Music and playing music came fairly early in my life, but not on the banjo.
I vaguely remember taking a year of piano lessons in 3rd grade and choking badly on my year-end recital performance of the “Teddy Bear’s Picnic.” One good result of this early piano instruction was learning to read music (which I highly recommend to anyone interested in playing virtually any musical instrument or singing). I guess my parents thought I should have piano lessons since my brother Tony (his name was actually Alexander after my father) and my sister Pat both had taken years of lessons from a wonderful French Canadian concert pianist, Romeo Arsenault. He would travel by ferry and N. J. Central every two weeks to our house in Westfield from his home in Manhattan to give my brother and sister lessons, stick around for dinner, and then be taken down to the train station for his trip back into the City.
For 10 summers, from 1957 to 1966, my parents treated me to eight weeks at a really great summer camp in New Hampshire. I remember distinctly during the summer of 1959 I would pass a cabin on the way to the dining hall for dinner and would hear an absolutely wonderful sound coming from inside. I really loved it. It was a fellow, but older, camper playing what I learned later was a B&D #1 Silver Bell plectrum that had belonged to his grandfather. I don’t remember him playing anything other than “The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise” but I am pretty sure he must have known other tunes as well. At any rate, whatever he was playing, he had me hooked. When I returned to New Jersey after the summer camp I began (successfully) lobbying/begging my folks for a banjo for Christmas.
Well, I was successful in my begging, and got my first banjo at Christmas 1960. It was, pardon my language, a piece of crap, but at the time it was the greatest gift I had ever received. Dad bought it at Harry Newcorn & Sons music store in lower Manhattan. It was a very low-end Kay tenor, and was, to repeat, a piece of crap – high action, difficult to play, and really awful sound. I had actually started fooling around earlier in that school year with a ukulele my father had stashed away, and the contrast of it with this tenor banjo with its steel strings and high pitch was really intimidating for me at 12 years of age.
At the beginning of 6th grade, before receiving the banjo for Christmas that year, I became enamored with the trombone, and took it up to play in the school band. Except for learning to read the bass clef, my trombone “career” was pretty much a bust. For one, the band teacher was a sadistic tyrant who took pleasure in humiliating the student musicians. He must have owned stock in a company that made dowels, because daily he would break two or three baton-length pieces whacking them on the backs of the wooden auditorium chairs in response to some poor student’s mistake, with pieces flying off in all directions. Besides that, I was never able to get a decent tone out of the rental instrument. Every note sounded like (again, excuse the language) a hesitant fart, and I never really mastered the slide positions to be able to read quickly and accurately. Besides, after Christmas that year, my focus shifted entirely to learning the banjo so I could play it at camp the following summer with the camper I had come to think of as my inspiration.
As far as I can remember, I spent almost all my free time for the remainder of that school year upstairs in my small bedroom learning basic tenor banjo chords and playing all those simple tunes found in beginners’ song books like “On Top Of Old Smokey,” “Oh, Susanna,” and “I’ve Been Working On The Railroad.” It must have driven my parents nuts to have to listen to all the “clams” and bad chords for those many weeks. They were certainly tickled to death to deposit me that June on the notorious “Camp Train” from Grand Central Station, looking forward to a little peace and quiet for the summer.
When I got to camp in June of 1961 I immediately sought to find out whether the fellow camper who had been my inspiration had returned for the summer. He had, and had brought along his banjo as well. Unfortunately, he was not particularly enthused with my shared interest and, if I remember correctly, was still sort of stuck on that one tune, “The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise.”
However, despite his lack of enthusiasm and repertoire, when he played I noticed a very distinct difference in sound between my banjo and his (aside from the basic built-in crappy sound of mine). His banjo was much lower in pitch and seemed a whole lot “mellower” in tone. What I heard was the difference in tuning and basic chord formations between his plectrum banjo and my tenor. After re-tuning my banjo to plectrum and learning a few plectrum chords, I was hooked and even learned my first chord-melody tune – “The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise.”
