In the late ’80s, I walked into Jack’s Record Store in San Francisco’s Western Addition, and asked for the best versions of “Stardust.” Jeff Richardson (who was wearing a “Ban the CD” button) suggested Billy Jack Wills and the obvious choice, Hoagie Carmichael, but he also insisted I hear Jimmie Rivers and the Cherokees’ Brisbane Bop—even though the album didn’t include “Stardust.” The record existed because Jimmie’s cohort—the great pedal-steel guitarist Vance Terry—recorded several shows between 1961-1964 at the 23 Club, located in the formerly rowdy, lawless town of Brisbane, California. After those tapes resurfaced, Western Records released Brisbane Bop in 1983.
Once I adjusted to the low fidelity of the recording, my guitar life was changed. Jimmie’s playing was soulful, virtuosic, and swinging. I spent so much time obsessively figuring out Jimmie’s phrases—which were originally played on a 1958 Gibson doubleneck—that I started to feel like I knew him. After learning Jimmie was still living and playing in Placerville, California, my friend Johnny Dilks and I made a pilgrimage. We weren’t disappointed. Jimmie’s playing was as fine as ever, and he was warm and generous. He asked me to sit in with the band, and this led to a guitar lesson that really opened my eyes.
For one thing, Jimmie grew up with many of the tunes I considered standards, but he viewed them as “pop hits,” and would cut away the useless fat. I would overthink things and stumble over the hurdles of tritone substitutions and Real Book re-harmonizations, but Jimmie just threw those changes out the window and played music. He also suggested I play the melody of “Up a Lazy River” in all keys. This exercise was immensely helpful for playing hip lines over dominant seventh chords. Jimmie’s influence and kindness are deeply internalized in me. His impact is clearly demonstrated on “Swingin’ with the Cats” from Jim Campilongo and the 10 Gallon Cats, where I applied his clever swing lines and the application of flat 9 diminished scales. I still play his stuff.
Jimmie was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, but back in the days of the 23 Club, he fit right in with the club’s wild-west insanity. He told me he had to fight patrons before being an “accepted” musician. What an audition! He even rode his motorcycle onto the 23 Club’s stage. That’s rock and roll!