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Mike Dennis

Whiskey Meets Rock & Roll

The outskirts of Indianola, Mississippi
September 20, 1952

Young Ike Thacker pulled his old green Ford sedan around back of the Lemon Lounge. It was around quarter of nine. The sun had gone down, but the relentless heat of the day didn’t go with it. Grabbing his microphone, his stand, and his little Fender Champ amp out of the trunk, he headed across the hot, potholed parking lot.

Aiming for the front entrance, he stumbled a couple of times on his way in, but he wrote that off to nerves.


They weren’t the half of it. This was an important gig, his first ever club date. A lot was expected of him. The last thing he wanted to do was fall down on his way in, taking a chance on getting his brand new white shirt dirty.

Last month at the opening of a car dealership over in Greenville, the Lemon's owner heard him play, and liked what he heard, so he offered Ike this particular Saturday night. It paid eight dollars, which was nearly twice as much as he'd made on any one gig up till now. He only started playing for money a couple of months ago, right out of high school, and he was already up to eight dollars a night! It just didn’t get any better than that. On top of it all, the owner told Ike that if he did well, he might book him again later on.

The Lemon Lounge was no ordinary back-country bar, either. They had three-piece bands in there sometimes. Guys who played all over the place—Clarksdale, Tupelo, even down in Jackson itself. So along came Ike, with no band, just his microphone and whatever piano they had in there, ready to do the job on this crowd.

As he walked in, the smoke hit him right away. Thick and pungent, it penetrated every corner of the old saloon, with a heavy haze hanging over everything. Even though he smoked himself, he coughed a little. He’d never been anywhere with this much smoke.

It didn’t really bother him, though, because he felt the excitement sweep over him as he scanned the place. They had a good-sized crowd already. A few couples danced near the jukebox, while many more lined the bar. The rickety tables scattered around the floor were all full. Everyone there was older, he thought, but of course, that stood to reason. You had to be twenty-one to drink in there, and he was only seventeen.

It was pretty loud, too, with the jukebox drowning out all the laughing and shouting. The tall box stood right next to the aging upright piano. Ike set his equipment down nearby, then took a look at the colorful machine. Tubes ran along its perimeter, with little bubbles running through them. A big black 78 rpm record spun on the turntable, thrusting Hank Snow’s husky voice out into the crowd. A nickel a song, a dime got you three plays. Six for a quarter.

The late summer heat stifled the inside of the whole place. Two large fans, each about three feet in diameter, stood whirring at opposite ends of the room. Several smaller ones hung from the ceiling in key spots. None of them did anything to cool things off. Ike was perspiring by the time he sat down at the piano.

He adjusted the ashtray, then tinkled a few notes, checking for broken keys, when an older man approached him.

“Say, son, how ‘bout some of that good ol’ boogie-woogie music for us old-timers?” The guy was pushing sixty, Ike figured, with thinning hair that used to be brown. Square-jawed and clear-eyed, he looked like he didn’t want to be disappointed.

“Be happy to, sir,” Ike replied. As Hank Snow finished his traveling tune, they turned off the jukebox. Then, he set up his microphone, plugging it into his small amplifier. It was nine sharp. Ike took a deep breath, inhaling more of the smoke than he really wanted to, forcing another cough. Another moment or two got his nerves under control. Once he settled down, he tore into a spirited version of the boogie-woogie classic "The House Of Blue Lights." The crowd loved it immediately.

He followed it up with Lloyd Price’s new song, "Lawdy Miss Clawdy," injecting it with his own take on the lyrics and tempo, giving the rhythm & blues tune his unique energetic, countryish delivery. With the microphone stand between his legs, he deftly attacked the piano keys around it. Before the end of the first verse, a lot of people rushed out onto the tiny dance floor. With no band, only his driving piano, he kept them out on the floor for the next forty-five minutes, never letting up. The dancers pulled out their best jitterbug moves, becoming arm-twirling, body-swaying perpetual motion machines.

Even his slow songs had a pulse. "Your Cheatin’ Heart" brought the first squeals of approval from the girls. Initially, he didn’t know what they were doing, why they were making those strange noises, but when they started to gather around the piano, smiling and bouncing to the slow, throbbing beat, they squealed some more.

Then, he got the picture, in living color.

