Backstage in South Florida: Awkward Encounters With Iron Butterfly, John Mellencamp, Janis Joplin, Roger Daltrey, Chaka Khan and More

John "Don't Call Me Johnny" Mellencamp
Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman shares stories of memorable rock 'n' roll encounters that took place in our local environs. This week, quick snapshots in a book of memories.

Sometimes even the briefest encounters can leave the most lingering impressions. While I've had occasion to spend quality time with some major marquee stars over the years, oftentimes, all I experienced was an unexpected happenstance that nevertheless became forever etched in my memory.

I initially crossed paths with the rock world while attending Southern Methodist University in Dallas Texas during my freshman year of college. Iron Butterfly (whose main claim to fame was the psychedelic 17-minute side-long track "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida") was playing on campus one night and I happened to encounter the band as they were making their way towards the back of the venue.

"Hey, would you guys take me backstage with you?" I innocently inquired of bassist Lee Dorman. At which point, he politely declined. Happily, I subsequently caught some other concerts that actually induced me to purchase tickets -- the late Alex Chilton with his first band, the Box Tops, when they played SMU a semester later, as well as the Jimi Hendrix Experience when they performed at the Dallas Memorial Auditorium with opening act Chicago Transit Authority, later known simply as Chicago. I remember that particular concert fairly well, especially the moment that occurred during "Purple Haze" when Jimi pointed to a guy in the audience and adlibbed "'Scuse me, while I kiss this guy..."

At the time, I lived in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands and it was there I observed another deceased rock star, Janis Joplin, who was sitting alone at a waterfront bar quietly imbibing her beverage. I remember she looked very lonely -- a solitary soul hidden behind her larger than life persona. A buddy of mine, Tommy Hacket, claimed he corralled her for a one night stand, and while I have my doubts, it would affirm the fact she was, at least momentarily at least a wee bit desperate.

I also recall seeing Ed Cassidy, the drummer of the band Spirit ("I Got a Line on You," The Twelve Dreams of Dr. Sardonicus) sitting on the stairway leading up to a popular island nightspot called the French Club. Speaking of clubs and hang-outs, a group called Boffalongo, -- later reincarnated as Orleans (famous for the hit "Still the One") -- served as the house band at the St. Thomas Club my first summer on the island. And I became friendly with Steve Boone, bassist for the Lovin' Spoonful, when he spent some time in exile in St. Thomas before being deported for drug possession.

Once I moved to Miami, my star-gazing increased exponentially, but here again, several of those scenarios were strictly by chance ... and often uncomfortable encounters at that. I saw Roger Daltrey exiting the Jackie Gleason Theatre (now known as the Fillmore) when he, the Bee Gees and lyricist Tim Rice attended the opening night performance of Rice's show "Chess." I idolized the Who, but I was too intimidated to approach him. Even so, we did make eye contact, albeit briefly, and I regret to this day that I didn't extend my greetings.

Then there was the time I attended a reception held in honor of John Mellencamp at the old Newport Hotel shortly after he underwent the transformation from Johnny Cougar, glam rocker, to John Cougar Mellencamp, erstwhile blue collar troubadour. I made the mistake of greeting Mr. Mellencamp with a "Hi, Johnny!" to which he curtly replied, "It's John, not Johnny." I can only imagine what would have happened if I addressed him as Mr. Cougar. It was equally awkward in a different sort way when I went backstage at the old Jai Lai Fronton to interview Woodstock vet Richie Havens. I witnessed him putting in his dentures in preparation for our conversation, not realizing at that point that Richie sang sans teeth.

I met Chaka Khan on a couple of occasions and each offered a different experience. When I worked for ABC Records, her band Rufus was on our roster. Backstage at a show -- again at the Jai Lai -- Khan's handlers wouldn't permit me to get too close, and as she stumbled through the corridor after the show, I understood why. Ms. Khan was obviously enjoying herself a bit too much, appearing as if she had partaken of something that had laid her to waste. I ran into her several years later when I was employed as the public relations manager for Hard Rock Café in Bayside, and she made a special appearance at one of our events. She was as cordial as could be that afternoon. But that night, several hours after I left, she returned with her posse for dinner. The next day, the staff complained that she was in full diva mode, launching complaints about her meal, the service and everything else, short of the color of the carpet. I felt fortunate I had escaped the wrath of Khan.

Hard Rock also introduced me to the world of Latin music. I experienced something akin to culture shock when we hosted a press conference by the Mexican band Maná, and we were overwhelmed overrun by press and hangers-on. With all the tumult and jostling that took place during their appearance, it felt akin to Beatlemania, albeit with a South of the Border inflection.

On the other hand, when we hosted Puerto Rican superstar Chayanne, it took me a while to soak up the syntax. He was doing a meet and greet at Hard Rock and as the evening wore on, I noticed that he was becoming more and more antsy. His knowledge of English was practically non-existent at that time, so when he motioned that he needed something from me, I wasn't quite sure what he meant. Motioning for me to accompany him, he led me down the stairs of the restaurant and then paused by the front door. Pointing towards his hotel, the Intercontinental, he shook my hand, gave a quick goodbye wave and sprinted off across Miami's Bayfront Park. It was a shameless Chayanne who made his escape, and yet I unwittingly provided his cover.

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Lee Zimmerman