When I was twenty-three I got my first steady gig as a piano player. I had been performing music professionally as a band-leader, trumpet player and lead singer since I was eleven years old, but only began studying piano when I was nineteen.
Three black guys, a bassist, guitarist and drummer, asked me to join them for a four day a week gig at a little club called Drews. It was the beginning of several years of working the "chitlin' circuit"–small dance clubs (really just bars) with a black clientele in the Detroit inner city. We played there for several months, four hours a night and four days a week, and the amazing thing is, we never had one rehearsal. I think we only knew about eight or nine songs! But we would hit a groove, and really stretch those songs out. One song could easily last twenty minutes. If we had smoked a little weed, it could last twenty-five or thirty minutes. And the people loved it. It was a big party and the dance floor was full.
I actually had no idea what I was doing as an R&B pianist. The other guys were really good rhythm and blues players, well grounded in the music of the black church and the blues, but they seemed to like what I was doing. I know I was passionate and creative, and I guess they liked that I gave them a more "original" sound.
We used to drink Miller Lite beer, mixed with a sweet red syrup called Grenadine. Wow!
One night we were sitting at a table, just chilling during our fifteen minute break. Suddenly, the lights went out. I mean it was pitch black. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face. It didn't last long. I'm sure less than thirty seconds. But when the lights came back on, Lamont, the bass player, who had been sitting next to me, was miraculously up on the stage, with his arms spread wide, protecting his bass and bass amplifier. I was really impressed. Lamont had grown up poor, in the dog eat dog realty of city life. As soon as those lights went out, he immediately assumed it might be a stick-up. He pounced on stage to protect his investment. I respected Lamont's quick wits, and survival skills. A few years later, Lamont and I were founding members of the legendary Detroit funk band, Brainstorm. And I should mention here, that Lamont Johnson was an INCREDIBLE bass player!