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.
In fact, Baldwin's been on the road pretty much on a steady basis since his mid-Sixties army stint. His two-year tour took him to Orleans, France. While there, he took a job playing on weekends at a bar in Paris, on the Pigalle, the legendary red-light district.
In between his overseas extramilitary work and his present employment, Baldwin has hauled his keyboards into clubs in a dozen or more states, worked Caribbean cruise ships, the Vegas lounge circuit and served a year-and-a-half gig as part of a traveling trio working the lounges at Holiday Inns.
"You know," he says, sipping a Coke, "I've played in just about every kind of band. I had a five-piece band in Alabama, but the guy was killing me, he was working me to death. I was working the piano bar from five to nine, and then I'd jump off the piano bar, run into the main room and play there from nine to one in the morning. Six days a week. I was making the money, but then I couldn't hold up--and that old boy wouldn't let up. "But I'll tell you why I've gone to the one-man-band bit." He pauses, takes a drink of his soda. "Money. You can't make it these days in a four- or five-piece band. If you got a family, ain't no way you can handle it. The days of $3,000-a-week bands are gone. That was in the Seventies, the best time of all for musicians."
The demise of the musical highway distresses Bill Baldwin. He's deeply into his third decade as a traveling performer. Yet, while Baldwin has made it a point to move on up the road with considerable frequency, there's one spot he's thinking about returning to, in one form or another.
"I'd like to give Nashville one more shot," he concedes. "I've got some good songs to give."
Nashville marked the longest single stay in his giddy-up-go career, and his steadiest. He was married, had a home. He worked for publishing houses and wrote music. He also recorded some, as the Rusty Spur's jukebox disclosed.
"I was there from about '75 to '81 or so. I worked with Billy Sherrill, who's an independent producer now. When he left Epic, I left, too. And that was the end of that." While Baldwin believes he has what it takes--great songs--to go another round with Music City, he won't fret if he doesn't make it. He has other ideas in the oven. There's a publishing business in Bakersfield, California. Another idea Baldwin has is to return to Florida and retire on the beach. "I'm getting too old for this," he complains, but it seems apparent he doesn't even believe that himself.
Presently, however, a set at Lulu Belle's will be his next stop. The 15 or so silver-haired diners have pretty much finished their platters of ribs and are chatting quietly in the dining room. The main bandstand in there is dark, filled with canvas- draped equipment used by the popular Cowbillys, who pack them in at Lulu Belle's on other nights. Baldwin has his own personal stage in the waiting area next to the entrance. He has more room to maneuver than at the Spur, and he has added more equipment--especially speakers. He likes his new setup a great deal.
As Wild Bill goes through a few warm-up moves, those at the bar swivel their stools in his direction, Stetsons pushed back, sweating longnecks in hand. The diners, hearing the warm-up riffs, begin to look as if they are done for the night. Before they can rise, however, Baldwin launches into Nat King Cole's "Too Young." His voice is cool and smooth. The old folks settle back a bit in their chairs.
Baldwin continues his surprise opening with "New York, New York," making liberal use of his electric piano and massive Yamaha. Following right behind are selections by Al Martino ("Spanish Eyes"), where he coaxes elegant mandolin sounds out of one of the organs; and Mel Torme ("Fly Me to the Moon"). In the middle of Willie Nelson's "The Last Thing I Needed," Baldwin ad libs, "When you leave, make sure you take the old car. You hear that, Frank?" Baldwin is addressing a fellow at the bar who's been talking to anyone who'll listen while working on a Budweiser.
"Yeah," Frank shouts back without missing a beat, "and put that old dog in the back seat, too." The other cowboy-hatted old boys at the bar guffaw; Baldwin chuckles, then returns to the impressive business at hand: jamming on the piano and laying into a blue-smoke organ run. Frank leans over, winks, says, "He plays all the good stuff, boy. I like that." He motions to the tables of diners who now sip colorful drinks and gently tap their toes. "All the old folks used to come down here. They didn't want to hear no rock 'n' roll." He pulls deeply on his Bud and leans even closer.
"You know," he whispers, "Bill's a nice guy, but he's very mysterious. He plays it very close to the vest."
It's true that Baldwin is reluctant to talk about his personal life ("I had two good wives, and I have a couple of kids. I can't complain"). Yet he loosens up considerably when the subject turns to music and the road. And there's absolutely no need to discuss his talent: It's there, regardless of big black hats, shades or musical agenda. After a sinister, terrifying version of the old Tanya Tucker hit "Delta Dawn," wherein he drops a full octave, Baldwin concludes his first set with a lounge-solid rendition of "Pennies From Heaven."
"What the hell is he doing here?" Frank wonders aloud, then drinks more Budweiser.
At the bar again, Bill Baldwin sips a fresh Coke and ruminates on the state of music today. He frets especially over the high costs of recording, the low pay in the field and the loss of the individual personality to technology.
