Friday, January 20, 2017

The Testimony of Robbie Robertson

An exceptional read often winds its way through one’s life. Such is the case for Robbie Robertson’s memoir – Testimony.
Brooklyn, New York bassist Stu Woods and I roomed together on the road from 1968 - 1969. "Road," being those weeklong jaunts up and down the Atlantic coast; others -upstate New York - Poughkeepsie, the Catskills – even Tony Mart’s Showplace in Atlantic City. We played non-stop soul music for dance crowds. Monday to Wednesday, the house was usually good. Come Thursday to Saturday, there were lineups down the block.
Stu and I loved listening to music. I mean... every breathing moment we were spinning discs on my portable Hi-Fi - one of those $40 traveling companions you detached two speakers, spread them apart and assumed you were hearing in stereo. Not a chance! Volume was minimal as was bottom end. Who cared? It was always about the LPs that traveled with us. Packed in a carry-with-you bag, a few jazz sides – Miles Davis Kind of Blue – some Jimi Hendrix – a couple soul sides and the prize: The Band, Music From The Big Pink – summer 1968.

Woods and I replayed and replayed the LP, nearly scrubbing the grooves away. Big Pink was light years beyond the psychedelic yarns spun by San Francisco bands or the Long Island jams of guitarist Leslie West and Mountain. This was roots music with a different vibe.

Robertson’s autobiography, Testimony, sat nearby weeks before I cracked it open. A good book talks back at you, if you keep ignoring it. Christmas Day, it practically screamed, “Stop for a minute, put down that fucking iPad and read me!” That was it – me, Robbie Robertson, the recliner and a whining dog at my side.

Where to begin?
I believe this is the first time I’ve got a historical sense of the true soul of Toronto’s music scene. Robertson spells it out through the first hundred pages. You hear and visualize Robertson’s memories of growing up around an oddball assortment of characters... his first guitar and searching out mentor musicians. The early days with his own band, The Rhythm Chords, with local entrepreneur and bassist Pete Traynor... the mean streets of Toronto...the neighborhoods... the small-time criminals... a tight-knit family, are all there. Then the big break with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. The pace then quickens and rolls.

Robertson paints with words. Testimony isn’t a dry read – “back to back facts and figures” and self-absorbed trope: It’s the story of us; our city and the young players who ventured beyond, but never strayed too far.

Robertson’s take on Hawkins is priceless. More than a few of us were Hawks at one time and can attest to the posse of crazies, starry-eyed girls and the sheer laziness of the big chief. You didn’t just play in a band, you were part of a traveling circus. At times, a big musical jolt; at others, a night at “Caligula’s retreat,” as Ronnie would call it.
The early days with the Hawks, Scott “Magoo” Cushnie played piano. Robertson and the “encyclopedic” Cushnie became solid companions. Scott and gang (guitarist Bob Yeoman, bassist Rick Birkett, and drummer Frank DeFelice) would form their own fan-band - Jericho - back in 1970. We lived as a commune in an eight-room apartment complex above a grocery street on Hallam Street. A good eight hours by day were reserved for a complete runthrough of the Band catalogue. “The Night the Drove Old Dixie Down,” still reverberates the back of my skull as if Jericho was on a band break.

Robertson’s departure with the Hawks and bond with Bob Dylan is worth the price of admission. These chapters detail a friendship – a learning forum for anyone close by. Dylan gone electric and the details of those painful nights on stage absorbing insults, demeaning as they were, cleared a path for Robertson, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko into the next life. It’s a wonder any of these players would seriously take to the big stage again.
Big Pink – Woodstock, New York – the basement recording studio; hours and hours at the typewriter writing lyrics and experimenting with sound. Garth Hudson fiddling with his souped-up Lowrey organ; Dylan drop ins - more lyrics – words and melodies coming fast and furious. “I Shall Be Released," "Chest Fever” with Hudson’s Bach-like organ intro; “The Weight," "Tears of Rage," "To Kingdom Come," "This Wheel’s On Fire.”
It's rare for a group of musicians to rent a space, isolate themselves and get busy. Distractions are always close by. We tried it with the first Canadian band I was part of, Homestead. We moved to a farm owned by Bobby Orr in Newcastle, Ontario. It was four months of hell and few moments in the music room. Robertson and crew stayed focused, passionate and kept a rigorous writing schedule.
It was playwright Neil Simon’s memoirs that most impacted me on the way a good writer seeks discipline. Simon set a time – early morning to noon or so, then walked away. Robertson and cast booked early afternoon until nightfall and kept with the schedule and Dylan in the mix. Work gets done.
The beauty of this read? There are no greasy salacious details. People smoke pot, others have serious drinking issues and flirtations with heroin. Unlike the miserable Greg Allman book (My Cross to Bear) – Robertson keeps the narrative running as if in real time; absent long nights of debauchery. Spare us all.

