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Stephen Foster

Music, Muscle Shoals and The Mighty Field of Vision

by Mitch Lopate
August 2001

Warning, reader! The following story is laden with hair-pin turns, dangerous escapes, party-till-you-drop indulgences, and - a leetle bit of madness, supported by renegade musical comrades-in-arms. This is the autobiographical equivalent of Three Dog Night's "Mama Told Me Not to Come" (especially when the band sang, "That ain't the way to have fun, son!"). Music has always offered an alternative style of working and living for those who cater to its lures, and like the game "Jumanji," it can literally be impossible to escape, once you enter. If you have one in your hand, fill your glass. If you haven't, pour a tall one - it will certainly go down with relish as you read -

Stephen Foster is one of the original Muscle Shoals swamp-style players, working alongside such luminaries as Percy Sledge, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Minnie Ripperton, Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose, The Cars, Ricky Nelson, and The 5th Dimension, among others.

A former Janus & Whitehorse label artist, he has had a Cashbox Pick-Of-The-Week single, "Leavin' It Up To You," and has performed live in clubs & concerts for over 25 years. His powerful vocal style is reminiscent of the great vocalists of the '60s & early '70s R&B era. He now produces, writes and engineers (for which I say, "amen!") in quaint and quiet Huntsville, AL.

Was music a natural avenue for you? Do we have a map to follow on your long strange trip?

Oh, yes, it was the doorway. It began in early childhood--I owe it all to music--and it's been a wild-riding adventure. I started piano lessons at age six, I started piano lessons at age six, and wrote my first song a year later. I had an open-minded teacher, and when she found out I liked to write songs, she let me prepare one out of three lessons with an original song, or etude, or something I was doodling on. The other two lessons were straight classical.

My dad was a jazz stride pianist, and he listened to Pete Fountain and big-band and, surprisingly, Chet Atkins. So I also learned music at home, watching him play that pump-jazz, and my mom sang crooner-style in the most clear Irish voice. She listened to WLS at night on the AM radio, and we'd hear all sorts of music, from Elvis to Chubby Checker to Ella Fitzgerald to Sonny James. That musical background came in handy when I cut off the tip of my right forefinger (I was 11) and couldn't play piano. I took up guitar, and by 9th grade I had won most of the area high school talent shows, singing and playing guitar. Actually, for an interesting footnote, I was singing with a friend, Sandy Wash, in the 11th grade, and we decided we needed more harmonies, so we got Donna Thatcher to sing with us.She later married Keith Godchaux and sang backup with the Dead for a number of years..

Whom do we know now as your first bandmates and contacts?

In that great summer of '69 (when I was 19), I went to L.A. and auditioned for the New Christie Minstrels. I bumped into Quin Ivy at that time. It was about 10:00 a.m., just one day after quitting college after my freshman year. There I stood: 6' tall, short hair, geeky glasses, carrying a brand-new Gibson ES 335, and man, did that case smell good! I still remember that smell. So I asked if they needed a guitar player, and the receptionist asked if I would wait just a minute. She came back and Quin followed her into the lobby. He was a great big guy and goin' bald, and he asked if I could play that thang (my Gibson), and I said I knew 144 chords in 3 positions and to boot, I could do half of everything Chet Atkins ever played.

You seem to have been brimming with confidence!

Well, I ended up getting some on-the-spot training, which I'll explain in a minute. So he asked me if I could wait around for about 30 minutes, and I said, of course! Sure enough, 'bout 30 minutes later, he came back up and said that the guitarist didn't make the session; would I like to try it? Does a monkey scratch his ass? We went into this great big studio, and he sat me down beside this long-haired guy named Wayne Perkins, showed me an Ampeg Reverb Rocket to use, gave me a number chart, and left. So Perkins was checkin' me out, all fresh off the farm, and I was checkin' him out, hair down to his belt. The Hammond player was this older, black blind guy, kinda swayin' around and smilin', and Randy McCormick was playin' a Steinway. There was also a drummer hidden in the back named Borax.

