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People often see a band’s success as “overnight.” For  Brewer and Shipley that “overnight” took 7 years. And, of course, there were all the years leading up to it. Michael Brewer and Tom Shipley had been single performers prior to becoming a group and if you count those years, overnight success feels a lot longer. 

We had been playing folk music clubs and colleges in the midwest when we were offered a chance to do a demo session in San Francisco. The owner of the club that had become our home base in Kansas City was owed a favor by one of the performers that had played there earlier. Nick Gravinitis. He had offered to do three demos for free if we could get out there. I’m not sure how we came up with the money to do it but we did. Not until we got over some humps in the road, however.

Nick Gravenitis

I had been doing some photography with an old 8X10 wooden view camera. I had just taken a light meter reading off of the top of an old stable. I wanted to check it for accuracy and somehow managed to climb up on the roof to confirm the light meter reading. I was right. Everything was a go. 

I actually saw the rock before I hit it. There it was, right below my right foot and gaining speed rapidly. A church, and enough hollering to draw people to where I was lying on the ground and that was it. The diagnosis: torn ligaments in my ankle.  Just what I needed with a trip to
San Francisco and recording sessions waiting in the wings. “How in the hell am I going to do this,” I thought to myself as I lumbered out of the car with a plastic boot and crutches, all my own.

The Stable

San Francisco held some new adventures. It was the hills that first turned on me. Trying to navigate them on a windy day on crutches brings with it a whole new skill set I had yet to learn.  The worst of all was the afternoon I fell in the crosswalk as I was attempting to cross the street. I felt the wobble and then down I went. It wasn’t the pain of the fall that got to me. It was a look of pity on the faces of the people as they walked by this poor thing lying in the street. It wasn’t like anyone was rushing to help me up. They just looked at me like I was a poor corpse they had just seen. 

And then it was time to find a room. San Francisco is known as an expensive city but we were broke. I mean dead Broke. Looking for a cheap room in the city by the bay presents its own opportunities for trouble. A trip to the “tenderloin” section of town solved that. There it was, The Iroquois Hotel. Not the Ritz unless you were homeless. But it had everything we needed. Two beds and a television set. It didn’t need a restaurant.

For that, we had the perfect answer. Chinatown. There was a  cheap, Chinese greasy spoon down there. And for $1.25 we could get a bowl of cashew chicken fried rice and your choice of pork, chicken, or young chow. The depressing part of the greasy spoon adventure came on Thanksgiving. We headed down there, sad that we couldn’t be home, and were treated to some turkey fried rice with a specimen cup of cranberry sauce. At that point, I decided that I had finally reached the bottom. But there was more to come in this fall from grace.

Dinner in Chinatown

The Iroquois was an old hotel. A very old hotel. One evening as we tried to watch TV, through the ever-present ant races, we heard sirens. We looked out the window and saw fire trucks starting to slow down. “A fire we said. “Cool.” We have something to do before we have to go into the studio. Michael headed downstairs to see what was happening and came back looking like he had seen a ghost. “It’s us,” he said as I looked around to see where my guitar was. We both grabbed our instruments, what money and we had…and of course, the wee and looked for the stairs. We were on the second floor so we understood we were ok as long as the reception area wasn’t ablaze. Fortunately, everything was cool down there.

So our first trip to record in San Frisco started off with a bang and continued on for four albums. Those demo sessions ended with an offer from Buddah records to do four albums. And the demo sessions ended up being part of our “Weeds” album.  The songs: Rise Up Easy Raider,” Indian Summer,” and “All Along The Watchtower.” And that was the beginning of our road to success. Or to paraphrase the late  Richard Farina, I had been “down so long it looked like up to me.”

The San Francisco Albums

And it all began with a trip to San Francisco and a stay at the Iroquois Hotel. I was finally getting successful in the music business but I continued to wonder, “where are all the bright lights and glamor?

3 Responses

  1. Vince Di Palermo
    | Reply

    Ah Tom, three of my favorite songs from the first time I saw you and Mike at The Vanguard in 1969! “Weeds” started my collection of your albums, which, by the way, you both signed for me before performing at Lee’s Summit’s Cole Younger Days celebration back in the 90’s. You were surprised I had a copy of “Down In L. A.” . I was one of the off-duty cops working the festival and lived a block away.
    We spoke of how you both had lived on land rented from General Harold Oppenheimer, USMC (ret.) in Raytown and how I worked at Oppenheimer Industries in High School and College.
    Thanks for the memories and the great sounds.

  2. Jeff
    | Reply

    Great story thanks.
    Question, do you play anywhere these days? Would so enjoy seeing a B&S show.

  3. jojo
    | Reply

    HI Tom. I’m interested in the producer and backing band on your albums. The sound and playing are wonderful.

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