These two friends of mine were heroes to me! Both are gone now, but both forged their own highly respected places in folk music. More importantly to me, they were members of John Denver’s band! I was fortunate enough to have crossed their paths and count them as friends. This short story recounts the beginnings of our friendship.
I met Steve Weisberg and Dick Kniss in the green room, backstage, during a Jim Curry concert in Aspen in October of 2007. Jim is a good friend of mine and had graciously offered his stage to me for a few minutes just so I could present Germany’s Country Music Hall of Fame Award to John Denver’s mother Erma and his brother Ron. I had accepted the award in Germany in March of 2005 on behalf of John, and it took me over 2 years to finally be able to give it to his family in an appropriate setting. Jim knew I was looking for a fitting place to make the presentation and I’ll forever be grateful to him for reaching out to offer his event. By the way, Jim’s show was a star studded affair with special guests James Burton, (a legend among guitar players, who played with Rick Nelson, Elvis, and John Denver), John Stewart (another legendary musician from The Kingston Trio… also wrote the hit song Daydream Believer!), and of course Steve Weisberg and Dick Kniss, who along with John Sommers were John Denver’s band during his most famous years. What a night for me to meet all those wonderful artists!
I’ve got to say that Steve Weisberg was my guitar hero from the time I discovered John Denver’s music. I knew of him as the source of all those cool guitar, dobro, and pedal steel licks behind John’s songs. Dick Kniss not only played those awesome bass lines on John’s music, but he was also the bassist for Peter, Paul & Mary… for their entire career! To me, there just wasn’t a more versatile and tasteful bassist out there. I had more than a gigantic admiration for these guys. Not to be left out, John Sommers was pure magic on mandolin, fiddle, and banjo… and he even wrote Thank God I’m A Country Boy! Amazing! These guys were “the band” backing up John! On this particular evening in October, both Steve and Dick were right there standing in front of me, and they were even quite talkative. I was ecstatic to meet them! Two out of my top three. I was blown away!
Would You Guys Play… With Me?
I had a bit of an agenda when I met them, (okay, it became a BIG agenda for me!) though I didn’t let on that something was brewing in my head. My producer, Jerry Peluso, in Las Vegas was working on booking me into casino’s. We were very close to getting a gig at a brand new casino in Camrose, Alberta, Canada. When I saw how cordial Steve and Dick were to me, I immediately thought I’d ask them if they would consider doing a show with me someday. I remember Steve responding that if it was a sufficiently good show, that he would consider it. I took his answer to mean that if it paid well enough, he’d play. It was pretty much the same answer with Dick. By the way, Dick’s wife Diane was with him and made an immense impression on me with her engaging personality and deep experience in the music industry.
So, after meeting my heroes I immediately began pressing my producer to get the gig so I could call and make the formal invitations. It was a long two weeks later that we secured the gig and I called Steve and Dick to ask if they’d come along. Their answer was yes! This was going to be an awesome show! I was so excited to fly out to Las Vegas before the gig and meet with my producer. We would fly out the next morning and meet Steve, Dick, and Lewis Case (a wonderful fiddle and mandolin player from Dallas) at the hotel next to the venue. I was in a constant state of dreaming about how the show would go, and how I was hoping to make a lasting impression on them so they’d consider playing with me on future dates.
A Rocky Beginning
I was amped up as I flew out to Las Vegas before the gig to meet with my producer. I spent the night at his home and the next morning I was up early and ready to go. But not Jerry! I tried everything short of walking upstairs to his bedroom in an effort to awaken him. I was calling out, making noise, playing my guitar! Nothing was working and time was passing. I was so concerned we’d miss our flight. Finally he got up and assured me that we’d make it in time. Long story short, we didn’t! We were 10 minutes after the last call for boarding! Oh the pain I felt!!! I had to call the guys, and it would be a gross understatement to say that it didn’t go well… at all. So their first professional working impression of me turned into a nightmare, and Steve in particular was letting me know that he wasn’t happy about it! Yeah… so there’s that!
The Frozen Rehearsal From Hell
If there was ever a time when I could’ve got an ulcer from worries and concerns, that was the time. Jerry and I made it to Canada the next morning and we went straight into rehearsal where the mood was very stiff and Steve was particularly crabby. Dick was looking a bit discouraged but was by far the better sport with the circumstances. By the way, this was in January. We were in the great frozen north, when it was absolutely frozen! The temperature was 6 degrees when we got there and the wind chill factor pushed the “feeling” of the cold down to 17 degrees below zero! Not exactly cheerful weather.
