By Jerry Honigman
In 1980 Willie Nelson played a five-night stand at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles. At the time, he was on Columbia Records as was my band, the Romeos. Mike Gussler was the record label liaison for both of us, and he took me to see Willie and Family one of those nights.
Universal Amphitheatre is a wonderful venue to see live music under the stars and features a large apron area to the side of the stage where the audience can’t see. This was where Willie’s two buses were parked. Willie’s harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, took us on one of the buses where he had one of his traveling hobbies set up, a blow dart target. He demonstrated the finer points of sending the projectiles toward the target and said it was strongly recommended that folks remain in their seats with their noggins below the headrests when a contest was in progress.
At one point, Gussler and Willie and I stood around shooting the breeze like easy compadres, with Willie wearing a blue track suit with white piping and a pair of sneakers. I just thought this was his normal, casual pre-show outfit and that he would soon be changing into his stage get-up for the performance. As I was leaning in to say something to Gus, I heard music coming from the stage. I hadn’t noticed that Willie had just moseyed on over to the stage, as did the rest of the band, and just started playing their set. No fanfare. No stage clothes. No announcement, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome … !” Nothing like that. Just nice, comfortable music emanating from nice, comfortable folks.
I hustled on over to the edge of the stage behind the curtain to watch, when I realized there was a couple standing next to me. I looked over and there was Waylon Jennings with Jessi Colter. Waylon nodded, and Jessi gave me a pretty smile and said, “Hey.” I was watching Willie with Waylon.
As an aside: my friend and accomplished songwriter, Micheal Smotherman used to tell a story about Waylon’s son (I don’t know which one), who had never seen twins before. He went to his first day of school, and upon returning home, Waylon asked him how first grade was. “Daddy! There’s these two boys in my class, and they got the SAME HEAD!”
As I said, Smotherman was a great writer and had songs of his recorded by many artists including Willie, Waylon, Ray Charles, Bonnie Raitt and others. Hell, Glen Campbell recorded an entire album of Micheal’s songs.
There was a period in the early ‘80s when Micheal regularly played at a club in Santa Monica called “At My Place”, and members of the Romeos, Dony Wynn on drums and Kenny Gradney on bass, regularly backed him. Guitarist Dan Diefenderfer and I joined in a couple of times as well. Although Dief’s tenure with Micheal ended one night when, playing for a group of record execs, Dief leapt from the stage onto their table while playing a solo, and promptly kicked over drinks, spilling the contents all over the execs’ laps.
One occasion when Smotherman and band were playing at the club, Dief and I were in attendance and standing over by the bar when we noticed that Jody Payne, Willie’s guitar player in the Family Band for over thirty years, was enjoying the music as well. He was, of course, familiar with Micheal and we struck up a friendly conversation.
At one point he asked where we were from, and when we told him we were from Alexandria, Louisiana, he asked, “Y’all know an old boy name a Johnny Leggett?” Dief and I looked each other wide-eyed, his mouth open while I did a spit take with my scotch, and we told him Hell, yeah, we knew him. Johnny had been a country artist and club owner in and around Central Louisiana for years. He had some minor country hits, many on the JIN record label out of Ville Platte, Louisiana, and ran the club Cajun Country in Marksville. He also acquired The Imperial Lounge, which many in Alexandria are familiar with, and turned it into Johnny Leggett’s Country Club. The Imperial was famously located at the corner of England Drive and the Macarthur Drive Service Road across from the Pitt Grill.
Well, Jody was telling us that often when Willie and Family were on the road (which was, in fact, often) and they had a gap of a couple of days between shows, that he would leave the bus and rent a car so that he could drive the countryside and have some alone time.
He recounted, “This one time I was driving through Alexandria, and it was time to find a place to stay for the night, and I saw a sign that said ‘Live Country Music’ right across from a Pitt Grill and a motel, and I thought ‘perfect’. So, I pulled off and checked in and then went over to the club.
“Johnny and his band were setting up for the night and I asked if I could maybe sit in with the band. He looked at me kinda skeptical and told me he didn’t have an extra guitar or amp, so I told him I had a rig in the car. He didn’t really want to, but he said okay we’ll see. So I got a guitar and amp out of my car, and when I plugged in and started noodlin’ around, he could tell I could play. But we tried a couple of songs and nothing sounded right. It was sour. Couldn’t get in tune.
“That’s when I noticed there was a big ole box fan down at the end of the room.” Dief and I nodded and told him everybody was familiar with that fan. It was a five foot by five foot fan that blew, not so much to cool things off as to circulate the cloud of smoke that hung under the low ceiling.
He continued, “I realized that the fan had a tone. I told Johnny I thought we should tune to the fan instead of each other. So, we stopped and tuned to the fan’s tone, and for the rest of the night we sounded as sweet as could be.”
Jody said that, at the end of the night as he was packing up, Johnny came up to him and offered him $30 a night, said he could get him a deal at the motel and would spot him one meal a day at the Pitt Grill.
“I told him thanks, but I already had a gig.”