Friday, Sept. 7, 2012
|The author, left, bassist Bruce Flett and saxophonist John Howe
get instructions from Bob Hope.
It was shaping up to be the worst year ever. 1986. My precious dad was in and out of a Dallas hospital, told to “get his affairs in order.” My band, A-Train, was on the rocks and relations were more than tense. None of us was without guile. We were burnt to a crisp, each deserving to be hanged for our sins. For my own part, there was my Playboy Jr. handling of finances, my ridiculous attempts at getting rich playing the ponies, my tumultuous affair with the lead singer, my procrastination in dealing with the IRS — it had been a great, six-year run, affording incredible adventures and opportunities, but darkness was closing in.
I got an early call one Saturday, the day we would play the Independence Bowl pep rally at the Hirsch Coliseum. Every year the Bowl honored a great American. Omar Bradley, George Patton and Art Linkletter had been honored in years past. This year they would give it a twist and honor all of the Vietnam veterans.
It was our guitarist, Buddy Flett, on the phone. The way we had been at each other’s throats, he wouldn’t have been calling if it weren’t important.
Buddy informed me that Bob Hope, a former honoree himself, who had given enormous time to entertaining the troops, had just arrived in Shreveport and wanted to do his part in honoring them by doing a few numbers with us. This was a startling development, as none of us was well versed in typical Bob Hope numbers. But I was the man to call, the only band member who had spent time at music school, the one who could figure out how to play “Thanks for the Memories” and who knows what else. I was given a phone number and issued the directive, “Call Bob Hope at noon.”
I made it to Bob’s hotel suite, battery-operated mini-keyboard under my arm. He welcomed me, thanked me and put me at ease — how, I never quite understood. There was an attractive woman there, a bit past her glory days. She was introduced as one of Dean Martin’s Golddiggers. She had one of those cute model names, with the obligatory pronunciation twist. She was a little nervous. For this account, I’ll call her Dana, pronounced, of course, “Dahn-ya.”
After pleasantries, we huddled around a coffee table to figure out the keys, the parts, stops, kicks and whatever. Aside from “…Memories,” there was a shtick version of “Buttons and Bows.” When it came to Dana’s singing parts, it looked like we were in big trouble. Bob kept telling me, “No, Dave, not that key!” “No Dave, she’s got that deep, sultry voice, like Dorothy Lamour!” “Try a lower key, Dave… Sultry!” Before long, we had been through all 12 keys of the Western tonal system and it was clear that Dana was tone deaf enough to bring a moose to its knees. Bob knew that we both knew. That’s how gracious he was. He didn’t seem worried.
Bob, Dana and I rehearsed in the limo with the little keyboard all the way to the coliseum. The local media documented the entire arrival scene and our hero’s march to the stage door. I knew it had practically killed the guys to have to set up my piano rig and see me arrive like that. But they were ready and anxious for Bob and me to teach them the set.
Before the show, saxophonist John Howe asked me for my dad’s phone number at the Dallas hospital. He said he was going to ask Bob to give my dad a call. Full of venom as I was, I thought anything coming from John was a terrible idea, and he was certainly no exception from the list of people I wanted to strangle. I wrote down the number and forked it over.
To see Bob Hope working his magic on a few thousand Vietnam vets was astounding. They were in the very palm of his hand, glazed over with love, respect and delight. Dana, as Bob had known all along, was perfect for her comic role as a not-so-gifted singer, and Bob played it masterfully. He had directed Paul Griffith, our drummer, that at a certain point he would make the loudest, most obnoxious crash he could muster. When Paul delivered his mighty crash, Bob stopped everything, wheeled around and looked him up and down, feigning total astonishment as the vets roared with laughter. Old school, and without the vulgar, I tell you.
It came time for us to gently vamp on “Thanks for the Memories” as Bob gave a farewell speech to “his old friends.” He spun a loving, powerful farewell in which he cited that “of course, if the politicians would have let us do our job, we could have finished that thing in… oh… a week or so…” Again, the vets roared with appreciation. The energy in the room was enough to make heads explode. Tears were welling up in the eyes of the hard-ass soldiers as well as the musicians. The music swelled as Bob made his exit from the stage, amidst total patriotic pandemonium.
Late that night, an after-hours call from Miami was put through to my father’s room at the Morton Hospital in Dallas: “Reuben? Hey, this is Bob. Bob Hope. I just wanted to tell you, man, I had the pleasure of working with your son, David, earlier this afternoon. I just have to tell you, what a talent! And strictly pro! What a great fella. Couldn’t have done it without him…. So you flew some bombers over Italy in World War II?”
“I was a radio man on a B-26, Bob. We got shot down once, but were able to crash-land.”
“Holy Smokes. Glad you came outta that. Thanks, Reuben. Thanks for serving. And thanks for the pleasure of working with your son. What a pro!”
What a gift, to my father and to me. After a full day dedicated to bringing joy to a huge gathering of veterans, the legendary Bob Hope gave an extra few minutes to give just a little more before turning out the lights.
Old Reuben would soon depart this world. I see so much of him in the grandson he would never know.
The A-Train still gets together for an occasional reunion gig. The money’s always good. We keep in constant dialogue with one another. We laugh hard and remember the good times, forget the regrets, and feel thankful to have each other as friends — still here and still rockin’.