Right around early 1984, just when we had created the first Hot Licks videos, by myself and John Entwistle, I received a call from Hollywood film Director, Walter Hill about a new film he was making starring Ralph Macchio. It dealt with the Blues, the legend of Robert Johnson, and many styles of guitar playing. They wanted Ralph to be truly believable as a guitarist in many genres for this film, so Ry Cooder, the film's musical director told Walter Hill "I was the man" to teach him, and to create the parts he would "mime" to throughout much of the film. This was very exciting news to me, as Ry Cooder had originally bumped me from an opening slot on his 1980 European tour (while we were actually working on a book together!), because my album, "Hot Pickups", was a #2 hit in the UK at the time, and apparently he didn't want any competition! (this was at least what my manager at the time said, when we got the bad news!). Anyway, getting this call from Walter Hill, and then from Ry, surely seemed like Cooder was "making it up to me" (Tom Wheeler of Guitar Player Magazine still contends that it was HE who got me the Crossroads gig!!).
Anyway, almost immediately, I started going to Ralph's home in Long Island 4 days a week. And taught him for 2 hours a day! (his Karate coach for Karate Kid 2 always came in after me!!) This went on for about 2 months, and I taught him electric and acoustic blues, fingerpicking, slide guitar, and even classical guitar! His room was covered with a collection of my guitars!! Ralph and I became very close, and we had a ball. What a great student!! Of course, he only had to get good enough to 'fake" to the parts I played in the film, even though he was determined to play the guitar in the movie, he soon realized that was too tall an order for him to accomplish in such a short time. We worked with the script, which of course, kept changing as we went along, and I wanted to be sure he had enough of a "vocabulary" on the guitar, so that I could create pieces for the film that he could look believable playing. This proved to be invaluable, as many times, Walter Hill would request pieces of music "out of the blue" for certain scenes, that I had to create and play right there on the spot; sometimes right in the middle of the peace and serenity of a Mississippi Delta field or swamp!!
After 2 weeks of initially recording some tracks in L.A., with me and Ry Cooder, Jim Keltner and Jimmy Dickenson, I went down for 6 weeks of location shooting in Mississippi, that had to be some of the most amazing times of my life! Location shoots, especially in such a "real" enviroment like the Mississippi Delta, simply can't be equalled when it comes to giving a film a true sense of authenticity, and it really brought all of us so closely together. Truly an experience none of us will ever soon forget. The actors such as Joe Morton, Joe Seneca, Jamie Gertz, Ralph, the crew, the other musicians, such as Juke Logan, (the harmonica coach) and I became incredibly close, and had a blast! It was so much fun, hanging out in Miss., going to old pawn shops, finding cool guitars (many of which I actually used in recording the music for the film), eating barbeque, and on and on!
Some of the real blasts for me were the times that Walter Hill would suddenly stand up and say, "Arlen, you direct this scene; you know a hell of a lot more about what's going on than me!!" So sure enough, I'd take over the Director's chair, sometimes right in the middle of a Miss.cottonfield, and start directing!!! Man, when the whole crew suddenly shifts gears and starts looking at you as Director, it's quite a feeling.one I won't forget ever! Great experience, and I thank Walter Hill for that opportunity.
One of the nights in Greenville, Miss., I decided to go out and sit in at a local juke joint. It seemed like I was the first white guy to play there in quite some time. Ralph wanted to come along for the experience, and was so blown away by watching me jump up on that stage, that he wanted the same kind of scene written into the film, which of course, happened! It was as if the REAL experience of being in Delta Blues country was actually seeping into the very core of the film, and was making it that much more real. The band I sat in with was "Frank Frost and the Wonders", along with Son Thomas, and when Ry heard that it was them, he insisted that we use them in the film for those scenes! We would even throw impromptu jam session parties while shooting, and we'd all play together for hours! What a time! They actually re-created the bar for the Hollywood shoots.so much so, that Frost walked in and ordered a beer, forgetting he was now on a artificial movie set in LA!! The bar they re-created was one in Indianola, where I sat in with Albert King. He had agreed to do a Hot Licks video for me, so I secured the "Crossroads" film crew for it, had the money wired in, and was ready to go at his motel the next morning; one problem, though, Albert supposedly "forgot", and he had already split for St. Louis!!! As Juke Logan would always say, "another blues mess!" What a shame that tape was never shot!
After the many weeks of amazing times in Mississippi, we had to go back to L.A.. We continued to shoot on sets that were built to retain the continuity of the scenes we shot on location in Mississippi. This included the Steve Vai "ending" which was quite controversial. Since I was also hired as musical consultant for the film in an overall sense, I was totally against having Vai in this scene. We had already recorded the original ending "duel", and it was a much more "true to the script" slide guitar duel between me and Ry Cooder. You can imagine how great THAT sounded!! It was a movie about the Blues, not Heavy Metal, and I was furious that the film's Producers and Directors were giving in to this mid '80s Heavy Metal "hair band" nonsense. They would say to me, "but Arlen, this is 1985", and I'd say "yes, and you're permanently dating the movie as such, rather than letting it be more timeless". Don't get me wrong here, I mean, Steve Vai and I became lifelong friends as a result of working together on this film, and we had such a blast that we often got thrown off the set for giggling too much!! ( we still call each other the "mojo men" due to us cracking up during this one scene where Joe Seneca kept blowing the line "This is the mojo bag"!!..we'd laugh so hard they had to remove us from the premises!!). I just wanted the film to retain the authenticity it so needed. Walter Hill wanted the end to be more of a "boxing match" as he put it, so I guess it had to be the blues version of the Karate Kid, starring Ralph Macchio!!! This all disappointed Cooder quite a bit, too, as he was supposed to be "on camera" for the part Vai eventually played in the film. The scene originally opened also with Vai cutting down Shuggie Otis (onetime guitar phenom and son of the renowned LA blues bandleader, Johnny Otis), but after many days of shooting, it ended up on the cutting room floor, because they said it was not politically correct to have a white guy beating a black guy. Hey, I though he was supposed to be the devil!!! Anyway, that was sad, because it would've resurrected Shuggie's career. He and I did at least do a little Hot Licks audio project while I was there, and we had a great time together.
We kept on working on the film, I kept creating music for it, and Entertainment Tonite even did 2 special segments about my involment with the movie. While in LA, we had a Crossroads vs. The Terminator softball game that I won with a 3-run homer! One of the true highlights of the making of the film for me!!! Talk about the excess of filmmaking; they even created real uniforms for that one game! Meanwhile, things were starting to seem strange in Crossroads land..they still never signed my contract, even though I had now been working 5 months on the project. I was creating the music and playing it all, fully expecting the proper credits. I'd get thrown out of recording studios when I was supposed to be there working on the guitar parts for Ralph.it all got kinda weird, and secretive, and it seemed as if they were trying to keep something hidden from me. When the film finally came out, my songwriting and performance credits were not where they were promised to be, and it was really disheartening. Still, I got lots of mileage out of the film, lots of exposure, and Vai always mentioned in his interviews that I was the one who really created the guitar parts for the majority of the film. Bill Kanegiser did the classical playing throughout, and by the ending "duel" we were ALL involved in that music! Me, Ry, Vai and Bill, all part of the same guitar solos! I've still got the guitar from the film, along with many special other things they did for me, such as a special Crossroads strap, etc. It was a amazing ride, and despite some of the negatives, such as the credits mess-up, it was a personal and artistic experience I wouldn't trade for anything. Truly a once-in-a-lifetime adventure!