And they were high times, indeed! There was a three-year period, ’68 into ’71 when the craziest stuff happened, mostly exciting and unimaginable events that many people simply wouldn’t believe.
Jimmy, some years ago
Don’t know exactly when I first met Jimmy Helms. It was probably at Mother’s, in Boston’s Back Bay. Lenny ?? , who was a bassist, had a small group that played at Mother’s every weekend. Mother’s, at the time, was a well-known singles club that attracted some of Boston’s big name athletes, as it was located right across a narrow street from Fenway Park! Not sure how I got that gig, probably they lost their keyboard player and Reid Jorgensen, who was already playing drums there, recommended me.
That quartet, and the group that worked at Mother’s changed my life in major ways for the next 2-3 years. I’m sure Jimmy would agree with me that Mother’s was significant in vaulting Jimmy’s career to the next level. And that’s kind of funny, because we were something of a ragtag group… Lenny, who was the leader, was not a good bass player at all. Reid was a fine drummer, I was a very mediocre pianist and Jimmy was easily the reason we ever had the job in the first place. I remember his trumpet playing being somewhere between Miles Davis and Freddy Hubbard, and I loved it! As entertainers, we know that the vocalists are the key to most successful groups, and of course that was true at Mother’s as well. But I so loved our instrumentals! When we started our sets with one or two instrumentals, there was always this subtle peaceful feeling in the room, which was usually full, as if everyone there knew they were in the right place at the right time. I certainly was! That Mother’s was the coolest place I ever played, and it basically shot Jimmy and me out into the larger world! Remember, I was 28 at the time and Jimmy was 29!
Buck Spurr, Jimmy’s manager, set Jimmy up with a lot of fine opportunities, some of which turned out beautifully. Probably the best one was an audition on the Merv Griffin Show, which emanated from New York back then. Merv loved Jimmy, featured him on 13 of his shows in a 6-month period, and sponsored Jimmy’s first album, with the featured song being, “Dock Of The Bay.” I was hired to do the band arrangements for the album, and it was a pretty good first album for Jimmy, though not what we’d hoped for. We began learning right away that the higher up the ladder Jimmy climbed, the more control He lost. He wasn’t able to choose the “single release” song from the album, and after the poor marketing attempt on it, Buck and some new people he had hooked up with decided Jimmy needed to be a pop star, rather than a jazz entertainer. That was a good decision, for many reasons, as Jimmy was nothing if not versatile. He sang all the hits of the day beautifully, and in truth, needed only his own great song to hit it big. For whatever reason, he never got that song until years later, when he recorded “Gonna Make You An Offer You Can’t Refuse” in Europe. It hit, finally, but I didn’t even know about it until years later.
The time we worked together at Mother’s, and after that, is the time with Jimmy I remember so clearly. Let me tell you a little more about Jimmy Helms. He was one of those “larger than life” personalities who didn’t immediately dominate a room, but sneaked up on you, until you knew you were in the presence of a special, a unique and quietly powerful individual. He had style, personality, taste, a good sense of humor, and with all that, a sense of sincerity that I continue to believe to this day. You don’t meet people like Jimmy every day. I know… I’ve met maybe a dozen or so in my lifetime, I’m sure you have, too. I knew he was special right away, but he put me at ease so quickly that I took our ensuing experiences nearly for granted from time to time, for this became, for me, simply life with Jimmy Helms!
Doing the album with him was fun, of course, but it was the trips to New York that are so burned into my memory. I still can’t think of them without smiling. He began doing the Merv Griffin shows, and after the first one, I didn’t fly down to New York with him for those. But some of the other trips, god… where to start? Ah, the broadway audition that I’ve already mentioned in an earlier story… you remember, meeting Diahann Carroll, being at the New York Playboy club and all that… we were temporarily in the care of the pianist-arranger-writer Warren Myers, who knew New York backward and forward and really showed it off to us. He was supposed to play Jimmy’s audition for the lead in the play “The Golden Boy” but told me to go ahead and play it… he had played hundreds of Broadway auditions and they were a piece of cake. And so I did.
