Touring with Aretha Franklin
I met a very interesting guy this weekend. His name was E.T. King-at least that's what his name tag read. He was working as a waiter in the restaurant in the Oberlin inn where I was staying. He was this short black guy with grey hair and a limp, but when he whistled while he worked it reminded me of louis armstrong's muted trumpet. My step-dad was goofing around and started taking to him, asking if I could get a gig at the inn. E.T. thought that was pretty funny entertained the topic by mentioning his rhythm & blues band, who we later found out had 11 members. I had learned by that point that anyone you meet in Oberlin is more likely than not a musician of professional quality, and our conversation naturally started shifting from small talk into something much more intimate because we followed the thread of music. As it turns out, E.T. went to school with Gladys Knight, and was a touring guitarist for the Chili Circus. I didn't know what that meant, but I lied and said I did, though I'm pretty sure he knew I was lying because he proceeded to explain what that was. All the sixties motown, soul, and R&B artists of the 60's had songs that featured huge instrumentations so that it required about half an orchestra to play a single concert. Just think of songs like, "You Make Me Feel (Like A Natural Woman)" by Aretha Franklin or, "Georgia On My Mind," by Ray Charles. The labels needed to tour their artists to promote album sales, but they couldn't afford to give each of their artists their own band. The solution was to put all their artists on a tour together so that each night some city would have all the artists from Capitol, or Motown, or Atlantic records play a huge show at the same venue, and they called it the Chili Circus.
E.T. told us what it was like playing for James Brown, B.B. King, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Wilson Pickett, and Gladys Knight. I asked if that meant that he had to learn every song of all those artists. The funny thing was, he explained, was that he didn't because all the songs revolved around the same kind of I, IV, V chord progression, but each artist had their own small variation. Marvin Gaye tended to go up to the minor vi, and then changed it to a major VI. Gladys Knight used augmented chords. He also said that due to each singer's voice they would have a key that they would stick in. All James Brown songs were in C, but Aretha could sing in any key.
I couldn't really hide how stoked I was that I was talking to someone as cool as him, and I let him know how in Utah, nobody plays soul music. Leaning in, he responded, "You know what I've learned about musicians over the years is that they think nobahdy do what they do. Me and my wife is sitting' at a bah, and a man walks in with his girl and he has his nose up in the air and he don't make eye contact with nobahdy, and he looks at my wife, but he don't make eye contact with nobahdy and I say to my wife, 'look-him over there-he's a guitarist,' or, 'he's a singer.'" At that moment I felt a little ashamed and lucky that I had for some reason been making an effort to greet strangers during this trip. Most of the time, I consider myself more artistic than thou. That I have contemplated life on a more meaningful level than everyone else in my proximity, and it does show. Thanks to E.T. I think a flaw in my character, disguised as a virtue, has been found out. Now I am making an effort to open up to everyone, and I believe I will be a better artist and person because of it.