As a young musician, I believed that the message of the Lord could be accepted by young people, by using the kind of music they liked to listen to, and during the 1960s that music was Rock n Roll. I tried to write 3-minute Rock songs that sounded like something you could hear on the radio. In some of them I wrote about my experience as a young believer.
In 1964 when I was 13, I made my first attempt at writing an original song. Going from a 12-year-old to a “teenager” seemed like a big step to me and I wanted to write a song about how I felt at that time. Thanks to Caroline and Pat for giving me piano lesions, I had already figured out some little musical ditties on the piano and I felt like a real composer. After the response I got from Caroline when I played it for her, “you should be practicing your piano lesson not that,” I did not bother to play it for anybody, and Pat never heard it. My creative desires were crushed for a long time after that. Ten years later in 1974, I would add lyrics to the music. It would become part of the story line and the first song in a 60s Rock Opera I was just starting to write.
There were several name bands from Michigan like Bob Seager and Ted Nugent. But these bands did not come too often to Montcalm County. The only place I could see live professional rock and roll bands was in Ann Arbor or at the Grande Ballroom in Detroit. I saw Jonny Winters for the first time. I heard all his music off his albums before but there was nothing like the live real thing. He was amazingly brilliant on the slide steel guitar. His brother Edgar Winter played the keys and sax with him. You sure could tell these boys were brothers. They both had white hair and they became one when the played together on stage. The original Fleetwood Mac band was more of a blues band and they played there also.
When I heard of an outside concert that was being held back east, and it would last for three days, I passed on a free ride to Woodstock. The long ride there and back to New York did not interest me or camping out all weekend at a rock show. Well when my friends got back still all muddy and wet, they told what I had missed by not going with them.
The next time they wanted to go out-of-state to see some bands play live, I went with them. The next place they went was a three-day concert in Florida. One evening after dark while walking around in the crowd I heard the most beautiful melodies coming from the stage. I did not know who this band was, but I walked thru thousands of people to get up close to them on stage.
That night I saw my favorite slide guitar player Johnny Winters and his brother Edgar playing his sax with the Allman Brothers Band. They were joined with Dicky Betts and Duane Allman hanging ten on the edge of the stage. All four of them stood together trading lead lines on their instrument along with Greg Allman on the B3 organ. What a musical experience that was!
The next day while the Johnny Winters band were playing and everybody was watching them, I snuck up on stage to get a closer look. Nobody noticed me and I blended into the stack of empty road cases. When Johnny’s performance was over, I saw other people that had got up on stage like me being thrown off the stage by the Hell’s angels. They were hired to keep law and order and they were pushing it over the limit.
To save myself from the same fate, and being a musician, I knew just what to do to save my fanny. I picked up some mike cords and begin wrapping them up, pretending I was a roadie. Then someone tapped me on the shoulder, it was Johnny Winters and he said, “here take this,” and he handed me his steel guitar in its case. He said, “they won’t touch you if you are carrying that.” Then he made sure I got off the stage safely. I gave him back his instrument and thanked Johnny for helping me get away. Then he went one way and I went another.
The local band I played in was not interested in playing original music. I was not able to find players that wanted to play their own music. I started calling these musicians the “Three MMM’s,” which translated into the “Michigan Musician Mentality.” At that time things seemed to be happening in San Francisco, so I set my sights on the west coast.
A friend of mine I knew from boy scouts wanted to go see some of the country including California and he asked me if I wanted to ride along with him. This was to much to pass up and I took him up on his offer.
He really wanted to see some of the country because we traveled west by first heading east to New York City. Neither of us had seen it. We parked and locked the car on a street in Central Park then took off for a walk. Just by chance we looked back towards our car and there was two guys breaking the windows to get into the car right behind ours. That was enough New York for both of us and we got into the car and left.
The trip took us south along the east coast, then west thru Texas, and up to the Grand Canyon. There are no words that can describe how beautiful that work of God is when you see it. But eventually we did end up in San Francisco. I thought we would be getting an apartment together, but he dropped me off at the one I rented and took off. I never saw or heard from again.