Well... I could read chord charts and sheet music, but this number thang was a puzzler. So WP sees me lookin' at it, and he tells me how it works - hmmmm. So he says, "Look, just listen to it one time around," and so they played it again, and then I played along. However, I still didn't have the feel for it, so they stopped, and WP said, "No-no-no, not BIG chords, and not all the time... just the little strings, and play where we aren't playin'. Play to the holes. It's how we play. Whoa!" And he showed me some little two-string slide things, and it was easy. So we played it twice, and they said "great" and brought out another song, and we did it, and it just went on and on. I had never played a band gig before, so I got comfortable right away doin' the studio thang, and just stayed with it for a couple years.

Aside from the invaluable tutorial from Wayne (and a heckuva way to meet him!), what else stands out in your mind about that gig?

I figure it always helped: the fact that a studio is comfortable for me. A lotta guys get moved around by a studio, but I figure I get to fix anything I mess up.... how hard can that be? Live playing is tougher sometimes. You only get one chance per night to do a song right...every chord, each phrase. Studio's easy.

Interesting - some folks say just the opposite - I guess it's a matter of preference. Okay, so we have the initial coordination with Muscle Shoals players - where did you go next?

Quin teamed me up with a black guy named Bob Jubilee, who had just come back from LA, and we wrote a bunch of work songs. It was a good learning experience though, 'cause his natural feels were different from mine, and he was older--maybe 50 at the time, so I listened to him, and we worked together pretty well.

Everybody in the R&B industry came through there back then, and a lot of rock and blues people, too. It was great to work at one studio, go to another to sing, and go to another to gopher just so I could watch the session. It was a very unusual scene: the police cars had a decal on the doors that said "Hit Recording Capital Of The World," and they were very polite people, I can tell you that. I used to drive my XKE through town at 70 and they just laughed. (John) Wyker, in particular, seemed to tickle them. They took good care of the musicians, made us feel welcome, and stayed off our asses. We musicians, in turn, acted with a certain amount of decorum, and took most of our serious partying out into the middle of Wilson Lake.

Oh, no! - you've gone from the New Christy Minstrels and are now mixing the ingredients of a fast sports car, serious partying, and the acquaintance of "WildCat" Wyker--I sense a detour!

Well... Wyker was a partying SOB. Lotsa writing though, and lotsa playin' out on the river at his camp. We did an awful lot of demos. I learned then and there that if you go into a session intending to do a demo, you get a demo. I always go for master, and if it doesn't happen, I have a helluva demo.

During this stint at Broadway, a rough bunch of guys from Florida came up to Shoals and tried to get a gig playing backup for Percy. They had a bunch of original music together, but Quin wanted to hear them play "Percy" music, so they took a bunch of Bod's and my music over to Wayne Perkins's place, stayed up all night, and came back the next day to audition. I didn't recognize the first song until we got to the chorus... they had put an intro on it and crunched it up some. Quin still hated the band, but DJ knew talent and originality when he heard it, so he cut some songs on them, and then they went up to MSS that same day and cut some more with Jimmy Johnson and Tim Smith. That band was Lynyrd Skynyrd (with Ronnie playing bass), and the album was later released as "First And Last."

So.. where to next?

I went back to Auburn in '71 for photo-journalism, got in my first band with my drummer buddy, Borax, of all people, who had also gone to AU, and we started Hot Grits right away. You know the routine: we got some gigs, and quit college again. Hot Grits' lineup was George Law from Montgomery on bass and vocals; Byron Grey (Borax) on drums, David Jackson on guitar (his daddy was a famous jazz bassist), and myself on guitar, keys and vocals. We played a lot of R&R... Deep Purple, Stones, Allman Bros, etc.

Well, at least we acknowledge some wise judgment to select such a resourceful handle, and the bands you mention - nice, orderly fellows for role models -

We went from there to Catfish Willie & Friends. There were lottsa blues, R&R, R&B. We had a lead vocalist, Weird Sarah, who was our bisexual/dope-smokin'-and-heroin-shootin' monster of a Janis Joplin-voiced singer! John McCullough (the Village Idiot) was on guitar--(now he's on the board of directors of Memphis Gas and Light) -

I hope now they have no plans for revealing his past, unless he plays during meetings -

Actually, he still plays in a band, and smokes that Firebird. Arthur Mora (Spick) was on drums, Bill Austin (Catfish Willie) was on bass (formerly of Betty Dee & The Clique!), and me doin' the regular thang. One interesting thing about this band is that we were all druggies, but all did something different. Sarah did smack, I did Valiums, John was a stoner, Willie drank 1-2 cases of beer a night, and the drummer liked Seconal & Methedrine cocktails, or acid, or whatever. You could say we were a little confused at time on stage, but we had a good time, and we were loud, and we worked a lot.

