So……..during summer vacations in the late 1950s and early 1960s, for a couple of weeks each year, my family would rent a second floor flat just south of Boston in Nantasket. I loved it as it was not far from the amusement park, Paragon Park, directly across the street from the beach, and nearly directly across the street from the legendary Surf Ballroom.
During my preteen years I was more interested in the beach and Paragon Park than the upstairs ballroom. I loved the beach and the sea as I still do and Paragon was fun and fascinating. I recall meeting the renowned pro wrestler Haystacks Calhoun there, a huge man who knew my grandfather and who picked me up and put me on his shoulder, a big deal for a little kid.
I remember the huge and dark stairwell (well…..huge to a pre-teen) leading upstairs to the vaunted venue The Surf…………even prior to my attending a show there I was fascinated by the place. In my earlier years, it seemed so mysterious to me when we would walk by it on the way to the beach or to grab a burger or some fried clams. What was up there?
I’d heard that it had been a dance hall in the early part of the 20th century and functioned as one throughout WWII and into the late 1950s when Rock & Roll shows started coming thru and the name was changed to The Surf.
Sometime in the early 1960s local promoter and owner of the Surf, Bill Spence, started doing regular concerts there, sometimes with national headliners on the bill. Local bands The Rockin’ Ramrods, Teddy and The Pandas, The G-Clefs, The Huns and even The Remains would all play there…….
I’d already been playing acoustic music for a few years in Cambridge and recently had gotten my first electric bass. First a semi-hollow single cutaway Harmony H-22 and then a baby blue Hagstrom solid body both purchased at the now long gone Lechmere Sales.
When I was younger classical music and later Folk and Bluegrass were the focus of my existence………but when I first heard Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters (and had the pleasure of watching both thru a tiny window on Palmer St. in Cambridge) my life was changed.
Son House, Bill Monroe, Tom Rush, John Hammond Jr., Spider John Koerner and a multitude of folk/blues artists had been staples of my existence………… But my world all of a sudden broadened to include Electric Blues and R&B! The Music of New Orleans, Chicago, Memphis and Muscle Shoals became my focus.
Then one summer in the mid 1960’s, the owners of The Surf started doing matinee shows…………and I begged my Mom (and Dad) to let me attend…………..my first concert experience………..a big deal…………and I purchased a ticket to go see my favorite R&B singer……..Wilson Pickett, who that year ruled the charts with “In The Midnight Hour”……..the opener was a local act, The Pilgrims, who also played R&B and a couple of whom, Jocko Marcellino and Lennie Baker, would go on to play together in the prototypical “50s” tribute band Sha Na Na (who I watched perform at the original Woodstock a mere 4 years later).
The Pilgrims were great and I was so impressed that other locals were onstage with someone like Pickett.
It was a low stage and I’d positioned myself just right of center and nearly on the stage.
When Wilson and his incredible band came out I was blown away………I’d been playing little gigs at local dances, in High School gyms and CYO’s in the area for a couple of years………but this was something else. Completely inspirational…………I was for an hour or so worshiping in the Church of “The Wicked Pickett” (The Wicked Pickett is still one of my favorite records). To me, it was almost like a Southern Baptist Church………….music blasting and bodies moving…………….Life changing.
I could already play a shuffle and swing the blues, but this show shot me in another direction…….. The Rascals, from New York, were also hot at the time and helping to introduce R&B to a wider audience……I would later see them in the same venue (As I would later record with Rascals singer and Hammond organist Felix Cavaliere), but Wilson and band were it for me. A huge inspiration.
I don’t recall them being there, but I was later informed by a reliable source that Band of Gypsies bassist Billy Cox and the great Jimi Hendrix were playing in Wilson’s band on that tour. I do recall being super impressed with the bassist and wanting from then on a Fender Jazz like the one he was playing….
In 1993 I finally got the chance to play with Pickett while in the house band at the Rhythm & Blues Awards which that year were held in what had been for many years The Hollywood Palace.
The house band that year included a number of musicians who had recorded with Pickett, primarily Booker T. and Steve Cropper of The MGs. The band also featured legendary drummer James Gadson…….Ry Cooder on second guitar and the horn section from Billy and The Beaters…………..James Brown, Martha Reeves, Little Anthony, Lowell Fulson, Erskine Hawkins and Panama Francis, Hadda Brooks and others were on that awards show that night, but finally getting to play “Midnight Hour” with Wilson and “Green Onions” with Cropper and Booker is what did it for me.