The switch to plectrum tuning on my otherwise really horrible banjo greatly accelerated progress. Probably the most noticeable accelerant was that playing didn’t hurt as much! A bad banjo tuned up to tenor tuning is really painful on the left hand (I’m assuming right-handed playing) and even a great, low action tenor requires some getting used to. I have come to think that the pain factor is probably a major reason players, especially young ones, give up steel-stringed instruments of any sort. It takes real determination to get beyond it. Because of this I have also come to think that it is a far better investment in the long run to buy a good banjo or guitar for beginners of any age.
(A side note and completely messing up the chronology of this dissertation: I managed to track down my supposed mentor a few years ago and I called him with the sincere desire to thank him for being his inspiration 40 years earlier. He was at the time and still is an MD and psychoanalyst at the C. G. Jung Institute in Los Angeles and was no more enthused to hear from me than he was all that long time ago. Indeed, he somehow sounded very suspicious of the call. The only real conversation we had was his telling me he no longer played and asking, “Do you know anyone who wants to buy my banjo?”)
A Good Instrument
I am eternally grateful to my father for his encouragement and support early in my playing career. Sometime during the next school year it must have become apparent to him that I was making real progress despite the banjo he had bought me the year before, and that a better instrument (and, as I explained to him, a plectrum banjo rather than a tenor) would be very helpful in making further progress. We went downtown to the Bandstand, the local musical instrument store, and poured over the latest Vega catalog, picking out and ordering a Vega “Professional” model plectrum. I even remember the price—$273! It took three or four months, but the new banjo finally arrived, shipped directly from the factory in Boston, and I was off and running.
Despite the fact that the early to mid-1960s were when the “banjo craze” was in full-swing with the Red Garter, Your Father’s Mustache, the Red Onion and other banjo parlors/ bars located all over the country, I was too young to go to them and really didn’t know such places even existed at the time. In hindsight I now realize there must have been lots of great players to listen to and learn from, but I just plain missed the opportunity. My teachers were all on LPs; Eddie Peabody, Jad Paul, John Cali, and my absolute favorite, Paul Martin, with his clean, smooth style.
There was one amusing result of learning by listening. I had collected all the Eddie Peabody LPs I could find and wore most of them out learning lots of tunes. When I had the rare opportunity to play with other musicians I was discovering that I had learned everything a whole step higher in pitch than normal—for example, tunes normally in “C” I had learned in “D”. Actually, this turned out to be an unanticipated gift in the long run by knowing how to play almost anything in any key, but was very disconcerting at the time. I discovered much later that almost everything Eddie Peabody recorded was sped up a whole tone in the mastering of the recording to make the banjo sound crisper!
Realizing that some one-on-one instruction might be helpful, another great thing my father did was to find a teacher. His name was George Wilson, a jazz guitar player in Montclair, New Jersey. He was mainly a guitar teacher but had played banjo earlier in his career and loved old tunes. I remember that he taught me “San” and “When Bhudda Smiles”, a tune I had been listening to Paul Martin play on the LP “Banjo Mania”. George introduced me to “movable chord formations”, the basis for playing chord melody. After about three sessions with George, he told my father that I was doing well enough that he didn’t think there was much more he could help me with. Just for me to keep listening to other players as much as I could!
During this time of trying to soak up and learn all I could when it came to the banjo I was definitely out of step with my junior and senior high school peers when it came to musical tastes. While most everyone else was into rock, the Beatles, and other contemporary music of the 1960s (or alternatively gotten interested in the folk-music craze of that time), I was listening to banjo players playing pop tunes from the ’20s and ’30s—definitely weird to my classmates. I remember even hooking up a reel-to-reel tape recorder to the speaker of our TV with alligator clips and recording and enjoying Gene Sheldon, the hysterical comic banjoist, and learning “Coquette” and “Alabamy Bound” from one of his appearances on the Jackie Gleason show. Years later I found on YouTube the exact same show with the tunes I had learned many years earlier. It is currently not viewable on YouTube because of copyright restrictions but I found it on a foreign website:
Gene Sheldon on Jackie Gleason Show about 1964.
