The first instrument I took up was the drums and began formal lessons when I was 8. My dad (father #2) sort of pushed me in that direction and, in fact, father #1 was a very talented drummer (they both knew each other and sometimes even played in the same bands) so perhaps it was assumed that my talents would most naturally blossom as a drummer.
I definitely had the musician in me and my dad knew it so he wanted to get me on the path, whatever flavor that might end up being.
I liked the drums but found the practice to be too tedious for my taste. Especially having to work on the practice pad, an angled block of wood with an 1/8 inch piece of rubber cemented to it, but that was what I was given before I graduated to an actual set of drums. I always wanted to take shortcuts but in music, as with anything, sometimes there are no shortcuts so I labored away at the practice pad until I couldn’t stand it anymore.
I eventually got a small set of Rogers drums (snare, hi-hat and bass kick drum). It wasn’t much but it was a quantum leap from the practice pad so I was happy. One thing that I really enjoyed was working with brushes, the multiple long steel wire gadgets that took the edge off regular sticks and made it fun to swing and I just liked the feel and sound of them on the drum head. I began using them a lot when working with the Dixieland genre and I got good at it by playing along with my dad’s Dixieland records.
My dad decided to take me and my mother out to the White Lake Inn to see ‘Madman’ Miltie’s Dixieland band. I had met Miltie prior to this gig and he had given me a pair of very nice sticks and I was sort of smitten with his generosity and encouragement. I don’t know about my mom but I wanted to go and my dad sure as hell wanted to go because this was a ‘fun’ family outing that incorporated his two primary loves, music and beer.
For my 9 year-old self this was really cool stuff and I had already developed an affection for the New Orleans born genre so hearing Miltie’s band was pure enjoyment. Miltie was bigger than life with a huge persona made of a strong sense of humor, solid drum work and a signature goatee that set him apart from the usual clean shaven men of the time. My foggy mind’s eye recalls him looking like a cross between Frank Zappa and Salvador Dali. He even had a sign installed over the entrance to the men’s room stating that it was ‘Madman’ Miltie’s dressing room. He was a character and I was very drawn to people that were working the fringes.
It was Miltie who asked me if I wanted to ‘sit in’. ‘Sit in’? You mean get up there with your band and your drum kit and play? Like…a song? I was scared to death but with that kind of fear that young people toss aside to do something potentially stupid. I didn’t know what was going to happen since I didn’t know these guys and more importantly, what song are we going to do, what tempo, what, what, what? Somebody stop me, I’m 9!
We settled on “Basin Street Blues”, a song I knew very well and so I climbed up onto the bandstand and into the saddle but I didn’t even have the luxury of the anonymity of the back of the stage where drum kits usually reside because Miltie was the star of the show and his kit was located front and center, ending right about where the dance floor began. The place was packed and somebody gave me a nudge and a count-off and away we went.
I was good enough to get through the song but the real interest for the audience in my being up there was the novelty of watching a little twerp like me play Dixieland. The ladies, especially, would whirl their dance partner right up past me to get a good look and I remember one of the women laughing and saying to her companion with that beer hall bravado, “Look at the little guy go!”, as they sashayed back to the bar for another round.
Obviously we didn’t have a song arrangement per se so the other musicians and I sort of eyeballed one another for a suitable ending and although I don’t recall how we got out of it, I remember the audience applauded, I hopped off stage feeling pretty good about myself and got rewarded with a 7-UP.
Albeit short and sweet, that became gig number 1 and I got a taste of being on stage and the focal point of the room and while part of me wanted to run for cover from these crazy people, the other part was eating it up. That dichotomy would become a permanent part of my brain and it made performing the most alluring and the most repulsive act, both at the same time.
Eventually I drifted away from the drums into more melodic instruments and singing but that trip out to the White Lake Inn presented the possibilities and what it might feel like, and Miltie…
I don’t even know what Miltie’s last name was and if I did it would probably just ruin the image anyway. What if it was Snellensnooter or something pedestrian like Smith? No, he just had to be ‘Madman’ Miltie; drummer extraordinaire, showman, comedian and inadvertent role model for a 9 year-old.
It was 1960 and he was cool man, real cool.