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When singer Richie Havens stole the show at Woodstock in 1969, A. Melvin "Mel" McDonald says he was "a Mormon boy up in Utah." "I thought that festival thing was nothing but a bunch of liberal freaks from back East carrying on," recalls McDonald, a child prodigy on piano and violin.
Now a partner in a Phoenix law firm, McDonald's legal career predictably leaned toward the conservative after he moved to Arizona in the mid-1970s. As a Maricopa County Superior Court judge, he became known for his harsh treatment of convicted criminals. After President Reagan selected him as Arizona's U.S. attorney, McDonald became an antidrug warrior of the first rank.
When McDonald jammed on piano with 60s counterculture hero Havens at the Roxy last Friday night, it was akin to gangsta rapper Ice Cube sitting in with the Ray Coniff Singers, or Axl Rose crooning with Barry Manilow.
Three-piece suit (McDonald) met caftan (Havens) through Latin balladeer Daniel Rivera, part-owner of the Arizona-based Panther record label. Backed by a rock band and McDonald, Rivera belted out a set of blustery modern chestnuts--My Way," "MacArthur Park," "The Wind Beneath My Wings (Hero)--before Havens took the stage at the central Phoenix rock club.
Rivera introduced McDonald to the crowd: "This is probably the strangest situation you'll ever see. I'd like to introduce an ex-U.S. attorney--everybody hide your stuff!--one of the most successful lawyers in the state of Arizona. If his mother knew what he was doing, he'd be grounded for the rest of his life."
There was deep irony here. A few years ago, McDonald represented a woman accused by federal prosecutors of kidnaping in an international child-snatching case. The victim was Daniel Rivera's young son. During the case, McDonald tried to paint Rivera as an unfit parent with an unsavory past. The unsavory part was true: Rivera served time at an Arizona prison in the 1970s for conspiring to import heroin.
After the case was adjudicated (McDonald's client lost), McDonald says he bumped into Rivera at a piano bar. The two chatted. McDonald played a tune.
The rest is show-business history.
"Danny dared me to do this, and I took him up on it," McDonald said a few moments before taking the stage with Havens. "I don't know what my law partners would think, but you only live once."
McDonald unconsciously toyed with a gaudy necklace, provided by his wife, Cindy. He donned a blond wig attached to a fisherman's cap for the occasion, though he said he "drew the line" at wearing an earring.
McDonald, whose musical tastes tend more toward Broadway and light-pop tunes, rehearsed with Havens for a few days before Friday night's gig. "I got to know Richie one-on-one, just me and him rapping," the barrelhouse barrister says. "He's a real pro, a gentle guy. And what a musician!"
Unlike many of his fossilized contemporaries, Havens--whose song "Freedom" became the defining anthem of Woodstock--has lost little more than his hair. His music retains the immediacy and vigor that earned him status as one of rock's originals.
Rivera promised the crowd that a recording of Havens' show at the Roxy will be released on CD in a few months.
Seated at the back of the stage, McDonald seemed like a deer frozen in someone's headlights. He retreated to the audience to watch Havens after gamely finishing his role in the proceedings.
Havens smiled when asked if he plans to ask McDonald to go on the road with him. Then, in the spirit of 60s-style generosity, he added, "The guy can play just fine. He's cool.