To understand the mystery of Psychic Jay Bell, we need to go back in time for a brief setting of the story, which finds me delivering singing telegrams, frequently dressed as a Flasher. It was the most fun job I ever had working for somebody else.
These moments of musical misbehavior mostly occurred at a workplace, a restaurant, or a party. But sometimes it got more scenic. One time I delivered a telegram at the ballpark in front of 30,000 Royals fans. Another time to a newlywed couple in bed on their first night together. Once even to a bachelorette party of a dozen or so naked young ladies at a backyard swimming pool. (Sorry, that’s a whole other story.)
Why This Job?
I had graduated from college, tried graduate school, tried various corporate sales jobs, tried a few other kinds of jobs (geologist, planetarium lecturer), and basically done everything I could to avoid attempting my one true but very risky passion: writing songs and singing them for a living.
Eventually in my mid-twenties I came to grips with the fact that I was going to have to give music a shot and see what happened.
There were a few problems with this.
First, I knew I wasn’t a very good songwriter. I wanted to be good, but I didn’t know how to be good, or even if I could in fact ever be good. I could tell that most of the songs I was writing were somewhat cheesy.
Secondly, I knew I could sing okay, but I was only an average guitar player. How much better would I have to get?
Finally, I had crippling, brutal, abject stage fright. I realized that if I was going to write songs, I might at some point have to play them for real, live, actual people. So I HAD to get over my terror of that.
Time To Face Your Fear, Bub
I finally cobbled together some courage and auditioned to perform on a weekend in the basement of a local club. Incredibly, somehow, I got the job. Despite my fright, I was now contracted to show up and “entertain” people for four hours, two nights in a row.
It turned out to be less and less scary as I got rolling, and then actually kind of fun. As you may have noticed, a lot of people in bars are not paying close attention to the singer. Many of the ones that are paying attention have consumed a quantity of distilled spirits that make the entertainer sound better – and funnier – than he or she actually is.
I guess it worked okay because the club hired me to come back in a month. I began auditioning at other bars, and sort of a career was born.
As I transitioned to making money performing in clubs, I needed another flexible, dependable income. Ergo, singing telegrams. It was easy, fun, paid well, and I could work when I wanted to.
Psychic Jay Bell
While I drove around all day amusing myself delivering frequently risqué telegrams to the unsuspecting ladies of Kansas City, I would listen to the radio in my old beater of a car. It only had an AM radio, so usually I tuned in to a talk show hosted by a goofy local personality named Mike Murphy.
Murphy’s show was about anything and everything, almost always with a heavy dose of humor. One of his occasional guests was another character named Psychic Jay Bell.
Psychic Jay Bell was, as you might suspect, a psychic. People would call the station with their questions, and Psychic Jay Bell would answer them with confidence bordering on arrogance. He did not suffer fools, and he was not a touchy-feely kind of guy. More like a drill sergeant. So callers had to be ready for the straight dope, at least as he saw it, and never sugar coated.
I found this highly entertaining.
One day I had an hour between telegrams and stopped for some groceries. As I got back in the car to drive home, I flipped on the radio and there was Psychic Jay Bell, enlightening the callers of Kansas City with his typical bravado. I listened for a few minutes until I got home, then shut off the car and took my food inside to put away.
Five minutes later I was ready to leave for my next telegram, but there was a problem. I couldn’t find my car keys. I looked in the car, on the front walk, in the kitchen, in the bathroom, but they were nowhere. It was crazy. I’d only been home five minutes and only been in two rooms. In a mild panic, I realized there was only one thing to do.
I Called The Radio Station
I told them I wanted to talk to Psychic Jay Bell. They said hold on, you’re next.
In a minute, Mike Murphy and Psychic Jay Bell came on the line and said, “Greg from Kansas City, you’re on the air. What’s your question?”
I said, “I can’t find my car keys.”
There was a split second of silence, then they cracked up. They were howling. Loud guffaws. They thought this was hilarious. Then they said, “No really, what’s your question?”
I said, “I’m not kidding. I’m late for an appointment and I can’t find my keys.”
Psychic Jay Bell said, “For crying out loud. You really can’t find your car keys?”
