On June 11, the first really sweltering day this spring, TOWN Magazine brought together four of our local musicians, who have all shined in the spotlight, to cool their heels at American Grocery Restaurant for our inaugural Musicians Roundtable.
Over mini lamb tacos, a bowl full of mussels, and other fabulous fare, this lively group talked about the many lives they’ve led as professional performers, traveling far and wide (three of them called Los Angeles home at some point before returning to the Upstate). Their talents are what continue to fortify Greenville as a music town contender. All you have to do is look—or, really, listen for it. It’s all right here.
And what you’ll hear is Brooklyn-born, South Carolina–raised, classical pianist Emile Pandolfi, who has sold more than 3 million records and played at the Opening Ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics. And while bluesman-turned-organic-farmer Mac Arnold was coming up in the clubs of Chicago, where he moved from Pelzer back in the day, he played with legends like Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker, not to mention a weekly gig in 1954 at what was once the Bluebird Café on Spring Street in Greenville with none other than James Brown. He is now opening his own Mac Arnold’s Plate Full O’ Blues restaurant and music venue in West Greenville next month.
Of course there’s Paul Riddle who, in his early 20s, joined Spartanburg’s Marshall Tucker Band and performed from 1973 to 1985, scoring gold and platinum records and millions in album sales, and still pursues his love of jazz in Watson’s Riddle, when he’s not teaching drums at Christ Church Episcopal School. And up-and-comer, folk-rock singer-songwriter and new mom Angela Easterling, who may be from Greer, but says she didn’t listen to country music until she lived in Los Angeles for six years, where she played the famous Viper Room and even shared the stage with alt-country crooners like Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle. She’s honed her own down-home folk-rock and released four albums, including one that received high praise from The Byrd’s Roger McGuinn who compared her Black Top Road CD to his group’s seminal album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
It was two hours of laughter and conversation that flowed like a symphony, the parts coming together in perfect time. Much like the arrival of the fried deviled eggs that didn’t last long once everyone settled in. An edited transcript follows:
Angela Easterling: Now you guys have to eat something because I don’t want to be the only one.
Emile Pandolfi: A friend of mine is a cocktail player and people will want to sing anything, and he says when he plays he’ll say, ‘The next tune is a real familiar song that you’ll all probably know, so if any of you know the words . . . shut the hell up.’ [Laughter]
Paul Riddle: Yeah, keep it to yourself. That’s great.
Mac Arnold: I like to tell stories when I’m entertaining, and we were at a place a couple weeks ago and there must have been 3,000 people there and the way the venue is set up, there was a long boardwalk behind the stage, and you could leave the boardwalk and come on up to the stage, and this lady was beside me and I started telling this story about my brother and working in the field and it leads up to the song that we do called “Backbone and Gristle.” I’m telling this story about my brother standing in the field and he didn’t want to work, and my father’s catching him, telling him he needs to get to work. So this lady kept blaring and dancing and blaring and I got to the point in the story where my father kept telling my brother, ‘SHUT UP!’ [Mac indicates yelling over to the lady off to the side] [Laughter]
[A charcuterie and cheese tray arrives to the table, instantly lending an atmosphere akin to a family dinner rather than four strangers who have just sat down together.]
TOWN: What’s the food like backstage?
Arnold: I don’t eat.
Easterling: The only time I got into eating before shows was when I was pregnant. I would just get to where I was playing and eat a huge steak. But, no, usually you don’t want to get up and sing and feel really full.
Pandolfi: I don’t eat all day long when I’m playing.
Pandolfi: I don’t trust my body to be up there on stage.
Riddle: I’ll eat breakfast and lunch, but I can’t eat right before, but as soon as I’m through, I’m starving. [Looking up from his rosemary and watermelon lemonade and glancing around the table at his new friends, Riddle says, “This is very relaxed.”]
TOWN: Even if it is 90-something degrees outside suddenly.
Arnold: And my air conditioning quit last night.
Easterling: My car air conditioning gave out one day in Vegas and I had to drive to California . . .
TOWN: This is already a song . . . [Laughter]
Easterling: In August. And I had to drive through the desert in California, and I thought, if I try to do this tomorrow, I’m going to die, so I left and drove all night and even with the windows rolled down, it was 100 degrees at 2 o’clock in the morning.
Pandolfi: I saw this cartoon, and it was called Nerds in Hell, and they’re standing in line into hell and they’re like, ‘Is it hot in here or is it just me?’ [Laughter]
Arnold: So, Mac, you’re a musician but you’re skilled in the kitchen, too?
Arnold: Since I was about 17 years old, my mom made sure that all of us learned how to cook. There was 15 of us in the family, and she wanted to make sure all of us knew how to cook because if certain people weren’t at home, we all wouldn’t starve to death!
