New Timesscribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable
rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This
week: unexpected meetings with some notable names.
Although my entertainment industry career led to the majority
of my celebrity encounters over the years, there have also been times
when I've met my idols by accident. One of the earliest chance meetings I can recall took place at the
University of Miami, when I wrote for the student newspaper, The
Hurricane. Unfortunately, many of my memories of that era involve
situations where I found myself caught in the middle of shouting matches
between my entertainment editor, Gerry Lynn (who also happened to be my
ferociously difficult yet still gorgeous girlfriend), and the sports
editor, who I thought was a pretty good guy. It was awkward to say the
least, and every time I visited the office, I never knew what type of
entanglement I'd find myself involved in. Suffice it to say, she had a
way of alienating the other staffers.
One afternoon, I was in the hallway upstairs at the student union when I happened to run into Al Kooper playing Frisbee outside the Hurricane offices. He looked liked any other student at the time, what with his long straggly hair and scruffy beard. So as I cheerfully entered the fray, it suddenly occurred to me that the guy engaged in this friendly competition was the same musician responsible for two of the most influential bands of the '60s, the Blues Project and Blood, Sweat & Tears. Even those ignorant of those earlier accomplishments will likely know him by the immortal organ riff he contributed to Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone." Yet, he didn't have any airs about him... he was merely one of the guys, happily tossing a Frisbee and more than eager to let off some steam before a campus concert scheduled for later that evening.
A couple of years later, I met another musician with an equally impressive résumé. Accompanied by some pals, I ventured to a downtown Miami club called Thee Image, where the band playing that night happened to be a group called Ramatam. They had a hot lead singer named April Lawton, but the driving force behind the group was Mike Pinera, whose previous résumé included stints in Iron Butterfly and Blues Image, a Miami-based outfit whose chief claim to fame was a respectable hit called "Ride Captain Ride." However, the band had its most impressive pedigree in drummer Mitch Mitchell, the incredible powerhouse behind the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
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We arrived so late that we were able to meet the band as they were exiting after the gig. Pinera and Lawton were most amiable, but Mitchell was smashed out of his head and barely coherent... barely able to keep his balance, in fact. It had been three or four years since Jimi's demise, but Mitchell was clearly not in a good way, physically or mentally. We attempted to converse, and although he tried to be friendly, he was simply too out of whack to hold a lucid conversation. Ultimately, it was simply sad, being that at one time, he was one of the greatest drummers in one of the greatest bands of all time. On this particular evening anyway, he was simply a mess. Aside from isolated gigs with Jeff Beck, Miles Davis, and Jack Bruce, among others, Mitchell more or less faded from the radar after Ramatam. A few years ago, he briefly returned to the limelight while touring with the Experience Hendrix 2008 tribute tour. Sadly, on November 12, 2008, following their final date in Portland, Oregon, he was found dead of natural causes in his hotel room. He was 61 years old.
In August 1997, I found myself sharing a transatlantic flight from the U.K. with Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees. I didn't realize he had been on board until I spotted him at baggage claim at MIA. Of course, there was an airline rep there to assist him with his baggage, and although we briefly made eye contact, I kind of felt like an underling having to fend for my baggage on my own. In fact, Robin wasn't even required to touch his luggage since it was all handled for him. My final glimpse of him was walking alongside the luggage cart as it was being wheeled out of the area by this attractive young lady, as all the while I was grappling with my suitcases and forced to fight to retrieve them from the carousel.
I had occasion to spot all three of the Brothers Gibb -- Robin, Barry, and the late Maurice -- when they attended the opening night of the musical Chess at the Jackie Gleason theater (now known as the Fillmore) on Miami Beach. The show's composer, Tim Rice, was also in attendance. But it was the presence of the Who's Roger Daltrey that really had me gawking. The five men had a group photo taken in the lobby prior to curtain time, a copy of which the photographer -- who happened to be a friend of mine -- later gave me and which I still have to this day. During the performance, I was sitting in the first balcony, so that I could observe them all sitting together in one of the first rows of the theater. During intermission, I watched as they were ushered into a VIP area, only to reappear just before the second act.
When the show ended, each of them exited individually. Daltrey, dressed in a denim show and Western bolo tie, was among the last to leave, and as he walked down the ramp from the auditorium, he looked my way and our eyes locked. Here was the lead singer from one of my favorite bands of all time, and I was too awestruck to say anything. I suspect he knew that I had recognized him, and he probably wouldn't have been surprised if I had approached and asked for an autograph. Instead, I was frozen in place and I merely watched as he departed, leaving me gaping after him and too dumbstruck to manage even a hello.