Sunday, April 3, 2016

21-The Boys In The Big House Band

The Big House
                                                            (Part 1)
Spring came late in 1969 and I’d had enough of my old Chicago stomping grounds. Events, starting with the Democratic Convention fiasco, in late August the previous summer just after I’d arrived from Memphis, were as chaotic as ever. I was looking for a change, some new scenery and warm weather. So, I applied for graduate school at my alma mater, Memphis State University and was accepted.
My mentor, David Yellin, head of the Broadcast/Film Department, offered an assistantship with a small stipend. I was flattered and honored by the offer and gladly accepted. The past year away from college had not lived up to my expectations and I was looking forward to a new life as a graduate assistant at Memphis State.
Freedom Street
I’d been playing with a band from Elgin with the unwieldy name “The California Prune Advisory Board” and working as a truck driver for a company owned by the father of one of the guys in the band. He employed a couple of other band members too. It gave me a chance to stay in music and still make a little money. But I was going nowhere and I knew it. I couldn’t stand the thought of rolling out of bed on my 50th birthday and going to work, playing the same old songs over and over, at some local dive. This gig was just another stop on the way there and I knew it. Perhaps Memphis would lead to something better.
I saved up and bought a very cheap, used, VW bus. I packed it with boxes filled with everything I owned, and hit the road. My ride came to an abrupt end in southern Illinois after only 300 miles when the van totally, and terminally, broke down. I gave the VW bus, and some of my stuff, that wasn’t properly boxed, to a tow truck driver in exchange for a ride to the local Greyhound Bus station. From there I, and my many boxes, pressed on to Memphis.
I can’t remember what I did for transportation when I arrived but I must have acquired a car of some kind. I first found a room at the YMCA and then a house to share on Vinton Street with two women and their two, pre-school, children. My duties at Memphis State didn’t really start until fall so, in early July, I was on the road again; this time headed for a racetrack in Hampton Georgia, site of the first Atlanta International Pop Festival.  I took a 16mm Bolex film camera from Memphis State and 100 feet of film with me. That’s only about three minutes of running time but it was all the film I could afford.
I’d never seen anything like the festival site. 150,000 people crammed onto a few dry, sweltering acres of hard ground and, generally, pretty happy about it. The days were rain free. The nights were beautiful. The sound was amazing and the lineup historic. I remember a back stage shot of Janis Joplin raising a bottle of Southern Comfort in a toast to my camera before she went on stage, and another of Grand Funk Railroad one afternoon, when they were permitted to play after just showing up and begging for a chance. I maneuvered close to the edge of the stage pointing my camera at act after act while judiciously exposing little of my 100 feet of film. Just having a nice camera, and acting like I belonged, got me almost anywhere back then. Cameras weren’t banned like they often are today.
A few days later, when I returned to Memphis, I received a call from Harry Chapman, a local disk jockey and booking agent I’d worked with back in 1967-68, Harry offered a tour with The King Lears, of Shad and the King Lears, a band coming off a recent hit, “Come Back When You Grow Up Girl”. I joined them just as Shad, the lead singer, quit to enter Seminary and his brother Bubba Williams took charge. Shad was the lead singer but, even without him, the band still had contracts to honor. So, for the next several weeks The King Lears and I traveled through Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin on the Gary Van Zeeland entertainment circuit. In August I celebrated my 23rd birthday on the road with Taja, a dancer I met and fell in love with at a next-door club in Davenport Iowa. But that birthday, and a short search for her after the tour leading to Kalamazoo Michigan, is a story for another time.
                                                            (Part 2)
I was back in Memphis by September, ready to begin work at Memphis State, when I met a guy named Ray through Karen Hubert, one of the women I was sharing the house with. Ray took me over to an old, run down, mansion on Central Avenue the locals called The Big House. There he introduced me to Wade Johnson, Sam Elrod and Danny Cleary. They were musicians he’d recently met and they were looking for a keyboard player who could sing. Ray thought we might be a good musical fit.
I’ll never forget my introduction to the Big House and the boys.