"I have no idea what it costs to cut a video in 1991, but I'd guess at least $30,000. And then you gotta lip-synch it." He shakes his head at the image. "It's ridiculous. If you had ten grand you could just spend, you could buy the right tape system, digital delay, digital reverb, good keyboard that does all the cellos and all the fiddles, and you could do everything yourself. It's not going to be too long before studios will be a thing of the past."
A kid in a ponytail and cut-off jeans pokes his head into the conversation. Speaking in flawless California surf, he asks Bill, "Dude, do you know any Grateful Dead?" Bill answers that he doesn't play any of the Dead's tunes but he listens to them.
The kid goes on to ask about his equipment; he's approving of Bill's setup--with certain "radical" modifications--but he simply can't fathom his unwillingness to prerecord everything. Politely, Bill says, "I like to freelance." The kid slaps his forehead in disbelief.
"Dude! You just put everything on three-and-a-half-inch disks, you know, and bam--you do your thing, you get paid and you're gone." He wanders away, mumbling about making life easy on yourself. Bill smiles.
"He wanted to know why I wasn't updated, and I'll tell you why: I'm happy with my sound. Oh, I could go out and spend $15,000 and I might improve it, but then again I might not." A fire truck, lights flashing, passes by. Bill wanders to the door to see what's going on.
"Maybe it's the Rusty Spur," someone suggests loudly.
"It's Shades of the West [a massive Western-wear-and-kitsch store]," someone responds. "Looks like they're busting out the windows."
Bill returns, looking pensive.
"I'm from the old school," he professes. "You have to learn to play. You're still gonna have players in this world and the real players, they're just going to need their instruments. A player will show his ability and always outclass the prerecorded stuff. The human element is what makes it art. "That's what I was trying to explain to that kid. I watch the people. I watched those old folks tonight. If I see people out there are restless, I'll try to find an alley that'll get their attention. I might misfire three or four times, but I'll find it and then I'll burn up that alley for an hour and a half." He sips his Coke, pulls at his beard.
"I walk in ready to go at 100 percent. Sometimes I'm not able. Some nights I can't sing as good and some nights I could fall off the stage and not miss a note.
"I'm glad to be doing what I do. Of all the music I like to jam to, I like the blues. I'm a power singer--`Danny Boy,' `Shenandoah' . . . that's my favorite kind of singing. But for playing, it's the blues--I mean hard, basement-cellar blues, Eastern blues. It's big where I'm from in West Virginia, too." He smiles, thinking of home. "It's beautiful there, but man, it's coal-mining country. Poverty to the toenails. There's no work except for mining, teaching and being a lawyer or a doctor. And I wasn't ever going to shovel coal. Never. I wouldn't even bend over to pick up a lump."
On Tuesday night, Bill rides up to Lulu Belle's on a ten-speed bike, wearing a tank top, shorts, tennis shoes and a head band. He has never looked less wild.
"You know," he says, "I'd really like to get my songs published." The previous night he'd played his own "Lost Lover's Lounge." It's a fine, eminently recordable song and, according to Baldwin, a true story.
Bill walks through the refrain: "All my friends are loners/Here in the Lost Lover's Lounge/They're all just like me/In barfly harmony." The night before, the song had elicited one of the warmer responses.
"That line `Barfly harmony' fell in because there's a lot of guys who come in and they want to sing along. They're back here singing along and, of course, they're not really harmonizing; they're bellowing into the wind, you know. But they love the song."
The Cowbillys are warming up for their first set. In addition to Monday nights (and his pack-'em-in-popular Sunday afternoon gig at Lulu Belle's), Bill plays between the Cowbillys' sets from Thursday through Sunday. As people enter, they recognize the mild-looking Wild Bill and greet him warmly. Some he knows well, others simply have caught one of his acts previously.
"Prosperity," he says after shaking hands for the umpteenth time, "doesn't always lay in your billfold." Someone informs him that Shades of the West hadn't caught fire the night before. Roach "bombs" had been set off, and the smoke from them seeped from under the door. Bill laughs, in his element. But then there's that look in his eye.
"Man," he says, "this is the longest I've ever stayed in one place. I'm getting antsy to go to California." Lulu Belle's proprietor Dick Parsons overhears him and quickly responds.
"You're not getting antsy anytime soon. I don't want to hear about you running off to California."
"Well," Bill smiles, "maybe next summer."
"Yeah," Parsons says. "Keep it at a maybe."
"I have no idea what it costs to cut a video in 1991, but I'd guess at least $30,000. And then you gotta lip-synch it."
"A player will show his ability and always outclass the prerecorded stuff. The human element is what makes it art."
"If I see people out there are restless, I'll try to find an alley that'll get their attention."
"Some nights I can't sing as good and some nights I could fall off the stage and not miss a note.