From what I’ve learned, the inaugural New Year's gig occurred 4,000 years ago, the first new moon succeeding the Vernal equinox–late March when equal quantities of light and dark brought with it the start of a new year.
Oh, to be in Babylon for the initial band soundcheck. First night on stage, perhaps the Royal Babylonians–the same sidemen who would eventually join Guy Lombardo and stamp the annual holiday event a tiresome affair for what seemed 3,954 of those 4,000 years.
Covid mutations since 2020 have seen few musicians in play, replaced with virtual shenanigans. How pointless hosts Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen spinning CNN's ghosted annual celebratory gathering seem with so many binge choices to draw from? Well, it reads like another Covid variant has again derailed the prized gig. Another 'pack it in' occasion.
A colleague recently asked me if I missed playing New Year's Eve? I replied, “No, only the fun gigs. The three downstairs at the El Mocambo mid-‘70s and early ‘80s, and a few others scattered about.”
My first holiday gig was 1963, a sixteen-year-old looking for action—that jolt of excitement never experienced in the parent’s living room or rehearsal studio playing Chopin, Scarlatti, and Mendelssohn. I can visually recall the moment, but not the sidemen or person who hired me. I was asked to play the notes on the staff and labour through the evening–the gig a prologue to twenty-five consecutive nights out blinking at a less than full moon?
World War ll veterans, their spouses, and dates crowded the room. Sloppy drinking, folks slamming into long tables, booze left to drip and dry on a slippery concrete flooring, the meeting place of battle-wounded men and women–American Legion and Veterans of Foreign War halls. The lighting, poor. Halls lit mainly by the neon shine of Pabst Blue Ribbon, Anheuser-Busch, Schlitz signage. The drink? Mostly Falls City, Fehr’s or Oertel’s ’92 beer–local brews. None of this fazed this young, eager piano player.
Before me, reaching the length of a parish coffin, a piano—weathered, beaten down by time, negligence, and abuse. A victim never treated with respect or care in disrepair. Across the top, cigarette butts still ablaze, further wounding. "She's a real honey, isn’t she; I hope you can play, boy," says a forgotten soul, clutching three beers and a tray of shot glasses.
The ivories from left to right, discoloured, like teeth stained through poor food choices, cheap alcohol, and Lucky Strike cigarettes. Down, I press the keys. Two notes sound, eight silent. I change registers. Down go the keys. Three notes resonate, seven hushed. The woman returns with a tray jammed between arm and body, "She's a beauty, ain’t she, boy? Make some noise."
The room fills up, the band arrives, all wearing what resembles uniform Hugh Hefner's smoking jackets, ripped from the advertising pages of Playboy Magazine. Folks gather around the long picnic-like tables and begin nagging the band. "Play some Elvis?" The request was met with disdain. The band kicks in with a spirited In the Mood. Next up. "Play some Elvis!" The band kicks in with a danceable, Begin the Beguine. “Hey kid, do you know Great Balls of Fire?” The band plays Duke Ellington’s Satin Doll. So goes the night, me facing a confusing structure missing 44 of its 88 better known qualities, hands racing about the keys, searching for a sound, a more explicit representation of me and then it happens. "Hey, kid–we are going on a break. It's all you."
Alone and choking from smoke and with fire in my belly, I jump on 12 bars of two-tone blues, played much like Lawrence Welk possibly depicted on accordion and as funky as an evangelical preacher's Sunday best. White on white on white. Repeat, repeat, and repeat. Run out the clock.
