One truly memorable musical experience in Southern California was when I gigged for a couple of years playing Country Western Swing and Blue Grass music. It came to me like a sweep from the wind sometime after having left the Beach Boys and venturing out with various musical genres; especially coming from jazz. At the time I was sort of going through a musical vacuum and the idea of stepping into a new musical genre tickled my curiosity. Fortunately I joined the right players from the start and became probably one of the first contemporary journeyman pianist in Southern California to gain notoriety within the Country Swing and Blue Grass circle, at least that ’s what they said!
I can still remember the day when I was sitting on the sidewalk in the front of my house in Hudson Drive Pasadena playing with my three toddlers when Frank Sullivan, my neighbor from across the street, approached me. Frank must have heard me playing or practicing from his house so he already knew that I could probably tackle any musical challenge that he had to offer. He was straight to the point and offered me a gig with a band where he was the pedal still player and musical director—a local country swing band by the name of Van and The Southland Country Band.
The band was fairly large—it toggled between 7 and 8 pieces and the level of musicianship was excellent. The repertory was authentic and vintage on the most part, which made it interesting and swinging; it was the real deal! The founder and lead vocalist was a former truck driver by the name of Van Ezell. His long hair and full beard along with his overweighed but solid body frame made the perfect constitution for the black leather outlaw cowboy garb he wore….Waylon Jennings would have been proud! The drummer Big Rick, was nearly 250 pounds and had a long thick mustache below his 10 gallon Stetson and all he needed was to wear a sheriff batch on his shirt—he was actually a sheriff!
That was the sheriff and the outlaw. The rest of us were somewhere in between; sinners and saints. Most everyone was from a different southern state. I was, of course, the southernmost
The stage where we played at was very large and it didn’t lack any of the pro amenities of a main stream concert stage. Arrays of lights, large sound consoles with engineers, roadies, a master of ceremony and a comfortable backstage area was the norm at the club where we performed as house band for a least a year; it was called The Cowboy. There were at least 3 large bars, a huge dance floor, a mechanical bull and a wide back door from which the nightly brawlers would be vehemently exited by a battery of eager bouncers. On stage I played a Yamaha Electric Grand piano I owned with a pair of bull horns on fur at the end of the tail. The front line from stage left was: band leader Frank Sullivan on pedal steel and banjo; Brantley Kearns on fiddle, mandolin, lead and bg vocals; Marty Gwen on vocals; Van Ezell on lead vocal and rhythm guitar; Mark Smith, Greg Humphrey or Bill Bryson on electric bass and vocals; John David on lead guitar, banjo and harmonica; and I flanked the right on piano. Sheriff Big Rick, guarded the rear. Later on i brought in my friend drummer extraordinare Jim Cruce.
Something really interesting in country western swing is that as in jazz, all the lead players get to do several rounds of solos in every song which it’s really cool for stretching out. I had to keep up with the speed of the banjo, the fiddle and pedal steel and gel with the blues nature of the harmonica, the guitar and the mandolin- it was really cool! I even became a part of a small bluegrass unit of the same band and that was even more challenging. One of the highlights was to open for Bill Monroe at an outdoors concert.
Soon enough me and Frank were car pooling the endless and non-eventful hauls from Pasadena to Anaheim and back on the Santa Ana freeway. The ride was specially excruciating whenever I drove by myself, which fortunately wasn’t most of the time. It’s not easy being from the tropics and having to drive 20 miles of concrete with occasional views of track houses that not only looked the same in structure, but their colors blended with the rest of the gray sameness….six night a week!
So, as much as the ride was at times boring, I had the must fun riding with my new cowboy friends. I remember one time when the band hired a new bass player, Bill Bryson from South Pasadena, who was an old friend of some of the guys in the band and I was to pick him up to ride with me on his first night with the band. After getting somewhat acquainted and just settling into the freeway I (jokingly but serious) said to Bill not to worry that we were a little late (we really weren’t) cause I was a real fast driver (I don’t think that Bill or too many people in Southern California had ever experienced being next a Puertorrican on the wheel dressed full gear as a cowboy!). As I covertly observe the look on his face I went on and said to him that I didn’t really have a license but not to worry because I could outrun the cops. By that time he was so nervous that I had to let him know I was only kidding—we became great friends.
Frank and I had a lot of fun car pooling too. Sometimes the fiddle player, Brantley Kearns, also car pooled with us and that was just too much fun. Speaking of Brantley Kearns; what a fantastic player and personality! I feel very fortunate to have spent a couple of years of my life with these guys. Unfortunately distance, since I’ve been back in Puerto Rico, has played an awful role on keeping us far apart, but as I write these memoirs I get the urge to contact my old friends and try to arrange a visit to the old west….hmmm, wouldn’t mind gathering the old cowboys for a midnight session….. “What the hell have I got to sit around here for?” As Joe Buck would say!