These photos just turned up, what a trip! I was talking to my new friend Steve Wecht (of the band Union Avenue) in Nashville last week, and he told me that he had been there in Memphis at the Charlie Feathers benefit featuring Jerry Lewis and an all-star lineup back in 1988, and that he had PHOTOS. He just dug out these photos and sent them to me, MIND BLOWN! Here’s the backstory (it’s another long read, fair warning):
I was a wee lad in Missouri who had a surf band at the time called the Untamed Youth. My first love, however, had always been 1950s rock and roll and rockabilly. Connecting with Billy Miller at Kicks Magazine/Norton Records was like getting a blood transfusion—I wasn’t crazy, there were other people besides me who liked all this wild 1950s and 1960s music.
I would call Billy often, and I remember him telling me about a show that was coming up in Memphis. Before the internet, this sort of word-of-mouth advertising was the only way to find out about such things. It seemed too good to be true, like a dream. There was going to be a benefit for Charlie Feathers with a lineup that still seems impossible:
Jerry Lee Lewis
The Sun Rhythm Section (featuring Sonny Burgess, Paul Burlison, D.J. Fontana, Smoochy Smith, Marcus Van Story, and Stan Kesler)
And…Charlie Feathers hisself would be there!
I made up my mind I was going to go to this if it killed me. I saved up enough money to buy gas for my $150 Datsun station wagon (yes, my car cost $150 and only had about 300,000 miles on it) and had enough left over to buy gas station hot dogs and the cost of the admission ticket to the show. I drove down there, slept in the car in the hot, humid summer heat, which seemed to get progressively worse as I got closer to Memphis. There was no extra money for cold drinks. I remember drinking out of water fountains! I didn’t drink any beer because I didn’t have enough money to buy a beer.
The show was at a classic redneck dive bar establishment called Bad Bob’s Vapors. Those sort of places proliferated in the old days, but are quite rare to find anymore: a nondescript, windowless building with a large gravel parking lot, located on the outskirts of town in a questionable neighborhood. It was the type of place that my dad warned me about: “You’ll get your ass kicked in there.” Inside, people drank heavily, smoked like chimneys, yelled and hollered and carried on and sparked romance and lust and got into fights, and music happened. Sometimes the music was terrible, sometimes it was great. It was a rare occasion where the music was a big deal. This event was a really big deal. The buzz was undeniable. Everybody was excited. I was beside myself with excitement, going off to such an exotic location, escaping from common everyday life in mid-Missouri, smack into the thick of Memphis music royalty.
Jerry Lee was the big star attraction, of course. He drove up in one of those “kit cars” that were popular at the time, and parked it right in front of the club. It looked like a fiberglass Dusenberg, like a 1930s movie-star car and a brand-new 1980s car at the same time. It had fancy wire wheels and wide whitewall tires.
The show started at 4 pm. I couldn’t believe that I was actually seeing rockabilly legends like Tex Rubinowitz and Barbara Pittman live in person. I simply didn’t think that was possible. I went in the men’s room and Mack Vickery was getting dressed for the show. A big redneck fellow came in, saw Mack, and yelled “THEY CALL ME THE MEAT MAN!” (the name of a big hit Mack had written for Jerry Lee). Mack, half-naked, yelled back, “YOU OUGHTA SEE ME EAT, MAN!” If you really want to titillate your senses, check out Mack Vickery’s 1970 album Live at the Alabama Women’s Prison (greatest album cover ever?).
The crowd was mainly made up of locals, dressed in what can only be described as country-western “urban cowboy chic.” After an hour or two, it became obvious that there were only a couple of people in the crowded nightclub dressed in the “rockabilly” style—myself and a couple of guys on the other side of the room. I had tried to dress rockabilly, even attempting to style my thin-gruel hair into a weak pompadour. These guys on the other side of the room were Latino, and man they had GREAT hair, styled into incredible pompadours. I went up and introduced myself. It was a guy named Robert Williams and his buddy Tim, who had driven out from California to go to the show. They were as blown away by the lineup as I had been, and had been compelled to make the trek. That was the day I met Big Sandy.
