins, oldest son of rockabilly legend Carl Perkins, arrived with a few friends and had a good time shaking hands and talking with everyone.  Eddie Miles, the great Elvis tribute artist, showed up wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a cowboy hat.  His entourage blended into the growing group of people who displayed all-access badges, but who had no specific part in the performances.  It just added more to the party atmosphere.

 

Finally, the one man everybody adores, Boots Randolph, strolled on stage.  It didn’t take long to figure out that Mr Yakety-Sax is a super nice guy.  Boots was so friendly and had lots of stories to tell.  Later, backstage at the second concert, when a chair next to Boots became available, I wasted no time claiming that prized spot.

 

Actually, the entire day at the theater was a prize, one that gave me the opportunity to go autograph hunting.  For a fifteen hour period I carried with me the 50th Anniversary issue of Elvis International.  Darwin Lamm had honored me by publishing in this milestone issue three articles I had written.  One was about Scotty, DJ, and the Jordanaires, plus a nice sidebar piece on Bill Black.   Another was about all the singers and other musicians who joined them in the Legends concert.  Finally, I wrote about the four members of the TCB Band, plus Terry Mike Jeffrey.  He handled the vocal duties for the second concert, “The TCB Band Salutes Elvis and the 50th Anniversary of Rock & Roll.”

 

In total, the three articles featured short biographies and other commentary on 21 performers.  My goal was to get each one to sign their name over the text I had written about them.  In my mind, every performer was a legend with a connection to Elvis, and I was out to get all their autographs in my magazine.

 

First, and most important to me, were Scotty Moore and DJ Fontana.  I got them early while the concert hall’s crewmen were assembling DJ’s riser.  By the time the Legends Salute rehearsals and sound checks began, I had the autographs of everybody appearing in the first concert.

 

Rehearsals were interesting, but these folks had all worked with each other enough times in the past that not much rehearsing was needed.  Sound checks were kind of boring.  I was surprised to learn that there is so much difference in the settings each singer specifies to the guy up in the sound booth.

 

In between the autograph seeking, I did various Production Assistant jobs.  I helped to set up lunch in the VIP room.  I was blown away when Elvis’ long-time nurse and friend Marion Cocke pulled into the backstage loading zone with a car full of sandwiches.  This wonderful 78 year-old woman made them all in her kitchen.  There were four different kinds (but no peanut butter and ‘naner).  Later, after the thirsty crowd of performers and their guests consumed all the cases of bottled water, we solved that problem by loading the large bottled water unit in the venue office on a cart and taking it to a prime spot just off-stage.

 

By the time the first group of performers finished rehearsals, Terry Mike Jeffrey and the four TCB Band members were ready to do their thing.  Drummer Ronnie Tutt had been hanging around for several hours spending time with old buddies, and I got his autograph early.  Terry Mike was another early arrival, so it was easy to get his signature. 

 

However, guitarist James Burton, bass player Jerry Scheff, and piano player Glen D Hardin got right to business before I could shove my magazine and black Sharpie pen in front of them.  The TCB boys really didn’t have to do any rehearsing, as they have played together so many times in the “Elvis, The Concert” shows.  Terry Mike Jeffrey has performed with them numerous times in the past few years.  I decided to skip their sound check and went back to the hotel for a little nap.  It would be a long night, and I wanted to be sharp for all of it.  I’d get their autographs later, before the show.

 

The nap was great, but it turned out to be poorly timed.  By the time I returned to The VIP room, a catered hot supper had been delivered … and consumed.  I settled for two slices of bread, some potato chips and a soda for my meal.  Soon, all thoughts of food vanished as other responsibilities called.  My favorite Production Assistant assignment of the night occurred when the son and daughter of the late Bill Black couldn’t get their will-call tickets at the window.  I went out front and was able to save the day by talking some sense to the ticket lady.  I felt so proud of myself.  It also gave me the opportunity to get both of Bill’s children to sign my magazine over the paragraphs I had written about their dad. 

