So now I'm free again. How to go about this. I called Alan Diggs of the Lowery music group, my agent at the time and told him I was going solo and he immediately tried to talk me out of it. I had been a reliable unit for him to book and he took care of me, I took care of him. But now I'm proposing something that would drop the booking fee drastically. It affected the booking percentage more than it did me, because I only got a players share anyway. And though at the time a solo artist like he thought I would be would not normally make as much as my share of the band was, I knew this would be different. I was not sitting on a stool with an acoustic guitar. Nothing wrong with that because that's how a lot of us get started, but it was long past that time for me. I felt I was on to something. Very few people had drum machines much less any other kind of accompaniment that we take for granted today. And I only knew of one other guy that played bass and keys and he was in Florida. So it had the element of surprise then.
My agent turned me over to his wife Kay who booked the solo artist, and by the time I got home from Florida she had me a gig for that week end. A supper club. Well, my concept was to try to break into the smaller clubs because I could more less do what a band could do for half what a band would cost and I could do quite well I figured making half instead of a quarter of the fee. I could surely get them to dance. So I went into this supper club with my club PA thinking this would be impressive lol! It was. They impressed upon me that I would not need to come back the next night!
Although we did our share of concerts, I had played a lot of dance clubs and such and you played dance music. So what now. I had long hair and was still thinking of my music as rock. It was the Tuesday after that week end when I was licking my wounds from this first encounter knowing that Alan really wanted me leading a band anyway when Kay called. She said that she had an emergency on the other side of Atlanta. I lived in Marietta and she wanted me to go to Conyers Ga and play a piano bar to cover for the lady who was supposed to be there but had canceled at the last minute for a family emergency. It was about 4 o'clock when she called and the gig was to start at 6. I laughed and said "Kay, there's no way to get across Atlanta in rush hour traffic much less have time to set up and all. She said "no you don't understand. It's a piano bar and he has a grand piano and a PA so you don't have to take anything, and since he's not going to have anyone if you don't go, just get there as fast as you can and worry about the rest tomorrow." I thought for a quick minute. Normally I would not have gone so far outside my comfort zone, but a little voice said to me "Now Bird, you may have to swallow some pride here. This is a two week gig if you just go in, sit down and play and try to fit the situation. What have you got to lose?". So I thought, OK, I can do this for two weeks. It will at least pay the rent and maybe show Kay I'm serious. Little did I know what was about to happen.
It was January 7, 1986. I got to The Crab 'n' Claw almost on time, I think it was about 6:30 and met George Warren the owner. We talked a few minutes and he told me that the gig was from 6 til 10 but that most nights it cleared out about 8 during the week and he had been letting the girl I replaced go home as soon as it cleared. It was a sea food restaurant, but was separated in to two sections, one for food and the other was the piano bar. He did indeed have a grand piano with a bar built around it so people could sit there and watch or sing along, and it was largely in tune and actually played and sounded quite good, so that was the first BIG plus. And he did have a PA, but not one I would have been comfortable with past that first night. But the show must go on. And it did. I think being forced to use smaller equipment than I was used to, helped me the first night to become aware of what I needed for that room.
I did bring my Bass synth and my drum machine and used them with the piano. I brought a small amp for the Bass and Drums because I just knew no matter what PA he had, it would not hold them and vocals too. So I sat down for the first time there and started to play. Sure enough, people were fascinated. They were used to hearing a piano player play Misty with a light graceful touch and such, but now, they could sing along and - dance. I played some Country and some light rock. And dance they did. We did not close early that night. It was magic. In the next seven years we never closed early. George often would come up and say, "50 extra if you play on some". That happened many times.
The next day Kay called and said "Bird, they really like you, but George wants to know if you'd consider getting a hair cut?" In the old days those would have been fighting words, but again that little voice said "You can have this job for as long as you want it, but you're gonna' have to bend a little. So, I got my hair cut. Only up to my shoulders, but cut none the less.
So the next night I came really prepared. I brought a much better PA that I could run everything through, but not the big club PA since I had some smaller speakers as well but much better than George's PA which was basically a one mike PA.
I was pretty much modern country and rock when I got there, but I quickly realized that part of bending would be to get to know people and what their favorite song was. When they told me their favorites, I would then go learn it. I was learning all kinds of music I had never played before. Even some big band stuff as well as the old country like Hank Williams. So slowly I morphed into a human juke box with a few jokes on the side. I eventually knew over 400 songs. By that first week end I knew it was mine. I went in at what the other lady was being paid, but quickly worked out a little better deal, however in retrospect it could have been a lot more, but I was just happy to have a sit down job and not have to endlessly be on the road. And besides it was a couple of hundred more than my take with my bands had been, and there was no travel money to speak of. No bus to keep up. I was getting older, and the traveling didn't have the charm it once had had.
