When I was 12 years old, I climbed up on the auditorium stage at Langley-Bath-Clearwater High School to play with a nameless garage band in the high-school talent show. I was there because I had my own electric guitar and amplifier, and I could play all six chords of The Outsiders’ “Time Won’t Let Me.” My daddy, Jabo Jowers, had fixed me up with a black suit, white shirt and blue tie for the occasion. Today, many decades and many bands later, the only thing I remember about the show is my right leg breaking into a high-amplitude sine wave at the first note of “Time Won’t Let Me.” The leg whipped up a breeze inside my baggy pants and left that leg a little cold. It was my first experience with rhythm.
Next thing I knew, the rhythm took over my other leg and both hands, and I was in a band called The Fleshmen. I ended up being the bandleader, and by some miracle, the band had a regional hit record, “Go Funky.” I was 13. All the other guys in the band were about 20, drinking liquor, smoking cigarettes and claiming to have had sex with women.
The Fleshmen traveled the Southeast in a white Volkswagen van, pulling a recycled U-Haul trailer. Besides “Go Funky,” we played Memphis soul songs and a whole lot of songs by black artists. While most young bands in Georgia and South Carolina were trying to look and sound like Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Fleshmen were wearing double-breasted gold suits, ruffly white shirts and black patent leather shoes. We did dance steps like The Temptations and tried to sound like James Brown. I didn’t sing at the time, so I focused on sounding like James Brown’s guitar player, Jimmy Nolen, who was the master of syncopated rhythm guitar.
In my high school years, I played in soul bands, rock bands and psychedelic bands. I’d be in a tuxedo on Friday night, then a Nehru jacket and bellbottom jeans on Saturday night.
When I got to college, I joined the school jazz band, which was led by the chairman of the English department, Franklin Ashley. He was one bad-ass jazz piano player, full of syncopated rhythms, dissonant chords and a disdain for musicians who couldn’t keep up. At age 18, I found myself having to hang with a piano player who grew up on Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans.
After a few weeks in the college jazz band, our trumpet player told me his dad’s band was looking for a guitar player. I had gotten used to playing with people who were 10 or 20 years older than me, but I hadn’t really considered jumping a whole generation. I did it, though. At 18, I was a longhaired boy wearing a short-hair wig, playing jazz standards and pop songs in a band full of 40- and 50-somethings. One night, I decided to add a little wah-wah pedal to my solo in “Wichita Lineman.” The middle-aged dancing folk just froze where they were and stared at me, transfixed, like I was Jesus, come to take them to the Rapture.
The guys in the middle-aged jazz band opened the door to many gigs. Because of their referrals and recommendations, I played in the orchestra pit at a minstrel show. I played bar mitzvahs. I played in big bands. I played for the circus.
And I played for mentally challenged children one Christmas Eve. It was the first time in my life that I laughed and cried uncontrollably at the same time. There I was, in a roomful of children who were wearing bicycle helmets sideways. They started singing “Silent Night” and rushed the stage. No two children sang the same word or note, and no two started or stopped at the same time. And just to guarantee that I’d lose all self-control, every child was waving a Christmas card from their folks back home and asking me to look at it.
When I was 20, one of the jazz players brought me back to where I’d started. Piano player Jerry Harris hired me into the house band at James Brown’s nightclub—the Third World—down in Augusta, Ga. We opened for then-oldies acts, including Ray Charles, Wayne Cochran and Lloyd Price.
When Lloyd Price came to the club, he came with a band of top-notch studio players. One of them was Cornell Dupree, world-class funk guitarist and sideman for Etta James, King Curtis and Grover Washington, among others. Well, don’t you know, I ran into Dupree backstage at the Third World. “You,” he said, putting his hand on my shoulder, “are the funkiest-playing white boy I have ever heard.”
It was the best compliment I ever got in my full-time playing days. I keep myself humble, though, by reminding myself that there probably aren’t a dozen funky-playing white boys on earth. I’m just glad to be one of them.