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VOL. 42 | NO. 17 | Friday, April 27, 2018

Shaw knows real stories behind guitar-shaped pool

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Wearing his Roy Orbison T-shirt, Garth Shaw relaxes in front of a picture of his old friends, The Crickets, from left:  Joe B. Mauldin, Jerry “J.I.” Allison and Sonny Curtis. “We lost Joe B. a few years back,” Garth laments.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

One of Music City’s great treasures is just over Owen Bradley’s bronze shoulder and the wooden fence behind it.

For those yet to learn about Nashville music history, Owen Bradley was one of the tuneful architects, along with my late friend Chet Atkins, of the gentlemanly “Nashville Sound.”

Don’t need to get into that music here, but Owen – who died in 1998 – is the little, well-clothed fella on the piano bench near the Music Row Roundabout presided over by what I call the “Nudica” statue that displays more than the warts-and-all forms of a flock of naked dancers.

I’m sure that even if you don’t know who Owen was, you’ve looked out at that roundabout statue’s various protuberances and wondered what those models must look like in business casual. Or something like that. (Quick aside: 15 or so years ago, when I drove my friend, Kris Kristofferson past those statues on a journalistic Sunday Morning Coming Down exploration of his Music Row memories, he feigned covering his eyes with his fists and shrieked “Don’t look Ethel, they’re naked!” The gravel-voiced singer has a rather odd shriek, by the way.)

Anyway, back to today’s tale. Just over Owen’s shoulder and that fence is the guitar-shaped swimming pool the late Webb Pierce – one of the truest and flashiest of all the honky-tonk heroes who’ve built this city – had installed as a Music Row tourist attraction.

Webb already had a guitar-shaped pool at his Oak Hill mansion, where he had constructed a little parking area where tourist buses could unload their cargo. He’d meet the fans back by that pool.

That venture ended when Ray Stevens (sometimes not everything is beautiful in its own way, after all) and other neighbors complained. Webb thought he could recreate the magic by building a new and, he doubtless figured, money-making, guitar-shaped pool on Music Row.

When it failed to become a success, one of his business partners filled it with catfish, a disdainful act Predators fans likely would appreciate.

More later on this newer pool, where Music City bus tour guides inform damn Yankees and other visitors that Elvis once skinny-dipped the length of its concrete, guitar-shaped form.

That pool later became the bathing place of the Rat Pack, former Beatles (Paul, George and Mr. Starkey …. John was too busy having coffee at the Amsterdam Hilton), Ray Charles, Neil Young and other musical masters who stayed at the six-story building beside it, the old Spence Manor, the city’s first “five-diamond hotel,” according to the caretaker of the pool and the suite-filled building that now has become 44 deluxe condos.

That gentle and kind “caretaker,” rather than the celebrated celebrity hotel where Willie Nelson and Robert Redford worked on “The Electric Horseman” soundtrack, is the real treasure I find on this blustery April day.

“I’m the world’s oldest guitar-shaped-pool-boy,” says Garth Shaw, the grandson of a contortionist and who for more than a couple of decades has been the fixer, the overseer, the undertaker and the caretaker – whatever you want to call him suits him fine – of the old Spence Manor and its unusual pool.

“It’s not open yet (for the season), so there still are leaves in it,” adds Garth – who is perhaps the liveliest of historians of Music Row – as he unlocks the gate and lets me take a look.

Pretty impressive sight, that’s for sure, and Garth points out the pool-house where Webb and his girlfriend would spend the day selling tourists, who had paid to get inside the fence, autographed records and photos, vials of pool water and whatever could help gather a buck.

“When he first opened it, he had his Nudie-mobile right there,” says Garth, pointing toward the bottom of the guitar. Webb’s 1962 Pontiac Bonneville, with its longhorn-steer hood ornament and silver-dollar encrusted interior, eventually retired to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, which used to be just across what I still refer to as 16th Avenue South.

A couple of decades ago, when the Hall of Fame was moving into its state-of-the-art palace down Demonbreun, I offered to drive the car from the old spot to its new home and park it by Elvis’ “solid-gold” ’60 Cadillac Fleetwood.

Officials just chuckled at me, a reaction I continue to raise when I talk with white-collared, designer-tie-wearing officials and their female colleagues in zesty pumps.

Garth Shaw with Dottie West, who he had hoped to marry

-- Submitted

“When I hear those tour bus guides telling people that Elvis skinny-dipped right there in the pool, I want to jump over the fence and yell at them,” explains Garth, a songwriter and singing roadie, who points out the pool was opened in 1978, a year after Elvis died.

“Oh, he might have skinny-dipped there, but if he did, it was across a field of mud,” Garth says, noting that Webb and his friends had purchased a vacant lot next to Spence Manor to build the pool.

