Once in a rare while one runs into a situation like this.
I got booked into a segment at this year's festival that was a tribute to Mike Bloomfield. How could I turn that down? The house band was the Ford Blues Band, featuring guitarist Robben Ford and also including a Ford sibling or two. Put in touch by the shows promoter, with Patrick Ford drummer and man-in-charge, I was hired to play two songs (!) and paid generously. Now I know why.
Mr. Ford (Patrick, that is) inquired what two songs I would like to play. In retrospect, this was like picking what color my blindfold would be at my execution. For the first one, I selected "Albert’s Shuffle," one of my faves from SUPER SESSION; for the second, Paul Simon’s "59th Street Bridge Song," which Bloomfield and I covered on the various Live-at-the- Fillmore albums. I was admonished by Mr. Ford that I was forbidden to sing on the latter, as The Fords had just released their version of it with Robben singing lead. If it were to be sung at this gig, Robben would be the one to sing it.
This just stopped me in my tracks. At my age, and I guess throughout my life, I have judged other people’s actions by what I would do in their place. If the Rekooperators were hired to be the house band at a Willie Dixon tribute, and Bo Diddley who had originally played with Willie and sung a song with him originally, was on the bill and wanted to sing that song, would I turn him down because I had just recorded that song ??? I think not. I would be thrilled to back up that person and keep my mouth shut. So, Mr. Ford rendered me nearly speechless. I changed horses in midstream instantly, suggesting we instead do "Green Onions." Mr. Ford yet again admonished me that we could only play songs I had recorded with Mr. Bloomfield. I quickly advised Mr. Ford about our discography, pointing out we had covered that song on the "Live Adventures" album. He quickly relented and my two songs were chosen albeit , with a loss to Mr. Ford's credibility. The preceding conversation took place about three months before the festival.
A few weeks later, whilst working in New York City, I noticed The Robben Ford Blues Band was appearing in town that night, so I went to their sound-check. I had never met Robben before, and brought the two new Bloomfield releases on SONY that I'd worked on as an icebreaker. My real motive, however, was to take this opportunity to facilitate a quickie rehearsal at sound-check and I asked Robben if we could do that. He told me that this current group would not be the same group of musicians booked for the festival, but invited me to sit in anyway on "Green Onions" if I liked. I did so, it was fun, and Robben seemed a lot warmer than his brother.
The next thing I tried to do was plan to rehearse with the actual band before the show. I changed my schedule to arrive a day early, specifically to rehearse. Patrick Ford told me they could only rehearse the day before that. I was booked for a concert in LA that night and couldn’t make the date he proposed. He said it was impossible to rehearse the day before the show or the day of. I was less than delighted. No sound check, no way to check out the organ they rented, etc. When I perform I REALLY do my best to see that the audience gets their money's worth, and here was a situation where I had zero control over such a thing.
As I headed for San Francisco, I had a bad taste in my mouth. I arrived at the festival site an hour and a half before The Ford Band was scheduled to go on. I sat in the backstage area and enjoyed The Stax- Volt Revue that was on before us. Various people came over and said hello. The blues guitarist-singer Joe Louis Walker, an old friend, sat with me for awhile. He was also a guest in the Bloomfield segment and filled me in on some missing details:
The Ford Band had been hired exclusively to do the Bloomfield Tribute probably because of the “tribute” Bloomfield album they had out. ( I say “tribute” like this, because it eludes me what the difference is between their “tribute” and a cover-band. If Ray Charles did a tribute to Nat King Cole, you can bet he wouldn’t play or sing Nat’s entire performance note-for-note. What is the point of that? I’d rather hear the real thing, thanks.) Then the promoter, Tom Mazzolini (a nice guy to me), thought it would improve the segment if some of Mike’s old friends sat in here and there. The Ford Band was not pleased about this at all. Sharing the segment with Joe, myself, and singer Nick Gravanites was not something they wanted to do and they made that clear to Joe when he was in early contact with them. When I told Joe my brief but irksome history with Patrick Ford, he was not surprised.
Up until about fifteen minutes before Ford’s showtime, no one from the Ford Band came up to Joe or me. With the help/coercing of the stage manager, Patrick was dragged over to tell me on which numbers I'd be playing, and in what chronological order they were. When I asked what keys they were in, he said he didn't know 'cause he was the drummer. Robben came over and filled me in on those details fortunately. Getting a little anxious from my conversation with Joe, I was feeling pretty vulnerable about getting up onstage.
As the Ford Band’s segment began, they started playing songs from SUPER SESSION & LIVE ADVENTURES. So there I was - standing backstage while their keyboard player spat back EXACTLY what I had played on the original records. I started laughing. You really sail out of the Blues category when you reproduce note-for-note what someone has already played 30 years ago without a drop of what you currently can play. How sterile !!!! And what the HELL am I doing here????? Listening to somebody play my parts while I stand backstage?
Ludicrous? It got worse.
A few years ago I began to notice that it had become an art form to play "Green Onions" correctly. Whereas, when I grew up you couldn’t get a gig unless you could play that song flawlessly on whatever instrument you played., I had recently sat in with people who had no interest in playing it the way it deserves to be played. They didn't know the bassline or the correct chords. This was, I guessed, because they were under forty years old. I assume The Ford Band is over forty. The basic chords are Fm/Ab/Bb, Bbm/Db/Eb, & Cm/Eb/F. They are played in a twelve bar blues pattern. The bassist in the Ford Band did NOT play those changes in a twelve-bar blues pattern. The Ford Band played the third chord in each sequence above as a minor chord instead of the major chord it actually is. I barreled on, playing the song as I have played it every year since it was originally released in the early sixties by Booker T & The MGs AND the way I played it on the LIVE ADVENTURES album with Bloomfield. What was UP with these guys? BTW, a short rehearsal would have cleared up this problem in 15 seconds. Oh, and I forgot to mention that Joe Louis Walker told me that they DID rehearse the day I came to town, but two hours before I arrived. Thanks, guys!
The next song was "Albert’s Shuffle." A classic, simple blues progression, I tried to follow along but they seemed to have added more verses than I recalled. I tried to end the organ solo three times by signaling Chris Cain, the lead guitar player to come back in, but he just shook his head “no” at me each time. God forbid we should deviate from imitating something NOTE-4-NOTE !!! Thankfully, I played both songs in a sweatshirt with the hood up. When the song ended, I bolted the stage and ran for the car that was taking me back to the hotel. I was embarrassed to be set up like that in a potentially really simple situation.
It’s rarely totally surprising when a promoter/club owner/cobra strikes out at a musician/mongoose. But in this case, the promoter was actually a hero. For musicians to mess with other musicians is amazingly unusual in my life. Yeah. it's happened to me before, but I can count those occasions on one hand. It’s a sad thing that I can’t ever comprehend. I’m only writing about this because it’s a rare instance. I don’t dare speculate what Patrick Ford’s motive was for why this happened. If I’m lucky, he might learn a lesson from this or else his eventual aging might actually make him nicer. Patrick, do unto others, etc. and don’t be afraid to jam in the name of someone else. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery - but note for note replication is best left in institutions of learning; not something to be foisted upon the paying public in concert.
Three things: (1) I will not ever play in a planned advertised sit-in again unless a rehearsal takes place, (2) there is improvisation involved and (3) I am happily conversant with at least one member of the band.
I truly believe both The Ford Band and I will survive this incident. I’m done bitchin’ now - If you think I’ve misunderstood the above, email me with my education. I’m ready to learn...