The night Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines broke the silence at UM

Hines

Earl “Fatha” Hines. I think this is pretty much how he looked when he played Missoula in the 1970s one memorable night.

When I think of all the many concerts I’ve been to in my life, one memory usually bobs to the surface. It involved Earl “Fatha” Hines, playing the University Center ballroom at the University of Montana, sometime in the mid- to late-1970s.

That memory was triggered again today when I stumbled across the Spring edition of the Montanan, the magazine of the University of Montana. In the Winter issue, I learned, there was an article by Montanan editor John Heaney about some of the memorable concerts UM has hosted over the years.

The Spring issue features two pages of letters from readers sharing their own reminiscences of concerts past, and there are even more online. Like me, a lot of people found the subject irresistible. I’m surprised that no one else mentioned Earl Hines.

I’ll get to him in a moment. First, I have to mention some other unforgettable shows I saw at UM between 1974 and 1980. And I will restrict myself to on-campus concerts. If I let myself stray to downtown Missoula (the Top Hat, the Park Hotel, Luke’s, even Eddie’s Club on one magical evening), to Aber Day and to outlying venues (including Poor Henry’s and the Lumberjack), I would have to write a book.

On campus, I saw John Hiatt twice before he was even modestly famous. The first time he opened for Corky Siegel in the ballroom, another great show, and the second time he played a solo show in some little venue behind the UC’s dining room. I’ve been a Hiatt fan ever since.

At the fieldhouse, I saw Gordon Lightfoot fall off his piano bench (intoxicants may have been involved), I heard Ray Charles stop in the middle of a song and tell the rowdy crowd to shut up while he was singing, and I witnessed Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead get hit in the head by an unidentified flying object (though it seems to have been an Aber Day pitcher).

But it was the ballroom at the UC where I went to so many shows that, in retrospect, one would hardly believe came to Missoula, Mont.

I saw Muddy Waters there, which rocked my world. If he was not the coolest cat on the planet in those days, I don’t know who was. I saw John Lee Hooker twice. At the second show, the opening act, the Robert Cray Band, also served as Hooker’s band. Those guys were damn good musicians, but they hardly knew what to do with Hooker’s stripped-down sound and idiosyncratic timing.

Then there was B.B. King. He might have been in his prime about then, and when the band would hush down and B.B. would give these little talks in the middle of a song—mostly addressed to “you ladies,” and consisting mostly of advice in matters of romance—the air was electric. I daresay B.B. could have asked all the women present to kindly take off their clothes and they would have complied without thinking. Or maybe I just wished he had done that.

David Bromberg played there, too, running through blues, country, bluegrass and soul and proving himself one of the hardest-working musicians I’ve ever witnessed.

And then there was Earl “Fatha” Hines. I didn’t know much about him then and I confess I don’t know much about him now. I just knew that he was supposed to be good, and how could you not want to see a guy with that name?

He was playing a big grand piano, backed by a band of maybe 12 or 15 players, and they served up big helpings of blues-based jazz, as far as I recall. The highlight of the show, however, was totally unscripted.

Hines and company were blazing away at one point when suddenly all the power in the UC went down. We were instantly plunged into a silent darkness, which was so shocking and sudden that no one made a peep, for maybe 10 or 12 seconds.

And then all at once there was a light on stage, and the sound of a piano. It was Earl Hines holding a flaming cigarette lighter in his right hand while pounding out a boogie-woogie bass line with his left. The piano was unamplified, but in that silence it seemed to boom out enormously.

It took the crowd a few more moments to figure out what was going on, but when we did, the place erupted in clapping and cheering, and Hines just kept playing and holding the lighter for another minute, perhaps, until somebody figured out what had gone wrong and restored the power.

There was more wild applause and whooping and hollering, so that it was a while before the band, now plugged in again, could pick up where it left off. The professionalism Hines showed, the aplomb, the quick-thinking, the showmanship—it was all just amazing.

I think everybody there walked out with a huge smile. We knew we had seen something the like of which we’d never see again.

(And if anyone reading this was there and would like to add to or amend my foggy recollections, please do.)

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