As a musician, I’ve come to the conclusion that playing music in a live setting works best when it parallels, well, life.
There will be some of the inherent up moments, like harmony among the vocals and the instruments, and conversations both with and without words, plus some of the downs like mistakes that you have to recover and learn from.
But being a veteran musician within a geographic music scene also means that music can remind you of the bad times of life, or more accurately, the loss of it. Here are remembrances of six area friends and players I’ve worked with who’ve died during the past 15 years:
DAVE TRULL was the bassist who worked with me in the still-existing Bob Dylan cover band Big Brass Bed from 2007-2010. A talented multi-instrumentalist, Dave was also a veteran of many different musical styles, from bluegrass to Irish musi to his long-standing, still-existing area rock band Midlife Crysis.
“When he first started playing, he was a guitarist,” says his widow, Lenny Trull, “and played bluegrass, or what we liked to call newgrass. I was actually in the band Florida Power and Grass with him, playing left-hand bass on keyboards. I can’t believe people actually paid us! Then he played bass with the Irish band Echoes of Erin before Midlife Crysis, the Joe Tenuto Band and Big Brass Bed.”
Some of my favorite memories of Dave are from being in the recording studio together. He’s the bassist on Big Brass Bed’s second CD, the 2011 release Dylan Jam + 2, recorded at Corey Dwyer’s since-closed Dream Factory Studio in Boynton Beach. Surprisingly, Lenny says that it’s the only official CD release that Dave was ever on, which makes the memories of talking between takes about one of our shared audio passions, the music of Frank Zappa, more special.
Within the next year, at the same studio, he and I were the rhythm section for recording sessions by Irish vocalist Tracy Sands, still unreleased. Both of those sets of sessions were great fun, largely due to Dave’s personality, musicality (aided by his previous playing on guitar and acoustic upright bass as well as electric bass) and irreverent sense of humor.
“The way Dave played was a statement and reflection of his life, with so much warmth, stability and fluidity,” says John Smotherman, the Palm Beach Gardens-based guitarist/vocalist for Big Brass Bed, country act the Andrew Morris Band, and pop/rock group Crazy Chester. “He placed his notes so that you always knew he was there, but without overplaying. I can still hear that steady thump and see that smile.”
But Parkinson’s disease, which had manifested itself around 2005, was slowing Trull down, and hastened his departure from Big Brass Bed. He continued to perform occasionally through 2012 with Midlife Crysis, aided by medications that proved only to work temporarily. He and Lenny attended Big Brass Bed’s April 2013 show at the Norton Museum of Art, one of his last public appearances before he died July 7 at age 67.
“My father was a tremendous person, both behind the bass guitar and as a father,” says David Trull, singing guitarist for young area rock trio Franscene, which also features his younger brother Will Trull (drums/vocals) and their longtime friend Shaun Cuddy (bass/vocals).
“For him, music was all about sharing the gift of playing and enjoying yourself while you were doing it. He’s the reason for all those hours of endless jamming, and for pushing us to technically get better all the time. I wouldn’t be exaggerating in saying that he directly encouraged two handfuls of childhood friends to pick up a guitar or bass for the first time. ‘Big D’ was the epitome of cool. He still is. From the memories of him taking us to the Lollapalooza Festival, and to see Primus, when we were in elementary school to his unbelievably eccentric style, the man had that dapper essential that will never be forgotten.”
The Trulls’ basement rehearsal studio at their Lake Worth home has now been turned into a third bedroom to accommodate David, Will and the family’s non-musician sibling Daniel. All are in their 20s, and Lenny’s version of My Three Sons creates an in-house support and recovery unit for the entire family.
And that family gave Trull the kind of sendoff every musician wants during his memorial at the Elks Lodge in Delray Beach last August. A packed house of family and friends witnessed impassioned performances by Midlife Crysis, Crazy Chester (led by former Midlife Crysis singer/guitarist Peter Dusinberre), the Joe Tenuto Band, Big Brass Bed, Girlfriend Material, and Franscene that will never be forgotten.
