Vance Terry - RIP
He knew steel strings of fame - and iron grip of addiction By Blair Anthony Robertson, Bee Staff Writer (Published March 10, 2001)
He checked in at the Marshall Hotel, as many seem to do, because he had run out of hope and had outrun everyone who tried to set him straight, because in the end all this once great man wanted was to hole up in a dingy room and be with the bottle of booze he craved. It was a choice only he and his demons could comprehend.
A handwritten sign at the front desk of the hotel at Seventh and L streets in Sacramento states, "Sorry we don't have a can opener." Visitors are not allowed up to the rooms because management wants to control who's coming and going, who's stealing, fighting or freeloading. But that was OK by him. In his final days, he was skin and bone and barely able to function, a sickly ghost of a man with sad, empty eyes. Through two decades of drug and alcohol addiction he squandered nearly everything - his family, friends, prestigious banking job, beautiful Marin County home, his joy for life, his vast talent, his intellect and, especially, his dignity.
They found Vance Terry in Room 226, lying in bed. There was a stench to the room. In his last days, he was too weak to get out of bed even to use the bathroom. Terry had checked in Oct. 5, paid $350 a month for a 12-by-12-foot room with a bed, a dresser and sheets changed weekly. On Feb. 2, two weeks after his 67th birthday, they carried him out. The cause of death was atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease -- his heart had given out.
Despite all appearances, Vance Terry was anything but a forgotten man at the time of his death. He was in two different music halls of fame. People worshiped him as a musical genius. They remembered the days when he brought joy to so many with his talent, when he would wail away at his steel guitar, playing a complex mix of jazz, blues and country known as Western swing. Eyebrows would rise. Mouths would drop. His stumpy legs would dance over the foot pedals as his fingers strummed across 22 strings on two separate necks.
In his prime, he was an artist with guitar picks on three fingers and a thumb. He never seemed to play it the same way twice. No one knew what was coming, what thrilling sound the great Vance Terry would create next. "I hope people will realize," said Paul Warnik, a collector from Illinois who owns Terry's 1951 Bigsby pedal steel guitar, "that he was a somebody even though he died like a nobody."
To this day, steel players study Terry's technique, his sound, his chord progressions. They play his recordings over and over until his uncanny skills become clearer. The steel guitar, shaped somewhat like a keyboard and strummed by a player who is usually seated, is a major part of Western swing. Some players moved to Northern California just to be near Terry and study with a great innovator. On the Internet they talk about Terry's music the world over, although there are only a few known recordings. His old steel guitars? They're collectors' items.
The deep respect people had for this musician is a startling contrast to what people may have seen in Terry's final years. To passers-by, he was indistinguishable from other misfits, drifters and street people. Maybe you encountered this aging, rickety man on a downtown sidewalk and saw just another lost soul with an empty, disoriented gaze, stumbling, perhaps, as he reached to the ground for a cigarette butt. Maybe you saw him with his face black and blue and swollen, the aftermath of this or that beating when a drug buy went sour. Maybe you saw him and thought, "How sad, how pathetic." More likely, as many seemed to do, you saw only what he had become, not what he was. In his final years, Terry had burned most of his bridges. People who cared for him, bailed him out, sobered him up, fed him and lent him money eventually had to turn him away. He wouldn't change. He wouldn't get better. It seemed he didn't want to.
"It was a very ugly ending," said Rozlyn Terry, 41, one of six children. "I don't feel anyone has the kind of karma to deserve how he died. I prayed for almost the last year for him to die. I wanted him out of his pain. That wasn't him in the end. That was somebody else."
The trip from the good old days to his deathbed in Room 226 was a long one, complete with early success in music and business, then a long, self-destructive tumble. Born in 1934, Terry's rise to the top began in the early 1950s, just as widely popular Western swing was about to be cast aside by something called RockíníRoll. Accomplished at 17, he was already playing steel for Billy Jack Wills, a headliner at the lively Wills Point ballroom on Auburn Boulevard. After World War II, Sacramento was a Western swing hotbed. In 1955, Terry recorded 17 songs with Billy Jack's brother, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, the top Western swing act in the country. In 1956, Wills Point burned to the ground and was never rebuilt.
By the time he enrolled in then Chico State College to get a business degree, Terry was recognized as a musical prodigy with a distinctive sound. Looking back, many believe he was the best steel player in the nation for his time. "I heard him play and was just knocked out cold," said Tom Morrell of Little Elm, Texas, who at 62 remains a top steel player.
Although the music Terry played had country roots, his heart was in jazz and his instincts compelled him to search for new sounds and combinations of notes. "As young as he was, he was a genius. He was in a class by himself," said Lloyd Jones, whose Western swing band plays regular gigs in Sacramento. Terry's innovative jazz style reached new heights when he joined Jimmie Rivers and the Cherokees. The "Brisbane Bop" CD features live recordings at the Bay Area's 23 Club from 1961-64.
