Thursday, February 25, 2010

“Monday Night, Geauga Style”

c. 2010 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

Note to Readers: Dennis Chandler is a figure of local and national renown who has interacted with some of the world’s most creative individuals including: Steve Allen, Andre Previn, Ferrante & Teicher, Chuck Berry, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Lonnie Mack, Robert ‘Junior’ Lockwood, and Bill Doggett.

It was a Monday night in the Icehouse home office.

My wife was still in Wisconsin with our daughters, on an extended family errand. So the household continued to be a manly outpost populated by myself and our Pomeranian, plus his younger sidekick, a black Labrador Retriever.

Quigley, Riley, and I formed a testosterone trio of sorts.

While considering writing projects, I ran across an old notebook with entries about Dennis Chandler, the Cleveland music icon. It made me realize that several months had passed since our last conversation.

He and I had first connected during the summer of 2007. Since then, our paths seemed to regularly cross, again and again. We developed a productive relationship.

Our shared passion for Rock ‘n’ Roll made the difference.

Originally, I wrote about his appearance at a festival in Jefferson. Then, my attention turned to his incredible life as a Cleveland musician and manager for Gibson. But eventually, other storylines developed – notably, about his relationships with Bo Diddley and Les Paul.

Chandler inspired new features of all kinds. His familiarity with music history seemed to know no boundaries.

But then, I lost track of his career.

My last article about his work confessed this misdirected attention stream.
Now, it was strange to consider that my focus had been surrendered once again.

Still pondering my notes, I purposefully dialed his number. The phone rang twice.

“Dennis,” I said. “This is Rod Ice, from the Maple Leaf newspaper.”

He reacted with surprise. “Hey! How have you been?”

I apologized for once again losing touch. “As always, my routine got out of hand. But then I thought of you… and another winter on the Northcoast.”

Chandler was cheerful in his response. “I’ve kept busy while the snow was falling. Done some solo piano stuff, been running each day, and worked on a Telecaster guitar I bought from eBay. It’s Cleveland in the winter. What can you do?”

“A Fender?” I wondered out loud. Because I knew he had worked for Gibson as District Manager, the admission seemed out of place. Like a Chevrolet man suddenly owning a Ford.

“Dale Hawkins passed away recently,” he observed.

“Yes,” I replied.

“That was James Burton on the record, playing ‘Suzi-Q,’” he remembered. “Burton was using a Telecaster. You can’t get that sound with any other guitar.”

I nodded, silently.

“My new axe is a Japanese Fender product, with a Bigsby vibrato tailpiece,” he said. “The stock pickups sounded too thin, so I called Seymour Duncan. They make pickups for the custom shop models. I had those added, plus an extra volume knob to blend the sound from each unit. That made all the difference.”

“Very cool,” I said.

“Collector guitars are artificially created,” Chandler exclaimed. “They aren’t really valuable. People buy them, but don’t play them. I prefer to have the proper tool for what I do.”

Curiosity made me pursue this line of thought. “So… why do the instrument manufacturers persist in trying to sell expensive, limited edition items over everyday products?”

He huffed at the question. “It’s like selling a box of Cheerios. They want something special inside, to entice the consumer. The only way to deal with it is to say ‘I’m not going to participate.’ (Otherwise) I don’t know the answer.”

Briefly, we conversed about the death of Les Paul. I asked if any other performer had touched him with a similar measure of artistic fire.

“Jennifer Batten,” he answered. “She’s the best guitarist I’ve ever seen. After listening to her, I wanted to quit playing!”

I knew his remark was offered in jest. But as a compliment, it echoed with meaning.
“You see, I never wanted to be the best player in my band,” Chandler mused. “I always wanted to be the worst.”

My breath stalled. “The worst? Really?”

“Because if I was the best, then how could I get any better?” he reflected. “Surround yourself with better people, and you will improve.”

I bowed my head. “Of course! But hasn’t that process been stalled, in modern terms?”

He groaned in agreement. “Look at the Grammys. Not one song was good enough to win an award. It was all about show business. Not music. You need certain ingredients to make bread… flour and water… just like you need certain elements to make music. From Bo Diddley to Michael Jackson, you have those things. But with Taylor Swift? I just don’t get it.”

I asked about other projects that had developed since our last conversation.
“The people from ‘Pack Rats’ did a show about me,” he said. “It is available as a DVD. They focused mainly on my vintage trains, but also on the musical instruments.”

A bit of research revealed that the program depicts ‘Men who take collecting to the extreme.’ The Dennis Chandler episode was titled ‘Train, Guitars and Stuff’ – a production of MavTV.

“Sounds fascinating,” I said.

Chandler exuded the enthusiasm of a true historian when expanding on his affection for Lionel trains.

“Recently, I found a rare caboose at a house sale,” he said with pride. “It cost twenty-five dollars, but on eBay would be worth much more. The rail car was similar to one I already had, yet very different.”

In closing, I asked about his upcoming plans with The Stratophonics.

“So far, we have a gig booked for University Heights, in July,” he said. “I like to keep busy.”

I nodded silently, once more.

Undeniably, summer was his season. Anywhere there were vintage cars and sizzling burgers gathered to celebrate the warmer months… the ‘Edu-tainer’ would be certain to please!

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