“Will is now teaching drums at the School of Rock,” Lenny says. “His dad would love that. And Jackie Kovach, who is one of the premier artists at the Lake Worth Street Painting Festival, is painting Dave in chalk in February. I believe her spot is in front of Kilwin’s Chocolates [512 Lake Ave.], our favorite date location during Dave’s last year. It’s such an honor.”
Lenny continues to honor her late husband’s legacy by attending every show by Franscene (she’ll be the ageless blond fireplug dancing up front) and most by Big Brass Bed, among others. And Franscene is one of the best and most energetic area rock acts, with original compositions by David, Will and Cuddy, and cover songs that roam into the challenging vocal and instrumental terrain of The Police and Rush.[See Franscene (www.facebook.com/franscenelw) from 9-11 p.m. on Feb. 1 at Guanabanas, 960 N. Hwy. A1A, Jupiter (561-747-8878); from 11 p.m.-3 a.m. on Feb. 8 at the Original Fat Cat’s, 320 S.W. 2nd St., Fort Lauderdale (954-524-5366); from 8 p.m.-midnight on Feb. 14 at Old Key Lime House, 300 E. Ocean Ave., Lantana (561-582-1889); from 10 p.m.-1 a.m. on Feb. 15 at Nick and Johnnie’s, 207 Royal Poinciana, Palm Beach (561-655-3319); from 10 p.m.-1:30 a.m. on Feb. 20 at the Dubliner, 435 Plaza Real, Boca Raton (561-620-2540); from 11 p.m.-2 a.m. on Feb. 22 at the Dubliner, 210 S.W. 2nd St., Fort Lauderdale (954-523-1213); and from 10 p.m.-1:30 a.m. on Feb. 27 at The Hurricane, 640-7 E. Atlantic Ave., Delray Beach (561-278-0282). ]
GARY KERN was the singing guitarist in my 1990-1991 variety act Lite-N-Up. An incredible vocalist who nailed everything from Wilson Pickett and original material to Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones medleys, he’d moved down from Jacksonville in the late ’80s with bassist/vocalist Jonathan Grooms to form the house band at the now-defunct Fathoms club on Singer Island. Guitarist/vocalist John Smotherman and I rounded out the quartet lineup after replacing original members in the fall of 1990.
We played five or six nights a week at Fathoms for the better part of a year, and somehow survived through the venue’s Animal House-like excesses. But it may have been the best band I was ever in, with four guys who could sing both lead and harmony vocals. Kern was the most accomplished singer of all of us; Grooms a far-ahead-of-the-curve bassist who slapped and played finger-style with equal abandon, and Smotherman remains a rare, unique area mixer of incendiary rock, blues, country and roots music styles.
When Kern left the band in 1991, he was replaced by guitarist John Wurm for our final six months together. Sadly, Wurm suffered a hemorrhagic stroke in 2007, and continues to fight against the effects of that brain bleed. In 2011, Grooms drove down to join Smotherman and myself for Lite-N-Up trio reunion shows to raise money for John’s stem cell treatments, during which time we also toasted Kern’s memory at shows in Lake Park and Lake Worth. Grooms had delivered the sad news of Kern’s death, from stomach cancer in 2008 shortly before his 50th birthday, to me before we planned those benefits.
“The main thing I remember about Gary is that he was always fun to be around, on stage or off,” says Grooms, now based in the Florida Panhandle and playing as far west as Texas. “He always made me laugh, and I miss him a lot. And while he soloed effortlessly, he was also one of the best rhythm guitarists I’ve ever played with. Gary had an incredible knowledge of, and feel for, rhythmic funk chords.”
“Gary was one of the funniest guys I’ve ever met,” Smotherman says. “He was also a superbly well-rounded musician who could sing, play rhythm and lead guitar, and write songs with equal proficiency. And he had a knack for constructing great song medleys, something that’s not easy to do.”
