By 4 p.m. that Saturday, the fiddler was tuning on the makeshift stage. The sound guy was dialing in the drums.
But the keyboard player -- who also was the lead singer -- still hadn’t shown.
“Should we call him?” someone asked.
“Give him time.”
“I hope he’s okay.”
This was supposed to be Darryl Quesenberry’s show.
After 40 years of playing other people’s music, he was finally getting to showcase his own songs. Over the last few months, after his colon cancer came back, friends and fellow musicians pushed him to put together a gig. And the owner of the Craftsman House in St. Petersburg opened his gallery.
The concert had been sold out for a week. But people kept calling, begging to get in.
“Funky D -- From Floyd to FL,” said the posters. They listed bands he had been in across the state: Funky Seeds, Charlie Dandelion, Food, Urban Gypsies, Porcupine, Funky D’s Deja Voodoo. “An evening of stories and song.”
About 4:20 p.m., the side door opened and a thin man with a long, gray goatee limped into the room, leaning on another man’s arm. D, as friends call him, was wearing a patchwork jacket and had pulled a burgundy tam over his bald head. Someone carried his keyboard. Someone else shouldered the synthesizer.
“There he is!”
“You okay, man?”
Slowly, D, 54, shuffled to the stage and hugged each band member, musicians he called his “dream team.” They had never played together as a group; most were half his age. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you all. You have no idea how much this means to me.”
Over the last 20 years, I had seen D play at fundraisers and hippie jams. Rock, jazz, blues. My husband, Dan, has played drums in Unlimited Devotion with him for the past three years. I knew how revered D is, that people call him “The godfather of St. Petersburg music.”
But I had never talked to D until the day before this show.
Knowing your days are numbered can be a blessing and a curse, he said. Three years ago, when he was first diagnosed, he tried chemo, herbal supplements and radiation infusions. Friends cleansed his house with sage, brought him CBD oil, set up crystals. But the best medicine was music. When he went into remission, he started traveling again, crashing in the backseat of the van between shows, relying on other people to carry his gear. Once he got behind the keyboards, the adrenaline transformed him. Most people in the audience never knew he was sick and hurting and hadn’t eaten in days.
Between gigs, D started sorting through lyrics he had scribbled on scraps of paper, envelopes and napkins, trying to figure out what he most wanted to say, how he wanted to be remembered.
He didn’t really have a set list for Saturday’s show -- just two dozen songs he had started writing when he was 11 years old. “Most of my songs are joyous, improvisational journeys. I hope people come away with a sense of community, everyone speaking the same language,” he said. “Music isn’t a religion. But it’s very spiritual for me. It binds us together.”
His brother and surrogate dad had traveled from Virginia. Another friend had flown in from Oregon. He wanted to thank them, to tell them how much they meant to him.
“How many people get to plan their own funeral?”
The show was supposed to start at 6:30. A half-hour later, D still wasn’t on stage. Gallery owner Jeff Schorr ducked into the back, where D was slumped in an armchair, holding a silver bucket in his lap, getting sick.
“You ready for me to start the announcements?” Schorr asked.
D shook his head no. He had inadvertently taken the wrong pills, morphine, not steroids. “He’s like a drunk driver without a car,” said his friend, Bruce Goldberg, who has been taking care of D for months. “He’ll be fine out there,” he told Schorr. He told D, “Go have a ball.”
Leaning on Goldberg, swaying slightly, D made it to the stage and slid behind his keyboard. The audience erupted with applause. “We love you, D!”
Schorr said D had helped him buy and run sound systems, stage shows for other musicians, entertain countless crowds. He had known him, he said, from back when D played the drums and went by “Animal,” then, after D became a father, he was called “The Reverend.” In recent years, he took up keyboards and transformed into the front man, “Funky D.”
D waved to the crowd. “Hi everybody!” he said. “How intimate is this? If I happen to throw up in the middle of this, just carry on. It’s part of the act.”
