|“The record business has never been run by brilliant men. Tower had Pink Floyd on their label. Then along comes the Chocolate Watchband which was further out than Pink Floyd. Tower didn’t know what to do with them. They were afraid to put the Watchband out! They also thought the ‘Chocolate’ Watchband was black band so they sent them off to the Uptown label.”|
What could go wrong? It was a rainy Sunday evening in March. We were together in our white Ford van driving to the Oakland City Auditorium to play some sort of show. Gary was driving. I was sitting next to him in the front seat eating Cracker Jacks. Bill, Sean and Mark were in the back seat wedged in between their guitars. 19th Nervous Breakdown was playing on the radio as we sped down the highway. Nobody really knew that much about the show and Ron hadn’t bothered to fill us in on any details. We were getting paid $500 to do a 30-minute performance for the recording company.
The Oakland Auditorium was like every other seedy city run performance hall. During the week it hosted wrestling matches, roller derby matches, rock and roll concerts, basketball games, craft fairs and flower shows. When we arrived, the concert was well underway. As we drove around to the back to unload our equipment, we still didn’t know what was in store for us. As we walked up the back steps to the inside, Chuck Berry was standing there all alone with a toothpick in his mouth. “Hey guys-how ya doin’,” he said to us as we walked by. That’s Chuck Berry! We’re playing with Chuck Berry?” I couldn’t believe it. We walked further inside. Our hands were in our pockets. Everybody was dressed in three piece suits or slinky party dresses. None of them had long hair. None of them wore Beatle boots. Some were holding trumpets and trombones. Others wore capes draped over their shoulders with gold jewelry all over their wrists, necks and fingers. Everybody in the room was black. Bill nudged me. He kept tipping his head to the left until I looked that direction. To my surprise, in this huge crowded room, one of the Coasters was standing there with his back to the wall. On her knees in front of him, a pretty woman in a low cut dress and bright red lipstick was giving him a blow job. He casually surveyed the room as her head moved back and forth until she finished. Zipping up his pants, he strolled away before she could wipe her face or get up off her knees. He moved past us as if nothing out of the ordinary had just happened. We were stunned. We had never seen anything like this before in our San Jose lives. What a warm-up he had going for him.
With a sheepish grin on his face, Sean walked over to her and said, “Don’t get up - I think I’m next.” She stood up towering over him by almost a foot and said, “Sorry honey, you’re a little too light for me, With a warm smile on her face she said, “What are you boys doing here?” “We came to play”, Bill replied. “You did? Are you sure you’re in the right place? Look at that poster on the wall over there. I don’t see any ‘Luuuuuv Children’ on it. “ We walked over to the brick wall and read the poster. Jackie Wilson and his 12-piece band, Chuck Berry. The Coasters. Little Dion. The Olympics, Jackie Lee, Bob & Earl, The Kisses, The Pirates of Soul, and the CHOCOLATE Watchband. (CHOCOLATE was in capital letters) “Oh shit!” was the first thing that came out of Bill’s mouth. “We’re playing Soulville 67’. We’re gonna die!””How in the hell did this happen?”, Mark muttered…”Im going to kill Ron Rupe.” Gary piped in, “Do you think we could just leave? I mean, do you think anyone would even notice?””We’re gonna die”, Bill said again. “They’re going to kill us when we step out there. When they put the spotlight on us it’s going to hurt the audience’s eyes!” “No it’s not”, I said. “They’re going to love us! We came here to play didn’t we? We’ll throw a little Muddy Waters at them – a little Jimmy Reed. Hell – maybe a little Bo Diddley– who knows. Let’s just do it. Then, maybe afterwards, we can all become honorary members of the Coasters Club!
“Well look what the cat dragged in,” said a big booming voice behind us. The sharpest dressed man of color I had ever seen in my life was standing there with a huge grin on his face. He was wearing a starched white shirt with a wide blood red tie, a blue pin striped suit with a gold and pearl tie tack that could choke a whale and two gold cuff links that could double as door stops. “Are you boys here to back up Chuck?” “ No, we’re the Chocolate Watchband!” Sean blurted out. “But we can back him up too”, I quickly added. God, imagine backing up Chuck Berry! “Well, you boys just stay out of trouble right over here,” he said as he walked us over to the corner of the room, “ and we’ll come get you when we need you. You aren’t gonna break up any guitars on stage are you?” he said with a very solemn look on his face. “No. I said, that’s another group that does that.” “Good – now if some more boys like yourselves comes in, you tell em Big Ed is looking for them and they have to meet with Chuck as soon as possible. ““So, they haven’t played with Chuck before?” I said. “No, they’re just a pick-up band and they’ll just follow along as needed.”
We huddled together, Buy them off or scare them off? Without a word we pooled our resources, On a small table in front of us, we had, $53, half an ounce of pot and two tabs of acid. No, that wasn’t going to do it That wouldn’t buy the band off but it might buy someone else off. But who? We knew we had to work fast. Our eyes scanned around the room evaluating each candidate until Gary said, “That one. I think he works backstage here. He’ll do it. He even scares me just looking at him!” Sean and I walked up to the biggest, fiercest looking man we had ever seen. His hair looked like a shocked afro styled by lightening. His hands were bigger than my old baseball mitt. His arms were bigger around than my waist. “Hello” Sean started out. We need your help and we’re willing to pay for it.” Quickly the plan was laid out. All he had to do was stand outside and tell the first group of young white musicians that showed up that they had missed Chuck Berry. He had already played and that the promoters were really pissed off at them. In face, the promoter had threatened to cut their “manly parts” off if he ever saw them again. Would he do it? He looked at our paltry offerings. The cash was good. The pot was acceptable. He didn’t want anything to do with the acid. We could keep that. “Yeah, I’ll do it!” We could hardly contain ourselves. It was if we had just sold the Empire State building to the first person who walked by and got cash! That night, the CHOCOLATE Watchband played twice, once with a legend and once by themselves. It wasn’t such a bad Sunday after all!
It was a Saturday night and we were playing at the San Jose Civic Auditorium with Country Joe and the Fish, The Lewis & Clark Expedition and THE YARDBIRDS! I made it a point to get there early for this show. This band was beyond legendary for us. We had been one of the first bands in the Bay Area to cover their music. Our personal roots had been so remarkably similar. The Yardbirds had kept going where the Stones had left off.