In that crowd around the piano, he saw Donny Sylvester. Ike had seen him at a few of his other dates, at rec centers and whatnot, but couldn’t really understand why. I mean, this was a guy who was in high school with Ike, both of them having just graduated earlier in the summer, but they never hung around together. Ike remembered him as a football player and nothing else. Yet, here he was, turning up at Ike’s shows, looking like he was smack in the middle of a damn good time.

Drenched in sweat, Ike took a break about an hour and a half later. They flipped the jukebox back on. Lefty Frizzell moaned a lament, while Ike headed for the bar. On his way, he shook an Old Gold loose from his pack, then fired it up.

Carefully positioning himself in front of a small fan above the bar, he ordered a Coke. Within a minute or two, one of the girls in the crowd moved in to talk to him. He noticed her upswept blonde hair right away, how plentiful it was, then her long, lean body came into focus. Ike was over six feet to begin with, and he liked tall girls. This one looked like she was about five-nine, but when you figured the hair into it, well, it added up to a whole lot of woman.

He smiled his intentions right back at her, beginning their little minuet. Her perfume, though subtle, somehow managed to slice through the smoke and the gin, infecting his nostrils and touching off something down below. Through all of the teasing and eyelash-batting, Ike eventually realized that this gorgeous twenty-something girl really was making a play for him. He was about ready to play back at her in a serious way, when a guy stepped in.

“What’s goin’ on here, Flo?” He was shorter than Ike, but built sturdy and obviously no stranger to trouble. His buzzcut covered what looked like a very hard head.

She put on her lying face, the one he apparently couldn’t pick up on. “Oh, nothing, honey. I asked him to play that song I told you about, but he doesn’t know it.”

“All right, let’s get back to the table.” He took her by the arm with a stiffer-than-necessary grip. As he yanked her away, she threw Ike a fast wink. Ike threw one back, along with a smile to go with it.

Then, a voice came from behind him. “You gonna get into some deep shit talkin’ to her.”

Ike turned around to see Donny Sylvester. He threw him a broad grin. “Shit, amigo. I’m always in some kinda hot water.” Using a soaked sleeve, he wiped more sweat off his forehead. It didn’t do much good.

Donny moved his large body onto the stool next to Ike, then ordered a ginger ale. “Tha'ss Flo Jones you were talkin’ to there.”

“So who’s she?” Ike sipped at his Coke.

“It ain’t who she is, but who her boyfriend is.”

“So who’s he?”

“He’s Henry Thigpen. General troublemaker around Indianola.”

Ike turned his Coke glass upward so ice could slide into his mouth. He crunched on a couple of cubes. “Never mind him, man. He don’t bother me none. But, listen, I’m pretty surprised to see you here. You’re Donny, right?”

“That’s me. And I know who you are.” His ginger ale arrived, and he drank half of it on the first pull.

"I thought you had to be twenty-one to get in here, man."

Donny tossed off a sly grin. "My cousin owns this place. He lets me come in sometimes, long as I stay out of trouble and don't drink nothin'."

“I’ve seen you at a couple of my shows before. I didn’t know you liked this music.”

“Damn right I like it. I can’t put my finger on it, you know, but there’s just somethin’ about it. They don’t play it on the radio none, and it sure ain’t like any of the stuff my parents listen to, you know, Ernest Tubb and all that.”

Ike let out a chuckle. “No, it damn sure ain’t.”

“I never heard anybody do that kinda music before. Where’d you get it from?”

That one stopped Ike cold. He quit chewing on the ice, while he contemplated this question. No one had ever asked him that before, so he didn’t really have a ready answer. His eyes, already expressive, widened a little into a faraway gaze. Finally, he looked back at Donny. “Wa-al, I guess I just play what I feel.”

Donny broke a smile. “Man, I like what you feel. I like the shit out of it. It’s why I came here tonight.” He polished off his ginger ale. “I never paid too much attention to music before, you know? I’s always playing football and everything. But, this…what you’re doin’, I don’t know, it just…makes me wanna listen to it. You know what I mean?”

“Well, amigo, as long as you keep listenin’, I’ll keep playin’. Le’ss shake on it.”

They exchanged a vigorous handshake, eyes linked to one another. Ike felt a deep connection, for the first time, a real link between his music and someone else.

