Today marks the 40th anniversary of my singing debut with British rock band Mott the Hoople. I remember it being pretty exciting at the time, but others may have had a different reaction.
I had been hired by a concert sound company, Maryland Sound Industries of Baltimore, to be one of the two crew members on a month-long US tour. I was to handle miking and monitors on the stage; load, unload and drive the truck; and share general setup duties, while the other guy – company owner Bob Goldstein – handled the mixing console and a bit of everything else. When Bob called to offer me the gig, the first question I asked him was who the band was. When he told me it was Mott the Hoople, I remember feeling disappointed. I had heard Mott a couple of times during previous years while working at other concerts, and they had left me unimpressed. However, since I thoroughly loved the British sense of humor, I reasoned that at least I might have a good laugh along the way. I took the job.
This was Mott the Hoople’s first US tour as headliners, and they were glad to be here. Just over a year earlier, things had looked pretty bleak for them. Despite four albums and relentless touring, the band had basically run out of ideas in their quest for commercial and critical success, were in considerable debt, and had decided to break up. Then, in spring of 1972, David Bowie (a Mott admirer) rode to the rescue with a Hail-Mary gift, a song he had written – “All the Young Dudes”. It became a huge hit for Mott, saved their career, and gave them the encouragement they needed to rise from their own ashes like a phoenix.
And what a rise it was. To my great surprise and delight, I quickly discovered that this band was not the band I thought they were. They were now an incredibly tight, high-energy, highly skilled performing unit at their peak, with a compelling stage presence and a bunch of outstanding songs in addition to “All the Young Dudes”. So not only did I get my laughs, I thoroughly enjoyed every performance on the tour.
One of my set-up duties for each show was to place a microphone on a stand somewhere in the wings or backstage for the band’s road manager, Stan Tippins. Stan had been in bands of his own and had an excellent singing voice, and when it came time in the set for the song we called ‘Dudes’, Stan would step up to that mike and add his voice to the anthemic chorus – giving it a more impressive presence and heft. I loved the song, and at some point it occurred to me that Stan’s singing duties seemed pretty simple, as were the words to the chorus, and that practically anyone should be able to do the job. Eventually it dawned on me that ‘anyone’ might include me.
It’s important to note here that I had never sung in my life, except for the kind of so-called "singing" most people do around the house and in the shower. As far as I recall, I had never been able to sing a note, carry a tune, or keep a beat. In fact, it had never occurred to me that I had any singing talent whatsoever. All of this should have been a warning to me, but I was having so much fun on the road – and after all, Stan made it look so easy. As I would drive the truck from gig to gig, I started singing the “Dudes” chorus out loud. When I realized that I could sing it pretty well (or so I thought), a light suddenly went on in my head: ‘I want to join Stan and sing this!’
I began to raise this great idea in casual conversations with Bob, with Mott’s roadies, and then with the band members and Stan. Setting aside the question of whether any of them actually took me seriously, no one raised any objection. Let me repeat – no one raised any objection. With this apparent green light, I prepared myself for my singing debut, and just in time. There was only one public show remaining on the tour – at Washington, DC’s, Kennedy Center on August 19, 1973. Iggy Pop was the opening act. It was also to be Mott lead guitarist Mick Ralphs’ last concert with the band before leaving to become a founding-member of Bad Company.
At the Kennedy Center, the cramped and raised stage design forced us to set up Stan’s mike behind the band, behind the curtains, and about five feet below the stage on the concrete auditorium floor. So the only people who could see us were Stan and me. Finally, the moment arrived when those iconic opening notes of “All the Young Dudes” rang out. With Stan apparently still not expressing any objection (that was his last chance), I stepped up to the mike with him and, staring at the back of a curtain, sang my heart out over and over again: “All the young dudes, carry the news, boogaloo dudes, carry the news.” What a thrill! Three minutes later the song was over, the audience roared as it usually did, and Stan and I stood there alone, invisible, in the dark. The show ended, the crowd left, and I went back to my sound-man duties tearing down and packing up the gear – but definitely with an extra bounce in my step.
The next day, I rode in a car to New York City with Mick Ralphs and his girlfriend. Mick drove, and I was in the back seat. At some point, unable to contain myself any longer, I leaned forward on the back of the front seat and turned to Mick: “So, Mick, what did you think about last night?” “About what, Bill?” “About ‘Dudes’. I sang the chorus with Stan.” After a brief (but to me achingly long) pause, he said quizzically, “Was that why it was louder, Bill?” Whether or not he said it, or even intended it, I wondered if the pause and the tone of his voice meant that maybe an extra-loud chorus was not entirely beneficial to the song (especially if it was loudly off-key or otherwise sonically sour). Perhaps I should have taken this as a subtle hint that I should stick to my day job, that my singing career was over. But I probably told myself that ‘he didn’t say he hated it’, and I did not press the point further with Mick.
A few days later, the band taped a performance at ABC-TV studios for later broadcast as part of ABC’s “In Concert” series. As we set up for the gig, I turned to one of Mott’s roadies and said, “Hey, Richie, I’m thinking I’d like to join Stan again on ‘Dudes’.” Richie appeared to reflect on it for a moment, but then quickly said, “I don’t know, Bill. It’s TV and all.” Suddenly it was clear to me. The word must have spread about my singing performance and the instructions had gone out: ‘Don’t let this guy anywhere near Stan’s microphone again.’ Whether or not that was actually true, or whether anyone was concerned in any way or gave a damn at all, I made my own interpretation. But that was OK. I’d had my fun: debut & denouement in one fell swoop, Kennedy Center, Mott the Hoople, Bowie-written hit song – grand stuff.
Oh, and I still can’t sing… at least I don’t think I can.
But actually there’s this one other song…
[PHOTO ABOVE - From left: Ariel Bender, Ian Hunter and Overend Watts of Mott the Hoople, October 5, 1973, West Palm Beach, FL. Photo © 1973 Bill Mankin. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use prohibited.]