Aspiring Musicians Listen Up … “DON’T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB ”
There’s a scene in the 1987 documentary of the musical and cultural phenomenon that is Chuck Berry, “Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll,” in which Mr. Berry recalls his early days scuffling for club dates.
On one occasion, Berry was able to supplement his meager music earnings by redecorating the Cosmopolitan Club. At night, Chuck was inventing rock and roll there, mixing T-Bone Walker guitar licks with Hank Williams-inspired lyrics and Louis Jordan’s jump-blues rhythms. By day, he was painting snow-covered mountains on the club’s walls.
“I got four-hundred and fifty dollars for that,” Berry recalls. “And compared to twenty-one dollars a weekend, that’s like six months of playing.”
For Berry, whose music had become part of the world’s soundtrack for over three decades by the time he was retelling the story, the point of the story wasn’t about the hardscrabble times of yesterday.
It was about tomorrow, and insurance against the unknown.
“That’s why I’ll never let that painting and decorating go,” he explains. “There’s money in that.”
Now, Chuck Berry has never had to put his guitar and pick down to pick up the paintbrush and roller, just as Madonna won’t be your server at Applebee’s anytime soon. And although we can’t help but laugh at his concern about his job prospects, other musicians who at one time were near the pinnacle that Berry occupied have found that fame and fortune can be fleeting. For every Chuck Berry, there are dozens of Dave Clarks.
From 1964 to 1967, the Dave Clark Five has 17 Top 40 hits on the Billboard charts. They starred in their own “Hard Day’s Night”-inspired film, “Catch Us If You Can.” For a period, it was the Dave Clark Five, not the Rolling Stones, who were the second-biggest British Invasion act in America.
But by 1968, the Dave Clark Five was no longer making hits in America, and the group disbanded in 1970. Dave Clark left the music business as a performer in 1973, at the age of 31. And Dave Clark had to find a second career.
Fortunately, Clark had put some money away and paid attention to the business side of his career. He set up a media company, bought the rights to some of those television shows his band had appeared on, and wound up co-writing and producing a hit musical, “Time,” which featured Sir Laurence Olivier in his final stage performance.
Aspiring musicians like to romanticize their lives, and some like to think that anything short of total dedication to their art smacks of selling out. But, somehow, Brian May, lead guitarist for Queen, found time to earn a PhD in astrophysics from Imperial College, and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, guitarist for the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan and first-call session man for dozens of stars, has learned enough about modern warfare to chair a Congressional Advisory Board on missile defense and become a highly paid consultant to several defense contractors.
So the next time you hear someone telling a well-intended but struggling amateur musician “Don’t’ quit your day job,” think about Chuck Berry and his sideline as an interior decorator, and Dave Clark’s second career as an impresario, and how nice it is to have options.