© 1999 by Michael Clifford
Pentatonic, pentatonic, pentatonic, the rail sleepers sang to Millie in swing time, as the train entered urban sprawl. She was beginning to feel a bit edgy.
“Hey babe, you’ll love me tonight, heh?” suggested Ronny the sax man.
“It’ll cost you. You couldn’t afford it.”
“Whadya want, a wedding ring?”
“Nothing as pricey as that.”
They were only getting expenses tonight: it was a big publicity gig for a government-based charity and the boys moaned about it as they rattled towards Birmingham New Street. “I hate playing without our own gear,” scowled Mike.
“The back-line that they provide will be exactly as we specified,” said Millie, hoping she was right.
Coloured neon reflected in wet puddles. Drip. Millie dawdled along the shining city concourse. Chain store doorways sheltered captive window- shoppers. Traffic splashed gutter-drizzle over late night fashion victims. Drip. The boys had remained in the bar. The kit – which was fine – was in in-house and the sound check was over. As she wouldn’t be changing into a glittering stage-fairy until 11.30 – and as the flu of pre gig tension was ailing her – she had needed to get out. It should be ‘Singing In The Rain’ not ‘Crying In The Rain’, but she was a blues singer. I stand at the Crossroads with a vodka in my hand.
In this business you get addicted to everything.
If the claps of one performance could be added to the claps of the next, and so on, then this job would be heaven. But it’s not, she thought, unless you become a star. You have to go out and fill yourself up everyday. The trouble is you always want more, more….
She had woken up that morning to be phoned by agent Charlie Curtis to see if she wanted to front a Gladys’s Night tribute band. He listed the personnel involved.
“Unlikely,” she said, “but I’ll have a think about it and ring you back.
With her Modigliani portraits looking down on her, she lay on her ruby-red carpet and discussed the idea with her spider plant. She turned over her press clippings kept carefully in a white wedding album. She sighed when she came to the photos of her time on backing vocals with John May all. Everyone had said big things were in store for her, but only little packages arrived. Her heart warmed at the snapshots of the Ghetto Blues Band recording sessions in the early 80s. They had been fun days. The book closed and she poured herself a small vodka.
After those sessions the hotter opportunities cooled – it was just one jazz and blues club or function after another. Her ambition seemed to desert her when her father died and left her.
She gossiped the afternoon hours away bagging cardigans with the girls at Fenwick’s Knitwear. This deflated ‘Prima Donna’ tendencies, and kept her down to earth for which she was grateful. In the early evening she rang Charlie back. Thanks for the offer, Charlie, but no. She couldn’t let her own boys down. The type casting would restrict her own style. And, anyway, how long could she keep going. She was over 40 and was getting a bit long in the tooth for this wailing business.
In the dressing room she sobered her anxiety with another drink. She didn’t feel up to it tonight. She couldn’t do it. She was tired; she had a sore throat. She felt it coming on during the journey over.
Her body shrunk in anticipation. Desirous of intoxication but fearful of the needle of the audience.
At last. With five minutes to go, she could hear her band on the stage whipping up the audience: the raw jangling rhythm, the open tuned slide guitars, the kick bass comes in, the snare, the brass stabs, the whole grove, and then eventually she could hear herself being introduced by the DJ.
“People. You’ve been waiting. Well… here she is at last! Give a big reception to the Midland’s Queen of Blues, Millie Delton, and her renowned backing band, The Bluenoses!”
She placidly thought of the legendary Billie Holiday. She must have faced this joyful dread every night. Standing up to be shot down; an emotional clown, winding everyone up to the peak of emotion but at the same time exposing everything she had, making herself naked, vulnerable, leaving nothing for herself, somehow leaving herself empty, empty, empty…
Crazy. She was singing such emotionally wild lyrics – yet her own emotional life was simplified.
After three deep breaths she moved to the wings, then as she came on stage, she steadied herself with the microphone stand and felt the vodka slosh around in her legs. Her entire body surged with electricity. Lights came on in her head. Home! The place she knew in myopic sensual detail: the hum of the crowd; the buzz of the amplification; the taste of smoke; the chink of glasses; the low burble of intimate conversation.
For a micro second she stood there – a woman in a red satin dress, white pearls, red nails and transparent crystal earrings – radiant; beaming to the audience. Behind her where her boys; a tidy crew of black suits, white shirts and metallic green bow ties and glittering golden brass.
Without another second the band dropped their funk groove and fused into a raucous 12 bar blues run down complete with wild crying of electric guitar. Down it came, down, down, down and then the whole band stopped dead.
Smack on time, she hit it, giving it everything she had.
I can wash out 44 pairs of socks and have them hanging out on the line
I can starch and iron 2 dozen shirts ‘fore you can count from one to nine
I can skip up a big dipper full of lard from the drippin’s can
Go out do my shoppin’ be back before it melts in the pan
Cause I’m a woman W-O-M-A-N, I’ll say it again….
The old Peggy Lee classic had the crowd instantly.
Despite her earlier doubts, musical emotion poured from every inch of her skin. She was it: passionate, raunchy. compulsive, raw. edgy, wild, pulsating, hypnotic and utterly dynamic as she worked the stage. She didn’t sing a song, she wore it. Everyone’s eyes were on her. Every man in the audience was transfixed by her passion and sensuality. They wanted her. But she knew they would not approach her. They rarely did – apart from the odd arrogant jerk. Her intensity frightened them. She was the stuff dreams were made of, but not of real life. She was as passionate as a panther in love, with a panther’s bite. Never put your daughter on the stage, Mrs. Worthington. Actresses are trouble.
“Watermelon man everywhere but not one to buy me a drink,” she said to the audience between numbers by Bessie Smith and Willie Dixon. Not long after she was surprised to receive a couple of vodkas in the wings.
There was a fair wind, the sky was blue, rhythm, melody and harmony were in synchronicity. It was a slipstream night. Songs followed from Sam Cooke, Clara Smith, Cole Porter, Howlin’ Wolf, Gershwin, Etta James and Smokey Robinson amongst others. Songs that would move a lot of people’s hearts – and a lot of alcohol from behind the bar.
“…get out of here and get me some money too!” she concluded after her third encore. The house came down again. More! More! More! But she had gone. ‘Always leave the crowd asking’ was something she had learned a long time ago.
She felt great! Adrenaline! The deeper the anxiety before a gig, the greater the release afterwards. She felt clean, guilt free; even sanctified: she had performed her penance.
“We got some good gigs out of tonight,” said Mike. “I’ve had loads of business cards and three definites and two agents. Top dosh.” said drummer Dave in the dressing room.
“Tell me Millie, in ‘Gold Bless The Child That’s Got His Own Bed’ how come no one ever sings ‘bed’?”
“The songwriter couldn’t get the words to fit the music,” said Millie giggling.
“Millie, your tingle factor got up to concert E,” said Ronnie, blowing the note on his alto sax, his eyes widening comically.
Like a cat before a roaring fire, she purred with a cosy vodka in hand. She had learnt something. The whole of her past life had been a rehearsal for tonight. As it would be for tomorrow’s performance, and the next night’s. It felt so good. It was her life. She couldn’t give it up. It was more than a job, or a craft, or an art. Blues was her prayer and expression. It made her completely whole – at least for a short while. Whatever the words, the singing was more than a song. It was a ritual; a catharsis of disappointment in deep love and attachment.
But the most important thing was:- that the catharsis was shared.