How Billy Came To Chicago
It was Autumn of 1976. Cactus Jack was in the middle of a week at a dive known as McClelland’s, on the waterfront in Quincy, Illinois, and things were getting desperate. We had lost our second drummer and were learning the truth behind Linda Ronstadt’s quip that if she could find a drummer who could play a country shuffle AND rock, she’d marry him. Before we left Chicago, we had gotten to the point where we’d take any drummer who could play time and knew who Merle Haggard was. Dave, the drummer who survived the latest auditions, said that he knew who Merle was, but we were beginning to have our doubts.
Angie Varias, our departing stick handler, had been more than a good drummer; his vision of how a country rock band should look, sound and present itself, both on stage and in the studio had forced the band to grow up. His drive had helped us build a fan base in Chicago and the northern suburbs, but for some reason, things just refused to gel. We weren’t living up to his expectations, and no one was happy. One night, after a blow-up at our bread-and-butter gig at Durty Nellie’s, Angie walked out, and we let him. As good as Angie was, we figured we’d be better off without him. Little did we know…
Our first option was a Nashville drummer named Richard Furman, who we had hung out with when we played the Illinois State Fair, where he was playing with a singer named Wyatt Webb. We had a shared interest in outlaw country and when we called him up, he agreed to meet us in Carbondale to cover three nights and “check the fit”. After a couple hours of rehearsal in our hotel room, Richard was right on the money. This was gonna be easy! Unfortunately, we’d only seen Richard in beer tents and hotel lounges, which turned out to be his natural habitat. He lived for the party, and we were a little too serious and way too broke to fit his life-style. We headed back to Chicago with a bill for a trashed hotel room and no drummer.
We began auditioning local drummers when we got back to the city. We called every contact we had and followed every lead, but when we found someone who could actually PLAY, there were always “complications” (making short money always complicates things).When Angelo quit, I had written in my journal: “We need someone good who’s willing to become committed to our situation, and this will not be easy. We still can’t promise anyone any kind of a gravy train. We’re still just a group with a little past, a lot of future, and a mediocre present.” That pretty much summed things up. We had taken the best guy we found to Quincy, thinking we could “educate” him in the boondocks; by Friday we knew it just wasn’t gonna happen. And we were returning to Durty Nellies on Wednesday.
Quincy is a beautiful town, off the beaten track in downstate Illinois, right across the Mississippi River from Iowa. It was also the hometown for our lead guitarist, Ric Winking. That Saturday afternoon, we had our Steel player, Steve, take Dave to the movies while Ric, Mike Kueffer (our bass player) and I met at Ric’s parent’s house to figure out what we were going to do. We had little time to find someone, much less rehearse, but we had little choice. At one point, while we were commiserating, one of Ric’s brothers mentioned that a drummer that they had played with a while back was back in “the area” (in this case, “the area” meant Keokuk, Iowa, forty miles as the crow flies), living at home and driving a forklift in a warehouse. It was a complete shot in the dark, but Ric said the guy was good and we were desperate. What the hell, Bubba, call him up!
Luckily, Billy Shaffer was home when Ric called. He had just moved back from Las Vegas, where he had spent about a year playing in a Casino with an organist and bass player. The gig had called for him to play all styles of music, from jazz, to show tunes, as well as pop and rock. When the gig ended, he had moved home while waiting for a call from the organist about what was going to happen next. After a few minutes of catching up, Ric explained to Billy what we were doing, what we were looking for, and what we could offer. Something about it must have sounded interesting, or else Keokuk is just that boring a town. Either way, Billy said “sure” and agreed to come back to Chicago with us after the gig that night.
We were elated; we didn’t even care about an audition. The only problem left was finding a way to explain things to Dave…That unwelcome chore fell to me, but was a lot less noxious than I thought it would be. It turned out that Dave was as unhappy as we were. He was not used to the kind of pressure our music placed on him and it was making him a nervous wreck. We all rode back to Chicago in our green Econoline Van, Dave and I talking as I drove, and the other guys crashed out on the amps in the back.
Billy camped at Ric’s (same as Ric had stayed with me and my wife Colleen, when he moved to Chicago) and we finally got to hear him play on Monday. We set up at Nellie’s and rehearsed twice before our Wednesday opening. He got it immediately. It didn’t matter what we threw at him, he remembered the arrangement after one run-through. He played all the kicks and came out of them without missing a beat. He was the smoothest drummer I had ever heard; he could rock and he could swing. I reminded myself never to introduce him to Linda Ronstadt. In addition to that, he was as solid a human being as I had met in the music business. He was utterly dependable, behind the drums or behind the wheel of the van. Where many musicians lived from bar to bar, Billy would rather read philosophy or play pool, at which he was UNCANNY. He could play chess and carry on a conversation. He was funny and he had great musical ideas and he played well with others. With Billy on board, Cactus Jack was ready to become what we had been billing ourselves as: The Sound of Chicago Country!
After Cactus Jack broke up, Billy joined The Jump ‘n the Saddle Band and became a solid rhythmic force with that popular Chicago band. I was lucky enough to get him to rejoin me and Curtis Bachman (who had been the bass player in the last months of Cactus Jack) in our new venture, Cahoots. With Jim Schwall on lead guitar and mandolin, Willie Wainwright on fiddle, and Cary Donham on keyboards, Cahoots was as fine a country (and rock, and blues) band as Chicago has seen and heard. Since its demise in 1982, Billy has expanded his reputation as a go-to guy whether on stage or in the studio, by playing and recording with some of the best musicians in the city, and nationally. His most recent regular gig, anchoring the touring band in the Million Dollar Quartet, has shown the rest of the country what I knew from the first time I heard him: when it comes to the Big Beat, Billy Shaffer brings it with him every night.
Billy, Jim Schwall, and myself will rejoin forces for one rowdy night, backed by the MojoSkillet on July 6 at the Abbey Pub in Chicago. Join us for the fun!