These uncertain economic times find many of us looking for work, dusting-off resumes, and gearing up for job interviews. I suppose it's a "duh" that we have to make a great first impression on these interviews. But in case we need reminding, I thought I'd dig out another story from my rock & roll memoirs to make the point.
In the rock world the job interview takes the form of an audition. You come in and play, because if you can't cut it musically there's nothing to talk about. But the principle's the same: you want to make a killer first impression.
This was a lesson learned the hard way for me thirty-five years ago when I was making a living in music. I had heard that the Ike & Tina Turner Revue—one of the hottest R&B groups on planet Earth at the time—were looking for a drummer. I was playing piano in honky-tonk bars at the time but drumming was what I did best, and I was able to talk my way into an audition.
I remembered seeing Ike & Tina open for the Rolling Stones at the LA Forum when Tina upstaged them with a wildly feverish performance that forever put her on the map as a powerhouse singer. The Ike & Tina Revue were a world-class act.
I have blurred memories of the audition itself—not for reasons you might suspect, but because I spent that period jamming with lots of bands. I recall a few things: the surprisingly funky neighborhood where the band rehearsed in Inglewood, California; the unsurprisingly funky sound of the band itself (these guys were serious players); the imperious presence of the queen herself (quiet and sullen, perched on a bar stool, observing but not participating in the audition sessions); and the absence of Ike, the guitarist/pianist/bandleader.
Of course I couldn't blame Tina for her mood nor Ike for his absence. Auditioning new band members is like having a tooth extraction by griplock pliers without anesthesia. As an "employer" I had gone through the procedure dozens of times (auditioning musicians, not getting teeth pulled with pliers), and I hated it.
The screening process usually consisted of days of running through the same songs with dozens of job applicants, most of whom you knew were totally unqualified within three-and-a-half seconds of hearing them play. But to allow them to save face you usually went through several songs, maintained the appearance that it was going well, made small talk with them after the try-out, asked the same dumb questions (What's your favorite band? …favorite recording studio? …favorite detox center?), and dutifully promised to notify them after you completed all the auditions.
So walking into the rehearsal studio that afternoon and feeling that familiar audition gloom, I felt badly for Tina and the band and hoped I wouldn't deepen their despondency.
After the appropriate introductions we got to work and quickly moved through the repertoire, including hits like "River Deep - Mountain High," "Proud Mary," and "Come Together." I was holding my own on the first few songs, feeding off the energy of the band, communicating well with the bass player, and feeling like I had at least made the first cut.
Then we went into "I Want to Take You Higher"—the Sly and the Family Stone classic that Ike & Turner had also made a hit—which I'd played a hundred times before in LA bands. But it never sounded as offbeat as this, when the rhythm guitarist played the most creative, chuck-a-lucka-wah-wah introduction I had ever head. It was so syncopated that I couldn't pick up the "one count" and didn't know where to come in.
I did an elaborate drum roll to try to disguise my confusion (bad idea), then jumped in head-first. But it was quickly apparent I was lost. The band was disoriented until the bass player mercifully stopped the group and patiently counted off the beat for me, after which we finished the song. But I knew I was toast. I had committed the cardinal sin of drumming: playing on the wrong friggin' beat. If I had done some minimal "interview preparation"—like actually listening to their records!—I could have avoided this embarrassment.
Afterwards, though we went through the usual chitchat and exchanged phone numbers, I knew I had flunked. Yet just before I left the audition I sat down at the upright piano (which no one had touched in Ike's absence) and rattled off some Pinetop Perkins piano rolls.
That got everyone's attention, even perking-up Tina herself, who had sat silently during my drumming audition. One of the band members blurted out: "Hey, man, that cracker plays just like Ike!" and the others nodded and murmured their assent, gathering around the piano. That keyboard moment salvaged the day for me, though I knew I was not about to unseat Ike Turner in his own band! (I made a lame joke about being available whenever they got around to firing their loser of a piano player.)
Of course if I had even tried to replace Ike this account of the audition would have been published posthumously. (Ike, a talented but troubled soul, served hard time for weapons possession years later and died of a drug overdose.) Fortunately, Tina divorced Ike a few years after this audition and went on to have a glorious career on her own.
Oh, yes, the point of the story: make a great impression on your first interview—or there won't be a second one. And to do that you need to do your homework on your potential employer. At the very least, get familiar with their body of work!