Saturday, June 4, 2011

Episode 23: "Maple" Syrup and Claude Gummonds Together Again After 30 Long Years!

We've decided to put aside the usual introductory blather and instead post an excerpt from "Maple" Syrup's immortal 1988 autobiography "Tears of Dust":



It all started with a rake. It’ll end with a shovel. That ole shovel will throw dirt on my coffin, when they lay my tired ole body to rest.

That ole rake means a lot to me. I still have it. Got it hanging in my tour bus. It’s a reminder. Don’t get above your raising, momma used to say to me. That ole rake’s just about worn to nothing. Paint’s come off its handle, and its teeth ain’t much to brag about.

But if it wasn’t for that ole rake, I wouldn’t be here right now, telling my story. And you wouldn’t be here to want to hear it.

Daddy give me that rake when I was seven. “Make yourself useful,” he said as he handed it to me. It was the first gift I’d even got from anyone. Oh, I’d had plenty of lickings by then, but ain’t nobody nowhere going to call those a gift!

I used that rake to earn bus fare to Nashville. I raked people’s front yards—all of Clactahatchee County knew me as the boy with the rake. Didn’t nobody have grass in their front yards. They was all dirt. They’d pay me a quarter, and I’d rake that dirt up as nice as could be.

Got to where I could make designs in the dirt with that rake. I’d so special scenes for Thanksgiving, Hog Day, Christmas, and Slaughter Day. Sometimes the folks’d pay me extra. Just a penny, or a nickel more, but it was something extra.

I gave 90 percent of my earnings to daddy. He just drank that money away. I don’t think momma never got a penny of it.

It took me 18 years of hard raking—winter, spring, summer and fall—but I finally had me 33 dollars and 87 cents. That was just enough for a Greyhound bus to Nashville. Oh, I was gonna make it big. I was gonna be the King of Country Music! Still and all, I took that ole rake along with me. It was what I knew—raking and singing was what I knew. One of them was gonna make me famous and rich. I guess you know which one did the trick.

I’d rake and rake, and sing and sing. I made up some songs lots of folks know by heart today—“Butter My Bread,” “I Saw the 10:30 Train [Through the Old Window-Pane],” “Dorita Bonita” and “Momma, I’m Married.”

But there was one special song—one I’d hum to myself, to set up a rhythm while I dug those lines in the dirt…

Keep your hands offa my rake,
Don’t you make the same mistake
that but a whole bunch of men in the ground…

Get your paws offa that rake
or your god-dang goose I’ll bake
and they’ll be looking for you in the Lost and Found…

That was “my song”—a private song just for me. I never shared that one with nobody. Not ‘til I met a certain Mr. Ruthington in Tootsie’s Bar and Grill, down on “Printer’s Alley” in the heart of Music City…

Herle Ruthington. When I hear that name, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Herle made me a star. He also made himself filthy rich. Herle liked music—but he loved money. Herle loved to touch his money. He’d rub a fresh dollar bill all over his face. He’d kiss a quarter just to do it.

Herle had him a little ritual that he called “Money Man.” Every time we got another gold record, he’d do this bit. He’d empty his swimming pool, and have the bank bring over a million dollar bills. The armored truck would drive right across his lawn. He’d have some colored boys to help shovel that money into the pool.

When the pool was filled, Herle would get buck naked—nakeder than a dozen jaybirds—and he’d have them boys spray him all over with Pam spray. They’d spray him ‘til he glistened.

Then ole Herle would do a “cannon ball” into the pool. The Pam spray would make the dollar bills stick to him. A few laps in the pool, and Herle would be covered in money from head to toe.

By this time, it would be dark. Herle would crawl out of the pool—a walking wad of dollars—and run down the streets of Nashville, shouting “I’m the Money Man! I’m the Money Man!”

We wouldn’t see him ‘til every dollar on his body was spent. He’d wake up, naked as the day he was born, in some hotel room, and then the phone would ring. “Boys, come git me. Bring my robe.” And that was the game of “Money Man.”

Claude Gummonds—there is a name to reckon for! Claude was my partner on 34 albums, from our first one, in 1966, to Canyon of Tears, the record that ended our team-up in 1981. Those were good years. Those were the best years in my life. I’ll never forget them years.

I could fill up a whole book just telling the stories I know about ole Claude. But they tell me to keep this part short, so I’ll just do what I can.
The first time I laid eyes on Claude Gummonds was in 1964. He was one of the sea of hungry faces hanging out in Printer’s Alley—songwriters trying to break into the business.

These ‘po’ boys’—as they were nicknamed—would wait outside the night spots, guitars in hand, ready to burst into song if someone famous walked in or out. Webb Pierce couldn’t take a crap without a ‘po’ boy’ trying to play a sure-fire hit for him. Same thing for George Jones and Ray Price.

But all them boys was ‘po’ boys’ themselves, once upon a time. They knew the value of giving a fellow a break. Hell, they built their whole careers on getting breaks! And they knew it.

Back in them days, I wore my hair like Webb Pierce’s, and if you didn’t look too close, you’d have sworn I was him. Well, that’s what happened to Claude. I had gone into Tootsie’s to use the pisser. I was so broke I couldn’t afford toilet paper. I stood at the urinal, thinking to myself: well, this is it! My last piss. I’m so broke I can’t even afford to take a leak no more…”

All of the sudden, a guitar started playing right behind me. Like to give me a heart attack. Caused me to pee on the wall. Then this voice took in to sing. Thick voice—singing sweet and low. That voice had a funny break in it. The song it sang was good, too: “Momma’s Done Been and Gone.”

Claude finished singing and I finished peeing. I flushed, and turned around. Claude’s bony face beamed. “Well, Mr. Pierce, what’d you…” Then his face went all sour. “Oh, you ain’t Webb Pierce! Daw gone it!”

“Na, sir,” I said back, “I ain’t Webb Pierce. But that’s damn good song there. And you got a damn nice voice, son.” I held out my hand. “Slerrup’s the name. Houston Slerrup.”

Claude stared at my hand. “Son, you better wash that thing first.”

Next thing I knew, I was riding on top of a boxcar with Claude and “Sister Susie,” his ole flat-top guitar. We were on our way to Bristol. A radio station there was having auditions for new performers. Claude and Houston were gonna make good—we had to!

We started singing, and before we was out in the country, we’d started to write our first song together. Then a low hanging bridge come up. Claude didn’t see it, and that was the last I saw of him—or “Sister Susie”—for the next three months.

I hopped off the train, and tried my hardest to find Claude. There wasn’t a trace of him. I took him for dead, and hoofed it back into town.

Three months later, I spotted him outside Tootsie’s, all bandaged up, standing with all the other ‘po’ boys.’ He had his guitar taped up with his left arm, so he could make chords. He had a crutch propped up under his right arm. You couldn’t have missed him if you was blind!

“Houston!” he shouted.

“Claude!” I yelled.

We got caught up real quick. He’d been knocked out, and fallen into a truck going through the underpass. He’d laid there for two days, on death’s doorstep,  ‘fore he woke up. He had to go to the hospital. They had him on the critical list until a nurse brought “Sister Susie” in the room. She (the guitar) was pretty beat-up, but she still played fine.

While he was in the hospital, Claude had written a dozen good songs. We used those for our first album, which was named after one of those songs—“Country Mile.” The song told the story of what happened to Claude, and how “Sister Susie” brought him back to life.

Another song on that record was the one we’d written on that boxcar, “Cashier’s Check,” a pretty good divorce number that was our first hit record in 1965. I reckon that song paid back all of Claude’s hospital bills—and then some!