Saturday, August 20, 2011

2200 Sunnybrook

In 1983, I was sixteen years of age. Legal to drive which meant freedom from the watchful eyes of parents. Or at least, that was the fantasy we all held in our heads never thinking that our parents were once young and any road we had been down, chances are they had already been down it on several occasions.

The truth is I had been driving since I was thirteen so it wasn't that big of a deal. The pressure just went away when I would get pulled over and I didn't have to tell the cop I forgot my wallet.

One could make the argument that I really grew up in Gregg county and not Rusk county. I lived in New London but Rusk county was the kiss of death for young adult fun so I spent most of my youth in Kilgore where the beer flowed freely in the streets and we chased girls up and down 259 until two in the morning. Our summers were spent in pastures with kegs of beer or in someone's lake house playing quarters until all hours of the night. A good fight with a couple of guys in the yard or a good kiss with a pretty girl in the dark...truth was you never knew how it was going to play out.

There was a group of us that congregated like a loyal fraternity of boys and one of the centers for such congregating was in the kitchen of  Evelyn and Lloyd Bolding. Of course they weren't leading the meetings as our chairman of the board was their son, Jeff.

One evening, we were to meet at Jeff's and I was in the kitchen along with Julian Potter, another one our faithful members. We were sitting around waiting on Jeff and Shelby Pace burst into the door in an almost panic stricken fit. He looked like he had won the lottery. Pulling a cassette tape out of his pocket, (yes folks, we listened to music on tapes), he exclaimed, "You guys are not going to believe this. This album might be the best album I've ever heard in my life." Jeff had a jam-box in the kitchen and he inserted the tape and turned it all the way up. As I examined the hot rod on the tape cover, a fat blues rock came from the speakers and it was nothing like we had ever heard before. A real true Texas rock sound made by the new band ZZ Top had been born and little did we know that the baby was delivered in Tyler, Texas.

This new and platinum sound was created in a little house on Sunnybrook in a small neighborhood by a modest but very talented engineer named Robin Hood Brians. A musician himself, Robin convinced his parents to build a studio within their house where he began recording different artists. Investing most of his money in the equipment, Robin was making a name for himself within the music world as he had some of the very best audio and recording equipment this side of California.

This interview with Brians was taken from Rick Campbell who writes his own blog on pop culture. It tells the story of how this album came to be and how the Country Tavern played an intricate roll in the success of the sound.

“The first time they came up they were called the Moving Sidewalks,” Robin said. “They came up and we recorded and they went home and threw everything away.

“The next time they came up they were called ZZ Top. And they went home and threw everything away. The third time they came up, Billy Gibbons told me, ‘Well this may be the end.’ ” They weren’t the sound that manager Bill Hamm wanted.

After producing a concert in San Antonio where the band sounded nothing like their records, Ham made a hard and fast rule: No overdubs, Robin said. “He made a promise to himself that he would never let any group that he had anything to do with do any overdubbing. What you hear is what we’ve got.”

“Well, they came in here with a set of drums, a guitar and a bass. I kept telling Billy, I said, ‘Billy, I’ve got to overdub.’ He said, `Bill won’t allow it. No way.’

“I said, ‘When you play loud enough, nobody will know the difference.’ I said, ‘Dusty (Hill) can play 5th on the bass and the overtones will fill in. So he can basically play chords.’ He said, ‘Bill won’t let me do it.’

“About 1 o’clock that afternoon, it was getting sort of rough,” Robin said. “I looked at Billy and winked, and I said, ‘Bill, You promised Billy and the boys you were going to bring us some barbecue from the Country Tavern. Now’s the time for you to go get the barbecue.’ He said, ‘OK, where is this place?’ ” Robin gave him directions to go out Highway 31 on the east side of Tyler and Ham took off.

“The minute the door slammed, I said, ‘Fellows, we’ve got about an hour and 20 minutes ’cause that is in the next county,’ ” Robin said, laughing.

“I said, ‘Let’s do it this way.’ I said, ‘Billy, you play a rhythm that is so smooth that you can double it.’ They played this track right quick. I went out and just took his strings and just pulled on them and de-tuned them a little. I said. ‘Now just repeat that rhythm.’ He did and everybody just went, ‘Oh, my God.’ I tilted one side to the left and one side to the right. I said, ‘Now put me some lead on there.’ And he put some lead on top of it.

“Of course, when Bill Ham got back, he said, ‘Damn, that damn Country Tavern is in the next county.’ I said, ‘We go there so much it just seems like it’s a couple of miles.’ ‘It’s 22 miles over there,’ Ham said. I said, ‘I’ll be damned, is it really?’

“Billy said, ‘We’ve stumbled onto a sound that we love . . . see what you think about it.’

