I usually don't talk about my interviewing experiences, but Sonny Til was one of the most famous people I ever met, and one of the nicest. Here are some stories.
1. I first met Sonny in January 1965 at the Old Goldies Show at the Apollo Theater. I had spoken to him a couple of weeks before, told him I was part of the Orioles Fan Club (which he had trouble believing even existed in 1964), and wanted to interview him. He arranged to get us in for free (I went with two friends), and come backstage before the show. Later, we had to wait the whole show for the Orioles (still the headliners, they appeared as the final act) and it was somewhat nerve-wracking. It was a time of great racial unrest in the country and (need I say it?) I and my friends were the only whites in the theater. The guy in front of us, smoking a pipe (remember when you could smoke in a theater?!?), kept turning around and shooting us dirty looks. Finally, Sonny came on, sang a couple of songs, and made an announcement: "There are some members of my fan club in the audience today and I'd like them to stand up and take a bow." All of a sudden, there was a spotlight on us and I actually got to take a bow in the Apollo Theater (had I attempted to sing, I doubt I'd be writing this today). Years later, I realized that what Sonny was actually saying was: "These people are with me; be good to them." It worked, since the guy in front of us turned around and, with a toothy grin, said "Happy New Year, fellas!"
2. By 1971, I was no longer happy with what I'd written about the Orioles in the past and therefore arranged another interview with Sonny, hoping to do a more thorough job. I brought a list of well over 50 questions with me. Some he had no trouble answering, but many (far too many) he said he didn't know or couldn't remember. I had tremendous expectations of knowing every minute detail of the Orioles' career, and they were rapidly being squashed. I guess he saw the look on my face, because he finally said something like, "Look, Marv, I know you think I should know the answers to all these questions, but we just recorded what they told us to record and showed up where they told us to show up. It was just a job." I was momentarily crushed by this; one of my favorite groups and it was only a job??? Fortunately, the part of my brain that wasn't weeping started processing this information and concluded that he was right. Since he was the only person I'd ever interviewed up to that point, he caught me at the beginning of my career. I realized that it was unfair of me to expect a singer to remember all the minutiae that I wanted him or her to. To this day, when I interview someone, I start by saying that I myself wouldn't have a clue as to what I had done all those years ago if anyone were to ask. As long as someone at least tries to remember, I can't expect any more than that. Sonny also gave me a saying that he got from Nat "King" Cole: "It's nice to be nice."
3. The last time I interviewed Sonny, he tried to kill me. Well, not exactly. It was 1974 and I arranged to go over to his apartment (he was living in the Bronx at the time). He was appearing at a club that night and had to drop off the band arrangements that afternoon. He'd be happy to answer the questions, but I had to drive over to the club with him. I have no idea if the Orioles ever let Sonny drive, but I'd sure never get in a car with him again! Traffic regulations were interesting options for him. Stop signs never even entered his field of vision. However, the one that almost did me in was when we were returning to his apartment. We started going across the approach to the George Washington Bridge, he said "Hang on!", and made a U-turn through a small cut in the divider that was only supposed to be used by the police. I knew I was going to die. (So did all the drivers who used horns and fingers unsparingly.) Sonny wasn't the least perturbed; I suppose he did that all the time. At least I got some of my questions answered. Fortunately, most of my interviews aren't that physical.
As far as I can remember, the only other time I actually saw Sonny was in 1973. I don't remember anything in particular about it, probably because that was the night I met Bobby Thomas (who was singing with Sonny then) and learned about the Vibranaires.
In my particular pantheon, Sonny Til ranks pretty high up. I'm proud to say that I've met Clyde McPhatter, Maithe Marshall (although, sadly, not Jimmy Ricks), Rudy West, Bill Pinkney, and Sollie McElroy, as well as having met (or at least talked with) hundreds of other singers who made the music I love. But Sonny was a phenomenon at the start of his career, and I'm a better person for having known him (even if he did try to kill me!).