The fantastic lead singer and guitar player in our band was relocating to Atlanta. So after about 10 or so years gigging around Miami, our Saturday night show at the Titanic Bar would be our last time together. And at around 1:45 in the morning, the set we were playing would be our last together, too.
Knowing that, I asked our front man if we could play a favorite song of mine, Too Tall To Mambo, by the great New Orleans’ band The Nighthawks. We’d rehearsed it over and over but we had never yet played it in public.
“Not tonight” he said over his shoulder.
“Not tonight?” I asked, clearly frustrated. “Tonight’s the last gig we’re ever going to play together. If we don’t play it tonight we’re never going to play it.”
“I don’t want to.” he said.
“Why not?” I whined. “We practice it every time we rehearse together. We play it really well. It’s a great song. Why don’t you want to play it?”
“Fine” he said in a tone that made it crystal clear that it was not fine. “If you want us to play it so badly, you sing it.”
(A bit of backstory: I’ve played in bands for years. But I’ve always played wind instruments that go in my mouth. First trumpet and now harmonica. And there’s a good logical reason for that. After two throat surgeries I’m not such a good singer. So while his answer: “you sing it” might sound like a gracious invitation, it was actually a bit more of a threat.)
“Fine” I echoed.
He called the song and our drummer tapped out the distinctive NOLA second line beat to get us started.
“Awwww Allen,” I croaked into the mic, “I love that crazy mambo beat you’re laying down there baby. C’mon everyone, laissez les bons temps rouler!”
The band came in right on cue and we were off.
At some point I asked the band to bring the volume down so I could address the audience. I told them that our guitar player was leaving Miami and it was our last night together. I told them that this was probably the last song we were going to play together. I told them how much we appreciated them being there with us. And then I asked them the million-dollar question:
“Who wants to be a rock star?”
The crowd roared their answer.
“You see,” I went on, “the chorus to this song is only four words. Too. Tall. To. Mambo. So after I sing ‘Too tall to Mambo,” I want you all to sing it too.
Everyone stood up and then I signaled the band to bring up the volume. We all sang the song together a few times and everyone in the crowd hooted and hollered along. It ended with us getting a huge standing ovation (yes, of course I know the audience was already standing – you’re probably thinking I did that on purpose. I blush at the very suggestion).
Our guitar player wasn’t amused. He stopped chugging his beer just long enough to let me know how he felt.
“I want to be a successful professional musician. I work hard on my chord voicings and my microtones and no one ever pays any attention. You can’t even sing and you still had everyone up dancing and singing and they even gave us a standing ovation. It’s not right.”
My late great friend Bobby Ingram (who used to play with David Crosby, Jimmy Buffet, Jose Feliciano and many more) told me that if people wanted to hear good music they’d stay home and listen to Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic perform Tchaikovsky. But when they go out to party, they want to have fun. They want to have a drink, they want to meet a pretty girl or a handsome guy, they want to enjoy themselves. As Bobby used to say, “If they go home and have sex then we did our job.”
Virtuosity is a talent I can admire and respect from afar yet never attain. But sometimes, being good enough is more than good enough, it’s exactly what your audience wants.
There used to be a sign hanging in the studio of my ad agency that said, “Good is the enemy of great.” But every so often, great is the enemy of good.
P.S. I’ve been thinking about something for quite a while and I just wanted to let you know about what I’m going to try.
I’ve decided to update my blog format. In a few weeks I’m going to begin offering my weekly blogs on video and text. For those who enjoy reading them, they’ll still be available in written format you’ve come to love. But now, if you prefer watching videos, you’ll be able to do that too.
After experimenting for a month or so, we’ll see where the dust settles. I’m going to let you guide me as I ALWAYS LOVE HEARING FROM YOU!
New year – fresh new changes. Here’s to you having your best year ever, and in every way imaginable!
PS: I have played “Too Tall to Mambo” with Bruce, so with that disclaimer out of the way….
This is a great one! I have been on both sides of that divide myself. And if you’re playing bars, the job is to SELL ALCOHOL AND A GOOD TIME. No one cares if you can play 64th note arpeggios like Richie Blackmore 🤣
The main thing is: if you’re playing a show where people are paying cover charge or tickets to hear you play, they wanna hear great. If you’re playing a gig where you are the jukebox, it’s time to bring the party!
There’s a band in Ft Lauderdale that has been VERY successful in playing the bar scene. And none of them are virtuoso type players. Judy Blem, the “agent biotch” of South Florida (her words) booked them as well as a couple of bands I played in. She recommended I go see them to soak it in. They played THE HITS, they made people dance and sing along, and they did SHOTS frequently – and made the audience drink with them. Funny enough, they got booked back at every club and made top dollar in tips and gig pay.
Irish Kevin’s in Key West is a great example. There are a couple of players there, John Solinski comes to mind, who are really damn good players and singers. But the bulk of them are ENTERTAINERS. I know several guys who do six figures a year in gig pay, mercy, and tips from working 25 hours a week in Key West. But you gotta do “the thing”, which is entertain, get them to sing along, and get them to drink. Terribly hard work! 🤣
I think an excellent bar band like NRBQ where every member can really play, but they also ROCK and make people dance and have fun would be my dream gig.
well done, well told & I couldn’t agree more– And perfection is a direction not a destination. If the audience goes home feeling better than when they came in, then you’ve made a positive difference.
“Great is the enemy of Good” struck a cord in my brain and my heart. I have had many careers, I have, in my definition, been good, maybe sometimes very good, never great. That left me with a feeling of some inadequacy. Something just clicked, Maybe it is very good just to be good! I just talked to my left brain then to my right brain, they both agree, good is very good. Thank you!!!!
Brilliant! One of my very favorites from you… Heck, from anyone. You rock, my friend. ox Thomas
Your friend was a smart guy! Regarding your format “change” (it’s the one constant, right?) We’ll adapt, go for it.
I think Bobby also use to say “ if they take ME home and have sex then I’ve done my job” 🙂
I never heard that, Kevin, but you spent a lot more time with Bobby than I did 😉.
You are tall Bruce, but not too tall to mambo or nail that song, time and again over decades, to the delight of every crowd.
Excellence is a goal worth working towards in that it gives us motivation to up, or at very least, maintain our game. This standard cannot become a means to curtail the good (great), organic fun of a song performed with enthusiasm and joy. Thank you for the reminder that a lot of stellar moments could be wasted in a quest for sterilized perfection.
Thanks for sharing a memory that you will hold dear forever!
“Courage is grace under pressure.”
PS Live music is like the first drink of the night, only the first song has to be great.
I run a school and the phrase we use is “Strive for excellence not perfection.” Excellence encourages us not to just settle and avoid growth, but to grow, achieve and take healthy risks. It allows us to explore our results and mistakes and learn from them or lead us in new directions . Perfection on the other hand is low risk (I won’t attempt something if I’m not sure of success), one avoids mistakes rather than learn from them, or allow them to lead us to new opportunities. It is about fear of failure rather than find ways to succeed.
Really great and good and I think that the original quote about “good is the enemy of great” maybe came from Jay Chiat.
There is a lot in this piece on multiple levels, thank you.