Published March 20. 2012 3:59PM Updated March 20. 2012 4:21PM
If it’s summer, 1971, and you’re an enterprising youngster in South Dallas, you ride your bicycle to the Polar Bear Ice Cream store at the corner of I-35 and Illinois Ave., and you fill out a job application.
Nine months later, because you’re an ice cream badass, you’re assistant manager — pulling down $1.35 an hour plus all the ice cream you can eat (or, all the ice cream you can trade for burgers to the guys next door in the Jack in the Box). Life is good.
And it was my life.
One afternoon, early March, it was overcast and chilly and no one was in the mood for ice cream. I was doing solo duty, changing out a near-empty tub of an egregious sherbet called Mixed Fruit. It was a blindingly white sherbet with odd flecks of such ingredients as pear, mango, star fruit and persimmon, along with hunks of pulled pork, and I had to wonder how come the cannister was nearly empty.
Someone was apparently eating the grisly creation.
For company, I had a small transistor radio tuned to the local soul station, Jean Knight was belting out the wonderful “Mr. Big Stuff,” and I was just about through with Mixed Fruit and contemplating how great a chocolate malt would taste.
Suddenly, the door opened and a brisk slice of wind came along with a customer in a gold turtleneck sweater and a brown leather blazer. He was a handsome black guy with a moderate Afro, and he approached the counter with a smile and began studying the flavor board.
“How are you, sir?” I said.
He was clearly not certain what he wanted, so I said, “Take your time.”
He nodded his appreciation, and stated to bob his head faintly in time to the music as he studied the menu. “I’ll tell you what,” he finally said. “Could I get two scoops of Butter Pecan on a sugar cone?”
“Happily, sir,” I said, and set out to sculpt his cone.
(As an aside, civilians believe that each dip of ice cream they buy is packed solidly with the frozen confection. That’s not true. That’s what ice cream professionals want you to think. The reality is, though, that you use the edge of the dipper in a wide, swirling motion, scimming the surface of the ice cream so that it peels back into itself and forms a big, fat-looking scoop that’s actually full of air.)
As I artfully constructed the fraudulent Butter Pecan cone, “Mister Big Stuff” faded out and the DJ segued smoothly into “Could It Be I’m Falling In Love” by the Spinners.
The customer glanced at the radio. “You like R&B?” he said.
“Oh, definitely,” I said, wrapping the cone in a paper napkin and handing it to him.
He nodded thoughtfully, taking a quick lick of the ice cream and setting a five dollar bill down on the counter. I turned back to the cash register with his money. Behind me, I heard him say, “How much do you know about, ah, a guy named Cosimo Matassa?”
Weird. I turned back, handed him his change, and studied him. There was a happy smile on his face, but his head was tilted slightly, like he was testing me for some reason. Maybe because I was a skinny white kid with long hair. I shrugged. Okay, I'll play along.
“Mr. Matassa owns J&M Recording Studio in New Orleans and has produced singles for Lloyd Cole, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Lee Dorsey, and so on.” Utilizing my adenoidal teenager’s voice, and because the DJ had cut to a spoken-word commercial for a car battery joint, I broke into a verse of “Tutti Frutti.”
The customer nodded thoughtfully, taking a big icy bite of Butter Pecan. He chewed and swallowed just as I finished my impromptu little performance. He bowed his head in acknowledgment. “Not bad, kid. Not bad at all.”
Now I felt embarrassed. Why did I do stuff like that?
Butter Pecan Man cleared his throat. “My name’s Bill Withers,” he said, extending his non-cone hand. We shook, and I hoped my hand wasn’t sticky. He went on, “I’m a singer,” he said, “and I’m about to make a record.”
Ordinarily, I’d have dismissed such a comment. This was South Dallas — and there wasn't a Motown or Stax studio in sight. But there was something about the guy — an earnest sincerity. I believed him.
“That’s terrific, sir,” I said. “I'm not familiar with the process, so much, but good for you.”
“Here’s the thing, kid. I’m not sure about something and I wanna run it by you.”
What was he talking about?! But all I said was, “Sure, Mr. Withers.”
Without any explanation, he broke into song. What a killer voice!
“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone / It's not warm when she's away"
Obviously, he was singing what would be “Ain’t No Sunshine,” a huge, immortal, multi-platinum hit. But I had no way of knowing it at that moment — several weeks before the song would actually be recorded and released. I knew instantly, though, that it was a monstrously great tune.
But … in the space where, eventually, Withers would do that famous, extended break where he repeats the phrase “And I know, I know, I know …” 25 times, well — he didn’t have that part, yet.
Instead of “I know,” Withers used the phrase “And I’d like to kill you with an ice-ax, I’d like to kill you with an ice-ax, I’d like to kill you with an ice-ax …” and he repeated that 34 times. Not 25.
“Whoa, whoa!” I said as he got to the end of the “I’d like to kill you” section. “What are you, Jim Morrison?”
Mr. Withers smiled sheepishly and licked a bit of melted Butter Pecan from his left wrist. “Yeah, it does sorta suck, doesn’t it?” he asked.
“Well, no. I mean, just the ‘kill you’ part. What’s that about? Up to that point, the song's terrific. So profoundly sad. Yearning. Regretful. You're telling us, hey, when she’s gone, there’s no sunshine. It’s only darkness every day. You're telling us that, when she’s gone, she’s always gone too long — so why in the hell would you throw in a break after the second chorus where you suddenly want to murder this person?”
“That’s what I’m saying,” Mr. Withers said eagerly. “That’s what I’m asking you.”
I thought a minute. I really wanted a chocolate malt, but I didn’t want to leave this poor guy hanging, either. He had the clear skeletal essence of an immortal tune.
Then it hit me.
“I’ve got it,” I said, snapping my fingers. “Drop the ‘I’d like to kill you’ lines. It’s disturbing and the rhythm of the syllables doesn’t remotely fit in each bar.” He nodded, listening with rapt attention. I went on. “Instead, sing ‘And I know, I know, I know …’ and do it 25 times instead of 34.” Clearing my throat, I demonstrated, doing the precise sing-song litany — dipping and raising the melody, rushing and breathless — that the world would come to know only a few months later.
When I finished, Mr. Withers raced around the counter and gave me a big hug. He smelled faintly of expensive cologne. “Young Man of Ice Cream,” he crowed, “I think you’ve saved my song. Possibly my career.” He was like an overgrown kid.
Now it was my turn to feel shy. “I, ah, was just trying to help.”
Mr. Withers crunched the last of his cone, wiped his mouth with a paper napkin, and pointed at his change still sitting on the counter. “Keep it, son,” he said. “You’ve earned it.” He winked. “I’ll bet a young fellow like yourself could spend that and treat himself to a chocolate malt!”
I didn’t want to tell him I got them free. “You’re right, Mr. Withers. That’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
He grinned. “And what I'm exactly gonna do is go record this song!” He was halfway out the door before he remembered something. He turned back. “Oh, I’ll be back with contracts for you to sign. You’re getting co-writing credits.”
I shook my head. “I didn’t do anything,” I said. “You’d have got there eventually.”
“Are you sure?” He seemed doubtful.
“Absolutely,” I said. "Gone on, you! You can't keep Fame waiting!"
He took a deep breath. "You're right," he said. "I'll never forget you." He saluted and walked into the gray afternoon and I never saw him again. But that chocolate malt? It was dee-licious!