In my early days of hanging with you all at TNOCS, I took a hit for expressing both too much and too frequent gratitude whenever someone had a kind reply to one of my comments. Annoying to some, I am aware. But it’s a life-habit that I’m stuck with. This particular Number One reminded me that I’m way, long overdue with one particular “thank you.”
One night when working with the abnormally entertaining Harry Ray Orchestra, the band was killing time between sets. The on-break conversation was never what you would call “stimulating.” Most of the players had day jobs, and they had a perpetually tired, stoned, and somewhat defeated demeanor. But not tonight. The staircase behind the stage was abuzz.
Our fearless leader was an older, follicly challenged guy who was about to undergo a hip replacement. In 1981, this was a really major surgery, and he was going to be out for months. Because the show must go on, somebody was going to be named a temporary front-man and bandleader. The guys were speculating, and all five agreed; I was the heir apparent. “It’s obvious. You’re the young cat, you have the time, and, you can handle it,“ said one of the three Tonys. This was really something. It would mean a little bit more money, bragging rights, and invaluable experience.
I was really excited. Harry liked me, and always made a big deal of me to the crowd. It may have just been a steady working wedding and function band, but I knew a Big Break when I saw one.
We went back to do the final set. I noticed that the entire evening had consisted of wall-to-wall old tired standards, Engelbert rave-ups, and, I kid you not, a Steve Lawrence medley. Harry hadn’t yet done his usual shtick of coming over and putting his arm around me while saying, “Hey, everybody, can you believe this? Get a load of this young kid! Playing in my band! C’mon, mt, whatcha got for these nice folks?” Instead, I just sort of fake-book chorded along all night to songs that were recorded way before my time… but really, who really cared? They are old tunes, and I’ll just muddle my way through, until we do some new, pop up-tempo song. That’s my job, here. I’ll dazzle ‘em.
I had a new one ready, and had talked it through with the piano player and drummer before the gig started, anticipating that we’d give it a go. It was 11:50, and still there had been nothing for me to sink my teeth into. I asked if I could do a song. Harry said, “I guess so, which one?” I told him, and he said to the crowd, “Hey, before we wrap it up, let’s hear one from mt. Here’s, “Jesse’s Girlfriend!”
The gig is over. We all load up and leave, and I perform part one of my post-gig ritual: playing back a cassette recording of my night’s work in the car. FF to “Jesse’s Girlfriend,” and y’know, I’m feeling pretty, pretty, pretty, good. Part two of the ritual was to enter a note or two into a “gig-journal” that I’d started 30 months ago, after my first night with Harry.
The phone in my little rented room rings at 8:30 the next morning. It’s Harry. And I’m stoked because for the first time in my life, I’m about to get a promotion.
“Hello, mt, good morning. Look, I want to make this quick. I’m very disappointed. Your work was poor last night. Awful. It sounded bad, with lots of mistakes, and it seems like lately, lazy playing has become normal for you. Have you ever heard the phrase, ’mailing it in?’ That’s what you did. And I don’t appreciate it. It’s a slap in my face. It’s not what I want or expect from someone that works for me.”
“I have to let you go. I’ll make other plans for the work on the calendar. Vera will send out your final check. Good luck.”
It took a full minute for it to sink in, and for reasons that I’ll never understand, my first reaction was to run out to the car and play the cassette that was still in the dashboard deck. I rewound to the beginning.
I’ve rarely felt as much shame. It was much worse than “bad:” it was an audio archive of someone that didn’t care. Someone who was taking the money and running, save for his little moment in the sun while pretending to be Rick Springfield. In a moment of immaturity that I’ll never forgive myself for, I went back inside and threw the journal that ended with entry, “HRO Gig # 156” in the trash. And I didn’t retrieve it.
There are bad bosses for certain, and there is nothing like getting unfairly sacked to make your blood boil. But you know, Harry, I understand that I had it coming to me 100%. I let you down, I let the guys down, and I insulted the people who were there to hear the music. So, wherever you are, thank you. Thank you for firing me. It has served as a lifelong lesson to do my best and not take good fortune and opportunity for granted. I sure don’t always succeed at doing so, but I promise that I am trying.
And although I tossed the journal, I still have the cassette. Whenever I think that I might be guilty of starting to believe my own press clippings, I threaten myself with giving it a listen.
Brings me right back down to earth every time.
“For the defense…”
The Number Ones Superior Court
06-17-2019, Case # 346
The Honorable Judge Tom Breihan presiding
IN RE: “Kung Fu Fighting”
DEFENDANT: Carlton George ”Carl” Douglas
CHARGED WITH: Creating and performing a novelty record
PLEA: Not Guilty
For the defense: mt58, CUPD (Clearly Unqualified Public Defender)
Ladies and gentlemen of the comment section, I implore you: My client is innocent.
When one goes about creating a so-called “novelty record”, there are certain criteria:
– It should be performed “tongue-in-cheek.”
– It should be derivative, and, however feeble the attempt, try to go for the “big joke” at the end.
– And, when executed poorly: the more often you listen to it, the more exhausting it is to hear.
On each count: Mr. Douglas has committed none of the above offenses.
– He is completely serious as he chronicles the estimable talents of a roving band of expert martial artists. He marvels at their proficiency with great admiration and respect. There isn’t a bit of disingenuousness to be heard during its entire 3 minutes and 4 seconds.
– This is neither a Dickie Goodman drop-in record, nor the felony-assault as committed in recent Case #282, by Mr. Chuck Berry. “Kung Fu Fighting” is a completely original pop record. Nothing like it before, nothing like it since. It’s not aiming for a cheap yuk. In fact, while you may find yourself grinning… you’re not laughing. Joyous and celebratory? Yes. Funny? No.
– It has a great melody, slick musicianship, and solid production and arrangement. I realize that Mr. Stevens is not on trial here today, but I’d submit that no one could say the same for “The Streak.” KFF is not an overlong trek to a tired and possibly offensive punchline, such as in “My Girl Bill,” where, even if you thought it was clever the first time, you are about ready to jump out of a window if you somehow make it to a fourth listen.
Is it high art? Of course not. Is it really anything more than a fun, little one-hit-wonder? Probably not. Is it sort of a strange topic to be singing about? Absolutely.
But: it is a great mile-marker for a very popular fad that fascinated and interested people of the day. If you remember radio from the mid-70s you remember this record, and the little eye-roll and smile that it may have put on your face. Which alone, would make a nice reason for an acquittal.
The defense rests.