He talked about his childhood, growing up in a “very hard situation.” Seven people, living in a two-room trailer near the Blue Ridge Mountains. His dad was a banjo picker who “drank himself out of the business.” But he took D to bluegrass shows and invited Ricky Skaggs, Vassar Clements and Tony Rice over to jam.
“This man right here … Where are you, Bob?” Bob Butterworth waved from the front row. “I’m sorry. I’m heavily medicated,” said D. “This man right here gave me a job washing dishes at his restaurant when I was 13. He brought his buddies into his restaurant, 20 or so of them at a time, and I ended up jamming with them, they helped get me drums. He gave me a place to stay and made me realize there was life outside Floyd, Va.”
He thanked the guy who taught him to play piano and his ex-girlfriend, the mother of his only child. Then he turned to Tuesday, his 26-year-old daughter. “Tuesday saved me,” he told the audience. She transformed him into someone more measured and gentle. He held on long enough to see her get married recently. His only regret, he said, is that she should be enjoying life, not watching him die. “She’s my best friend,” he said. “Of everything I’ve done, I’m most proud of my relationship with her.”
He hadn’t even sung a note and half the audience was wiping their eyes.
When D moved to Florida in 1990, he planned to play in a band to pay for college. He wanted to become a jazz professor. There wasn’t really a music scene in Tampa Bay then, he said. He joined a couple of cover bands, then formed an original act: Half-baked Guru.
They signed a national tour and opened for the Spin Doctors. Then things fizzled. D doesn’t even have a T-shirt.
When his daughter was born, he took any gigs he could find to stay close to her. He estimates he has played with more than 100 bands, sometimes five at a time.
“I didn’t choose this. It chose me,” he said. “I tried to stop. For a year, I thought I’d be a chef or go corporate. But music was always a catalyst for everything good in my life.”
He had wanted to have at least a dozen kids, he said. Instead, he has hundreds of acolytes who learned by his side and are carrying his torch.
He hopes they remember all the great music they made together. And, even more, how much fun it was.
When intermission stretched over an hour, people began to worry that D wouldn’t come back.
Guests milled around the gallery, looking at paintings and pottery, sharing cell phone videos from the first act.
They all gushed about D, how his original tunes were blowing them away.
Loie Johnson, a fan for more than 23 years, couldn’t stop crying. “I’ve never been this happy to be in a place,” she said, “to be right here, at this moment, right now, with these people …”
Just after 9 p.m., D labored back on stage and sank onto his stool. He picked up the microphone and scanned the crowd. He coughed, started to speak, then swallowed and stared at the floor.
The audience was silent, expectant.
Finally, he looked up. “This is going to be my last show,” he said softly. “I’ve been playing out since I was 13, so this is tremendously emotional for me. But I’ve missed more gigs in the last month than I have in my whole life. I just can’t do it anymore.”
He was scheduled to jam at a Grateful Dead festival the next weekend, but wasn’t sure he’d have the energy.
He can only be out of bed for a couple of hours. He’s in constant pain. He’s not scared or angry, though. “I’m just grateful,” he said. “And amazed at this life that I’ve been allowed.”
If he has anything left, he told the audience, he wants to finish his first album.
“I’m doing it old-school, on vinyl,” he said.
Something tangible, so his music will live on.
For the next hour, D sang in a soft, raspy voice, about drunk friends, leaning on each other, wasting precious time.
Love and memories pass you by. There’s no one here left to cry. No need to wonder why. Ain’t it sad when we have to say goodbye.
About this series
Encounters is dedicated to small but meaningful stories. Sometimes, they play out far from the tumult of the daily news; sometimes, they may be part of it. To suggest an idea, contact editor Maria Carrillo at email@example.com or call (727) 892-2301.
Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this story.
Contact Lane DeGregory at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @LaneDeGregory.
Contact Funky D at email@example.com