There I was right where I wanted to be, but was it really? I was a country boy that just got dropped off in a big city all alone. The next day while walking down the street I got robed at knife point while people were just walking by. It was not worth getting cut so he took my last ten dollars. Now I was broke.
My apartment on Fredrick Street was on the top floor and I had access to the roof. Candlestick Park was visible from there and it reminded me of my lost love of sports every time I heard a game over the loud speakers. I liked to practice my acoustic guitar on the roof while getting some sun. One day a neighbor in the next building called out from his roof top, “say, I have a friend that just got out of the Navy and he is looking for some guys to start a band, are you interested?” He went on to say, “my friend has a buddy and they get together and write their own songs.”
My musical education really began when that neighbor introduced me to the band called Easy. Two guys just out of the service had a home away from the city full of equipment and a place to practice. They started writing songs while they were still in the Navy. Both of them had long hair down the middle their back. They had tucked their hair up under a wig to pass inspection. The Easy band shared their house with another country-rock band. These two groups worked together for the common good of all. I jumped at the chance when they asked me to move into what seemed to me as their musician’s paradise and become part of the Easy band. We all used the same equipment and helped each other when we played out live.
The country rock band got a job playing at Homer’s Warehouse in Palo Alto and I went along that night to help set up equipment and play a little harmonica. They were a very good band originally from Colorado, and the right people were interested in making them a success.
While we were setting up the equipment a man came in the club waring the biggest cowboy hat I have ever seen. He was western dressed to the ten’s and he was carrying an arm full of long-playing record albums. While we set up gear, he showed us his record and told us, “I just got done recording my new record in Nashville and I want to give you boys a copy.”
It was great to meet someone that had written his own songs and got them recorded. He had used studio musicians to make the record and now he was looking for new band members to play his songs live with him. We learned a lot listening to him talk about the music business that night. But we were not interested in his project because he did not even have a band together. I saw his album a few years later at a friend’s house. It was Charley Daniels first album of many more great recordings.
At the age of 19 I bought my first house. Well, I really traded a 1968 Dodge Charger to a lawyer friend of the Easy band for the deed to a farm house in the country. It was in the middle of a walnut orchard with no close neighbors. The Easy band was able to practice loud music in the garage night and day without bothering anyone. We had a small recording studio set up and the first songs in the rock opera, “Rock, a musical experience,” were recorded there.
The Easy band only played original music. Their music attracted the attention of some local bay area promoters that were looking for warm-up acts to open for the headliners. Teddy Bear was the equipment manager for a local headliner band and he and his entourage stopped in unannounced one Saturday. He wanted to hear the band play some music. but when he tried to put his 6 pack into our refrigerator and saw it was empty, he said, “I’ll be right back.” Then he got back in his car and drove away. He left his buddies with us and the band got ready to play.
When Teddy Bear returned, he needed help getting all the groceries he bought at the store into our house. He filled our refrigerator with food we could not normally afford, like steaks. Then we all gathered in the studio and gave them a private concert. When it was over Teddy Bear told us, “I like your original music and I will be glad to help you guys only if you keep playing your original songs.” He also said, “don’t end up being a bar band playing other people’s songs for drinks.” We only saw Teddy Bear a couple times a year. He would show up with steaks and bring a good time. We guessed that he was too busy with his band, “The Quick Silver Messenger Service,” to spend much time helping us. The Easy band played original music for five years then broke up.
A life long friend of mine Kevin Crossley worked for a musical instrument rental company. We had gotten together one night in Grand Rapids Michigan with Charley Hume for a jam session. Kevin was a studio musician for some British acts and Charley went on to play lead guitar for Ted Nugent. When I came to the west coast Kevin already had a job working in the music business.
One day I got a call from Kevin to go to the Reo Theater in Martinez and meet him there. The roadies were setting up the equipment for a show that night and they could not get the Hammond B3 to work. Just when were about to walk up on stage and take a look at the organ, a hammer fell down with a loud crash from the light scaffolding. Bill Gram the band’s manager yelled, “I want that man who ever you are off this set right now.”