 

The only other non-performer to sign my magazine was Red Robinson, another Vancouver DJ, who served as master of ceremonies and announcer for both concerts.  Red turned out to be a real buddy and a great guy to hang out with on Beale Street.

 

Other writers in this magazine will regale you with accounts of the two concerts as they experienced them from their seats in the audience.  My vantage point was backstage, or should I say side-stage.  True backstage would be behind the tall black curtain.  However, there was a series of parallel side curtains which allowed us to look at the bands from the side, but the audience couldn’t see us.  With so many singers and musicians in the Legends Salute, there were a lot of folks backstage.  It was so much fun being part of this group.

 

When the first concert ended, another important Production Assistant job was to guide the performers out to tables in the lobby where they would sign autographs for the fans.  We had to be firm with several determined folks who wanted to get autographs before the musicians got to the tables.  Once everybody was seated and the line of fans was moving nicely, my assignment was to help out at one of the doors.  The venue employee there was overwhelmed trying to take tickets from new fans while trying to keep track of those coming back into the building after a smoke break.

 

I helped him for twenty minutes, then I begged off to go backstage again and pursue more TCB Band autographs.  I got Glen D Hardin’s, but James Burton and Ronnie Scheff were on center stage working out some stuff, so I didn’t bother them.  I returned to the lobby and helped escort the Jordanaires back to the VIP room.  It was almost 10 PM, and Gordon Stoker needed to get some food before diabetic problems got to him.  We literally had to push our way through fans who wanted him to pose with them for pictures.  Gordon is too nice to ever say no to fans, so us Production Assistants had to be the bad guys and say, “Sorry, can’t do it.”  Gordon paid me back the next night, buying me a meatloaf dinner at the hotel restaurant.  Did he ever tell some funny Elvis stories that will never make it to print.

 

The second concert was also terrific, but it seemed a bit more business-like than the first.  There were fewer musicians and only one singer.  Terry Mike Jeffrey meshed his traveling band with the TCB boys, and his off-stage entourage consisted of only his daughter-in-law.  This time, hardly anybody was backstage, because the whole gang from the Legends show was now in the audience to watch the second concert. 

 

That was good because it gave me a chance to talk more with Boots Randolph.  This distinguished 78-year-old gentleman was the only performer to wear a coat and tie.  He had been a huge audience favorite during the first concert when he played a down and dirty sax part on the Elvis blues classic, “Reconsider Baby,” followed by an energetic romp with his own hit, “Yakety Sax.”  I yelled and cheered during both songs, just like most other folks backstage.  Boots was impressive.

 

Terry Mike Jeffrey certainly thought so, too, because he cornered Boots between the shows and talked him into doing the songs again during the second concert.  As we sat together backstage, waiting for Boots’ time to go on, I asked him which he preferred, the keyboard we heard in the first concert, or the piano playing in the second.  Boots started out saying he liked both equally well, but the more he talked, the more he realized he liked the keyboard sound better.  So did I.

 

I actually got to walk out on stage during the TCB Salute.  Between songs, Jerry Scheff signaled he was thirsty, and I carried a paper cup of cold water to him.  It was fun later when a friend of mine from Canada said she saw me on stage. 

 

It was past midnight when the TCB Band Salute ended.  I still lacked the autographs of Jerry Scheff and James Burton.  I wasn’t sure they were going out to the lobby, because they had a 7AM flight departure that morning for Las Vegas.  I hated to bug them, but the window of opportunity was about to close.  My new friend Red Robinson helped me get Scheff’s autograph, and I found the nerve to approach James Burton as he was putting his guitar in the case.  Both musicians were pleasant while doing my little favor.

 

So, my magical night backstage with 21 genuine music legends ended on a high note.  I went back to my hotel room exhausted, but I was too hyper to sleep.  Before finally dozing off, I pondered whether the health of all these people will hold up for another couple of years so we can do this again.  I sure hope so.  I know where they can get an experienced go-fer.

 

© 2005  Philip R Arnold

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