“Last year, I was starting to lose all my hair,” Lamont Cranston singer Pat Hayes joked mid-song with a crowd of grayhairs and bald heads.
“And I put on too many pounds down there,” he continued, pointing to his belly and belittling his outward appeal. He was getting to his message.
“If you get a chance to get a good woman, you’d better hang on to her,” he counseled from this Lake Minnetonka bandstand, not far from where he lives with his good woman of 30-some years and counting.
Then he resumed singing Wilson Pickett’s “I Found a Love,” another in a treasure chest of blues and R&B nuggets Hayes has collected in 50 years of leading the Lamont Cranston Band.
Known as the kings of da boogie, they ruled the Minnesota music scene in the 1970s and early ’80s. But Lamont — or more precisely Hayes — never went away.
Hayes blows a mean harmonica, sings with Chicago-style grit and tells colorful stories — about hanging out with the Blues Brothers, touring with Bonnie Raitt and opening for the Stones.
Over salad (he’s lost 20 pounds), Hayes, 69, reflected on 50 years of the Cranstons.
On the band’s beginnings
A Wayzata High School dropout who was determined to be a visual artist, he started singing folk songs on Minneapolis’ West Bank and psychedelic rock with his brother Larry’s band in Hamel in the late ’60s. He discovered the blues when a friend gave him a Howlin’ Wolf album.
“It was a revelation to me,” said Hayes. A big Rolling Stones fan, he learned that Chicago bluesman Willie Dixon wrote tunes for Wolf as well as some songs recorded by the Stones. He told himself: “Now I’ve got to find Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Albert King, all those guys. And then we said, ‘We’ve got to woodshed and learn all this stuff.’ ”
On getting their name
Their first show was an afternoon gig in Riverside Park on Minneapolis’ West Bank with three other bands. “We didn’t have a name yet,” Hayes said.
“Then we played at a park right by Palmer’s,” the landmark West Bank bar. “I think we called ourselves Antler or something stupid. One of my friends, who was a hippie comic book freak, said, “Why don’t you call yourselves Lamont Cranston?” — the name of the alter ego of “The Shadow,” a 1930s radio detective show KQRS used to air.
On Muddy Waters
Lamont Cranston Band twice opened for blues legend Muddy Waters. In the dressing room at the Silver Dollar club on Lake Street, he told them: “White boys can’t play the blues. They play too fast and too loud. You got to be mellow and funky.”
Later, after a gig at the River Serpent bar in St. Paul, Waters was drinking with the Cranstons. At the end of the night, Hayes watched him and his drummer walk away from the club on Raspberry Island.
“He looks up at the full moon and howls while the water’s sparkling on the Mississippi,” Hayes recalled. “He would have never done that if he knew I was upstairs watching him. He was very dignified.”
On opening for the Stones
In November 1981, the Cranstons had just boogied at the Cabooze during a blizzard, drawing fewer than 50 people. The next morning, their manager, Minneapolis concert promoter Randy Levy, called at 11 and asked if they could get to the airport by 1 p.m. The Rolling Stones had a concert in St. Louis that night, and their opening act had just canceled.
The band made it to St. Louis on time but their equipment did not. So the Stones lent them amplifiers and other gear.
Hayes said Mick Jagger came into the Cranstons’ dressing room for an introduction and a pep talk. “If they holler for the Stones,” he advised, “tell them to go [bleep] themselves and play another half-hour.”
As it turned out, the crowd dug Lamont Cranston. “We were rockin’ the house,” Hayes boasted. “The sound was so great. I’d never been on that good of a sound system.”
The Cranstons got invited to open two more concerts, in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and St. Paul.
“We only got $500 a night. We lost 6 grand,” Hayes said. “But you’ve gotta do it. If you’d told me when I was 14 or 15 that I’d meet Mick Jagger, I’d have probably [crapped] in my pants. I thought they were the coolest thing on Earth.”
On the Blues Brothers
Having once roomed with comedian Tom Davis in Minneapolis, Hayes invited the “Saturday Night Live” writer and his partner, Al Franken, to a Lamont Cranston engagement at the Other End in New York’s Greenwich Village. They brought John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, and Belushi wound up bellowing “Hey Bartender” and “Sweet Home Chicago” with the Cranstons.
