With an exciting new Soul Vaccination CD, featuring guest guitarist Bruce Conte, about to be released, I've been thinking about how it came to be. It's a long, winding story, going back to my teens in San Francisco.
Back then—in the late '60s—Bruce was playing in a band called Common Ground, led by my first organ teacher, Norm Bellas. They rehearsed a couple times at my folks' house in SF, which is how I first met Bruce. Bruce was just a couple of years older than me, but he'd been playing professionally for a long time already (going back to when he played bass in his hometown of Fresno at the age of fourteen). Later, Bruce had switched to guitar—a natural move in that his older cousin, Victor (yes, THAT Victor Conte), was a bass player.
Norm Bellas the young Bruce in his signature leather jacket Victor Conte
The line-up of Common Ground included both Contes, Bruce & Victor, plus fellow Fresno-ite Coleman Head, a vocalist, guitarist, and songwriter (Coleman later wrote for Tower of Power among others). Norm played organ, and the drummer was Lonnie Castile. Lonnie was the funkiest drummer you've never heard of. That's him on Wilson Pickett's “Midnight Mover,” and on Janice Joplin's “Try.” He also recorded with Charlie Musselwhite and Rare Earth before, sadly, giving up music and becoming a Jehovah's Witness. (Reportedly Lonnie did start playing again in the '90s.)
Common Ground (l to r: Coleman Head, Lonnie Castile, Bruce & Victor Conte)
But back to Bruce and me... After Common Ground broke up, Bruce called Norm about playing a steady gig with him in Des Moines, Iowa. Norm couldn't make it, and he recommended me. Now, I was still a beginner, but Bruce didn't have any other options, so I got the gig! We drove back to Iowa together in Bruce's little '68 VW Bug, and along the way Bruce shared tips about women (not very helpful) and music (very helpful). We made the trip in one day, talking all the way--fueled by a couple of little yellow pills. (Upon arriving, Bruce wisely flushed the remainder of those pills down the toilet; he thought they were a little TOO effective!)
Needless to say, I was excited to be on the road, preparing to play my first gig. We were to play in a band led by a drummer whom Bruce knew from Fresno. (Another Fresno musician, a young bassist named Charlie Magarian, arrived in Des Moines a couple days after we did.) The drummer was living in the 'hood, at the home of his vocalist girlfriend's mom, and that's where we stayed as well. The mom was a tough lady—feared in the neighborhood, we were told--but she fed us soul food and generally made us feel at home.
Things changed, however, when Bruce decided the gig wasn't shaping up well and that we should head back to Fresno. (Among other problems, the drummer wore a hearing aid—except when drumming!) We were in the backyard when the mom got word of our plans. Suddenly the back door flew open and a skillet full of hot grits came flying in our direction. Bruce, Charlie, and I ran to the VW and peeled rubber. As we pulled away, we heard a shotgun blast in our wake!
We'd escaped unscathed—if unpaid, as we'd never actually played a gig. But now the three of us were crammed into that tiny Bug along with our luggage and Bruce & Charlie's instruments & amps. (I'd had my cut-down Hammond shipped out there, and the drummer was nice enough to arrange shipment of it back to SF following our hasty departure.) Bruce and Charlie sat in front, and I was shoehorned into a tiny crevice in back. Once again, Bruce had a pharmacological solution: he gave me a sleeping pill and I slept all the way back to Fresno.
A Volkswagen Bug, circa '68 My cutdown Hammond CV
So my first road trip was a bit of a fiasco. Still, it was an exciting adventure for a teenaged keyboard player, and it was the beginning of a long friendship between Bruce and me. Soon after my return to SF, I was able to hook Bruce up with a popular Bay Area band called the Loading Zone, featuring vocalist Linda Tillery. (By this time, I was studying with Loading Zone organist Tom Coster, who had mentioned their search for a guitarist.) That gig led indirectly to Bruce's joining Tower of Power, as the Loading Zone shared rehearsal space with TOP and regularly opened for them, and the latter band was having issues with their guitarist.
During this period--Bruce's Loading Zone stint and his early days with TOP--we lived together in a couple of musicians' pads—first in Berkeley, and then in nearby El Sobrante. Later, when I was living in SF and Bruce was a few miles south in Burlingame, we'd get together and go fishing at the Brisbane Tubes just south of Candlestick Park on Highway 101. Great fishing spot, but occasionally we'd get kicked out. The spot is right on the edge of the highway, and the CHP officers liked to keep it for themselves!
