Tim Fleming, a 60-something South Pasadenan who departed this world overnight Sunday, was a local legend whose exceptional musical skill and loving personality are deeply imprinted on the hearts and minds of those who knew him and heard him play. His ear was pitch perfect, his performance joyful and mischievous, and his raw talent breathtaking. Besides being universally recognized as a master of the pedal steel guitar, Fleming played Dobro, bass guitar and even the trumpet. His genre was Americana.
Although his death was not, as initially reported, due to Covid-19, he believed he’d contracted the disease. One of his last social postings was a chilling warning about its spread. His last tour through the American Mid-West was halted in late March in Winnsboro, Texas because of it, and it was there, just before flying home to California, that he strummed and pumped his pedal steel for Swedish folk musician Sofia Talvik’s melancholy song about the pandemic. The single, Meanwhile in Winnsboro, can be heard at music.sofiatalvik.com.
Another recording Fleming played on with the Reset Players is due out this week.
Fleming, a resident of Raymond Hill who grew up in Covina, played guitar as a teenager and with his twin brother Tucker achieved notable success, playing along with Laura Branigan on her 1982 platinum recording Gloria, and appearing with her on the David Letterman show.
But, friend and singer Brad Colerick told the South Pasadenan News, after getting married his then wife encouraged Tim to get a job with benefits. He did — with a wine and spirits distributor where he padded his reputation as a wine aficionado, expanded his already considerable knowledge of the grape, and become a trainer of sommeliers. Also a connoisseur of beer, be brewed up what he maintained was the second-best beer in the world. He even taught his only daughter Dana to brew beer — something she now does for a living in her adopted home of Hawaii.
But it was time for chapter two of his musical career. On Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2015, retired and divorced, a friend invited Tim to accompany her to see an artist at Wine & Song, Colerick’s then five-year old weekly series of musical revues at the Blue Guitar, a venue at the Arroyo Seco Golf Course’s revamped former pro shop. Wine & Song, a weekly evening of local musicians and guest artists, was so popular, Colerick added a weekly jazz revue on Thursdays.
“He was a wonderful pedal steel player and lived up the street,” recalls Colerick, who’d been looking for a pedal steel player without luck. After that night, Colerick asked Tim over to jam with him at Brad’s studio behind the Rialto Theatre. “He came by and played for 30 seconds and stopped. I said, “What are you doing Wednesday night for the rest of your life?’”
“Hopefully, playing with you,” Tim replied. And that was it. Chapter two was under way. Brad added Tim’s pedal steel to his group of backup musicians—David Plenn on electric guitar and Guillermo Guzman on bass and dubbed them The Wreckers, an homage of a loose group of about 20 studio musicians from the 1960s and 1970s known for playing back-up on some of the biggest pop records of the time. And so was born Brad Colerick and the Wreckers, the Blue Guitar’s house act.
Wine and Song also gave Fleming an opportunity to use his wine knowledge. As recently as April 8, he can be heard on a Wine & Song recording giving his assessment of an Easter wine pairing (a German Riesling).
“It’s been four years since I met Tim there,” said Ximena Dussan, who often assists Brad at Blue Guitar. “He’s become a kind of icon for everybody. He was just so beloved by everyone around him. He has such a great ear to play rhythm and music.” He can jump on set and play with anyone, she said. And it wasn’t long before he began getting recruited by many of the touring artists playing gigs at Blue Guitar. “They’d want him to come and record an album with them or do a tour”—musicians like Sofia Talvik, Jude Johnstone, Chauncey Bower, Ed Donnelly, Corrina Carter and a raft of others.
One of Dussan’s tasks was distributing the cash at the end of the night. “It was usually just enough for gas. I would go up to Tim with $20 and he’d usually just say. ‘Twenty. Thank you, darling,” and wink, a simple memory that makes her smile.
“He was a tremendous musician,” said Sharon Hannah, a Blue Guitar regular and Wrecker’s fan and supporter. “He was just fun to hang out with. I always felt he looked after me and I know some of the others felt the same way.” So many people have been posting messages on Tim’s and related social media sites. Her other memory is the “guacoffs” she began some time ago. Even though no one knows whose guac is whose, “he’d always beat me. He had a killer guacamole.”
When he played, it was never an opportunity to show off chops but an opportunity to support the song and the singer/songwriter,” said Wrecker David Plenn. “He had an innate ability to sense the vibe of the tune and know exactly what to play to elevate it up to another level. It sounds easy, but it’s not.
The tall and lanky Fleming might be best known for his tendency, while a singer was on, to slip on stage behind them and start playing along. Two close friends, Joe Davis and Lynn Clark, describe it this way: “Brad always curates an evening of fine musicians. However, if Tim Fleming was in the house, you were assured that something extra-special was going to happen. If a guest artists’ music moved him, he would ever-so-subtly glide up onstage and accompany them with his steel pedal magic. His entry into their songs was seamless. And the musicians always welcomed his presence with open arms, happy to have their work enhanced by his artistry.”
This skill was especially noticeable, Plenn added, because being behind them, Fleming could not see what key or chord the performer was using, but always got the right note.
“An amazing amount of music came out of that man,” said Ed Donnelly, the versatile musician of South Pasadena’s Little Silver Hearts, a group in which Fleming also played.
“When Tim played with you, he showed you ALL of his soul,” Donnelly told South Pasadenan News. “That is maybe a difficult thing to understand if you aren’t a musician, and few players can actually do just that. But it is something that is magical for anyone who happens to be on the bandstand or in the studio with him. You didn’t need to know anything else about his life because you already had a deep, intimate insight into who he was.”
Fleming often toured with Colerick to play gigs in Northern California, New Mexico, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and elsewhere. Colerick said he feels very good that he was able to help nudge Fleming back into the musical world, which he enjoyed so much.
“One thing I really treasured,” Colerick added, was the time they were traveling together out of state and Tim confided in him about a woman he’d dated and been very much in love with, but that it just didn’t go the way he wanted it to. “He told me this story on a long drive, and we laughed.” Later, Colerick wrote a song based on the story—“She Rides.” He played it for his friend, jokingly saying to him “sometimes you tell me stuff you shouldn’t!”
“It made him cry pretty hard,” Colerick said. “It was the only song we wrote together.”
“We were devastated to learn of Tim’s passing,” his friends Lynn Clark and Joe Davis wrote. “He was a fixture in our community, and we’re grateful that we were so often able to experience his musical gift. Tim was great company; his warmth, wit, and humbleness will be sorely missed.”