The Big House 1969
I was blown away by the sight of the old mansion as we drove up the circular drive and parked in front. Ray and I climbed the stone stairs beneath the Ionic columns that towered above the heavy wooden and glass front door. We opened it and walked in without knocking. I was soon to realize no one ever knocked on the Big House front door. It was open to the world 24/7.
We entered a large foyer with a looming crystal chandelier overhead, many missing pieces leaving gaps in the sparkles. On our left, partially open sliding doors revealed a great ballroom with windows along the west side; quite dark, even in daylight, because of the heavy undergrowth outside. To the right was a sitting room, or library of sorts, where Ray and I heard voices. It was my first look at the boys and, as we entered the room, they were an imposing sight.

Wade Johnson
Wade, with long, wild, red hair and beard, looked dangerous and hungry. He was wearing a brown, leather fringe jacket and, if he’d had a worn cowboy hat pulled down over his head, might have passed for Billy from the summer’s hit, Easy Rider. He was serious, quiet and thin but large enough to be someone you didn’t want to get on the wrong side of.
Sam Elrod
Sam was the talker. He was Mr. Personality; all smiles, from one side of his muttonchops to the other. He had rather short, for the time, curly, reddish hair. He looked like a college student with a confident, yet friendly, southern manner and a knowing wink. Almost immediately, I knew he must be popular with the ladies.
Danny Cleary
Danny was quiet, cautious and the hardest one to figure. His voice didn’t give away much about his thoughts. Dark, pageboy length, hair framed the Van Dyke he sported on a thin face. He didn’t look at you. He stared from a distance. He seemed to almost pull back into himself like a man trying to make up his mind about something. Cleary had a way of tilting his head toward you, with his chin down, that made him look like he was staring over the top of his glasses with a bit of disapproval. But that wasn’t when he was playing. When he had that guitar in his hands he was in another world and it showed on his face…pure joy. He’d been taught as a child by one of the best, Carl Perkins, who, Danny said, was a family friend back then. Cleary was probably the best guitar player I ever played with.
Chuck Richardson
What they thought of me I can only guess. I was a little older and let’s just say better fed. OK, I was husky, XL if you will. Weight gain and loss was a part of the story too, but that’s also for another day. I had a beard and hair about the length of Danny’s but it was trimmed and well kept. I probably looked pretty straight to them. I’d played with bands they were familiar with. And I’d been able to make a living at it for a number of years, so that probably influenced their opinion of me. Also I had a college degree, a job with responsibilities and I didn’t look like I just jumped off a freight train.
The three had been in California when they decided Memphis would be a better place to put a band together. Wade was from Thousand Oaks California, a magical, hip coastal town in my imagination; a place I dreamed of going to someday. Sam and Danny were from Jackson Tennessee where they’d been playing for some time with other groups. I’d played there a few times myself and we knew some of the same people.
So there we were, standing in this old mansion with all it’s stories swirling around us, about to make stories of our own. Like everything else in life things just happen. For whatever reasons, we all arrived at the Big House at the same time. I guess the common denominator, the thing that drew us together, was we all needed each other.
                                                            (Part 3)
I was concerned about, both the responsibilities of a college assistantship and, the demands of a band. I knew my job at Memphis State deserved a full commitment but I’d just come off the road with a band that had almost made it. They were just one song away from success and I believed, in my heart, I could be successful in music too if I just kept at it…
The decision was made that warm fall evening when we jammed together for the first time in the grand ballroom of the creepy old southern mansion.
The Big House rocked that night! And we rocked it! I knew then we were on to something.
Wade, Sam, Danny and another friend of Wade’s named Bob Newton needed a place to live. I wanted to move in with them so we could spend more time practicing when I wasn’t teaching speech or attending classes at Memphis State. The Big House, having seen better days, was cheap. I think the rent was only $200 a month for the whole place. It was located on the northwest corner of Central Avenue, directly across the street from, and facing, Immaculate Conception Church. To the east, across Belvedere, was the house of Margaret Piazza the opera singer. To put it mildly, we were part of a rather exclusive old Memphis neighborhood but mostly concealed from sight by the overgrown trees and shrubbery. During its later years the deteriorating old mansion had been divided up into rental rooms. Several rooms were presently available and the house soon swallowed up the entire band.