Linda Tillery of Loading Zone Bruce in Tower of Power
The Brisbane Tubes With a pair of Brisbane Tubes striped bass
Following Bruce's seven year run with TOP, which coincided with the band's heyday, he formed a group called Jumpstreet, featuring vocalist Gavin Christopher. That was a fine band; Christopher was a gifted singer/songwriter (he wrote Chaka Khan's “Once You Get Started” among other hits). But Herbie Hancock heard the band and hired away Christopher and the group's keyboardist, Nate Ginsburg. After a stint with the Lydia Pense band, Bruce returned to leading his own group, now dubbed Hot Street. I played keys; other members included a fiery female vocalist, Terri Smith, drummer/vocalist Jimmy Walker (who'd been a Righteous Brother), and powerhouse bassist Gary Calvin. To get an idea of what that band sounded like, check out “Somebody New,” a demo tune we recorded, penned by Coleman Head and Nate Ginsburg. (That's under “Audio” at my website, www.louispain.com)
Gavin Christopher Hot Street, circa 1982
After Hot Street broke up, Bruce and I went our separate ways. He moved to L.A. and led Power Play, a group that performed in Vegas, and I returned to leading a San Francisco soul-jazz organ group. (The name of that band? Common Ground, of course—I'd kind of inherited that.) The Hot Street break-up had been a little contentious (as band breakups tend to be), and Bruce and I didn't talk for a time. But eventually, after I'd moved to Portland in '86, we got back in touch. And when I visited L.A. with the Paul deLay Band around '95, Bruce played host and tour guide, taking us to a Hollywood club to hang out and listen.
"Common Ground" w/ Fred Casey (l) & John Nichols The Paul deLay Band @ Fillmore Auditorium
Bruce and I continued to talk sporadically until last year, when I had the idea of getting Bruce out to Portland to play at the Safeway Waterfront Blues Festival with Soul Vaccination. It seemed like a natural, seeing as Soul Vax is an excellent horn band that plays a bunch of TOP tunes and is even named after one of the band's signature songs. Bruce lives in the Philippines these days, but he gets home to Fresno every summer for a couple weeks, during which he lines up a few engagements and recording sessions. So I got everything coordinated with my former Paul deLay bandmate Peter Dammann, who hires talent for the festival, and Dave Mills, bandleader of Soul Vax. Peter gave us the festival's closing slot: on the Fourth of July, right before the fireworks. Dave was also able to book a club gig for Bruce and Soul Vax--at Portland's Jimmy Mak's--for later the same week. My wife Tracy, a flight attendant, arranged cheap flights from LA for Bruce, and he stayed with us during his stay (becoming buddies with our three cats).
Bruce, Tracy, and me on our deck Bruce with Marty the Cat
The band—thirteen strong--assembled at our Washougal home a few days prior to the festival. (The house features a large basement “man cave”—perfect rehearsal space for even a big group like this one.) We decided on material then, and arranged & rehearsed it, with Bruce suggesting adjustments to the band's rhythm arrangements and Dave rearranging the horns accordingly. Everything came together beautifully, and afterwards, as we hung out in the kitchen, Bruce suggested recording the Jimmy Mak's gig. Dave said, “sure,” and that was that: we decided to make a CD together.
Soul Vaccination/Bruce Conte rehearsal in the Man Cave
The blues festival set went great, but the Jimmy Mak's gig went even better. The band was tight, and Bruce took some phenomenal guitar solos—a couple of which featured his distinctive rhythm guitar playing. Bruce is arguably the best rhythm guitarist I've ever worked with, and I've worked with some good ones. He drives bands just as much as their drummers do. In the mix of Tower Of Power recordings, this doesn't entirely come across. But on the Soul Vax CD, it's very apparent—particularly on the aforementioned guitar solos, which begin with the rest of the band laying out while Bruce plays rhythm. Electrifying stuff!
Soul Vax/Bruce Conte @ Jimmy Mak's, 7-9-11 (photos by Susan Mills)
In a sense, the new CD, titled “What Is Hip,” is a re-imagining of Tower of Power as a band in which guitar and horns share the spotlight. Hip indeed! For me, this CD is the highlight of my long association with Bruce, as well as the most exiting thing that Soul Vaccination has done to date. I think folks are truly going to be knocked out!
- - - - - - - - - - - -
Soul Vaccination will be releasing their new CD, “What Is Hip,” featuring Bruce Conte, at Portland's Music Millennium on Sunday, April 15, and at the Melody Ballroom on Friday, April 20, 2012. For details, visit the Soul Vaccination website.
Recorded by Brad Wager; Executive Producers, Tracy Pain & Susan Mills (Soul Sisters Productions)
Here is the link to an interview Bruce did with Inessa Anderson of KINK FM on the day before the recording of "What Is Hip?".