Larry Donn's Rockabilly Days - REMINISCING

Rockabilly Days

LARRY DONN writes for Now Dig This

It was ten years ago this month, April 21st 1989, that I did my first show in England.

When I heard in the late '80s of the interest in 'Honey Bun' among rock n rollers in England and Europe, I phoned an agent in Nashville to inquire about the possibility of getting some shows across the Great Pond. He told me to forget it, as he had never heard of me, but I didn't, because I had heard of me. Some months later, I received a letter from a fan in France, and sent him a reply, asking if he could send me the name and address of an agent in Europe. He did, and I sent letters to Willie Jeffery and Paul Barrett. Paul ("the demon agent") replied that he had never heard of me, but he'd see what he could do. "Wild" Willie Jeffery also replied, and was the lucky winner of the "First To Book L.D. Across The Great Pond" contest with his offer of three shows in England. A couple of weeks later, a letter arrived with a plane ticket and a performance schedule.

On April 19th, I boarded a Lockheed L-1011 in Memphis for the flight to London. It was my very first plane ride. I had sat in two or three over the years, and had a few minutes in an Air Force C-130 simulator, but none of them were going anywhere. My main concern, of course, was that the plane would stay in the air until we got to London, but I knew the statistics were on my side, as flying is about the safest way to travel, except by bicycle, and I didn't have a bicycle. My second concern was that I would be six miles up, and I'm not fond of being more than ten feet off the ground, unless I'm in a hotel room. I decided I could worry about it and be miserable, or I could relish the new experience and enjoy it. When I mentioned to the fellow sitting next to me that it was my first flight, he remarked that I was taking it quite well. I told him that if the plane fell, I was going to wait until I got about ten feet from the water, then jump out, so I wasn't worried. An hour or so into the flight, I was bored silly, so you can imagine how I felt after seven hours of it. I was overjoyed when the pilot said we'd be landing at Heathrow in fifteen minutes.

For the last hour or so of the flight, I sat beside a nice lady who was returning home to London from America. She commented that American movies usually portray London as being very wet and foggy, but it wasn't like that at all. "We have some very nice weather", she said. Then the plane landed in a cold drizzling rain.

Down stairs and up stairs and through doors and down hallways we were herded like cattle and lined up before a long row of customs agents. About an hour later, I was standing in front of an agent whose phoney smile told me he knew I was guilty of something, and if I thought I was going to slip anything past him, I was mistaken. Fortunately, I didn't bring along any bombs, guns or any illegal substances, so all his efforts to trip me up were for naught. After several questions, most of which didn't seem relevant to anything that was any of his business, he stamped my passport and let me through. There were more stairs, hallways and doors, and I came into a large room with a crowd of people behind a long rope, all looking at me. Nobody screamed, so I assumed they were waiting for someone else, then I saw one of them holding a hand-printed sign with my name on it, and I headed for him. He was the driver Willie sent to collect me. After a ten-mile walk to his car and a thirty-minute car drive, I was deposited at the Belle Inn in Godstone, a 600-year-old edifice with doors too short for my six-feet-four body, a deficiency which I painfully took note of several times during my stay. I wondered if any of my ancestors had rested there at some time or other in the distant past. The proprietor fed me and showed me my room, assuring me that Willie would be along soon. I went up to the room, unpacked my suitcase and rested for an hour or so, then someone yelled up the stairway that I had a visitor. "Tell Her Majesty I'll be right there", I yelled back, and reached for my deodorant spray. I leaped down the stairs and charged into the dining room, hoping she'd brought Diana along, only to find this male person about my age, whom I correctly guessed to be Willie Jeffery. Despite being an entertainment agent, he seemed to be quite a nice fellow, and as we were both rock n roll fans, we had a good chat about every thing that had anything to do with it. Eventually, he suggested I get a good night's sleep, and tomorrow he would show me London.