"When I heard it, it just knocked my socks off," said Billy Wilson, 49, a steel player in west Oakland. "It's just a party on wheels." "He was like a surgeon," said musician Stogy Buckhorn. "He could reach in and extract a note that nobody else could. Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane - put him in the same class, because that's where he belongs. They had the ability to make a statement with music that nobody else could make. Nobody could duplicate John Coltrane, and nobody could duplicate Vance Terry."
By then, his music was already a part-time endeavour. In 1958, Terry had graduated cum laude from Chico State with a business degree. He wanted a steady job. Those who knew him say he was equally gifted with numbers. Terry worked his way up to vice president at Bank of America. Friends remember visiting his office on the 50th floor in San Francisco. Terry married for a second time and by the late 1960s had built a million-dollar home in Novato overlooking the Marin Country Club. Already the father of a young son and daughter, Terry had adopted his new wife's four children. By most accounts, these were happy times.
Then someone introduced him to cocaine - not a musician, a stockbroker. Soon, Terry wanted to do nothing else but get high. He mortgaged the house to pay for more and more drugs, according to one of his daughters. "He had an addictive personality," Rozlyn Terry said from her Stinson Beach home. "He and my mother were deeply in love. It was the drugs that tore their relationship apart and tore the family apart. He had been a wonderful father, but I saw him become very reclusive and paranoid. He would lock himself in his office for days at a time."
But he had good qualities, too, she said. "My father was there for me in my formative years. He taught me to be confident. I was already an adult when he started to lose it." It took years for Terry to lose it completely. In the last decade, he was in and out of homeless shelters and dive hotels at least a dozen times. All the while, several people tried their best to help. He went from snorting powder cocaine to smoking crack. He was in rehab clinics at least three times. And everywhere he went, his musical reputation preceded him. He was the great Vance Terry. Even when he was homeless, people would relish the chance to hear him play. His musical skills, it seems, were the last to go.
"The best music Vance ever played he played with my band (in the '60s)," said Rivers, 75, of Placerville. "He was like a son to me. I helped Vance get through college. I was so very proud of him. He was a very bright young man. "He got a job at the Bank of America and climbed the ladder so fast. He was in charge of big, big money. When his stockbroker introduced him to cocaine, it was all downhill. He went down so fast that I tried to avoid him because it broke my goddamn heart every time I saw him." Chuck Wright, 75, knew Terry from the early years. He built Terry's famous Sierra double-11, 19-pedal steel guitar. In the 1960s, Wright lost touch with Terry until 1993. By then, his old friend was on the skids.
"I had put him on a pedestal. I was proud that he played my merchandise," Wright said. "But when I saw him, I was devastated. I couldn't believe how a man could come down so far. "He's in a better place right now. I don't care where it is - he's in a better place than he was a few weeks ago." Charlotte and Wendell Moore were among the last who tried to help. They met Terry in 1988 and hired him to do the books for their Fairfield construction business. Charlotte was struck that this broken man who couldn't manage his own life could easily set the company books straight in preparation for a complicated tax audit.
The Moores gave him work and support. They drove him around. They made him their friend. But they couldn't keep him away from drugs and booze. "He was living day to day. He was a very kind and very generous person," said Charlotte Moore. "When he was on the street needing a place to stay, we put him up in a hotel. I had a friend in AA, and he said that the more you do for him and help him get out of his scrape, the longer it's going to take. Eventually, we had to say 'We can't help you.' It was a very difficult thing to say to somebody you knew didn't have a place to stay or a thing to eat."
As the drug habit worsened, Terry got beat up several times. Once, someone stomped on his hands so hard he was unable to play his steel guitar. He bounced around in low-rent hotels until he ended up at the Marshall. "The only time he left his room was to go to the liquor store," said a hotel employee who would not give his name. "There are a lot of people like him in this town. No one comes to see them until after they pass away."
On Christmas Day, Terry's only biological child, Brooke Diane Terry, called the front desk. Friends had cautioned her not to go to the hotel. The sight of her father would be too shocking, they told her. "This is Vance Terry's daughter," she said. "Will you please tell him that I love him? Make sure he knows that I love him." A hotel employee confirmed that Terry received the message. Five weeks later he was dead.
Terry's sad ending makes it difficult for those who loved him. How do you remember someone who destroyed himself? Whose final years were so awful but who left behind such beautiful music? How do you describe a man who was a somebody even though he died like a nobody? The music, friends say, will live on. The awful memories may fade, though reminders will always be there of how drugs can bring a man to his knees. "I refuse to keep any negative memories of Vance," said Jones. "I have a million great memories, and those are the ones I choose to keep with me."
The first step toward realigning the memory of Vance Terry was at a tribute on March 18. They played all the old songs and reminisced. Then family and friends made short speeches about a man and his music, about who he was, what he became, and that he was, after all, a somebody.