Just shy of my 18th birthday, I got a mysterious phone call. “This is Hank Rush. I sing lead and run the Fantastic Showmen. We need a saxophone player and you were recommended to me. You interested in a gig?”
Um, YEAH! And thus began the adventure...
Hank: “Ok. Cool. I’ll pick you up tomorrow at noon. We have a gig tomorrow night in Atlanta.”
“That’s great!”, I replied, “I’ll be ready.”
Now imagine if you will, a complete nerd, just a kid really, with no real-world experience of any kind, a very unhealthy abundance of naïveté, and absolutely ZERO clue what he was in for and you would picture me preparing to leave. I had no idea what touring, life on the road, band dynamics, travel, etc., meant and how it all was conducted. To say I was green was a massive understatement.
The next morning comes and I’m all (over) packed up and raring to go. As I’m sure you’re aware, musicians are a, um, casual lot, but of course this didn’t register with proper little ol’ me. I’m dressed in a jacket and tie... to get in a box truck and ride for six hours. Idiot! Picture Jimmy Stewart in a coat and tie sitting on his suitcase waiting for the bus and you’d be close. Though I wasn’t (and still am not) nearly as hip as Jimmy Stewart.
Well, noon comes. No Hank. Finally around 2:30, the doorbell rings. I open it up to see a 40-something aged black man, silk shirt open down to his navel, leather biker jacket over that, a multitude of mismatched gold chains hanging around his neck, a prominent gold tooth right in front on top, and a very fresh Jheri curl, hanging down past his shoulders, his mouth agape as he stares at me. First words out of his mouth: “I thought youz was black!” Uh, oh...
“Well, come on then. I ain’t got time to find nobody else. Goddamn... the boys are gonna kill me.” And later in the drive: “Now listen, when we get there, whatever you do, don’t tell them boys you’re the new saxophone player. Let me break it to ‘em first. That way neither one of us might die.”
Damn. What have I gotten myself into? (A refrain I would repeat many times over the months ahead)
Turns out the Fantastic Showmen were a beach-music band doing the chitlin circuit through the southeast, from Eastern Virginia through the Carolinas, into Georgia and northern Florida. I spent a total of almost 11 months doing one-nighters and the occasional week sit-down at a resort or beach club. We played five sets a night from 9pm till 2am and I made $50 a night. We wore all white and were fined for wrinkles or stains on our clothing or shoes. At $5 a pop, you could quickly find yourself in the hole if you weren’t meticulous with your dress and care of your clothing.
Here’s the kicker: I was the only white guy in the band. Eleven guys in a tour van plus a box truck full of equipment. To say it was an education would be a major understatement. I learned an immense amount from those guys, about music, about the touring life, about drugs, alcohol, women, and maybe most importantly race, racism and the ugliness that lies under the supposedly civil veneer of our society. The blatant racism and bigotry I observed those guys go through - and was subject to myself simply for being WITH them - was astounding. Refusal of service in deep-south restaurants, outright harassment by rural police and sheriffs, and a general unease and suspicion towards them (us) any time we were in a white oriented environment. “Treated like the help” doesn’t come close.
While there were definitely instances when I was made to feel unwelcome and that I didn’t belong, especially at the beginning, once they figured out I was just a goofy kid who really didn’t view them through any lens of race or color, and really just wanted to make music, they accepted me and I became another part of the gang. I am eternally grateful to those guys for not chucking me out of the van on the side of some desolate highway somewhere - I was such a MASSIVE pain in the ass!
In almost every encounter, their families, friends and the African American community at large welcomed me and showed me hospitality and generous acceptance. These are experiences I have carried with me my entire life and that have shaped my attitude towards race and relating to others general. They were truly some of the best times of my life.
The beauty of music is you HEAR it, you don’t SEE it, so no matter the color of your skin, if the music is righteous, then all can play. I have been blessed beyond all reason to have made beautiful music on concert stages across the world, deep in the ‘hood in baptist churches, and in tiny smoke-filled dives playing blues and jazz, and many, if not most, of those experiences with men and women of color. My first real gig was as a 16 year old kid, leading an all white trio in the only all black nightclub in my hometown. Talk about an education!
The blatant hatred towards, and targeting of black, brown, and other non-white people is just abhorrent to me. While I experienced it first hand while traveling with the band 35 years ago, it is just appalling to me that in so many ways we seem to have gone BACKWARDS even by the standards of then. It needs to stop. It HAS to stop.
Some of my dearest and most beautiful friends and colleagues are men and women of color. Be they black, brown, yellow, or any other shade of the rainbow, I strive to treat them - and ALL people I meet - with respect for their unique gifts, talents and perspectives. There are idiots everywhere and they are packaged in a multitude of colors. But to place xenophobia at the forefront of your interaction with anyone not like you is just something I don’t understand and never will. We unfortunately live in a time where xenophobia, racism, and just plain hate are on the rise, and are seemingly actively encouraged by our government. Especially by our so-called president, that ugly, spiteful, race-baiting demagogue, aided and abetted by his republican lapdogs and their evangelical minions.
I am dearly afraid there is a reckoning coming for this country, if it hasn’t arrived already. And I am also afraid that armed uprising and conflict could be a very real consequence of our current lack of compassion and dialog. Which of course means that our political system will have failed. You could argue, and rightfully so, that it already has. When a minority of the country has power, and wields it unscrupulously to the disadvantage of the majority, there are bound to be repercussions. And here we are.
To my black and brown brothers and sisters, I support you in your cause and in your demand for justice. More so in your demand for EQUAL protection under the law and for EQUAL opportunity to find happiness and live a rewarding and fruitful life. I recognize that your success in life does not come at the expense of my own, but instead uplifts us all. You have my compassion, my respect, and your lives do, indeed, matter.