Disclaimer: This clip is provided for non-commercial, historical and educational purposes only.
The next few years are sort of a blur as far as my banjo playing is concerned. I remember being asked by my junior high school band teacher, Mr. Masters, since I was the only 4-string banjo player in my school, to play for a local performance of “The Boy Friend.” This gave me invaluable experience learning how to read and play orchestra chord charts. He was also really funny and fun to be around.
I auditioned for and appeared on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, I think in 1963. As a result of this, the Bandstand music store mentioned above asked me to teach a couple of people who wanted to learn banjo. I made enough money teaching to allow me to order a Vega Vox IV in 1965, a really great banjo that I played through college and beyond.
I think from my appearance on the Ted Mack show I was briefly offered the opportunity to play at the Schaefer Beer Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1969 but the New York State ABC squelched that possibility because of my age.
The Dartmouth Five
That Vega Vox IV was with me when I arrived at Dartmouth College in the Fall of 1966. At the first chance I had, I tried to find a group to play with and discovered “The Dartmouth Five”, a group formed two years earlier for promoting Nelson Rockefeller’s (class of 1930) 1964 presidential bid. They needed a banjo player and was welcomed with open arms. We played lots of fraternity parties and other odd jobs around Hanover almost every weekend. It was great fun and was my first and very valuable experience playing with a band.
We again promoted a presidential primary bid in 1968 when George Romney was running in New Hampshire. I remember about three 15 degree days, each of them snowing, in early February when we piled in a station wagon, went to some small town in New Hampshire, played a few tunes until the candidate showed up, piled back into the station wagon and drove to the next town. We did this for about 10 towns each day. By the third day my fingers were literally bleeding and the trumpet player’s lip was completely shot from the cold. It took days to recover. Fun!
Most of the D-5 graduated in 1968 and by default I took over “leading” the band. By this time it was a 7-piece band with the addition of drums and piano. College Dean Thaddeus Seymour became a great fan and friend and actively promoted the band. With his backing we made an album, “The Dartmouth Five – On The Road”. The full-color cover photo had the seven of us posed in the Dean’s 1920s Packard touring car parked on the Green in front of Baker Library. I think we made 1000 copies and most of them sold over the next 2 years. During one Winter, I think probably 1969-70, we actually had a weekly Saturday night paying gig at Killington, a great Vermont ski lodge. If I remember correctly, we each got paid $25 per night, which was great pay for us at the time.
Graduate School and Beyond
Graduating from Dartmouth in 1970 with a degree in Biology, I enrolled in graduate school at Princeton in the Fall of 1970 with the intention of getting a Phd. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. It soon became apparent to me that my math background was severely deficient for the Princeton Ecology department which was heavily into theory and math rather than the field orientation I was more prepared for. Besides that, I was selling almost every painting I was able to finish and playing banjo at various places more and more. I lasted two years in graduate school and finally decided to drop out and pursue my art and music careers instead.
During high school my parents took me a few times to The Old Straw Hat, a restaurant/bar/banjo parlor along Route 22 in Plainfield, NJ which was the only nearby place to hear anyone play without making the trek into New York. They had a trio there consisting of Walt Pedersen on piano, the great Joe Tarto on tuba, and one or the other of Wayne Phillips or (left-handed) Johnny Martin on plectrum banjo. I don’t remember for sure, but I think Walt, who was the leader of the group, let me sit in a couple of times. He must have remembered me because as soon as he found out I was in the area again after four years in New Hampshire, he called me to take over the banjo spot in the trio from Johnny Martin (who was suffering from a severe illness) Friday and Saturday nights at Rod’s Roadhouse in West Orange, and Sunday afternoons at The King’s Grant Inn in Point Pleasant. The three years playing with Walt and Joe Tarto were an absolutely great experience, learning lots of tunes and how to keep a crowd happy.
With the trio I also learned how to do more than one thing at a time! Before, when I tried to sing and play I would get completely flummoxed playing. Walt first had me play and sing a few really simple tunes like “Ja Da”. Once I got the singing and playing together down pat, he introduced me to his “low hat” cymbal to accompany everything. It took a few months, but I finally got comfortable with all three activities at the same time.