"You've been working really hard, kid. Those women over there want to buy you a drink," says a waitress, pointing to a side booth. This was my cue to enter the world of mature women–goodbye high school sweetness. “Have a seat, kid. You play really fine. What can we get you?” I thought for a moment. Alcohol was forbidden in our Jesus home, as were colas and other pop, so I bust the bank. "I'll have a milk, please—a tall cold glass." My guess, the two women were in their early forties, each sporting blond bouquets atop the head - faces adorned with ink doodles. “Milk?” Both choked, spit up their drinks in an outpouring of laughter. "Honey, you're a sweet boy. Why sure, we'll buy you a cow beer. Your mama walking you home tonight?" I react in all innocence, "No, my dad is picking me up." Both pause and speak in unison, “Well, you enjoy your milk and cookies; we're looking for men.” I thought about their words and the moment, and harboured no bitterness, sense of rejection, or humiliation–my only thought - how good cold milk tasted and who’s claiming the next tune.
From there, I played mostly Catholic events, later a final affair for the local chapter of the mob, a floor above in a strip club, Iroquois Gardens, solo, grand piano placed centre of a gaming room. Let’s just say, the implements of vice were pivoted in and out–sentries stationed at every window and a ‘don’t fuck with me’ mafia doorman on a floor below - my first experience with gangsters, as we perceived them.
Throughout the after-hours gig, the beautiful people come and go. Drinks flowed like the magnificent Ohio River, only a few miles away. “Boy, you can play that piano. Can you stay another hour? Here’s an extra fifty,” my employer asks. I couldn’t call home, yet knew dad was watching outside in his van. I begged the doorman for a word with him.
"Dad, they want me to play an extra hour. What do you think?” “How much are they paying you?” he asks. “The man just gave me an extra fifty.” “What? You can stay all night if they keep paying you.” “But dad, they are gambling. What would Jesus think?" "What? Give the man the money-back–you're coming home." Oh Jesus. Next morning–breaking news. “Gambling house raided–fifty-five people taken into custody.” Damn!
Fast forward to the Elmo.
On a recent visit to the El Mocambo, I returned to the downstairs where I played many a night with my band in the '70s and '80s. None more fun than New Year's Eve. The room is now a soulless concrete tomb.
I played regularly with my soul, funk, reggae band with drummer Everton Paul, guitarist/singer Wayne McGhie, bassist George Philip, saxman Kenny Baldwin, occasionally drummer Billy Reed and keyboardist/singer Gini Grant–then at last time with Dylan/Electric Flag bassist Harvey Brooks, Atlanta soul singer Jerome Olds, guitarist Hugh Brockie, and saxman Rick Morrison. Later with Kearney, King and McBride.
New Year’s Eve at the Elmo was one ripping grand party. Folks bounced from one café table to another, Beers flying. Reggae pumping–good times, good people, good vibes. The pinnacle of party goodness.
Looking back, I’m still haunted by a gig with a volatile singer and spouse around the St. Lawrence Market area years earlier. I arrive to witness a shouting match between the two as he arranges his drums, then modifies the sound system. One by one the sidemen arrive and wander into the line of fire. Once situated, I ask the female singer, "Can I look at the charts?" She looks back at me with disdain and says, "I don't need no words; you don’t need chords". Whoaaaa .. seriously?
Beat one, the band kicks in, instantly the singer turns and yells at husband, "I can't sing that fast. Start over." We start from the top. Next tune. “What key do I sing Moon River in?” she asks. “D!," he says. "Are you sure? That doesn't sound right to me." We begin. "Stop, stop, stop. You lied to me," she insists, looking back at her man with fire in the eyes. "You trying to shame me in front of these wonderful folks, right?" Drummer man pauses, then says, "Fuck off". Find your own keys. Do the work." More heckling, insults, and yelling. The set ends.
The second and third sets roll on much the same as we look on in both horror and amazement.
An intoxicated woman takes to the dance floor and relives the incredible free-form dance movements of the late sixties. Those Haight-Ashbury spins and looping twirls witnessed in hippie parks and hashish dens across the planet. She pauses, then yells, "I need lots of alcohol, great gobs of alcohol; I feel like dancing, dancing, dancing." We watched as she spun across the floor, danced down front of the bartender, who had earlier cut her off. The supply chain dwindling. In one desperate move, our petite dance queen spins, then leaps atop the bar, folds her arms around every free-standing bottle of hard liquor and affordable house wine, and clutches. The barkeeper and a server jump in and tangle with the fully intoxicated, crazed woman, rescuing the kidnapped row of hard drinks. Not a pretty or watchable moment.
