BLUES FOR THE WHITE BOY
(abridged version)
Author: Dan Pollock
© 2003

vc62@adelpjia.net

Chapter Seven

 

THE SPORTSMAN

 

 Being a white guy and an interloper in the band in those days was like being caught in the military’s tried and true “Catch-22”. Most of the white people scorned me for socializing and working with blacks. Many of the blacks resented me too because I could freely come to their neighborhood and frequent the joints where all of the good music was but they weren’t allowed by white society to dart into an average white lunch counter or gas station to take a piss or get a glass of water. Then the problem I was having with Ted in the beginning,  which really was about my being white and getting hired when there were some brothers around that played guitar too. There were some disadvantages in yearning to play the blues with this band back then.  You also have to realize that some of these joints we played in could get rough sometimes and a fight would break out here and there and that always added to the excitement of  being there. It could get dangerous too and that happened on more than one occasion. For anybody, regardless of color or ethnic background, you sometimes had to put your life on the line just to be present in an authentic blues setting. Mr. Blue had booked us into this club just outside of Gadsden’s city limits, called, “The Sportsman”.  The place has left such an indelible mark on my memory, that I decided it needed a chapter of it's own.

 

On our first visit there, we ended up having to take a gravel road from the main route and should have known something was up then. Once inside, I learned that here was another place where I would be the first white guy other than cops to go into,  once I passed through it's portals. As we approached the club in Sonny Davis' 1957 Ford Ranch Wagon, we topped a small hill and could look down on the club and view the scene unfolding before us just outside the front entrance. Sonny saw it first and stopped the car, turning the engine off.  Then we all looked in the club’s direction and silence ensued. Sonny’s at the wheel of the car, Ted is in the middle and Lloyd is on the passenger side.  Frank is in the back seat behind Sonny, I'm in the middle looking like a whole note and Jack is sitting behind Lloyd.  What we were witnessing was the largest, meanest fight that I have ever seen in over forty years of playing professionally! Even a meaner fight then I witnessed about five years later at a place called, “Maida’s BambooVillage” in Salinas, California during Rodeo Week! Now, mind you, this fight is happening about an hour before we were supposed to start playing. You don't usually have a fight before the music starts and I, no better yet, make that we, were totally unprepared for this sight! Needless to say, my brothers in the car with me were scared. I could tell because we had been together for a while now and I was getting used to and absorbing their personalities.  I knew them well enough to know that they too were very nervous, even though they were trying hard not to show it! Imagine what was going through my mind!

 

We sat in that car for what seemed like an eternity and you could hear a pin drop within the confines of that old Ford. Finally Jack breaks the silence from the rear of the car with one of the most profound statements that I have ever heard. He slowly turned and looked at me then looked back at the fight in front of us and said, "I sure am glad I'm colored"!  When they wouldn’t turn around and head back to Huntsville, I tried desperately to get out of the car and walk back to the security of the Arsenal but of course they shamed me into staying. Now if they really wanted to go back, off we’d go but no, the white boy is going to stay and see this one through. A lot of firsts happened to me in the south and this was definitely one of them.  The fight finally breaks up and Sonny starts the engine, puts it in drive and we slowly creep down the hill and park at the door to unload.

   

The Sportsman was a converted Ante Bellum type plantation house, with no real parking lot to speak of.  Maybe one or two cars were there, most probably owned by employees of the joint. The center of this place was like a circular ballroom that had a couple of pillars and a long winding stairway to the upstairs floor. From the bottom, you could look up and see the doors to the rooms above and I quickly found out that those rooms were used for the gambling and prostitution that went on in addition to live music on weekends and to stay away from the second floor. All of the patrons came walking out of the forest and the hills in coveralls and brogans and where I came from, including the Elks and Bigger 'N Seay's,  people dressed in their Sunday best and the bands all wore suits or uniforms back then. Not like you see today where somebody shows up in shorts and sandles for a gig, so it was kind of a strange sight to me.  It was a Saturday night and most juke joints and bars around there usually jumped on Saturday nights.  We'll see.

 

We got set up and did a sound check and had enough time to find a secluded area and have a little meeting. Okay, the brothers were worried but I was about ready to mess my pants when I noticed two white cops walk in the front door. They headed over to the kitchen window and ordered some soul food and a couple of R. C. Cola’s. Probably had a Moon Pie with it too. While Sonny was telling us to keep our cool and just play our show and we’d be all right, Frank is jumping in with how he’s not going to be intimidated by anybody and they’d better respect us and our music while I’m feeling better now because two white cops showed up and I was sure they wouldn’t let them "darkies" screw with one of their own. Just then another fight breaks out over by the bar, this time a small one and my secure feeling that I had just a few moments ago was rapidly ebbing away as I watched the two cops make a dash for the exit. They were in that squad car and gone in a New York minute the second the trouble started. Sonny is still going on and on, winning his argument to get up there and play, so they all agree and head for the stage. I have no choice but to meekly follow, climb up there with them and pick up my axe. I knew right then that the only protection I was going to get would be from these five guys who now pretty much surrounded me on stage. Let’s get this show on the road.

