Monday, March 5, 2012
Winter 1981. My girlfriend who is quite ambitious, decides that I am not ambitious enough. She’s right, of course. After all, I am a musician. I’ve been playing bars and such, working at my Mom’s restaurant, doing covers in a rock band, playing standards in piano bars. I want to play jazz, but I live in New York City, and what few jazz piano gigs exist are held down by living masters like Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris.
I’ve been working part time at Radio Shack, trying to help pay what pathetic bills we have. I’ve also been gigging with a cover band called “Nightwalk”, wherein my stage name is “Wayne Train”. Don’t ask. My girlfriend has convinced me that now is the time to buy a new telephone answering machine. It’s a pretty major expenditure, but she made the argument that, as an aspiring free-lance musician, this might pay for itself eventually.
So I splurge and buy a machine. Ironically, the first message I get, I mean THE FIRST MESSAGE, is from a guy named Tom McConnell, friends with a Bassist for a recording project in which I am involved. Tommy says that his band, a funk group out of Brooklyn named “Skyy”, is looking for a new keyboard player to replace Larry Greenburg, who had recently either quit or been fired, in one of those “you can’t fire me-- I quit” deals. Tommy says I should call him and arrange an audition with the group’s leader, Solomon Roberts. I ask him how I should prep for the audition, and he says that they have a track that’s playing on the radio and is doing pretty well, called “Call Me”.
The next day, I tell a couple of my African-American colleagues at Radio Shack about my impending audition. One of them nearly has a heart attack; apparently this tune is doing more than “pretty well”, it’s climbing the R&B charts like a skyrocket, and about to cross over to Top 40. She turns the radio to the big R&B station, and within THREE songs, the track plays. So now I’m getting nervous. The song has a killer groove, a lead singer who has a bit of MJ in her sound, and a nice little gimmicky idea of a chick trying to move in on her friend’s squeeze.
Despite my complete ignorance of post-disco funk, I chart out the song as best I can, and go to rehearsal/audition with Skyy to try and play the tune. Their keyboard rig is 5 deep, all I use is a Fender Rhodes and a little cheap ARP imitation, so immediately I am out of my depth. Solomon walks me through the parts and which keyboard does what, and with my cheat sheet taped on the keyboard stand, I’m good to go. Always a quick study, after a couple of runs through, I am starting to lock in. They seem to be pleased, and I get the “we’ll call you”.
A few days later, I actually DO get the call. It turns out that they are not officially handing me the gig, but they need me to go to LA for some promotional stuff and a TV show. I get the idea that I have gotten this chance primarily because the guy I am replacing is white, and they think if I’m dressed like him, nobody will notice. I have yet to see my predecessor, and soon find out that his chosen stage costume is Urban Cowboy. Here I am, a guy who thinks of himself musically as the hip jazz Manhattanite, forced to dress as a freaking COWBOY. After 40 plus years as a musician, I wish this were the worst indignity that has been heaped upon me.
Not even close.
We get on the plane to LA, and I am informed of our schedule. We are going to land at LAX, and go immediately to a large record store to do an “in-store”. Basically, you go and sign autographs and LP’s for an hour or so. Then, we will check into our rooms at the Sunset Marquis, and later do another promo appearance, including a visit to the LA branch of our record company, Salsoul. The next day, we will go to do a TV show in Burbank, a show called “Soul Train”.
“SOUL TRAIN”? They didn’t mention that we were doing THAT show. Am I gonna meet the dancers? Don Cornelius? Is this really happening?
We land at LAX and there are two limos waiting for us. We travel to the in-store, a huge shop in Inglewood. There is a big crowd waiting for us. After some photo ops with the staff, we all sit at a large dais, where we will sign promo photos of ourselves. My first quandary arrives when I realize I will be signing a picture of a guy who doesn’t look like me at all. I also realize, upon looking at the picture, that I am not the only replacement in the group! One of the girls, the short one, is also different from the one in the picture. I ask Tommy what’s up with this, and he explains that the 3 girls in Skyy are all sisters, but that one of them is 6 months pregnant. So this sister is not actually a sister. In fact, other than her size, she also bears little resemblance to the actual band member.
I begin signing my name over Larry’s face, to try and prevent people from recognizing the difference, but to no avail. At least 10 fans ask me where the real guy is. I try to explain that I am just as real as the guy in the picture, convincing nobody.
All the while, the tracks from Skyy’s LP, “Skyyline” are playing. In fact, this is when I realize that when you are touring and promoting, you will not only play your hit 100’s of times, but you will also hear it at least as much. By the time this little sojourn to LA is over, I am already totally sick of “Call Me” and have it memorized note for note.
We check into the Sunset Marquis, always a favorite of the record companies for their visiting bands. It is a very swanky place, bedecked with palm fronds, and I am starting to feel the rock-star vibe coming on. I am rooming with bassist Gerald Lebon, a nice guy who is quiet but with a good sense of humor. The next morning we walk down the Sunset Strip, a place we will be very familiar with by the summer. But this is our first trip, so I am anxious to see it.
After breakfast, the Limos take us out to Burbank, where “Soul Train” is taped. I don’t know what to expect; the last time I did a TV show I was 6 and my Mother made me go on this show I had never seen, and never heard of since, called “The Funny Company”. It was like “Wonderama” but with slightly lower production values. Basically, “Funny Company” was to “Wonderama” what “Troll 2” is to “Avatar”. (By the way, my lovely wife, Lisa was apparently the Alec Baldwin of “Wonderama”, having guested countless times.)
Ironically, “Funny Company” did have a lot in common with “Soul Train” from my perspective. I would have to perform, although I would be lip-syncing to “Call Me”, rather than doing a sing-along to “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leafed Clover”. I would still be playing myself, and I would still be dressed like a cowboy.
We go for make-up, and the typical pancake application. I asked for extra-dark. I figure I will be shown maybe two times, once during the phone call breakdown, and once when they show a full shot of the band, so I am not sweating my look too much. I am getting to see the dancers, and am looking out for that gorgeous Asian girl (you all know which one I mean). It’s not really what I thought it was going to be like. The soundstage is very industrial, the dancers are not interested in the bands at all. We eat some bad crudités, and the next thing I know we are on stage, lip-syncing. Minutes later, the song is over, and I feel I have acquitted myself well. Then I find out that that was a rehearsal for the director and camera team. We run the song again, and this time I think it goes just as well.
Before I know it, Don Cornelius is standing in front of me with a handheld mic and asking me something inaudible. I hesitate, and he says in a much louder voice, “And you are?” Nobody warned me that this would happen! I am slightly panicked. I blurt out “Wayne!!”
Don gives me a look that says, “This ain’t the motherfuckin’ Mickey Mouse Club, fool. Give me your whole name.” When I realize this after what seems like an hour (it is in reality about 2 seconds) I say, “Wilentz-Hi!” I don’t think I could have acted dorkier if I had been channeling Barney Fife. Suddenly, my cowboy outfit seemed very appropriate.
I did eventually get asked to join the band, and stayed with them for 8 years. I did eventually get promo pics with my face on them, and got to wear clothes I might actually wear in real life. I recorded 5 LP’s with Skyy, and was on “Soul Train” 3 times, “Solid Gold” 3 times, “American Bandstand” and “The Merv Griffin Show”. I was also on “Livewire”, a show on the fledgling Nickelodeon Network, which was taped at the Ed Sullivan theatre, and where I met my wife.
About a month later, we all watched that episode of “Soul Train” on the tour bus, and huge laughs were heard when Don Cornelius and I had our little uncomfortable exchange. For at least 2 weeks, I was referred to as “Wilentz-hi”.