I managed to get a good hour's sleep that night, and woke up drenched in sweat immediately after it. I don't know what the problem was...perhaps a combination of "jet lag" and excitement. Sleeping on a bed wet with sweat is no thrill, and for the rest of the night, I didn't. By the end of the week I was sleeping a bit better, but the inadequate rest lowered my body's resistance, and after I arrived home, I acquired a sinus and upper respiratory infection, which took me about six weeks to fix.

The next day, Willie showed up again and chauffeured me around Oxted first, then London. I saw Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, the River Thames and lots more that I'd seen in pictures and read about, and I was a wide-eyed tourist for a couple of hours.

Willie had told me The Playboys would be backing me, and I told him I remembered their records from the '60s. No, not Gary Lewis & The Playboys, he said, just The Playboys. I learned the difference that night at the leader Rob Glazerbrook's flat. Rob, Dave Begent, Clive Osborne and Kevin Clarke were set up in Rob's kitchen for a rehearsal, which we quickly found out we didn't need, as they knew every song on my list, in the right keys and the proper arragement. Oh, the "difference" I mentioned was the sound. I liked Gary Lewis & The Playboys, but these Playboys played some serious rock n roll...the kind that moves you around whether you want to be moved or not. After a couple of songs, I knew I was going to enjoy this trip very much.

The following evening, Willie showed up at the Belle accompanied by photographer and driver Graham Barker, and Geoff and Valarie Kember, and after a short visit in the bar, we set out for the Juke Joint in London, which apparently was also called The Town & Country 2. When we arrived at the front door, Willie told he doorman that I was Larry Donn. He looked at a list of names and said, "Sorry, mate, he ain't on the list."

"You don't understand", Willie told him, "this is Larry Donn, the American, the star of the show." "Like I said, mate, he ain't on the list. If you ain't on the list, you got to have a ticket", the diligent doorman replied.

"If he doesn't get in, there won't be a show", Willie told him. About that time, he spied a man inside and waved him our way. The man, apparently the proprietor, told the doorman to let us pass, and as we entered, the doorman apologised. We assured him we were not offended and proceeded to the dressing room off the stage. There were people to meet and autographs to sign and Graham wanted to get some pictures of me on-stage before the show, and I was enjoying it very much. Soon, a roar began that sounded like a jet warming up, and I knew The Playboys had begun. I watched from the side of the stage as Rob and Clive leaped about, while Dave whirled his bass around here and there and rode it like a horse, and it could have easily been 1957 if I hadn't known better. When my turn came, I ran out and picked up the Gibson guitar Willie had provided and started singing something, but I cannot remember what it was. 'Please, Please, Baby', the Bobby Brown song, I think, but I may be wrong. The guitar was great, but I broke a string on the second or third song, and moved over to the piano. It was hard to play, and my fingers were weak from playing the organ and other electronic keyboards, and after about three songs, I thought my hands were falling off. It was also a bit out of tune, so I got up and did some leaping about of my own. I thought I would probably die before the show was over, as my body was requiring more air than I could breathe, and a couple of times I had to stop for a few seconds to catch up.

We ended the show with two or three encores of 'Honey Bun', there were more autographs and pictures, and it was time to go. Willie asked if I wanted to get something to eat, and I told him yes, as long as it wasn't kidney pie. I've never tasted kidney pie, and I don't intend to. I'm not eating any kidneys. So my first meal in London was a hamburger from Wimpy's.

The next show was at The Racehill in Brighton. Pete Wlliams had recruited members of a local motorcycle club to help me on and off the stage, as I had to pass through the crowd both ways. About halfway through that show, I ran out of air again. I could tell that it was going to take a few minutes to recover this time, but I knew I couldn't stand there and do nothing but breathe. Before the show I had met Leroy Bradley, who fronted a band called Rocket 88, and I saw his face amongst the many in the room. I persuaded him to come up and sing a couple of songs so I could rest. He did and I did, and I thanked him and went on with the show.

