On the Beat

Harvey Dalton Arnold finds his voice again, beyond The Outlaws and even cancer

Guitarist Harvey Arnold, right, thanks UNC Hospital patient Larry Rummel, left, and his wife, Ruby, for the chance to play for them.  Arnold, 61, a former member of the 1970s band The Outlaws, volunteers for UNC Hospital’s Door to Door program.
Guitarist Harvey Arnold, right, thanks UNC Hospital patient Larry Rummel, left, and his wife, Ruby, for the chance to play for them. Arnold, 61, a former member of the 1970s band The Outlaws, volunteers for UNC Hospital’s Door to Door program. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Strumming his acoustic guitar, Harvey Dalton Arnold got ready for his rounds at the cancer ward of UNC Hospital by warming up in the lobby with an old blues tune.

I’m a cool, cool driver and I know my way around

I need a cool mama that won’t mind me roamin’ round.

It was “Cool Driver Blues,” an old shuffle by the late, great Johnny Shines – played as country-blues, for fans of either half of the style.

“Yeah, I take a look at people, try to figure out what they’d like to hear,” Arnold said. “Hank Williams or Muddy Waters or something in between.”

Listening nearby was a patient named Brent Meeker, who approached to thank Arnold for the song and to compare notes. A cancer survivor himself, Arnold knows the mixed feelings the disease can involve – including guilt when your treatment is going better than that of others around you.

“You do feel almost guilty,” Arnold said. “I’m eight years out from Stage 4 – head, neck and tongue. Went through radiation, chemo, all of it. When I was in it, I saw someone who was a little bit ahead of me by three or four months. It did me a world of good just to know you can get through.”

Moving on, Arnold played a series of private mini-concerts as part of the Door To Door program that brings art to patients at UNC Hospital. In one room, the patient appeared to be too weak to speak; but a relative spoke up to tell Arnold that she was a country fan, so he broke out “Honky Tonk Blues.”

“That got a little smile out of her,” the relative said afterward. “God bless you.”

Down the hall, Arnold was tuning up and pondering what to play next. Someone mentioned The Outlaws, the ’70s-vintage rock band he used to play bass in.

“Well, then, here’s one you might recognize,” Arnold said with a smile.

“There goes another love song, someone singing about me again,” he sang in a sweet, high voice.

Recognition dawned on the faces of his audience – “There Goes Another Love Song” was a top-40 hit single Arnold used to sing with The Outlaws in stadiums. Hearing him now, you’d never know that he had to learn how to speak and sing all over again after cancer.

“It’s amazing you can sing like that,” said the patient, Carole McClay. “You’ve found your voice again.”

“The voice that God gave me,” Arnold said.

Joining The Outlaws

Arnold, 61, grew up playing blues in the Duplin County tobacco town of Rose Hill. Acoustic blues is what you’ll hear on his first album in more than three decades, “The Outlaw” (Music Maker Relief Foundation Recordings). But he’s best-known for his four-year stint in The Outlaws, a band right behind Lynyrd Skynyrd and Allman Brothers on the ’70s Southern rock totem pole.

In 1976, Arnold was playing bass in a soon-to-break-up band in The Outlaws’ hometown of Tampa, Fla. The Outlaws were in need of a new bassist, but the first potential replacement they asked said no because he already had a band. That person recommended his friend Harvey Arnold, loaned Arnold an Outlaws album and coached him on which songs to learn.

After practicing all night, Arnold auditioned and got the gig. A few nights later, he found himself onstage for his first gig with The Outlaws – opening for Lynyrd Skynyrd and Johnny Winter for a crowd of 12,000 in Birmingham, Ala.

“I’d thought they were, you know, just another band,” Arnold said. “I think it actually helped that I did not know anything of them before that. I came in not trying to be anything but what I already was. I’d been playing Skynyrd songs in a bar a week earlier, and suddenly I’m sharing the stage with them.”

