What It's Really Like Up There On Stage
Our Ben Fong-Torres sings with music legends, then joins Tamlyn Tomita to say 'Happy Birthday' to Mike Honda.
After I did my three Elvis Presley tunes at chef Dean Fearings fund-raising BBQ Bash in Dallas, keyboard player Tony Brown , who was Presleys last onstage pianist, leaned into a microphone and intoned: Elvis has left the building. All around the Mansion on Turtle Creek, the luxury hotel and site of the BBQ, guests called me Elvis, and one man told me, I wasn't into Elvis before, 'till I heard you singing Elvis."
But I dont think Elvis ever sat, a half hour before a gig, in a hotel lounge, listening to his songs over a headset, still trying to memorize Dont Be Cruel and Teddy Bear.
But thats what I had to do, after realizing that just because Ive known a song for most of my life doesnt mean I can perform it with a live band and get it just right.
Ive had that awareness beforelike, say, every time Ive sung in publicbut its especially challenging when the band includes such pros as Brown, who also heads a record label in Nashville and has worked with dozens of country greats, including George Strait, Reba McEntire , and Trisha Yearwood . On sax is Johnny Reno , whos worked with Chris Isaak and many others. Also on board: Richie Furay , of Buffalo Springfield and Poco fame, along with Holly Williams , singer-songwriter daughter of Hank Williams, Jr. And last years guest stars included Jim Messina (of the recenty reformed Loggins and) and Mickey Raphael, Willie Nelsons harmonica player. Intimidating company, to say the least.
As for the audience: Theyre about 500 people a year, the kind of people able and willing to pony up $250 for an evening of grilled and barbequed goodies from a dozen chefs, many of them famous, from around the country. Theres an auction (all this is to benefit a local group that funds performing arts). And theres music, with chef Dean Fearing (on guitar) and his mostly chefs band, the Barbwires, along with the various celebrity players.
And so there are rehearsals, which tend to be spotty. Musicians arrive anytime between Thursday and Saturday morning, just hours before the BBQ begins. The Mansion is generous with food and drinks, 24/7, and more than a couple of performers are pretty ragged of voice by early Saturday evening.
This year, with guest star Wynonna , the country legend, not arriving till Saturday, rehearsals began on a hungover Friday, when Fearing and Robert DelGrande , guitarist and owner-chef of Caf Annies in Houston, began working on their songs in a suite above the Mansions restaurant. Alongside was Tim Keating , another Houston-based restaurateur and a stellar vocalist.
I forgot to tell you: Every year (this was the fifth), the Barbwires and guest performers gather on Friday evening for an informal dinner party and jam session, amounting to a dress rehearsal, open to chefs, musicians, families, friends, and assorted VIPs.
(As for why Im there at all: I covered the event for Gourmet magazine in 2003, and Fearing learned that Ive done Elvis songs. He invited me to perform at last years BBQ, then anointed me a Barbwire for this years event.)
So I popped into the Hunt Suite to see what was going on, and ended up running through three songs Id sent, on a CD, to Fearing months before, thinking hed choose the two he and his band liked best. We tried all threeCant Help Falling in Love, Teddy Bear and Dont Be Cruelwith acoustic guitars, and with Keating beginning to figure out the background vocals.
A few hours later, we were on the terrace, in 90-degree, early evening heat, performing. By then, Tony Brown had agreed to handle the piano intro to Cant Help and Teddy Bear. Holly Williams tells me she loves Cant Help and pitches in on background vocals. Suddenly, the songs take shape, even though I hear myself stumbling on the timing and phrasing of Teddy Bear. Thats the deal. You may get applause and even screaming, and you may hear some amazing and not really believable complimentsBarbwires drummer Chris Rote , telling me to get closer up to the microphone, said, We want to hear you. Youre the best singer weve got. But up there, you hear every tiny mistake you make, and it can be unnervingespecially if youre still in the middle of a song.