I was the only one with a paycheck so I pretty much paid for everything. I saw it as a good investment at the time. However, I kept records because I’d been around musicians long enough to know bands are in a constant state of flux. I insisted that, as we got jobs, it was pay as we go. I was willing to gamble but I didn’t know anyone well enough to really trust them. I shared what I had and paid the bills first. If there was anything left, we used it for food. It kept us alive but constantly bitching at each other. We handled it with humor. We made fun of our situation and each other at every opportunity.  I made fun of Wade. He made fun of me. We made fun of Sam and Sam made fun of both of us. Nobody messed with Danny and I don’t know why. All of this led to, what we later called, “The Chuck And Wade Show”; a running gag that persists still today.
Wade and I constantly hassled each other to the delight of our friends. They loved it when we went at each other with false boasts and threats that sometimes got a little out of control.
One night a bunch of us were sitting in a room together when Wade threatened to throw a rotten potato at me… I know, you’re wondering where the potato came from, and there’s no good answer for that, but he threatened me just the same. I warned him… He threw it… And the chase began with two grown men running all over the upstairs hollering and yelling like kids. Wade claims I broke down a door to get at him but that’s not true. The door was broken anyway; I just pushed it a little bit. All ended well, probably with everyone laughing, and we liked that. We were fun to be around.
The enormous old manor consisted of three floors and an unlit, dust covered basement where broken, overturned tables whispered of a speakeasy said to have quietly existed during prohibition. The dark cellar was sometimes offered as a place to test ones “manliness”, and standing there alone in the silent dark wasn’t something many were willing to do a second time, especially with all the known pranksters on the premises.
Like the time Wade, and I came up with a small battery powered speaker that gave out a creepy, ghost-like, laugh. One night we lowered it on a rope down the dumbwaiter shaft to a level right next to Sam’s room. He was of course entertaining a young lady and the laughing caused all sorts of problems because Sam couldn’t figure out where sound inside the wall was coming from. Wade and I considered it a victory any time we kept Sam, who we always called “El-Rod” with the accent on Rod, from scoring. He usually won though, one way or the other. El-Rod probably told the young lady the only safe place was in his bed. El-Rod 1… Chuck and Wade 0… but we had some great laughs for the effort. Sam would be the first to say so. He had the best laugh and smile in the world, even when the joke was on him.
On the main floor, just inside the front entrance, a grand piano sat alone in a huge ballroom. It was backlit, with windows shaded outside from the sun, by the dense vegetation.  Overhead, recessed, colored lights reflected onto a large rounded, dome-like ceiling. You could imagine the couples at one time twirling joyfully around the large expanse; gone now along with the times they danced in. Other rooms located on the first floor were a library, a sitting room, a dinning room and a kitchen with a dumb waiter to service the living quarters above. All but the ballroom and kitchen had been made into rented rooms. Understand, I didn’t say remodeled. All the rooms were still as they were originally built but without the original furnishings. Over time, beds and personal items transformed each room into something altogether different from the original intent, reflecting the personal tastes of the present occupant.
Standing in the center of the entryway, a great wooden staircase, with numerous missing balusters, ascended from the front door to a landing half way up. The stairs turned to the left and on to the second floor, opening to a balcony, outside, and above the main entrance. Five original bedrooms and a large servant’s pantry in the very back, where another stairway led to the kitchen, made up the rest of the second floor. We all took rooms on the east side of the mansion; Wade, in the made-over servants pantry in back, Danny and I, in bedrooms on the second floor and Sam in a room on the first floor right below.
The third floor was basically a finished attic lined with wooden bookcases; many filled with old law books. One, with a concealed latch, swung open revealing a long, hidden back stairway leading down to the basement. A small round window facing due south allowed a single focused shaft of light into the mostly darkened room, some days creating a very dramatic effect to the delight of the two eccentric guys living there. Their attic had a lot of atmosphere but not much heat in the winter. It, like the rest of the Big House, was an icebox and that only added to the creepiness felt there.
                                                            (Part 4)
The boys in the band weren’t the only ones living there. A cast of characters surrounded us; from the Satanists, Nick & Christian living in the attic they’d decorated with an altar and child's coffin, to the bikers of various persuasions who seemed to be coming and going at all hours of the night.
