Event Review: The Clovis Report
The September 2005 Clovis Festival
A wind blows through the monolithic grain silos that compose the dusty skyline of Clovis, New Mexico. The air reverberates with the clickety-clack of the endless boxcars passing through, hooting and whistling, night and day, on their journey across America.
The hotels, the majority of which are just across from the tracks, place earplugs on the nightstands in every room. A courtesy to weary travelers, who for reasons all their own, have found themselves in Clovis for the night.
I was in town for the Clovis Music Festival. Sonny West, The Fireballs, and the legendary Crickets were returning, once again, to the city where they helped give birth to the phenomenon of rock and roll. The irony of the earplugs was not lost.
THURSDAY SEPTEMBER EIGHTH
1313 West Seventh Street, home of the Norman Petty Studio and Nor-Va-Jak Publishing. This was the music Mecca that Norman Petty built with his bare hands, carefully tuning each panel, each piece of wood, and stocking it with the finest of equipment, from royalty monies derived from a Duke Ellington cover his group (The Norman Petty Trio) had recorded: “Mood Indigo.”
It was here that Roy Orbison first recorded “Ooby Dooby.” It was here Buddy Knox ushered in a new era of music by becoming the first rock-and-roll artist with a self penned number one hit, “Party Doll,” one of two songs recorded by The Rhythm Orchids in that sixty-dollar session. The other was “I’m Stickin’ with You,” which featured the group’s bass player, Jimmy Bowen, on lead vocals. Both songs went on to sell more than a million copies each.
Despite the rather remote geographical proximity, Clovis became a magnet for a talented crop of west Texas and New Mexican musicians, drawn like lemmings to the Seventh Street studio. Yes, while Clovis might be out in the middle of nowhere, they say that if you travel just a few miles east to the Texas border, you cannot throw a rock without hitting a picker.
The list of musicians who recorded here is long. Together they created the “Tex-Mex” sound. Their music helped change the face of popular culture and came to define their times. They are The Seventh Street Legends, and tonight they were coming home.
THE SEVENTH STREET LEGENDS
To kick off the event, Clovis Chamber of Commerce visionary workhorse and music lover Liz Eisenbraun worked with Kenneth Broad of The Petty Estate to open up the studio for a VIP reception, sponsored by the festival’s queso grande Southwest Cheese. The catered affair was held in grand style in the courtyard of the Seventh Street complex where a stage had been erected just for the event. Every detail had been seen to. There was even a red carpet—the full red carpet treatment.
As guests began to filter in and old friends began getting reacquainted, a stretch limousine half a block long pulled up out front, and one at a time they stepped out and walked the length of the carpet and took their place on stage: The Seventh Street Legends.
Richard Porter and Carl Bunch of The Poorboys were there. Gary and Ramonna Tollett were there; they had sung on the first two songs The Crickets recorded at the famous studio. David Bigham of The Roses and his charming wife Maryline were there; The Roses had sung back up for Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly. John and Vicky Pickering were there. John was one of The Picks, and later of The Fabulous Pickering Brothers. George Tomsco and Stan Lark from The Fireballs were also there. And then all hell broke loose when the man who invented the drums stepped out: the founder of The Crickets, J.I. Allison and Joanie Allison, his child bride. The evening was a big success; the game was afoot.
I did not attend this lavish affair. I was in Albuquerque, the halfway point between my home base, Aztec, and my designated point of arrival, Clovis. I had been listening to my father talk about Ted Williams:
“He never needed steroids. A man’s man. Would have broken every record in the book if it hadn’t a been for those damn wars. I was there when he took his last at bat in Fenway. Swung the bat and CRACK! Knocked it over the fence. Now his head is spinning around in some centrifuge somewhere in Arizona, frozen solid, like a block of ice.”
