First impressions.

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.

drums-505367__340I 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!

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  1. Yes, yes, and yes. But Ike was also a great piano player. I actually don't remember if Ike played much piano on stage with the band. He was the cool dude in the back with the Fender Stratocaster, singing the low harmonies to Tina's vocals. He may have used the piano mainly in rehearsals for writing and arranging. The guy definitely had his demons, and took them out on Tina. I think they broke up a few years after this audition. (On second thought, maybe it was best I didn't join this circus.)

  2. Yeah, Ike was a case study in dysfunctionality (from what I've read) but the dude was an incredible talent. Sam Phillips, the pioneer rock producer at Sun Records, considered Ike's "Rocket 88" single released in 1951 as the first rock & roll record ever. Check it out on iTunes.

  3. Nice post John. I do think that more job hopefuls should view their interview as an audition. And like being sure you are familiar with an artist's body of work before auditioning, the job prospect would do well to do his/her research about the firm and the key players he/she is interviewing with. Also, quickly assessing who in the interview you need to take the cue from to make sure you are on beat! The job you get may become a career, but the interview is truly a performance.

  4. Geez, Mike - as usual you got me thinking (a painful process which, I'm sure you've noticed, I mostly try to avoid). Now that you mention it, I don't know how thorough my research of the band was, given how young and cocky I was. (By my arithmetic, in 1974 I was 14.) Ike & Tina had recorded "Higher" by then, which I should have familiarized myself with. Who knows how my life would be different now if I had the benefit of your advice then? Ike and I might have become drinking buds.

  5. Another thought, Mike... In these googletimes there's no excuse to be unprepared for an interview. There's a paper trail on almost everybody these days, especially if they work in large companies. For the sales calls I do - which is really the same thing as a job interview if you're a consultant - I'll nearly memorize the bio of the guy or gal I'm meeting and know the vision statement cold. (I draw the line at learning the company song.)

    Upon further reflection, Dave, I'm thinking that if I'd joined the band I might have been a bad influence on Ike Turner.

  6. that google "paper trail" has destroyed many careers - even when an allegation, re-cycled through the media, is completely false.

  7. Nice post, John. Cool story! As a singer and one who did my share of auditions and interviews, I understand the correlation intimately. I always looked at both as a performance.

    Both required study, practice, ease, skill, and visionary role-play. I always saw myself on the stage and in the office before arriving. I had a routine of study that I followed meticulously I for the stage or interview. I was so prepared that I rarely came up empty handed.

    After envisioning myself on stage or at the interview over and over again, it was like I had already been there. In my mind's eye I had already aced the audition or interview a many times.

    I usually did rather well, though just before I came to that moment of performance I ALWAYS felt as if the earth would open up and swallow me up. This lasted only mere seconds. But the sinking feeling was, nevertheless, always present. When the lights hit or after the handshake all was well.

  8. Tina is one of my idols. I read a biography and learned a tiny bit about what she went through ... and survived in tact.

    What surprised me most about your article was that you don't say anything about being appropriately dressed as you make that first impression. I'm sure you were - Bruce style? Jeans and a cool band t-shirt.

    Anyway, great reminder and told in a fun way that allows one to remember the importance of the first impression.

  9. Anonymous: for those of us who are Boomers or Gen X, our most criminal behavior was probably pre-internet.

    Judith: congratulations on your Huffington Post blogs. Big things are clearly in store for you.

    Anonymous (#2?): yes, Tina's life is quite the success story. As for my dress, it was probably classic mid-70s LA - boots, jeans, leather jacket. Same as today, when I consult to the mining industry - though my jeans are no longer torn. And I don't wear a foot-high Afro, with a rake in my pocket.

  10. Thanks John. A great story with a great message. Your description of the role of evaluator in the auditions/interviews is right on. Over many years in management I've done hundreds of them. Tooth extraction is a good way to describe it, but the message is the same. Do the homework ahead of time (learn the music), know what you want and then relax and be prepared to improvise. I once posted a postition for a director level technical job that would be under a huge amount of pressure. One very technically qualified candidate got lost on the way to the interview and showed up late. He called to let me know. When he arrived he walked in my office, shook hands, sheepishly shrugged his shoulders and started to laugh. He instantly went to the top of the candidate list...he could handle pressure with humility and humor and that's what I needed to know.

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