TOWN: And you gave up music and retired to farm for a while?
Arnold: What happened was I ran myself wild in Chicago. I had a group called the Soul Invaders there, and then I met [producer] Don Cornelius, and I found out he was going to do a dance show on television, so I started getting myself together, and I moved to Los Angeles.
TOWN: And that show would have been . . .
Arnold: Soul Train.
TOWN: Yes, just that little show, Soul Train. [Laughter]
Arnold: So I did Soul Train from 1971 to 1975. I played in the band, and I was associate producer also. I played bass for the theme song on the Redd Foxx show [Sanford and Son]. I did a lot of work in Los Angeles, and worked here and there with Ray Charles.
Riddle: I met Ray one time. I was so nervous, I couldn’t hardly talk. He actually played before us. Somehow it was Ray and us. I walked up to him and, I mean, what do you say to Ray? I was just drooling all over him. What do you say?
TOWN: Was he one of your ultimate people to meet?
Riddle: Oh, yeah, he was Top 5.
TOWN: Who were the other ones?
Riddle: Of course, [jazz drummer] Buddy Rich, who I got to become friends with and that was kind of overwhelming.
Pandolfi: Some people thought Buddy Rich was a real jerk— was he actually a nice guy?
Riddle: I’m a real defender of all that.
Pandolfi: I mean everybody knows he was a genius . . .
Riddle: One of my favorite stories growing up—well, my mother and father worked in Drayton Mill in Spartanburg, and they were Milliken’s longest employees. They were just the greatest people on the planet—my drums were in their bedroom, and they never complained. Daddy never took any time off, and there was this jazz festival in Charlotte at the Charlotte Coliseum with everybody from Nina Simone to Dave Brubeck to Buddy’s band, and Thelonious Monk, and my Daddy surprised me and took me to this festival for two days, and it was just crazy. And Monk was looking at me like, ‘why’s this little white boy want my picture for?’ and wouldn’t let me take his picture—I’d go around him, and go to the other side and he finally just surrendered, he just gave up. Those are great memories of Buddy because that’s when I first met him. Then I got to know him the first time we [the Marshall Tucker Band] ever went to New York.
TOWN: Paul, weren’t you just a teenager then in those early Marshall Tucker Band days?
Riddle: I was in my early 20s, and I formed a really great friendship with Buddy, and he was very generous and sweet and kind to me.
Pandolfi: That’s nice to hear. I’m really glad to hear that because it’s the very first time in my life that I’ve ever heard anything even remotely nice about Buddy Rich.
Riddle:: I told the guys in the band, too, his whole thing was—you play like he did every night, and he wanted everyone to play to that standard. He did not tolerate anything else. That was his thing.
TOWN:: You don’t get the genius and the creativity sometimes without the quirks, right?
Easterling:: A lot of bands have both—the person that’s the business person and the person that’s like the musical genius.
TOWN: Like the Rolling Stones—Keith was the music and Mick was the business guy.
Easterling: Or the Beach Boys . . .
Arnold: Mac Arnold and Plate Full of Blues! [Laughter]
TOWN: So what made you get into music?
Pandolfi My earliest memories is Grandma saying ‘What are you going to do when you grow up?’ and since I started lessons when I was five, it had to be before that because I hadn’t taken any lessons yet, and said, I’m going to play the piano. And my grandmother, who was from Sicily said, ‘That’s not a profession.’ And boy was she right! [Laughter]
But I already knew, and I hadn’t even touched a piano, but I just thought, playing piano was just what I wanted to do.
Easterling: That’s why I moved back here because I was living in Los Angeles and I was playing the big, cool hip places—like the Viper Room back then . . . but the things like that, you don’t make money doing that.
Pandolfi: When I was in Los Angeles, I worked in the Comedy Store for about six years and was making $45 a night and even 30 years ago, that was ridiculous, and I played from 7:30 p.m. to 2 a.m., and I made $45. I said I can’t take this anymore more. So I came back to Greenville in 1984, and I started playing at a cocktail bar called Vince Perone’s, and I played there for about six years and then all of sudden my career took off. My wife took the initiative to look through Billboard magazine with all the distributors in America and who was distributing music of my type, and she found a distributor and sent a letter out to each of them. One of the eight answered within six months and then that first year we sold something like 30,000 cassettes.
Pandolfi: They sent them to gift shops and then the biggest year, we sold 450,000 cassettes at the time. We couldn’t believe it.
TOWN: Mac, you retired from music to work on your organic farm in Pelzer, but came back to it.