I casually strolled to the phone and called Dickie Stewart. Dickie had been a little down. Corky Anderson, Dickie’s long time original Knights’ drummer and pal, had suddenly passed away, Hurricane Katrina had gone Godzilla on Mississippi and swallowed New Orleans like an aspirin and Dick Stewart had a heart attack. I had just seen him gig with George Tomsco at The Atomic Cantina. He was in fine form. We had hung out getting kicks on Bill Haley’s Comets, only a month or two ago. Prince Dickie was a force. The idea of him hung up, gutted like a carp, hoses running in and out of his openings was a lot to take in. His trophy wife, Judi, answered the legs. I mean phone. I inquired about his nibs:
VOICE OF JUDI: (Soft, sultry voice. Like a velvet pant-suit sliding down a brass banister.) “He’s being very naughty. Won’t stay on his oxygen. He’s supposed to be lying down now, but he’s standing right here.”
VOICE OF PRINCE DICKIE: “She won’t let me go.”
PRINCE DICKIE: “She says the doctors told her I gotta rest. But there is still the slightest possibility that I might . . .” He is cut off by the voice of Judi in the background: “Forget about it, Dick.”
PRINCE DICKIE: “I can’t go.” (whispering) “There is still the slightest chance . . .”
JUDI: “Dick! Tell your friend you have to go take a nap now.”
PRINCE DICKIE: (sighs) Look, come over tomorrow and get your press pass and a camera, will ya? And your tickets for The Bopper. (whispers) “There is still the slight chance . . .”
PRINCE DICKIE: “See ya Chas.”
FRIDAY SEPTEMBER 9
Things change and then change again. Instead of absorbing the history and atmosphere of the fabled Mesa Theater, with host Kenneth Broad, or touring the Lyceum Theater with guide Sonny West, I was at the airport, still in Albuquerque, picking up Mister Mo, the Professor of Rock and Roll. Mr. Mo was in the middle of his couch tour when he diverted to catch the festival. His little surprise, “I can ride with you, Chuckie; it will be fun.” I reminded him that I was traveling with my wife and three daughters, who are all under the age of ten, and that it could get a little close in the van. “Ah, it’ll be great to belong to a family again, Chuckie. I can help keep the conversation rolling.”
The visit with Prince Dickie went well. He handed over two tickets to The Winter Dance Party, a camera and a press pass. “We have been planning the Clovis trip all year,” he said. “My wife bought a new dress.” And true to form, she was wearing it when she pulled Dickie out of my van. Dick struggled long and hard, and I think if he weren’t recovering from triple bypass surgery, he might have won. But once she had the oxygen hose wrapped around his neck like a garrote, he pretty much went limp and she was able to pull him out and drag him toward the fishpond.
“I like them" said Zoe, age ten. "They’re nice.”
Halfway between Santa Rosa and nowhere, on the lip of that extinct inland sea, where the wooly mammoth once recreated and procreated, and the trains are a hundred boxcars long, my mind starts to wander. I thought about Prince Dickie, how this whole scare had caused him to give up smoking. He told me once that he was a pack-a-day man. I thought about the doctors, who had told him to not get excited. Who the hell were they kidding? They must not have got a gander at Judi Stewart’s gams.
Mr. Mo takes out his ukulele and begins strumming. He starts to sing The Mary Tyler Moore theme song. Mo is one of those kind of guys who is a Sonny Curtis freak. Once I was doing this emcee gig at a club in Chicago and Mister Mo signed up for the open mic. He chose for his number, “The Mary Tyler Moore Theme Song.” He actually got the audience singing along. But then he blew it later in the show when he made the mistake of doing the redact-sized version from the second season as his encore. “I always thought of The Crickets as being Sonny’s band, Chuckie.”
Allison, my four year old, began weeping and begging him to stop. Mo puts away the uke and sulks a bit. After a few moments of what for him has been excruciating silence, he makes good on his pledge to help keep the conversation rolling:
MO: Zoe, if they call an orange “orange,” how come they don’t call a banana a “yellow?”
ZOE: Don’t you mean why don’t they call yellow “banana?”
ZOE: Dad, are we almost there? We’ve been driving forever!
