The snow started soon after we left Richmond heading south for some well-deserved rest. We had just come off a two-month tour of Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia, and we were looking forward to a few weeks in Florida to relax and unwind. The guitar player and I were the gypsies of the band and could never get enough of the road. We met with a record producer in Richmond and had spent the day playing our music for him. Now, all we could do was wait to hear from him and head south in the meantime.
The temperature was dropping at an incredible rate and the wipers could barely keep up with the falling snow. Many people were pulling off Interstate 95 looking for lodging and food. After a quick meal and a full tank of gas near Smithfield, North Carolina, we headed south expecting the weather to get better. The heater in our old Ford van struggled to provide warmth, and we pulled out the coats. We had packed for Florida and both of us had chosen lightweight clothing, but I never left home without my leather riding jacket and I was grateful for this habit.
The snow was piled up on the shoulders of the road, and you couldn’t even see the lane markers on the highway. We slowed down to about forty, then thirty. We were starting to realize that maybe we should head down some of the back roads as all the hotels and motels were flashing No Vacancy.
The roads were becoming impassable and yet the old van rolled on. We were a bit concerned knowing that if we couldn’t travel anymore, we had no way to call for help. The back road was dark, and we could see nothing but white, the landscape was carpeted in snow. Trees were down, power was off from the iced-over wires and there was not another soul in sight, and no friends or relatives knew where we were.
After many miles, we saw a light blinking in the distance, and we knew that this one place had power. That light was our beacon in the night, and toward that light, we drove with hopes of warm coffee and hot food. We finally came to a crossroad and the sign was lit up brightly spelling out the words “Ray Ray’s Juke Joint” and a smaller sign underneath said “Blues, BBQ, and Beer.” This was either heaven or a place the devil dwelled waiting for another Robert Johnson to come by and make a deal, a soul in return for fame. It didn’t escape us that the club was at the crossroads and the only place with power within a hundred miles of nowhere.
We parked near the door and grabbed our luggage and headed in cautiously. After all, this was the South in 1973 and long-haired musicians were not always welcome. We could hear the deep bass tones coming from the house band as we enter Ray Ray’s, and were greeted by a rather large fellow with a big smile and a T-shirt that proudly announced Ray Ray’s Juke Joint. He took us to a table near a big roaring fireplace and told us we might as well get settled in because the radio said we could be snowbound for days.
The band was a cross between Southern Soul and Memphis Blues. They had a bass player that held the bottom down dark and deep and the sweetest horn section highlighting a wicked Sax player all topped off with a Muscle Shoals guitar player and a Booker Tee sounding Hammond B-3 organ. We often played this type of music when we first started back in Myrtle Beach but had gradually, as we played bigger venues, started playing heavier and louder. At our last gig in Richmond, the guitar player’s amp dropped power as he was taking a solo, and we were so loud that I’m not sure anyone in the audience even knew. He kept playing until it came back on. That was in part our reason for taking some time off to regroup and go back to find the kind of music that made us start playing together as a band.
She leaned into the microphone, eyes closed, swaying to the music. Her hands were high over her head reaching beyond this world into the next.
The band sat with us during their break and asked us to come up and play. The singer was a gospel and blues singer like Etta James, and she asked us to do I Shall Be Released. It was appropriate since we were all wayfarers stranded for the night. They dimmed the lights and we started off slow and subtle. She leaned into the microphone, eyes closed, swaying to the music. Her hands were high over her head reaching beyond this world into the next. It was a song of surrender, a song of letting go and leaving this world behind for a better world. Her voice climbs and becomes powerful, dynamic and passionate. The small crowd in the club is captivated and following her on her vocal journey. They believe they will follow her and they long to be released. Then she stops and the band plays softly. For a long moment we just play and then she talks about believing in your passions and to be who you want in life. She asks us can we not love and be kind to each other as these are violent and troubled times. She begs us to take her hand and reach out to each other. She smiles with tears streaming down her cheeks, looking to my friend sitting just past the stage lights, beckoning him to come up to her and sit in the light. Take us home tonight with your red guitar and we will walk with you tonight bound for glory.
He sat there a moment letting the music and words touch his soul. Then he pulled his hat down low and let his fingers caress the strings, rocking slowly with eyes closed, he hit that first note. It was long and sustained making you close your eyes and shake your head. He asked if everyone was with him tonight, and then he reached down and unleashed his sound. It fell upon us like the snow that trapped us here, a force of nature beyond our control, beyond this world we live in.
There was a fury to his music. It was powerful like a tempest that comes at night from the sea, vast like the nor’ easter making its way up the coast. The passion is palatable you can taste it and feel it driving through to your very soul. He is lost in the storm, his playing riding high on the furies driving to a crescendo. His hair is wild with the passion of the physicality he expends driving the song. The music is so powerful that you want it to stop; yet, you hope it never will. The music stops; the silence is so thick you feel like you are drowning in the storm. Then a sound so beautiful comes from the stage, a single note reverberating through the night. You know you have been touched by something so powerful that, like the storm outside, it changes you forever. You fear that you will never again feel a thing so powerful, so beautiful and you will spend your nights ever searching for that note.
Point Of View
True music is what we feel deep inside our soul. It doesn’t need an audience. You play it so it will be unleashed from where it resides so much so that the notes will ripple across the universe.
A small band of musicians trapped down a back road with only each other and their music. For that night it was the best music I had ever played. Nothing I ever did after that could touch the magic and mystery of that night. I never went back on the road. That night had released the words within me and gave me a strong desire to give back. The guitar player was touched to his core and could never duplicate what he played on his Red Gibson that night. He started playing acoustic guitars and doing oil paintings.
While it may sound like we lost something that night it was more what we found that night. Many years later when my Mom’s time was near, several of us were sitting with her quietly when her sister started clapping and singing, I’ll Fly Away, and her voice was like that night in the storm of 1973. She gave my Mom the courage and comfort to fly away that night.