HARRY JOHNSON was my drum instructor in the mid-1980s, and an incredibly versatile jazz, blues and rock drummer, vocalist and teacher. He was in the variety act Paradise, one of the greatest local live acts of all time, in the late ’70s and early ’80s — until its guitarist, Scott Henderson, relocated to Los Angeles and became a jazz/fusion star.
Several years later, Johnson replaced me in the R&B band Brookes Brothers when I took the drum chair in a Montreal-based rock band called Big City for six months. He’d often sat in with Brookes Brothers, especially when we played the infamous after-hours club called Merlin’s in the West Palm Beach warehouse district near Okeechobee Boulevard and Interstate 95, and he always offered guidance laced with his inimitable humor.
“Here’s a quote from Harry from a gig at the Waterway Cafe in Palm Beach Gardens from the late ’80s,” says former Brookes Brothers bassist/vocalist Charlie Gonzalez: “ ‘You didn’t play that on purpose, did you?’”
Yet Johnson’s legacy would go far beyond music. When he died in 2007 at age 53, he’d been clean and sober for nearly 18 years, and become a sponsor and spiritual mentor for many others in treatment for drug and alcohol addiction — even while he was being treated for esophageal cancer. But after he suffered a debilitating stroke, doctors discovered that the cancer had metastasized into his brain. He never regained consciousness after surgery.
Johnson subbed for me in my all-improvisational trio Blatant Disregard in 2005 after my mother died, and offered me guidance in getting through the loss. In late 2006, Harry and I were both playing at one of the “Three Guitar” showcases at the now-defunct Orange Door in Lake Park. Knowing he was undergoing chemotherapy, I offered to sit in for him if he got tired. He never seemed to, but asked me to play for him late in his set. I actually think he did it more because he knew it would help me if I felt like I’d been helpful to him.
“That’s the kind of person he was,” says his sister, Mary Gallo. “Harry was all about helping people, and being the best person he could be.”
JON REYNOLDS was a versatile keyboardist, saxophonist and singer whom I worked in two different bands with. The first was an early-1990s rock cover band called Casual Faxx; the other was a blues group called Roadhouse in the late ’90s, in which his abilities on Hammond organ were a major plus.
“Jon was one of the most fun and creative blues players I ever worked with,” says bassist/vocalist Kent Demonbreun, now with acoustic rock quartet 900 Seconds and the jazz trio The Jazz Game. “He repeatedly put the needs of the band before himself, and probably had the least ego of any musician I ever met. He was also fascinated with the other music I was into, and always talked about mixing Latin rhythms, R&B funk lines, and odd jazz time signatures into the blues. I wish he was still here, because we were on the verge of doing some really cool things.”
The last gig we played with Reynolds was with Roadhouse at one of the annual City Link music festivals in Fort Lauderdale in 1998. A few years later, I heard of his passing, from a heart attack while in his late 40s. He put on weight pretty easily, almost always a contributing factor at that age. But I’ll always remember his musicality, humor, and capabilities as a singer as well as on two very different and challenging instruments.
STEVE ALLEN was the bassist/vocalist in the rock group Rat Race, which I worked with from 1992 to 1994. Fronted by Hobe Sound-based guitarist/vocalist Danny Franklin, and also featuring keyboardist Jeff Crofford, it wasn’t the most talented group I was ever part of, but we did play cover tunes that I really enjoyed and have never performed with any other band: For Your Love by The Yardbirds, Stay With Me by The Faces, and a less-cowbell version of Don’t Fear the Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult.
In 1993, bassist/vocalist Doug Lindsay started subbing for Allen, and eventually replaced him. The band also added a female singer, Shane Behar Clary; morphed into covers of Tracy Chapman and Alanis Morissette, and started getting higher-end gigs. A very notable one was the reception at golfing giant Jack Nicklaus’ house in North Palm Beach after his son Gary’s wedding.
