Thunder Road, Etta James, Judi and me

Thunder Road is a teenage drug and alcohol center in Oakland that is so much more.  It includes family counseling activities and training for life.

My friend, Joel Selvin, rock critic for the San Francisco Chronicle went to the center to help establish a music department and ended up being a huge supporter.  He put together an annual “Roast and Jam” at San Francisco’s oldest nightclub and invited local celebrities to be “roasted” and local musicians, who probably had similar problems as the kids, to perform.  He was able to have Van Morrison, Sammy Hagar, Huey Lewis, the Doobies, and on and on show up.  And Herbie Herbert, manager of Journey, became a mainstay of the roasters.

Bill Graham, Joel, Sammy Hagar and others were roasted, and I think Joel ran out of victims and asked me to be skewered.  I was an easy target because my computerized ticketing company, BASS, was constantly assaulted for its service charges.

So Judi Flowers and I went to work on fundraising and getting roasters.  We put together a great silent auction that I believed raised about $30,000.  Included was an amazing donation from Pixar’s John Lasseter who gave a private tour and lunch of their wonderful facility in Emeryville .  I think someone paid about $6,000 for that prize.  We had great rock and roll items, band jackets, photos, and it was terrific.

Frank Deford, America’s best writer and commentator on sports and other subjects, flew out and thoroughly laid me out.  He of course knew me from my Roller Derby days, and mentioned that I went from “Tickets” in Roller Derby (see my post on Tickets) to Tickets for admission.  Roger Ebert sent a video in which he mentioned my film “Derby”  for which he gave 4 stars,  and said he was angry because I had gone from producing movies to just producing tickets;  and Willie Nelson’s video, which brought the house down, accused me of getting him in trouble with the IRS because of my “scalping”  (not true!) of his tickets.

Then came the music,  The house band was Booker T and the MGs, then Joel’s wife Keta Bill (what a blues belter!) performed with Sam from Sam and Dave, then Bonnie Raitt (what a woman, not only did she not get paid, but she and her husband made a great cash contribution), then for the final performance, the unbelievable Etta James.

Even then Etta was not feeling well, but her voice, song selection and total command contributed to a performance that could never be captured on discs  But her best performance was earlier in the day.

At each of these benefits it was arranged that about 15 of the Thunder Road teens who had done well at the facility were brought to the club to see the sound checks of the various performers. Although I was not on hand, Judi was when they came to hear Etta.  She had them sit in front of her and spun a tale of her own transgressions with substance abuse that were so personal and terrifying that it obviously had an impact on all who were there.  She told them whatever they had done, she had done worse to herself and only through the grace of God was she still here.

I know the kids all got the message.  And that is the best memory that Judi and I have of the incomparable Etta James.