Musicians Help Each Other & Protect the Fingers

Reaching Out and Helping When You Can

This post is about  helping others when you can, and secondly about protecting your fingers if you are a musician or anyone, in fact, making a living with their fingers.

I have been playing and singing music for many, many years, and the learning I have received as a working musician is more like getting a PhD. Throughout my professional career beginning at age 13, the camaraderie of most all musicians I have known and played with has been astounding, with the almost universal desire to want to help other musicians, and others, any way you can.

When I went on the road at 18, I found myself with my bass and my L7 Gibson guitar in New York months later, with a $24 a week gig in a take out place, sweating the musicians union residency rule. There were several older musicians I had met at the musicians hangout, Charlie’s Tavern, that had a profound effect on my life.

Charlie's Tavern
Charlie’s Tavern in New York

Where all the New York Musicians hung out

Three of them were extremely successful and were very generous in helping this 18 year old succeed, while 1500 miles from home in Texas. And one was Zeb Jullian, a down and out great jazz guitar player who had lost his two middle left hand fingers and was struggling just to stay alive. I met three of these guys at Charlies, where you learned on the road was the musician’s hangout in New York. Bass player Everette Hull, who invented the Bassamp system and started Ampeg, hung out there and he took me under his wing. He had me to substitute at his weekly gig on his night off. Years later after the Army, back playing again in New York, and studying audio, he hired me making Bassamps. Then, there was Dominick Cortese, session accordionist, and first man and contractor for the great A & R Columbia person Mitch Miller, who introduced me to “Happy” Powers, Local 802 membership chairman, who bent the rules and let me do th rest of my 3 month “sweat” in Montreal with a band. And no sooner than I returned, Dominick set me up with Alan Holmes at the Hotel Astor with the highest paying music gig in the city.


 My gig at the Astor (on the left) with Alan Holmes at 19 years old – 1951 Note the marquee sign

And then, Uncle Sam said, “I want you.” The moral of all this is that older and caring musicians helped me get to a very successful point in my career, and also taught me the concept of giving back. I felt the inner pain of Zeb Julian, having been a great jazz guitar player, and suddenly being robbed of that by losing his precious fingers. I then tried to help him any way I could. He almost threw my prized old Gibson across the room in total frustration when I proposed to try to play a little with the two fingers. When I saw it was to no avail, I helped in other ways the best I could with a little money, some clothes, and some encouragement to seek some counseling, but most of all to stay away from the booze.

One of my paybacks to Dominick was 25 years later. It wasn’t much, but a small token when I was co-producing Bob Dylan’s Desire Album. We had earlier recorded the song Joey and I thought it needed some Italian flavor, so I called Dominic and the great guitarist, Vinnie Bell in to the studio to overdub on the song. It was seven minutes long and they both nailed it in one take, which underlines the statement “learn your ax well,” but most of all, also to protect your fingers at all costs.

I kinda laughed a little once when famed classical pianist Glen Gould walked into my Columbia edit-mix room one day to edit tape wearing gloves. When I reached out to shake hands, he just pulled away. No shake. But that encounter stuck in my mind and should have been embedded further when 2 1/2 years ago I almost lost those two left hand middle fingers, while using a modified grass-blower. When I saw the x-rays I was devastated that they were broken and hanging by the skin. The doctor wanted to just cut them off and sew it up. And then I told him the Zeb Julian and Glen Gould stories and I begged him to save them, if at all possible. He did, but had to fuse the ring finger at the joint. The finger being straight prohibits most chord playing, but I am ok with the bass, working around it. I should practice more, but the tips are extremely sensitive and hurt when I play.

I am telling this because you may not have heard it from anyone else, especially someone with the first (left) hand experience and knowledge of a great musician being robbed of his greatness in guitar playing. If you are investing your whole life in those fingers, protect them with everything you’ve got. Constantly be on guard as to what stupid little accident could injure them and ruin your life. So please heed to my advice. Protect the fingers. Also, reach out and help when you can.

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