 

After about three or four warm up tunes, we headed into our “show”.  Frank, Carl Jackson, who by the way was always called “Jack”, so whenever he’s mentioned, it will be by the name of Jack, and me were in our usual spot on stage for our little dance move, front and center. We started doing this routine on some songs after we had mastered, "The Temptation Walk" from the noted vocal group of Motown fame and they were very big stars then, especially in our neighborhood. While we were going through our motions during a tune, it may have been our cover of Junior Walker’s “Shotgun” or a similar tune,  when I noticed this tall, sort of odd looking man that had pieces of straw sticking out of his hair as if he'd been sleeping in a barn, was leaning against a pillar that was in the middle of the dance floor and he was following our movements with a .45 CALIBRE, JOHN BROWNING, COLT, 1911, US ARMY AUTOMIC PISTOL! I turned to Frank and said, “check that guy out leaning against the pillar.....he’s pointing a gun at us” and I look back at the guy with the pistol. I don’t know what to do and I turn back to Frank for some sort of hint and he and Jack are gone. They’re behind the old upright piano with Lloyd, Sonny and Ted. Now I’m standing center stage buck naked and I immediately bolted for the safety at the rear of the piano with my protectors. I was pretty dumb in those days but not stupid, so I immediately squeezed out a place for myself  behind them and looked shakily at Frank and asked, "why did you guys run and leave me up there all alone"?  Frank says matter of factly, still breathing a little deeper than normal, "look...there's one thing you've got to learn down here and that is, when one nigger runs, all the niggers run"…..you ask why later"! One of the bouncers or managers finally showed up and removed the guy and the Colt and break time was over. Time to get on with the show.

 

After a couple of tunes, everything was back to normal and we were starting to cook, most probably out of fear. Fear has a way of making you play with a little more acuteness and to my surprise, we were getting over with the crowd. Another example of my naivete and downright dumbness is when this  old woman with a funky head rag, a nappy old kitchin' and teeth that looked like old folks toenails, kept pulling on my pants leg while we were playing, telling me to play the song, "Danny Boy". Frank leans over and asks what she wants and I tell him she wants us to play “Danny Boy”. It’s possible that Frank’s reputation as a musician may have preceded him there because “Danny Boy” was one of the highlights in our song list. Frank would blow that tune through his Selmer alto almost a cappella and there wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house! It was definitely a show stopper. To my amazement and for the very first time, he declined the request. “Nope, we’re not playing that tonight” he tells me, much to my dismay. For almost the entire night, this old, fussin' hag kept coming back, now yelling at me to play the song! “Come on, Frank”, as I lean over to him trying not to be overheard, “play the thing”! “Ain’t no telling what this woman is capable of”! He just shakes his head no. Is he trying to teach me something? If so, what? By then, I had given up with trying to get Frank to call the song and thank God, that old woman eventually disappeared and I was in high hopes that she had gotten so drunk that she went home.  At last,  we finished the last tune and closed the show. Lloyd had gone to get the money and while we were packing up to leave, here comes old snaggle tooth, right up in my face, yelling,  "I thought I told you to play Danny Boy"? Now I’m begging all of them to bail me out here but all they did was laugh, probably because they thought it was high time that I paid a little dues like they had all of their lives.  Forty years later, it now makes sense but I couldn't see that then.  When I didn't respond to her, she lowered her voice to one of those whiskey soaked whispers and asked me, "what's your name, boy"? Talk about being real dumb because for the life of me, I couldn’t think of anything else to say and I politely said, "my name's Danny". You talk about a pregnant pause! On top of that, I noticed the band wasn’t laughing anymore and as I look down, she’s reaching into this old tattered handbag, pulling out a .25 CALIBRE CHROME, PEARL HANDLED AUTOMATIC PISTOL as she screamed, "DON’T GET FUNKY WITH ME"! Then all of a sudden, Sonny’s throwing some kind of quick body block on her and wrestling the pistol out of her hand. After that, of course, is when the bouncer or manager shows up. Man, let’s get outta here! We jam everything quickly into the back of Sonny's car, again while waiting for Lloyd to come back with the money and we want to hit the road now. Frank yells out the window, "Lloyd get in the car and let's go"!

 

As we’re heading down the road back to Huntsville, we’re all very relieved. It’s easy to tell because everybody was talking at once and very animated. But what comes through all of the babble is are we or are we not going back? Is twenty five bucks worth it all? Who knows what’s going to happen the next time we’re there? But twenty five bucks was a lot of money and we were young and resilient, well at least they were.  I’ve got to say that the voting was a little one sided but I was willing to follow my brothers to the ends of the earth. Go back? Yeah, I’ll go back. I just wish this girl that I had my nose open for hadn’t shown up on our second visit.