Percussionist Bobby Torres isn’t much on nostalgia. “To me,” he says, “you’re only as good as your last gig and it’s been 50 years…” He trails off that final thought and shrugs.
The 76-year-old Latin jazz musician has had to reckon with the past a lot recently, searching it for memories from an August weekend in 1969 when he took the stage as part of Joe Cocker’s backing band at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. He knows how important that moment was for both Cocker’s career and the many acts that took the stage at the festival 50 years ago, which is why he’s put together a tribute to the festival—titled Remembering Woodstock, with a Little Help from My Friends—that he and members of his Latin jazz ensemble will be performing tonight at Lan Su Chinese Garden.
But he’s the first to acknowledge that he’s put a lot of miles between himself and Max Yasgur’s farm, including a decade performing with Tom Jones, tours with Etta James, and sessions with Al Jarreau, Jackson Browne, and the band Mark Almond.
“It’s weird,” he says, soaking in the sun outside a coffee shop in Northeast Portland. “I’ve been asked, ‘How do you feel about being a part of history?’ Before now, maybe 100 people know about me playing with Joe Cocker.”
The number may be slightly higher than that, but not by much. Torres’ time with the Grease Band and Mad Dogs & Englishmen, the bluesy ensembles that backed up Cocker at Woodstock and beyond, lasted about two years. And you may catch a quick glimpse of him in Woodstock, the documentary film about the festival released in 1970, but he wasn’t on stage with Cocker during the singer’s steaming performance of The Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends” that made the final cut.
“I remember sitting in a screening room with Joe watching the movie,” Torres says, “and thinking to myself, ‘Look at that! Jesus!’ I was freaking out inside that I’m with this guy. Afterward, Joe says to me, ‘Bobby, I’m so sorry you weren’t in the movie more,’ and I’m thinking, ‘What are you nuts? Are you crazy?’ He was phenomenal.”
How Torres came to work with Cocker is already the stuff of legend. At the time, the percussionist was living in New York and studying at the RCA School of Electronics. A fan of Cocker’s work, he went to see the singer at the Fillmore East when he opened for Rod Stewart.
“I was already a fan of ‘Feeling Alright,’” Torres says, referring to Cocker’s cover of the Traffic song that opened the singer’s 1969 debut album. “Rock ‘n’ roll conga! So, I go and see him and… no conga. He was playing another club that week, so I went and found him and asked if I could sit in for that one song.”
Torres kept that up for a few months when Cocker returned to headline the Fillmore East and then to play in Chicago before he was asked to join the band. From there, it was a whirlwind of gigs, TV appearances in the UK, and festival appearances, leading up to that momentous Sunday afternoon when he was shuttled on a decommissioned Army helicopter to the backstage at Woodstock, a short journey that was as memorable as playing in front of a sea of people.
“It was us and Sha Na Na,” Torres remembers. “[Grease Band keyboardist] Chris Stainton had taken some acid earlier and he said, ‘Oh, I feel a bit sick.’ He crawled on his stomach over to the big porthole in the side of the helicopter and threw up as we were passing over the crowd. He got back up and said, ‘Oh, I feel better.’”
What he mostly remembers from the performance was the feeling of hearing a few hundred thousand people roaring in approval. And that, when the set was over, a thunderstorm rolled in (“It was like God was applauding us”) that kept he and the band stuck at the festival for a while. Beyond that, Torres has logged that experience alongside thousands of other gigs he’s played in the five decades since.
“It was a big deal, but at the same time,” he says, “it was getting written up in the paper, and two weeks later, that’s lining the bird cage.”
What Torres will cop to, at the very least, is how much he’s grown as a performer and a player since he took that momentous leap of faith in asking to sit in with Cocker five decades ago.
“At that time, it was persistence and fearlessness,” he says. “I got rejected a lot of times, but I kept on going. I don’t know if I was incompetent or just dumb. I’ve learned so much from then to now. I can’t believe how much I’ve learned… ’cause I didn’t know shit at the beginning.”
Bobby Torres Ensemble: Remembering Woodstock, With a Little Help from My Friends, Tues Aug 20, 7:30 pm, Lan Su Chinese Garden, 239 NW Everett, $30-45