Remembering Rufus Thomas and Prince at the New Daisy

Thank you for a funky time.

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Prince, not at the New Daisy
  • Prince, not at the New Daisy
Pictures or it didn't happen. Isn't that what they say these days? But mobile phones didn't have cameras in 1997. And even if they did have cameras back then, I didn't own a mobile, and wouldn't for another five years. I didn't own a camera either, and the phone I answered that sweaty August morning was attached to the wall of my townhouse in the Greenlaw neighborhood, which was three years away from its rechristening as Uptown. My friend Kelly was calling because she had news she thought I'd want to know. 

"PRINCE IS PLAYING A SECRET CONCERT AT THE NEW DAISY TONIGHT OMG!," she said. Well, she didn't say "OMG." Nobody said OMG back then. But that was the gist.

Kelly didn't have details. She didn't know when it would happen, or how much it would cost. She wasn't  100% sure it was even happening, or if Prince was really playing a second show or just hanging out while someone else played. But she was 99% sure something involving Prince was happening, which was good enough for me since he was definitely playing a concert at the Bass Pro Shop formerly known as the Pyramid, and the last time Kelly was 99% sure about something the two of us went to the Peabody Hotel, called the front desk from a pay phone, asked for Tom Waits' room, and Tom answered. So, as far as I was concerned, Prince was absolutely playing the New Daisy at some point in the next 24-hours, and I was going to go stand in front of the theater so I could be the first person in the door. There was only one problem: My mom was in town for a rare visit. 
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Time for an aside: There will be plenty of tributes in the days and weeks to come, where people attest to the genius of Prince Rodgers Nelson, who changed ideas about music, sex, and masculinity every bit as much David Bowie, and brought race, and sonic segregation to the mix. I'm not going to do that here, because if you're reading this, you already know. But "Sexy Motherfucker," was playing on the jukebox at Wolf's Corner (now American Apparel) the night the 500 lb woman fell down. She'd been having a good time (like the rest of us) and shaking that ass (like the rest of us), and then that ass shook (and cleared) the dance floor. This is that kind of story. 

"Go," my mom said, without hesitation or even a hint of mom guilt. She already had a 20-dollar bill rolled up, and was sneaking it in my hand. See, my mom stalked Bob Dylan in New York in the 1960's. She says she wasn't stalking anybody, she just knew all the coffee houses where Dylan hung out to stare at his boots, and sometimes she'd go stare at him. I say "semantics." Either way, when it comes to musically cool moms, she makes Starlord's look like a poser. She grew up in Motown, collected records, and met musicians. She's got stories about Freddy and the Dreamers and introduced me to the Nashville Teens and tons of great garage bands. When other moms were using the TV as a baby sitter, she gave me a stack of Federal singles and a record player and didn't say, "sit still." Now she was giving me Prince — and a little spending money just in case I needed something. "Here you go, honey. Have a good time."

All that remains is the memory of a grin so big it threatened to crack my face. And a similar memory of so many other people wearing the same dopy expression.
And so it came to pass, my wife Charlotte, (who was still my girlfriend Charlotte) and I, left mom at home and headed toward Beale St. where we stood and waited for hours for something that might not happen. We weren't the first to arrive, but we were among the first. We certainly weren't the last, and over the course of the day the crowd outside the Daisy swelled into a mob. Then the mob grew into an impatient crush, pushing at times against the theater doors. It was pretty clear everybody wasn't getting in.

I'd never "camped out" for tickets before. But this was different. It was important. Charlotte and I had both grown up in small towns in the 1980's, without a lot of access to any new music other than what was being played on increasingly corporate radio stations. It's almost impossible to explain to anybody who's grown up with the internet, and instant access to everything, just how fresh the opening guitar lick of "When Doves Cry" sounded, as it squalled through the speakers of my cheap SoundDesign boom box. 

Lots of songs have stopped me in my tracks. But only twice in my life has a new song I heard on a top 40 radio station made me stop everything I was doing and give it my full attention. "When Doves Cry," is the least interesting story, but it's the only one I'm telling. I was in my bedroom doing homework when it played on KQ101, a station out of Russellville, KY. The other song was, "Little Red Corvette."

It was late when the line outside the New Daisy finally started moving.  I don't remember what time it was, but the sun was down. People who were tired of standing cheered because it was really happening. We were all about to see Prince tear a club to pieces.

Rufus
  • Rufus
Words like "magic" are overused, but there was alchemy involved in what happened next. Miracles were wrought. Wearing shiny lavender jammies Prince owned the stage, running through songs like "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker," "Baby I'm a Star," and "1999." He covered James Brown, Parliament, and the Staples singers. The highlight of the show, however, was when Prince — always the biggest star in the room— introduced his special guest: 80-year-old Stax royalty, Rufus Thomas, who made his supremely groovy appearance in shorts and knee socks. Then the unflappable Purple one proceeded to nerd the hell out, saying he didn't want his time on stage with Rufus to end.

There was conflict too. And drama! Thomas, who was grooving along with the band, didn't seem to be clear as to what was expected from him. When Prince encouraged him to cut loose and freestyle, he balked: "Oh no." There was a back and forth. Something was said about "nursery rhymes," and then, with increasing confidence, the two men started improvising together. I wish I could tell you what was said and sung, but the details have slipped (or were possibly sipped) away. All that remains is the memory of a grin so big it threatened to crack my face. And a similar memory of so many other people wearing the same dopy expression.
So, about "
Caption story: I was not quite 16 when Purple Rain hit movie theaters. That meant I was unable to see an R-rated film without my parents. So I bought a ticket for Meatballs 2 and snuck in. To this day I've still never seen Meatballs 2.
  • Caption story: I was not quite 16 when Purple Rain hit movie theaters. That meant I was unable to see an R-rated film without my parents. So I bought a ticket for Meatballs 2 and snuck in. To this day I've still never seen Meatballs 2.
Little Red Corvette." I heard it for the first time on my first ever "parking" date with an older woman (she was 16). Now that sounds like a lie because "Little Red Corvette" is a song about  riding around and "parking" with an experienced (ahem) driver. This isn't a teen bragging story though, because nothing happened. Some kissing almost happened, I guess, but before it could really happen I turned up the radio, and said I wanted to listen. To the whole song. In silence. And that's when I learned  you're not supposed to ignore your date, especially if she has the drivers license and the car. Cue Floyd Cramer.

I really wasn't going to tell the parking story because it sounds too perfect to be true. But I needed a way to wrap this memory up, and sometimes the universe gives you weird little gifts. Sometimes it's "Little Red Corvette" on a first date. Sometimes you find yourself front and center for something amazing nobody else will ever get to see. Like the night the 500 lb woman fell down while dancing to the jukebox at Wolf's Corner. Or the time Prince and Rufus Thomas got funky together on Beale St.

I've got no pictures, but I swear to God, Wendy, and Lisa too, it happened. You'll just have to believe me, and and the few hundred other people lucky enough to be there. 

And that's really all I have to say about that. Goodnight, sweet Prince. Rest in Purple. And if you think about it, say hey to Rufus.  
 
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