A Lesson Carved In Stone
By William M. Thames III
Even today at age fifty-three, on rare occasions, that vague nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach returns—that unpleasant feeling that my stomach is trying to crawl up into my throat, and empty its bounty of churning butterflies. To a young teenage musician, stage fright can be a terrifying, and worrisome emotion. Today, I can deal with those emotions, but there was a time thirty-six years ago, when I was sixteen, that stage fright almost cost me my closest friends, my job, and the single most thrilling, musical night of my life.
I began my musical career playing drums in a garage band in 1965, like thousands of other kids who wanted to emulate the Beatles. To the man, each member of our band brought something away from playing for a crowd of dancing, smiling faces that money could not buy. We played for birthday parties, sock hops, Bar Mitzvahs, cotillions, teen center dances, high school and college dances—we played just about any place that paid a few greenbacks and some that did not. We were not too choosey about where we played which meant that we worked a lot. Our band played just about anywhere and everywhere for the first two years, but what we really wanted, more than anything, was to land a job at a nightclub in Daytona Beach called the Martinique.
The stage at the Martinique was “owned” by a fantastic band from Daytona called The Allman Joys. From time to time, however, The Allman Joys, who were serious about making the big time, began to get booked out of town. Slowly we worked our way into the Martinique, and began to play whenever The Allman Joys were on the road. In early February of 1967, our manager received a call from the owner of the Martinique, Bill Cook, asking us to open for a Valentines Day dance and concert, headlined by B. J. Thomas. My band, The Consolidation, was to open for The Allman Joys, who would in turn, open for B.J. Thomas. I, however, was more than a little shaken by the wonderful news. After all, we had never played on the same stage with The Allman Joys, and B.J. Thomas had just released his first top-ten selling album, and the single, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” had recently skyrocketed to number one on the charts. The news of our ultimate gig spread through our band, and our friends like wildfire. Everyone was elated; everyone that is, except for me.
My obstacle to instant fame was two fold, and menacing: The Allman Joy’s drummer and B. J. Thomas’s drummer. Maynard Portwood, who played for The Allman Joys, was a real serious rock and roll drummer who could get a crowd on the dance floor simply by warming-up. To make matters worse, B.J. Thomas’s amazing drummer, Jimmy McCormick, was originally from Florida. He had moved to California to quickly become a widely admired, in-demand, studio drummer. He still had contacts in Daytona Beach, and Jacksonville, so rumors began to fly around music circles about how incredibly he played. By the time Valentines Day arrived, Jimmy McCormick had been raised to demigod status. I was petrified, and I had worked myself up into such an emotional squall that, for the first time ever, stage fright paid me a guest appearance, and decided to stay for the show.
About mid afternoon, I showed up at the Martinique, alone and shaking, to set up my drum kit. The only lights were those illuminating the stage. The rest of the nightclub was as black as midnight on the delta. Jimmy McCormick, the Alpha drummer, had naturally taken the center portion of the back riser, spreading his dazzling chrome and black pearl set in every direction. Maynard had set his drum kit up on what little space there was on the left side. I set my drums up on the right side of the stage, all the while trying to fight off the feeling that I was about to step off into the abyss. When I was finished setting-up and tuning my drums, I walked out on to the dance floor to survey the stage. Suddenly, the set of blue sparkle Ludwig drums that I had treasured seemed small and insignificant. Sinking deeper into a quagmire of despair, I did not notice the blond guitar player that was standing just out of the lights, near the bar.
What was I thinking, anyway? I had only been playing drums for two years. How could I possibly get up on that stage, and play with two of the finest drummers in the business? What was I thinking? I sank down into a convenient chair next to the dance floor, and buried my face into my hands. Trembling, I began to slowly swing my head from side to side, moaning softly, and trying to somehow shake off the horrendous feeling of impending doom. I truly think that I was on the way to some sort of adolescent train wreck when a voice came out of the darkness, and the blond man who had been watching stepped out of the shadows. It was Duane.
“Hey there man, what’s going on?” Duane asked as he strolled over, and slid into a chair at my table. Coming from a lanky twenty-year old, Duane’s molasses-smooth baritone voice took me by surprise, but at the same time I took comfort in his reassuring accent.
I began unloading my burden, while he just listened quietly. “Man, I have no business even thinking about playing here tonight.”
“Duane, I think I am going to go home, get sick, and then go to bed; man, I don’t think I’m going to be back tonight to play.” My voice trailed off into the darkness, and when I finally looked up, Duane’s normally gregarious, smiling face became serious, and his eyes seemed to pierce my soul. He leaned forward in his chair, put a firm, fatherly hand on my shoulder, and gently began to speak.
“Listen here young man,” he said, “I’ve heard you play, and you can kick, and man, I love the way your drums sound! You’re just young, that’s all. Come on up here on the stage for a minute.”
Duane and I walked up the three wooden stairs on the side of the old dusty stage. We made our way through the maze of equipment and cords on the stage to the drum riser in the back, and then Duane sat down behind my drum set. With a consenting nod, Duane slowly began to hit my bass drum over and over. Then, one by one, he tested the sound of each drum and cymbal. As the sticks bounced off of each drumhead, he cocked his head to the side, and smiled in approval. Coming from the best musician that Daytona Beach had to offer, I considered Duane’s endorsement high praise. The longer he flailed, the better I felt. Finally Duane gave the bass drum one last thunderous kick. That kick of approval resonated through the entire cavernous Martinique with only Duane and I to hear it. Finally, for the first time that day, I began to smile.
Duane laid my sticks down, and we made our way back to our chairs. Before I had a chance to sit down, Duane started to prime me for my lesson, “Man, I love the way you have that bass drum tuned. Out on the dance floor it’ll feel like a train running through your chest—I mean to tell ya.”
With a tone somewhere between preacher and father, and with eyes that commanded respect, Duane started my heartfelt music lesson. “Look here, man,” Duane started, “I have something to tell you, and I hope you’ll listen to what I have to say. Try and remember this—you know, when you are playing in front of other musicians or anyone else that you are trying to impress; never, and I mean never ever, try and play something that you don’t know for sure that you can absolutely play! This ain’t the time to try something new. Stick to what you know, and play it with as much soul and feeling as you can muster. I’ve heard you play before, and I know that you can cut it. You’ll be fine.”
With that, Duane stood up, and walked over to the bar to latch his guitar case—a second later he vanished out the door, leaving me to contemplate the music lesson that would became a life lesson. I never forgot what Duane Allman said to me that afternoon, or how utterly fantastic it felt to play that night on the same stage with The Allman Joys and B.J. Thomas. That night in February of 1967 still remains one of the greatest musical nights of my life. All of these years I have carried Duane’s advice in my heart like a lucky coin, and I have shared his wisdom with more than a few musicians showing the symptoms of “stage fright.”
Recently my wife and I drove to Macon, Georgia where Duane had moved, shortly after forming The Allman Brothers Band. It was my first trip to Macon since Duane was tragically killed in a motorcycle accident; only four incredibly short years after that night at the Martinique. We met some new friends in Macon who never really knew Duane, but it was obvious that his philosophy and spirit was alive and well among those who love his music today. We drove out to Rose Hill Cemetery early on a bright, clear morning to pay our respects to Duane. As I leaned over Duane’s grave to read the engraving on the stone, I felt his hand, again on my shoulder, and I was warmed by what I read:
I love being alive and I will be the best man