Excerpt from If A Robot Play The Blues … Herk and Riley meet Bill Withers

From If A Robot Play The Blues Do It Still Be Funky, a short scene wherein Herk and Riley meet Bill Withers backstage and provide a bit of inspiration.

Across the room, a muscular man with a tight afro and wearing a fitted shirt and tan slacks sat fingering an acoustic guitar. “Dipper!” he said, seeing Herk, and rose, crossing the room. After their embrace, the guitarist looked to the others in the room. “Hey, give us a few minutes, fellas, okay?” The others agreed and left, with most patting Herk on the back and smiling.

“This is my good friend, Rashon Riley, but don’t nobody call him by his first name.”

“Bill, brother,” said Withers. Herk tells me you play a little bit.”

“Yes, bass mostly, and a little saxophone.”

“Riley plays piano and guitar too.”

Withers laughed. “Man, I’m trying to hold my own with two instruments. You’re out here trying to be a band all by yourself.” He stepped to the back, picked up a guitar, and handed it to Riley. “What’d you say you play with me a little?”

Riley stared at it. “I’m not sure I know … that I know your songs.”

“Yeah, Herk tells me you’re into that bebop vibe. Don’t worry about that. We’ll figure it out.”

Riley took the guitar but looked nervous. “I’ll do my best.”

“Look, if you come from a very small place like I do, when you get to a large city like this, maybe you feel a little out of place. But all you can do is trust that there’s somebody looking out for you.” He smiled. “Trust it’s all gonna be alright.” Withers called out the key he’d be playing in and started. By the time he had gotten to the nineteenth “I know,” singing about the pain and helplessness of loving something you’re certain can’t love you back in the way you need it too, Riley, his eyes shut, was playing for Chan, stuck with his low-level emotionalism despite the tide of empathy she commonly surfed on. They finished the song, no more than two minutes into it, and Withers smiled. “That was okay, brother.” He patted Riley on the shoulder. “You made me feel that.”

“Can you do ‘Grandma’s Hands?’” Herk asked. “You got to hear this one, Riley. It’s like a love song from Bill to every grandma who ever lived.”

Riley was still awash in the first song, and said, “I miss my grandma every day. She was my favorite thing in the world. I don’t think I ever told her that.” He felt something on his cheek, touched it, and looked at Herk in surprise. “I didn’t think I could cry.”

“We can all cry, brother,” said Withers. “That’s what makes us men.”

The dressing room door opened just then, and a man poked in his head. “Five minutes, Mr. Withers.”

“On my way.” To Herk and Riley, he said, “I guess you’ll have to wait a while for the song.” Withers smiled and headed toward the stage.

Sometime later, Herk and Riley sat in the center of the third row at the best concert Riley had ever seen. On cue, and just as Riley had come to believe his having played with some ancient music legend was a fantasy he’d dreamt up, Withers said to the audience, “Lotta folks of all different nationalities and things come up to me and say, ‘I dug my grandmother too.’” The audience, knowing what was coming, applauded, while Bill Withers, seated on his high stool, looked directly at Riley. Withers kept on with his introduction to the song, while Herk leaned over and whispered.

“He met you for three minutes, and in that time, he could feel you.” Riley looked at him. “If he can feel you, so can everyone else.”

“I don’t understand.”

Herk tapped his head. “You exist, brother.”