The guitar has always been very important to me. I started playing when I was 10. My parents bought me a Sears Silvertone Archtop Guitar. My Uncle Ed had quite a collection of blues 78’s, called race records when they were released back in the 1920’s through the 1940’s. While other kids were listening to kids’ songs on Little Golden Records, I was trying to copy the guitar styles of Charlie Patton, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson and many other blues legends.
Through the years, I was particularly fascinated by their use of bottlenecks, knives, bones and other hard objects to play slide guitar. I made a few of my own slides from some bottles. We had a full tool shop in our basement so It was easy to cut and polish the glass.
In the late 1960’s (I was 17), I read in a music magazine that Duane Allman was using a Coricidin bottle to play his amazing slide licks. Coricidin is an over-the-counter sinus medication. Back then it came in a little glass bottle. I drove down to Wood’s Drugstore in Williamstown, NJ, and bought a bottle of Coricidin. I used hot water to remove the paper label.
The bottle worked like a charm, much better than my homemade slides. Having OCD even back then, I went back to the drugstore and bought a spare. My guitar playing friends were so impressed by the Coricidin bottle that I decided to buy them each of them one for Christmas. I bought 6 Coricidin bottles, removed the labels, threw away the pills and wrapped them as gifts.
The next day there was a knock at my door. It was out local Chief of Police. He was with a State Police Officer. The Chief asked if they could come in. I had one of the only photographic darkrooms in town and used to take and develop film for the police, so I knew the Chief very well.
The two officers came in and we all sat down in the living room. No one else was home at the time, which was probably a good thing. The Chief asked if I bought 6 Coricidin bottles at the drugstore. I told him I did. (Obviously, the druggist was a rat.)
The State police Officer identified himself as a “drug intervention” officer. He went off on an anti-drug tirade. Every time I tried to explain, he told me to shut up or he would arrest me. With my family’s background, I knew enough about the law to state that he couldn’t arrest me for buying a legal, over-the-counter medication. That made him even angrier, but the Chief calmed him down, citing my service to the local department.
When the State Cop finished his seemingly endless spiel, I explained what I was using the bottles for and that I had purchased the additional ones as gifts. I took them to my room and showed them the wrapped packages. The “drug guy” made me unwrap one. I knew I could have legally refused but was willing to do anything to shut him up at this point. I did say that if I really wanted to get high, I would have bought Codeine cough syrup, which was sold over-the-counter back then. Of course, this pissed him off all over again.
To calm things down, the Chief asked me to play something with the slide to further prove what the bottles would be used for. After a Charlie Patton tune, the Chief looked at the State Cop and asked him if he was satisfied. He huffed and said something about the fact that he wouldn’t have been there if the Chief hadn’t called him in the first place. They both left.
Later that day, the Chief returned and said he and some officers were going to a local Veteran’s Hospital the next day and asked me if I would go with him and play for the patients. He said I sounded pretty good with the slide and he thought the Vets would enjoy it. He was right. The old blues songs were a big hit with the Veterans, many of whom had been hospitalized for years with what they called “Shell Shock.” Today, we know it as PTSD.
One Veteran named Charlie was particularly intrigued by the sound of the slide guitar. He was a black man, probably in his late 50’s. They said he had been in and out of the hospital since his service in Korea. The attendants told me that he never spoke, just walked around all the time. He seemed so interested in the guitar that I handed it to him. He reluctantly took it, sat down and began to play songs that I immediately recognized from Uncle Ed’s old 78’s. He was really good and made that Coricidin bottle sing.
An obviously overworked doctor at the facility asked me if I would come back to the hospital and play with Charlie again. I agreed. We never spoke much but we played the old blues songs. I was teaching guitar at the time and had purchased several really nice Harmony Guitars to rent to my students. (They were American-made in those days and not that expensive.) I gave one to Charlie. He didn’t speak but his powerful hug let me know he was grateful.
We had several sessions together until they moved him to a facility in Ohio. They said he had responded to the guitar so well that they thought he could benefit from the new therapeutic facility. Sadly, the hospital where he lived now was little more than a warehouse, a nice warehouse, but without any real rehabilitation staff or equipment.
I lost touch with Charlie after that. I hope and pray they were able to help him lead a more normal life. I’ve always gone to a lot of blues shows and held out the hope that I’d see him on stage one day. It never happened.
I did continue to volunteer to perform at Veteran’s Hospitals, especially after I started doing magic. I did many performances at a Veteran’s Hospital in Philadelphia. Since I did close-up magic, I was able to go on the wards and do one-on-one shows for the bedridden veterans.
Now that my own health is under control, I do plan to do more similar performing. It’s one of my goals for the New Year.
And if you have a cold, I might be able to get you a deal on Coricidin. Ask the New Jersey State Police. I’m a dealer!
© 2019 Steve Bryant – No portion of this or any blog can be reproduced or copied and posted on any online site or read aloud on any audio or video media without the express permission of the author.