Yes, you can certainly say that your lifestyles were specialized and that it does sound very confusing. I'm impressed that you were so - persistent - in playing, that is!

After a particularly rowdy gig at a frat house, things started to change - as if you didn't expect that. Sarah then proceeded to mistake the naval light out in the bay for a star, and started screaming that she had seen "The Light," and about that time, 11:50 or so, two people came up to the band: a policeman, who told us we had to shut down at exactly midnight, and the frat president, who said they wouldn't pay us if we didn't do "Wildwood Flower" (the frat theme song) before we shut down. So we did Janis's version of —Stormy Monday," and at the end, Sarah was just screaming on and on, all hunched down on the shuffleboard court, and these redneck guys are all freakin' out, and so we do the chorus again, and we retard the hell out of it, and we E.N.D. the song - except for Sarah, and and she's just screamin' and screamin', so we do it again. Well, after we ended it again, John just starts playing "Wildwood Flower," and Sarah jumps up in the air, screams once more, throws the mic down, and leaves--disappears. I saw her the next day for two minutes when she got her money, and then she went straight to NY. She was the first singer on the Folgers "Best part of waking up..." commercials. Sounded just like Janis herself. That was the end of that band.

A ringing endorsement for java-lovers everywhere - now, weren't you ready to slow down and make a serious run?

Well, I had been bitten too deeply by the music. I was next a part of The Reeltown Band. Warner Britton sang, and he was very good; Ed "Roughy" Canada on guitar, a guy named Myron was on bass, and Steve Ott on drums. We did some zydeco, electric blues - an all-around oddity band.

I get this nervous feeling about that - do I need a crash helmet?

Naturally! Warner lived on an old 80 acre semi-nudist farm out Wire Road near Auburn, and my wife, Mary, and I moved out there for most of a year. We lived in a 28-foot camper out in the woods with a waterbed outside under a huge tarp. There was a big ole 4-room farmhouse that was the center of culture. It had a dogtrot hallway down the middle, with two huge rooms on each side, and one of them was the kitchen/b'room. It had a huge barn down by the well, and we practiced up in the loft. Pulled our gear up there with ropes, and played away. We had a big party on July 4th, 1972 or '73... not sure. There was a huge black kettle out back, and we dug it out and built a fire under it. Somebody brought over seven 30-gallon garbage bags full of mushrooms, and we put them, 2 kegs of beer, and 30 lbs of shrimp into this GIANT kettle and cooked it for awhile.

Several hundred people bought tickets, and it started to drizzle about 10 a.m., which was nice 'cause it was 95 in the shade. Well, it got muddy down there around the barn, and everybody ate shrimp, and things got a little spirited during the afternoon. We were persuaded to turn up, and the cops came, and some stupid pulled one of the shotguns out of a cop car and threw it into the field, and it got funky.

They came down to the barn--about 15 cops--and made us quit playing, which was a good idea, 'cause one of us had already walked off the deck through the hay-hole and broken a leg. The people at the party, though, freaked out and stampeded out into the woods, hiding reefer, pills, hashish, LSD, speed, etc., anywhere they could: under stumps, rocks, in hollow trees... anywhere.

I can appreciate their concern -

- So, finally, the cops left, and these people--muddy, tripping, drunk, went stumbling back into the woods (for several weeks we had people walking around those woods, mumbling to themselves and looking depressed) looking for their stashes, and hardly anybody found it. We were still finding an occasional baggie six months later.

I also can commiserate with their losses - because I am getting dizzy, too.

I moved to Orange Beach, AL, for a single gig after that band broke up, and played at the Gulf Gate Lodge for almost a year. You could pull a 60-foot cruiser right up to the restaurant, and they'd cook your catch right then. Halfway through that gig, I was in Mobile one day in a music store, and this kid was just WAILIN' on an old Epiphone guitar. I asked him if he was in a band, and he said he'd been playin' and lookin' for a band to join. Said he didn't even have a guitar. So I asked him if he liked the Epiphone, and he said YEAH, and I bought it for him, told him he had a gig, went and picked up his stuff and drove him over to Gulf Shores to start playin' with me. He stayed with me about six months. That kid was Luther Wamble, called Turtle, and he later played lead for Gatemouth Brown for about ten years. Got hooked on heroin, I think, but beat it. He teaches guitar down in Mobile now. Played classic scream blues guitar... one of the best I've ever heard.