Arnold: Music has been in my family since I can remember. I was born in 1942, and I’m number seven in the family, so we didn’t have much money at all. And all the instruments that we played, we made them. That’s how these gasoline cans came about [the gas can guitar that is Mac’s signature]. In 1946 my brother wanted a guitar, and that wasn’t happening. My father was very much a Southern Baptist, and one day while he was gone in Florida picking oranges, my brother decided he would take one of his gasoline cans and cut holes in it and make a guitar. He took the guitar to school and there was a competition for creating something, and so he created this instrument and won first place. By the time I was 10 years old, I was playing this gasoline can. I started coming to Greenville in 1953 or ’54 and there was a place on Spring Street called the Bluebird Café, and the owner met this guy from Atlanta, Georgia, named J. Floyd and he had a group called the Shamrocks. I joined that group and J. Floyd was very good friends with James Brown. James Brown used to ride the Greyhound Bus to McBee Avenue and walk up the street to Spring Street and play with us almost every weekend. In 1956, James did “Please, Please, Please,” and I ain’t seen James anymore for 40 years!
Riddle: First concert I ever saw!
TOWN: James Brown?
Riddle: [shaking his head yes] Memorial Auditorium!
Pandolfi: I never saw anything but a classical or semi-classical concert until, gosh, I was maybe 40 years old!
TOWN:: Angela, who was your first concert?
Easterling: Oh, this is so embarrassing! It was Frankie Avalon. I was nine–years-old and we were on a vacation at Opryland, and at the time I was really into those old beach movies from the ’60s and they were having a Frankie Avalon concert and I said, ‘Oh, Mom, we have to go.’ And as soon as he came on stage I ran down to the front, and it was me and all these 50-year-old ladies. I remember after the show I told my mom, ‘I want to be a rock star just like Frankie Avalon.’
TOWN:: Mac, did you ever talk to James Brown again after that?
Arnold: Here and there, but I never got a chance to catch his show. I was always someplace else. He was wide open to the day he died. I even went to his funeral. It took all day. Some people stood there all day and didn’t even get in the door.
Pandolfi: Without knowing it, I grew up as a musical snob. If you weren’t classical, you just didn’t count at all. [Laughter]
Riddle: I was a jazz snob!
Pandolfi: My first concert was actually [classical piano great] Arthur Rubenstein who played [in Greenville]. I was about nine-years-old and I remember being backstage, and I was into playing Chopin and Beethoven and I thought, oh my God, oh my God, and we went around the side and I shook his hand. I almost get tears in my eyes thinking of it.
TOWN: When you all look back at your careers, do you ever think I can’t believe I played at: the ’84 Olympics (Emile), or played with Muddy Waters (Mac) or played at Madison Square Garden (Paul with Marshall Tucker)?
Riddle: Never, ever . . . I still am still so humbled and blown away when I get to get up and play. I got into Buddy’s big band records when I was 9, and I got that feeling . . . that feeling. I don’t know how to describe it or what I was, and I just knew I wanted to feel that feeling again.
Pandolfi:: I’ve played at places that sound good on the resume—Feinstein’s in New York City—but honestly, if I play in Fountain Inn, which I also have, and I really play my heart out, there’s no difference when you really know that you’ve communicated with people.
Easterling: It’s about that connection.
Pandolfi: I wish I could win a Grammy because it looks good on a resume, but if I play my best in Powdersville, I come home saying, I just made those people feel something.
Easterling: For me, as a writer, if I have people come up and say, ‘I played your song at my wedding,’ I can’t even put into words what that means to me. You enter into people’s lives that you’ve never met, that you never will meet, and you become an intimate part of their life. When they hear your song, they think about that’s when I was driving down the road in California and I was listening to that song . . . and you’re there. That just gives me chills to think about that, and it’s so much more important than fame.
Riddle: That connection to a place or a memory, yeah . . .
Easterling:: 90 percent of my show is original music, and when I decided I wanted to write songs, that was the idea that I had—that I was going to look out in the crowd and see someone singing something that I came up with on the floor of the bathroom at 2 o’clock in the morning. There’s nothing that comes close to that feeling.
Arnold: I like doing Blues in the Schools for that reason. We have the kids come up and get on stage with us and we have a heck of a concert!
TOWN: It’s so important—does it feel like it’s a part of your fibers?
Pandolfi I would love to play Carnegie Hall only because it would push my career. But I would hope I would do the same thing that I do for the people of Fountain Inn. It’s just that when you absolutely play your heart out and you get to people, it doesn’t matter where it is.
[The sun sinks into the June evening, as these new friends collect on the sidewalk of South Main Street, exchanging CDs, and promises to catch each other’s shows. Handshakes turn into hugs and the crescendo of a goodbye slows in time to the sound of footsteps receding, on the road again.]