I always expected the cops to show up but they never came, even with the loud music from the ballroom where we practiced late into the evening. The long distance, between houses in the wealthy neighborhood and the dense overgrown foliage on the unkempt property surrounding us, probably helped muffle the sound. It was a perfect place for us to put a new band together and that's exactly what we used it for. It was a place where we could be safe and get to know each other.
From the start Ray, who had introduced us, felt he had a stake in the band’s future because his introduction brought us together. It’s true. We never would have met had it not been for him. We were grateful for that but he wanted to manage the band and none of us wanted a manager. I had contacts all over the mid-south, because I had played here for so many years while in college, so I didn’t foresee any problems getting gigs. Ray felt left out and was pissed. I didn’t blame him for feeling that way. I felt bad about it but that was the only way it could be. It wasn’t just me. None of us wanted or needed management right then. We all saw the band as a partnership. Four equal parts, each having a say. I loved that. I’d been a sideman working for other bands for too long and this was a welcome change. One for all… all for one and all that… It sounded great to me.
For a new band, coming up with a name was always an interesting exercise in communication and usually the genesis of the group’s first argument.
I hadn’t played with a newly forming group in a couple of years. My old bands had used the name “Me And The Rest” but that sounded pretty dated as the 60s were coming to a tumultuous close. After some discussion, in which I think Wade suggested “Trouser Trout”, we settled on “Freedom Street”. It was a name Danny had used before with another band in Jackson Tennessee and we were all happy with it. So, “Freedom Street”, it was.
I asked myself what was so special about this band? I’d been in a dozen by now but there was something about the way we jammed together that just grabbed me. We’d get into a groove and the music would flow. We’d simply make it up from one minute to the next. On and on we’d go, sliding into another rhythm or progression as we went. While we weren’t really writing music, we were inventing a sound that was our own. And that was very special. We needed to put a set list of covers together so we could make some money but our practices often just morphed into long jam sessions that attracted a local group of listeners.
                                                            (Part 5)
A few weeks went by. I attended and taught classes by day and we practiced at night in the ballroom. The rent came due and what was left of my paycheck went for peanut butter and bread. It was tough. Wade collected empty pop bottles to raise money and I remember selling blood at one point. As always, I kept records of every penny, which pissed everybody off. But the boys kept spending money on things I didn’t think were necessary like cigarettes and they didn’t buy things for themselves they needed, like toilet paper. The final straw came when someone took the last roll of mine. I began keeping my TP under lock and key and charged five cents a square for anyone who ran out of their own. They didn’t like it but they paid up and we reached a compromise about the cigarettes. I bought a big can of Bugler Tobacco and rolling papers and they made the best of it. Maybe that’s why Wade quit smoking and I’ve never again had to loan him toilet paper.
Bob Newton, a friend of Wade’s from back home, had taken on the duties of roadie. He shared the butler’s pantry with Wade until Wade moved, a couple of weeks later, to a much nicer bedroom on the second floor with a fireplace. Newton was just like a member of the band and shared in our financial ups and downs. So much so, that Sam took Bob to task for spending his own money from home on a much-needed pair of shoes instead of sharing the cash with the rest of us. Sam swore that’s what he would have done with the money. They actually argued about it. They were indignant, but, nose to nose, they ended the squabble with the closing nonviolent rejoinder we all fell back on when we were pissed at one another…”ASSSSSS”, we’d hiss, and turn away smirking. It always defused the disagreements and no one ever came to blows.
Newton was a hoot, smart as a whip but quiet unless you pushed him into a corner. He looked every bit like the Sundance Kid character in the movie. He was ambitious and a hard worker. Bob took the Speech class I taught at Memphis State in the spring semester and did very well too. The guy gives a pretty good speech.
Robbie Gaylor was a young guy who shared roadie responsibilities with Newton. He often stayed at the Big House but really lived nearby in a commune headed by someone known as “Mom” who was, in fact, his real mother.
