Leland Sklar is a recording session bassist. He has recorded and toured with artists such as James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt, Phil Collins, Toto, Lyle Lovett and others. You can hear and see a wonderful interview with him here –
I mention him to you because he said what I thought was a most interesting thing… “If this moment was the last moment of my career, it’s really good.” And he went on – “You know, those moments when you pinch yourself, those little nuggets in your life that are really precious.”
He told the story about how he once worked with Donald O’Connor and Mel Torme on a Christmas TV show. After, he said, “They were both sitting in the dressing room, and I said, ‘If I die on the way home, it’s okay/‘“
Ever had a moment like that? I’m sure you have, and they are precious, aren’t they? “Course it’s a little easier if one is in the entertainment biz, as the chance for memorable encounters is much more likely. Award ceremonies are a natural, especially if you win. Certain social occasions can surprise you, a chance meeting with someone you admire. Even the often random seating on a plane… things can happen that you never forget. There should be, if there isn’t, a secret compartment for all those treasured moments, when life has just dealt us a handful of shit and we’re not dealing with it well. At that moment, we would rush to that secret compartment if, for no other reason than to remind ourselves that life isn’t always like this… that it can be equally magical and memorable.
No, you probably didn’t ask me to share a few of mine with you, but I’m going to anyway. These aren’t name-dropper stories, just memories that sit in my “precious vault” and occasionally surface… like now.
Mom, Dad and I were fishing the Upper Ruby River in SW Montana (where we lived for many years) one afternoon. Mom had to go back to the Land Cruiser for sandwiches, and Dad and I stayed where we were and kept fishing… we were killing them. Both our creels were full of Native Rainbow, but we kept fishing. After all, this was back in the early ’70’s, when the limit was still 10 fish apiece. In the ’50’s and ’60’s it was always 15.
Anyway, before Mom could get back to us, a typical Montana storm blew in. The wind blew like hell, the temp dropped about 10 degrees and the raindrops felt as big as golf balls. The harder the wind blew, the colder the rain felt. We crawled under a big bush to try to get out of the worst of it, and sat there, huddled and wet. As I wrote later in my book, “I Didn’t Come Here And I’m Not Leaving,” we were talking about something, and finally I had to say, “ My god, I’m so cold my teeth are chattering.”
Dad smiled over at me, drenched himself. “It is a chilly little bastard, isn’t it?”
I tried to smile back. “And you know,” I shivered, “If it wasn’t for this frigid rain, I’d be having one of the best times of my life.”
“Yeah,” Dad chuckled, water dripping off the end of his big nose. “And the funny thing is, years from now when you remember this, the goddamn rain will be one of the best parts.”
And he was right.
At a bar in SW Montana, back around 1974, I bellied up one afternoon for a cold one, and down there about three stools away sat a cowboy that I instantly recognized.
Short aside here – my dad was the county sheriff at the time, and he had pointed out certain people in our bar from time to time… people who had broken the law, maybe had spent time in the pen. He recognized many of them, partly because he had their pictures on the wall of the sheriff’s office, and partly because he made periodic rounds to a kind of halfway house down in the Ruby Valley, called the Gilbert ranch.
At the time, the Gilbert ranch was set up to house recently-released prisoners from the Montana penitentiary in Deer Lodge. Dad would cruise by there occasionally, to let them all know he knew who they were, and why they were there.
That cowboy down the bar was one of them, and Dad had pointed him out to me in our bar once. Anyway, I sipped my beer, and he sipped his, looking straight ahead. Evidently he felt my eyes on him, for he turned his head and looked right at me. His eyes were frozen cold, and I knew I had to say something. “Uh, I was just admiring your cowboy hat,” I managed.
It was a cool old straw cowboy hat, the brim formed, bent and twisted into a unique cowboy look I had not seen before. I was trying to think of something else to say to diffuse his eyes and my apprehension when he took it off and slid it down the bar to me. “Here,” he said quietly. “Take it. It’s yours.” He then turned his attention back to his beer.
I was stunned. I stopped myself from saying, “Oh, I couldn’t,” mostly because I.knew who I was dealing with at that moment. So I looked at it, and finally turned and said, “God, thanks!” I quickly finished my beer, put the cowboy hat on (which was a tick too small) and got the hell out of there. For years after that I wore that old hat on fishing trips, camping trips and fun runs up into the mountains. I saw that cowboy in our bar one more time after that. Our eyes met briefly, and I could tell he knew exactly who I was. I still have that hat.
In 1969 I was on a commuter Flight from Boston to New York. The singer I played for, Jimmy Helms, was auditioning for the road version of the play “The Golden Boy.” I was seated next to a fascinating older man, full head of white hair, an expensive suit, and… a black eye patch.
Usually I would not bother a person next to me, probably out of respect for their privacy, unless they spoke first, which he did, about halfway through the flight. “What is waiting for you in the city?”
I was surprised, but told him I was going down there to play an audition for a singer, for a Broadway play. He found that somewhat interesting, and we chatted for a few minutes. He told me he had to go to New York for a corporate board meeting, said he hated those things, but this one was necessary.
He asked me where I was from, I told him “Montana” and that I’d been to school in Boston and ended up staying there. He asked me if I missed Montana, I of course said yes. He asked me what I missed most about it. I told him, “Oh, lots of things. But mostly the mountains. I really miss the mountains.”
Looking straight ahead, he said, “The mountains should be in your mind.”
But have I ever had a nugget like Leland Sklar did, where he walked away from it thinking, “If I die now, it’s okay.” Sure, I’ve had a couple. Here’s one of my favorites. Sorry, it is a name-dropper –
I played a 5-concert tour through the South with Henry Mancini and Johnny Mathis. A lot of cool, fun things happened, a few of them I’ve already written about. This particular nugget came at the last night, at the end of the last song. Henry’s orchestra was reaching its final crescendo, when Henry quickly looked over at me and put his hand up to his mouth, as if he were yawning. I’ll never forget it. “All in a day’s work, don’t ever take it too seriously” he seemed to be joking, and saying it to me! So yes, Leland, if I had died on the way home that night, it would have been enough.