Backstage: Play James Brown or Risk Injury

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: A musical misstep leads to danger... and deceit! 

My recent column recounting my musical memories of the University of Miami sparked a flood of comments and seemed to kindle some fond reminiscences for other alumni who shared those experiences during the early to mid-'70s. That got me to thinking about some other campus occasions, specifically my tenure as a DJ on the university's radio station, WVUM. Back then, the station was genuinely freeform in that the various DJs were allowed to choose their own music and play their own preferences. My program, which aired on Monday nights from midnight to 3 a.m., was one of those rare shows that actually had a format, in this case British rock. Then as now, I was fascinated by and absorbed with English music no matter what the description, from the '60s pioneers like the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, and the Who to folk rockers such as Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span and the forward-thinking progressive rockers along the lines of King Crimson, Genesis, Yes, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. It didn't really matter what the genre... as long as it was from the U.K., I would play it.

I didn't often have guests on my show, but I do remember one occasion when I was able to coerce the revered rocker Manfred Mann -- then at the helm of Manfred Mann's Earth Band -- to come to the studio and share the mic with me. The Earth Band had a show scheduled at UM, and in the day or so prior, I'd gotten to know them and had even had them over to the house for a home-cooked meal. It was there that Manfred agreed to appear on the show as my special guest. 

Manfred's history went back to the mid-'60s, when his initial namesake outfit managed to squeeze into the forefront of the so-called "British Invasion," that adventurous troupe of English rockers that seized the devotion of American teens by riding in on the coattails of the Beatles and the Stones. Once on the air, it was all I could do to contain my enthusiasm. In fact, I must have been gushing all over myself in terms of my praise, because of all his on-air comments, I remember only one: "Really, Lee, you must calm down. Try to get a grip."

Still, that was hardly the most embarrassing instance that I found myself in while on the air. At the time, the WVUM studios were located on the second floor of the Student Union building, and in the wee hours of the morning, it could be a very lonely -- and occasionally scary -- place. 

On one such show, I was spinning my usual array of obscure English offerings, all of which I had carefully selected, as usual. A couple of hours in, the request line rang and an ominous voice at the other end of the phone barked out, "Hey, man, I wanna hear some James Brown!" Not wishing to disrupt my format, I tried to patiently explain that James Brown was American and that as much as I admired his talents, he simply didn't fit the flow of a show devoted to British rock. Unfortunately, the caller wouldn't have any of it. "Don't give me that shit, man! I'm telling you I wanna hear some James Brown." 

So I tried again, attempting to underscore the fact that I couldn't honor his request because the show was all about British rock... and British rock only. I attempted to explain my dilemma in the most cordial tone I could muster -- not only because I didn't want to upset a listener but also because I could sense he was becoming more and more insistent... while still remarkably unconcerned with my explanation. 

"Look, man! I don't care about your so-called format," he shouted. "I'm telling you I wanna hear James Brown!" I tried one more time to reason with him but to no avail. "Look, if you don't play some James Brown, I'm gonna come over there and beat the crap out of you!" 

I have to say that despite my trepidation, I held to my principles. Despite his explicit threat, I wasn't about to give my ground. Music was my mantra, and it was worth sacrificing my well-being to prove the point. After my irate listener hung up, I followed my format and played... a Bee Gees song. It was British all right, but it also happened to be possibly the wimpiest record I could have offered instead. Had I chosen some heavy blues or an example of British funk, I might have assuaged his anger. But instead, I played the Bee Gees. Hey, they were the next pick on my playlist. Not the wisest choice, perhaps, but still the next disc on the docket. 

No sooner had the record started to play then the phone rang. I already knew who it was on the opposite end, but I answered anyway. "WVUM," I said softly, barely containing my anxiety. 

"What is this shit?" the caller railed. "This ain't no James Brown! You're finished now. Me and my friends are gonna come over there and beat the crap out of you!" 

Needless to say, that put a damper on the rest of the show. I frantically called campus security and begged them to meet me at the elevator after my show. But once the show was over and I made my way downstairs into the student union's darkened walkway, there was no sign of an officer. Now I was nervous. I glanced around, looking for any evidence of my would-be attackers. Seeing no one around, I decided to make a run for it. I dashed toward the car, jumped in, and gunned it, heading for home. Fortunately, I emerged unscathed. 

So what happened to my disgruntled listener? I learned only later that the whole thing was a gag, perpetrated by a couple of supposed friends who thought they'd pull a joke over on me by initiating a phony phone call. Yeah, very funny, guys. Even now, those many years later, I still don't see the humor. Well, not most of it anyway.

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Lee Zimmerman