“It could happen,” he said. It became one of the catch phrases of the ‘80s, a wry acknowledgement that some childish fantasy is absurdly unlikely.
But sometimes it does, in fact, happen.
I’m headed to the Winthrop Rhythm and Blues Festival this weekend. It will be the 11th in a row at which I’ve performed. I’ve performed there with a number of bands, including my own, but this time I’m playing bass for a band called the Soul of John Black.
Some of blues’ biggest names will be there, including The Holmes Brothers, Roy Rogers and Charlie Musselwhite, but I’d have driven hours just to see The Soul of John Black even if I didn’t have time to see anything else.
I was playing at Winthrop four years ago when I first saw The Soul of John Black. I was then playing for prominent blues band Too Slim and the Taildraggers, which was a great gig, and the other band was playing right before us.
Within half an hour I became a huge fan. The band was out of Los Angeles, the show promoter told me, and the band leader, John Bigham, had played for Miles Davis as a percussionist before playing in the experimental cult-favorite group Fishbone for a decade. His studio and tour resume was very impressive, but somehow he hadn’t gotten terribly famous in his own right.
A friend waited in line and got me a signed CD. The first listen floored me. It was the craziest fusion of ska, hip hop, electronica, blues, neo-soul, disco, reggae and R&B I had ever heard. The production was sheer genius, gritty and urban, but still smooth. The songwriting was incredibly catchy, and the rhythm section work was elegant.
I got all of the band’s studio albums and listened to them endlessly for about a year and half. I told everyone who would listen about the band. Industry people, like radio DJs and club owners, were aware of them; Rolling Stone Magazine regularly reviews their work and they were a darling of NPR, but the general music fan world seemed mostly oblivious.
I used to imagine how nice it would be to just meet the songwriter and pay my respects.
I could at least say something on The Soul of John Black’s Facebook page, so I left a little sentence about how I’d been in the next band to play at Winthrop, and how much I loved what I’d heard.
The band’s manager got back to me.
She wanted to know what might be a good venue for the band in Seattle.
Well! I happen to work in another band in which the drummer is the founder and booking agent for Seattle’s premier blues club, The Highway 99.
So I pitched the show, and then swore to promote it to the skies, should the club hire the band.
Finally, the club decided to bring John Bigham up to do a solo acoustic show on a rainy Wednesday night last November.
It was magic, sitting there listening to the songs that had accompanied me everywhere for so long being played right in front of me by the writer.
On his break I was nearly too shy to meet him. But Erika Olsen, who books all the music into the Winthrop festival, told me to stop being stupid and dragged me over there.
John Bigham looked up.
“I know you,” he said. “You play bass, don’t you?”
I wish I knew what I said back. I was mostly just dying.
“I couldn’t bring my whole band up,” he said. “Maybe next time I come up you could play.”
I silently swore to myself that, should such a thing ever come to pass, I would work harder than anyone in the history of the world, then said, “That sounds like fun.”
I thought perhaps he was just being amiable, but a week later, his manager messaged me again. JB, as his friends call him, wanted to hear some of my work.
I have never hated everything I’ve ever done as much I did while trying to select tracks to send, but I finally emailed off about six mp3s. Weeks passed, and no word.
I decided it was easiest not to know why, and let it go.
Dec. 15, JB’s manager sent me another message.
The Soul of John Black had a four-city tour of the Midwest in April; did I want to play?
Suffice to say I spent the next three and a half months studying the deceptively complex material, learning bass lines note for note.
JB could have broken my heart. I had no idea what he was like as a person. He might have been mean, egotistical, hyper-demanding, critical, sexist or any number of things regrettably common in the music world.
He wasn’t. I flew to LA to rehearse and found that he was a very nice guy.
The tour went well. JB was happy. I remember hugging him goodbye in the Kansas City airport and walking off toward my gate, shaking my head in wonder at the delightful improbability of it all.
His manager got back to me.
The Soul of John Black had been hired again to play at Winthrop this summer; did I want to play?
Winthrop, after all these years, is like a high school reunion for me.
If I’d been in the gym one day just a year ago, running on a treadmill listening to The Soul of John Black, and caught myself daydreaming about one day playing bass for the band at the Winthrop Rhythm and Blues Festival, I’d have laughed at myself.
“It could happen,” I might have wryly thought.
But you know what?
Sometimes it does.