A Visit with Bill Clinton: Health and 'Heartbreak'
AC's Ben Fong-Torres meets Bill Clinton and remembers Don Ho.
It was an offer that doesnt come around every day, or even every Administration. Sing Elvis with our band, and maybe Bill Clinton will join in on saxophone.
I, of course, said Yes. Thank you. Thank you very much.
The band is the Eyewitness Blues Band, a collection of anchors, reporters and videographers from KCBS, the all-news radio station here in San Francisco, and CBS 5, its sister TV station. Since forming late last year for a story one of them did about a music school, theyve played company parties and a couple of small gigs.
Now, they had a big one. KCBS was producing Health Etc., an all-day expo at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, on April 14th. Former president Clinton had signed on as keynote speaker. And, somehow, the band got booked to play before and after the speech.
Clinton, an Elvis fan from his youth, famously played the sax on Heartbreak Hotel on Arsenio Halls late-night show in 1992, when then-Gov. Clinton was a presidential candidate. It made perfect sense to think that, 15 years later, hed want to pick up the horn again.
So, when Stan Bunger, the KCBS morning co-anchor (and guitarist) called to tell me about the group, and learned that Ive sung Elvis songs with bands here and there, he asked if I knew Heartbreak Hotel. I didnt, but, hey, its not exactly Shakespeare. I agreed to do Elvis and another song the band knew, Johnny Cashs Ring of Fire. The bands regular lead singer, CBS5 reporter and part-time anchor, Joe Vazquez, specializes in blues and R&B oldies like Midnight Hour and Rock Me Baby, while Melissa Culross, a KCBS reporter/anchor, does Different Drum and Band of Gold. Mike Sugerman, a reporter on both KCBS and CBS5, plays guitar, writes parody lyrics and growls his way through Eyewitness Blues, a song that pokes fun at people in the news. Led by videographer Patrick Sedillo (late of the Arizona-based alt-rock band, the Piersons) on guitar, and with a rhythm section of fellow videographer Zack Heene on drums and KCBS reporter Doug Sovern on bass, the bands pretty entertainingespecially for a group thats been together only a few months.
They began rehearsing in earnest for the presidential gig in March, and I joined them for two of their four sessions, plus a sound check at the Civic Auditorium the day before the Saturday event. The Secret Service had requested that the band load in early, so that security could sweep the auditorium in the hours before Clintons arrival. The band members couldnt hide their awe, looking out over more than 3,000 seats on three levels. Bunger had told me that their previous show, in Los Angeles, drew maybe 30 people.
On Saturday, as the crowd began to flow into the big room, the band were still awestruck. Theyd rented a sax, just in case. Now, a member of the Civics sound crew came backstage, saying they needed to set up a mike for the horn. But Clintons people had hinted that the president wasnt going to play; that he felt out of practice. Still, you never know
In the tiny dressing room, Vazquez told his bandmates, Lets f---ing have a blast. Who knows if well ever play in front of 3,000 people again.
Moments later, they trooped onto the stage and reeled off two songs. (I was set to do my tunes after the speech.) And then we waited for Clinton. Fifteen minutes late, he strolled onto the stage and, before an enraptured crowd, launched into an hour-long lecture/speech about health care, AIDS, child obesity and other issues. The schedule called for a short Q&A with Sugerman, followed by a few minutes of Clinton pressing the flesh in front of the stage, followed by the Eyewitness Blues Band, and me, and maybe the Prez.
Exciting, hey? Well, the Q&A went long, and the five minutes of meeting the folks stretched out into an hour. Clinton loves to talk, whether its a policy speech or chatter with admirers. The band had been told by Clintons aides that he planned on meeting them backstage, before heading off to his car, so they waited some more. But, as the clock ticked and people began filing out to various expo workshops and exhibits, two members of the band had to go and moderate discussions. The remaining musicians considered jumping on stage, but Secret Service agents put a stop to that notion. We hung out some more. Some of us stewed. We soon heard that the sound crew would be going off on lunch break soon. Clinton was still moving down the line of people in front of the stage; we could tell by the camera flashes.
It was dawning on us that we would not be performingand certainly not with the president. Finally, he headed backstage, and we formed a short line to greet him. He posed for photos with us, then engaged us in conversation for another ten minutes (he LOVES to talk!), about health, California politics, and a new saxophone hed just acquired. I showed him a lyric sheet for Heartbreak Hotel. Thats the first Elvis song I ever learned the words to, he said. And then he autographed it. My day was suddenly made.
After he left, the band headed up to the stage. It was time to pack up. The audio crew was gone. But no. Theyd come too far, worked too hard, anticipated too long, to just let their moment slip away. And so, with only a dozen or so people in the houseincluding Zacks parents, whod driven three hours to see their son play, they plugged in their instruments, and began to play.
I even had a chance to do Heartbreak Hotel, but it wasnt the same. It was mostly heartbreak.
MORE POLITICAL ROCK: At the 40th Northern Calif. Cherry Blossom Parade, a highlight of the Cherry Blossom Festival that takes over San Francisco's Japantown, George Yamasaki, long-time "Voice" of the parade, pulled me in for a bit of sidekick duty. When Mayor Gavin Newsom stopped by, George told him, "Ben just met Bill Clinton." While His Honor yawned politely, I told him about Clinton having named "Heartbreak Hotel" as a fave rock song, and asked him what his early favorites were. He was stumped for a moment. "Blondie?" I asked, forgetting that he's been dating a beautiful blonde actress lately. He laughed, and then said: "I'd have to say my favorite bands back then were ELO and Pablo Cruise." You watch. This answer -- devoid of a San Francisco band (Pablo were Marin County) -- will boomerang on him one day...
A GOLDEN STAR: At the Chinese Historical Society of Americas museum on Clay St. the other day, I picked up a copy of San Franciscos Chinatown, a joint venture by Judy Yung and the CHSA, and was hurtled back to some of my earliest radio memoriesof the Golden Star Chinese Hourwhich my parents listened to religiously while toiling in the restaurants they operated in the 50s and 60s. I still remember the announcers voice, but never knew who she was, until I saw the photo and caption in Yungs book, identifying her as Mary Chinn Tong. The news and entertainment show ran from 1939 to 1979 out of studios on Clay Street in Chinatown. Theres plenty of Asian language programming on Bay Area radio today, on KVTO (1400 AM, The Voice of the Orient), and on KUSF, with Chinese Star Radio at 6 p.m. weeknights. But theyre all echoes of Mary Chinn Tong
ALOHA AND MAHALO: The other night, I had to skip my monthly visit to El Rio, a bar in the Mission District here in S.F., to sing with Train Wreck, a country and blues band that can also play rock, R&B, and just about anything anyone wants to step up and perform. I was in L.A. to interview the country stars, Big & Rich. So I had to skip out on a planned duet with a ukulele player of Tiny Bubbles. A few days later came the news: Don Ho had died, at age 76, of heart failure. Ho was a pioneer, a Hawaiian icon who crossed over into the pop mainstream in the Sixties with easy-going songs like Pearly Shells and I Remember You, and a laconic style that recalled Dean Martin at his most relaxed. Tiny Bubbles made the Top 40 in 1967, and Ho had his own variety show, on ABC, in 1976-77. He did a cameo on The Brady Bunch in 1972, and continued to perform in Waikiki until he fell ill. I was proud of Ho, who was of Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and German descent. I dug his style, his voice and his humor. Hed do Tiny Bubbles to open a setand to close it, too, telling the crowd, People my age cant remember if we did it or not. He did it, and he did it well.