In the early 1990’s, I found myself backstage in the greenroom with some actors, comedians, and musicians waiting to be called. A pilot for a new variety show was being taped, and through the generosity of an agent, I was given a brief shot on a panel with some other entertainers living in the Atlanta area at the time. Since the other guests were all recognized talent, I suppose I was to be the “variety” portion of the show.
Everything was running behind schedule, which is not unusual for that kind of work. So even though it was a morning call, I knew better than to schedule any other work the rest of the day. Had I been more aware of what all was going on, I’d have brought a sleeping bag.
I’d done a few pilots before. Most of them never get aired on any major network, much less get picked up for a primetime series. As it turned out, this one was not going to put me on the cover of “TV Guide”, either.
Conversation was light, and everybody seemed relaxed. But I was less than relaxed. My uneasiness was caused by wondering what I might say or look like in front of the camera, especially when seated next to some serious celebrities on stage. Ben (Cooter) Jones, who had been a regular character on “Dukes of Hazzard” was very personable, and his laid back manner helped me ease up a bit. Then a man turned to me, and introduced himself as Isaac Hayes in such an humble way as if everyone in the room didn’t already know who he was.
Isaac asked me to tell him about myself and my work, and I was so nervous about meeting him face to face that I could think of little that would be of interest to him, or anyone else for that matter. So, I told him:
“Mr. Hayes, I’ve never done anything noteworthy, and if anybody watches this show, I’d doubt they would have any idea who I am. But everybody knows you! I mean, you’re ‘Black Moses’!”
He laughed. Then putting his hand on my shoulder and pulling me a bit closer to his face, he said to me:
“They did hang that on me back about twenty years ago with that album, but I figure W. C. Handy was the real ‘Moses’. But it’s not all just one man, it was a whole generation. And if you want to see that up close, you have to see it through the fingers, and see it through the ears of Ray Charles. So many came along and did the hard work for us. They cut down mountains to give us an easy road.”
Trying to get focus back to his celebrity, I mentioned his incredible writing and studio work at Stax Records, and a number of his hits both from his recordings, and some he’d written for other icons of the industry.
“Van, in this business, you’re only as good as your last record. It’s about ‘what have you done today?’ If you don’t have a record out, don’t expect the old ones to carry you. They won’t.”
He got quiet for a moment, and fiddled with loose change in his pocket. Folks do that around me sometimes. Maybe they think I look like I’m gonna ask to borrow a quarter or something. I’m sure there is some justification in that, as I’m seldom allowed to leave the house with cash. Then, he smiled briefly at me before taking on a more serious face:
“And even if you put out a new song, and nobody is buying your album, you are just one of the nobodies. But they ain’t really nobodies. They are folks. Every day, I have to go to work to let ’em know I’m grateful that they ever listened to my music, and let me play it for them. But I always have to be working on a new thing. Right now, I’d be lucky to get booked for some kid’s birthday party.”
As he spoke, we all joined together sitting around a table, and Isaac continued:
“I haven’t had a hit record in awhile, so there’s no audience standing around waiting to hear me do anything. It’s almost like starting over. And if you look at it like a horse race, there’s a whole stable full of young, strong, talented writers, singers, and other musicians that leap out ahead of me every day. So today, I’m here for the same reason you are. It’s a little bit of work for a little bit of money, and I could use both right now. And maybe if this guy gets a shot with his pilot, some folks will see it. If they do, they’ll see me, and they’ll see you too, sittin’ up there with me and Ben (pointing) over there.”
Conversation seemed easier after that. For a long time, Ben, Isaac and I just talked, and not necessarily about show business stuff. We told jokes, and swapped funny stories about people we knew, and talked a little bit about family. When I mentioned my wife, Isaac asked:
“Are you married?”
I told him I was. Suggesting with some emphasis that I might want to be nice to my wife, he offered:
“If you don’t intend to treat her well, better go on down the road. If you treat her bad, she’ll mess you up. She’ll mess up your head, and your pocketbook all at the same time. Your head might live through it, but that pocketbook won’t.”
About that time, he looked down at his waist. The elastic in the belt he was wearing had come loose from the strap attached to the buckle. Mr. Hayes seemed a bit distraught, and muttered some things suggesting that he didn’t think the program called for him walking on camera with his pants falling down. I think Ben Jones laughed. Isaac looked around and asked pitifully:
“Does anybody have a safety pin?”
All of a sudden, I knew from whence salvation would come. The tweed sportcoat I was wearing had several safety pins in it. The lining of that old jacket would’ve fallen completely out without them. I reached for one that was not likely to cause a disaster if I took it out, and handed it to Isaac Hayes. The look on his face showed surprise and gratitude that I was able to come to the rescue so quickly.
“You saved my life!” he said, and went to work fixing his belt.
“No,” I replied, “I handed you a safety pin, that’s all.”
And quickly responding, he said:
“That’s all? Can you imagine me having to go out there without it? I think I’d rather die, so you saved my life.”
We all got a few chuckles, and settled down. Pretty soon, we finally went on the stage, and I honestly don’t remember a single thing about that program. The only thing I took away that day, other than a paycheck, was the good natured chat backstage with Ben Jones, and Isaac Hayes, and that Mr. Hayes got to use one of my safety pins.
Immediately after, I told the story often. It wasn’t so much that I’d done a good deed, but that I’d had a chance to chat with Mr. Jones and Mr. Hayes. Nowadays, I look back on it with pride as being one of the few times I was ever unselfish. My unselfishness was entirely due to the fact that I didn’t ask Mr, Hayes to return the pin, or pay me back in any way.
This morning, I think back on that with diminishing pride wondering if I’ve bothered to ever help anybody since. That was over twenty years ago. If called before the inquisition of final judgement right now, that story would carry little weight. I’m sure I would be reminded of the lesson attached to that ancient experience, and would be told unequivocally:
“Van, in this business, you’re only as good as your last record.”