Ben Fong-Torres sings on stage in Texas with rock legends and lives to tell the story.
[Editor's Note: This article was written for the music maga- zine Paste and will appear, in a slightly differ- ent form, in its October issue.]
We were re- hearsing, and Id just run through my Elvis number when Jim Messina issued a threat.
Hey, Ben, he said, I just want to let you know Im gonna be writing a review about this!
Fair enough. After all, back in the day, when I was at Rolling Stone , I used to write about Messina, who was in Buffalo Springfield and Poco before becoming half of Loggins & Messina.
Standing near Messina was Richie Furay, his bandmate in Springfield and Poco. And huddled in a far corner were Mickey Raphael, the harmonica wizard behind Willie Nelson, along with Tony Brown, Nashville label executive, producer, and former keyboard player foryes, Elvis Presley. Yikes!
We were in the Hunt Suite in the Mansion on Turtle Creek, the Dallas luxury resort hotel where Dean Fearing, the ebullient executive chef and guitar-slinging leader of a mostly-chefs band, the Barbwires, gathers as many ringers as he can every year to play at his fundraising Summer Barbeque Fest.
On this seasonally hot July Saturday, some 600 people would soon show up, at $250 a ticket, to sample grilled and barbequed dishes whipped up and served by celebrity chefs from around the country, and to be coerced into overspending for items in an auction run by Al Roker and Peter Greenberg of the Today show.
But mostly, there were the musicians, and the chance to see renowned Texas chefs like Fearing, guitarist Robert DelGrande (of Caf Annie in Houston) and vocalist Tim Keating (of Quattro, also in Houston) performing with bona fide country and rock stars.
And there was me. Id covered last years bash for a feature for Gourmet magazine, all about chefs who never got over their passion for music, and who were still dreaming the rock star dream even if only for jam sessions and occasional sets at fundraising events.
Somewhere over the course of that weekend, Fearing learned that I enjoy singing (although I usually do it through the voices of Elvis, Dylan and Dean Martin). And so I was invited for this summers bash.
I happily accepted, since the invite is, in essence, a free pass to a non-stop party at a luxury resort (and, after hours, at Fearings favorite watering hole, a Tex-Mex restaurant called Primos). The festivities, including a couple of informal rehearsals, are interrupted only by meals featuring the chefs signature dishes, tortilla soup and Warm Lobster Tacos with Yellow Tomato Salsa.
To give the Barbwires an idea of what I thought might work for my stint, and to let them choose the song they most wanted to perform, I recorded myself singing a couple of oldies, Elvis Treat Me Nice and Ricky Nelsons Stood Up, and sent them off to Fearing.
I heard nothing. Did they like both of them? One of them? None? As Dianne, my wife, and I jetted into Dallas, I was in for a few surprises.
At the Mansion, I learned that what, last year, was a cozy eve-of-the-BBQ jam session for the main players and their families and buddies, on a patio at the Mansion, would be open to the public at least that portion of the public that bought a VIP package. And itd be at the Nasher Sculpture Center, a sparkling new museum devoted to modern and contemporary sculpture.
The Mansion would provide food and drinks, and the bandsome of whom were meeting each other for the first time in a year, or everwould do the entertaining.
This, I thought, could be very entertaining. At the museum, saxophone player Johnny Reno told me hed heard my CD and raved about the walking bass on Stood Up. I gotta find that guy, he said. Good luck, I told him. It was a karaoke track.
Soon enough, I was called onstage, faced the crowd, shouted out, Thank you, Detroit! kicked off Stood Up, and promptly forgot the second line.
Although I did recover, my tape of the performance reveals that, as Randy Jackson would put it, I sounded a little pitchy here and there, dawg. And the Barbwires played the Elvis song in mid- instead of uptempo. Still, afterwards, band members and the well-washed public alike began calling me Elvis.
On the bus to Primos, Fearing revealed that hed listened to my CD in his car, on his way to work. I put it on and said, Oh, my God, nobodys gonna believe that this is Ben! Then I sent it to Jimmy (Messina), and he called and said, Thats unreal. Messina himself added: I know who died and made you Elvis.
The next morning, we staggered into the Hunt Suite for our one official rehearsal. With Messinas two backup singers, Antara and Delilah (who have three folk CDs out under their own name), joining in, I watched and listened as my songs took shape. We found the right tempo for Treat Me Nice. Messina counseled me on my timing and phrasing. I got more nervous than ever. I wasnt in a karaoke bar any more.
Fortunately, at the barbeque fest, I had no time to build up a case of stage fright. Near the end of the show, I checked the set list, saw that I wasnt up for another three songs, and had a dance to the gorgeous tune of Furays Buffalo Springfield song, Kind Woman.
At songs end, Fearing motioned for me to get on stage. Time was tight; songs were being cut; and, suddenly, there I was, watching for Antara and Delilah to cue me into the first song. The Ricky Nelson classic got the crowd streaming to the front of the stage, and they danced through Treat Me Nice.
Was I nervous? Was I excited to be singing with this assembly of all-stars? Did I flash back to the year I spent, at age 13, up in Amarillo, in the Texas Panhandle, at my fathers restaurant? Living in a bungalow behind the Ding How, Id strum a toy guitar and do Elvis.
But no. I was, more than anything, focused; trying, hard as I could, to just remember the lyrics; to maintain the tempo, to avoid mistakes. Each time I do something like this, I appreciate professional musicians, and I understand the range of stage demeanors we see, from relaxed and outgoing to serious and business-like.
Having done my bit, I relaxed while Furay and Messina led the Barbwires and the audience through the finale, Your Mama Dont Dance.
As confetti streamers showered the crowd, the band exulted. I had more fun that Ive ever had, said Tim Keating, who played congas and did backup vocals as well as a couple of superb lead vocals.
We dont do this for a living, said Fearing. This is a great gauge. This year, we couldnt have been better, as far as being with the big dogs and being able to keep up, being dynamic.
The next morning, as we said our goodbyes, the chef invited us back for next year. You, he pronounced, are an honorary Barbwire.
And on Monday, a columnist at the Dallas Morning News , Alan Peppard, reviewed the show. The Mansion knows how to rock, the headline read. As for me: With Dean, Jim Messina, Richie Furay and the boys backing him up, Ben channeled rock n roll heaven as he sang Ricky Nelsons Stood Up and Elvis Treat Me Nice. His wife, Dianne, danced joyfully with friends while he sang.
It wasnt a rave review from Jimmy Messina, but Ill take it. Thank you; thankyouverymuch.
STUFF: FYI, I've got two features coming up in Parade , the magazine in your Sunday paper. August 22nd, it's country super star Tim McGraw, and sometime in September, Ellen DeGeneres ... In October, I have two MC gigs, the first one, on the 7th, with the noted playwright, David Henry Hwang, at the beautiful Claremont Hotel in Oakland, for the Asian Community Mental Health Services' anniversary gala...and on the 16th, I'll team with jazz vocalist Cookie Wong to help the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA) pay tribute to Chinatown dance bands ranging from the Thirties to the Seventies. It's a fundraiser, to repair the roof of the CHSA Museum and Learning Center. It should be a swinging evening, so, if you're nearby, swing by. For more info, go to www.CHSA.org... And I've re-started my "Radio Waves" column in the S.F. Chronicle's Sunday Datebook. If you want radio news & views, check it out, every other Sunday. Out-of-towners can find it at www.sfgate.com. Just look for the section that allows you to search past issues of the Chronicle and use the key words "Radio Waves"...
No BBQ at Ben Fong-Torres' home page. Just lots of food for thought, plus celebrity photos, at www.benfongtorres.com.