Younger performers often ask me how do you handle it when things go wrong? There is no set-in-stone answer for that, because every disaster is different, but I have one rule that tops my list: Never Lose Your Cool. I was recently reminded of an incident early in my performing adventures, which I will now relate to you:
In 1983 I was doing a show in Murphresboro, Tennessee, which isn't far from Nashville, for a transportation company. It was a good group, but rowdy. The owner of the company reads my introduction, and as soon as he finishes, a fellow pops up from his table, which is very near the stage, and starts singing, in a very loud voice. And what is he singing? Charlie Rich's BEHIND CLOSED DOORS. If you’re too young to remember this country classic, you should Google it on Youtube to see for yourself the horror to which I and my audience was subjected.
He begins, "MY BABAY MAKES ME PROUD, WHOA, DON'T SHE MAAAAKE ME PROUD..."
I say, 'Yes, thank you sir, please sit down now..."
"SHE NEVAH MAKES A SCENE OR HAAAAANGS ALL OVER ME, IN A CROWD..."
"Yes, that's good. We're trying to have a show here, so if you'll just sit down..."
He doesn't hear me, and I realize he is blackout drunk. he doesn't know where he is. He thinks he's in a karaoke bar or in Vegas, and he heard my introduction--vaguely--and reacted to it as if it were for him. By now he's in the second stanza:
SHE'S ALWAYS A LAY-DEEE. JUST LIKE A LAAAY-DEEEE SHOULD BE..."
I realize I can't shut him up. So I walk over to him, hand him the microphone, take him by the arm, and walk him to the stage. I lead the audience in clapping this party a rhythm as he reaches the chorus:
"CAUSE WHEN WE GET BE-HIIIIND CLOSED DOORS...AND SHE LETS HER HAIIIIIR HANG DOWN...AND SHE MAKES ME GLAD...THAT IIIIII'M HER MANNNN....OH NO ONE KNOWS WHAT GOES ON BEHIIIIIND CLOSED DOOORS..."
I hoped no one else in the hotel knew what was going on behind those closed doors, because it was appalling. Let me describe this Tribute Artist. He was about six feet seven inches tall, thin as a stringbean, wearing a powder blue leisure suit with pants four inches too short, revealing white cotton socks and white vinyl shoes. He had on large amber-lensed aviator sunglasses. His gray hair was swept back in an Eighties Dirty-Harry coif and shellacked down with Bryllcreme or some other pomade on which you could have landed an airplane; that hair was going nowhere.
He sang the entire song, to the last note, and even included a hip-wriggling dance number in the middle to a band only his ears could hear. The audience was howling. I decided one of two things would happen: He would sing the entire contents of the Charlie Rich Greatest Hits Eight-track Tape, and I would collect my check and go home after the easiest gig I ever had—-or he would finish his one song and be done.
It turned out to be the latter. When he heard the laughter and applause, he stood there blinking, looking confused. I think he sobered up just enough to have some dim realization of his surroundings. I hurried over to the table where his friends were and commandeered two very large chaps, who we'll call for the purposes of this documentary Dumplin' and Biscuit. "Come help me get him out of here," I whispered, "And for God's sake get him a cab and send him home." I didn't want him interrupting the show with any further impromptu serenades, and it looked like he was going to pass from blackout stage to regurgitation at any moment.
"Don't worry buddy," Dumplin' assured me. "We'll take care of him." Wiping tears from his eyes, either from mirth or emotion from his friend's moving performance, Biscuit nodded and they escorted my opening act from the building. The trio moved through the crowd amid applause and cries of "Can I get yer autograph there, Charlie?" "Good job there Mr. Rich," and other witticisms.
I took the stage and said, "Another hand for Mr. Charlie Rich. I didn't realize this was open mic night. Do we have anyone else? Patsy Kline, Johnny Cash, Willie? Very good, let's get started."
I was twenty-three at the time, and this was one of the earliest episodes of having to deal with a difficult situation, and dealing with it with a cool head. At the time it was nerve-wracking, though looking back on it, it's pretty funny.