ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Michael Fleming had a knack for being in the right place at the right time.
Barely out of his teens, Fleming was the drummer for a local band called the Bounty Hunters, which hit the equivalent of the musical lottery in 1968 when they became the opening act at the Pit for British power trio Cream, featuring a guitarist named Eric Clapton.
Three years later, Fleming had set up his drum kit for a promotional event in the Roach Ranch West, a university-area head shop, when legendary blues guitarist Bo Diddley, who lived in New Mexico at the time, walked in and asked the store owner if he knew of a drummer who could play a local gig with him. The store owner pointed to Fleming, who finessed an impromptu solo on the skins.
Diddley hired him on the spot, and Fleming and the blues master became fast friends.
“It was Bo Diddley who pushed Michael to believe in himself and make drumming a full-time career,” resulting in Fleming’s being selected years later to accompany Diddley on a 1979 European tour, said Aura Alzate, whose mother was Fleming’s girlfriend, and they all shared a home for 12 years.
Alzate, 38, regarded Fleming as a surrogate father, and he referred to her as his “No. 1 daughter,” she said.
“He was very spiritual and philosophical and opened my mind to other views of the world,” she said. “He gave me advice and guidance and really was my biggest cheerleader. He used to tell me, ‘Don’t sweat the small stuff, kid.'”
Fleming, 70, who had been dealing with health problems for a number of years, was found dead in his Albuquerque home in early March. The cause of death was not known, Alzate said.
“He started to get neuropathy on the bottom of his feet and couldn’t feel the pedals of his drums,” Alzate said. “It really prevented him from being able to play. The drums were his life, his true source of happiness. They were him, and he lived for drumming.”
Michael Sena, 46, also regarded Fleming as a father figure. “He and my mom started dating when I was about 3 or 4 years old and were together until I was 8, but he stayed involved with me my whole life,” Sena said. “I talked to him every couple of weeks, if not every week. He was one of my best friends. He didn’t have any children of his own, but he referred to me as his No. 1 son.”
Fleming, he said, had traveled and had seen the world. “He was very intelligent, and he would put things into perspective for you and make you understand that there are multiple sides and different views to most issues, and he encouraged me to form my own opinions. He would talk to you like a person. Even when I was 6 or 7, he talked to me like an adult.”
Albuquerque singer Joanie Cere knew Fleming for 40 years. In addition to the Bounty Hunters, Fleming played in Lemon, and was a bandmate with Cere in Saturday Night Special, the original Cadillac Bob, and Cadillac Bob and the Rhinestones.
“He was honest, kind, generous and funny,” Cere said. “He never had much money, but he’d give you the shirt off his back.”
Fleming was born in Denver and was adopted as a young child. He grew up in Albuquerque and attended Highland High School and then the University of New Mexico. There, he took classes in theater and broadcasting – something that became useful later when he appeared in local theater productions and when he hosted a public access TV show called “Musician,” in which he highlighted local talent.
In the 1970s, Fleming ran away with the circus – literally – after becoming involved with a woman who was an aerial acrobat and gymnast with Big John Strong’s Circus Sideshow out of California. “He played drums in the circus band, but he helped out with everything, including setting up and tearing down tents,” Cere said.
But despite his many romantic entanglements, the real love of his life was drumming, Cere said.
“He was a great drummer, an exciting drummer, and he was a melodic drummer. The way he chose to embellish his playing was just very lyrical,” she said.
In addition to Alzate and Sena, Fleming is survived by his sister, Sharon Sandoval, and an uncle and aunt, Pete and Mary Brooks, as well as a multitude of friends, fans and fellow musicians.