Waiting For Stevie’s Helicopter
an excerpt from Closer To The Blues
by Paul Petraitis
If you want to catch him playing, he’ll be performing with Low Reens Maxwell St. Band, opening up this year’s Bluesfest @ the Windy City Blues Society tent.
Dedicated to the late, great Professor Eddie Lusk.
It was about 10:15 or so on a Monday night at the original Legends when the talk turned to Stevie Ray Vaughan. It was jam night and somebody was on stage, rocking out with yet another version of “Hey Joe.” I was near the front door talking with Gene “Daddy G” Barge and some of his cronies. Gene was explaining that this cat from Texas who was coming was something else.
“You know I’ve played with all the cats.”
“Is this guy as good as Bloomfield?” one of his buddies wanted to know.
“Yeah,” said Gene, “plus the cat can sing. You’ll see!”
“I just saw him on Austin City Limits,” I said, “and he sings real good, kinda mellow, like in a Bobby Bland style.” Eyebrows went up all around, and the guys all say well, we can’t wait to see this cat then.
About an hour (and another “Hey Joe”) later, Marty Salzman, Buddy’s then-manager comes up to me and says, “Paul, let’s get some professionals up there so they can really hear something good when they come in the door. Eddie, get your bass player and find the best drummer in the house and let’s hit it!”
So I grab my old Strat, round up the guys and me and Professor Eddie Lusk take the stage and start jammin’, waiting for our special guests to arrive from their sold-out show at Alpine Valley. Robert Cray, Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray were planning to come straight from their gig down to Legends to jam. They each had been to Legends before, but not all at the same time.
It’s a packed house tonight, and as it turns out, there are lots of people from Austin in the room. “We couldn’t get tickets for this afternoon’s show,” explains one couple. Eddie plays a couple tunes. He turns it over to me to sing and we’re playin’ our asses off, watching every time someone new comes around the corner into the room. After an hour of pouring our hearts out we take a short break and go outside. It’s about 12:30. [pullquote]The couple from Austin liked what they heard on the band stand and the girl says “We want you to have this,” and she starts taking off her T shirt. “We’re gonna swap shirts.”[/pullquote]
So me and her hubby block the view as she hands me her shirt and I give her mine. “It’s from the Black Cat club. It’s where we first saw Stevie Ray, and we want you to have it cause you play with the same kinda fire he does.”
“Wow, thanks!” I say. Marty comes out and says, “Well I guess our guests are late, but let’s get back in there, keep playin’ guys!”
So we go back in and Eddie and I start jammin’ again and the crowd is really pumped. Lots of expectations! But pretty soon it’s 1:30 and we get the cut sign from the bar telling us that the music has to stop. So we all file outside through the VIP door onto Wabash Avenue, only to find there’s a couple limos lined up outside. Standing in the middle of the street next to the idling limos are Buddy, his bass player Greg Rzab and Eric Clapton. We all say hi. I’d met Eric at the Checkerboard a couple years before. He says to me “Was that you playing in there?” and then something complimentary about good band, nice jamming and such, but his mind is elsewhere.
We walk south till we’re standing in the middle of the intersection of 8th and Wabash. We’re all watching the small planes with their red landing lights touching down at Meig’s Field, half a mile to the east. Finally Eric breaks the silence and says, “I don’t know what’s keeping them, but let’s do this thing tomorrow, all right? I’m going back to the hotel.”
You know the rest of the story.
My wife Carol wakes me up at 6:00 the next morning with the news on. It’s that horrible picture of the crashed helicopter. Terri Hemmert’s on WXRT reporting that Buddy Guy’s helicopter went down. I call her up at the studio and say,“No! It can’t be Buddy ‘cause I talked to him and Eric last night.”
Terri says, “Yes, Paul I know. I’m talking to Buddy’s manager Marty and we know the true story… it’s Stevie Ray. Paul, I gotta go. Thanks.” Click.
[pullquote]I call Marty and he confirms that the copter that crashed carried Stevie and Eric’s people. He says, “Come on down to Legends tonight. There won’t be any live music but we’ll get together. Nice job last night.” Click.[/pullquote]
Wow. Deep breath…
My 2 year old son Adam walks into our room, looks at his Mom and me, and says, “Helicopter crash, Daddy cry.” Yeah, son, that’s pretty much it.
The rest of the day is a blur. I go back to Legends and it’s an Irish wake if there ever was one. Everybody is pounding ‘em back and not really saying much. Management has wisely chosen to show videos on the TV screens scattered around the club. Son House. Albert King. Buddy. Jimi. And, of course, Stevie Ray. A lot of people are too drunk. Buddy does his best to talk to everyone, but there’s one young white cat who keeps following Buddy around demanding that Buddy admit that Stevie Ray was better than anybody. “Are you asking me to say that Stevie Ray was better than Hendrix?” the astonished Buddy Guy asks, keeping his temper. “Son, you can’t be better than the original! We all follow in someone’s footsteps!”
The talk kinda quiets down after that loud exchange and after a couple hours the drinking slows and the gathering breaks up. My new friends from Austin come around and we talk. Another Texas hippie girl gives me a healing crystal as a gift of friendship, says she liked our playing last night. We kiss like old friends and say our goodbyes. Everybody goes home and we watch as much of the TV news as we can stand.
So now it’s 2013, Legends has moved and Meigs Field is no more. 8th and Wabash is still there but it’s not the same.
I remember I kind of stopped going to jam sessions for a while after that night. But soon I was back in the thick of it, hosting jams all over the city, being Mr. Mom to my sons, and starting to write my blues book, Closer To The Blues.
But I still don’t like to see Stevie Ray copycats. That’s just me, I guess. And that’s why I sometimes don’t play “Pride And Joy,” when somebody yells out, “Play some Stevie Ray.”
Of course sometimes I do. Hope you understand.