Music News

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

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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.

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Larry Crowley