The six of us formed what was actually a small business and I tried to approach it that way. We needed work and I took what ever I could find for us. I’d played with other bands for Mrs. Reams at the Roaring 60s Club and she gave us a shot there. It went over well and led to an audition at the Cock and Bull Lounge where we met a whole new group of musicians including Joe Davis of the Guilloteens and Tommy Jay Rasico of the Escorts who saw us and told others. We soon filled in for Joe and the Guilloteens at the Cock and Bull when they left town to play a few gigs in LA. People liked us and spread the word. The Show Bar, a club in Helena Arkansas, heard about the band and booked us there several times as well. We played frat parties at MSU and made new friends. Wade even volunteered to be the target in a “Dunk The Hippie” tank at a fraternity fund-raiser and dance we were playing for on campus. Things were picking up. Money was beginning to flow so now everyone had a little. Life was good.
We were working and finally paying the bills when, in January, Dan Penn and Eddie Braddock stopped by the Big House to meet a band they’d heard about. I’m not sure who told them about Freedom Street but it was probably someone from the Cock and Bull. Maybe they’d seen us play there. Dan and his partner Eddie owned the newly built Beautiful Sounds Studio in Memphis and were looking for talent. Dan was well known as a songwriter/producer and acclaimed for his earlier work with Elvis and recent success with the Box Tops hit “The Letter”. Eddie had been the Director Of Promotions for Stax Records. They were two heavy hitters. They liked us and offered the whole band a recording contract. The band was elated. This was what we’d been working so hard for these last months. And now it was paying off. We’d really done it. Four guys, working together had made this happen. One for all, all for one. Right? When we lost sight of that… it all began to change for the worse.
When Dan Penn later heard our songs, Wade and I were offered additional contracts as artists and writers. What could be easier? You show a record producer your songs; he likes them. He offers a contract; you sign it. It seemed so easy, but it set a bad precedent for Wade and me. We thought from this first experience it must be a snap to get someone interested in our music. We’d later find out that wasn’t the case at all. It was quite the contrary. Meanwhile, Danny and Sam were signed as part of the band but that was it. It would have helped if they’d been writers too, or if Wade and I had worked harder to include them in our music like we did when we free-jammed together in those early days, or even if the four of us had more in common with each other. But bad feelings over those contracts were a major contribution to the breakup of Freedom Street. Egos and outside influences fired up the arguments and they became louder and ever more frequent.
                                                            (Part 6)
Nick, one of the Satanist living upstairs in the attic with the child’s coffin, turned 21 and finally received, from a trust, a financial settlement he’d won years earlier. A childhood accident involving a Halloween costume fire had left him seriously scarred and the settlement was sizeable.
Now understand, this is seen from my point of view but, Nick’s windfall gave him power and influence with Danny that wasn’t there before, and Cleary soon fell under his spell. Nick agreed to finance any musical endeavor and seemed always to be lubricating the deal with copious amounts of drugs, which were edging more and more toward the hard side. Cleary, already irritated about the contracts with Beautiful Sounds, just quietly faded away into Nick’s wealthy new world.
Sam was pissed too but he wasn’t into Nick’s game. Nick was kind of creepy and Sam didn’t like that. He started to look for work pretty quick as I remember, and found it too, filling in with other bands. He even played a few gigs with me in Columbus Mississippi at the Golden Spur when I later joined Joe Davis’ band.
Wade? Wade fell in love… with the studio. He stayed there day and night. It didn’t matter if he was working on someone else’s session or cleaning the studio for a little extra cash. Wade was determined to make a go of it at Beautiful Sounds and it paid off.
He made contacts and lifetime friends there watching and playing on sessions with some very famous people. I saw some of this too but teaching speech and taking graduate classes took a lot of my time. Later in the summer I sort of lost faith in what I thought the studio could do for Wade and me and I spent less and less time there. Like I said, Wade was on the scene for everything, and I was envious of that.
                                                             (Part 7)
No one, inside or outside our circle, seemed to care about the band anymore as we spent less and less time together working or playing. I resigned my assistantship at Memphis State, burning that bridge, so there was no longer any regular income and I knew I’d soon to be broke again if Freedom Street didn’t keep playing gigs. The band earned it’s own way now or went without. I could no longer support it. Without gigs I couldn’t even support myself.