When it was over, the motorcycle guys surrounded me and led me through the crowd to a room off to the side. Once I was inside, Willie joined me and the door was closed. I'm not sure what happened, but about that time I began to breathe normally, the door burst open and the room filled with fans wanting autographs. I was happy to oblige, and spent about a half-hour writing my name on everything that came under my pen.

The third show, at The Moon Hotel in Derby, required a ride on one of England's famous trains. Willie and I went down to Victoria Station and had a cup or two of coffee...mine had chocolate in it...while we were waiting for the train. The train was on time, and soon we were on our way to Derby. America should learn from Britain's trains. It seems that one can get on a train and ride to almost within walking distance of anywhere he wants to go. Of course, America has a lot more space to cover, so we would need a lot more trains, a lot more tracks and a lot more money to build and maintain them, and it is unlikely that the expense could be recovered from the fares. We have a passenger train sysrem called Amtrack, and the fares are too high to attract commuters.

When we reached the Moon, The Playboys were setting up their equipment, and a short soundcheck followed to be sure everything was right. Willie checked us in at the hotel and I had a couple of hours to rest before showtime. The show was pretty much the same as the others, except at one point the soundman turned my microphone completely off while I was singing a song, and had to be yelled at several times before he turned it back on. Oh, well, I made a mistake once so I couldn't say much to him about his. Afterward, there were autographs to sign and pictures to be taken as usual, and a good time was had by me, and I assume everyone else as well. At least nobody threatened me, so I considered it a productive evening.

Then it was off to bed (don't start getting ideas Willie had his own room) and the instrument of torture known as "the quilt." This thing was about six inches thick and probably filled with goose feathers, called "down", and now I know how a cookie feels, lying there in the oven. When I was under it, I was sweating, when I wasn't, I was freezing. I'd much rather have two or three blankets, then I can take one or two off if I'm too warm. Maybe it just takes a while to get used to it. I slept the night five minutes at a time, with probably half of them or more spent moving the quilt and getting back to sleep.

The next day, we took the train back to London, and Willie delivered me to the Belle. That night, The Playboys came for a visit, and we had a nice chat for about two hours. It was the first time we'd had a chance to talk about anything but what song we were doing next and what key it was in.

I spent the next day exploring the neighbourhood, wondering how flowers could be blooming in such cold and miserable weather. It rained the last three days of my visit, and the only time I saw the sun during the whole week was on the way to Gatwick to catch a plane for the US.

I had to wait a couple of hours in the airport, but that's normal, I guess, as much as I hate to think so, and I dreaded the boredom of the nearly eight-hour flight to Boston. I was tired, and I don't sleep well in an upright position, so I knew it was going to be less than fun. As it turned out, the plane wasn't full, and back by the tail, I found three seats that made a nice bed with the armrests up. I got a few hours sleep on the way, and the flight wasn't half bad.

We stopped in Boston and endured the usual customs agents' suspicious glares. The "country boy from Arkansas" act works well, and seems to perplex them, especially the Yankees. (A Yankee is one who was born and reared north of the Mason-Dixon Line, the line that separated the "north" and the "south" in the American Civil War of the mid-1800s. One can tell a Yankee by his accent. Well, southerners can, anyway.) Three hours later, it was on to Memphis, and the wife was there to pick me up for the 90-minute drive home.

The trip and the popularity of 'Honey Bun' were somewhat like a dream come true to me. Oh, I don't have a gold-plated copy hanging on my wall, but I know that it is known and appreciated by rock n roll fan around the world. I don't drive a Cadillac (actually, it's a Mercedes disguised as a Chevy van) and I'm not drawing up the plans for a 'Graceland', but when I head for Hawaii to join Elvis, Roy, and Carl, I will have the satisfaction of knowing that, for as long as there are rock n roll fans and rock n roll magazines, I will be remembered now and then. I hope they smile when they think of me.


Larry Donn's Delta Musicians Page

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