By Erin Sherbert
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On Jan. 13, 1968, a black-clothed man stepped in front of a crowd of inmates, sang "I took a shot of cocaine and shot my woman down," and launched his career skyward with the album Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison.
On Sept. 10, 1970, a smiling, rotund guitarist lit into a hurried version of "Every Day I Have the Blues," enraptured more than 2,000 inmates for an hour, and helped propel a blues revival with his album B.B. King Live in Cook County Jail.
On Feb. 20, 2008, Robert "Bobby Badfingers" Von Merta was put in a San Francisco holding cell following a family dispute. One of the cellmates recognized him as the world's fastest finger-snapper, a former opener for the Beach Boys, and a familiar face to television viewers in Belgium, Great Britain, and here in the states.
"I did a couple of songs for them: 'Now or Never,' 'That's All Right Mama,' 'Blue Suede Shoes,'" Badfingers says. "Pretty soon, everybody was singing along. They were loving it."
A guard recognized him. "He had me to a show for all the sheriffs. I said, 'Cool.' ... and did a show for them," Badfingers recalls. The guards, like the prisoners, swayed and danced to his lightning-fast rhythmic snapping.
But, unlike King and Cash, Badfingers' two jailhouse concerts weren't the beginning of a good thing. Instead, they became part of a six-day ordeal in which Badfingers says he was wrongly jailed, chained for hours to a cement bench, and denied food and permission to urinate. When he became ill, he was denied medical treatment, and even a law enforcement officer came to tell him he'd been erroneously detained, he was still held for days.
"Somewhere along the line, this lieutenant who threw him into a disciplinary cell said, 'I'll get that fucking finger-snapper.' It's a horror story," says San Francisco attorney Matt Witteman, who is representing Badfingers in a $1 million federal lawsuit alleging human rights violations by city officials.
San Francisco City Attorney spokesman Matt Dorsey wouldn't comment on the case, other than to say that the city last year denied Badfingers' administrative claim of $1,260,440.
However, Badfingers' tale raises the question: Did San Francisco law enforcement hold onto the world's greatest snapper because they didn't want to see the music die?
"It was a big snap-fu," Badfingers says. "Some of those sheriffs up there, they need to be bitch-snapped."
Badfingers' demand may be a bit steep. Instead, how about a solution where everybody benefits? Let him perform a real San Francisco jailhouse concert, King and Cash style. Allow him to keep the proceeds from Bobby Badfingers Live at San Francisco Jail to compensate him for his tribulations.
And leave San Francisco jailbirds snapping their hours away.
To obtain full appreciation for why San Francisco law enforcement might have become so enraptured by Bobby Badfingers' impromptu jail performances that they might have held him too long, it's useful to look at a fuzzy video of a 1987 episode of Late Night with David Letterman. A Tom Selleck look-alike in tight black pants and an unbuttoned black shirt walks onto the stage, slips on a pair of wraparound Ray-Ban 2027s, and launches into a side-to-side disco strut while a backup band plays the Surfaris' 1962 hit, "Wipe Out."
A few seconds into what at first seems like a state-fair-oldies-band warmup, all hell breaks loose. Badfingers lifts his hands to the microphone and begins snapping his fingers so fast his hands disappear into a blur. He re-creates Ron Wilson's blazing drum solo with nothing but finger-snaps, creating a novelty performance so astounding it's hard not to replay it dozens of times.
In 2000, Badfingers gave up a career as an RV distributor to snap full time. He has appeared several times on The Howard Stern Show, Live with Regis and Kelly, The View, and the Jerry Lewis national telethon. He starred in a commercial for Yahoo!, and was a featured attraction on Supertalent, the Belgian version of America's Got Talent. He has produced instruction CDs, a kids' show pilot, and a cartoon.
He was still engaged in his years-long sprint to become the next big thing when he came to San Francisco 13 months ago to check in on his mother, who lives in a house he owns. Badfingers says she was being taken advantage of by other family members, who had moved in along with a pit bull. A yelling match ensued with a 19-year-old nephew, who called the police.
"The police show up, and I point to him to show them where he's at," Badfingers recalls. "They look at him, and he points back at me, they hang a U-turn, come back down, and say, 'Put your hands up. You're under arrest.' I say, 'For what?' They say, 'Shut up.'"
Badfingers was handcuffed at the Taraval police station and then transported to the jail at 850 Bryant where he was put in a holding cell with 20 other men. He was charged with making terrorist threats, and assault with a deadly weapon. "There were no weapons involved, or anything like that whatsoever," he says. "They wouldn't even tell me what the charges were when they arrested me. I didn't even find out until they booked me in after five or six hours on a cement couch."