So, by this time, Jerry had valiantly tried to rightly accept the responsibility for the delay but we had been denied the previous days rehearsal and the mood was such at this point that I was beginning to worry about whether the chemistry on stage was going to be affected for the show that night.
To me, our rehearsal ended with a thud… dull and unenthusiastic. As everyone began to put away their instruments I was desperate to lift the mood. I rallied the courage to ask everyone if I could take a moment to play a new song I’d just written. I especially wanted Steve to hear something original from me. Up to this point I thing I was just a struggling John Denver tribute artist to him. I needed him and Dick to know that songwriting was really the thing that John inspired me to do. It’s what I’m all about after all. It’s what I really see myself as. It probably wasn’t the best setting for my songwriting debut with them, but they all pulled up their chairs. Steve especially looked non-plussed.
I nervously began playing one of the recent songs I’d written. I had barely made it through the first verse when Steve stopped me cold. I was panicking on the inside as he stood up and walked over to his guitar case. I seriously thought he was just going to grab it and leave. He opened it, grabbed his guitar, and sat down again across from me and said… without smiling, “start that song again.”
As I began to play, he immediately found a beautiful counterpoint guitar line and accompanied me all the way through the song as if he had known it all along. It was more than heaven for me in those 3-4 minutes! In that moment, it was the true beginning of our friendship. As we finished playing the song, he had softened and was almost emotional as he told me that this moment reminded him of the first time he had played with John Denver. John had invited him to his home in Aspen and as soon as the music started between the two of them, it was a pure natural chemistry. Steve proclaimed to me “You’re a SONGWRITER!” Our relationship would improve tremendously from that moment. My hope for our show soared also.
A Hard and Grinding Lesson
Steve, Dick and I went on to very happily play 4 or 5 more shows with each other. I really developed a love for them both. They were teaching me so much about the business, and of course I got to hear so many John Denver stories. More stress was on the horizon however, when money that was owed to us for a few shows didn’t come through. It was a devastating setback to everyone involved. I was particularly in a jam because none of us had a contract we could fall back on (a dreadful beginners mistake on my part), and I was the front man. This event put my own finances desperately on the rocks and as it happened, I would not be able to secure the means to recoup my own losses, let alone pay them back. Additionally, there were other band members for two of the shows. Ultimately, all of us would lose. This became a struggle on so many levels, but through it all Dick was a soft spoken gentleman to me and every time we would speak, he never made me feel less a human being for our collective business loss, though I’m sure he sensed my immense guilt about it. Sadly as the time went by, Dick had gotten very sick and ended up dying without me being able to make things right. When I learned of his death, I was wrongly too embarrassed to reach out to his wife Diane. I ached inside and somehow just allowed the time to pass.
Steve of course was the more vocal of the two on all things regarding money. 🙂 Since he lived only 5 hours from me, he helped to arrange a way for me to make things right for his part at least. We would ultimately play some 30 or so small shows together. Steve and I had grown close enough that I would become a personal guest at his home before these small shows we did in the Dallas area. His wife Donna was a charming woman. She was also a master horsewoman and had a cool horse trailer with an apartment inside. Ha! I loved that trailer and being with the two of them! There were plenty of good times that I had with Steve, but it wasn’t always fun and games though. Like brother’s, we had a few times when we had both said too much, or didn’t talk at all for a few months. We always got over it though, and the love and respect for each other was always there. Steve gave me a personal farewell gift just a couple of weeks before his passing. In retrospect, I think he knew his time was short. I love him all the more for what he did. After playing our last official show together, he was physically spent. I followed him back to his place, talked for a while, then gave him a great big hug before setting off to do a local house concert that night. Steve called me up and asked if he could come to my show and accompany me on a couple of my original songs! We arranged the way it would all go down. The guests at the house concert were all so happy and amazed to see Steve show up. Everyone loved him. He dropped in unannounced, did his part as only he could, then he made a sweet exit. It was pure Steve style… and a heartfelt gift to me. It was the last time I would see him.
I’ve got lot’s of great Steve Weisberg stories, a few wonderful Dick Kniss stories, lot’s of great memories, and a tremendously happy heart for having known these two wildly talented men. More than that, to be counted among their friends. I miss them both like crazy. If there truly is an afterlife, as I firmly believe there is, I hope John has re-configured the band and is charting high again with Steve and Dick! Hey, the audiences ought to be pretty sweet, huh?!!