The final straw happened just after the Kent State Massacre on May 4, 1970. I’d always held strong anti-war feelings and spoke out about them openly. This was no secret to anyone in the band. I knew people in the American Friends Service Committee and was active in helping guys who wanted to avoid the draft including a musician friend or two I’d helped stay awake for days before taking their physicals. In every case they failed the exam. My beliefs showed up in the music I wrote as well. In fact, the first song Freedom Street recorded was called “Ride On Mother”. It was written in 1968, inspired by the Chicago police riots at the Democratic National Convention…
“Now someone please explain to me
Just what is taking place.
One side armed with rocks and sticks
And one with guns and mace.
Now it don’t take long to choose a side
When smoke is in the air.
And them boys in green with the M-16s
Is looking at my hair.
And I said ride on mother.
Leave this boy alone.
Ride on mother
Yeah, and let me go back home.
Now I don’t care much for facing cops
When they’ve guns and we’ve got rocks.
I said ride on Mother
Leave this boy alone.”
While no one in the band disagreed with my lyrics, I was clearly the flag waver in the group. A day or two after May 4th Memphis State erected a small platform, about 4 feet high, on the lawn in front of the administration building in the center of campus. It was to serve as a “soap box” for students to stand on and voice their concerns and feelings about the killings at Kent State. Colleges all over the country held protest rallies and most lowered their flags to half-staff in honor of the 4 dead students. Protesters at Memphis State demanded the same respect and I was one of them. Of course, there were many who held an opposing view and, for a while, the flag discussion went on without incident.
The crowd grew in size and gradually the intensity escalated. Some members of the football team showed up and began to threaten the protesters who shouted back all the louder. Scuffles broke out and the anti-war side rushed the flagpole in mass and lowered the flag to half staff. That’s when all hell broke loose. I was standing on the ground in front of the platform where a lot of shouting and pushing was going on when someone fighting up on the stage behind, kicked me in the side of my head… fight over…
There was a protest rally scheduled at Memphis State shortly after that and I was asked if Freedom Street could play. We needed the money and I, of course, was all for it but the rest of the band refused to play because they were afraid our equipment, or worse, might be damaged if there was trouble. With the side of my face still bruised and throbbing, I growled that, “trouble” was the whole fucking point! In spite of my insistence, they still refused to play. I was really pissed at what I saw as a total lack of support by them. I felt there were bigger issues at stake here. But beyond that, I’d put everything I had into that band and then this.
With everything else going on, I was just fed up. I’ll only argue to a certain point, and then, when I see it’s a waste of everybody’s time, I disengage. And so, disengage I did.
In late May I took off with a guy named Bear and members of his commune, The Family, who were helping to stage the second Atlanta Pop Festival in Byron Georgia. It was hot, hard, wonderful work building the stage, campgrounds and fences; just what my head needed; a chance to be around some positive energy. I didn’t get back to Memphis until after the festival, six weeks later in early July.
                                                  (Part 8)
When I did get back in town, there were stories of armed bikers pissing in the hallways of the Big House with threats of coming back for more trouble. That was pretty much the end of it for everybody. Wade and I moved out. Danny moved into Nick and Christian’s fancy new apartment and Sam found other bands and ladies to share his talents with.
I was broke again and started playing with Joe Davis and his brother, Steve in Joe's band, the 
Guilloteens. We played several little Mississippi nightclubs but made it back to Memphis regularly where I shared a house near the college on Spottswood Avenue with Wade.
Wade worked on at Beautiful Sounds Studio learning all he could about the recording process while I looked for any work I could find. I even played for a while at the last burlesque theater in Memphis, but that’s another story altogether.
Both the Big House and the boys in the band moved on, as all things do.
Any musician you meet has similar tails, they’re just part of the mandatory lifestyle.
And that big break? It might be just one band away. Who knows?
But, regardless of what may have been, in the end, there is only what was…
That, and the old stories about it.


  1. Great story, Chuck. You captured much of the Freedom Street story and told it well. I've always loved your writing and it shines here, my friend. Some 47plus years later we still remain good friends. I'm just sad that both Danny and Sam have passed away. Two incredible talented guys I loved.

  2. P.S. I nailed you with that rotten potato and you left out "The Crab King" story. :-)

    1. Too many stories to tell. I have to pick and choose.
      Thanks for the kind words...