The thing that sticks with me that day is how big that Broadway stage was. Don’t remember the name of the theater, but when I began playing the intro to Jimmy’s song, he started walking out on the stage, then realized he was never going to make it to the middle by the time he started singing, so he trotted and skipped out to the middle and even then, barely made it. I was playing his intro from the piano at the side, and remember thinking, “Oh shit, this is really the big time! Even the size of the stage is challenging!”
Then there was the audition for the Johnny Carson show. There were 25-30 people in the audience on the Carson set, and maybe 4 or 5 acts auditioning. Jimmy did his song and was great, as always. I felt we had a good chance of getting on it, as we sit down in the front row to see the other auditions. Jerry Jeff Walker walked out on the stage, white shirt, black vest, jeans, a black silk top hat… and a cute little black and white spotted dog. Jerry Jeff sang his version of “Mister Bo Jangles” just like he always did, and I was unimpressed. Jerry Jeff tipped his top hat ever so lightly, and the little dog, sitting at his side, stood up and followed him off the stage. I turned to Jimmy, who had this strange smile on his face.
“We just lost it,” he said quietly, still smiling that amused, sad smile.
“What? You were way better!”
“No, man, you don’t get it. It was the dog. The dog killed us!”
And he was right. Jerry Jeff got the slot.
During this “New York” period, Jimmy got an audition for Columbia record execs, so we flew down from Boston to the Columbia offices in New York. They set us up in a carpeted conference room, no mic, just Wurlitzer electric piano, bass and Jimmy! The highlight of that audition was the bassist they pulled in for us – Joe Benjamin, who, they said, was a fine upright bass player who played in a lot of Broadway productions in town. Well. That wasn’t the half of it… we found out later that Joe had played with over 24 big names as a bassist on their albums. Names like Duke Ellington, Dave Brubeck, Clark Terry, Sarah Vaughn, Carmen McRae… in hindsight, we should have guessed how good he was, by the way he handled us when he showed up.
We got tuned up and ready while the suits were getting seated, then Joe pulled us aside. “Look here, gentlemen, we going to make this audition pop, all right? And here’s what we need to do – we need to play quietly, okay, this is about Jimmy, not us… we’re just here to help him sound great. So here’s what we need to do,” he whispered, holding his fingers about two inches apart, “We need to cook… about this far above the carpet.” And with his exceptional playing, we did exactly that!
Jimmy didn’t get signed that day, but it was no surprise, as we were still thinking Jimmy was a jazz star, rather than a pop star. Any fool should have been able to see that Jimmy’s talent fell right into the pop world, but I’ve never known any record exec to be that bright, or that imaginative. My experience with them was that you had to hit them in the face with monstrous talent until their noses bled, then maybe they’d consider you.
There were so many good times with Jimmy Helms. He could party, and he could take care of business, when necessary. Buck Spurr booked us into a huge retirement center one weekend up on the coast of Maine, a monstrous Victorian mansion right on the water’s edge… a one-evening concert. Jimmy & I had gotten two fine dates for the evening. He was escorting a beautiful Asian girl and I had brought a black model, Veda, who was a striking girl, as tall as I. We invited them to drive up to Maine with us for our evening concert, and they agreed. We got up there at dusk, and changed into our tuxes in the parking lot. The ladies were willing to wait in the car for us, the “concert” was only to be an hour long, but Jimmy invited them in to sit over on the side. Well. I’ll never forget it.
