You’ve heard the adage: The show must go on. And so, when Mitch Mitchell, Jimi Hendrix’s drummer, was struck with acute appendicitis on Aug. 10, 1967, before an afternoon gig at the District’s Ambassador Theatre, someone would have to pick up the sticks.
That someone was Bill Havu, a 20-year-old college dropout who played in the psychedelic D.C. band the Natty Bumpo.
“I was kind of shoved into it,” Bill told me over the phone from Denver, where he runs an art gallery.
Bill wasn’t the only drummer in the Natty Bumpo. He and bandmate Marty Baum would trade back and forth during gigs.
“He’d play drums when I played bass. He’d play guitar when I played drums,” Bill said. “We sort of had this quick back and forth. When Hendrix asked us, ‘You want to play drums?’ Marty said, ‘You go ahead.’ ”
Their band was the opening act during Hendrix’s five-day run at the Ambassador, which for six glorious months hosted concerts at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW. The theater’s 50th anniversary is being marked with a free afternoon get-together on Oct. 28 at the Songbyrd in Adams Morgan. (Visit SongbyrdDC.com for information.)
The Hendrix shows have attained mythical status. The guitarist had taken London by storm but hadn’t yet released an album in the States. Over the course of the week, more and more people went to see him, including members of the Who after the band’s gig at DAR Constitution Hall. Hendrix even set a guitar on fire one night, reportedly the last time he ever did that in public.
Thursday was to include a free afternoon performance of three or four songs for kids in the neighborhood. That’s the one Bill was tapped to play when the manic Mitchell got sick.
(Or “sick.” Bill suspects that the English drummer just didn’t want to play such a low-stakes show. Mitchell showed up for the evening gig.)
As a drummer myself, I had many questions for Bill, starting with: Whose drum kit did he play? Mitchell’s or his own?
“I was offered his,” Bill said. “I said no, basically out of hubris, but also because I was more familiar with my set.”
That was a “nice set of black oyster pearl Ludwigs just like Ringo Starr’s. He was my hero.”
Said Bill: “In retrospect, I’ve always thought I should have used [Mitchell’s] drums. His drums were tuned and sounded quite different from mine. Jimi and Noel [bassist Noel Redding] were more used to that sound and totally unfamiliar with mine.”
Bill had first heard Hendrix’s songs only the night before. Now he would be playing them with their creator, the man many would soon consider the best guitarist in rock and roll.
“I didn’t know the songs. I didn’t know where the breaks were,” Bill said. “I laid down a pretty heavy beat and kept it there.
“What I didn’t realize was that even though there was a monitor right next to the drum set” — that’s a speaker that’s supposed to let musicians hear one another — “it was so overpoweringly loud that I couldn’t hear Noel that well. He kept coming over and nudging me and saying, ‘Speed up, speed up.’
“It was hard to take it all in, because of the volume. It was about twice our volume. I felt as though I had to play louder. The drums were mic’d, so I think I overpowered it a little bit, just because I was hearing this wall of sound behind me.”
That sounds like an aural metaphor for the tumultuous Sixties. So tell me, Bill, what was Washington like in those days?
“It was really difficult to put everything in perspective,” said Bill, 70. “You were just caught up in the wave. You couldn’t really take your time and pause, because there would be an assassination, then there would be a riot, then another assassination. Then there’d be the news of the war, videos of the bombing on the television. Then Jimi Hendrix, then the Who. It was so much high-octane stuff for your brain and your soul to get a handle on, all you could do was just try to keep your head above water.
“In retrospect, I still look at it as a jumble. One moment I was in a suit and tie going to the College of the South, the next moment I was onstage with Jimi Hendrix.”
And you know what? It went okay. Bill may not have been as flashy as Mitchell, but he said he didn’t embarrass himself. The Ambassador was demolished in 1969. Mitchell died in 2008.
Bill has never seen a photo from that afternoon, though he thinks there must be one out there somewhere. He does carry one reminder.
“I remember going to hit the crash cymbal,” Bill said. “I hit my finger on the edge of my cymbal and cut it wide open. I was bleeding while I was playing. Blood was flying. I still have the scar.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.