“We hit play on the recorder. Bill just stood there and his jaw dropped open. He said, ‘That is what I’ve been wanting to hear.’ And they said, ‘You want us to record all of them that way?’ ‘Yeah.’ They were all smiling and everything.

“He stopped and listened. He said, ‘Did you guys overdub?’ And I said, ‘Bill, you have one set of drums, one bass player and one guitar player. Of course we overdubbed. But don’t worry about it in person because as long as they play well and loud enough nobody will miss the other overdubs.’

“I said, ‘When you’re just a little speaker this big around on a transistor radio, you’ve got to add some character to the sound that the room will do when you’re playing live.’ We argued for about an hour. Ham said, ‘OK, you promise me you can pull it off in person?’ ‘I promise you they can.’ ”

“We had to roll the bass amp out of the vocal booth, where it had been put to isolate it. I said, ‘All right you guys, turn it up loud.’ We pulled the drums out of the drum booth, right out into the middle of the studio. I said, `Do this the way you just did it.’ We sat Bill down and just burned his ears off. I said, ‘See, we can do it.’ He said, ‘OK, OK.’ That’s the way we did all of them. We sold him on the overdub.”

I'm not sure we would have believed that this album playing in the kitchen that night had been recorded just 30 miles away. But as I've always said, the flavor that drips out of these woods never ceases to amaze me.

Here's to you Robin. Now go get yourself dressed. Sharp.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Wall of Racism

On August 10th, 2011, a movie will be released based upon a book written by Kathryn Stockett titled The Help. The book centers around four main characters living in Jackson, Mississippi during the early 1960s. All of them women who travel down a path in life only to find a great wall. A wall built of racism.

I have to be honest with you when I say I didn't make it through the book. I think because it made me uncomfortable and perhaps hit a little too close to home on certain things. Of course this won't stop me from seeing the movie as I find film almost always easier to digest.

The story will mean different things for different people. If you're not from the South, I don't think you'll understand it very well. Or at least, it won't pull at your guts as hard as it did for someone like me. Someone who was raised by a black woman from birth.

Her name was J.E. Roberson and she worked for my grandmother. She was what was known as "The Help".

J.E. was a perfectionist on many different levels. And like Minnie from the book, she was known for her cooking throughout East Texas. Even when she became too elderly to work for my grandmother, I would visit her on Saturdays as I knew she would always have something to eat. She was either baking a nut bread of some sort or her fried pies which my mother would bring home by the dozen. We would sit and visit and she would always tell me stories of what an absolute mess I was as a child.

The toughest thing for me with this book meant coming to grips with the relationships that were fostered between black maids and white children. The book deals with a lot of other issues during those times but this would be the underlying bitterness that made it difficult for me to get through.

Among other issues during the sixties was of course the discrimination. East Texas came to the party a little late during the Civil Rights Movement. How late you ask? The movement started in 1955 and extended to 1968. When I reached seven years of age, there was still a black waiting room at the doctor's office. I know because my Uncle was our doctor and his office was at the back of the medical building. We never went to the front door as he was family which meant walking through the all black waiting room to see him. I was born in 1967 so if you do the math, that was 1974.

During this time in my childhood, the Methodist church was on the move to break down racial barriers and pushed equality during our Sunday school classes. The movement even made it's way into our elementary schools as in one instance, I remember a black boy named Terri who was made to stand up while our first grade teacher told us that he was no different than any other child in the class. It was extremely uncomfortable for Terri as well as the rest of the class and I remember it made me very angry. It's funny the things you remember from your child-hood and that's one of those things I'll never forget.

Racism meant nothing to me nor did I understand it as the familiarity of black people was such a common thread in the fabric of my life. What really confused me was developing a deep relationship with the black woman that was essentially my other mother and trying to understand why we were all separated by some invisible wall of color.

Most interesting is the fact that this wall would grow stronger by the time I reached high-school.  And to add to the irony, it was being built by the blacks. It was down right taboo for blacks to be seen or socialize with whites and they were chastised by their peers if they did so. The children that I had become so close to in lower school were now sticking to their own side of the halls. These same halls that their parents and grandparents fought so valiantly to enter.

I returned to these East Texas halls of my old stomping grounds only a week ago. On July 21st, 2011, J.E. Roberson would pass away at the age of eighty-one years. It had been down on the books that I was to sing at her funeral which was a tremendous honor. I've played in a lot of places over the years and with some pretty big names as well. But they will all pale in comparison to that little service on July 30th in Overton, Texas at the Zion Baptist Church.

I sang a song of love for the woman that raised me. But the love was not alone as the shadows of bitterness seem to always be present. The bitterness that wets the mortar between bricks.

Those bricks that make up the wall of racism.