I pause for a second to look at the rules posted by the entry to the pool: “Any person having an infectious or communicable disease shall not use pool” … “Do not use pool if you have a contagious illness, open cut or open blister” … There are several more rules, including one that forbids spitting and spouting of water.

Those rules remind me of something I’d read about the old hotel, with its primary rule forbidding passing out drunk in the hallways.

So far as I know, Sinatra, The Eagles, Brother Ray and Kenny Rogers – just a few of those who sought refuge in this hotel’s golden-era heyday – followed those rules.

Garth – the kindest and most-down-to-earth of all the Garths I’ve met or interviewed – first encountered me on this almost-brutal day when he unlocked the foyer to the elevator doors and welcomed me in.

“This is the top of the clean pile this morning,” he notes, when I compliment him on his black T-shirt with a large likeness of Roy Orbison surrounded by glitzy marquees. “Welcome to Las Vegas,” it reads over Roy’s head. Below him: “Live in Vegas 1983.”

It was a gift from one of the pals of Orbison’s sons, who occupy their namesake building perhaps a block away, making sure people don’t forget the “Pretty Woman” and “Only the Lonely” fellow, a one-time Traveling Wilbury who possessed perhaps the most-versatile and dynamic pop voice ever.

Garth leads me up to Room 103, formerly one of two Presidential Suites in the hotel. Nowadays it’s the HQ of Gold Mountain Entertainment, staffed by friendly folks who allow us to relax for an hour or two in chairs by a wall filled with images of clients, folks like Ronnie Milsap, The Crickets and Todd Snider. A box filled with Todd Snider kerchiefs/head scarves is just one of the many packages of merch decorating the floor and surfaces.

A photo of the guitar-shaped swimming pool, taken by Garth Shaw from roof of Spence Manor following a January snow.

-- Submitted Photograph Courtesy Of Garth Shaw

It was this same Presidential Suite that first housed Garth’s client, Kenny Rogers, after he was hired while working for Kenny’s nephew Dann Rogers and his County Line band out at Knott’s Berry Farm in Orange County, outside Los Angeles.

“I was sort of a hometown roadie, a local rock manager working for Dann at Knott’s Berry Farm,” notes Garth, who grew up in Orange County.

“I first met Kenny when he came to play there back in 1976. It was a year before ‘Lucille,’” which was the watershed song that carried the bearded pop star/leader of The First Edition (whose big hit was the Mickey Newbury-penned “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” from AM Top 40 to country-music gold, a world where he eventually became best known, perhaps, for my friend, nice guy/song-writing master Don Schlitz’s moody song about encountering “The Gambler” on a train bound for nowhere.

The elder Rogers was making his debut at Knott’s Berry, and he didn’t yet have a backing band, so he ended up using his nephew’s outfit and stealing away the loyalty of roadie Garth.

That opened the way a year or so later for Garth to drop Kenny off in Room 103 at Spence Manor and then go check himself in around the corner and down the hill at the less-exclusive “Hall of Fame Motor Inn,” with its namesake lounge that was home to hopefuls, wannabes and has-beens.

In later years, after he began his own 22-year stint as Spence caretaker, Garth still would visit the watered-down lounge.

“I’d go in there and see Tracy Lawrence and the guys and I’d ask: ‘What are you doing here?’ and Tracy would say ‘We’re having a Number 13 Party.’

He laughs while telling the story of that singer’s sarcastic take on the Music Row/Fancy Hotel-or-fern-decorated-rooftop staple that is “The Number One Party,” signifying reaching the top of the charts.

Garth retreats into his own life back in Orange County.

“My dad helped open Disneyland. Look at old black-and-white footage of that opening on August 17, 1955, and you’ll see about 200 pigeons – Walt Disney called them ‘doves’ – that my dad released.”

Seems pop Robert Shaw was an award-winning homing-pigeon racer, a passion he passed on to his son back in those early days. That was about as “show-bizzy” as Bob Shaw got.

Garth Shaw with his long-time boss Kenny Rogers during the filming of the 1981 film “Coward of the County.”

-- Submitted

“He was just a regular guy,” says his son, who admits to turning 69 in a month or so (“God, I hate math,” he adds with a lilting, yet sour laugh.)

Bob Shaw also was handy with tools, performing the carpentry, masonry, welding and wiring that went into building the family’s home in Costa Mesa (not far from the Orange County capital of Anaheim, where Walt and Mickey had their first kingdom and where cowboy star Gene Autry owned Major League Baseball’s Angels.)

Garth loved his dad and with pop’s guidance learned all sorts of handyman and craftsman’s skills, the stuff that made him qualified to become Spence Manor caretaker and Mr. Fix-It … while still promoting various stars and living in the lush, medium-high, high-rise.

“When Elvis was in town, he took over the whole sixth floor for himself and his Memphis mafia. He would use the service elevator to go up, and there always was an off-duty policeman outside his door.”

