What Might Have Been
Like most folks, I often play the what might have been game. Many times, I fantasize over situations that, through the advantage of hindsight, I wonder what might have happened if things had gone another way.
I'm satisfied with what I have accomplished in life, and I don't mean for this statement to present me as being arrogant. I have had the privilege of attending UNC, had a successful career, and got the marriage thing right the second time around. In addition, I have been able to pursue hobbies that have brought me a great deal of enjoyment and, in some cases, financial gain. But there is one situation that keeps haunting me and I will share it with you.
I have loved the banjo as long as I can remember, even when I didn't know a 5 string from a tenor or a plectrum. When I was employed at the University of Virginia in the early 60's, I decided I would try to learn to play the banjo. I had done pretty well with the ukulele in high school, and I reasoned there couldn't be that much difference in the playing of the two. A big problem, however, was that there were no teachers of the banjo and very few players of the instrument in the early 60"s so I was pretty much on my own. The folk craze has just begun, but I decided I wanted to play the 4 string banjo, the one that had been a part of the big band scene in the 20's. Nobody told me that the 4 string banjo fell out of favor with the public after the stock market crash of '29. I had to find that out on my own later the hard way. It was almost like the banjo reminded older people of the perpetual party that had taken place during the 20's and they didn't want to be reminded of it.
Anyhow, I decided I would go to Sears and try to make a deal with the salesman in the musical instrument department. I asked him if I cold purchase the banjo on the condition that if I determined I couldn't play it after 2 weeks, I could return it and pay an amount for the time I had used the instrument. He said he could do better than that. He would let me take the banjo home and I could keep it for a month, and if I brought it back at the end of that time, there would be no charge.
I took the banjo home and did well enough with it that I kept the instrument even though it was not of high quality , and played for my personal enjoyment until the time I moved to Nashville, Tennessee where I met some of the country musicians who encouraged me to continue with my efforts to play the instrument.
When I was employed as Personnel Director at the Duke Medical Center in 1968, I met a gentleman in Raleigh who had his own band in the 20's at UNC and he was still playing the tenor banjo. One thing led to another and we finally formed a banjo quartet which most people have never heard. It's an unusual sound and if done with musicians who know what they are doing, almost a big band sound is the result. The key is for the 4 banjos not to play "over" each other. This way, with 4 banjos playing different inversions of the same chord, you have the equivalent of 16 different notes being played at the same time. The other 3 members of the group "The Executives" all had their own bands in the twenties and, even though I was 35 years old at the time, they would introduce me as the "baby" of the group. A baby with gray hair.
The group was successful and we played some prestigious jobs. We were different and there were still people around who remembered the "hey day" of the banjo and the bad memories of the 20's had faded. We played at half time of Duke-N.C. State , State-Wake Forest, and Davidson-St. Johns (NCAA playoff game on national television) games and became local celebrities on a small scale. We made an LP record and played in the Raleigh Christmas parade. I used to trick people by saying the largest crowd we had ever played for was in excess of 100,000 and would ask them if they could guess where the appearance was. It was a trick question, because the 100,000 were not in one location, but we did, in fact, play before 100,000 people as we moved along the parade route. We also appeared on the Arthur Smith television show which was aired regionally in 17 states.
Frequently, I would take my banjo with me and play impromptu in various drinking establishment for free beer. Sometimes, they would pass the hat which embarrassed me somewhat, but I never refused to take the money because it would buy more beer. One of my favorite hangouts was near the Duke campus and Duke students never believed I was playing for free. They would say things like "You got a pretty good thing going, telling people you are not being paid." They liked the fact that it appeared that one of the customers just started entertaining the patrons of the Statler Hilton bar which was located on top of the hotel. I booked numerous jobs from my appearances there. I played by myself for a wedding reception after telling the person who booked me that I didn't think I could do it without a few beers. She had said she wanted me to do exactly what she had see me do at the bar where I sat down in the middle of the floor and played and sang by myself. She said that was exactly what she wanted. So I took off early the day of the reception and had a few beers before the reception began. She told me afterwards that I had done exactly what she wanted and acted very pleased. Remember, this was the late 60's and just about everything went. I was also asked to play at a funeral, but I declined on the grounds that the person involved was too close to me and I didn't want to run the risk of something going wrong that could to be rectified.
From time to time, people would say to me, "You ought to get together with so and so.", referring to another musician. I had tried this on a couple of occasions and they never worked out. Either the style of music played, the instruments involved or something was always wrong so I had decided I would never try it again. To avoid hurting anyone's feelings, I developed a line that made it appear that I would like to meet the person they referred to, when in actuality I never planned to do so.
One night after I had played at the SH in Durham, a young lady came up to me and said there was a fellow playing in a bar over in Chapel Hill that she thought my style of playing and singing would mesh with very nicely. I gave her my usual line and said something like I would check it out. I never did.
Oh yes, I almost forgot. The name of the entertainer in Chapel Hill. Taylor, I believe his name was, James Taylor. I found out his name much later after he had flown the coop and showed the world what a class entertainer he was.
Any wonder that anytime I hear Mr. Taylor on television or radio that I have thoughts of "what might have been?"
Oh well, the banjo probably wouldn't have gone well with the type of music he was playing and singing. Or at least, that my line and I'm sticking to it.