Sing it one more time.
I didn’t hear you.
Leon Russell, “Stranger in a Strange Land,” 1971
When I first started singing in rock ’n’ roll bands, I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. First of all, I was a baritone. That’s a big problem right by itself, because the only baritones in rock ’n’ roll are women. We rocking men have to sing higher than the women and get on up there into tenor and alto territory. Besides the baritone voice, I had a swampy South Carolina accent, which was stuck to me tighter than the skin on my ears. I was all messed up, cursed with a country singer’s vocal equipment and rock ’n’ roll chops.
About that time, I heard my first Leon Russell record, which was full of rocking and drawling. When I heard Russell sing “Shootout on the Plantation,” I figured I might as well just rear back and let go with what I had. It worked well enough to make me a living for about 20 years.
Leon Russell became my teenage musical hero. I took my high-school girlfriend, Bobbie Ann, to Columbia, S.C., to see a Leon Russell concert. It was the best rock ’n’ roll show I ever saw. Some years later, my band worked his “Queen of the Roller Derby” into our set. When my bandmates and I were sitting in motel rooms and on our front porches, we played and sang Leon Russell songs for the pure fun of it.
Since I moved to Nashville, I’ve seen Leon Russell around town a few times. Apparently, he likes to eat where I like to eat. About 20 years ago, I saw him at West End Cooker. He was in a booth, by himself, and I was working my way from the men’s room back to my table. When I got within a couple of steps of him, I got a powerful urge to let go with the first line of “Out in the Woods.” I was going to do the low Leon Russell part, “Well, I’m goin’ down...,” and see if he’d come back with the high Leon Russell part, “Goin’ down a hard road.” I was ready to go all the way through the song, right through the Swahili female chorus at the end. I had a pretty good falsetto back then, and I was ready to use it.
But I froze. I just went shy all of a sudden, locked up, couldn’t make a sound.
It’s too bad. It could’ve been one of those musical things that only happens in Nashville. Like when I saw the Indigo Girls right after their first record came out. It was just the two of them, with no band. They were doing a song that, on the record, had a call-and-response part, with the Girls calling and REM’s Michael Stipe responding. Problem was, the Girls were going to be busy doing their own harmonies, and Stipe wasn’t there to respond. But don’t you know, here in Nashville, there was one table occupied by singers, and they knew the song. When the Girls called, the people at the table sang the Stipe part. It was seamless.
A couple of years ago, I saw Leon Russell at another West Nashville restaurant. That day, I was having lunch with co-inspector Rick, who knows the story of my vapor-lock on the duet. “Hey,” Rick said, “there’s Leon Russell. Now’s your chance to do that song.”
“Can’t do it, bubba,” I said. “He’s eating. If I time it wrong, I’ll be known as the crazyass stalker who caused Leon Russell to choke to death. I couldn’t live with myself.”
I figured that would be the last time I’d see Leon Russell. But oddly, it’s getting to where I run into him about once a month. A few weeks back, a waitress sat me down less than two feet away from him. I was close enough to hear him drink his water.
Last week, I ran into him again. Rick and I were having lunch with Realtor Kim Davis, when Leon Russell walked in and sat about four tables over. I started telling Davis the story of the aborted duet, and, just for the hell of it, I went ahead and sang both parts of “Out in the Woods,” and I did it loud. I continued on to the Swahili woman part, which I had to sing baritone, because I can’t hit the high notes anymore.
Just then, Davis said, “He’s looking at you, and he’s coming this way.”
Sure enough, Leon Russell was looking, and he was coming. I think I saw a little smile peeping out between his beard and mustache, but I’m not sure. But before he got to me, Leon Russell hung a right and headed out the door.
Well, dammit, I’m not getting any younger. If any of y’all see Leon Russell, tell him the next time I run into him, I’m going to wait until he’s done with his lunch, and I’m going to sing that first line of “Out in the Woods.” He can take it and run with it, or just let it go. If we get through the first verse, I’ll consider it to be a huge kick in the ass.
Visit Walter’s Web site at www.housesenseinc.com, or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.