Cherry Blossom Festival

Gris: Hanging with the Grapevine

After a week of looking at the world through cherry-colored glasses, I am now an honorary “grape.”

Friday night, I will spend three hours on stage with the legendary Grapevine, one of Macon’s most popular bands, as part of the Cherry Blossom Festival.

You won’t spot me playing the trombone or hear me on lead guitar. I will be somewhere in the middle of the pack, with a tambourine and tuxedo, trying to remember when to shake, rattle and roll.

I promise it’s going to be fun. Consider this an invitation to come to Central City Park at 8 p.m. and have some fun, too.

Of course, a good time is always there for the taking when you’re hanging with the Grapevine. This band has been making folks get up and dance for 27 years.

I appreciate them letting me scratch this one-night bandstand off my bucket list. (Yes, I do all my own stunts.)

What kind of songs should you expect? Name that tune. Music that will make you move your lips and feet. Motown unchained. Blues Brothers and rhythm & blues. Beach music and Dock of the Bay.

“The greatest music ever written,” said bass player Larry Lee.

“Love Train.” “Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy.” “Disco Inferno.” “Double Shot of My Baby’s Love.” “Get Down On It.” “Twist & Shout.”

One you won’t hear is “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” the band’s namesake.

“It’s a great song, and we’ve done variations of it,” said Jim McLendon, one of three founding members still making music. “But nobody would get up and dance, so we dropped it.”

Moving parts are a Grapevine requisite. Legs. Hips. Hands. Booty. It starts with the opening notes of “Soul Man” and stays in motion right through “Mustang Sally” and the Electric Slide.

Jim has been playing the drums for more than a half-century. In high school and college, he was in a band called “Soulsations.” After he got married on New Year’s Eve 1966, his wife, Jean, politely suggested he retire his drumsticks for the sake of the marriage.

He sulked about it through the rest of the 1960s, all of the ‘70s and most of the ‘80s. She bought him a new set of drums for their 20th anniversary.

Jim recruited his brother, Larry McLendon, to play the trumpet and friend Donnie Brooks as lead vocalist. Guitarist Mike Causey was also instrumental in getting the seeds planted for Grapevine.

In October 1987, the band was asked to open for The Jesters at the City Auditorium.

“We played all five songs we knew, and nobody laughed or booed,” Jim said. “We thought we might have something, and we started putting it together.”

Grapevine played about a dozen gigs over the next 12 months.

Now, they book more than 50 shows a year, touching all corners of the state. They are in heavy demand for corporate events, wedding receptions, benefit concerts, class reunions and high school proms.

“From the beginning, we made an agreement with our wives we would never play in a place where they would feel uncomfortable,” said Jim. “So no nightclubs or bars.”

They have shared stages with some of the greatest artists on the musical scale. They have been the opening act for The Four Tops, The Temptations, Percy Sledge, Chubby Checker, The Spinners, The Tams, The Drifters and Average White Band.

Jim and Larry are the only blood brothers in the band, although all the members claim to be “brothers from different mothers.”

Donnie Brooks is the lead singer and showman, Larry Lee plays bass and Mike Causey is the guitar man. Neil Rigole is the keyboardist, Greg Mullis is on trombone and Jim Larimer plays saxophone and flute. Miller Kent and entertainer extraordinaire Robin Hughes are the tambourine men and “solid gold dancers.”

If you assume Grapevine is some glorified garage band, think again. Causey has been a guitarist with the Southern rock group Stillwater. Larimer spent 28 years in the Air Force Band and has backed up and recorded with such well-known artists as Celine Dion, Vince Gill, Lee Greenwood, Crystal Gayle, Amy Grant, B.J. Thomas and Johnny Mathis.

Even though the median age of the Grapeviners is somewhere around the speed limit out on U.S. 41, they aren’t a bunch of old toots.

“We give the crowd everything we’ve got,” said Robin. “We don’t leave it in the dressing room.”

Said Larry Lee: “Our energy and enthusiasm are infectious. They catch it. And, when they do, it’s a party.”

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