Innerviews: 'Double Sax Man' back on track
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Billed as "The Double Sax Man," Ernie Dunlap wowed audiences for years by playing two saxophones at once, tenor and alto, melody on one, harmony on the other.
He entertained in bars and clubs all over town, in Las Vegas and Nashville and Myrtle Beach. He cut a couple of albums. Often he performed with his vocalist-keyboarder wife, Corba. They packed the house wherever they played, especially at the Plaza Lounge.
Nine years ago, he suffered a devastating stroke. Through arduous rehab, he learned to walk again and has regained much of what the stroke stole from him.
He's back on track, playing whenever he can, grateful for normalcy but still baffled by the misfortune that befell him.
At 66, the big-time dreams are dead. But hey, there's a lot of life left in him. And a gospel album, too.
"My dad was a draftsman and a professional photographer. He and my grandpa had Dunlap Studios in Hurricane. They took pictures of everybody in town.
"My mom had a baby clothes store in Milton. Like everything else, the mall closed her down.
"My dad taught me three or four chords on mandolin when I was about 6. I played mandolin in a talent show and sang 'Do Lord' when I was 7.
"But I couldn't find anything to blow on, so I quit until I found me a saxophone. I'm not the greatest singer, so God knew what he was doing by putting a horn in my mouth.
"When I saw the movie 'Rock Around the Clock' with Bill Haley and the Comets, the saxophone blew me away. I knew I had to do that.
"As fate would have it, Bill Haley and Comets came to Charleston one time to play at the Ritz, and the saxophone player didn't show up, and the union called me. We played 'Rock Around the Clock' and the whole bit. That was a thrill.
"When I was 12, my dad bought me a King Super 20 saxophone, a professional model worth a fortune. He didn't know what he was buying. I didn't know what I had until 25 years later. I thought it was a student model. He probably had to go without lunch for a while to pay for it.
"You ought to see the movies when I was in the junior high band marching and carrying that big old tenor sax.
"The sax I've got now retails for over $10,000. I wouldn't take $25,000 for it. I've had it since my son was born, and he's a full bird colonel in the Army now.
"Darrell Rappold and Rodney Campbell, musicians from Hurricane, got me playing as an entertainer when I was 17. They were practicing one Sunday afternoon at this service station, and I said I had a sax at home, and they said to go get it. I just started improvising, and it just came naturally, just like with the mandolin.
"Corba and I started performing together in 1963, before we got out of high school. I married the singer so I don't have to pay her. Now she makes all the money doing karaoke.
"One night at the Athletic Club in 1970, I played two saxophones on a dare. I started with one song, 'Sentimental Journey.' It's on the album I made in 1982.
"I would play the double sax five hours a night sometimes. I can only do one or two songs now. My balance is totally off since I had that stroke.
"In the '70s, I made 100 trips to Nashville trying to sell songs. I've written 13 songs. Thirteen. Maybe that's the problem.
"Everybody in Nashville is a songwriter, even the cab driver. And there are monster players. You see some bum walk in a beer joint and pull out a guitar worth $5,000, and he can't even buy his lunch. But he can play that guitar. Making it is politics, just who you know.
"I got lucky. A lady who worked at the Elk River Holiday Inn got transferred to the Nashville hotel. We got booked at the Roger Miller Top of the Inn. Through that, I sent my press kit to a guy on the Music City Queen riverboat, and we went up and down the Cumberland River seven nights a week. One season we worked 113 straight nights.
"We would get in about 10, and I would head to Printers Alley and sit in with the bands down there. I got to hang out with Boots Randolph, my idol. One night, he'd already locked the doors and he saw me coming and he unlocked the door and told me to come in. We got to be pretty good buddies.
"Remember when George Daugherty wrote that song, 'I'll Pump the Gas, Jimmy, You Run the World'? The day we released that, Elvis passed away. Frank Sinatra couldn't have got a record played that day. That was God testing me, wasn't it?
"Pee Wee King and Red Stewart wrote 'Tennessee Waltz.' I got to play a show with them in Michigan. I caught them talking in the hall, and I grabbed my two saxophones and started playing 'Tennessee Waltz,' and they were amazed. That was one of the highlights of my life, playing a song for the guys who wrote the song.
"I had my stroke in 2003. I had an abscessed tooth, and the dentist wouldn't pull it. I had a root canal. Don't ever get one. They will kill you. The Bible clearly states, 'If the eye offend thee, pluck it out.' I think that goes for teeth, too.
"After the root canal, I went to Florida in total pain. On April 29, it hit me bad. Suddenly, I couldn't walk. I didn't know what was happening to me.
"I feel blessed and bitter at the same time. Does that make any sense? Boots Randolph had a brain hemorrhage, and he had enough sense to go on and die. I have days when I just don't want to deal with stuff. If I wasn't a Christian, I would have blown my brains out years ago.
"I keep pondering if it was something I did in my past that I'm paying for. My whole right side is messed up. I'm lucky to walk. CAMC General has a great rehab program. They're kind and patient, and I owe it all to them.
"I was in the hospital six weeks. It's all foggy in my mind now. I can remember just crying my heart out, but I couldn't figure out why. It ain't no fun.
"Corba brought my saxophones to me in rehab. I got so upset. I didn't want to play them. Finally, after I got home, I got up enough nerve to pick them up.
"I couldn't remember how to put a reed on a horn, and I'd done it 5,000 times. I'd been doing it since I was 12. But things gradually came back.
"I used to love to practice. After that, I had to force myself. I'm not back yet, but I'm halfway back. It was about five years before I started really playing again. Mostly I sit in with bands.
"And I've got some tracks I play on a keyboard. I sound like a one-man band. Not bad. And don't have to put up with nobody's crap. Makes it a lot simpler.
"Music is all I've done for 45 years. We sent a boy to college with our music. It was tough, but we did it. That's gone now. If not for Social Security, I'd be dead.
"I play for nothing most of the time. I told a man the other night, 'If I have a heart attack and die on stage tonight, I will die happy.' It's in my blood.
"I'm still trying. I've got this new affinity for blues that I never had before. I listen to Muddy Waters every night. I sing blues because a blues singer doesn't have to be good, just gravelly and loud.
"I wish I'd gone to Chicago where the blues were instead of Nashville. I'd have been better off. Country was the thing for me. I was misguided.
"Corba does karaoke at the St. Albans Moose. She's got to keep her hand in it. She still sings her butt off, but not with me. I'd like to try that again, but she hasn't played keyboard in 10 years.
"I'm puzzled. I know God has a purpose for me, and I'm trying to figure out what it is. I was getting ready to record an old-time gospel album when I had the stroke.
"A gospel album is my next goal. That and going to heaven, of course. A preacher asked me, 'Is your name written in the book of life?' I said, 'Yes, but I think it's in pencil and let's hope God doesn't have an eraser handy.'
"I wanted to be the next Boots Randolph, and it wasn't meant to be. But I enjoy playing in beer joints. I've met my best friends in beer joints. I've had a great life. I've been blessed and cursed like we all have.
"This life is just a test, like a vapor and it's going to be gone. All we can do is the best we can do, and try to be kind to each other."Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5173.