Back in the fall of I964, when I was a high school sophomore, I heard a loud voice announcing the need for a lead singer in a band as I exited the school building. The voice belonged to a black kid.
My first instinct was to ignore what he was saying, not because he was black, but because I was shy and my confidence was at its lowest point. I was about to continue past him, but he had such a welcoming smile that I decided to stop and ask him about it. His name was Craig. He told me when and where the band was practicing and I said I would meet them at the house of a kid named Kenny. That is where I met Willy Ledbetter, the guy who played lead guitar and led the band.
Willy never yelled or complained if one of us messed up while we were practicing. He just said, let’s do it again. Everyone in the band was easy to get along with. Craig was our drummer. Kenny, the other white guy, played bass guitar. I was the lead singer and rhythm guitarist.
We met every Thursday evening at Kenny’s house from the fall to springtime, about eight months. These guys were my oasis. For the two or three hours we practiced, that was all that mattered. We mainly played songs from the Beatles and Rolling Stones, the hottest groups at the time, but Chuck Berry was on the menu. Willy could riff Berry’s guitar style with ease.
Willy once mentioned Lead Belly, aka “Huddy” William Ledbetter, the black folk singer and guitarist and said he wanted to be like him. I didn’t know who Lead Belly was at the time, so I didn’t know enough to ask him if Lead Belly was his grandfather—or even his father, if Lead Belly had a fling a few years before he died in 1948.
I stopped playing with the group after my father refused to help us purchase an amplifier and microphone we needed for voice. We were going to perform at a neighbor’s wedding, our first gig. I was so ashamed that my father refused to help us that I stopped showing up for practice after that. I never saw anyone from the band again.
As old people are wont to do about past friends and acquaintances, I recently googled Willy’s name to see if he still lived on Staten Island. He didn’t, he had moved to Brooklyn. The problem is I found this out from Willy’s obituary. Willy had passed five years before. I saw his photo with that familiar smile. Yeah, that was him.
I began to cry over a loss that I had felt nearly a half-century ago. It all came back, the long walks I took in the cold of mid-winter through rain, ice and snow to be there every Thursday evening, the practice sessions and the feeling of being synched into each other through the music.
I missed those guys, but Willy most of all. He was only four years older, but he was like a patient father who, when I came up short, simply said, let’s do it again. You can’t redo your life, but you can remember those who made moments more tolerable, even joyful. I thank God for Willy.