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Highs & Lows

Darrel Stanley
Christopher Gardner

The Cincinnati Kid: R&B and jazz pianist Darrel Stanley started his comeback last year at Palo Alto's Q Club.

San Jose's Darrel Stanley struggles to convince the nonbelievers that he was once one of R&B's and funk's best guitarists

By Nicky Baxter

IN MAY OF LAST YEAR, A REMARKABLE comeback began at Palo Alto's Q Club when the Darrel Stanley band waded hip-deep into a funk groove, and action on the venue's shiny new stage started to get sweaty. Stanley himself, however, seemed diffident, a little uncomfortable in the limelight. Who could blame him? It had been close to 20 years since the guitarist last performed in public.

If nothing else, the performance strongly indicated that eastside San Jose resident Stanley is a survivor. The 51-year-old musician has experienced the highs of accompanying the likes of crooner Charles Brown and rock and blues shouter Amos Milburn--and the profound lows of alcoholism and homelessness.

He's also endured the drudgery of tending to the infirm at local convalescent homes and hospitals. Perhaps more humiliating still was the refusal of former co-workers to believe that this slope-shouldered funk/jazz guitarist was once a contender. Tonight's rousing act takes the first step toward proving them all wrong, including, perhaps, the guitarist himself. It's just what the doctor ordered--literally.

"My therapist, he told me, man, I needed to get back into music and just forget about my day job, 'cause that job was burnin' me out." Initially somewhat diffident, once he relaxes, Stanley turns out to be extraordinarily gifted at gabbing. A no-commas, nonstop expressionist, Stanley likes to ramble.

Ask Stanley about, say, Charles Brown's distinctive blues style, and chances are he'll wind up weighing the pros and cons (mostly the former) of Bootsy Collins' bass-ic polyfunkic philosophy, and then touch on a chance meeting with Jimi Hendrix. And, somehow, between those polar points, he manages to insert a poignant remembrance of his grandma, the woman who raised him in his hometown of Cincinnati. If Stanley were a superhero, he'd be called Tangent Man, complete with a cloak festooned with conversational fragments.

Still, most of the time he comes off like a colored Clark Kent, a taciturn guy who goes his own way and expects you to do the same. In some respects, he's just a regular Joe, punching the clock like the rest of us. Well, actually, Stanley is an ex-clock puncher.

NOT LONG AGO, hanging on for dear life to a job that was driving him batty, a hankering to play convinced Stanley to sod the day gig and devote all his energies to music. As Stanley sees it, he has something to prove--both to himself and to everyone who laughed in his face when he'd mumble the names of legendary musicians as former employers.

"Them people at my job never believed me when I told 'em that I was a musician, that I played [guitar] with Charles Brown and Amos Milburn, so after a while I just stopped talkin' about it," he recalls, the hurt still evident in his voice.

Maybe that's why he pulls out a blurry picture from a worn portfolio, pointing to himself and Charles Brown. However, he hadn't shown the photograph to anyone at his job; so why should his co-workers believe his stories? Besides, with the exception of a few jams with a long-defunct R&B band, Protégé, Stanley hadn't played publicly since his arrival in San Jose some 20 years ago.

Some of the skeptics began to change their tune when, with the help of an associate, Stanley laid down the tracks that would eventually find their way onto Ain't Got a Dime, a demo cassette released last year. Recorded on a four-track in an empty room adjoining a paint shop in Willow Glen, the project evinces minimal production values, to say the least.

Even so, these self-penned instrumentals show promise. The tight title track ("the story of my life," Stanley says ruefully) distinguishes itself with cascading lyricism. In "When You Leave," discreetly overdubbed guitars touch off the yearning ambiance.

Still, Ain't Got a Dime ain't perfect. For one thing the overall vibe is somewhat less than variegated; further, its low-key mood rarely strays from the midtempo range, which leads to a certain monotony after repeated listenings. Finally, Stanley's playing comes off at times too polite, too pleasant. You find yourself wishing that he'd just cut loose Sonny Sharrock style and break off a slab of squalling feedback. In other words something shocking.

Shocking was not a term that immediately jumped to mind when witnessing Stanley's primary ensemble, a jazz quartet, during its brief Tuesday-night stint at the Q last year. (Stanley brings the jazz group to Barnes & Noble in San Jose this Friday.)

Technique is not a problem with this combo, which features Stanley, drummer Terrell Otis, bassist Jake Haskell and keyboardist Don Cordova. Yet all too often, the playing seems to be all flash and no fire. Maybe it's the material; it's not easy breathing life into creaky warhorses such as "Summertime." On the other hand, according to Stanley, until recently the group has been reluctant to learn his material. That's Darrel Stanley: the Rodney Dangerfield of jazz guitar. But at least now Stanley's former co-workers believe that he used to play behind Charles Brown, dammit! Not that it matters; hell, you'd have to be nuts to come up with a story like his.