That weekend, the Cranstons attended an “SNL” after-party, where Belushi suggested Hayes perform “Saturday Night Fish Fry” by Louis Jordan — and handed him typed lyrics.
Back in Minneapolis a few days later, Hayes received an unexpected call from a big-time New York record executive: “John Belushi told me to sign you.” Unfortunately, the Cranstons had recently inked a deal with Waterhouse Records, a Minneapolis indie label.
Soon, Belushi beckoned again. “SNL” bandleader Paul Shaffer phoned to invite the Cranstons to be the touring band for the Blues Brothers, which Aykroyd and Belushi had launched as an “SNL” skit. “Some of the guys wanted to,” Hayes said, but his reaction was: “They mean well and they’re fun, but I take our music way more seriously,”
The Blues Brothers did record a Cranstons song — “Excuse Moi, Mon Cheri” by Hayes’ brother Larry, the guitarist and co-founder who quit the band in the 1980s but occasionally sits in — as the B-side to their 1978 hit “Soul Man.” Aykroyd still invites Hayes to sit in with the Blues Brothers, and hired him to blow harmonica at the opening of several House of Blues clubs.
On touring with Bonnie Raitt
In the summer of 1990, following her Grammy wins for “Nick of Time,” Bonnie Raitt hired Hayes to play harmonica in her band. She knew the Cranstons because her brother Steve was the band’s sound man.
Hayes earned a handsome paycheck of $1,800 a week plus $200 for expenses. He even got to ride on Raitt’s no-smoking, no-drinking bus with the opening act, urbane blues legend Charles Brown.
In St. Louis, Chuck Berry’s pianist, Johnnie Johnson, came to the concert and he and Brown ended up doing a boogie-woogie instrumental together at the afterparty. Five years later, Johnson opened for Lamont Cranston at the Choo Choo Bar in Loretto, and sat in with them. And Hayes gifted the Rock Hall of Famer with a videotape of his duet with Brown.
Lamont Cranston was so popular in 1982 that it swept a bunch of categories at that year’s Minnesota Music Awards — including best rock band, best keyboardist (Bruce McCabe) and song of the year (“Upper Mississippi Shakedown,” which beat Prince’s “Controversy”).
Fans of other bands grew so frustrated, they started booing the Cranstons.
Prince did get one award: musician of the year. Afterward, Hayes approached him. “I said, ‘Congratulations. I’m glad you won one. Things were getting hairy up there.’ He just rolled his eyes at me.”
On Bob Dylan
“Dylan came into a gig we were playing at the Cabooze. Larry [Hayes] says he thinks he saw Dylan come in with [blues-folk legend Spider John] Koerner and dance with an Indian girl. I’ve usually got my eyes closed when I’m singing, so I didn’t see him.”
Hayes turned down opportunities to reach for the big time either by touring nationally or moving to Los Angeles. He wanted to be involved in raising his daughter, who is now in her early 30s.
“I don’t want to be really famous,” he said. But at least he’s never had a day job, aside from refinishing boats and painting landscapes and still lifes (his dentist has an office full of them).
“I didn’t know that the band would last 50 years, but I knew I would. I knew I’d play till I drop dead. It’s in my blood. I’m an artist. I’m after beauty. I don’t think I’ve got it yet. I think I’m close.”
On quitting the bar scene
Two years ago, Lamont Cranston stopped playing the bar circuit.
“It was the best move that I made,” Hayes declared. Now he and the Cranstons don’t have to stay out past closing time, and they can pocket guaranteed paychecks from outdoor gigs.
On his legacy
“I picture me scaling back to more of a singer-songwriter thing. Songwriting now is more important than the licks.”
Hayes said he’s written 35 songs he’d like to record as part of his legacy. His most recent recording was 2012’s “Lamont Cranston Band With Bruce McCabe,” featuring the group’s piano man and second-longest-tenured member.
“I’m happy with the way everything went. I’d rather be successful for a long time, like I have been, than be a one-hit wonder.”