Steve owned The Scene, a club on West 46th Street and 8th Avenue in New York City that began as a “nightclub” in 1965 and morphed into one of the hippest rock and roll joints the city has ever seen before ending its run in 1970. Hendrix famously played there in ’67, and it was the first place the Doors ever played in New York as well. It became a kind of home to touring British acts like Traffic and Jeff Beck, but most of all, it was one of the premier blues venues in the city. Back then, it was known as Steve Paul’s Scene, although I think I remember that the marquee still had only “The Scene” outside.
I still remember every moment of Xmas night 1968 when I went out in a blizzard to listen to Slim Harpo at Steve Paul’s Scene. I was the only customer. The only one. Steve sat me down right in front of the stage at this little table about the size of a dinner plate, and I ordered a beer. I was on Christmas leave from West Point, and there was a one-drink minimum, and I figured I could afford one beer. That was it. So I was determined to nurse it through the entire show.
Well, we waited and waited for other people to show up. Nobody did. Slim was supposed to go on at 10:00 and me, I’m thinking it’s fucking Slim Harpo playing and the place is going to be packed, so I arrived probably at 8:30. And I’m nursing my beer, and it’s getting warmer and warmer, and my sips are getting further and further far between. Finally Steve comes out around 9:30 and sits down across from me at the table and introduces himself, and I introduce myself, and he says, you’re that crazy guy from West Point who writes the letters to the editor of the Voice, aren’t you? Yeah. So we chat for a few minutes and he notices that I’m nursing this utterly flat, warm beer and calls a waiter over and gets me another one on the house.
About 9:45 Steve says, I guess the blizzard kept everyone at home. I’m really sorry, but I don’t think we’re going to have a show tonight, I’ll refund your one-drink-minimum. I’m going to go and talk to Slim.
He comes back about five minutes later, followed by Slim and the “band,” which consisted of a guy who played a snare drum (already on stage) and a guy who played an old Fender Telecaster. Steve sits down next to me and says, Slim told me if there’s a paying customer out there, we’re putting on a show. And did they ever! They played all of his hits like “I’m a King Bee,” “Baby Scratch My Back,” “Rainin’ in My Heart,” and “I Got Love if You Want it,” plus covering half the blues canon of the time. Slim Harpo was sitting there on a stool, as were the other musicians. They were in their 40’s, but to me they looked like Moses coming down from the Mount. Slim wasn’t well, health-wise…he would die two years later in 1970…but he’s sitting there wailing on that harmonica and singing like he’s 20 years old and they’re all chatting with Steve and me from the bandstand, which is about a foot high and about two feet away and finally after about an hour and a half…they’re still wailing…Steve says we should call it a night.
We’re standing around talking while Slim and his guys packed up their instruments – no roadies needed for these guys – one electric guitar case and the smallest of Fender amps you ever saw, and one snare drum case and Slim’s harmonicas. Then we’re all heading out the door together into the blizzard. Steve turns right – the club was at 46th and 8th Avenue, remember? – to go to the subway and he disappears into the snow. Slim turns to me and says, you got anyplace to go? I said no. Then why don’t you come on along with us? Why not?
They were staying at the Hotel President, just two blocks away, just off 8th Avenue on 48th Street across the street from that old spaghetti palace, Mama Leone’s. This was a down-at-the-heels-one-step-above-a-flophouse I was very, very familiar with, having stayed there virtually every time I was let out of West Point and journeyed south to NYC. Some upperclassman told me about the place when I was a Plebe, said they gave cadets a discount. They did. A regular room was $8.00. For cadets, $6.00. That was enough of a discount for me.
From experience, I had learned that it was also the only hotel in Manhattan that allowed musicians to “practice” in their rooms, so at various times over the years I had come across members of the Dizzy Gillespie band wailing away in their rooms, the Ellington band doing the same, and one time, even the band that backed-up that ice skating show, Wonderland on Ice or whatever it was called. On Christmas night 1968 however, the Hotel President was playing host to Slim Harpo and band.
We come in out of the cold and shake off the snow and Slim says hi to the guy behind the desk and we head over to the elevator. Now the elevator at the Hotel President was an experience all by itself. It had an “elevator man,” who ran the thing with one of those big brass handles that he turned one way for up and the other for down and he slowed it by easing it into stop in the middle. I actually recognized this elevator man, because I had ridden his elevator many times before. One of the unique things about the Hotel President and its elevator and elevator man was what happened when he closed the outer door and collapsing gate. He would start the thing going up real, real slow, and say…without looking at you…staring at the wall of the elevator cab….is there anything I can get for you gentlemen tonight?
For most of my years at West Point I was under the age of 21, so I had plenty of occasions to make use of the services of the elevator man. He would supply us with pints of Four Roses or gallon jugs of Gallo Hearty Burgundy, or whatever swill we were galloping down back then, all for the slimmest of tips…a dime or maybe a big 25 cents on a massive outlay of five bucks or something like that. So while I didn’t know the elevator man by name, I certain knew about him, and so did Slim, having stayed there the previous night.
Is there anything I can get for you gentlemen tonight? Well, indeed there is. During our slow journey up to the 10th floor (or whatever) Slim orders up two fifths of Gordon’s gin and a pack of cigarettes and some potato chips and some extra water glasses.
Anything else I can get for you gentlemen tonight? Maybe a couple of ladies? Sure, says Slim, send us up a couple of ladies.
We get off on Slim’s floor and he unlocks the door to what I had come to know as a typical Hotel President room because I had stayed in one exactly like it several times before. It had to have been in a corner, because there was a long, narrow hallway that led to a fairly spacious room with two single swayback beds and a wooden chair and a little desk. Along the hallway was a tiny closet, a tiny toilet room, and a tiny sailboat-sized shower room, all in a row.
The other guys head off to their rooms and return after a few minutes. The guitar player is carrying an acoustic guitar, and the drummer has a pair of sticks in hand, and within a moment or two, there’s a knock at the door. Slim ambles down the long hallway…Slim didn’t walk, he ambled…and opens the door to three ladies of the evening, who on this icy blizzard night are dressed fairly conservatively and warmly in short skirts, thigh-high boots and short rabbit fur jackets. Slim welcomes them in and pours some gin straight into glasses and passes them around, the guys start playing…the drummer keeping time on the wooden desktop…and the ladies break into smiles and realize this is going to be a Christmas to remember and start dancing up a storm.
That’s about all I remember about Christmas night, 1968, truthfully. I have another memory from a year later of drinking warm gin with a musician in a loft on Lispenard Street…the trumpeter Kenny Dorham. It was a bloody awful hot night, and Kenny and I were sitting on the floor of the loft directly in front of a 25-inch fan turned on high, and he was pouring gin straight into our glasses, no ice, and extolling the virtues of warm gin. One of these days, Kenny said, you’re going to remember what I’m telling you about warm gin, and you’re going to thank me. Because it is a magical potion when you get older. You may not think so now, but one day you’re going to need you some warm gin, and trust me young man, it will be your best friend, because it’s going to get you hard when not even a pair of titties the size of cantaloupes will get you hard. But you’ve got to be careful with it, because it’ll also knock you on your ass.
Which it did on Christmas night, 1968. Because the last I recall, Slim had one of those ladies on his lap and the guitar player was strumming something so fucking bluesy it would make you cry and the snow was blowing against the window and even with all of the Christmas cheer in the room you could hear the whistle of the wind of that blizzard outside.