Sunday, 01 August 2021

CyberSoulMan: A conversation with Jerry Garcia

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Mike Wilhelm lives in Lake County these days, but he was a fixture in the Bay Area music scene in the 1960s. Courtesy photo.

 

 

 

Earlier this week I was surfing for vinyl on Ebay and I came across a collectible copy of the Flamin Groovies album entitled “Now” from 1978. Packed away in my CyberSoulMan arsenal of facts is the knowledge that the Groovies were No. 4 on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100 Bay Area Bands, a list which was published in the Chron’s pink section at dawn of the new millennium. I actually have a copy of that article in my personal archives.

 

Virtuoso musician Mike Wilhelm, former lead and rhythm guitarist of the group, as some of you well know is a Lake County resident. Wilhelm also played in one of San Francisco’s first psychedelic bands, The Charlatans. This is the man that Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead proclaimed was his favorite guitar player way back in uh, nineteen and sixty-seven. I’ve been privileged to become gradually acquainted with him over the last couple of years. Recently he gave me several tracks of music he produced for air play at KPFZ.

 

So, as kind of a favor in return, I called up Wilhelm to let him know that a nice copy of some of his recorded work was available for bid on Ebay. Just in case there was a gap in his archives. We music aficionados have to stick together you know.

 

Brother Wilhelm has his stuff together. He already has two copies of “Now.” But the call set the stage, if you will, for a very cool musical dialogue that I would like to share with you.

 

When I finally realized we were talking some deep cultural Americana information and started taking notes, we were knee deep in a conversation about the great Johnny Otis. Johnny Otis has had an extraordinary music career also. Bandleader, composer, producer – you name it in the world of rhythm and blues, Mr. Otis has done it. He discovered (Little) Esther Phillips, Etta James, Sugar Pie DeSanto and a host of other huge names in R&B. Though he was of Greek ancestry, Johnny Otis always purveyed an African-American persona.

 

Wilhelm talked about growing up in L.A. and watching the Johnny Otis television show every Friday night in his home. Reminiscing about the rich diversity present in Southern California in his childhood, Wilhelm recalled the other King of Western Swing, Spade Cooley. Cooley had a big band and a Saturday night TV show. Cooley had become an actor through his association with Roy Rogers and parleyed that into a very successful TV show. Throw in Lawrence Welk’s TV show in conjunction with Wilhelm’s parents' classical music collection and stuff he sought out on radio, Mike Wilhelm couldn’t help but be exposed to a lot of great music.

 

Wilhelm and David Crosby were tight before Crosby joined the Byrds. This was during the pre-rock folk scene days. Crosby was with Les Baxter’s Balladeers at the time.

 

Wilhelm spoke of playing a gig as a Charlatan at the Fillmore with Arthur Lee & Love. Arthur Lee & Love were once upon a time L.A.’s biggest rock band. Lee wouldn’t tour outside the West Coast. He brought Jim Morrison and the Doors to Elektra Records who soon became L.A.’s biggest band.

 

The most moving part of Wilhelm’s dialogue was his sharing of how Blues legend Brownie McGee gladly taught Wilhelm licks on the guitar that have continued to further his playing and appreciation of the blues to this day.

 

Wilhelm told hilarious anecdotes about finally moving to San Francisco’ Japantown in about 1963. Upper crusty white neighborhood on one side, black neighborhood on the other. A mysterious mixture of no man's land in between.

 

He said that most of the time, he chose to live in the black neighborhoods as the rent was more affordable and it was infinitely easier to rehearse your band in the ‘hood. People wouldn’t call the police if you were too loud. They’d simply knock on your door if you were bothering them.

 

In Wilhelm’s words, “I functioned well in that milieu. It wasn’t until the rents in the ghetto got as ridiculous as they were in the nice neighborhoods that I moved out. I survived no problem. People would come up and say, 'Hey, gimme 50 cents.' I’d say, 'I ain’t got nothin’ but trouble.' They’d say, 'I heard that' and leave me alone. They didn’t want any of that! I get by that way. Carry a walkin’ stick and dress sharp. People would ask me, 'How can you live down there?' I’d tell ‘em, it’s just like any other neighborhood. You just get to know your neighbors a little bit and it’s probably better in some respects. If you’re rehearsing your band in your dining room and your neighbor’s got to get up in the morning and go to work, he’ll just come over and communicate that to you and let you know when a cool time would be.”

 

Not wanting to be all take and no give, I told Wilhelm my Percy Mayfield story.

 

Percy Mayfield was the legendary songwriter and artist who wrote and sang some killer rhythm and blues hits for himself and people like Ray Charles. I stood with him in the alcove of a nightclub one morning from 2 a.m. to 5 a.m. at his behest until his irresponsible booking agent of a ride showed up. I still remember his plaintive plea. “Don’t leave me, little brother.” It was like, my blues duty.

 

Finally, Wilhelm told me his Jimmy Reed story. It was like two stories in one.

 

The first was about how Wilhelm had observed Jimmy Reed in a bout of creative professionalism, told the audience he was having technical difficulties. Reed left the stage to relieve himself and returned a few moments later and announced the technical difficulty solved. He then proceeded to wow the crowd.

 

The second part of the story was near the end of Reed’s performing career. He was sober from booze. Reed was playing and singing magnificently. Between sets, Wilhelm and his friend asked Jimmy Reed to play a certain tune. Reed replied, “I can’t find a recording of that.”

 

Wilhelm’s friend asked, “What do you mean?”

 

The blues great replied, “Ever since I quit drinking, I can’t remember my tunes. I’ve had to relearn all my material off records. If I can get that record, I’ll be glad to do it for you next time.”

 

There it is. The case of the gap in the archives. It’s like a Dr. John song. Right place, wrong time!

 

Keep prayin’, keep thinkin’ those kind thoughts!

 

*****

 

Upcoming cool events:

 

Konocti Vista Casino presents Andre Williams & Friends, Friday, March 20. 2755 Mission Rancheria Road, Lakeport. 707-262-1900.

 

Blue Wing Blue Monday Blues: Twice As Good, Monday, March 16, 6:30 p.m. at the Blue Wing Saloon & Café. 9520 Main St., Upper Lake. 707-275-2233.

 

Calling For Light: A Spring Concert of Poetry and Music. Carolyn Hawley, piano, plays Chopin and original works. Accompaniment to poetry. T. Watts, accompaniment on trumpet. Lake County Poets Laureate Mary McMillan, Sandra Wade, Carolyn Wing Greenlee, James BlueWolf and Jim Lyle. Sunday, March 15, 3 p.m. Galilee Lutheran Church, 8860 Soda Bay Road, Kelseyville. Tickets cost $10 in advance at Watershed Books, Lakeport, and Wild About Books, Clearlake. $15 at the door. Children free. A benefit for KPFZ 88.1 FM.

 

T. Watts is a writer, radio host and music critic. 

 

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