The closer we got, the faster my mind raced. The original plan had been to blow in on Friday, catch the tours, and hang by the pool with the kids; then I was going to cut away to Marshall Auditorium and try to sneak in to the Winter Dance Party at half time. I couldn’t afford the admission, and was considering trying to mix in with the crowd as they re-entered at the end of intermission. But now suddenly I had two tickets! Funny how things work. Of course there were six of us.
We passed CANNON AIRFORCE BASE, which, like Prince Dickie, recently went on life support. I dropped Mr. Mo at his hotel and headed further down the road.
The desk clerk at The Holiday Inn asked if we were there for the music festival. “You’re damn right,” I told him. “I couldn’t get in at La Quinta. I guess that’s where the musicians are staying.”
“No, the Chamber has put some here. Rodney Green is here and Chuck Tharp. Peggy Sue is here.”
“Well they better keep it down!” I snarled and headed off for the room.
The room next to ours has a giant hand-written “DO NOT DISTURB” sign on it. I notice again not without a certain restrained irony, as my three kids began jumping from bed to bed, screaming at the top of their pink little lungs. I picked up the phone and called over to La Quinta to see what the ace of flames, [Fireballs’ lead guitarist] George Tomsco, was up to. I marveled at how easy it was to get connected to George’s room. Hmm, they aren’t screening calls for the musicians. I make a note of this for later, after a few glasses of wine, when it’s pranky-wank time.
The phone rings four or five times before George picks up.
ME: TOMSCO! DO YOU HAVE A WOMAN IN THERE?
GEORGE: (Laughs) Hi Bill. I just got out of the shower. Can I call you back?
ME: The shower? Really?
GEORGE: That’s right, so how about if I . . .
ME: Are you naked?
GEORGE: What? Naked? Well, yeah, yeah, as a matter of fact I am. Well, I have a towel on. I’m dripping wet.
GEORGE: That’s right. I was sprucing up for the concert, but I left the door open so that I could hear the phone.
ME: But you do have a towel on, right?
GEORGE: Umm, yeah, that’s right Bill.
ME: Take it off!
GEORGE: Excuse me, Bill?
ME: You heard me; loosen the towel quickly! And why do you keep calling me Bill?
GEORGE: WHAT? This isn’t Bill O’Neil?
ME: OH! So all men sound alike to you when you are naked?
GEORGE: (nervous laugh) That’s right. I mean NO! I mean, . . . Chas?
ME: What’s up Ace?
GEORGE: Oh man! (laughs) I thought you were Bill O’Neil.
ME: Just because you are naked you assume I am Bill O’Neil?
GEORGE: WHAT? (laughs again) Oh, man! I don’t know how to answer that one! Hey! I have four tickets for the show tonight. You want em?
ME: Do I! Oh man! George, you are beautiful. And I’m not just saying that because you are naked!
GEORGE: Well that’s a relief. Meet me in front of the auditorium at quarter till, okay?
ME: Okie doke. Now go put some clothes on!
GEORGE: See ya.
The cosmic cookie was crumbling my way. I started the day prepared to be a sneak in, a gatecrasher. Now I had six tickets and a press pass. I headed down to the pool to tell the girls the news.
THE WINTER DANCE PARTY
Marshall Auditorium was packed. We got there at the last minute. People were milling around like ants. Cowboys, bikers, fifties’ guys and gals, Brits, musicians, children and Texans; each one radiating the glow of eager anticipation. I had heard about John Mueller’s Buddy Holly tribute for some time. I had heard his contribution to Bobby Fuller Drive’s “Breakin Rocks” and thought the similarity was notable. I looked forward to his chops with relish.
I had visited JP Richarson’s website and listened to his renderings of his father’s classics. The idea of this cat assuming the mantle and manqué of The Bopper at this stage in life is beautiful and fascinating. Someone once told me that the primary occupying subject of modern literature was the search for the father. Examples being “Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, and Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” I couldn’t help but project this thesis upon Bopper, Jr. and was wondering if there was some sort of father/son communion that transpires in depths of Bopperness that can only be achieved on stage, clad in animal print, before a room of screaming people. I would be watching.