After the set, we repair towhere else?the Mansions cocktail lounge, where I soon learn that the late rock and roll pioneer Buddy Hollys widow is at the bar. I was in Amarillo, Texas, with my father, in 57 and 58, and knew well the work of Holly, a native of Lubbock, just south of us. He was killed in a plane crash in 1959, and many years later, I wrote about the film, The Buddy Holly Story, starring Gary Busey . But Id never met Maria Elena . When I introduced myself, she drew me to her for a kiss and a hug, said shed been wanting to meet me for years, and that, after all the years, with books, movies and plays having been produced, there was still a Buddy Holly story to be told. We promised to keep in touch.
So: A weekend in Dallas; singing with Elvis keyboard player, with backing by Hank Williams granddaughter. Meeting Buddy Hollys widow. Sitting, at the BBQ Bash itself, next to Wynonna. No wonder I screwed up again. It was on Dont Be Cruel, which Wynonna herself had covered years ago with the Judds. I simply forgot some words, hemmed and hawed for a line, and got back on track. People didnt seem to notice, but I was just glad it was my last number. Again, there were cheers, pats on the back, and shouts of Elvis as I returned to my table, where Wynonna brought me down to earth. Boy, Ill tell you one thing, she said. Youve got a lot of courage.
Besides whatever guts I have, it takes practice. Which I will begin immediately. At the farewell brunch on Sunday, chef Fearing, ebullient as ever, told me, Next year, how about Suspicious Minds?
RANDOM NOTES: Remember the brouhaha over Hot 97, the New York station whose morning crew performed and broadcast a song parody mocking victims of the tsunami disaster in and around Asia, using racist epithets in the process? The writer of the song, Rick Delgado , was fired. Now, hes landed a job as producer of the new morning show on hip-hop station KYLD (Wild 94.9) in San Francisco. Gee, he should be a perfect fit here in the Bay Area Norman Mailer , the legendary novelist, mustve gotten a nasty review from New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani . Why else be calling her, in Rolling Stone , a kamikaze and a token employee at the Times ; a two-fer, in fact, because, he pointed out, shes Asiatic, feminist. Ms. Kakutani, aside from being a brilliant critic and an excellent writer, is a native of Connecticut. Asiatic? Sounds like Mailers stuck inside one of his World War II novels Mailer is on the novelty CD, Stranger Than Fiction , featuring authors doing rock, blues and other music. Among his fellow performers: Amy Tan and me. I wonder if we werent tokens, too
WHEN HES 64: Mike Honda , the Congressman from San Jose, Calif., was toasted and roasted the other evening in Chinatown, San Francisco, in a benefit for CAPA (The Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans. Tamlyn Tomita and I co-MCd, Dale Minami , attorney and civil rights champion, welcomed guests, MJ Mendoza and Greg Watanable did comic monologues, and then Honda got it from all sides. Roasters included dapper Public Defender Jeff Adachi , a hilarious Carole Hayashino (VP for Advancement at Sacramento State), attorney Steve Ngo , who used to work for Honda and remembered him kicking his shoes off at work, and Warren Furutani , LA Community College trustee and a politician blessed with a comedians sense of timing. Betty Yee of the State Board of Equalization unveiled an Elvis standup with Hondas head on it (apparently, the Congressman likes to break out in song), and Maeley Tom , VP of the State Personnel Board, serenaded him by video with a polished, personalized version of My Girl and a Marilyn Monroe -styled Happy Birthday.
For all the abuse he took, Honda was gentle in his rebuttals. I learned a lot tonight, he said. I learned that I need a lot of attentioneven if its negative.
Mostly, he was proud to be surrounded by a roomful of accomplished Asian Americans, as well as by a younger generation of APAs getting involved in politics. (CAPA invited five 20-somethingsTina Lee, Kristy Young, Linda Nguyen, Brian Wang and Levin Sy -- to introduce the roasters).
Without Asian Pacific Americans in the political system, Honda said, this country is less rich and less whole.
PS: Hondas 64th birthday was actually a month before the event. He simply made himself available to help raise funds for CAPA. Now, how can you roast a guy like that?
Listen to Ben Fong-Torres' radio show on the Moonlight Groove Highway Sundays at www.moonlightgrooveradio.com. It's a wide and wild mix of music. Also, visit Ben's home page, loaded with celebrity photos, past articles and other goodies, all at www.benfongtorres.com.