"Man, people don't know. Back when I was growin' up, Ohio was the funk capital." Stanley rattles off a roll call of funk's finest: George Clinton; Phelps "Catfish" and William "Bootsy" Collins; the Ohio Players; Roger Troutman and Zap; the O'Jays. The list stretches longer than one might expect. "Those was the days, man," he husks in '60s blackspeak.

"I grew up with Catfish and Bootsy. And 'Sugarfoot' Leroy Bonner, the guy who put together the Ohio Players? I used to go to him for musical advice. I was about 15, 16. He was older than me and already leadin' in a blues band called the Blues Bees. Fact, I think Sugarfoot was the one invented funk guitar. He was playin' that way back in '63."

Sugarfoot, Stanley recalls, invited him to a gig in a little town outside of Cincinnati. "Next thing I know, I'm onstage playin' Sugarfoot's gui-tar. ... I was scared to death, man."

It was Bonner who first encouraged Stanley to seek out other musicians. Stanley didn't have to look far: "See, in Cincinnati, all the black musicians knew one another, because we only had so many places we could play. In them days, we didn't play with no white boys; that shit was unheard of, 'cause back then, Cincinnati was a racist town."

By 1964 Stanley was beginning to acquire a little reputation, and when a blues singer, one Piney Brown, came through on his way to Dayton, he snatched up the young guitarist. "Dayton was known as a serious blues town," Stanley allows. "That's where I first learned how to play the real down-home stuff. Stayed there about a year; when I came back to Cincinnati, I thought I was ready, Jack."

IN 1966, Stanley, having just turned 21, joined a funky organ trio. While he was still down with R&B, the guitarist was becoming increasingly enamored of jazz; a show in Muncie, Ind., proved fateful.

"After a gig, while the other guys in the band was out chasin' women," he says, "I'd run down to this club down the street from where our band was playin' and check out this jazz guitarist."

Stanley straightens up in his seat, his eyes widening as he remembers. "Man, he was bad; Jimmy McGhee, a dynamite player. He became my first real mentor. He would go down to the store and get some Thunderbird wine, man, and we would sit up in his hotel room, and he would just show me scales. He would make me practice, man. And he would demonstrate to me what Benson and [Pat] Martino was doin.' I was already into Grant Green, George Benson and Kenny Burrell. And 'Deke' [McGhee's nickname] was just as good as them cats, but he wasn't known, y'dig."

Some 18 months after Stanley's return to Cincinnati, the infamous Amos Milburn passed through town; when he departed, Stanley left with him. "One night he came down to listen to me, and he invited me over his house to jam." Without warning, Milburn sacked his guitarist and hired Darrel. Stanley still sounds incredulous some 30 years after the fact. "That other guy was a better guitarist than me," he confesses, "but Amos wanted a funkier sound, and I had that."

Amos Milburn, rock's first great piano pounder, was notorious for living out the life he sang about: "Let's Rock Awhile," "Vicious, Vicious Vodka" and the juice joint that got the party started, "Let Me Go Home, Whiskey"--all recorded during the late '40s and early '50s--were musical mini-bios.

"That man drank so much, he'd have seizures," Stanley recalls, shaking his head. "Fact: Amos is the one got me started drinkin'. And what's funny is, when I was a kid I used to listen to 'Bad, Bad Whiskey.' And, like the song goes, drinkin' wound up helpin' me lose my happy home!" Stanley can laugh about it now, but there was a time when his alcohol consumption was no joke.

"I really had to learn my music [and] arrangin' from Amos," Stanley continues with a laugh. "I used to get fired everyday arguin' about my arrangin', man!"

Ritualized sackings aside, Stanley was smart enough to listen to his boss. "We'd do, say, 'Little Green Apples' the way O.C. Smith did it, but Amos would put his stamp on it," recalls Stanley, still awed by the experience. "We did Simon and Garfunkel's 'Bridge Over Troubled Water'; I hated it. I thought we'd be the laughing stock of the town. But Amos made the song black."

When, in the winter of 1969, Milburn fell victim to a stroke and had to be hospitalized, Stanley sought to keep the band together, but with the flamboyant bandleader out of the mix indefinitely, it was a lost cause.

Just as that musical interlude ended, another one began. Charles Brown, a close associate of Milburn's, needed a guitarist. Stanley, meanwhile, had been having marital problems in Cincinnati and was eager to get out of town. After a short stopover in Denver, Brown and his new guitarist headed for the Bay Area.