“Nope,” I said.
“Oh, Brother. Okay, wait a second.”
There was silence for a few seconds, then Psychic Jay Bell announced, “Your keys are in the bottom of a brown paper sack.”
My eyes flew open as I looked across the kitchen at the grocery sack on the counter.
“Hold on,” I said, and went to look.
There in the bottom of the grocery bag were my keys. I couldn’t believe it. How did they drop in there without me hearing them?
I went back to the phone and said, “You’re right! They were in my grocery bag!”
Psychic Jay Bell said, “Of course I’m right. That was easy. Surely you got a better question than that.”
I thought for a minute, then said. “Okay, well, I’m trying to decide about my career. Whether to go for it as a professional songwriter, and maybe singer. It’s a tough road and I just don’t know if I’m good enough. No guarantees. I might waste a lot of years and get nowhere. Any thoughts about that?”
Psychic Jay Bell thought about that for what seemed like a long time.
Finally he said, “Yes, that’s actually your best path. But you’re going to have to be patient. You’ll have to work hard, pay your dues. If you do, eventually you’ll do well, even win some awards. But it’s going to take some time. So don’t be in a hurry.”
Well, that sounded mostly good. I knew he could have been pulling my chain, except that his schtick was that he didn’t really do that. Lots of times I heard him tell people what they didn’t want to hear.
Then he went on to say, “You’ll have your best success with story songs, like Harry Chapin writes. Listen to some Harry Chapin and see what I’m talking about.”
The fact that he got specific about the kinds of songs was interesting for a couple of reasons. I felt it gave him a bit more credibility, but also it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I was not a huge fan of story songs, and although I definitely respected Harry Chapin, I wouldn’t have called myself a fan.
But I filed that away in my brain because it was so specific.
Okay, Fast Forward To Today
Between then and now were some decades of hard work and dues paying: leaving the bars behind, moving to Nashville, starting all over, learning how to write better songs, leaving Nashville years later for the Big Unknown, and starting all over again. But everything has, in fact, pretty much worked out the way he said it would eventually.
I have won some songwriting awards, and a couple of those have even been for story songs. I ended up writing more of them than I ever thought I would, especially humorous ones.
This past February at the EmPower Posi (short for “Positive”) Music Awards, I was honored with The Grace Note Award for Lifetime Achievement in Positive Music. (Awarded by Unity Worldwide Ministries.)
I guess Lifetime Achievement means you’ve been doing something for long enough that people notice. And when your peers want to give you something like this, it definitely does feel like validation. I deeply appreciate that people got together and decided to honor me. I am truly grateful for it. Kind of blown away, actually.
But It Made Me Realize Something
As lovely as it is to be recognized with an award (and it’s very, very nice), I’m aware that I’m a hundred times more grateful to YOU.
I see you at concerts and other events (sometimes after lots of years!), I read your newsletter comments and emails, and sometimes we have contests or other kinds of participatory stuff. I get a huge kick out of your stories, your feedback, your comments, your ideas, and your jokes. I honestly can’t tell you how much I value this, and I never take it for granted. Without you I have no idea what I’d be doing.
As Big Bill Broonzy famously said, “Thank you, thank you, and thank you again.”
So Here’s A Question
Did Psychic Jay Bell actually see the future? Or did he help me create it?
Honestly, I don’t know and can’t say. And I’m not sure it matters. Maybe both. The truth is I was already pretty close to going for it, at least for awhile. So maybe I would have done everything I did anyway.
But this is also true:
Whether he meant to or not, Psychic Jay Bell gave me a big dose of encouragement. And we all need a boatload of that. I probably needed it more than anybody.
So here’s the deal
I invite you to think about someone in your life who has given you encouragement that meant a lot. Maybe that got you over a hump. Maybe that you didn’t or couldn’t get anywhere else. Really, seriously, think about it. Right now.
Then, if possible, call them up and thank them.
Then think about the people in your life – especially (but not only) kids – who could use some encouragement. And call them up too!
And finally, if you happen to know whatever happened to Psychic Jay Bell, I’d really like to find out. (You can comment below.)
© 2018 Greg Tamblyn
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