Robert told me he had a band in California called The Shambles, and even took me out to their car to play me a cassette (they sounded great). He told me he was putting together a new band, which he was going to call Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Trio. While we were listening to the cassette in his car, Tav Falco (of the band Panther Burns) came up to us and introduced himself before heading into the club.
It was an incredible night of music. Watching the Sun Rhythm Section was like being on acid—Sonny Burgess, PLUS Paul Burlison from the Johnny Burnette Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio, PLUS Elvis’s drummer D.J. Fontana, PLUS Stan Kesler, the man who cowrote “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” AND who also produced “Wooly Bully” by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs? Good lord, it wasn’t possible! The one regret I carry from that night, being a young, incredibly dumb rockabilly kid, was not comprehending what was happening while Charlie Rich performed. I thought the songs were too slow and schmaltzy…what a dummy I was! What I would give now for a time machine to go back and listen to the Silver Fox while he sang “Behind Closed Doors” live in person, with every person in the room heavily drinking, smoking, and listening to the sounds of heartbreak. Damn, I missed out. Charlie Rich didn’t make sense to me until I was thirty years old. Then his music hit me like a ton of bricks.
There was a hallway between the main room and the dressing room, so Big Sandy, Tim, and myself waited in the hallway for hours hoping to get a chance to meet our heroes. Jerry Lee stepped out of the dressing room for a minute and was accosted by a young woman who was making a big fuss over him. She walked away and Jerry Lee turned to me and asked, “Do you know her?” I replied that I did not, but I stuck out my hand for a handshake. Jerry Lee firmly gripped my hand and stared into my eyes with what can only be described as a “death stare.” Nineteen-year old me tried to keep my cool. It was like going to the world of fully grown men for the first time. It was terrifying and exhilarating and cathartic and I knew I wanted to be there.
Jerry Lee took the stage and played a great set of his rock ‘n’ roll hits and country songs and everything in between. The audience was in rapt attention and it was clear that of all the 1950s rockabilly luminaries in attendance, Jerry Lee was the undisputed star.
At the end of the night, they brought Charlie Feathers on to the stage in a wheelchair. They spoke some words about how much money had been raised for his medical expenses, then Dave Travis (an English rockabilly musician) played guitar while Charlie sang “Peepin’ Eyes.” He may have been in a wheelchair, but dammit, I can say I saw Charlie Feathers sing, live in person. (A few years later, in 1997, Shorty Poole and I got to spend an evening on Charlie’s porch, listening to him tell stories—another incredible evening.)
I stayed in touch with Robert Williams, aka Big Sandy, and a couple years later I moved to California to join in the fun. It’s funny to think about how this evening back in 1988 really shaped the future for both of us. In 1988, the idea of forming a “new rockabilly band” was kind of ridiculous. It’s funny to think about how absolutely isolated and weird we were back in those days. People thought we were from Mars. There had been a big rockabilly resurgence with the Stray Cats and The Blasters and all that in the early 1980s, but with the advent of hair metal and alternative rock, rockabillies were as uncommon in America as the dodo bird by the late 1980s. Big Sandy would play a big part in bringing it back, starting in the early 1990s. I guess I fit in there somewhere, too. Now all these years later, we are both still out there performing and playing the music we love.
Imagine my surprise, last week in Nashville, when Steve Knecht told me that he had photos from that night at Bad Bob’s Vapors. And imagine my surprise when I scanned the crowd in one of the shots and saw little ol’nineteen-year old me in the back of the room. I wish there were shots of Big Sandy and Tim, but still, seeing these photos after all these years absolutely BLEW MY MIND. Thanks so much for sending me these photos, Steve! I have replayed every second of this night in my head over the years, to see photographic evidence thirty-three years later has truly melted my brain. I still marvel that it happened. But I guess you had to be there.
PHOTOS BY STEVE KNECHT—don’t steal ’em!