A couple weeks back, I packed up my guitar and amp and went home to South Carolina, so I could play in a concert that was a tribute to my old bandmate, Rick Montgomery. Now before anybody gets confused, Rick Montgomery is not the other Rick who gets mentioned in this column from time to time. That's Rick Cozby, who works with me in my legit job. Rick Montgomery played with me in my first full-time traveling rock 'n' roll band.
These days, the big difference between Ricks is that Rick Cozby is alive and well, and works with me every day. That's good. Rick Montgomery, however, lost a fight with kidney cancer about two years ago, so I'm short a good friend and a damn fine guitar player. That's bad for me, but much worse for his wife and his three children.
To their great credit, though, Rick's family doesn't mope when the anniversary of his death comes around. Instead, they assemble the musicians who played with Rick.
Rick Montgomery showed up in my rock 'n' roll life 20-something years ago, when I was trying to hold down all the chord and lead work in a trio that included my friends the Vaughan brothers, Kem and Hop. Kem played drums, Hop played bass. The Vaughans and I spent a year trying out all manner of guitar players, saxophonists and keyboard players. The guitar players just didn't fit, a saxophone wasn't big enough to fill up the holes, and the only soulful keyboard player we found got into trouble improvising with his medications (if you know what I mean).
When we were just about to give up on the hunt for the fourth player, Hop said we ought to try Rick Montgomery. I objected, because I'd heard Montgomery play in some local bands, and I'd judged him to be OK, but nothing special. Even so, I went along with Vaughan's suggestion. Montgomery came to rehearsal the next day.
A few minutes into that rehearsal, I understood that there was nothing wrong with Montgomery's playing. In his previous bands, he'd just been a little low on propellant. The Vaughan brothers, who played at all times like men who were fighting bees and putting out hair fires at the same time, cured that problem. By the end of the first hour, Montgomery was filling in the cracks like an old jazzman. He was quiet when he needed to be quiet, and loud when he needed to be loud. Montgomery played unselfish guitar.
Soon after Montgomery joined the band, we got an agent, who booked us up for several weeks of work in Florida, in the wintertime. A few days before we were supposed to head south, Montgomery got himself a motorcycle. Don't you know, he rode it right into the back bumper of a car, and shattered his leg. He couldn't go to Florida.
Our agent, in a desperate move to save the Florida gigs, told us to go see a keyboard player in Atlanta, and try to get him in the band. What we found in Atlanta was a boy named Mark, who wore a shag haircut, shiny tank tops and fringy boots. He sang like Stevie Nicks, and played all sissy-showy, like Liberace. I sized up Mark as the eventual bandleader of the lounge-wimp band in the seventh circle of hell. But I had to put up with him until Montgomery's leg grew back together. So we took Mark to Florida.
While we were there, I learned that I would never be an alcoholic. If I could watch Mark prance around the stage and make Marilyn Monroe faces six nights a week, and not drink myself unconscious to wipe out the memory of it, there was no way I'd ever drink just for fun.
After the Florida tour, we went back home and played at the Whipping Post, a club in Augusta, Ga. On Monday night, my musician friends the Brantley boys sat down in the back of the room and sized up the new Mark-ized band. At the first break, I headed for the Brantleys, looking for input. They started shaking their heads in unison, then spoke, like a Greek chorus: "That boy has got to go." The elder Brantley, Big Steve, continued: "If you need for us to duct-tape him and throw him into a Dumpster after the gig, just say so. I can't let this go on."
As it turned out, I didn't need the Brantleys. About 10 o'clock that night, Rick Montgomery came to the Whipping Post, watched one set, then let himself into the dressing room. He walked up to Mark. "Get out of my band, bubba," Montgomery whispered, as he put his walking cane on his shoulder. "If you and your piano aren't headed for Atlanta 15 minutes after this gig, I'm going to beat you with this cane, until you do go."
That was the last we ever saw of Piano Mark.
Montgomery, the Vaughans and I played together for years after that. People who ought to know tell me we sounded pretty good. Hop Vaughan and I still manage to get together at the memorial concert for Montgomery. The music is good, but the cracks are just too big for anybody to fill