I had seen Bill Gram in action as a bouncer at the Fillmore West before. He did not take static from anyone and he would go toe to toe with anybody that pushed his buttons. The man left the theater and we got to work on the B3 organ. We turned it on and off but could not get it to work. We found an old vacuum cleaner back stage and sucked out some dust from the inside. To our surprise when we turned it on, it worked just fine. Bill and the lead singer both thanked us for fixing one of their problems they had that day while setting up for the show. Then the lead singer told us he had another problem. His keyboard player was too hung over from the night before to perform again that night. He asked my friend, “can you help us out tonight and play some keyboards?”
Kevin answered, “I have to fly out of town, but Ronnie is a keyboard player you can ask him.”
The lead singer asked me directly if I could fill in for the night. It was not an easy question to answer. The lead singer was on his way up and he had more than one hit song on the radio. Only one problem, my band had to play that night also. This could be the big break for me that every young musician dreams about. But I had a loyalty to the members of the band that stuck with me as their keyboard player. I had to say, “no I have a gig tonight.”
Later on that day I had an opportunity to play a cassette of my original songs for the lead singer. Then he introduced me to his manager Bill Gram as a song writer. After giving me his contact phone number, Bill said directly to me, “Ok, mister song writer. I can get 6 songs a week from Bob Dylan, how many each week do you write? Let me hear your music, better yet let me see you with a band playing your songs.”
Bill looked straight at me and said, “Find musicians that believe in your music as much as you do, then let me see you. I can try you out as a warm up act and see how the people react to your music. You must be able to please your audience to make any money.”
It did not take me very long to pull together a group of musicians that were interested in performing my original songs live as a warm up act. Then we got an opportunity to go on the road with a local headliner. Then my life changed. My wife suffered emotional problems after our only child was delivered prematurely and by C-section. The poor girl suffered from post-partum-blues. She was so upset when she saw her baby with tubes coming out of him, she threaten to kill herself and the baby by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.
This was not a good thing to say the doctors at Oakland’s Children Hospital. They acted quickly to try to put my son in a foster home to protect him from his mother. I got a call from a lawyer that I did not know. He told me the state of California was trying to take my son away from me. They said the mother was a danger to the baby and the father was a traveling musician.
I walked away from the big dream and the chance of a life time to spend a life time with my son. At the advice of attorneys, I took the baby and went some place where nobody else knew about. The hospital staff had the baby unhooked from the life support units when I got there, they knew I was coming, and they were on my side. My wife had already been committed to a mental hospital. As a concerned parent I took my son and disappeared.
For two years I lived with a aunt and uncle that had a pig farm back in northern Michigan. They took me and the baby in and let us stay in a livable old log cabin next to the main farm house. When the baby started to crawl on the hard dirt floor, I had to leave there. My aunt and uncle shocked me when I left. They thought that I would leave the baby with them. They both told me, “if you take him now, don’t ever bring him back here again.”
The first thing I thought was, “wow what did I do to these people to make them so mad at me?” This aunt was with me during the rain storm. This is the same aunt that I traveled with during my grandparent’s summer vacations. I left with my family and left them with hard feelings.
Time moved so fast when I first got out of high school. I was made aware of how fast when I got a ten-year reunion card in the mail. It seemed to me, I graduated just a couple of years ago. I had spent the last decade chasing my musical dreams in northern California. I joined the Easy band from the San Francisco Bay Area 1969 the same year I graduated. Ten years later when I walked into my first high school reunion, I heard two different people say, “there’s honest Ron.” Now that is not a bad thing to be remembered for, being an honest person. It was very rewarding to hear they remembered that, instead of the beer.
After I sold the band house in California, I bought a cottage in Michigan on a privet lake. This home was original built by a friend I knew from playing little league, that was killed in Vietnam. The building had been closed sense his death over 10 years earlier. The place was small, but my family had a home.
