I have just started to read Knock On Wood, Eddie Floyd’s autobiography which is co-authored by my friend Tony Fletcher. I’ll probably review it properly here next week but its title brings back a memory I feel like sharing.
It is August of 1968 and I am living at home in Skipton in Yorkshire. Because their bass player is indisposed I have been asked to take his place in The Black Sheep, thus fulfilling a private ambition of some significance to me. By common consent The Black Sheep are Skipton’s best band, a six-piece that specialises in soul and R&B with a few Stones songs like ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ thrown in for good measure. Their speciality is a note-for-note reproduction of Geno Washington & The Ram Jam Band’s Hand Clappin’ Foot Stompin’ Funky-Butt Live! LP, Piccadilly NPL 38026, a record I still own, and a slew of Stax and Atlantic hits like ‘Knock On Wood’ and ‘In The Midnight Hour’.
The occasion makes it all the more momentous. The gig is the joint 21st birthday party of two acquaintances of mine, John Spencer, who became a noted rugby union player, and John Mewies, who, like his father before him, has been our family solicitor for as long as I can remember. A marquee has been hired which sits in the garden of the Mewies home in the lane opposite the pitches of Upper Wharfedale RUFC on the outskirts of Grassington, just up the road from Skipton. Furthermore, many of my friends will be there, among them several girls I would like to impress.
First of all, though, I need to learn The Black Sheep’s repertoire and to this end I spend the afternoon of the gig in the company of Richard Preston, esteemed not only as the best guitarist in Skipton but the owner of the best guitar in town, an orange Gretsch Tennessean, which he brings over to our house on the afternoon of the gig.
Perhaps I should point out at this stage that none of this would have come about had I not recently been ousted from Sandra & The Montanas from Cross Hills, a five piece including our girl singer whose leanings are more on the pop side. My role as second guitarist is deemed redundant after they engage a bloke who owns not just an electric keyboard but a Vox PA system, with two impressively tall speaker columns. Far be it for me to suggest that he is hired on the strength of his gear but in a fit of indignation I exchange my red Futurama III guitar (and Watkins Copicat echo box – a bad mistake) for a Hofner Violin bass as played by Paul McCartney, albeit right-handed. I simply fancy a bass for a change and it only costs £35. The news that I now own this bass communicates itself to the members of The Black Sheep, all of whom I know anyway because they drink in the same Skipton pub as me, The New Ship, below.
For two hours Richard and I make our way through The Black Sheep’s set list, me trying to pick up simple bass parts from him, he suggesting lines and telling me which key to play them in. I make a few notes on a bit of paper I’ll stick to the edge of the bass, just like Paul used to do. When we get to ‘Knock On Wood’ I love that ascending intro and the bass line that reaches up an octave, a bit like a slowed down version of the riff from Bobby Parker’s ‘Watch Your Step’ which The Beatles nicked for ‘I Feel Fine’. The bass line to ‘You Don’t Know Like I Know’ is a bit like the first bit of the riff to ‘Twist And Shout’, which they also play (in C) and a few others we try out aren’t too difficult to pick up. The key thing, Richard tells me, is to keep the tempo. Watch the drummer, he says. Watch what chord I’m playing. If you’ve forgotten the riff, just play a note that corresponds with my chord in time to the bass drum.
The Black Sheep is a six-piece but I can’t remember all their names. John Willie, whose dad was a haulier, is the singer; Kevin is on trumpet, Richard on guitar, me on bass (that night), with a keyboard player and drummer whose names escape me. They are massively popular in the Dales and travel around in an old hearse. It is an honour to be asked to play with them.
Well, I don’t disgrace myself. The Black Sheep’s old bass player has left behind his 50 watt Selmer bass amp and separate speaker which is not much smaller than a coffin, and when I plug in my Macca bass and tune up it sounds fine. Most of the partygoers already know The Black Sheep as they play regularly at the rugby club opposite tonight’s gig, and everyone is in the mood for a good time and unlikely to notice if their bass player drops the odd note. Then again, they might be surprised to see it is me toting that violin bass in the first place. Many of them know me and if they don’t know I can play guitar they do now.
The Black Sheep have recently added ‘Baby Come Back’ to their list and the riff to that is dead easy – only three notes – as is another favourite, ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’ which goes on for ages with me thumping on the three notes across the fifth fret, so easy I manage to look up at the dancers, move around a bit and look like I’ve been playing bass for years. ‘Knock On Wood’ is slightly harder but when I get into the groove, leaping up to that octave and edging down again repeatedly, my eyes on the drummer, I am thoroughly enjoying myself.
We do two sets, closing the second on an encore of ‘Twist And Shout’ which I can play with one arm behind my back. Afterwards, drinking a beer and basking in the glow of my achievement – I’ve played in the bloody Black Sheep – my satisfaction is as if I’d snogged the prettiest girl at the party. I did, too, but not that night.
And now I’ll get back to reading Eddie Floyd’s book.