Or, that time I learned to play piano deep in the  pocket of a second line groove

Monday, Oct. 1, 2012

Like a hungry hammer finds a perfect nail, Egan and the Yat found Shreveport’s Krewe of Centaur Parade of 2012. If you’re a professional in any field, it’s always a huge fulfillment to find yourself in a situation where your talents, peculiar or specialized as they may be, are precisely what that situation calls for.

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         The author, left, and "the Y'at" back in the day

Back in 1987, drummer and brick mason Mike Sipos moved from his hometown of New Orleans to Shreveport in a futile attempt at keeping his marriage together. He wandered into Musicians Local 116 and fatefully found Bruce Gay rehearsing one of his blues bands. Picking up on Mike’s accent and hearty workingman’s demeanor, Bruce quickly dubbed him “the Yat.” His astounding beats, lilting with that funky Crescent City slant, were unlike anything we had in Shreveport. As far as Shreveport drummers go, it was like Jimi Hendrix showing up in London. But this was no London, only funky old Shreveport where Hendrix, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell were once refused service at Murrell’s Diner. Emphatically refused.

A-Train was over, at least for me. I was wounded and sucker-punched over that deal, no money, no prospects. But I was in on a rehearsal with Bruce Gay and Yat, held in some funky hole-in-the-wall bar in the part of town known as “the bottoms,” the part of town where your mama wished you wouldn’t go. We were drinking what the regulars drank, “Bull” on the house. Business was slow, just a few stragglers in the dead of a Saturday afternoon. One old guy who looked like he had been maintaining a buzz for the last month or so gleefully marched back and forth, repeatedly, maniacally to and fro, to the raw sounds of our debut rehearsal. If we wanted another “Bull” we had only to wake up the bartender, whose face was planted on the bar top.

At some point, Yat hit another one of his infectious second-lines. I applied a Fess lick I had been trying to learn, and eventually started singing “Battle of New Orleans.” I don’t quite know where that came from, except that I had spent hours as a kid sitting on a tall wooden fence singing that song over and over to myself. It felt so good at the rehearsal, with that groove, that we jammed on it for a very long time. Yat would set up these huge kicks that you could see coming six bars before it got there — and then, the big payoff: Ka-BOOM! We were onto something. Excuse me, Bartender…

Just then, singer Dorothy Prime walked in and announced that we would be backing her up, opening for the great Johnny Taylor across the street at the mammoth 3-D Club, starting in just a couple of hours. Well, alright. Might even be a few bucks to be had. It would be a fairly short set. We knew a few of Dorothy’s songs — “I’d Rather Go Blind,” “Down Home Blues” and so on. We would also unleash our “Battle of New Orleans.” That was a given.

Our set went well enough — we rolled and tumbled on through. Dorothy was a local pint-sized bundle o’ dynamite. At least she was “on” this particular night. And we couldn’t wait to hear what she would say next, being from that chitlin’ circuit school of lying your ass off on stage.  “David has been my pianist for many years, and has traveled all over the world with me. He has worked with B.B. King, Freddie King, Albert King, Billie Jean King and ... and ... Elton John!” That old school chitlin’ diva practice of bringing the band down and talking for 10 minutes while we softly vamp: “You know, the last thing Otis Redding told me from his deathbed before he took his last breath…” Maybe she forgot about that plane crash. Lies, all lies, but what a great big ol’ heart.

Johnny Taylor was what this crowd was all about. And he killed it. He stood majestically at the very front of the stage, a hoard of devoted female fans at his feet, reaching out, trying to touch him, as he ad-libbed to a slow blues, “Please don’t do it, please don’t do it, pleased don’t do it, please, please, please don’t do it ... Please don’t tear my _______ pants off!”

Hard times called for low overhead, and after a few failed bands, Yat and I formed a duo and called it Egan and the Yat. We had some fleeting moments of glory, but often played for crowds of two and four. Once, we headed out for a run to Fort Smith, Fayetteville, Little Rock and Memphis with bald tires, no credit cards and barely 20 bucks between us. We had a hundred, but Dorothy Prime called us right as we were leaving town and said she needed 80 bucks. It was some kind of dire emergency. We could see she was in deep trouble and we never asked her what the trouble was. We just gave her the damn money and headed out of town. Jake and Elwood would have approved.

There was a big upside to all of this. Gigging with only piano and drums, I had to learn a great deal about playing the piano, without leaning on an entire band. I studied up on my Dr. John, Fess, Fats and at least started to aspire to some James Booker. I had to learn to play bass, rhythm and lead, all on the piano — a far cry from playing one-handed organ parts to “Midnight Hour.” My boogie-woogie improved. “Big Chief,” “Iko Iko,” “Such a Night” and countless others became second nature. And with my pal the Yat laying down those backbeats and having my back, I learned the important principle of how drums and piano can basket weave and work together. A mighty musical handshake, spanning from Shreveport to New Orleans, would seal a lifelong friendship.

Yat plays in my present band, whenever I can pull it all together and make it worth everyone’s while. He plays a crucial part in the way my records sound. He stood up for me at my wedding, talks politics with my wife and football with my kid.

At the Krewe of Centaur Parade, we put piano, drums and P.A. on a small float. In freezing, bitter cold weather, we bundled up, with my bead-tossing son in tow, and played those second lines like no one in Shreveport could begin to play, at least not that night. The gig is definitely clenched for 2013 and beyond. We may not have made such a stir in New Orleans, but for what it was worth, it was Mardi Gras in Shreveport and on this night, we were the Kings of the Beat. The parade goers were absolutely freaked out, dancing like they had been liberated, like it was some kind of serpentine gris-gris pow-wow. There were other bands-on-floats — country bands, Skynyrd cover bands and such, but Egan and the Yat brought them what they needed and what they craved, a perfect hammer for their nail. Too cold to take a break, we just kept playing. It was “Big Chief,” “Second Line,” “Iko Iko” and just a few others, in an endless loop for four hours, a new audience every thirty seconds. We had to change it up for our own sakes, each selection seeming to have a distinct, marked effect on the crowd.

You should have seen that crowd when we hit “Battle of New Orleans.” I think Johnny Horton had to have been smiling while Jimmy Driftwood tapped his feet.

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