by Tom Gray
In December of 1996, upon hearing of the death of John Duffey, Charlie Waller said, “Oh no! I’m not through singing with John.” Well, if there can be any joy in the extreme sadness of the passing of both of these talented men, it is that now there must be some beautiful harmonies up in Bluegrass heaven.
You will frequently hear people say, “I was a friend of Charlie Waller.” Truly, everyone who ever met Charlie was his friend. Especially the women! He had no enemies. All of us who have been privileged to be a member of The Country Gentlemen can smile at the memory of endearing events concerning the very human personality that was Charlie. He told the same jokes for 47 years but they always brought a smile.
When I was still in high school, I started going to the Crossroads Restaurant at Baileys Crossroads to see the Country Gentlemen. Charlie recognized me as the kid who used to stand down in the front to watch the bands up close at outdoor shows he had played with Buzz Busby. I got to know Charlie, and other members of the Gentlemen at that time (John Duffey, Pete Kuykendall, Tom Morgan). I told him I was now a bass player, and he invited me to get up and play with the band. In a few years, when bassist Jim Cox became ill, I was asked to join the group. That was 1960 and I was 19 years old.
Soon, we began the 10-year engagement at The Shamrock club on M Street in Georgetown. We played there every Tuesday and Thursday. Charlie had a house in Arlington with his (then) wife Mona, son Randy, and baby daughter Dori. Charlie and Mona were generous enough to let new band members live at their house. They included Kenny Haddock, who played Dobro for a few months in 1962, and Walt Hensley who played banjo for about a month (in 1963, I think) while Eddie Adcock was away.
The only time I remember seeing Charlie mad was the night he fired Kenny Haddock for repeatedly leaning over the stage railing front of him. That was at the Shamrock Room in the West End Shopping Center in Falls Church.
Charlie once invited me down to Fort Washington Marina to take a ride in his motorboat. He tried to teach me to water ski. I burned the skin off my little finger on the pull rope, and the aches and bruises lasted quite a while. Charlie enjoyed being on the water and even lived on his boat at one point.
Charlie had a great sense of humor. He didn’t mind if someone played a joke on him. He used to say, “It’s hard to be a straight man when you’re as funny as I am.” John Duffey pulled a good one on Charlie late one night as we drove east after gig in Wheeling, W.V. Charlie was sound asleep in the car, as usual. At the time, our band vehicle was a worn out tour guide’s limousine with a big painted box on top, which John built himself. I had paid $400 for that Cadillac. Since I was still living with my parents and working a day job, John and Charlie asked me to finance the limousine. I think it was a 1954 model, and I bought it in 1962.
Charlie was legendary for spending much of his time asleep. We got to the motel and started unloading things, talking to each other, and Charlie didn’t wake up. We tried to wake him without success. There was a junkyard full of rusting old cars next door to the motel. John drove into it and closed up the car with Charlie still sleeping inside. Later that night, when Charlie finally woke up, he looked around the junkyard and saw he had been abandoned. The lights of the motel were visible next door so Charlie walked over, suspecting what had happened. He went to the front desk and asked, “Did three son-of-a-bitches check in here?”
Many of us in the bluegrass music community have heard stories about Charlie’s fondness for vodka. Sadly, it was true. As years of alcohol abuse began to take their toll, his doctors warned him to stop. It was a great struggle for him to stay away from the bottle. The problem wasn’t helped by those who tried to show friendship by offering Charlie more drink. They may as well have shot him with a gun, for they were certainly contributing to his death.
As the years passed, Charlie’s body began to fail, but never his voice. It was one of the greatest voices that ever sang any kind of music. And Charlie knew how to use it to best advantage, making it look easy. The heart attack that claimed Charlie’s life struck him as he worked in his vegetable garden. As I understand it, his mother passed away in the same garden.
Not everyone knows this, but Charlie Waller named The Seldom Scene. In 1971, John Duffey, who had resigned from the Country Gentlemen two years earlier, was working as an instrument repairman at Arlington Music Company. Various people had tried to get Duffey out of retirement, without success.
There were rumors going around the bluegrass community that a new band was being formed that would include John Duffey, Mike and Dave Auldridge, Ben Eldridge, Tom Gray, and a new singer-guitarist by the name of John Starling. Charlie had heard the rumors, and went to visit Duffey at his workshop. Charlie said many people had heard about this new group, but no one had seen them, so they must be The Seldom Seen. John said, “Hey, I like that name.”
As a footnote to this story, there was a short-lived rock band in D.C. with the name Seldom Scene, spelled the same way. They had played at The Brickskellar club on 21st St. NW along with The Country Gentlemen. This planted the seed in Charlie’s memory of the name. Before we adopted the name for our new bluegrass band, we first made sure the original Seldom Scene rock band was no longer in business. Then we registered a trademark on it.