Acts of kindness are often followed by virtuous behavior - yes?

So the gig played out after nine months, and I got drunk on Cold Duck (along with everybody else) and ended up goin' to work for a commercial charter captain as a first mate. Went marlin fishin' for nine months. Scared the hell outta me! Fun, but damn!

I'm braced for a fish story, if need be -

Big fish, big hooks, big bait. Did you know that a 300 lb marlin will literally jump into the boat if you get his bill pointed in the right direction? Anyway, by 1974, I moved back to MS and got a contract with David Johnson at Broadway. We recorded some of the first pop/crossover music doing that aborted album project. I messed up, David messed up, and we went our separate ways. 'Nuff said. I put The Doo-Dah Band together during this time and played funky music in redneck bars, and discovered the same thing that my friends in Skynyrd knew: rednecks LOVE powerful music: Sly, Aretha, Little Richard, etc. Musicians included Mike Walker on guitar and Guy Higgenbotham on sax & flute.

When I called Mike up to do the gig, he told me that he didn't know any of those songs--he was a heavy metal/speed player--but I didn't care. I let him play lead all night. Combined with Guy (now with Little Richard), we did so much lead work that we only played about four songs per set. Lotsa long killer leads. That kind of crossover was really what I wanted to do, but David wanted to do a country/Pop/R&B crossover album, so I was stuck with the contract. After he and I parted ways, I took the single to Richmond, VA, and found a backer; we released "Leavin' It Up To You" B/W "For The Love Of A Girl" and we got a ton of airplay right away, and in 3 weeks we had Cashbox's "Pick-Of-The-Week."

Our pictures were on teen mags, TV, concerts playing single, etc. We finally put a band together in Richmond, rehearsed it out on Chesapeake Bay in a big old house for two months, and went to play our first gig. It was a front for (David) Lowell George's new band, and Little Feat played their last gig the night before in D.C. All we had to do was show up, don't screw up, and we had 90 days as front band on the tour. As we were driving to the gig, we heard over the radio that DLG had died after the D.C. gig (of heart failure). The drummer and guitarist quit, the record died without promotion, and in about four weeks I was broke and homeless. Amazing.

Sooooo... late in '79, I moved back home to MS, then went to Memphis and played up there for four years, 'till '82, then moved to South Bend, IN.

I started working a lot on my keys along this time--very early into the sequencing thing. I had a Prophet 600 30 days after they came out, and their 8-Track plug-in for a Commodore C-64. I hooked that up with the MCI 2" machine, a Drumulator, and a 6 MIDI synths, and everything changed. I started exploring the MIDI world. It gave me the opportunity to do pre-production that sounded great. I did a bunch of bed tracks for Computer Creations, the inventors of digital video-cell animation, and met some cool people who are all in LA now making car payments higher than my monthly budget. Ahhhhh--the rewards of musicianship.

I became a businessman/musician, and was a recording engineer, and songwriter for many famous artists as sideman/producer/arranger. I released several singles in 1977, and toured, playing concerts, in '77 &'78. A great opportunity opened in 1979: I owned & operated Howler Recording Studios, located in Memphis and South Bend, IN, until 1987. From 1983-1986, I was an Instructor of Journalism; Newspaper Design and Layout, Notre Dame University, Notre Dame, IN.

There's something off-scheme with the image of you at Notre Dame, but -

It just jumped into my lap. Seemed like the thing to do. Tell you what: those kids up there at ND are some of the smartest I've ever been around. Really institutional, though. From 1987-1994, I was a Field Representative for several large manufacturing companies in the photographic industry. My rep area was comprised of KY, TN, AL and MS. - successfully, too! I quadrupled client base in four years. I also was the editor at the North Shelby Sun-Times, Memphis, TN, in 1995. A major change came in 1996: I started On Course Publishing Co. which provides publishing yardage guides for upscale golf courses around the South. Still doing some of that business.

