When I look back at my career with Brewer and Shipley, I see more than my fair share of the good times. Great audiences, wonderful clubs and concerts, and lots of pretty girls. For this writing, I’ll stick with the concerts and audiences and leave the girls for another time. Save for the one who I married several decades ago.
When I think about the great clubs and concerts we have played, I remember the wonderful outrages we took part in at so many of them. The Bitter End in Greenwich Village, Washington DC’s Cellar door, the Troubadour in LA, and Cleveland’s LaCave. There were several others that we loved playing, but these are the ones that have stuck with me all these years.
While there were places we loved and couldn’t wait to play again, the world of Brewer and Shipley held some real stinkers as well. The one that immediately comes to mind when I recall such things is a club in Rochester, Minnesota. The Happy Warrior. To say it was one of the worst times I have ever had playing music might be an understatement. As I write this I am still having trouble explaining how bad it really was.
But first I need to tell you about how the trip began. I had been living on the road for too long and found myself staying at my parent’s house in Bedford, Ohio. We had booked two weeks in Rochester at a club called the Happy Warrior. The old bathtub Volvo that had carried me across the country several times, and was home to me on most of those occasions, had long since given up the ghost to be replaced by a Volkswagen square back.
Michael and I had just begun our journey to Rochester when the VW made that old familiar sound. Crunch, bang, cough, followed by complete silence. Another broken car was all I needed. I was dead broke with no way to proceed except the unthinkable. I had to call my father and ask for help. This wasn’t the first time, but the last time this happened. I swore that it would be the last time. So much for good intentions. But as all good fathers would do, dad drove us to the airport.
Arriving in Rochester the cab driver insisted he show us around. “Hormel is pickin’ beans this week,” he said. I couldn’t help but wonder if that truly was the big deal in town. It was. Upon seeing the club we knew we were in trouble. It was a long shotgun building with a bar on one side of the skinny club and a few tables and chairs on the other. It was loud and we were looking straight into the eyes of the people sitting at the bar. And they didn’t look very happy as these two long-haired hippies took the stage. To make it worse the hippies were singing about love and peace. “We should have a song about green beans,” I thought to myself as we started our set.
I think it was on the second night when I was greeted by a large man in Big Smith overalls. He looked me over long enough to decide I had something to do with the enemy, grabbed me by the shirt collar, and threw me up against the towel dispenser. “I fought for my country,” he said as my head banged against the metal covering of the machine. I was speechless. When I finally composed myself I thanked him for his service and headed for the door. I was clearly shaken. I had never, and to this day,l have not been in a fight. Something I take great pride in. Even if I had been ready to fight he would have really hurt me. He was a very big man.
“What on earth are we going to do?” I thought as I headed back to the table where Michael was sitting. They didn’t like any of our songs, and they certainly didn’t like us, so how are we going to navigate this nasty situation? We had an idea and, while it popped up in this awful environment, it led us to something that has lasted to this day.
We had been traveling the midwest, for what seemed like forever. In the evening we would listen to a radio station coming out of Little Rock, Arkansas as we drove. It was one of the first “underground” radio stations and they played all kinds of music we had never heard. Cuts from people’s albums and other people and groups we had never heard before. There was one song that got played over and over, done by a group called Everything is Everything and led by a Native American saxophone player, Jim Pepper. The song was called Witchi Tai To, a Native American peyote chant.
We managed to work it up in Rochester, and we started to perform it at this crappy club. They liked it. It was the first time we had a song they actually liked. So we would sing it, over and over again. By the time we were ready to go home, the song would last for ten or fifteen minutes. Finally, we were no longer afraid to get up and sing at the Happy Warrior.
By the time we left Rochester, we had an actual arrangement of the song, and while it was a very long one, our audiences loved it. Shortly after adding it to our set, it became our closing number. When we went to San Francisco to record our Weeds album, Witchi Tai To found a prime, special spot on that recording.
Years later the Happy Warrior burned down and Brewer and Shipley had some hits. Witchi Tai To wasn’t one of them but it has managed to carry us into the new century. So I leave you with this. Sometimes the worst thing that happens to you ends up being the best. I have never figured that one out but it seems to be true.
Great story. You’ll have to do one about My Fathers Place sometime. Still think your best closing song is from Rural Space. Have a good life is a great way to leave. I remember Beaker Street. Lived in the Ozarks on a farm back then. Saw Elvin Bishop at a commune back then. Have a great day and I’ll read your next story.
John D Williams
I had a similar experience in what sounds like an identical ‘shotgun’ bar, in Winnemucca, NV in the early 60s. For some ungodly reason our agent booked a jazz quintet into a hard-core country bar populated primarily by uranium miners. It even had a chicken wire cage fronting the ‘stage’ a la Blues Brothers. First night, first set, things were deathly quiet. We took a break and were confronted by a huge individual who asked “What kinda music are y’all playin’?” I said it’s West Coast jazz, and again, all was quiet for a few minutes. The guy then says “Well, hell, I kinda like it.”
The rest of the gig was pretty unremarkable (especially as opposed to what could have transpired), and we scooted back to the coast and familiar haunts, hopefully leaving a few new jazz fans in our wake.
The only casualty was our agent, who upon our return became our ex-agent.
Witchi Tai To has always been my favorite song and I love hearing how it came about. Thanks, Tom!
Our decades long family anthem. We will play it at my Mom’s upcoming 90th birthday and sing loud and with feeling like we have done hundreds of times before. And my Dad will be up there watching and wishing he was still here to participate. Your arrangement of this song is the soundtrack of the soul of my family. I so loved reading this story. Thankyou forever and again. Sue Bryce (Gramma Sue)