I had no idea who Ray Anthony was, but knowing the quality of John Mueller’s work by reputation, I had high hopes and expectations. I looked around the room; people were wearing cardboard Buddy Holly glasses and little flashing red guitar pins. The crowd was murmuring and rubber necking, watching the various Legends as they entered the theater and took their seats. The backdrop on the stage was a giant pastiche of vintage rock-and-roll images in vibrant color.
Alison, my youngest daughter, had noticed a rather burly stage manager with a handle bar mustache peeping out from the wings. She became convinced that this was Sonny West, and that he was taunting her. She would scream, “Show yourself Sonny!”
The energy in the room was palpable. When the lights finally dimmed and the crowd hushed, there was an eerie silence, not unlike that of a firecracker after the fuse has burnt, but before the thing explodes.
My daughters were jumping up and down. My normally stoic wife had a crazy grin on her face. I was buzzing out on the total big vibe whammie the joint was putting down. Drummer Sammy K came out and climbed behind the kit and began tapping a slow tattoo. Stand up bassman Ed Maxwell came out and began thumping the doghouse. Guitarist Brother George Muller surfed the fingerboard, and sax player Mike Acosta began wailing lyrically. They laid out a quick medley and then Sammy K introduced the Texas Wildman, JP Richardson, The Big Bopper, Jr.
The Bopper came out with a huge, infectious grin and began crooning in his deep, frog bellied baritone. A group of about two-dozen children sprang to their feet and began dancing. Bopper seemed to feed on the energy, bopping around with a spring in his step.
Alison, my four-year-old, became very nervous. She had heard The Bopper and seen him on video; I had told her Bopper was dead. She could not reconcile that thought with what was going on up there on the stage. People were yelling and screaming for The Bopper; Alison lapsed deeper into alienation. She was always very sensitive. She would weep whenever she heard Buddy Holly sing “She’s Gone,” just bust into tears and beg us to turn it off. We thought it was fascinating at first, even funny, until it grew to include every Buddy Holly song, and then finally, every Crickets song. I’m not talking about simple tears. I’m talking full out wailing and gnashing of teeth. We had been worried how she was going to react to John Mueller, and the stage was suddenly being set for disaster.
The Bopper disappeared and Sammy brought out Ray Anthony as Ritchie Valens. Ray came out in a neo rock-and-roll mariachi outfit, an Elvis Presley spit curl, and a Fender sunburst two-tone Strat. The girls in the joint went nuts, and then he lit into the guitar and bowled the place over with his magnetism. He handled a few good-natured hecklers with humor and confidence and gave a fantastic, no, electric performance, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. My wife was very impressed, “Wow, how old is he? He looks so young!” I reminded her that Ritchie Valens was only seventeen when he died.
Alison and Casey conferred on things. They were confused, if that had been The Bopper, then was this really Ritchie Valens? What’s going on? Have I been putting them on?
John Mueller, everybody’s favorite buddy, came out. He exchanged a few good-natured barbs with Brother George, the hotshot guitarist, about haircuts and then the music started. John opened his mouth to sing and Allison’s lower lip began to quiver, tears pooled in her eyes. She began screaming, “Stop! PLEASE! PLEASE! STOP I CAN’T TAKE IT!!”
At intermission people were snapping up souvenirs. I was out walking with Allison begging her to be reasonable. She was perfectly fine now, if not down right happy; she was very frustrated that Sonny West had not come out and sang. She promised she would try to control herself, but the minute the music started . . .
The Winter Dance Party Band is amazing. They have an authentic, raw and dynamic sound, technical virtuosity, and a visible love for what they are doing. John Mueller was everything he had been built up to be. He brought the spirit of Buddy Holly into the room, and everyone could feel it.
The Bopper and Ritchie came out for their encores, then John brought The Legends on stage. Gary and Ramonna Tollett, David Bigham, Homer Tankersly, John Pickering came up out of the audience, and they sang backup for John the way they did way back when. Hearing their voices, was eerie, chilling. I got goose bumps. I felt like I was listening to a ghost radio. Alison screamed, “YOU’RE KILLING ME!” (Next month: Scene Two)
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