I had been there a few weeks when one night I went back to the office to get paid for the week and George said "I've got to tell you something. The first night you came in that door with your hair to your waist and jeans on, I didn't give you a snowballs chance in hell of making it through the first night. But then, the people took to you. And when I asked you to get a haircut, you did get it cut, though not what I was talking about. But that showed me you were willing to be flexible." But then he said "Why don't you move out here?" and I told him it would just be too expensive to move to every job I played. I told him it would cost at least a thousand to move to get a decent apartment. Then he dropped the bomb.
"I'll loan you the money". Wow. What to do now. Do I really want to move or not. I sure knew it would be a lot better not to have to make that hour and a half to two hour trip twice a day to and from Marietta. So I told him I couldn't pay it back very fast and he said "pay me a hundred a month". I have a good math calculator in my head and that told me he was looking at keeping me for a minimum of ten months. Though I hadn't really looked, no one else was calling so I told him I'd let him know. I just needed to check on a few things. By the next day it was settled. I asked him again if he had been serious, and he said "come pick up the check". I went by and sure enough, he wrote me a check for a thousand dollars. While I was there he asked me "would you be OK with going from 8 til 12 instead of 6 to 10?" I told him that would work just fine for me since that was closer to the hours I had been used to working most of my life anyway. My how things had changed, and quickly. He never mentioned my hair or my dress again. I later found out he was a military man and I guess what he had had in mind for a haircut was a "real" haircut! We were known to laugh about this many times in the months and years to come.
It was a great partnership. Within a couple of months people were asking to be able to eat on the piano side. He had a banquet room beyond the piano bar that he kept closed off, but soon he opened it and started seating people to eat in there. It more than doubled the capacity. On week ends you could no longer get a seat. Pretty much standing room. But George made part of the banquet room a dance floor so everybody had fun dining and dancing. I don't think any of us ever saw that coming.
So I moved to Conyers to an apartment, but because I now saw no end to this engagement, and there were other options opening up as well though I never used them, I knew it was time finally to buy a house. I was 43. I also was now able to actually rent an office of two rooms in the shopping center where Crab 'n' Claw was located and turned it into a studio to put my recording equipment in. I had a four track and my old PA board that I did not use in the club because it was just too big. So I set it all up and put a glass between the two room so I had a vocal booth. I taught a few lessons to pay the rent on the studio. Life was good.
I was quickly able to upgrade the board to a studio board and soon was able to get an 8 track recorder. This all happened within the first two years of being there. The studio was open and we had 8 tracks and a sequencer by 1988. Projects started happening. But something very important happened about this time that I had no idea would lead where it did. Actually there were two things. I met the lady who would become my second wife (I had been divorced for about 15 years and never remarried because I knew the toll the road takes on relationships), but the real game changer - My Dad was a preacher and I suppose I was the prodigal son - was that I thought that since I had just gotten my 8 track recorder I would record 8 or 10 songs for my Mom and Dad, Gospel of course, since they had basically put up with my "wanderings" though they really did not approve. But they still loved me and never disowned me so to speak. So I was hoping to pick up some "brownie points" you might say.
Well, I picked out several age old favorites like I'll Fly Away, One Day at a Time, When We All Get To Heaven, Mansion Over the Hill Top and the like. I started recording it, but when I would go to do the vocals, I started to realize that this was something special. I was loving singing those old songs. It was like going back home. It affected me deeply. There were times I would start to sing a line and I would choke up and have to give myself a minute and try it again. By the time I finished that little tape, not only had I begun to develop what would become my style of Gospel, but I was a different person. I was doing well though and had no idea what to do with the tape I had just made, so I just gave it to Mom and Dad as I had planned.
The years started to pass, but I never got over that feeling of wanting to sing Gospel music. Just did not know how to go about it. Things got more and more successful at the club. By now I had several people in the community that would come by and sing a couple of songs with me. Even the Mayor of Covington. He did great big band stuff, and by that time I could follow anybody on just about any song. A lady named Becky, great piano player, would come by often and she'd take the upper side of the stool and I would take the lower. I'd create a bass synth line and chorded piano accompaniment with drums to her melody in the upper register. We both knew a lot of the same songs and we could go on however long we wanted to. And we did. It was always fun. Things were going great in that sense. But that little voice would not leave me alone.