He confirms the old story that when Elvis was in town once – he occupied this floor of the hotel for parts of three years, whenever he was working at nearby RCA Studio B, which can be seen from the windows of the Presidential Suite now filled with Todd Snider merchandise – he came in the hotel’s front door, and owner Jack Spence offered him a ride on the public elevator.

Garth does his “best” Elvis voice to tell the story. Elvis declined, said, “I can’t do it. I’ve got my guys. I’ve got to use the service elevator.”

Moments later the King of Rock ‘N’ Roll (and star of cheesy movies) came running back protesting, “I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything.” Concerned, Spence walked back to the service elevator, where two maids – stunned when the elevator doors opened and “Elvis was there in full life”– had fainted by their linen carts.

As another friend of mine told me: “It’s good to be king.”

Garth retreats again to Orange County, where his grandfather “was my hero. He was in vaudeville,” where, among other things, he and his partner were tight-rope walkers, jugglers and contortionists in between the pasty-punctuated girly shows.

A 1972 photograph shows Garth Shaw, right, with his good friend Rick Nelson.

-- Submitted

“He also was an aviation pioneer,” Garth continues, adding “my grandfather Frank Densel Shaw and his partner (Floyd Smith) built the first airplane with the propeller on the front. Before him, all the way back to the Wright Brothers, the engines were on the back. He (grandpa) also invented a one-piston engine.”

This genial grandson of a vaudeville contortionist went into show business himself. In addition to being a roadie and manager and go-fer for the Rogers (uncle and nephew), he worked with Sawyer Brown and the Starland (“Afternoon Delight”) Vocal Band (“back when they were opening up for John Denver.”)

“Other than my dad and grandfather, my childhood heroes were Al Jolson (who Grandpa Frank opened for), John Wayne (“the president” of Orange County who referred to the Boy Scout as “Young Garth”), Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. The latter two were his heroes “because they both had sidekicks, the comic-relief character.” Sort of like Kenny Rogers had sidekick Garth Shaw.

“That’s how I came up with ‘The Original Singing Roadie,’” which became his personal tongue-in-cheek nickname.

In fact, he has his own album available: “Garth: The Original Singing Roadie Rides Again, Volume Two.” There was neither a Volume 1 nor 3. That album has three of Garth’s 100-or-so original songs. (That “Singing Roadie” sidekick, by the way, appears in Rogers’ “The Gambler” and “Coward of the County” movies.

In fact, Garth appeared in 16 films, including “The Green Mile” and “The Thing Called Love” – both filmed in Nashville – and “Rocky IV,” in which Russian beast Drago beats beloved Apollo Creed to death, fueling Rocky’s determinedly brutal revenge.)

It was as Kenny’s guy for most of a decade that Garth met the love of his life, Dottie West, who he met when she was one of Rogers’ stellar opening acts back when “Kenny was breaking every state fair record attendance mark set by Elvis.”

Garth wipes at his eyes only twice during our delightful conversation-turned-friendship. The first time is when he tells the story of his long friendship with Rick Nelson, who with his Stone Canyon Band brought country sensibilities into the rock world.

“I loved Gram Parsons, but if he is the ‘father of country rock’ as they say, then Rick was the grandfather.” The youngest son of Ozzie and Harriet never got the acclaim for that change in direction, a rejection he sings about in “Garden Party.” “Ya see, you can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself,” indeed.

Garth and Rick had become close friends at Knott’s Berry Farm. When the singer and his musicians went down in a New Year’s Eve, 1985, plane crash, the roadie was driving across the country from Las Vegas, where he’d lived for 10 years, listening to cassettes, never turning on the radio. At the end of the four-day drive, he finally did hear the news that his rock legend pal had died, “I had to pull over, right there.”

He wipes at his eyes while telling that story.

Similarly, tears are at least present in his eyes when he talks about his love for Dottie West.

That time, he was driving from L.A. to Nashville, toting along a young singer he wanted to push. They both had stars in their eyes.

“I was planning on asking Dottie to marry me. Then she had that accident that day.”

On August 30, 1991, West – who finally gets her due when inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame this autumn – was going to the Opry. After her car, a gift from Kenny Rogers, stalled out, one of her neighbors saw she was stranded and volunteered to chauffeur her.

The car went out of control on the exit ramp to the massive Opryland/Opry parking lot and both were injured. With critical internal injuries, Dottie died September 4, during her third operation.

Garth still had the proposal in his heart, where it remains to this day. “I never got married,” he adds, trying to shift the mood by using the old faux-macho joke that he hasn’t any children either … “at least none I know about.”

Then the caretaker of Spence Manor and its nearly unique pool, adds of Dottie’s death: “Yeah, it affected me.”

He pushes himself, slowly, from his chair. Time to get to work. The 40th anniversary season of Webb’s pool begins in May. Garth wants to make sure it sparkles.

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