“Lady of Paradise is checking you out. Educated guess: She’s with the Count.”
— Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit
I didn’t know that Count M’Butu’s given first name was Harold until a few months before he died (which he did early Sunday morning, June 25).
I always thought it was Larry. But whatever name he answered to, his real name was written on his forehead. That’s what Col. Bruce said when he told Harold ‘Larry’ Jones his real name. And ever since that day in 1988 or 1989, Harold/Larry was known to the masses as Count M’Butu.
He was and always will be the Count, a creative and spiritual rascal who once threw cups of ice cold Coca-Cola on a bunch of white people sitting in the choice seats of the movie theater in Sandersville, Georgia.
It’s a long story that involves the young Count discovering that, as a black person, he would have to sit up in the balcony at the local cinema. Upset at this turn of events, at being separated from one of his white boyhood pals, the Count decided to give the patrons below a soda bath.
Anyway, the first time I met the Count was just days before he moved to Argentina with his lovely best friend and life partner, singer/artist Graciela Lopez, who was returning to her home country for a career opportunity. I was working on my book about Bruce and needed to catch up with the Count before he left the country. The first thing he did was set the record straight.
“It was 1989 when I met Bruce,” the Count said. “He always insisted it was 1988, so we agreed to disagree. But I know it was 1989. It was the night the band changed its name to the Aquarium Rescue Unit.”
The Count met Bruce in the usual way, through the human network – Bruce’s was one of the largest on Earth, he was about one and a half degrees of separation from everyone. The Count had played a gig with drummer Jeff Sipe and keyboardist Dan Matrazzo and bassist Oteil Burbridge at a club he couldn’t remember the name of.
“I hadn’t seen Sipe in a few years, and I’d forgotten Oteil’s name, but I knew he was Kofi Burbridge’s brother,” the Count remembered. “Anyway, these guys told me, ‘we want you to meet Col. Bruce.’”
They met one night at the Point. Let’s say it was 1989. Before the gig, the Count was hanging with Sipe and Oteil when he noticed a disheveled guy loitering around his drums. Shirt half-tucked, mismatched shoes, shuffling kind of aimlessly, suspiciously.
“Hey buddy, those are not toys, those are my instruments and I’ve got to play them,” the County said. “’ Oteil took me aside and said, ‘That’s the Colonel.’ He walked right into my space, right up to my face, and I stumbled, had to step back and almost fell. I’m looking at him and sI ay, ‘Hi, I’m Larry Jones.’ He says, ‘No, no, no, no, I’m trying to think of your real name. It’ll come to me.’”
Well, the Count had been in Africa 15 years earlier working on a degree in African studies and he stayed with a family called, ‘M’Butu.’
“I hadn’t thought of it for years, but Bruce looks at me and says, ‘we’re gonna call you Count M’Butu.’ I wondered how the hell he knew that name and he said it was written on my forehead. Then he looked at me and said ‘your birthday is August 10. And I’m like, ‘where is this guy getting all of this information?’ To be honest, it made me feel a little high, a little weird. I went outside and had to readjust my attitude. When I got back in they were ready to go on stage and play.”
The Count joined them. He felt at home. He’d found his team. That sense of “team” was important to the Count. “Most people don’t know how hard it is to find the right team,” he said. “I thought that I could play with these guys.”
That night it was Bruce, Sipe, Oteil, Charlie Williams on guitar, and banjoist Jeff Mosier. This was before Jimmy Herring and Matt Mundy joined ARU. At one point, the Count recalled, Bruce had the band playing “Basically Frightened,” for about 20 minutes, “first, like it was a country song, then a swinging jazz version, and it went on like that. Then they started running around the stage and I’m like, ‘what the hell is this?’
“Then they come back and start playing ‘Basically Frightened’ again, and it seemed like it went on for about an hour, until Bruce dropped his guitar on the floor,” the Count remembered. “It was loud. Then Oteil dropped his bass. Charlie laid his guitar down. And Sipe, he just walked through his drums, knocking his cymbals down, ‘bing! Bang!’ They went off and left me standing on the stage by myself.”
So he thought. There was a refrigerator box on the side of the stage that had been there the whole time, the Count said.
“it started moving when they left the stage and all of a sudden I hear banjo, and Mosier steps out of the box, and once again I’m thinking, ‘what the hell is this?’ So I pick up this instrument called a shekere, and me and Mosier played for about 30-30 minutes, him singing and picking the banjo. I was getting into it when he just walked away, just left. I was thinking that these were some great musicians, but strange cats.”
From his place on stage the Count said he saw Bruce come back to the club in his black-striped Plymouth Duster. Meanwhile, the other guys were across the street eating pizza. They returned and fell in behind Bruce and marched back into the Point and went right back into “Basically Frightened.”
And they played that song for about another hour or so, the Count recalled, which made me blurt, “that’s it!” The Count wanted to know, “what’s it?” I told him that Bruce had been saying to me, “I’m trying to get it down to one song.” Then he’d hold up his index finger and repeat, “one song.” He’d managed to do it that night at the Point, years earlier, his first night jamming with the Count M’Butu.
“They played that song then said good night, Bruce handed me my 25 bucks and they left,” the Count said. He went home and told Graciella he’d played, “with some of the baddest musicians I’ve ever seen or heard, but their leader is crazy. They played one song all night.”
The next day he got a call from Mosier, who greeted the Count then handed the phone to Oteil, who did likewise, and it went on down the line to Sipe, and Charlie, and Bruce, who all said in unison, “we would like for you to join our band!”
The Count had to think for a second before answering, “well, you’re all bad as hell, and I wouldn’t mind playing with you, but you only play one song! The Colonel said, ‘I can handle that. Come back tomorrow night and we’ll play two songs.’”
After he finished laughing, the Count said, “Sure, I think I can go with that.”
That’s how Harold Larry Jones – Count M’Butu – joined the greatest band anyone ever heard. And if there is a green room in the vast backstage of the universe, Larry and Bruce are lounging there together, telling tales.