MICHIGAN CITY — “Let me tell you a story,” Michigan City musician James Garner says.
Back in the mid-60s his band, Little Tommy and the Elegants, performed at the Regal Theater in Chicago with such musical stars as the Temptations and the Dells.
One night they opened for Jackie Wilson, soul singer famous for the hit, “Higher and Higher.”
“Jackie Wilson, he’s a genius,” Garner said. “He’s about 5-feet-2 or 3, and he had a tomato-red suit on and … he’s just awesome. A great entertainer.
“Before the show got started, we all go in the back room. You got to go get makeup and chat with the guys and stuff. There were a couple girls back there and my guitar player, Lorenzo Mosley, he said, ‘Man, there’s a bad chick back there.’ ... I go, ‘I don’t know.’ So (Mosley) talked to the girl, and all of a sudden, here comes Jackie Wilson.
“He goes, ‘Excuse me sir',” and took the girl away from Mosley.
Mosley was astonished. Garner wasn’t.
“He’s Jackie Wilson,” Garner said. “What are you going to do? You’re at the Regal Theater. This is his show. That’s his girl.”
Such were the encounters Garner had with Motown singers and related artists during his close call with fame in the 1960s, and something he remembers today as Detroit celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Motown sound.
While Wilson was never signed to Motown Records, two of his hit songs, “Reet Petite” and “Lonely Teardrops,” were written by Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. But the Temptations were Motown royalty, and Little Tommy and the Elegants opened for them, too.
First an explanation as to how Garner’s band even got onto that stage.
When he was 17, Garner and his band won a talent competition at Roosevelt High School in Gary. That won them a place at a talent competition at the Regal, which they also won, earning a spot opening up for Wilson. Their success at that show helped get them a spot opening for the Dells and Temptations.
He said their first meeting with Temptations’ singer David Ruffin was particularly memorable.
“At the show in Chicago, David Ruffin had a cast on his arm,” Garner said. “So he told Tommy (Payton, Garner’s singer), 'don’t get too close to the stage, or those guys will snatch you off' (meaning they would yank him off and break his arm). Looking back now, in hindsight, he was lying to Tommy. That wasn’t why he had his cast on. He had his cast on because of drugs. He didn’t pay the money right. … There was some funny business going on there."
Garner said he got into music when he created his own instrument, a sort of primitive guitar, at age 6, while living in the woods of Muddy Creek, Mississippi, with his grandmother – part Native American and part Jewish.
“I’d never even seen a guitar (before),” he said, explaining the instrument was little more than a flat piece of wood with two nails, one hammered into each end, and a piece of wire tied between them. To get enough tension on the wire to generate notes, he slid a piece of wood underneath the string.
Garner said he played around on that until he moved to Michigan City in 1959. Then he got his first real guitar at age 11, and by age 12 was playing in jute joints earning $10 a night, though children weren’t supposed to be playing there because of the alcohol. He claimed he was so good, they let it slide.
Then, while living in a housing project on 4th Street, he put his band together.
“I’m walking down the street, I saw this kid, Tommy Payton, beating some sticks and stuff. I said, 'How old are you?' He said, '8 or 9.' I said, 'You play drums?' He said, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Go take some lessons.' That’s what I said. He was beating on a garbage can top. So I made him go take a few lessons, so he could tidy them (skills) up.”
Later on, Garner encountered Willie Garrett.
“I said, 'What are you doing?' (Garrett) said, 'I’m playing a trumpet.' I said, 'Go put that trumpet down and go get a bass guitar.'”
He then got guitarist Mike Raspberry, later replaced with Lorenzo Mosley. Garner then moved Tommy from drums to vocals, and put Tommy’s brother Michael on drums. Band complete, they started playing competitions, eventually opening for bigger and bigger names.
Garner recounted two other memories about the Temptations’ show. The first was how the Dells were a much better band, despite the Temptations being headliners.
“The Dells cut (the Temptations’) hair on their own show,” he said. “We talk about it today. The Dells against the Temptations … The Dells stole the show ... That was kind of embarrassing. So (the Temptations) were rough behind the stage ... They were looking at each other, saying, 'Oh, man we’ve got to go out there this time, we’ve got to really shine.'”
The other noteworthy incident that evening was the theater manager offering to buy out Garner’s contract with his manager.
“I’m behind stage with David Ruffin, Otis Wilson, they’re all giving us a hug, saying 'Congratulations man, you all made it.' So I’m behind stage and we’re hugging and congratulating. … 'Hey, welcome to the big show.' We made it.”
But it was not to be. Garner’s manager refused the offer, and the band eventually broke up.
Garner also met another Motown-signed group, The Jackson 5, including Michael Jackson.
“In the early part of '66 we had a club up here, a skating rink up here in Michigan City,” Garner said. “Lorenzo had connections in Gary. Him and Joe (Jackson, father and manager of The Jackson 5) were good friends. And Joe asked my manager, 'Can I bring my boys to Michigan City?' And my manager said, 'Yes bring them over there.'
"And we went over (to Gary) to a place he had. So Michael and The Jackson 5 came over to the skating rink and we went over there to a bowling alley they had on 15th Avenue.”
Garner said he's experienced a lot of pain during his career. During his rise in the mid-60s, right before the Regal shows, both of his sisters were killed in a car crash. Later, his bass player was shot and killed. And this year, his 18-year-old grandson, Justin Ameer Garner, was shot to death while sitting in a vehicle in the 200 block of Jackson Street.
Yet music is something he’s always stuck with, even if it's playing country (not his favorite genre) at the Senior Center.
While discussing the 60th anniversary of Motown, he said he’s never visited the studio, but once made the attempt.
“After we did the show in Chicago, I tell my guitar player, 'Let’s ride up (to Detroit),'" he said. "So we rode up there. Me and my guitar player. We couldn’t get in because they had a big riot at that time. They burned down half the town. We drove by that big riot. Something going on politically ... And that building, they’ve got it blocked all off.”