This is for a dear friend of mine in Atlanta who we just lost. My Atlanta pals will
understand this very well.
Billy Degnats was a great drummer… world class. And some of us knew he was
an even better person than he was a drummer. His wife, Suzanne, has beautifully
given us an insight into Billy’s personal life and a few of his habits and sayings.
I love knowing all that about Billy… so much so that I want to tell about the
humorous side of Billy that I came to know pretty well during our times of
playing gigs together. This is not an attempt to replace our pain with humor,
but to add to the many quality dimensions we already know about our friend
and inspiration, Billy The Drummer, and Billy The Man.
Billy and I played a gig down at the Tropicana Hotel, on W. Peachtree, back in
’75 – ’76. It was an “end of the year” party for a bowling league. There were
women and men, black and white. The band was Billy and me… I don’t remember
who the horn player or bass player was. Some cheap-looking ’50’s white woman
who was obviously drumk came up and asked us for a tune. We didn’t know it, and it
pissed her off. She started yelling at us. I remember telling her to back off, that none
of us had ever heard of her song. Evidently my response failed to please her for she
tossed her drink on me. it went all over me and my Wurlitzer. Then a black guy
jumped up and grabbed her from behind. A couple of white guys pushed him
away from her and she fell into Billy’s drums, knocking him and half his set over.
I remember us laughing about it later… seems like the whole room cleared in less than
a minute… and there we were, looking at each other, not believing what had just
happened, me all wet and Billy’s drums lying in a heap on the floor. I don’t remember
what he said at the time, other than we were laughing about it as we packed up. He
could have said, “Well, I guess our work here is done.” I know he didn’t forget that
strange evening, because at the next gig we played together, we got all set up, then he
looked at me, grinned and said, “Think I oughta just throw myself into my set and
get it over with early?”
Then there was the John Magaldi gig we played in the ballroom of that big hotel
(now a TBS building) on Spring St. It was a formal, afternoon affair, and we were at
the end of the room, up on a stage. Magaldi was a mediocre sax player, a better
booking agent. He was usually the front man, called the tunes, booked many of our
gigs and paid us fairly. Anyway, some time in the second set this older matronly
woman came up, waved her arms, and said,”Play Jeremiah Was A Bullfrog!”
(Which is, of course, “Joy To The World.” Back then, if someone would have asked
us to play “Joy To The World,” we would’ve been stumped for a minute. It was usually,
“Hey, play that Jeremiah song!”)
John looked down at her and said, “Lady, we just finished playing that song for the
last 10 minutes!”
She goes, “Well, I didn’t hear it, so play it again!” Rude, rude, rude.
Magaldi looked at at her for a few moments, then started barking at her.
“Arf! Arf! Arf arf arf arf arf arf!”
She got this horrified look on her face, turned around and disappeared into the crowd.
We never saw her again. For the rest of the gig we were laughing about it until a
wimpy-looking assistant manager came up to us and said, “That lady over there says
you barked at her… that you barked like a dog! We want you guys to stop barking!”
Billy never forgot that day, and for the next year or so, whenever we were playing a
a Magaldi gig, at some point Billy would say, “Hey John… bark like a dog!”
We had so many laughs together during those years, god, I wish I could remember
more of them.
For the last year or so I was in Atlanta, we had a fairly regular trio gig at the
Intercontinental Hotel in Beautiful Uptown Buckhead, with Paul Miller on bass and
Billy on drums. The only slightly negative word we ever had between each other
happened one evening at the Intercontinental. We were between songs, and I called
for the old big band tune, “Cute.” The tune was designed to feature the drummer, and
I thought Billy could shine on it. But he looked over at me and said, “Hey man, can
we not play that tune? Anything else, great… I just can’t stand that tune!”
So we didn’t play it and I haven’t played it since. And won’t.
Another memorable occasion at the Intercontinental came one evening in the form
of the largest tip I ever got in over 40 years of playing. There was this guy, a known
name in TV land, who used to show up at the Intercontinental every month or so, have
some drinks, listen to us play, always with a good-looking hooker at his side. How do
I know she was a hooker? Musicians know these things. And the proof of that came
one night when he was there with two beautiful ladies on his arm… now you tell me…
they were all laughing over in the corner of the room and having a good time. One
of the beauties came over to the piano and sweetly asked, “Can you play Blue Moon
for me? It’s my favorite song…”
Strange request for a jazz trio, but I said sure, knowing the guy and remembering he’d
tipped us before. She thanked us and dropped a $50 bill on the piano. Needless to say,
we played Blue Moon with considerable feeling. Before that set was even over, she
came back over to the piano, leaned over and asked, “Will you play Blue Moon again
I was mulling it over when she dropped three crisp one hundred dollar bills on the
piano in front of me. I stared at them and probably stammered something stupid like,
“Why sure, ma’m, darn tootin’! I think we can scratch up a little Blue Moon fer ya… “
and we played a long and meaningful Blue Moon for her before ending one of the
most memorable sets I ever played.
On the break I distributed the bounty between the guys, saying that’s the first time
I ever got more than 50 bucks for a single tune. Billy smiled and said, “Yeah man,
and that’s the first time I ever played Blue Moon twice in one night… and in the
After the gig that night we were still laughing about it as we packed up. Paul was
wondering if it was the guy’s money or the hookers’ money. I thought it was probably
the guy who tipped us. Billy was laughing. “Well, if it wasn’t, man, then maybe we
should all have been hookers!”
One of the best recordings I have of Billy’s exceptional playing is on the CD
“Warhorse, and Other Stories” by the Rick Bell Quintet, available on Amazon.
The album features a great Atlanta group, with some original material and excellent
recorded quality. I love this album… it’s ‘real’ jazz, classy from top to bottom, just
So I guess, Billy, that you left us with so many good memories while teaching us,
through the fun and laughter, about quality, and integrity, and consistency. You had
all that in spades, man, and showed us that it is possible to emulate those qualities
every day of our lives. I think you quietly taught us all that, Billy, and if so, then I
think I can say, with a tear and a smile, that your work here is truly done.