Any man who plays music and golf can't be all bad -

Yeah...ask all those guys in Nashville...they're all hooked on golf. I also played in Moody's Goose (they fronted the Allman Bros on the "Eat A Peach Tour") for a while with old friends Mike and Don Walker. I moved to St. Pete in '94 to join "Second Helping," the definitive Skynyrd copy band, playing keys. In '95, I went back to Memphis, where I started On Course, designing yardage guides for golf courses. I still do a little of that.

How did you link up (again) with the gang (Ray, John W., etc.)?

I got back in touch with Johnny Wyker via Cherrie Holden in Memphis in the fall of 1999. Hadn't talked to him in 25 years, but we were back scheming like it was yesterday, wonderin' how the two of us could generate some music. I told Trish that sooner or later John would try to get me involved in some cockamamie deal, and when he did, for her to take me by the ears and say "NO, NO, NO!!!", and he did, and she did, but I did it anyway 'cause who can resist JW at his most persuasive?

So, he told me about the Mighty Field Of Vision Digital Tribe, and how Eddie (Hinton) had died, and how he was tryin' to make the MFoV into a benefit foundation to help ailing musicians, and that they needed an anthem. Well.... next thing I knew, I was on the E-list, getting' reacquainted with old friends and makin' new friends. Had a time of black depression right about that time, and some of the people on the list made it real clear that they considered it important that I stay alive and contribute to the music, and it triggered something in me. Got up early one mornin', really down, and got a message from Big Kahuna (Kevin Plemmons) sayin' "keep your chin up" and next thing I knew, the MFoV Anthem was just rollin' out of me. 30 minutes and I had the song. An hour later I had a demo done and emailed it to the list, and response was astounding!

So...we tried to set up a session in Memphis, where Trish and I were living, but it all fell through, and Billy Teichmiller, in partners with Ray Brand in MillKids Studio, offered their facility in Huntsville to the MFoV Tribe for the session, and we cut the anthem, along with Baby Ruth, on March 14, 2000. I had worked with Ray many years ago in Slaughter Road when his partner, the great Freddie King, was injured. I took Freddie's place for a little while and really had a blast. Billy and Ray invited me to come down to H'ville and go in partners with them, and MillKids/Howler Studio is the result. We worked for a year and finished "Mighty Field Vision" in April of this year. We named the band Howler, and plan to do as many albums as possible over the next 10 years. John Huber is the other guitarist in the band, and Owen Brown came in with us on bass to complete the album.

We've been astounded by the response to the album, and seem to get airplay wherever we send it. Now it's just a matter of picking up stations one-at-a-time and getting the gigs going. Eventually we would like to take the MFoV on the road with Howler and do benefits around the world, creating a fund to assist musicians in getting health care. We're all tired of seeing friends die because basic insurance is so tough to get. With the help of physicians who donate time and hospitals that donate facilities, it is possible to do this. We'll see.

Proving that there is a silver lining - so, aside from the musical Tales of Ulysses and his voyages - or maybe that's Gulliver's Travels - what else can you do - besides tell some great stories?

My areas of special expertise: Music Production and Recording (all aspects, including analog tape and current hard drive based technology, as well as all instruments); Photography (experienced in large/small format film systems and digital cameras); Printing (from multi-unit 2550 DPI commercial printing to desktop printers such as HP, Lexmark, Epson, etc); Software (experienced in Freehand, Photoshop, Illustrator, FileMaker Pro, MS Word, MPEG conversion software of all types, InDesign, Final Cut Pro, iMovie, various HTML editors, Digital Performer, Cubase, various MIDI composers). I also help out with The Crawlers in a pinch - that's Ray Brand and the guys. Check 'em out!

Is it true that you had your hand amputated and surgically reattached--and at the time of the accident, you were on the threshhold of being one of the hottest guitarists to emerge from the South?

I don't really know about being one of the hottest. You have to remember that I worked with some of the greatest guitarists in the world over a 10 year period, so I have a very humble perception of my guitar playing. But yeah, I cut it off, and they put it back on, and it works OK, but not the same at all. Yes. That was the end of serious guitar playing for about 10 years. I switched to keys--what the heck.