Arnold would stay with The Outlaws through their commercial peak. The first album he recorded with them was 1977’s “Hurry Sundown,” produced by Bill Szymczyk not long after he’d done the Eagles’ “Hotel California.” On 1978’s “Playin’ to Win,” they worked with Robert John “Mutt” Lange, who later produced enormous hits for AC/DC, Def Leppard and Shania Twain.

In 1977, they played President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. They played stadiums, too, on bills with the biggest stars of the day from the Rolling Stones on down. In 1979, Arnold was back in his home state to play Carter-Finley Stadium with Van Halen, Boston and Poco.

“We rarely played around here, so I invited every relative and friend I ever knew,” Arnold said. “I think I had 82 people on the guest list.”

By 1980, however, Arnold had had enough. He quit The Outlaws even though it meant he would go from making $80,000 a year to about one-10th that much.

“It was time,” Arnold said. “Southern rock was waning, so we were going from limos to vans and Ritz-Carltons to Holiday Inns. There was a lot of drug use, our wives didn’t get along, and it was just no fun anymore. I was done.”

‘Anything to keep playing’

Post-Outlaws, Arnold bounced around the Southeast a good bit. He did session work in Nashville and at Arthur Smith’s recording studio in Charlotte and toured in various bands. Before his 25-year marriage ended in the late 1990s, Arnold decided he wanted to be around while his kids were growing up. So he quit touring to work a series of warehouse and factory jobs in North Carolina.

But even staying close to home, he continued playing music in the house band at Raleigh’s Longbranch country club. And he was always on call to fill in as bassist.

“I’d sit in with bluegrass or semi-hard-rock bands without really committing to anything,” Arnold said. “And I played in a few bands I hated so much, I’d never invite anybody to come see me, these disco kind of bands with computers and stuff. I never saw anybody I knew or I would’ve worn a disguise. But anything to keep playing.”

Eventually, Arnold met up with Tim Duffy’s Music Maker Relief Foundation, the Hillsborough-based organization that provides financial assistance to older and impoverished blues musicians. Duffy put Arnold to work in the group’s backup band for John Dee Holeman, Ironing Board Sam and other Music Maker regulars. He also produced “Outlaw,” Arnold’s first album since his days in The Outlaws.

“He’s from that first generation of hippie rockers, but he can really play blues,” said Duffy. “He reminds me of (Allman Brothers guitarist) Dickie Betts, who is one of the greatest white acoustic blues players I’ve ever heard.”

7 months of treatment

In 2005, Arnold got a strange feeling in the back of his throat right after Thanksgiving. He went to the doctor, who ordered tests. Cancer came back, and it was pretty far along.

Arnold enlisted in clinical trials and endured a grueling regimen of chemotherapy and twice-daily radiation. It cost him his teeth, but he survived and is now considered cured.

“Nobody has a crystal ball to predict what will happen, but I wasn’t totally surprised,” said David Brizel, Arnold’s radiation oncologist at Duke Hospital. “Even though the cancer was locally extensive, we still considered it highly curable. It’s always gratifying to see patients do as well as he’s doing.”

After seven months of treatment, Arnold was doing well enough – and also felt bored enough – to go back to work.

“I had lost my teeth from the treatments, and I wasn’t ready for dentures yet,” Arnold said. “So I grew a vicious mustache to cover it up and got a job as parts manager at a heavy-equipment dealer.”

Eventually, Arnold went to work for a nonprofit in Burlington as a job coach for developmentally disabled adults. And when he resumed playing music, his friend Peter Kramer (who died of cancer earlier this month) got Arnold into the Door To Door program, which brings artists into hospital rooms to try to raise patients’ spirits.

“A lot of artists come in and do music that’s mellow and gentle and beautiful, which is very nice,” said Door To Door founder Joy Javits. “But Harvey brings this raw passion in how he sings, which is really exciting. Gets people out of their misery for a few minutes because it’s like a concert with a rock star. It’s special and he’s so dear – and he went through cancer himself.”

Close to a decade past cancer, Arnold is sanguine about what cancer did to him. It actually did something for him, too.

“Cancer was a strange gift,” he said. “It almost took my life, but it gave me a life and experiences I would not have otherwise had. I still live by the second. I’m on bonus time.”