Music News

KEYS TO THE HIGHWAYA GOOD OLD BOY SINGS THE GREAT OLD TUNES

Until recently, Wild Bill Baldwin could be found in the cramped, countrified confines of downtown Scottsdale's Rusty Spur Saloon, doing his one-man-band thing. Baldwin was a fearsome vision, what with his dark, woolly beard and long hair, both flecked with gray; his menacing shades and extra-wide-brimmed hat speared with a huge sterling silver feather. He didn't smile.

He'd lodge his burly, compact frame amid a drum machine and a congregation of keyboards in a closet-size space. The Rusty Spur--redheaded stepchild among a family of souvenir shops, Western- wear stores and other snowbird sirens--would be packed to the spur-lined rafters with good old boys and gals. Baldwin's resonant, muscular baritone easily cut through the beer-driven din, delivering an eclectic array of hard-boiled country songs, Tennessee standards and low-down longhorn blues.

While he sang, his left hand would work the bass keys on a huge, battered Yamaha organ, and the other would float across an electric piano and several other keyboards. Most intriguing was the way that old Yamaha was slanted--the keys fully faced the crowd. His wrist was bent, fingers slapping the black bass keys in electric bass-guitar fashion.

Baldwin would growl out a David Allen Coe classic and work his keyboard magic, and the rowdy Friday- night crowd would hoot out its approval. Once, a flush-faced cowboy half-staggered, half-two-stepped his way over to Baldwin's electronic perch. He stuffed a five-dollar bill into an already well-pumped tip jar, then loosed a rodeo yelp. Wild Bill nodded once, almost imperceptibly, never breaking his deep, dark musical stride.

Some months later, Wild Bill Baldwin moved his solo show up and across the street to Lulu Belle's. This roomy restaurant-country dance saloon has had a long and colorful--if uneven--history in its touristy Scottsdale environs. By all accounts it has begun to flourish under the energetic ownership of Dick and Kristine Parsons, who are about to complete their sophomore year in Lulu Belle's saddle.

One early Monday evening smack dab in the middle of summertime Arizona, the whole strip was next to dead. Small, isolated clusters of tourists window-shopped in the monsoon heat. They spoke German and French. Down the street, a half-dozen regulars were bellied up to the tiny bar at the Rusty Spur, listening to a pudgy fellow in his forties spin Gulf War stories. His hair was well-oiled and slicked back into a quasi pompadour. He passed out thin little Saudi-made cigarettes to his rapt audience, then bought them beer.

"Them Eye-rackies," he drawled, shaking his head in solemn reverie. "Them goddam Eye-rackies."

From the jukebox, a powerful, dungeon-deep voice crooned a country ballad, asking, "Who's sleeping in my bed tonight?" It's a haunting tune, but wholly unfamiliar. An inspection reveals that the label is Epic Records. And the singer is one Bill Baldwin.

It is somewhat quieter at Lulu Belle's, where a row of men sip beer and iced whiskey up at the long bar, and the large dining room yields a few tables of mostly older diners. On other nights, especially weekends, Lulu Belle's becomes raucous, its generous dance floor filled. But it's Monday and it's summer, and for taverns and beaneries throughout the Valley of the Sun, Mondays are, well, Mondays. And summer Mondays are worse.

Still, Mondays are picking up here, gaining a whole new life. It is no coincidence that the extra business is due in large part to Wild Bill Baldwin's entry onto Lulu Belle's scene. Co-owner Dick Parsons couldn't be happier about it.

"I can't believe the Rusty Spur just let him go," the transplanted New Yorker says. "We're very glad to have him. He was restricted to what he could play over there, but here I told him, `You can do anything you want.'"

Wild Bill Baldwin, 50, arrives, looking considerably less than wild. Absent are the hat and dark glasses. He wears a plain blue shirt and jeans, and his long hair is parted neatly in the middle. He moves around his keyboards and speakers, plugging in this, flicking on that, running his fingers over each plane of keys.

The big Yamaha is slanted toward Baldwin's audience once again; he bought it in 1966 when he got out of the army. He keeps it because he likes its "big fat bass." He also plays harmonica, tenor saxophone and guitar. A few minutes of tinkering later, Baldwin finally appears satisfied that he's ready for his set.

He slaps a few backs and exchanges greetings, laughing easily. This is nothing at all like the brooding, man-in-black persona who peered through black shades a few weeks earlier at the Rusty Spur.

"Oh, that black hat thing is for image, you know." He has a deep, gravel-chocked rumble of a voice, still filled with the mountain accent of his native West Virginia. "They wanted a certain image at the other place. I mean, I wear that hat sometimes; I really like it, you know. But it's not the only thing I do. And that `Wild' thing--I don't know where that came from. They only put that on me since I've been in town." Baldwin's been working this particular Scottsdale street since his arrival in Arizona a touch over a year ago. He'd been working a lounge in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, when he was invited to make his music in the desert.

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Larry Crowley