My brief stint as a rock ’n’ roll roadie began with a panic-induced call—and had a tenuous connection to Jerry Lee Lewis. It came about through Vance Walker, a high school classmate, and involved the Indian Rock Grill, a Rutledge Pike roadhouse that was frequently in the news for all the wrong reasons. The year was about 1967.
Vance taught himself to play guitar by listening to Chet Atkins records. By the time he graduated from East High School in 1963, he had become quite accomplished. At a Talent Day gathering in the auditorium when he was a junior, he joined three senior musicians on stage; their music had most of the student body rocking in their seats as nervous teachers and administrators squirmed. Finally, at the performance climax—an extended riff on Jimmy Reed’s blues standard, “Baby, What You Want Me to Do?”—one of the teachers went backstage and turned off the power. A near riot was averted by stern looks from principal Buford Bible, who had taken over the microphone.
But one unplugging didn’t deter Vance. He moved on to sitting in with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, playing lead for popular local singer Clifford Russell, and jamming with his older cousin, a keyboardist who was an in-demand fixture of the East Tennessee roadhouse scene, adept whether the occasion called for country, rock ’n’ roll, blues, or gospel.
A couple of years after high school, Vance’s cousin came up with a headlining job at the Indian Rock, renowned for fights and arrests and violations of liquor laws. Jerry Lee Lewis, his career then in a tailspin due to backlash because of marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, had performed there a couple of times—that was as close as the place got to positive press.
Vance’s cousin had received a Saturday-morning call from the Indian Rock’s owner—the regular band had canceled. A quartet was quickly assembled, with Vance on guitar and vocals. The group would play for the door. I got the nod because they needed someone to collect the cover charge.
Of course, I saw the call as an opportunity to be associated with rising rock ’n’ rollers, with a famous venue, and, by a dubious stretch, with Jerry Lee Lewis. “What time do I show up for the gig?” I asked, employing a term that I was sure made me appear to be a seasoned veteran of the music scene.
I helped the four unload their equipment (amplifiers, a drum set, and most notably because of its weight and awkwardness, a Hammond B3 organ with Leslie tone cabinet). After the stage was set up, I pulled a stool to the door and counted the bills I had brought along for making change. The cover charge, it was decided, would be $2.
There was time for the band to run through a couple of songs before the first customers—two women—showed up. They listened for a bit, asked me where the regular band was, and then wanted to know who the group on stage was. I told them they didn’t have a name yet. They listened for a couple more minutes, looked at each other, said something about checking out the Oak Grove, and left. The Oak Grove, which was on Asheville Highway, boasted the same kind of reputation as the Indian Rock.
The pair’s reaction, unfortunately, was a harbinger of the evening. After a couple more departures, I began distancing myself from the band, telling would-be customers that I didn’t know who they were, only that they were a last-minute substitute. I would point out that the cover was only $2.
A handful of revelers paid up and found tables. There was some dancing. Vance and the others began making their jams longer and longer as they ran out of tunes that all four were familiar with. I was adding “They don’t sound too bad on some songs” to my banter with would-be customers.
At closing time, the take totaled $22. After we had managed to get the Hammond and other equipment loaded back up, we split the money. The band members got $5 each and I was given the remaining $2. Vance and I then took our money and went to the Oak Grove, where the crowd was enjoying a classic roadhouse mix of country and rock ’n’ roll by the regular house band. The woman on the door knew Vance and generously let us in without charge, leaving us with just enough money for a good time.
Chris Wohlwend's Restless Native addresses the characters and absurdities of Knoxville, as well as the lessons learned pursuing the newspaper trade during the tumult that was the 1960s. He spent 35 years working for newspapers and magazines in Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. As an editor, he was involved in winning several national awards. He returned to Knoxville in the late 1990s and now teaches journalism part-time at the University of Tennessee. His freelance pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and numerous other publications.
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