We got our ladies seated over against the wall near the door. And what a scene it was. There was a huge grand piano in the middle of a grand ballroom, lid closed with a big bouquet of roses sitting on it. There were nearly a hundred old, extremely wealthy, white folk in the audience, who had no idea what was in store for them. The grand piano was in perfect tune, and Jimmy knew just what to do. He introduced us, and began calling tunes he knew his audience knew, and would love. He didn’t do them jazzy, just pretty much straight, with a voice I hadn’t heard before. It was clear, beautiful vibrato, excellent diction, a sort of classical Jimmy Helms. And of course, I followed suit, playing the songs more straight, a bit more dramatic when Jimmy amped up. Early on it was evident that our “difficult” audience warmed to us and was loving it… Jimmy stood in front of the grand, his hands cupped in front of him, like an opera singer, which I’d never seen him do before. With every song the applause grew and we knew Jimmy had them. What I remember so clearly is the audience… their tentative applause after the first few songs, then their enthusiastic acceptance of Jimmy’s beautiful voice, then their growing curiosity about the two young women seated by the door. After four or five songs, i noticed the audience beginning to look to us, then to our ladies, then back to us, and watching them was like watching a tennis match… trying to be attentive to us, then taking a peek at the girls, which you can’t do without turning your head when you’re old… then back to us. God only knows what they were thinking! One thing for sure, they enjoyed the evening, and let us know it at the end.
We changed back into our street clothes in the parking lot again and headed back down to Boston. Jimmy had a hot little red car that would book, and we flew back to Mass. at over 90 mph, knowing there was a party on Cape Cod that we were missing. We rolled into Pleasant Bay, just outside Chatham, about 2 a.m. The party was in full swing on the beach, and Jimmy’s arrival picked it up a notch! It was a day & night to remember.
Here is Jimmy’s take on some of the times he remembers of Boston. I’m delighted that he’s willing to share his thoughts and memories.
“When the hot spots like Mother’s kicked everybody out for the night, the Pioneer Club was THE go-to spot after hours. Singers, musicians and punters of every stripe came to jam – in every sense of the word – until the break of dawn.
“Across the street from the Pioneer was a popular jazz club called Stella’s Music Bar. Stella’s featured live music – organ trios like Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff … Brother Jack McDuff…
“Jumper, bartender at the Pioneer Club, tended bar at Stella’s every night, and there was a beautiful young lady named Alyse Janez waiting tables. Alyse showed me the ropes. My Big Sister. Jumper and Alyse would close shop at Stella’s and hop it across the street to pull the all-night shift at the Pioneer.
“Alyse was always saying what an amazing drummer her son, Tony was. Tony’s dad , a sax player, would sneak Tony into nightclubs and let him sit in on drums. One night, Alyse came in dancing for joy: Miles Davis had just asked her son to join his band. Wow! Tony Williams, just 17 years old, was going to record and tour with Miles Davis! That news fired me up something fierce. Anything and everything was possible.
“Maybe opportunity doesn’t knock…Maybe you gotta do the knocking…
“Soon after that, “Big Sis” Alyse asked me for my phone number. I was shy, not used to pretty ladies asking for my number. So yeah, I was chuffed – but for the wrong reason, it turned out.
“Next day my phone rang. “ Hi, that Jimmy?…” “Ah… yeah, who dat?…” I slurred back, through a sleepy fog. “My name is George… George Benson… I’m a jazz guitarist, in town with Brother Jack McDuff , gigging at Stella’s. This lady named Alyse gave me your number. I’m leaving McDuff to start my own band. I’ve got a record deal on the table, but I‘m lookin’ for a male singer to front the band ‘cos I’m not that good of a singer. It’s writing, recording and touring. You interested?”
“To think I passed on that offer from George Benson… Regrets? Not for a second. But that’s not the point.
“What’s interesting is: It’s hard to imagine there was a time when George Benson was not confident in his singing. Somewhere along the way he found his voice. And boy, when he did!….
You never know until you try…”
The Beginning Of The End
The music biz is deceptively simple and deceptively complex. For Jimmy and me, his steps toward stardom became steps that would separate us. It was a natural evolution, and I should have seen it coming. But I saw Jimmy as a great jazz talent, and thought he could make a great career out of a vocalist/trumpet player, which he could have. He was, to me, what George Benson would become some years later. But the money was in pop; the people around him knew it, and they knew he could do it. Buck booked him on a tour in Australia, and I wasn’t invited. That ended our working relationship, but not our friendship.