At some point Rod’s Roadhouse decided they did not want to pay for a tuba player in the group, so they cut out Joe, a legendary great tuba player, on Saturdays. This, understandably, really hurt Joe’s feelings and he soon quit altogether. We suddenly were without a “bottom” to the group, a not-ideal situation as most musicians will probably understand. So Walt, in his usual cheerful way, suggested that I try playing one of the newly-introduced pedal basses. They were not very commonly available, but I found one called “Bass Mate” at a music store in Belleville. It was basically a single octave (C to C) self-contained pedal activated keyboard like the foot-pedals on an organ. For its time it was state-of-the-art, producing what would be an organ’s bass-flute sound and plugged directly into an amplifier. The problem with this first design was that, even though it was not supposed to have to be tuned, when tuning was necessary it was a likely to be a disaster because the notes were not independent of one another. The tuning of each note depended on the tuning of the note above and, weirdly, below!
Well, the first month of my attempting to play banjo, sing and play bass notes (especially the correct bass notes) with my foot must have been painful for Walt. At first, every time my foot would have to go up on the pedals (like from low C to G when playing a C chord), my hand would automatically want to go up on the fingerboard of the banjo. Slowly and eventually, by practicing very simple 2-chord songs at home, I was able to gain the foot-hand independence necessary.
I have used bass pedals mostly when playing solo jobs but sometimes in a group ever since. The very first Golden Gate Rhythm Machine was actually a trio with me on bass pedals. I much prefer playing with a good tuba or string bass, but the bass pedals frequently come in handy. The Bass Mate pedals bit the dust after a few years and have since been replaced by much better midi pedal units.
The move to San Francisco in 1974 changed my musical and artistic life forever. On literally the first night in town I visited Earthquake McGoon’s and listened to the Turk Murphy Jazz Band, met Carl Lunsford, Turk’s banjoist, and met Jim Maihack, now a long-time friend and band-mate, who was either playing tuba with the band or intermission piano (or both) at the time. I must have had a phone number already, because Jim called me about a week later and asked me to play my first Bay Area gig to fill in for him in a trio with Ev Farey (trumpet) and John Moore (tuba) at the Hillsdale Shopping Center.
Two weeks after the visit to McGoon’s I auditioned for and got a five-night-a-week job at the Hungry Tiger, a West Coast restaurant chain that is no longer in existence. I started at their location in the Cannery at Fisherman’s wharf for two weeks, then went to San Mateo for a year-and-a-half.
It was great experience playing solo in a relatively up-scale restaurant trying to keep the crowd happy with a variety of tunes and tempos. Banjo is not commonly thought of as dinner music, so it was a challenge some nights to figure out what was appropriate for that particular set of diners. One great perk of the job was to be able to leave all my “stuff” (amplifier, mics, bass pedals and bench) set up on the small stage during the week which meant I only had to cart it in and out once a week! The best part, and very unusual for most musicians, was that I was on the payroll so all my taxes and withholding were taken care of. That has never happened since!
My stint at the Hungry Tiger was up near the end of 1975. Having visited Earthquake McGoon’s a number of times by then and repeatedly letting Turk and Pete Clute know that if an opening for the intermission spot came up, I would be very interested, I almost missed the chance. I had been playing for a month or so for the “after work” crowd at a bar named Zott’s on Commercial Street in San Francisco, about a block away from McGoon’s on Clay Street. Zott’s management wanted me to take a break while they decided whether to have me continue playing there, so my ex-wife and I decided to take a week vacation in Mendocino. When I got back I went to Zott’s to check if they wanted me to play for another month the bartender said, “No,” but as I was leaving he yelled out, “Did you ever get in touch with that guy from Earthquake McGoon’s?” What!!!! I literally ran around the corner and up Clay Street and luckily found Pete Clute who arranged for an audition the next day. Thus, the start of the best eight-year musical job ever.
