by guest writer Freddy “Speedo” Johnson
Like the harness horse racing business, show business is not all excitement and sunshine, but both unusual fields are hard to get out of your system once you get hooked. My first professional show business gig was playing bass guitar in a cover band, The Dyeatlestones.
Artie Levy was a skinny young guy with Buddy Holly glasses who operated In the Groove, a record store on Euclid Avenue. Artie lived three houses down from my Aunt Jane and was the brains behind the group, or, as we say in show biz, the creative genius. Artie had zero musical chops, he could not play the radio, but he had a cousin, Sheppard Grant, who worked in an agency that booked entertainment on cruise ships.
Artie dreamed up an angle, a hook, and an idea with legs. He put together four of us from the neighborhood who did have some musical ability and told us to rehearse some of the greatest hits of Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. We played the early songs, the easy songs, nothing complex, and then we made a Beta Max recording that Artie could get in front of Sheppard.
This idea was pure genius. Five thousand groups could play and sing these songs, and four thousand six hundred could play them better than us. But Artie paved the path so that we merely needed to show a modicum of competence, and The Dyeatlestones were on, without schlepping around waiting to write the next great rock epic.
Less than two months from our first rehearsals, we debuted by playing two sets on the Panama Queen that left from Miami every week to island-hop in the Caribbean. The Dyeatlestones played one set at six, the other at nine. We played on a small stage that was a six by ten platform eighteen inches high, in the Midship Bistro, capacity 82, rarely filled.
The first part of the show was a breeze. Jimmy Hayes was our lead guitar player and lead singer, the only one I would call a talented musician. When Jimmy did the Bob Dylan set, he did not even need the other three of us; he could efficiently run through the set acoustically. After a 10-minute break, we did a Beatles segment, took another break, and finished with the Stones. I will say this; we did not dress up in goofy clothes, tell corny jokes, or banter. We played the music straight.
Getting paid to play great music and travel must sound like a dream for a 22-year-old kid, and for a while, it was. Like harness racing, behind the scenes were not always happy times. The four of us were crammed together in a tiny stateroom. Our pay was meager. The gig quickly turned from great fun to a real drag. I know this is hard to believe.
You may be familiar with the song, Last Time, by the Stones. www.youtube.com/watch
The intro is unforgettable, real ear candy, and it is a great song, straightforward to play. Rehearsing, we did the song about 20, 30 times, then, when the cruises started, twice more every day. Around the 93rd rendition, I wanted this to be the Last Time — boredom set in, same songs, night after night.
Things began to get on my nerves. Artie was making the same money sitting on his ass in Brooklyn. Jimmy Hayes was wearing sunglasses at breakfast and acting like he WAS Dylan. Al Contrera, the drummer, snored like he was choking on an olive pit and often borrowed money for the slot machines that he forgot to pay back.
One of my pet peeves was the audience. They sat at round tables drinking and did not always engage with the music. Sometimes the customers talked during our tunes, which infuriated me. I believed this chatting during a performance was rude. One night, during the nine o’clock set, after we finished Time is on Our Side, I snapped at a beefy cruiser with a tidy beard sitting at one of the front tables. A hot mic picked it up.
“Hey, buddy, who gives a shit if you ate two breakfasts and are going on the Mayan excursion tomorrow.”
There was a scene. My bad. Very unprofessional. I played two more nights on the Panama Queen, one stoned, one drunk. Artie had my replacement waiting at the port, but I had my union card. I could still work in showbiz.
It’s a long story, but I moved from music to movies. I started at the bottom as a Best Boy, moved up to a Gaffer, then a Grip, but never wanted to be a Key Grip because of the paperwork. These jobs are in the same family — we move around all the stuff on a movie set.
The big difference between the cruise ship and the movies was that every movie was different. Some films were huge budgets, tiny budgets, independent budgets, comedies, dramas, whatever. And there were always new people, stories, and locations. Every movie was unique for 26 years until my back gave out.
After inking a movie contract with my union guy, Pete DeBenedetto, the first thing I did was to see if there was a racetrack near the set, preferably a harness racetrack. In LA and New York, finding a racetrack was a snap. Other shoots were a problem. I got into the sport and met a few people on the backstretch, primarily through Bobby Jay, a character actor who owned a pacer.
After a few back surgeries, with some money in the bank and a solid pension at age 54, I turned to act three in my story, the Speedo Johnson story. I bought a couple of trotting yearlings and sent them to Clarence Quick, a trainer from Pennsylvania that I got to know.
I never had the urge to be a trainer, but I was, and am, a very involved owner. I like jogging my horses. And I enjoy studying horse sales catalogs and trying to pick out a yearling that falls into my price range. Clarence taught me a lot about horse racing, and there is a lot to learn. We got along great and had some good times until he got sick. After the funeral, Clarence’s second trainer, Waldo Chapman, took over the stable, and I have been with Wally for six years now.
I bought and raced a few yearlings that were break-even investments and had a few clunkers. So far, no blockbusters. My money-making odds are longer than most because I only play the staking game in harness racing. I never was interested in keeping a racehorse to race a hundred or two hundred times.
Like my Dyeatlestones days, I need to move on to new pastures. Heck, if I had played Last Time another hundred times, I would have required medication or institutionalization. Moving my horses after their age-three season may not be wise but clearing the deck and starting fresh keeps me involved.
Act three of the Speedo Johnson story is the most enjoyable. The harness racehorse ownership game is like a movie where I’m the director, producer, and financier. I never know where the story will go. And I never need to set foot on a cruise ship or perform the Last Time again.