Though I never had the honor of meeting Doc Watson, Doug Dillard was one of the first new musician friends I made after moving to L.A. Tall, laid back and lanky, with a grin that was a barn door wide, he was like a Hollywood central casting stereotype of what a banjo-playing Missouri mountain boy should look like. Which was, come to think of it, pretty much exactly what he was. Maybe even the one who set the standard for that stereotype.
If you were a fan of the 1960s "The Andy Griffith Show" -- and can remember the blue grass group regularly featured on it -- then you saw Doug, along with his brother Rodney on guitar, Dean Webb on mandolin and Mitch Jayne on bass. The group's name on the Griffith show was The Darlings, but to the rest of us they were The Dillards, one of the best traditional blue grass groups on the planet. Far beyond bluegrass, though, they were among the very best players on their instruments, period. They had a tremendous impact on players of many styles for years to come.
Fortunately for me, however, playing banjo wasn't the only thing Doug loved doing. Right up there with playing and smiling the man loved to sing -- a lot -- especially in harmony with other singers. To my everlasting joy I was one of those he would often choose to do just that, particularly if he was with Harry Dean Stanton, the famed sad-faced character actor. For sure, if we happened to all be at the same bar, cafe or party they would immediately get me to chanting "just a closer walk, just a closer walk, just a closer walk..." over and over again in harmony with Doug so Harry Dean could sing the melody of "Just a Closer Walk With Thee (Grant It, Jesus, Hear My Plea)." So sweet and reverent. So unlike the edginess of the general pop scene of that time.
In those days the place we were most likely to run into each other was Dan Tana's, a legendary West Hollywood Italian café and bar. Just two doors from L.A.'s biggest folk club, the Troubadour, Tana's has been one of Hollywood's most popular show business hangs since the 60s. A place, particularly then, where the up and coming could readily share a space with the biggest names in entertainment. Relaxed and intimate, this fine eatery was conducive to all sorts of chance happenings, like John Lennon coming in with a Kotex on his head. Or African jazz star Hugh Masakella showing up one Halloween in the WWII combat field uniform of Field Marshall Rommel, only to be upstaged by Doug and Harry Dean showing up even more impeccably dressed as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson -- making no comment on their attire -- just two revolutionary statesmen stopping to sit at the bar after a hard day's work founding our country.
Which brings me to my next story about them, from July 1st, 1976, just four days before the American Bicentennial Fourth of July. Thirty-six years ago this very next week.
I was eating with my ex-wife, Judith, and another couple when Alan Horowitz, a tipsy film maker friend, who'd sung at one time with the Colgate Thirteen Glee Club, plopped in our booth and began pushing me to stop what I was doing and start singing "Oh Shenandoah" with him.
While I was trying to ignore him, he was not being ignored by Doug, Harry Dean and Gene Clark (The Byrds), who were sitting just across the aisle from us. Instantly taking up choral-like harmonies along with Alan, much to my surprise they were joined by a third group of four musicians in the booth right next to mine -- including Vaughn Meader (most famous for his Ed Sullivan Show JFK impersonations, but also a great pianist and singer). Which is when I noticed that the booth next to Vaughn's was holding three highly sought women studio singers. A totally unintended flash mob choir of a dozen or so highly talented singing fools all in one magical chance cluster of booths. A perfect musical storm.
With virtually no pause after the rousing end of Shenandoah -- just like it had been rehearsed for days for some Hollywood depiction of a British pub during the London Blitz -- Doug's table started on "Battle Hymn of the Republic" with the women's group proudly launching into the most beautiful soprano leads on the "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah" choruses.
Done with "Battle Hymn," our human juke box continued on, except now -- no doubt in the spirit of our very own '76 -- every song to come for the next 20 full minutes was a song of American patriotism: "Over There," "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy," "It's a Grand Old Flag," the Marine, Navy and Air Force hymns, and finally -- as goose bump a finale of tunes as I've ever heard - "This Land is Your Land," "America the Beautiful," "My Country is Of Thee," and then -- with everyone in the joint standing with their glasses raised high -- "The Star Spangled Banner," right into "Happy Birthday (America)." Yowzir!
With nary a dry eye in the packed place, the very wettest were from Dan Tana, himself, who along with many of his staff, was a soccer star defector from Communist Yugoslavia. All of them tearfully singing along, arm in arm, very proud that night, that very special week, to be Americans.
Doug and I marveled about that night for decades to come, pretty proud of ourselves. For sure a very special treasure for us every Fourth of July -- remembered this year, though, with a specially sweet prayer that he has finally had that musical plea of his granted and is, indeed, taking that "Closer Walk With Thee."
Rest in peace, Doug. You are missed but so not forgotten. No matter where I am this year I promise to sing something really proud and loud in your honor. It would be really cool if some of you out there would join me. How's noon work for you?
Happy Independence Day. Til next time lets all do good.