My first night at Earthquake McGoon’s was the Friday night following my audition. The place was packed as it almost always was on Fridays and Saturdays at the 630 Clay Street Location. The only hitch was that Turk had not yet met me and introduced me, “And now we would like to introduce Scott Anderson as our new intermission entertainer.” Following that, the first couple of minutes on stage were a little rough while the initial burst of adrenalin that turns your arms and hands into rubber wore off. But then it was one of the most exciting evenings of playing I’ve ever experienced. I managed to fill the large dance floor every 20- to sometimes 30-minute set and even had couples stop in front of where I was sitting to stare at my foot playing bass along with my hands on the banjo up above. I met and still have some treasured friends, notably Doc and Bernice Eggan, from that special night.
What followed was eight years of mostly fun evenings, five nights-a-week at the best venue a solo performer of the music I love could ask for. Earthquake McGoon’s actually occupied four different venues during the time I played intermissions for the band. Each location had its special qualities (and drawbacks) but, consistently, the audiences were there to hear great Trad Jazz and the Turk Murphy Jazz Band, so nobody expected anything else from Turk’s band or me. We had occasional off-nights, but never an empty room.
All together, I did the intermissions at four of the total of five Earthquake McGoon’s locations. The really wonderful 630 Clay Street location in the old historic William Tell Hotel was forced to close in early 1978. Almost the whole city block was razed to make way for a new office building that, by some accounts, took years to fill. What a shame.
From 630 Clay we (I am counting myself as part of the “we”) moved to a ridiculous location, the Rathskeller, in the basement of the building at the corner of Turk (appropriately?!) and Polk streets at the edge of the San Francisco Tenderloin. Apparently, this basement had originally been two or three pairs of bowling alleys – it was very long and very narrow. The final stage configuration left barely enough space to walk between the front of the stage and the bar, with tables off to both sides and behind! For the entire time we occupied this space it was unbearably hot—like 85º F hot—for some unknown reason that no one was ever able to figure out! Because we were in a basement, the row of windows at ceiling height were actually just above sidewalk level and even when open did not provide any cooling. Thankfully, the Rathskeller location closed within three months and Earthquake McGoon’s was on the move again.
The next location could have been wonderful. There have been rumors ever since then that a group of investors who were friends and enthusiastic fans of Turk’s music had arranged to purchase Bimbo’s 365 Club on Columbus Ave. This was, and actually still is, a great nightclub venue with a big bar, a large dance-floor and spacious seating. Plus, ample parking was available just across the street. However, before that deal was finalized, a lease was signed for a much less desirable space in an old building under the Embarcadero Freeway (now torn down).
Instead of being immediately ready for occupation like Bimbo’s would have been, the new-old building required extensive renovation and remodeling, and installation of the old McGoon’s bar among other things, all of which took months. Looking back, it also could have used some foundation work – every time the tide came in, the basement would flood with SF Bay water. About once a week someone had to pour multiple gallons of disinfectant down an old open and exposed freight elevator shaft that was more like a big hole in the floor with a gigantic pulley wheel, just to mask the “low-tide” smell wafting up from the basement. In addition, being practically under the Embarcadero Freeway, the street was dark and seemed pretty dangerous at night, a “feature” that kept many people away.
There were a number of memorable moments during the time Earthquake McGoon’s was on the Embarcadero. For example, Bill “Willie” Carroll, Turk’s great tuba player for many years, was a notorious prankster. He secretly arranged as a “birthday surprise” for an absolutely stunning stripper to remove all her clothes, sneak up onto stage from behind and perform an incredibly erotic dance in front of (and up against) John Gill while he (tried) to sing “I Got A Bimbo Down On A Bamboo Isle.” Obviously, there was great care taken to not allow minors into the club until the woman was again fully clothed following her surprise appearance.
Another notable night when I was involved was the appearance of Sandman Sims. Knowing that Sandman’s routine would take “awhile,” Turk arranged for me to be the accompaniment for the tap-dance. I wound up playing “Back Home Again In Indiana” for at least 20 choruses, stop-time, at his medium-slow tempo. I had no idea when the dance would end, but it finally did. I don’t think I played “Indiana” again for ten years.