It’s the blue house with the maroon van parked out front.
Willie “Little Beaver” Hale is giving me directions to his home three days before our scheduled interview. Beaver, as he prefers to be called, has finally agreed to sit down with Long Play Miami; it took almost a year. Even after this phone call, I have some doubt. He has stood me up in the past.
On the morning of the interview I call him to confirm our appointment but he doesn’t return the call. Rather than wait and lose another opportunity I head over there, to Opa-locka, Florida, to find the blue house with the maroon van.
I arrive at his home about 45 minutes later. A chain link fence along the perimeter of the property stands between me and the blue house. The front gate is secured with a pad lock. There are hurricane shutters (slightly open) on the windows and iron wrought bars over the front door. And while the maroon van is indeed parked out front, there is no indication that he’s home. I stand there outside his gate and as I’m dialing his number on my cell phone I hear the almighty jingling sound of keys.
I look towards the front door and notice the silhouette of a man emerge. The door opens and he walks out wearing a grey t-shirt, blue jeans and a plain white baseball cap. He doesn’t say a word. We shake hands over the chain link gate and then he inserts one of the keys into the padlock, unlocks it and invites me inside.
Save for a couple of his own CDs on the kitchen table and a gold-plated framed portrait from his younger days, you’d never know you were in the presence of Little Beaver, arguably the most important and accomplished R&B guitarist of Miami’s soul scene of the 60s and early 70s.
“I don’t know very much,” he mumbles as he sits down in his favorite chair up against a window. It has hurricane shutters too, letting only a glimmer of daylight slip into the living room. Then he says:
The people that know me ’round here don’t know I’m Little Beaver. There’s one guy on the corner.
And there was an older, white couple across the street. They used to call me Beaver. Their son used to smoke crack with Rick Finch so that might be how they found out I was Little Beaver.
Rick Finch was co-founder, along with Harry Casey, of the Miami super group KC & The Sunshine Band, the disco powerhouse that put out five #1 songs between 1974-1979 and became one of the most commercially successful 70s bands (second only to the Bee Gees). Little Beaver and Finch met way back at Henry Stone’s TK studios in Hialeah in the early 1970s. Beaver was one of the studio’s session musicians.
Beginning around 1963, upon arriving to Miami from Forrest City, Arkansas, Beaver played lead guitar for some of the leading R&B club acts around town. Around 1970, he was invited by local producer Willie Clarke to join TK and record under their funk label, Cat.
Beaver had an impressive, albeit brief, solo career, hitting his peak in 1974 with the funky-soul number Party Down. Beaver also arranged and played the guitar tracks on many of the soul records produced in Miami including Betty Wright’s sensational hit Clean Up Woman (1971).
In fact, Beaver’s guitar, described by Rolling Stone as “delicate” and “oozing,” can be heard on almost every Miami 60s/early 70s soul and funk record that was worth a dime.
Growing up in Forrest City, AR (he was born in nearby Marianna), Little Beaver was known for two things: (1) a pair of front teeth resembling those of a certain semi-aquatic furry animal – which earned him his nickname – and (2) his talent for the guitar.
My step father Clarence Jones Sr…, he bought a box guitar for about 11 bucks. It was while he’d go to church and he had a couple other guys and they like to sing gospel. So he decided he was going to learn to play guitar, strum along while they sing, you know.
But Beaver says his step dad could never find the time to play.
The guitar was just sitting there leaning against the wall.
He says he “plucked on it” for a while, teaching himself how to play a few chords. He immediately began drawing interest around Forrest City.
There was this guy named Anderson that everyone around town called Sarge because he walked like a soldier. He showed me my first fingering on the guitar, how to actually play notes. He showed me how to play traditional blues chords. For about a month I thought I was a master.
Soon after, the first gig opportunities came to him.
There was a keyboard player in Pine Bluff, Arkansas during the time when Bobby Bland was popular. He used to come get me. In fact, a lot of people would come and get me ‘cause I was the only guitar player in Forrest City that they could find available.
He says that on the weekends they’d pick up a drummer and the three of them would head over to “a joint” located in tiny Stuttgart, Arkansas.
Just a wood shed.
Enjoy yourself; drink beer; eat fried chicken, you know.
This was about 1960-61. Beaver was still a teenager.
He looks towards the front window as if he’s expecting someone. But there’s no one there, at least no one I can see.
You know, for a long time I played with a clamp.
A guitar clamp, for those that don’t know, is a small tool or bracket that is clamped onto the neck of the guitar near one of the frets and presses down on the strings. It allows the guitarist to play in a certain key.
You just play [the guitar] straight with a clamp. But the other way, when you are ready to play a chord, you gotta finger it.
That was hard. I didn’t have them big buttermilk fingers like BB King. BB had them big ole’ fingers. I [played] with little bitty fingers… But I couldn’t reach the bass [top chord on a guitar].
Beaver said his index finger didn’t have “enough power.”
It was too short. So I put my brain to work and finally I figured out how to play the bass [chord].
He wiggles his little bitty thumb at me.
When it becomes obvious that I don’t really understand this technique, he gets up from the chair, disappears into a corridor, brings out a black guitar case and lays it on the couch near the chair. There is dust on it. Two white little critters scurry across the top. He wipes them away before they reach their destination. The last time Beaver took out his guitar was when a film crew from PBS stopped by a few months ago to interview him for an upcoming documentary.
Then he pulls out a red Gibson guitar and settles back in his chair.
And that little itty bitty thumb? It disappears behind the neck of the guitar for a second before reappearing above the neck to hold down the top chord.
There’s only a few people that play with their thumb on the bass and most of them came through me.
Then he strums his famous riff from the 1972 Betty Wright Miami soul classic Clean Up Woman.
When he finishes, I take a few photos of him – with his permission.
Beaver moved to Florida in 1963. He says he had a friend named Wilbert that during the high seasons would drive to Florida City to work in the migrant farms and then once the season ended, he’d head back to Arkansas.
He came home one Christmas to see his family. And on his way back to Florida he stopped through Forrest City to say hello to me. And I was laying there. My mom had just slaughtered a hog that we had fed all the summer, fattened up real good. She bought a freezer. It was full of pork chop, bacon. I’m laying there getting fat. Not working.
[Wilbert] said if you was in Miami, Florida you’d get a job just like that (finger snap). That’s where all the big bands come through. He just went on and on.
Beaver told his mother he wanted to go. She suggested he talk to his step dad who was outside and ask him for some money.
I didn’t go that way. I just got in the car with Wilbert and we hit the road coming back to Florida. I might’ve had two pennies in my pocket. Maybe.
But I knew if he ate, I would eat. If he slept, I would sleep. That’s how much trust and confidence I had. People was honest back then. A friend was a real friend.
Friend enough to let you sleep in his car.
They got to Florida City and Wilbert and his wife stayed in a trailer while Beaver took up temporary residence in Wilbert’s car.
I was there in Florida City for a good, little while. Not working, not knowing that many people.
But there were people that befriended me ’cause of my guitar.
People like Willy who would bring him food from time to time; T.C. who took him in a few nights; Junior who worked at “a big old house” and let Beaver stay there too for a while. And then there was “wild, big old guy” Benny who owned a barbershop in Goulds. Beaver says it was Benny who first brought him up to Miami to mix in with the local music scene.
He took me to the Sir John Knight Beat Club one night. Butterball was the M.C. that night…
I give Butterball credit for discovering me.. the great Little Beaver. Because Benny talked Butterball into putting me on the talent show.
Nobody knew me. I didn’t know where I was.
And I sang Please Please Please and rocked the house.
Read Part 2 here.
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