Originally posted February 13, 2008
The first time I saw Billy Preston, he performed in an open-air concert at Selke Field on St. Cloud’s East Side. Selke’s stone walls date from the 1930s and enclose an entire city block. Until not too many years ago, about a third of the space was used for a football field and a surrounding running track. The rest of the area was open space for whatever uses the university might have.
And on a Saturday afternoon in May 1973, its use was as a home for the day for the legendary keyboard player and singer. I recall that my parents had no problem with my going to the concert – I was nineteen. I’m sure, however, that they had some concerns about my companion for the day. Let’s call her Sunny. She was twenty-six, divorced with two kids, in fragile recovery from an addition to at least one illegal substance, and was paying her way through college and feeding her children by dancing in a strip joint.
I’d met Sunny at The Table at school, and I have to give my folks credit: Mom and Dad never really said anything as I spent a few months seeing Sunny at school and then spending a fair amount of time at her apartment during evenings and weekends. My memory tells me that Sunny might even have come over to our home for dinner at least once, an encounter that would have shown my parents that she was actually pretty self-effacing, quiet with a sweet smile and a nice laugh and not at all the rough woman that they might have feared meeting, given only a description.
But I could tell all through the spring that my folks had their concerns, and looking back, that was reasonable. Between Sunny and me lay vast gaps in age and experience, gaps that scared me a little bit, to be honest, as I spent time with her and got closer to her during the spring and early summer.
We never were lovers. I would have happily accepted that role had it been offered, but I didn’t push for it. During the time that we spent hanging around her home or various drinking establishments, there were a few other men who came and went. Several times when I left Sunny’s home in the evening, there were men there who clearly would not be leaving until morning. Did that bother me? Yes, but given my utter inexperience in that aspect of life, it also brought me a sense of quiet relief. I never pushed for more.
I was happy spending time with her and her friends – they were a wide-ranging and fascinating group of people – and also spending time with her kids. I’ll call them Luke and Bethy, and they were eight and six, respectively. We went on picnics, played mini-golf once, I think, and the four of us – augmented more than once by one or more of Sunny’s lady friends and very rarely by one of the men she knew – would go shopping, ending the outing with a stop at a burger joint.
She was good to her kids, tried to be a good mom, from what I knew about the mom biz when I was nineteen, and she seemed – looking back – to be doing well at walking the slender bridge of recovery. I only recall one time when I truly questioned her judgment: In May, the four of us drove to St. Paul with tickets to see the Doobie Brothers. Along the way, we picked up a man she knew, a stop I’d not been told about, but that was okay. At the show, however, Sunny and her guy went dancing in the open space in front of the stage, leaving her two children sitting in the front row, scared and overwhelmed by the crowd and the spectacle and the sounds booming from the ten-foot-tall speaker not all that far away. For most of the concert, I sat between the kids, an arm around each one, very angry.
The academic year ended, and I stayed on campus for the summer, working half-time as a janitor and half-time for Learning Resources. I saw Sunny a few times early in the summer, as I got ready for my time in Denmark. Later, in August of 1973, she was one of those who arranged a surprise going-away party for me at the Grand Mantel, our favorite place for drinks. She sent me off with a kiss.
The night I got home from Denmark, in late May, 1974, I went down to the Grand Mantel to meet Sam, who’d left a note on my car to that effect a day or two earlier. He couldn’t make it that evening, it turned out, but I called him and we arranged to meet the next day on campus. While we were talking, I asked him quickly about some of our mutual friends. All seemed fine until I asked, “And Sunny – how’s she doing?”
There was a silence. “That,” said Sam, “is a sad situation.” He paused before telling me more. She’d gone back to drugs and dropped out of school. He thought the county had taken the kids away from her. And he wasn’t sure, but he didn’t think she was in St. Cloud anymore.
One of the next few days, I drove past the apartment where Sunny and her kids had lived when I left town. It was empty. I never saw her again.
A Baker’s Dozen from 1973, Vol. 3
We’ll start with a song that Sunny and I danced to during that May 1973 concert, and then go on to a song that often makes me think of her. And we’ll go random from there.
“Will It Go Round In Circles” by Billy Preston, A&M single 1411
“Too Late For Prayin’” by Gordon Lightfoot from Sundown
“I’m Just A Kid (Don’t Make Me Feel Like A Man)” by Hall & Oates from Abandoned Luncheonette
“Mind Games” by John Lennon, Apple single 1868
“Page 43” by Graham Nash & David Crosby from Graham Nash/David Crosby
“The Great Gig in the Sky” by Pink Floyd from Dark Side of the Moon
“Tumbling Dice” by the Rolling Stones, Brussels, Belgium, October 17
“Final Theme” by Bob Dylan from Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid
“Clever Girl” by Tower of Power from Tower of Power
“You Got To Reap Just What You Sow” by Joy of Cooking from Same Old Song And Dance (unreleased)
“Let It Ride” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Mercury single 73457
“If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” by the Staple Singers from Be What You Are
“Together” by El Chicano from El Chicano
A few notes:
The Hall & Oates tune is one of the great tracks from an album that I think gets ignored when talk turns to great records. The album was released in 1973, and “She’s Gone” went out as a single for the first time in 1974, but neither the album nor the single went anywhere until 1976, when they both reached the charts. But both the album and the single soon became afterthoughts to the duo’s more current work at the time. “She’s Gone” survives in the Oldies rotation, but Abandoned Luncheonette deserves a better fate than it got.
The year of 1973 falls smack-dab in the middle of John Lennon’s so-called “Lost Weekend.” His albums might have been fuzzily thought out at the time – Mind Games especially has always seemed erratic – but he could still find great singles inside himself. And the title track to that erratic album was one of them.
Among the various combination of David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young, the duo of Crosby and Nash produced some of the best music. Graham Nash/David Crosby was the best of the albums the duo recorded, and “Page 43,” Crosby’s brief and sweet exploration of the purpose of life, is the best track on the album: “ . . . and you should have a sip of it, else you’ll find . . . it’s passed you by.”
It’s difficult to pull individual track from Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon without pulling the music entirely out of context. “Money,” which opened Side Two of the original vinyl, worked. “Time” from Side One, and “Us and Them,” from Side Two, worked a little less well. But “The Great Gig In The Sky,” which closed Side One, somehow manages here to stand on its own. If I have my Pink Floyd lore correct, Clare Torry provides the swooping vocals.
I don’t often offer soundboard recordings/bootlegs here. The Muddy Waters recording with the Rolling Stones the other day was an exception. So, too, is the Rolling Stones’ version of “Tumbling Dice” today. Supposedly recorded for a live album, the Brussels show gives a good look at the Stones when they were truly “The Greatest Rock & Roll Band In The World,” and to me, it’s a reminder of how they sounded when I saw them in Denmark thirteen days before they played this show in Brussels.
Of the final four groups in today’s list, the only one you seem have a chance of hearing on Oldies radio is Bachman-Turner Overdrive and its seven Top 40 hits, and that’s too bad. Joy of Cooking, as readers know, is one of my favorite forgotten groups of those years when the Sixties blended into the Seventies, but the group never hit the Top 40. The Staples Singers had eight Top 40 hits between 1971 and 1975, including two No. 1 songs (“I’ll Take You There” in 1972 and “Let’s Do It Again” in 1975), but I don’t recall the last time I heard them on any of the Oldies stations I listen to. The same holds true for El Chicano, which wasn’t nearly as successful reaching the charts as BTO or the Staples but still did have two Top 40 hits, including the sweet “Tell Her She’s Lovely” (No. 40 for one week!) in 1973.