Guest Blogger: Randy Poe, author of Stalking the Red Headed Stranger (Hal Leonard Books)
In 1983, I was Executive Director of the Songwriters Hall of Fame in New York. The annual black-tie awards dinner was to take place on Monday night, March 7th. At noon on the 7th, I entered the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom to watch the show’s rehearsal, only to be informed by the producer that the scheduled emcee was currently resting comfortably in a nearby Manhattan hospital. “Any ideas for a replacement?” He asked.
The offices of the Songwriters Hall of Fame were at One Times Square, the same building where the ball dropped every New Year’s Eve, and where Dick Clark’s radio network, United Stations, was based. Although I’d never gathered the courage to introduce myself to the man, I’d seen him in the building that morning, so I knew he was in town. One phone call and a half-hour later, Dick Clark arrived in the ballroom, ready to take on the task of being himself.
The hotel found a perfect Bandstand-like podium for Dick to stand behind. As the day wore on, the performers for that night’s event rehearsed their numbers with the house band, followed by Dick discussing with each of them how they preferred to be introduced. The only star missing that afternoon was Willie Nelson. He had his own band, of course, so no rehearsal was necessary. He was also at the apex of his career in 1983, so Dick Clark’s introduction was to be nothing more than a simple, “Ladies and gentlemen – Willie Nelson!”
What could possibly go wrong?
An excerpt from Stalking the Red Headed Stranger:
Everything was going according to plan. The songwriters who were being inducted into the Hall of Fame had all shown up. None of the performers was throwing a temper tantrum. The backing musicians were all on time and in tune. All was right with the world. Then, as Teresa Brewer went on stage to perform “Music! Music! Music!” for what must have been at least the millionth time, Willie’s road manager appeared in the Green Room, looking none too happy and coming straight toward me at a pretty rapid clip for a man his size. His name was Randall “Poodie” Locke. He had long hair in a single braided ponytail down his back. He was at least six inches taller than I, and he was massive. Years later I would read a joke on Willie’s website: “Question: Why does Poodie wear XXXL T-shirts? Answer: Because he likes ’em tight.” I laughed when I read the joke, but back in March of 1983, as Poodie loomed over me, I was feeling pretty somber. Poking an accusatory index finger into my rental-tuxedoed chest, he said, “Somebody shifted all of our gear around backstage. We’re going to need at least five minutes to set up once that chick’s done singing.”
He might as well have said it would take an hour and a half. I headed out the door and across the back of the ballroom, watching as Dick Clark stood just offstage, serenely tapping his foot while Teresa sang. I sidled up next to him and said, “Mr. Clark?”
“Yes?” he said. He was wearing that charming Dick Clark smile – such a happy-looking man.
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Willie’s crew is going to need five minutes to set up after Ms. Brewer finishes singing.”
His reaction was slightly worse than I’d expected: Dick Clark – Mr. American Bandstand, Mr. Cool, Mr. World’s Oldest Teenager – literally dropped to his knees. With his hands clasped together, he looked up at me and whispered, “Please tell me you didn’t just say ‘five minutes.’”
“Yes sir. Five minutes.” I grabbed his elbow and pulled him back up. By the time he was standing again, he had managed to regain most of his composure.
“Okay,” he said, “Quick as you can, tell me everything you know about Willie Nelson.”
I spat out the whole “outlaw” movement thing; that Red Headed Stranger was Willie’s breakthrough album; that the album’s single, “Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain,” had gone to No. 1 on the country charts; that Stardust was Willie’s biggest-selling album to date; that “Always On My Mind” had been his biggest hit single; that I was sure he must’ve won some Grammy awards and some CMA awards – and suddenly I realized that Teresa Brewer had finished singing and was walking off the stage.
As the applause died down, I stepped to one side. Dick Clark jumped back to his podium as the curtain closed behind him. He started by telling a couple of funny American Bandstand stories, and then – just as he began regurgitating everything I had told him about Willie – a noise akin to fifty jackhammers drilling through concrete kicked in behind the curtain. Dick flinched momentarily but plowed on ahead – bestowing more honors, awards, and multimillion-selling records on Willie Nelson by the second.
Through the sound of speaker cabinets scraping across the stage floor, microphone feedback, and other loud, unidentifiable noises, I heard a distinct, “Pssst! Randy!”
I looked to my left and saw Willie in the darkness, behind the curtain, his hand motioning for me to join him onstage. I flew up the steps two at a time. “What can I do for you, Willie?” I whispered.
“Would it be all right with you if we open with ‘Whiskey River?’” he asked. His calm demeanor fascinated me as total chaos was going on directly behind him. I’d once read an interview with Kris Kristofferson in which he’d said, “Being around Willie is like being around Buddha.” Now I understood exactly what he meant.
With Willie talking in one ear and Dick Clark talking about Willie selling more records than Elvis and the Beatles combined in the other, all I could muster was a weak, “Pardon me?”
“‘Whiskey River.’ We always start our shows with ‘Whiskey River.’ Would that be all right with you?”
As Willie’s words sunk in, I envisioned hundreds of blue-haired ladies fainting dead away while their elderly husbands fell to the floor, clasping their chests as the entire audience breathed its collective final breath.
“It’s our tune-up song.” Willie said.
“Our tune-up song. We tune up our instruments while we’re doing ‘Whiskey River.’ If we start with anything else, our guitars and stuff’ll be out of tune.”
“Of course you can open with ‘Whiskey River,’” I said. “How could I possibly say no to Willie Nelson?”
Stalking the Red Headed Stranger is a guide to the art and history of professional song plugging. But this isn’t your run-of-the-mill history book/instruction manual. It is an in-depth, up-close look into the real music business by industry insider and Grammy Award nominee Randy Poe, who has represented literally hundreds of the greatest songs in the history of popular music, including “Stand By Me,” “Happy Together,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “Hound Dog,” “What a Wonderful World,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Chapel of Love,” “Summer in the City,” “Love Potion No. 9,” and “Kansas City.”
But wait! There’s so much more! Interwoven throughout this entertaining and enlightening book is the hysterical saga of the author as he chases American icon Willie Nelson across Canada – via plane, taxi, rental car, and even ferryboat – in an attempt to pitch a single song to the Red Headed Stranger. And what happens on Willie’s bus doesn’t stay on Willie’s bus.
Stalking the Red Headed Stranger, or How to Get Your Songs into the Hands of the Artists Who Really Matter Through Show Business Trickery, Underhanded Skullduggery, Shrewdness, and Chicanery, as Well as Various Less Nefarious Methods of Song Plugging: A Practical Handbook and Historical Portrait is the funniest, hippest, longest-titled how-to book you’ll read this year.