Monday, December 27, 2010

The South Dallas Flavor

A friend of mine once told me that he liked hanging around with me because I have flavor. He was from Michigan and when he moved to Dallas, he had a hard time figuring out the lay of the land when it came to the folks. I suppose to any Northerner or Midwesterner, the south in general can be a little different. Let alone the foreign country of Texas.

Flavor was such an odd word to use I thought. But it made me reflect on some of the folks that I have enjoyed spending time with over the years.

One such individual is a man by the name of Raymond Lee Griffin. Known to the blues community as the right reverend of the blues, Mr. R.L. Griffin.

He's a club owner, a blues singer and some what of a real estate tycoon. You would never know this at first blush but he holds an MBA from the University of Hard Knocks. It's not a well known university and really doesn't have formal classes per say. However, R.L. in his own quiet and back door manner could go toe to toe with Ross Perot in any negotiating senerio.

I was once back stage with him about to go on before Johnnie Taylor. He and I were openers for the show. As we visited back stage, in walks his guitar player complaining about the sixty dollars he was getting paid for the show and how he was worth at least $200. R.L. looked him square in the eye and says, "I'm sure you're worth every penny of $200. But right now, you can make $60. I'm not talking about later. I'm talking about at this very moment, you can make $60. So if you know somewhere that you can go right now and make $200, then you should go do that. But right now, it's $60. If I were you, I would make the $60, then go somewhere else and make the $200. Then you would have $260." Not in the mood for a story problem, the guitar player would grumble out of the room. He would of course stay for his $60.

R.L. Griffin was born and raised in Kilgore, Texas. He attended C.B. Dansby High School which was the all black school before segregation.

His mother owned a barbecue stand and R.L. worked at the Roy H. Laird Country Club as a caddy while going to school.

Mr. Rufus B. Anderson, the band director, introduced him to the drums which would put him in the pocket of Big Bo Tomas in 1965. He would now be performing side by side with just about every R&B artist rolling through town.

After being on the road for so long, he came to the realization that you could make just as much money performing if you owned your own place. I think he may have underestimated his potential a bit as he's not making "just" as much money. I know the artists that are out there as well as how difficult it is to make ends meet in the blues world. At five hundred people a night paying ten dollars each to get in for eight nights a month? You do the math.

It's funny to have a conversation with R.L. about all the musicians he's known and met through the years. I've never heard the same story twice. One of my favorites is when Al Green came to town and according to Griffin, was nobody. He had no money and had to sleep on R.L.'s floor between gigs. Shortly after that, "Tired of Being Alone" would hit the air waves and go gold for Al shooting him straight up the charts.

Stories like these go on and on with Griffin. Sam Cooke, James Brown, Freddie King. They were all scratching for that money together like farmers plowing dirt for food.

In his years now, R.L. is still one of my favorite people. He is smart, funny and can still bring it on stage. He has helped feed and nurture more musicians than you can count. I suppose that he understands more than anybody what it takes to make it in this world. And he's a testament that anyone can make it if they work hard enough.

Here's to the flavor. The flavor of R.L. Griffin.

Photo above by Jeff Horton

Monday, December 6, 2010

My Ninja Like Dance Moves

When my wife and I first got married almost twenty years ago, she wanted to take ballroom dancing. Well you can just imagine my reaction as most of you know me anyway. In fact, I think I camp with most guys when I say I would rather gouge my eyeballs out with a flat head screwdriver than take ballroom dance lessons. I'm more of a free style kind of dancer with his own skilled moves that show up after a couple of stiff drinks. A real Nepolean Dynamite with cat-like reflexes and abilities.

But like most insistent wives when they really want to do something, this idea of hers wouldn't go away. And like most good husbands who just want their wives to be happy, I agreed to her wishes and prepared myself for action.

The nightmares would begin with two uncoordinated people trying their best to remember the moves that were set by the instructor. While the music played on, our feet would never fall within their assigned steps. Mine especially.

I'm not sure what my problem is but I can't remember things when it comes to set actions. I would get all flustered and then this would be followed by anger which would lead to, "What in the Sam Hill are you making me do this for?"

Or...Something like that.

Our dance lessons would last about two months at which time both of us could see that it was going no where. Like a failed marriage, her dreams of showing out on the dance floor would diminish due to the inabilities of my uncoordinated feet.

I suppose I never really appreciated the whole ballroom dancing thing. And I don't think I ever would have if not for the new reality show, Dancing With the Stars.

My wife started watching it and I kind of got into it a little. I can really respect the talent of someone being able to have an entire dance routine all figured out in their head before they ever hit the floor. Not to mention actually being able to carry out the moves gracefully and look good while doing them.

Not too long ago, I received a Youtube video from my favorite guitar player, David Brashier, featuring a movie clip from "Hellzapoppin'"  filmed in 1941. It started the wheels turning on swing dancing and where it came from as I had never seen anything like this before. Oh sure, I've seen swing dancing and jitterbugging by white people in the 50's but this was like swing dancing on steroids.

Digging a little deeper, I was surprised to learn that swing dancing was invented by the black community in the 1920's. On March 26th, 1926, the Savoy Ballroom opened in New York and was an enormous success. This dance club attracted the best dancers in the New York area as well as the best black swinging jazz bands around.

As the story goes, one evening in 1927 following Lindbergh's flight to Paris, a local dance
enthusiast by the name of "Shorty George" Snowden was hanging around watching some of the couples dance. A reporter from the news inquired as to what kind of dance they were doing out there and glancing at a headline on a newspaper that featured Lindbergh's flight, Shorty replied, the "Lindy Hop."

The "Lindy Hop" along with the "Jitterbug" which came from a song written by Cab Calloway in 1934 would become the two backbone names for swing.

As mentioned, I've been pretty impressed with the whole Dancing With the Stars show and I like watching it from time to time but this is like nothing you've ever seen before. Prepare yourself for some real heat on the dance floor.

Swing it up.