"Man, I just wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge," Stanley says.

IT WASN'T LONG before he and Brown were warring. When the subject first comes up, Stanley maintains that it was "artistic differences" that prompted his departure and that the split was amicable. "Charles told me that I had outgrown him," Stanley recalls. "He told me I needed to start my own band. 'You ready, now,' is just how he said it. And he was right, man." But Stanley also was drinking heavily, a habit that irked the teetotaling Brown no end.

Having lost his most prestigious job to date, Stanley had still another reason to drink. "I used drinkin' to cover up my insecurities, man, 'cause it was a lotta pressure bein' a musician, knowin' people are judgin' you. Plus, it's lonely on the road."

After leaving Brown, Stanley's career--and life--hit many minor chords. "Basically," Stanley allows solemnly, "I became a wino, after I left Charles' band. I would get me a bottle of Thunderbird, go over to Golden Gate Park and just hang out, gettin' drunk. I would do that damn near every day."

After a desultory three years, he'd had enough and packed it in for Ohio. "I was run-down and sick," he says. "I was drinkin' a lot; wasn't eatin' right. On the flight back, I had a seizure. Next thing I know, I'm in the hospital. They say I almost died."

Adding to his woes, Stanley's estranged wife had passed away while he was in California, and his family was pointing the finger at him. "I went into a deep depression. I didn't want to play music. I didn't want to do nothin'," he mutters, his face clouding over. "I became a bum, hangin' on the street corners with winos."

Stanley hit the very nadir when, one day, his stepfather spotted him. "He seen what shape I was in, but he didn't say nothin.' Just gave me $20 and told me, 'Just remember, son, they used to call Charlie Parker a bum. As long as you can play music, you can still make it.' "

A week or so later, drinking the day away in a local bar, Stanley found himself shooting the bull with a transient. "He was a hobo; just goin' from place to place," he says. "He told me he was goin' to California. Said he'd show me how to be a hobo. All I had was a dollar and the clothes on my back when we left. I brought me a half-pint of wine and walked on down to the train yard. Didn't tell nobody I was leavin.' Just jumped that train."

After three weeks of rail riding, Darrel and his buddy arrived in San Jose. Before he could get his bearings, Stanley found himself in the throes of another seizure. Once again, when he awakened, he found himself in a hospital bed, this time at Valley Medical Center. He was under treatment for the first six months of 1976.

Gradually, he was nursed back to health--physically, anyway. Emotionally, he was still a mess. "Nobody believed that I was a musician and had played with people like Amos and Charles. [Fellow recovering addicts] said, 'You ain't nothin' but a bum just like us.' "

Stanley would prove them wrong, but it would take a while--years, in fact. Meanwhile, he needed a job to supply a steady income, however meager; what he wound up with was very meager, indeed. Even now, Stanley plainly feels bitter about his experiences working in low-paying, private convalescent homecare. "I had to put up with being called a nigger [by patients] for four years--and I still didn't make enough to buy me another guitar." Summoning up what must have been a vast reservoir of patience, Stanley bided his time, finding employment with Santa Clara County as a mental health worker.

IT'S MID-AUGUST, 1996, and the South Bay languishes in the grips of a heat wave. Wearing a navy-blue T-shirt and cut-off sweats, Darrel Stanley isn't sweating it. Inside a laughably tiny eastside cottage, a floor fan whirs quietly.

Stanley strokes a beautiful blonde Fender Stratocaster, a gift from a generous friend. He's working on a new song. If the status of his jazz band--which now includes new member Sue Grossman on keyboards, along with bassist Jake Haskell and stalwart drummer Otis Terrell--is less than settled, it's getting there. Stanley appears more confident, having secured gigs at the Paradis, a supper club not far from the Q Club. And the repertoire now includes more adventurous material, including, at long last, some of the bandleader's own.

As for his funk outfit, well, that's a dodgier matter. Stanley stays in touch, but there appear to be no immediate plans to perform together.

Whichever way the music goes, the Ohioan's commitment to his creative vision--not Charles Brown's, not Amos Milburn's, but Darrel Stanley's--is unwavering. And despite his grumpy exterior he feels content, a state of being the musician has experienced but briefly in his life.

"If my little bands fail, I figure I'm still ahead of the game," he reckons. "I was able to experience [the musician's] life on the road; meet some of the great legends ... and I survived alcoholism. I'm still here. Man, I figure I'm blessed."


Darrel Stanley performs Friday (January 17) at 9pm at Barnes & Noble, 3600 Stevens Creek Blvd., San Jose. Call 408/984-3495 for details.

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From the January 16-22, 1997 issue of Metro

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