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by Frank “Catfish” Butler
As a guitarist and vocalist, I have always wanted to be part of a juke joint. I didn’t care as which: owner, manager or bartender/ house band guy. It is finally is happening, on a warped scale, and I am here to tell you what it is really like on both sides of the fence between musicians and small venues, and how easy it is and how hard it is to follow my dream.
Click Through for the First Part of the Tale
My first gig was filling in for a no-show bass player at a dive bar in Texas. I had literally never even held a bass in my hand before, and I was coerced into getting on stage and winging it on songs in E so I could just work that top string. All so that my friends’ band would not get shorted on their pay, $20 at the time, for the band to play 9 till midnight. Give me a break! It was a long time ago. We had a full house of commercial fishermen; we called them “Fish Heads” locally. Not disrespectfully, mind you. It just identified that segment of the town’s population that worked the sea every day. Beer and JD flowed like water and I thought that my $5 pay (it was a 4-piece band) really should have been $6, as the venue was making a killing. But since I didn’t even know the top string was “E”, I probably should not have had such visions of grandeur.
Four years earlier I was cutting grass for $1.50 per hour in the hot South Texas sun. Like any 14-year-old back then, I had an AM radio on, sitting on my customer’s front stoop – which made very little sense as I could not hear it with the mower going. I ran out of gas, the mower died, and I heard a guitar talking, then singing … and then it cried. I did not know it at the time, but right then and there, in Flour Bluff, Texas, in Mr. Noble’s front yard overlooking the Laguna Madre, something captured my very soul. It was Luther Allison, and whatever he was doing to that guitar – I wanted to do that. Some other time I will tell you about my first meeting with Luther, when I was chatting with him and didn’t recognize him. And the last time, when he spotted me and walked across the House of Blues floor on Sunset in Los Angeles to shake my hand and to say Hi, just a few months before his death.
I consider myself a bluesman. Cockily, I considered myself one at 18 when I learned to play a simple 1-4-5 with that magical finger position called the “bar chord.” When my neighbor taught me the minor pentatonic scale, I went on a mission to woodshed until I could play lead to a 1-4-5 in any key – which is not a feat by any means. But then, I could tell any 18-year-old girl that I was a lead guitarist – pick up a guitar and prove it with my trick of playing within the confines of three bars, between 4 frets, in a way that sounded like the guys on my 8-track – and as long as they believed it, that was good enough for me!
Gradually, I picked up more, a little at a time. I am still learning. I played dives and some not-so-dives and later some bigger venues, but it really didn’t matter where after a while. I worked in construction mainly, and I just wanted to play and get more than insulting pay when I did it for venues that were exploiting me and every other person on the stage for profit. I can’t tell you how many times I have played guitar and watched cash flow through the hands of patrons to waitresses and bartenders which went to the venues that were paying us just enough to settle our bar tab at the end of the night. It is hard to be passionate about your music as you are being screwed over.
As I got older, I really had to think more about the financial end. Not that I played professionally to feed my family, but many venues in the L.A. basin just don’t pay much – there are so many musicians and bands wanting to be heard that many play for free – or less. And yes, “less than free” is not only possible, but common. Any band that plays for $100 and splits the money – then has to pay for their food and drinks at the venue plus gas up their car to get to and from the gig along with instrument maintenance – is essentially playing for less than free. That classic scene in the Blues Brothers where they have to go out to the car to get a check to pay the band’s beer tab after putting on a show all evening is funny, except when it happens to you in real life. Although the public thought it was a hysterical scene in the movie, it was really an iconic scene of venue abuse of musicians in Anytown, U.S.A.
Now I am about to be on the other side of the fence. I am the venue guy whose job it is to set the compensation rate and perks that musicians get, without having the venue’s financial investors turn on me for not putting the venue bottom line above all else. Is that even possible? We are going to find out together.
Publisher’s Note: One of BFMN’s original columnists, bluesman Frank “Catfish” Butler has been working for months creating a new live music venue: Knuckleheads On Front Street, projected to open in January, 2013, at 28410 Front Street in Temecula, CA. Really cold beer, great local wines, terrific food, catering, WiFi, Direct TV…but, most importantly to some, outstanding live musical entertainment on its built-in stage. He’s learned a lot about the intricacies, paperwork and cost of life behind the bar, and just as we can’t think of anyone better to create and run a “juke joint,” we can’t imagine anyone better to share with us the realities of a live music venue from both sides of the bar.
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