Neal Ford and the Fanatics was named the most popular Houston band in 1967. They rehearsed in the living room of their manager’s house, and their first gigs were malls, skating rinks and dance halls. They eventually shared the spotlight with Jimi Hendrix, The Beach Boys, Sonny & Cher and Jefferson Airplane. A review on a current-day website mentions “Cool organ, outer-limits guitar solos and totally depraved vocals.” There’s the sense that the group was a decade or so ahead of its time, so it’s no wonder that their harder-rocking songs get more play now than when originally released.
But I knew none of this, nor would I have cared. I only knew that I loved Neal Ford, and that I would someday marry him. And I didn’t even have to worship him from afar; he was a friend of my stepfather. How he and Neal came to know each other, I will never know. But Neal and other musicians would arrive at our home on a Friday or Saturday night, and my stepfather would jam with them on the organ. I could sing, so I was always allowed to chime in a few times before my bedtime.
Neal was in his late twenties when we met, but he always tolerated me following him around, asking him questions, wanting to sit by him, and all the other things a young girl with a crush does. I will never forget the kindness and patience he showed as I idolized him.
I told my parents one night at the dinner table that I’d heard girls in Tennessee could marry at fourteen if they had their parents’ permission. Too bad I lived in Texas, and too bad I was only nine. But I could wait, for even when I saw Neal with a date, it mattered not. The breasted, interloping rivals could have their fun, because I knew with complete certainty that Neal would one day be mine.
In the late 60s, Neal was offered his own television show which would run in the not-so-highly-coveted time slot of 3:oo PM on Sundays. It was titled, “Neal Ford in Soul Country,” and was sponsored by a local furniture store. Neal’s manager— and his Fanatics band members— advised against doing the show, saying it didn’t play to the fan base. Neal decided to do the show anyway, and his band broke up because of it. My stepfather stepped in as organist on the show.
Just before the first taping, the sponsors decided Neal’s hair was too long and he had to sport a more conservative look. The videotape of his haircut started his first show every week. I was at the barber shop when they filmed, and I picked up his cut hair from the floor, put it in an envelope, lovingly labeled it “Neal Ford’s Hair” and stored it in my box of keepsakes.
My stepfather altered the song “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?” to “Won’t You Come Home, Neal Baby?” and Neal and I sang it on his show. I hate to think Neal had no choice but to do the duet, but there I sat in my lacy, white dress covered in pink ribbons, with my hair fried by a curling iron into ringlets down my back. Thereafter, Neal and I sang the song at countless locations, even the male and female prisons in Central Texas. And through it all, Neal was nothing but kind as a nine-year-old girl in a sense became part of his act, and maybe even helped morph his music career into one he could no longer identify.
His television show was canceled after only a few tapings. Also, my mother and stepfather divorced, so my contact with Neal ended.
A year ago, while cleaning out my grandmother’s files after her death, I found a picture of Neal and me singing together. I look to be about ten. He is posed with his arms folded, and an expression on his face that says, “I’ll think about it.” I’m no doubt begging, once again, for Neal Baby to please come home. And only several months ago I was driving Highway 71 outside Austin, Texas when I saw a sign in front of a biker bar:
NEAL FORD — SUNDAY— 2-5
Impossible. There was no way it could be THE Neal Ford. I stopped in on my way home and asked. The woman behind the bar confirmed it was, and she said his music is still great, and that I needed to stop by and see him perform. Well, by god, I would. That Sunday, I dressed up a bit, put on some make-up, and headed for the bar. A sign on the front door said they were closed due to mechanical difficulties in the kitchen. I peeked in windows, and I walked around to the back to look for cars. I somehow hoped, as silly as it seemed, that Neal had shown up anyway, not knowing that the gig had been canceled at the last minute. I thought he might even be in the bar area, rehearsing. I wanted to see the look in his eyes when I told him who I was. I wanted to see the look that told me the memories of that young girl he once knew were still precious to him. We’d hug. I’d ask him to go to lunch. I’d invite him over for chicken and dumplings, his favorite meal. I didn’t yet know how to cook that but, for Neal, I’d sure learn. But it was too hot for me to keep wandering around and looking in dark windows, so I gave up and went home.
And what did I find a few days later? While searching for some insurance information, I found the envelope that had Neal’s hair in it. It had fallen between two files, and I hadn’t seen it for over a decade. I just knew I had to call him, and I managed to get his number after a few tries. After a few days of nerves, I finally steeled myself and dialed. He answered immediately.
STAY TUNED FOR PART 2!