I was able to hook up with my old friends from The Soul Generation band. They took me to where they rehearsed, at the new Northern Star Recording Studio that was built inside a large barn. They told me the story how a farmer won big time at Las Vegas and came home and built the studio in his barn. The farmer told the band that he, “won a Free Flight home with all that money.” After that the band called themselves “Free Flight.”. A live stage was built in the barn and they opened for bands like, “Santana” and “Journey” at the Northern Star Sound Stage.
Then I had the opportunity to play some of my music for the owner of the recording studio, Dan Chapin, who quickly became my adopted brother. Everybody in the band had left leaving me there alone with him. I had a shoe box of cassette tapes full of music from the opera I was writing. At that time the only copy of the script was a worn, hand written ring binder that held the text of all three acts.
Dan and I listen to all the recordings in the shoebox and discussed how they fit into the script. It was not until we open the studio door to the outside did either one of us know the sun was coming up and it was 5 am. He asked me, “if you show us how you made those recordings, you can record here for free anytime the studio in not being used.” He then took out his keys and said, “here I can get another one you take mine,” and he handed me the key that opened the door to the next three years of my life.
I had left Michigan the for the west coast to promote my original music and my biggest break in the music business was now back home. I recorded 19 master tapes of music from the opera, “Rock, a musical experience.” These same recordings are now posted at my web page. I will always be indebted to the entire Chapin family that supported my music!
Northern Star Studios also booked shows in the larger cities that were close like Grand Rapids. When I heard that they had booked Eddy Money I said, “I know him. I met him in California when he was just getting started with his first two hits, “Baby Hold On to Me,” and Two Tickets to Paradise.” Members of the Free Flight band did not believe me, and they said, “we will introduce you to him when he comes.”
The day of the show I arrive at the Great Northern Music Hall in the afternoon. When I pulled into the parking lot there was Eddy with the Free Flight band outside taking a break. When I got of the car Eddy turned away from the group and asked, “Ronnie Lee, what are you doing here? You are supposed to be in California.” The band stopped talking to each other as he said, “do you have any of your original music I can listen to?” Eddy and I got into the front seats of my car and a band member tried to get into the back seat. Eddy used his elbow to lock the back door and told the intruder, “this is a private conversation.”
I saw Eddy when he played at Club East Brook in Grand Rapids. We sat in his tour bus and listened to my newest recording from Northern Star Studio. He told me my music sounded like the Beatles. They just happened to be my favorite band at that time. He wanted to know my musical plans and I told him I was a single parent now and that traveling was not an option. His wife at that time was pregnant and staying at a hotel in town. He put on a great show that night like he always did. After the show was over, he had a stage had take a picture of us together. Eddy went on down the road and I went back home to Coral.
When Dan booked Johnny Winters at the Great Northern Music Hall he asked me to be his chauffer for the night. My job would be to get the band to-and-from the airport, hotel, and the Music Hall. On the way from the airport to the hotel I told Johnny Winters, “the last time I saw you perform was when you played with the Allman Brothers.”
Johnny paused and leaned over the seat of the car. While he was looking at me, he asked a question, “are you that little hippie I saved your life that day in Florida?”
I answered him, “yes.”
Johnny said, “you stick with me the rest of the night, you are not working for anybody else.” His first order for me was to stop at the next party story. He went in and came out with a case of Blue Nun white wine. He ordered me to open the car’s trunk and when he shut it he said, “that case of wine is for you to take home after the show, I got one at my hotel room, this one is for you.”
I spent the rest of the night right by his side from the dressing room to the stage. When the local radio station tried to get an interview with him while we were waiting together back stage, he told them, “go away and play Joe Radio someplace else.”
I felt like a bug about to be stepped on because I knew my local radio personalities and I did not want them to be offended while seeing me there. I thought to myself this was wrong. His fans made him what he was, and the radio people had always supported his music with a special honor. I enjoyed Johnny’s performance from on stage, he was hot that night. Then I took him and the band back their hotel and I went home to Coral.
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