Fair winds ushered Cheryl and me into Cruz Bay, our favorite port. We stepped off our sloop onto St. John, the diamond in the American cluster of jewels called the Virgin Islands. It was our last port of call before we returned to Columbia, where another political campaign job awaited. Ugh!
Even though the campaign was only in the beginning stages, my cellphone kept erupting.
Cheryl looked annoyed. I couldn’t blame her. We’d escaped that rat race for rest and relaxation.
“Don’t fret,” I tried to reassure her. “After a text or two, the campaign will be on auto-pilot — and 2,000 miles from Columbia!”
But not for long.
We reached Woody’s, a favorite watering hole, and found a seat. Our server noticed my Mizzou hat.
“You from Missouri?” His welcome was a pleasant surprise in this island paradise.
“Mizzou-RAH!” Cheryl cheered.
“I’m from Missouri, too,” he said, “an hour south of Kansas City.” He introduced himself as one of the owners of the bar, and his name sounded familiar. “My dad’s running for state representative back in Missouri.”
My jaw dropped. This kid’s dad was running against my candidate.
Hit the “small world” button.
Cheryl laughed as I tried to conceal my shock. We had a nice conversation with this young enthusiastic bar owner, but I didn’t have the heart — or desire — to reveal to him that in another galaxy far away, we were adversaries. We avoided politics, guzzled our rum, thanked our host and headed out the door.
A block down the street a friendly St. John local spied my Mizzou hat. “You from Missouri?” he guessed. We smiled and nodded. “I know some guys from Missouri,” he gushed. “They’re from Columbia.”
Here we go again, I thought, but we willingly played the “six degrees of separation” game.
“We’re from Columbia, too,” Cheryl responded.
“Then you’ve probably heard of a band called the Bel Airs,” he said.
The “small world” button was getting a workout.
We weren’t surprised that he knew about the Bel Airs. They get around. Along with the Mizzou logo and a few craft brews, the Bel Airs are among Columbia’s tastiest exports. Everywhere they play — in America and across the pond, in college-town saloons and in the Caribbean — they spread good vibes via that uniquely American art form called the blues.
A few months later, back in Columbia, we ran into Bel Airs bassist/vocalist Dick Pruitt on Ninth Street, and told him about meeting a Bel Airs fan on the island of St. John.
“A great place to play,” he understated the obvious. Then he changed the subject. “Your CD is a collector’s item,” Pruitt told me. He was talking about a Missouri tourism promotional CD of songs by Missouri artists (Sounds of Missouri, 2004, Universal Music). The CD featured an all-star lineup, including Chuck Berry, Count Basie, Fontella Bass, Big Smith, Sheryl Crow, Coleman Hawkins, Pat Metheny and the Ozark Mountain Daredevils.
And the Bel Airs. Their tune on that CD, “I Need Me a Car,” is vintage Bel Airs. I didn’t realize it at the time we arranged to include the Bel Airs in our promotion, but that song had never been released on a CD. So Dick Pruitt was right: the “Sounds of Missouri” CD — now out of print — is a collector’s item.
The Bel Airs could be a soundtrack for Columbia’s past 3½ decades, hearkening back to the old days when The Blue Note (nee the 18th Amendment) was wedged between Eighth Street and the Business Loop. Back then, the band would gather ’round the warm yellow glow of an iconic on-stage table lamp and crank out “an authentic but eclectic bluesy-country-soul and rock ’n’ roll.”
Dick and younger brother Dave blend vocal harmonies that are often compared to other greats, like the Everly Brothers and the Righteous Brothers. The Bel Airs have played alongside the greats, including Chuck Berry’s legendary piano man Johnnie Johnson. And even though the group has undergone a personnel change here and there, Dick and Dave and drummer Michael Cherry travel the world with a sound that’s tight as ever.
The Pruitt brothers grew up in another Missouri college town — Maryville. But for most of their adult lives they’ve made Columbia their home when they’re not on tour.
Next time you’re wearing a Mizzou logo in LA or DC, Fayetteville or Lincoln — or St. John — don’t be surprised if somebody comes up to you and says, “I heard a great band from Columbia …”
Then hit the “small world” button. After all, the Bel Airs get around.
See the Bel Airs on Sunday evening, Dec. 13, at the MOBlues fundraiser. The event takes place at Michigan Place Banquet Center, 714 Michigan St., in Jefferson City. Watch www.moblues.org for details.