It was in 1986, in South Bend, IN--accident in the bathroom. A shower stall broke and got me. I was so very extremely lucky, because micro-laser-surgery was a brand new thing, and a "wrist-repair-specialist/plastic surgeon" had just moved to SB (he was one of the first certified in the U.S.) and he did the work. I was bedridden for three months with no feeling in my fingers for a long time, and even now it's very weird. I sold all my guitars, sold the studio, divorced my rabid wife, and moved back home to MS. I had a serious drinking problem for the first time in my life when (before and after too) it all happened, and had to work out of that. It took about 6-7 years, but I'm OK now... I can dwink jush fine, thannnkew.

That's why I took up slide. I used to joke, "Since I can't feel anything with these fingers, I ought to just shellac one and play slide with it."

Let loose a volley of thought about slide: technique preferred, tools used, influences, favorite recordings (and why).

I use an open E mostly, but sometimes just a tuned-down E string for a D-type tuning. Sometimes I'll tune the whole thing down to open D, or capo up to get a nice open sound. I use a large glass on my 2nd finger.

My influences: Duane, J.J. Cale, lots of the old guys, and a number of great slide players who played in some of my bands: Ronnie Brown, Mike Walker, Luther Wamble. Fav recording are mostly Staples Singers (almost anything), the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, E. Clapton's stuff, especially lately (and Cream).

What were/are your thoughts/impressions on being around the southern music scene? Anyone that vividly stood/stands out in your mind as someone whom you knew would be a star (and did so/will do so)?

The South was full of great bands in the 70s. W.C. Doan, Wolf, Doo-Dah, Wayne Chaney and the Links, Buddy Causey, The Commodores. Then you had the bands that were going superstar. Well...Luther was so good at so young an age, and of course, he's famous among blues players now, and played lead for "Gatemouth" Brown for 10 years. We all knew Wayne Perkins would do something, but didn't know what. Being around the Muscle Shoals Rhythm section was nice, because they were making hits, and they had an attitude of surety and competence about recording. Skynyrd was fun because they were so innocent... just played like they felt, and they were so DIFFERENT... I was really astounded when they broke out, though...mostly surprised that anyone had taken a chance on such a radical sound.

Alabama. Give her a few fine syllables of praise: what should we know about her lifestyles and philosophies that are overlooked by folks who haven't been there?

Surprisingly enough, growing up in rural AL in the '50s & '60s made me very aware that the stereotype of "dumb niggers" was a bunch of hooey. The Baileys lived right up the road from us, a black family, and they had horses, for cryin out loud. We had an apple farm, so we took apples up for the horses, and they let us ride them. They were good kids, and Mrs. Bailey made a killer pie, so I didn't see blacks like a lot of people say we viewed them. Of course, there were bigots among us then, just as now, but we knew them for what they were.

Alabama is nice, because you can get into a big city quickly (B'ham, H'ville, Montgomery, Mobile) but drive 30 minutes from any of them and be in deep woods. (There are) mountains in the north with the Tennessee Valley, white beaches in the south at Mobile, and tons of rivers, streams, and woodland in between. It's a great place for a kid to grow up if you want to be in touch with nature, but it can be a little tough, so you never want to mess with AL boys, 'cause they run deep.

With that, how about southern-based films--"Cool Hand Luke," for example. How do you like them?

One of my favorite movies as a kid. Usually, though, somebody is making up a "southern" accent and it sounds affected.

Fourth-and-goal: Guitar players in particular--some of the unsung, unrecognized stars who need their stories told?

(1) Billy McClelland, one of the best anywhere. Lives in south Georgia, still playing, and I hope he finally gets somewhere.

(2) Mike Walker, in WhiteHorse, Doo-Dah Band, Moody's Goose. Played so fast it got blurred, but he would be PLAYING all that time, not just speeding along--sort of a Leslie West type, but with an eastern flair. He's been selling his own recordings for years over in Central Europe.

(3) Luther, of course. What a feel for the blues.

(4) Ray Brand, whom I'm finally playing with after all these years. Such a dedicated player.

(5) John Huber, his stable-mate in The Crawlers. Absolutely stunning guitarist.

There are tons more, but these five are some with whom I've played.

I take back everything I said about that Three Dog Night lyric - Momma would be proud. You sure took some highways, high roads, and high falls, but you've done well, old son. Thank you, Stephen - just let me know when the movie rights are signed.

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