Higher and Higher?
Like so many young men who love music, one of my dreams as a teenager was to become a rock star. It sounds silly now, but I actually thought I might have a chance at the big time, writing songs, performing on stage, and hoping to be “discovered” by someone with enough influence to put my music on the charts.
In my twenties I was young and impressionable, a fair musician, but unfamiliar with how the music business worked. As a result, I jumped at every opportunity that looked even remotely encouraging and believed every promise from every huckster telling me what I wanted to hear.
Between the ages of 17 and 21, I was in a band made up of a few high school buddies. Over a period of three years we graduated from a typical garage band playing the top 40 hits at the local YMCA to hitting the road full-time, performing at top night clubs in the eastern U.S. It was an eight-piece group, complete with horn section, and it was the horns that made us versatile enough to stand out from most other cover bands in the mid 70s. I have already written how we had an exciting brush with fame when Gregg Allman sat in with us one night. But the first time we really thought we might be close to stardom came following a late-night gig at a Fort Worth, Texas night club when a well-dressed older gentleman invited some of us to have drinks with him. Accompanied by his equally well-dressed female friend, he told us he had connections in the entertainment industry and was sure he could get us a recording contract and TV appearances. His companion vouched for his integrity, and also stressed her intimate knowledge that he had the money to make it happen. The conversation went on for two hours until he let it slip that he was only interested in four of us, not the complete octet. Our disappointment turned to suspicion as he continued to brag about his multiple connections, and we began to conclude that he might be either a phony or a mental case. Just the same, we gave him our contact phone number as we parted ways. We never heard from him again.
From then on we tried not to be so gullible, but during a tour of the Southeast, our road manager asked us one day, “What would you guys think about appearing on the Midnight Special?” The 90-minute concert program aired on Friday nights on NBC following The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and was usually hosted by Wolfman Jack.
“Sure!” was our elated answer. But that didn’t seem possible since we had no record deal and no prospects of getting one. “What’s the catch?”
The catch was that our manager was apparently in negotiations with Jackie Wilson’s manager to hire us as his backup band. Jackie Wilson had been a major R&B star in the late 50s and 60s with a string of popular records including his smash hit “Lonely Teardrops,” and had been given the name “Mr. Excitement” by critics because of his non-stop dance moves while singing in his incredible four-octave range. He had more than 50 hit records to his name, but no major chart-topper since “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and Higher,” a big record in 1968. The nostalgia craze sweeping the nation had brought him success on the “oldies” circuit, and the Midnight Special was going to feature some oldies acts performing their biggest hits, including a performance by Wilson. The contract with his current backup musicians was expiring, and he was in search of a band that could handle his material. Apparently when his people heard about our amazing horn section, their antennae went up.
Well that was enough for us. We immediately started writing our friends and family, letting them know that we were on the verge of stardom, and that we’d let them know the air date of the national broadcast as soon as we taped it.
Looking back, to say we jumped the gun is quite the understatement. As our manager looked more closely at the offer, he discovered that Wilson had a reputation of sometimes not showing up for work, meaning his musicians often didn’t get paid. And then there was the question of what to do about our band’s lead singer (me) if Wilson was the new front man. Sure, I wanted to be on TV, but I didn’t relish the idea of spending all my time doing nothing more than background vocals.
So we kept playing our regular gigs and trying to hone our stage presence until the day we learned that the Jackie Wilson deal was off the table. We were a little disappointed, that is, until we saw the Midnight Special show. Wilson’s performance was amazing, but there was not a single camera shot of any of his musicians. Then a year-and-a-half later we heard that Wilson had collapsed on stage from a heart attack. He never performed again.
Eventually our group disbanded and most of us returned to school or got other jobs. Only one member of the group went on to a career in music, and none of us achieved what anyone would call musical “stardom.”
Are there regrets? I still see my former band mates now and then, and all of us seem quite okay with never becoming rock stars, having become successful in other fields.
But I’ll admit I have those days when I remember the applause, when I recall the camaraderie on the road with my “band of brothers,” when I can almost taste the thrill of a powerful performance. Sometimes I hear “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and Higher” playing on an oldies station or over the speakers in a lobby or supermarket, and for a moment, I remember what it felt like to be young and irresponsible and doing what I loved, owning very little to my name except a few big dreams.
And I ask myself, “Do I wish things had turned out differently?” Recalling how thoroughly convinced we were that greatness was just around the corner, do I ever wish that we had waited just a little longer or tried just a little harder? Do I?
© Nick Walker 2018
What about you? Do you ever wonder about a “road not taken” from your youth? Did you ever have big dreams that never materialized? Feel free to scroll down and leave a comment below.