The General And The King (And a Christmas Lesson)

I am very remiss for not noting the deaths of two very talented artists earlier in the year. Great musicians are passing faster than I can write about them.

Yet, based on my remembering something Solomon Burke said a long time ago, perhaps this is when this appreciation is meant to be posted. Now, closer to Christmas.

On October 10th Solomon Burke, self-proclaimed King of Soul, died in Amsterdam at 70 of natural causes. He was there to perform.

On October 13th Norman "General" Johnson passed away at his home at the age of 69. He had been fighting lung cancer. The General may be unknown to some of you, even though he wrote and performed many well known and revered rock/soul classics. In the US south he was--and is-- a music icon. He led the beach music group The Showmen, well known for songs such as "39-21-40 Shape" (mistakenly printed as "39-21-46" on the 45 label) and many others including as great a seminal anthem to rock & roll as ever recorded: "It Will Stand". More recently (and for decades) the General fronted The Chairmen of the Board.

These deaths touch me for very personal reasons. As a drummer in the soul and beach music group The Four Winds & Band during the late '60s, I've had the pleasure and honor to perform with both men.

The Showmen were great to back up. Back then beach headliners would often not travel with their own bands to save on expenses. The venue would bring in a backup band who would also play sets before and after the headliner's set. All the good regional bands knew the music and a rehearsal wasn't even needed. Just a run through of some behind the back hand signals the General would flash to direct us, like a third base baseball coach.

One night performing with them stands out. We were playing The Jokers Three in Raleigh. A big crowd. I was just a kid, at 17 not even legally old enough to be in the building. Thinking back on it, I may have been the only one on stage not high on something (I learned some great life lessons being "on the road").

The General was in a particularly good mood and there was lots of banter between songs. At one point after a song he stepped closer to me and it scared me to death, thinking he would tell me to tighten it up. Thankfully, instead he said "You got a fast right foot, kid. You're good..." I just about fell of my stool. My signature was "doubling up" on the bass drum. Don't ask. It's complicated. Sort of, anyway.

That was also the night our sax player, more "happy" than usual after the gig, became engrossed with the big, furiously spinning fan on the side of the stage. It was a beautiful rainbow fan, he said, just before sticking his left index finger through the grid, resulting in...well, you don't want to know. It was messy. And saxophone-playing limiting in the future. As I said, I learned some good life lessons travelling with that bunch.



You take some music, music
Sweet flowin' music
Some movin' and groovin'
Rock and roll will stand

Take some heart beats drum beats
Finger poppin' and stompin' feet
Little dances that look so neat
You see why it will stand

Some folks don't understand it
That's why they don't demand it
They're out tryin' to ruin
Forgive them for they know not what they're doin'

Don't nick-name it
You might as well claim it
It swept this whole wide land
Rock and roll forever will stand

Hear those sax blowin'
Sharp as lightnin'
Hear those drums beatin'
Loud as thunder

Some folks don't understand it
That's why they don't demand it
They're out tryin' to ruin
Forgive them for they know not what they're doin'

Don't you nick-name it
You might as well claim it
It will be here for ever and ever
Ain't gonna fade
Never no never

It swept this whole wide land
Sinking deep in the heart of man
Come on boy join our clan
Come on boy take my hand
Come on boy be a man
'Cause rock and roll will stand

Let's do it all over again
I feel good let's do it again
It'll be here for ever and ever
Ain't gonna fade
Never, no never...

My one experience with Solomon Burke was much more farcical. We were the band on the one hour Solomon Burke Christmas Special produced for airing on some very dinky UHF TV station in Greensboro. Low. Budget. I don't really remember, but I think this was a paid-by-Burke deal, a religious program, really. Ol' Solomon was preaching back then, too.
But on to the farcical. Mr. Burke was a big star to me and I was mightily impressed when told about the gig. Until the gig played out, anyway. There would be some preachin' and then a little music. And unlike backing up The Showmen, we did not know the music so well. It was ugly. To say the least (but with great respect for his talent) Solomon was not in his element as a TV show preacher/host.

There was a stage for the band, a podium for The King's preaching, a fake Christmas tree a little skimpy on the ornaments, lots of bare concrete wall and a cardboard sign hawking the one sponsor Burke found for the production. It was a local butcher shop (who I'm sure created the sign as it was professionally done in the grocery store motif).

Allow me to cut to the chase: The music was awful because we only had about thirty minutes to rehearse. The preaching was of the Primitive Baptist style. When it came time for the butcher shop commercial, Solomon was so animated ("Good meat, I tell you!") that he kept slapping the masking-taped-to-the-wall sign until it fell off. That startled The King so much that he fell back into the fake Christmas tree, knocking it and him to the ground. The cameras--I mean the camera--was rolling. There were no "cut!" do-overs in this production.

He rallied gallantly, gently rising and reminding anyone who might ever watch (ha!) that it wasn't about him, or the sign or the fallen tree. "It's about Christ the King, our Saviour!" he rejoiced. And then all was good. Solomon got an audible "Amen" from the camera man. The next song sounded so much sweeter.

It was a crazy day. Not one of The King's finest. That day takes nothing away from his great talent, and I am proud to be able to say I played with The King--the great Solomon Burke, however unorthodox the event.

Rock & Roll. It Will Stand. Can I Get An Amen...
R.I.P. General Johnson and Solomon Burke

No comments:

Post a Comment