Musicians have to be a hardy lot, and here I’m not only talking about the full-timers—those who log in hundreds of thousands of miles and 300 hotel nights annually (as Anne and I have had to do on certain years)—but the “semi-professional” soldiers who are in the game not merely for fun but because they’re driven to make music. Similarly to a college football star versus a veteran pro, the sheer joy and excitement of playing music can often bubble forth more joyously from a skilled amateur than the most gifted professional. I’ll elucidate with three stories regarding musicians who started out full-time, then went into lucrative jobs to support their families yet continued playing. These anecdotes are also connected by accidents and age, neither of which cooled the ardor of my septuagenarian subjects.
Five days before Anne and I departed for our seven-week UK tour, our friend, drummer (and border patrol sponsor) Graham Smith got in touch to say he’d fallen in his garden and almost had his pinky torn off: this before six gigs with us over a week starting in seven days! He showed up to the first gig, his angel of a wife Maggie with him, and we all helped bring in the equipment, set up the keyboard and sound (both of which he also graciously provides) and he played great on this and all subsequent gigs. Perseverance!
Over twenty years ago, cornetist Ben Cohen was the UK’s finest proponent of the repertoire and style of 1920s Louis Armstrong—and perhaps the greatest in the world; I’ve never heard anyone else, on record or live, perfectly capture the sweet heat Armstrong produced with his Hot Five or Seven more naturally than Ben. Years before his untimely death in 2002, he broke his arm! His dedication to his music drove him to insist that the doctors set his arm in the cast in such a way that he could hold up the horn. This was fine when he was onstage performing, but the rest of the time it looked like he was thumbing his nose at everybody!
The most inspiring of my three “cast” members is one Jim Radloff, a ragtime piano-playing, vintage song-warbling entertainer from Eau Claire, WI. He started out as a kid playing alto, then tenor sax (which he also still picks up) in a polka band touring central Wisconsin. The banner placed next to the band read “Polka Eddie and His Jolly Gentlemen with Uncle August and All the Boys.” I believe Jim was with them long enough that he graduated from being one of “All the Boys” to a “Jolly Gentleman.” He continues to regale listeners with exploits from that era of his life, but one fateful event defines his legacy for me.
Like Graham and Ben, Jim forsook the “full-time muso” life for a more stable one, but continued performing and, after he retired, set himself a goal. He planned to perform in front of an audience in each of the fifty states. He has since reached that plateau and now is aiming for counties. In his own words, “I have played publicly in every county in WI (72) and every border county in the four connecting states: IA, IL. MN and MI.” Additionally, he’s played all the Canadian Provinces except Quebec and the Maritimes, as well as the countries including the Dominican Republic, Curaçao, Cuba, Jamaica, Belize, New Zealand, Aruba and Haiti, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. Not bad for a part-timer!!
This next part is “snow” joke!
All of this spreading joy across the planet might have come to a close on Leap Day, Feb. 2012, when Jim forgot to turn off his snow-blower before reaching into it to clear snow from the blades. He had his pointer, middle and ring fingers removed from the second knuckle; his right hand would forever render him involuntarily sharing the shaka, or “hang loose,” sign. The pain of the recovery and the fear of a cessation in his music-making threatened to drown even Jim’s unquenchable spirit.
Over time, as he had done for so many others throughout his life, he turned to his musician friends for comfort, some cheering up, and also a bit of advice. When he and I spoke, I tried to spur him to focus on his true gifts. While he is a more-than-adequate piano player, he excels in stories, humor and singing pop songs from the 1890s-1920s. He was (and is) an entertainer using the piano as a tool for his presentation. I remember telling him “Anyone can learn to thump out the ‘Pine Apple Rag,’ but it’s a real gift to make an audience sing, tap their toes and smile.”
I hope my pep talk encouraged him; I think it might have, as he is better than ever and few even notice that he is playing at a “30-percent” discount. He can still regale audiences with irreverent asides and wry observations, while sweeping the crowd up in his unbridled joy at sharing music and laughter with them.
Two stories will further illustrate Jim Radloff’s humor. On one occasion, an audience member came up to request a tune.
“Can you please play ‘On?’” the attendee queried.
“You mean keep playing?” Jim asked
“No, play ‘On.’ You know, ‘On!’ I’ve never heard it and I’d like to!” Jim’s fan assertively responded.
Jim shook his head, not sure of what the man meant, and began to play “On Wisconsin.”
“No,” the man shouted, “Not that song…who hasn’t heard THAT? Play ‘ON’ for me!”
Jim responded, “I’m afraid I don’t know what you want…if you’ve never heard the song you’re asking for, where did you hear about it?”
The fellow started to sing an old tune: “Casey would waltz with the strawberry blond, and the band played ‘On!’’ (This would be a “ba-dum ching” moment if it weren’t true).
Everyone’s a critic!
My favorite story Jim loves to tell is about when he was performing in a posh retirement community in the “skilled nursing” wing (translation: what used to called a nursing or convalescent home). Nearly every musician has had occasion to perform in these facilities and it can be challenging. Many attendees may be in a wheelchair while others in the audience may be as likely staring into space as they are to be interacting with—or even reacting—to the performer. I learned long ago that THESE places are the most important venues to play: music therapy is real and becomes a mission to share. Jim Radloff is an ambassador of uplifting spirits and these facilities benefit greatly from his performances.
On one memorable occasion, he was playing and singing in front of a crowd at one of these homes, and over the smattering of applause he heard a loud voice from the back shout, “Awful!”
A less-seasoned performer would let that throw them, but undaunted, Jim launched into his next number, the conclusion of which was met with some a more enthusiastic response except for the same voice in the back declaring, “Terrible!”
And so it went: as Jim completed a tune, the feedback continued to grow more energetic, both from the general audience and his back-row heckler, who offered comments like: “Horrible!” “The Worst!” “Agony!”
Once Jim’s show was over, while everyone was being chaperoned out, the “Activity Director” approached him. There are many names for someone in this position—“Entertainment Coordinator,” “Extracurricular Attitude Enhancer,” “Fun Doc”—but to a performer they all mean the same thing: a check and an invitation to return.
“You were magnificent,” she enthused. “Can you come back and play for us again next week?
Jim looked quizzically at her, “That’s very nice of you to ask. I do think most of the people enjoyed it as well, but I’m surprised you’re inviting me back so soon with that lady in the back harping on me the whole show about how bad it was.”
She gushed, “That’s the very best part!! I’m sure you know how powerful music is to bring out memories and connect deeply with people. Well, that’s what’s happened today! That lady hasn’t spoken a word since she arrived here three months ago, and YOU elicited her to verbally react to your music!”
Wrinkling his brow in confusion, Jim said, “Well, that is great news indeed, but why were her responses to my vocals so negative and angry?”
“That’s an easy question to answer,” the woman answered, nodding sagely, “She’s the retired chair of the Vocal Performance Department at a local University!”
No matter who may try to convince you otherwise, music has charms, whether they be blessings or curses, and is in the ears of the “behearer.” Jim Radloff, Graham Smith, and, through the magic of YouTube videos, the late Ben Cohen are shining examples of those charms, spreading happiness and cheer whenever they follow their passion.
There is one additional story regarding performing after a heinous accident that involves me. It will have to wait until a future edition (or two or three) of this column as it involves a flaying open of my right palm, the best-paying gig of Anne’s and my career to that point, and a “pretty” piano sitting atop a white rug that was worth more than all the homes on my street combined. More on this adventure anon.