Sunday, June 7, 2009

Keith Carradine: Cornball or turn-around genius?

Like everyone, I was reading and watching the accounts of David Carradine’s death in Bangkok last week. Son of John Carradine, actor in a slew of western and horror films*, David’s most famous role was that of Kwai Chang Caine in the TV series Kung Fu, although younger folks will better remember him in the Quentin Tarantino Kill Bill movies.

David Carradine

Kung Fu (1972 to 1975) debuted when I was a freshman in high school and ended when I graduated, so it is weaved into a number of my teenage memories. But more than my memories of David Carradine’s portrayal of the Shaolin monk, news of David’s death dredged up my recollection of a week-long stint with Keith Carradine in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

Keith is another of John Carradine’s five sons, half-brother to David and, like the rest of his family, knew what he wanted to do from an early age. His first notable role was in a Robert Altman movie called McCabe & Mrs. Miller in 1971 and he soon joined his brother on the set of Kung Fu, playing Kwai Chang Caine as a teenager.

Besides acting, Keith had musical ambitions and a pretty good singing voice. In 1975, he played a folk singer in the movie Nashville, performing his original song “I’m Easy” (not to be confused with Lionel Richie’s hit song “Easy”). For this, he was awarded an Oscar for best original song. Not bad for a 26-year-old.

Ready to capitalize on his burgeoning musical career, Keith Carradine’s agent set up a tour for the summer of 1976, mostly at smaller venues in college towns. Our band’s agent, Don Cange, got a call from Keith’s management company looking for a small, out of the way place, where Keith and his band could polish their act before hitting the road.

Don had the perfect spot: Tegmeyer’s Steakhouse and Dinner Theater in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Located several miles east of town on Highway 70, the road to White Sands Missile Range, “out of the way” was an understatement. Other than New Mexico State University, where five of the eight members of our band, Saturday Revue, attended school, there wasn’t much going on in that sleepy little town.

So Keith Carradine was on his way to our corner of the world and our band was hired to play the dance sets between his shows. We showed up around noon to set up for the gig and met Keith and his band, all very nice guys who definitely carried themselves in a Southern California kind of way, dude.

The only band member I remember by name was Don Grusin, who played keyboards and is still, along with his brother Dave, a major player in the West Coast music scene. Keith’s bass player was very talented and offered some musical advice to us, such as having our trumpeter land on the ninth at the end of our break song, the theme to the Flintstones. (The things you remember…)

Before the first night’s performance, all of the tickets were sold for the whole week (Tuesday through Saturday). The three Tegmeyer brothers were amazed by this. None of them had ever heard of Keith Carradine or seen the movie, though they certainly weren’t complaining.

We were pretty excited about opening night. After all, we were eight kids between 18 and 20 years old, about to open for a real star. Our first set was a mellow collection of tunes, designed to assist the patrons enjoy and digest their t-bones and New York strips.

Then came the big debut of Keith Carradine, aka Tom Frank, scraggly womanizer in the hit movie, Nashville. Big applause, followed by four or five forgettable songs that barely hung together, in spite of the obvious talent of the individual band members. Keith’s rap between the songs was awkward and nervous.

I was standing in the foyer with a couple of the Tegmeyer brothers, peering into the room. I’ll never forget what one of them said to me. After commenting about the full house and Keith’s obvious appeal to be able to attract such a crowd, he gave his heartfelt, critic’s one-line summary: “This guy is a cornball.”

The set was saved with Keith’s performance of “Easy,” but the negative aspects of the performance were not lost on Keith and his manager. They were acutely aware of how bad the night went and set out to resolve the problem in a time-tested, traditional way. They fired the drummer.

The next day, while waiting for a new drummer to show up from L.A., they scoured the town in search of some local fodder to improve Keith’s rapport with the audience. They rehearsed that afternoon with the new band member and made a number of improvements in their set lineup and flow of the show.

I have to say that I was duly impressed with the one-day makeover. That evening’s performance was unrecognizable (in a good way) compared with opening night and the reaction of the audience was a complete 180. I realized that I was observing true professionals turn around a bad situation—a life lesson that has always stayed with me.

With everyone a little more relaxed, Keith invited us over to the Holiday Inn for a swim the next afternoon. We got there with towels, trunks and flip flops, ready to swim with the stars. Climbing the iron and cement stairs to the second floor, we saw that their room door was open. There was Keith at the table, pouring over a script, or contract, or something with a beautiful lady we had not yet met.

One of the band members was sitting in the corner of the room smoking pot. My first reaction was that this is a small town with police officers who wear cowboy hats. The casualness of this guy toking his reefer with the door wide open was another hint of how different California was from New Mexico and Texas. Don’t get me wrong. We were musicians, a synonym for potheads (especially back then), so we’d seen marijuana cigarettes before and possibly inadvertently inhaled once or twice, but not in such a brazen and open way.

I wish I could recount what happened after that, but I draw a blank.

Anyway, the shows went well for the rest of the week, Keith Carradine redeeming himself as a consummate performer and heading off on his concert tour prepared to wow audiences (especially the women) across the country. For us, we had a brush with some famous people and learned a lot about crisis management.

Keith Carradine

* * * * *

[* A “slew” is probably an understatement, as John Carradine appeared in over 300 movies and television programs. In 1939 alone, the year that brought us such classics as Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz, and Gone with the Wind, John Carradine had roles in Jesse James, Mr. Moto’s Last Warning, Stagecoach, The Three Musketeers, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Captain Fury, Five Came Back, Frontier Marshall, and Drums Along the Mohawk. Busy guy. In 1972, he played Dr. Vanard in Psycho A Go-Go. Even Hollywood stars have to put food on the table once in awhile.]

Copyright 2009 Randy Hunt

1 comment:

  1. Keith C has that special quality...don't know what it is....he is cool.....old...but cool!


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