“I actually never met Steve,” says the Jupiter-based Lindsay, who now plays R&B, pop and progressive rock with Groove Merchant, Flashback, and the Jason Colannino 4-Peace Band, plus jazz and funk with the Baker Boys. “Danny always picked some interesting covers and was very animated on stage; Shane jumped around like Charo and brought a completely different element. Between Danny’s grizzled exterior and Shane’s worldly appearance, it was like a dysfunctional reality TV show, but it worked for a while.”
Allen was a very solid bassist, a simpatico harmony vocalist with Franklin (the two had played together for years), and a gentle giant who lived to play music. When I heard he’d died of a heart attack in the late ’90s, while only in his late 40s, I immediately thought of the weight he so effortlessly put on. But I’ve since reminisced more about the good times and laughs we had together, mostly playing at nightclubs, restaurants and bring-your-own bottle clubs along the Treasure Coast.
MATT NOVAK was the guitarist in my first band ever, Hydragon, in 1978. Our quartet lineup was rounded out by singer/guitarist Danny DeBellvue and bassist Mike McLaren. Matt and Mike grew up a few doors apart on the same street in West Palm Beach; Danny lived one street north, and Mike and I had been friends since middle school and graduated from Twin Lakes High School in the same class. We’re even next-door neighbors now.
Matt attended Twin Lakes as well, and was a couple of years ahead of us. Even before our garage band, he was like a rock star there. He looked like a long-haired version of actor Burt Reynolds, who’d attended the same campus when it was Palm Beach High School. And Matt was ever-present at parties, especially since many of them were at his house on Andrews Road when his parents were away.
Mike lived a few doors west on Andrews, at the end of the dead-end street right along I-95 near where the interstate highway intersects Belvedere Road. There’s a tall concrete wall right next to Mike’s old house now, apparently to limit traffic noise, but it certainly didn’t exist in ’78. And we’re convinced that Hydragon had a hand in it being put up, because Mike’s roof was the site of our first live appearance.
Facing the northbound traffic along I-95 in broad daylight one weekday afternoon while Mike’s parents were out, we blared original rock pieces, and covers that included Beatles songs, for 20-30 minutes until we heard police sirens and hurried our guitars, amplifiers and drums off the roof and back inside. There’s no telling how many people saw us as they drove by during that time frame, but we were impossible to ignore, causing many to do so with their mouths open, sporting looks of disbelief. It may always remain the largest audience I ever played for.
“From the first time I met Matt in 1964 until I spoke to him only days before he died, he was talking about the Beatles,” McLaren says. “Matt wasn’t just a fan, he was a scholar and disciple; Palm Beach County’s very own fifth Beatle.”
Novak later started playing bass as well, and shortly before his death, he was gigging out on acoustic guitar and writing quality songs like his South Florida ode On the Beach. But he also had his demons, which he didn’t shake despite McLaren’s efforts to right his best friend’s ship. He died of a drug overdose in his West Palm Beach apartment in 2004 while only in his mid-40s, and Mike, Danny and I all attended his funeral. It was a very macabre way to put the band back together.
“I believe Matt is up there laughing at all of us,” says DeBellvue, now living in Atlanta, “while he attends ‘The Great Gig in the Sky.’”
Come to think of it, Novak was one of three guys remembered here who played guitar, along with Kern and Trull. Bassist Allen and drummer Johnson would make a great rhythm section, Reynolds doubled on keyboards and sax, and all six of them were capable vocalists.
Perhaps the best local band no one ever heard is indeed laughing at us, and playing a version of the Pink Floyd song that DeBellvue refers to (from the classic Dark Side of the Moon album) that’s simply too good for mere mortal ears to hear.
Bill Meredith, a freelance musician and journalist, writes about pop and jazz music for Palm Beach ArtsPaper.