From there, things go sideways. The sad young woman then throws herself on the dance floor and rolls about, yelling a full range of vulgarities. Even the paramedics summoned declined to interfere as she skips about to a song long-buried in her head. Long past midnight, her travel companions from Ottawa drag her into a taxi and off they go into the hollow night. Even the antics of 'said' jazz couple couldn't compete with this episode of 'So You Think You Can Dance and Demean Yourself?’
I wait an extra hour after packing up for that hand full of hard-earned cash - $350, when presented, turned into a $250 check. This was when I contemplated murder. Should I ambush the two as they load the sound system in a van and take all the cash, or chase both into the after gig? I chose the latter. The chase went on for days.
Remember, taxis later than midnight were non-existent. What would be a fifteen-dollar cab ride was now $125. That's if a cab was available. On this night–none! It's -25 with a -35 windchill. I'm walking from the Market to Bathurst and St. Clair, past fistfights, drunks, raging college kids, and march into a homicide scene. Bathurst and College yellow taped. It wasn't until I strolled inside the front door just past 5:30 a.m. to Kristine's open arms, defeated and dead on my feet. I learned that an exchange student from Germany murdered his dad, who had paid him a surprise visit. Oh, to be home again!
Years after, I'd only say yes only if the gig was over before midnight and back home before the drop of the New Year’s ball signalling the passage of time. My caring partner hated when I was away. She wasn't alone. Now it's on to the corporate gig years.
These events were less frenzied, more subdued affairs. The pay was better, and the crowd was less prone to poke the snot out of one another. Right up to the year 2000.
The supposed mega-money was to come New Year's Eve 1999, the start of a new millennium. A first hint the massive affair was going bust? Venues had outpriced patrons, $2,400 a couple, and no takers. I observed that the price fall to $240, and no takers. Goodbye, big money night! That $1,500 sideman pay never happened, a reminder to be more selective.
I will offer one last entry of a positive note.
Ms. Saigon star Les Miz, The King and I–Ms. Broadway for 20 years–Cornelia Luna arrives back in town. I’d organized Cornelia’s sold-out Winter Garden concert when she was an aspiring 19-year-old singer/actress a decade earlier. We caught up at a women's event at the University of Toronto, where a local business executive invites us to entertain New Year’s at his home. The two of us thought nothing of the invite until a week before when I called Cornelia and asked if she had followed up. This, by all indications, seemed like a perfect fit. Cornelia called and we were hired for one 45-minute concert. The music - Broadway to the bone. The hits. Streisand, Sondheim, Garland, etc.
Upon arrival, we notice the home transformed into a high-class nightclub. Sushi flown in from Japan. Ice carvings from Denmark. A sound stage and in a far-off corner - a karaoke screen playing videos of a new China in rotation. We perform, Cornelia dazzles, paid handsomely, taxis called, and home by 10:30. Amen.
After that, a couple of lawyer gigs–me facing a wall playing holiday favourites as the party gathers back of me. No thank you, goodwill, just leave now. Here's the check, and maybe we’ll call you next year.
So, for all my music compatriots down in the holiday trenches who have served on the bandstand battlefields from VFWs to City Hall, and now out of a gig or just at home, you know you can binge-watch old episodes of The Wire, or if you haven't seen The Riches with Minnie Driver and Eddie Izzard—which I am sure most have never seen - enjoy the insanity on me! Call a few friends, read a book, or just look out a window and ask yourself—is it still worth it? Or do as Kristine, spin the channels and celebrate one country at a time as the world clock rotates and rings in the new year.