Along about midnight, Ike was in full swing, with the crowd divided between those sitting at the bar, those jitterbugging and two-stepping on the dance floor, and those crowded around the piano, wanting to be close to him. He ramped up into a particularly electric version of "If You’ve Got The Money, I’ve Got The Time," getting the song up on its feet in a surprisingly original way. Those around the piano lapped it up. Those on the dance floor gave it all they had, losing themselves in the edgy rhythm. Those at the bar ordered up another round.

At one point in the song, sweat began to pour down his forehead directly into his eyes. It became bothersome, refusing to quit, threatening to disrupt his whole presentation. He couldn’t take his hands off the piano keys, of course—that would ruin the song—but he had to do something. So, in an attempt to shake the perspiration off, he whipped his neck to the side and back again in one rapid motion.

Sweat flew off him, but he instantly regretted doing it, because he felt his hair whirling helter-skelter around his head. He’d wanted to get a haircut yesterday in order to look good for this big job. He got one at the beginning of the summer, right before graduation, but none since. He just didn’t have the money. As a result, his hair was a little too long, so that when he snapped his neck like this, causing his hair to leap around all over the place, it embarrassed him.

The moment it happened, however, the girls who were gathered around the piano gave out with little screams and squeals. Some of them reached out to touch him—his arm, his shoulder, anything—as his hands roared up and down the keyboard, bringing the song to life. More sweat dripped down over his brow into his eye, so he jerked his neck back and forth again, causing his hair to fly around once more. They screamed a little louder. The screams only energized him further, pushing him to new extremes with this exhilarating music.

He glimpsed the people around the piano, and spotted Flo Jones immediately to his right. Her eyes showed lots of hunger, covering him with their heat. He returned the look, causing her tongue to slide rapidly across her lips. She thrust her breasts out just a little while her outstretched hand ran through his long, soft, sweaty hair. Then, for some reason which was not entirely clear to him at that moment, he lifted himself a few inches off the piano stool while continuing his ferocious playing. In one motion, he kicked the stool hard behind him, sending it tumbling back toward the jukebox. The crowd erupted, not with applause, exactly, but with a sudden emotional outburst, sort of a roar, like he’d never heard before.

Ike finished up at one o’clock to a long, satisfying round of hearty applause. After getting paid, he started to gather up his meager equipment. A couple of the girls came over to stand by him while he did this, asking him when would he be playing there again, where was he playing next, and so on. Momentarily, Flo Jones elbowed her way to his side, linking her arm in his and rubbing a perfectly-shaped breast against his chest. With her free hand, she stroked the front of his wet shirt and slid her fingers between the buttons onto his skin. He stopped what he was doing to look straight at her.

“Well, li’l lady, what’ve you got in mind for tonight?”

She was about to answer, when Henry Thigpen came bursting into the small gathering. He had a bullnecked friend with him. Both were showing lots of hostility, the result of lots of beer.

“Get your fuckin’ hands off her, kid,” Thigpen snarled through a tightened jaw. He pulled Flo away. His bullnecked friend moved around to Ike’s side, as Thigpen, loaded with bad intentions, lined up for a solid punch to his face. Ike backed up against the piano, fear creeping into his pores, as he got ready to duck.

Something spun Thigpen around. He moved so fast, Ike hardly saw it at first, but then he spotted Donny Sylvester with a grip on Thigpen’s right arm. With one punch, Thigpen went down. Donny moved over to his friend, who wasn’t about to let that shot go unanswered. As the friend took his swing, Donny easily blocked it, then sent him to the floor with a hard right fist to the jaw.

A quick look at Ike, then: “Time to go, my man."

“You got that right, amigo.” They rushed past a stunned Flo Jones, straight for the front door, out into the hot delta night.

©2010 by Mike Dennis

After thirty years as a professional musician (piano), Mike Dennis left Key West and moved to Las Vegas to become a professional poker player. In August of 2009, his crime/noir novel, The Take, was picked up by L&L Dreamspell. It's a story of human desperation, set in Houston and New Orleans. The Take is scheduled for publication sometime in 2010. In addition, Mike has had short stories published in the online zines A Twist Of Noir and Mysterical e, and in the 2009 Wizards Of Words anthology.

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