by Mike Gruss
photography by Rich-Joseph Facun
Bill Reid has brought generations of music fans and artists together at The NorVa in Norfolk, The Abyss in Virginia Beach, The Boathouse in Norfolk, and now at The National in Richmond. He fell in love with music when he was 12, ran the concert board as a student at Hampden-Sydney College and since then has had the best seats for some of Hampton Roads’ most unforgettable shows, including the Allman Brothers, Prince, James Brown and Justin Timberlake. Then there was the time he almost passed up a ticket for what became one of his favorite concerts. Here’s the story, in his own words:
I really didn’t go to arena shows until I graduated from college. I was going out with a girl who was a big Elvis fan. This is ’76, during the summer. I was going to law school at Wake Forest. She says, “Listen, I got tickets for us to see Elvis.” And at that time I was into Springsteen and Led Zeppelin, all this rock stuff, really country rock. Not as much hard rock, but really country rock. Even Lynyrd Skynyrd.
She said, “We’re going.” And I said, “No, I’m not.” And she said, “I got tickets, we’re going.”
I go to the Greensboro Coliseum and it’s maybe the third time I’ve ever gone. (I grew up in Winston-Salem.) We went there and I remember climbing up to the top, to the top, to the top. We were probably three rows from the very top in the back. And I remember vividly just how many women were there. I’m going, “Man, I don’t want to be here.” And that was when he was heavy. I went, “Ahh, this is the last place in the world I wanted to be.” But to appease her I said I’d go.
I’m being jaded and going, “Listen, I’ve done all these shows. I’ve worked with these bands – Springsteen and all these other bands – and I don’t want to be here.”
I remember he started coming out and doing his jiu-jitsu stuff. I think he did all the hits. It was sort of hokey. And he was overweight. Initially, it was almost cartoonish to me. It looked like a little bit of him imitating himself.
But when he opened up his voice …
America the Beautiful. He sang America the Beautiful.
I’m telling you, even to this day, I cry. It was unbelievable. His voice was unbelievable. That’s what I heard and always read. His pitch was perfect. And that’s at a time of PA, which is stuff that was really inferior, in the day. PA speakers, it’s the difference between night and day.
I was in the back of the booming 16,000-seat Greensboro Coliseum. I mean, he was this big. (Holds up his thumb and forefinger.) He was teeny on stage. But his voice cut through like a lightning bolt. I was mesmerized. I was just knocked out.
I became a fan.
It was one of those great circumstances where you’re drug somewhere and so thankful, because he died in ’77. He died a year later. It’s one of those circumstances where we went, “Wow, I’m so happy I went.”
Obviously, I never got a chance to see him again.