Rockin Roll Soul Bro
Sonny played drums in every band I was ever in. But he was never the first drummer you hired. He was always the guy you'd get when you had a gig coming up and your drummer was not available, and you're all going, "What the fuck are we going to do?!" and then someone would say, "I know! Let's get Sonny!"
Not that he wasn't good. Sonny was the best - never missed a beat, always in the pocket, plenty of funk, lots of spark, and tons of fun! It was always a party with Sonny. A Rockin Roll Party. Because he had a Rockin Roll soul, brother! And no matter what kind of music you thought you were trying to play, by the end of the set, after a few drinks, it was all Rockin Roll.
But it was always fun with Sonny. And you always met more people with Sonny. I could play somewhere six times, and they'd be like "Wait, Who's these guys?" And then one time you bring Sonny, and everyone's like "Hey! They got Sonny! Sonny!! Dude!! How ya been?!"
The thing is, Sonny and me, we was buds. We liked each other; we hung out together; we laughed together. Oh God, did we laugh! Sonny could make you laugh even when he was trying to be serious.
Like the time thirty years ago, when I was hanging with Sonny after working my shift as a clerk at the hospital. U of I Hospital is a teaching hospital, so there's a lot of new doctors. And I was explaining to Sonny that the new doctors these days were of a different breed, more independent. Like for instance, when they graduated, not all of them immediately joined the A.M.A.
Sonny pounded his fist on the table. "And them's the ones that's been drinking for years, and they won't admit it!!"
Sonny could play anything you wanted, as long as you showed him what you wanted. Don't try to explain it with words. He would pay close attention to every word you said.* But comprehension...was a bit sketchy. If you wanted Sonny to play in 3, you just started playing in 3, and he would immediately get it. But if you said with words, "This is in 3," he would nod his head OK and then just wait to see what you do. It wouldn't matter if you had said 5 or 7 or 13. He'll pick it up.
One time at practice, I wanted to do something in 3. "Like a waltz," I said, "1,2,3 - 1,2,3 - 1,2,3." We played a little bit and got the feel of it. "OK, let's try it from the top. In 3 now, like we just did."
"OK, everybody!" Sonny yelled from behind the drums. "In 3! Ready? 1! 2! 3! 4! - 1,2,3 - 1,2,3 -1,2,3..."
The whole band fell apart laughing.
"What's wrong with you guys?" Sonny yelled.
"It's in 3, Sonny," I said.
"That's right! So let's go! 1! 2! 3! 4! - 1,2,3 - 1,2,3......Why are you guys laughing?"
"You gotta count it off in 3, Sonny, because it's in 3."
"That's right! And that's the way you start any song - 1! 2! 3! 4! - It's like 1! 2! Get ready! Go! ......OK now, quit fucking around! Let's do this! 1! 2! 3! 4! - 1,2,3 - 1,2,3 - 1,2,3..."
Lots of musicians can't read music; but with Sonny, he never knew what we were talking about. A band meeting meant "Let's smoke pot!" He never offered an opinion, but would enthusiastically support whatever was decided. If pressed for an opinion, he would say something vague, and maybe try to throw in a musical term if possible.
Like if you were to say: "Sonny, what do you think? Should we do this song like a heavy reggae? Or more like an upbeat calypso?"
Sonny would say something like: "Well, whatever you do, harmonistically, is up to you. As long as you keep it funky!"
Sonny was an instinctive player. Never had a lesson. Story was** that Sonny had always been a singer in the church choir. He was the little guy with the great bass voice. At fourteen! And one time the drummer was absent from the church band, and Sonny just said, "I could do that!" And he did. For another sixty years.
Sonny took music seriously. And he took fun seriously. To him they were the same. He didn't really care how much we made. He'd just say, "Hey we had fun! AND we got paid!" What else mattered anyway? Seriously.
One time I came by and Sonny's drums were lined up by the door.
"Got a gig tonight?"
"Yeah. Playing with Bo."
"Where you guys going?"
"I dunno. I just get on the bus."
Another time when his drums were all lined up ready to go:
"Hey, Sonny! Wassup! You got a gig tonight? I thought you were free."
Anybody else would have said something like: "Hey yeah. Birddog called. We got hired last minute to play in Cedar Rapids. Somebody cancelled."
This is what Sonny said: "Yeah! Birddog called! There's a Rockin Roll Emergency in Cedar Rapids!!"
I could just picture a row of ambulances full of guitars and amps and drums, speeding down the Interstate, "Wheeooh - wheeooh - wheeooh! Look out! Birddog's Blues Band coming through! Rockin Roll Emergency!"
The thing was, though, Sonny and me was buds, but we did not travel in the same musical universe. Sonny usually played in bars. I usually played anywhere that was not a bar. I played coffee houses; he played bars. I played art shows; he played bars. I played kids' shows; he played bars. I usually played during the day; he usually played at night. For the most part, it was OK if he was my drummer, because the gig would be during the day and he would be sober. So he wouldn't turn everything into Rockin Roll. As much. And he would instinctively follow whatever we were doing, whether it was wiggy-ass jazz for an art show or goofy shit for a kids' show. And it was cool that we had this crazy, black, funky-ass drummer that somehow knew everybody even though he had never been there before.
But then there would always come a time......
Well, the thing was, since I didn't play much in bars, sometimes I had gigs that were in actual nice places. Fancy even. And we would show up with this drummer who looked like we dragged him out of a bar. Which was true, actually. Like this time we played an outdoor patio party at this upscale restaurant. The gig went great; they loved us; and the owner invited us to stick around and have a few beers around the bonfire. So it's cool. We end up around this bonfire with a cooler full of premium beers and nice people. They're a little upper crust, but nice. They like us; we're telling jokes and stories, having a good time. I can tell Sonny's getting loaded, but he's being quiet.
Then it starts getting late. Sonny suddenly says, "Scuse me," and gets up and leaves. Two minutes later he pulls up in his little red truck and parks right in front of us. He gets out, and without saying anything, takes a big sack from the front seat, walks over to the cooler, and loads it up with beer. Empties it into his truck, returns, fills it up again. Nobody says anything. He's the only black person. Then Sonny grabs our host. "Hey thanks man!!" He tries to give him a soul-brother handshake, but it devolves into a clumsy hug. Mak and I are speechless - we brought him here! Should we apologize for him or not? Maybe they think all black people do this.
We are usually quite glib, but by the time we have recovered enough to speak, Sonny is cheerfully waving goodbye and honking his horn.
Mak and I awkwardly thank our hosts again and take our leave. Nobody says anything about the black guy taking all the beer. But we never played at that restaurant again. And we never hired Sonny again. Until the next time we really needed him.
*He always did. Just one reason why everybody loved him.
**This story was told by Gertrude, his high school girlfriend. So it's probably true. As opposed to Sonny's stories, which you could never be too sure about.