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A Hard Rock New Year’s Memory

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We're into that twilight week of the year, also known as the 'taint of the calendar: 'Taint Christmas and it 'taint New Years. Since it's the season to be jolly and the news is so grim, I'd like to tell you about one memorable New Year's Eve. I must preface the story by admitting that Isaac Tigrett and I have been friends since high school. My band used to drive up to Jackson to play at his fraternity parties. I say this both because the event occurred at the New York Hard Rock Café, and it's not my intention to drop names until later in the column. 

The Hard Rock was Isaac's creation, and I was invited to celebrate the New York restaurant's first anniversary and New Year's festivities. I was invited to the opening, but I had an anxiety disorder and had trouble enough going to Kroger, much less flying to a packed-out gala event with a bunch of strangers. But this time, I was given an offer I couldn't refuse — Isaac was sitting next to me on the airplane.

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We reached New York and headed for the car rentals, where Isaac tossed two premium credit cards on the counter, turned to me and said, "Do you have any cash? I don't have any money." I was housed in the same building where Isaac had an apartment overlooking the Hard Rock's Cadillac entrance, so he could watch the lines outside and harass the doorman.

New York at Christmas is beautiful, with lighted ornaments dangling over 57th Street like giant snowflakes. When I first walked into the Hard Rock, I was so overwhelmed, I had to open my eyes wider to take it all in. Several of the old Soul Revue posters from the '60s that I'd loaned Isaac were duplicated and hanging prominently on the wall, and climbing up to second floor, there was a giant picture of Little Richard with the tiny inscription, "To Randy, with love."

When I asked Isaac how he got away with making duplicates of what might be considered copywrited material, he said, "I just keep doing it until someone tells me to quit." Ernest Wither's iconic photo of B.B. King and Elvis was prominently placed in a double-arched, gilded, antique frame with a plaque above that read, "The Two Kings."

I began to feel at home. Even the barbecue was cooked low and slow. I linked up with a group of my Jackson buddies who had made the trip and joined their party for the celebration. There must have been about seven of us, all single men, and we were Isaac's guests for New Years' Eve. The problem was, we were guests at what turned out to be a private party.

We were seated at a large table on the main floor, while the entire upstairs, and the rest of the restaurant for that matter, had been rented to the actor George Segal and his guests for the night. I loved Segal in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but he had this other shtick where he'd go on the Johnny Carson show and play the banjo. That would be bad enough, but he played songs like "Alexander's Ragtime Band," and other favorite minstrel songs of the South including, "Rufus Rastus Johnson Brown," a real rib-tickler.

Unfortunately, Segal was the entertainment for the evening. He had hired a trio consisting of piano, bass, and drums. I was just hoping they were being well-paid. I showed up in a suit and tie, but the Jackson boys were all in tuxedoes. Isaac kept bringing different women over for introductions because every time he did, we all stood in unison like gentlemen. The New York ladies were goggle-eyed. Some laughed, some were bemused, and some stared at us like we were vestiges of some lost civilization.

When Segal began regaling the assembly with "If You Knew Susie," his guests listened in rapt attention while we decided it was time to start drinking heavily. I should add here that I don't drink. Lord knows I've tried to be a proper drunk, but it just doesn't work for me. However, this time, the champagne was flowing, and I didn't want to be antisocial, which is another way of saying that I got lampshade-on-the-head, knocked-out loaded.

When Segal rejoined his party, the trio began playing some cool jazz, and I was suddenly hoisted from my seat from behind and propelled toward the stage. The musicians eyeballed each other warily, but the boss wanted his buddy to sing. I ran through the Rolodex of songs in my head and came up with Ray Charles' "I Got a Woman," and the crowd woke up. The bass player said, "Hey man, that was great. Let's do another one." He was sort of a goofy-looking guy with a big smile, a childlike face, and a baseball cap that he wore backwards. I chose B.B. King's "Rock Me Baby," because it only has three chords and I didn't want to confuse the musicians. We got such big applause that Segal bounded down the stairs and told the band to take a break. My new musical pal turned to shake my hand and said, "I enjoyed that. My name's Jaco Pastorius." I was sitting next to the bassist for the jazz-fusion group Weather Report — one of the greatest innovators in the history of the bass guitar. He turned to the drummer, "This is Jim Keltner," who had only worked with everyone from John Lennon to Elvis. The frail-looking gentleman at the piano with the receding hair and braided ponytail was Bob Dorough. Only recently, a friend had given me a tape of his early bebop music, and I gushed, "Mr. Dorough, we sure know you in Memphis."

Somehow, I managed to crawl back to my room at sunrise, still amazed that Segal had hired some of the finest musicians in the world to accompany him on "Ain't She Sweet." The following New Year's Eve, Segal didn't play at the Hard Rock. I did. But that's another story.

Randy Haspel writes the "Recycled Hippies" blog, where a version of this column first appeared.

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