Greenwich Village of the '60s - Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick and Allen Ginsberg - they inhabit Robertson’s world. The record deal – negotiations, manager Albert Grossman, producer John Simon, the Hit Factory with Jerry Raganov, the Beatles, the Stones. A world of new music became home for a Scarborough boy whose mother Rose Marie Chrysler was a Mohawk raised on Six Nations Reserve south-west of Toronto. He then later discovers his biological father, David Klegerman, was Jewish and a professional gambler. Those chapters read like the epic film, Once Upon a Time in America starring Robert De Niro, James Woods, Joe Pesci. The friendships, strong family bonds, hooligans, and petty crime. There had to be a song or two in there.

Robertson and the Hawks held down a steady gig at Tony Marts – Showplace of the World in Atlantic City. This was one huge nightclub with three bandstands and thousands of teens. Stu Woods, me and the Brooklyn band played during the last days of October 1968 as the cold winds off the Atlantic were blowing in. As we were hauling equipment, Marts pulls us aside and reads the riot act. “You’re on an hour, off an hour, don’t be late or you’re gone. I expect class and no grass. And lastly, see the girl over there? Hands off, she’s my daughter and she’s a teenager.” I turn around and witness this young woman carrying more weight than Marts himself, and respond. “No problem.” Marts looks at me with a scolding eye. “Hands off!”
Stu Woods and I along with drummer Roy Markowitz auditioned for the Janis Joplin gig at the old Atlantic Studios owned by Herb Abramson. Albert Grossman was present. Roy and I got in and Stu found a home with Grossman and company playing bass on Dylan’s Self-Portrait, then Don McLean’s American Pie, the Pozo Seco singers, Tony Orlando and Dawn’s Tie a Yellow Ribbon, Janis Ian, Jim Croce, Bette Midler, Todd Rundgren and on. Not bad!

As with Robertson’s Testimony, I thoroughly enjoyed Levon Helm’s at-times bitter read – This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band from 2000. Together, we get a complete view inside of the hearts and minds of one of the great bands of this past century. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

A Conversation with composer/arranger/musician Chelsea McBride

How extraordinary to celebrate a 25th birthday with a concert/CD release of original music of one’s own invention with a 19-piece big band? That occurred last night in Toronto at Lula Lounge for saxophonist/composer/arranger Chelsea McBride’s latest undertaking - The Twilight Fall.

Vancouver’s McBride is a member of an expanding women’s movement that is enriching the Toronto jazz scene. It’s been a long, challenging history for women instrumentalists in a music once governed by patronizing, chauvinistic men. Inclusivity is a result of hard-fought victories dating back decades when saxophonist Jane Fair and bassist Rosemary Galloway fronted their own bands. The late 1980’s and the ascension of bandleader/saxophonist Jane Bunnett began the dismantling of barriers and the break with the “ boys only club”. The lineage of women bandleaders locally is impossible to dismiss: Dr. Kira Payne, Carol Welsman, Colleen Allen, Laila Biali, Brandi Disterheft, Tara Davidson, Elizabeth Shepherd, and, most recently, Alison Young, Rebecca Hennessy, Naomi Higgins, McBride and others.

Thursday past, McBride dropped by CIUT 89.5 fm (The Bill King Show) and we settled in for an hour-long chat.

Bill King: Chelsea, you are working a series of bands – the Socialist Night School, a big band jazz unit – fusion pop band, Chelsea McBride and the Cityscape – The Achromatics, a Latin/soul music nonet – a video game cover band called Koopa Troop and not to long a go you were a graduate of the Humber Bachelor of Music Program. What gives?

Chelsea McBride: Chelsea and the Cityscape is a pop band formed first with a couple classmates. I was looking for a place to play my tunes and I didn’t know what I was going to do at the time. So I called people I trusted and brought them together and said, 'here are songs that don’t make much sense, but they’d be fun to play.' I started the big band after I ran out of school-sanctioned opportunities to workshop my big band writing. Something else I was trying to get into – so I just started my own. The Achromatics is the brainchild of Jay Vasquez, who is a guitarist and vocalist I play with a lot. It’s very much a collective project and the theme of that band is diversity and mixing cultural influences. We come from very different musical backgrounds. The Koopa Troop is the idea of the guitarist in the band, Wilson McLeish. We all dress up as video game characters and play your favourite tunes from classic video games and current video games. Anything nerdy is fair game.

B.K: You are having too much fun. I discovered you from the TD Discovery Series Special Projects initiative. Created by Toronto Downtown Jazz, this encourages the creation, development and presentation of special projects by jazz musicians in the City of Toronto. I was impressed with your writing for big band. Where does this come from?

C.M: I’ve been songwriting a long time and been around music all of my life. I was like nine or 10 and thought I’d try writing. At that time, it was whatever a 10-year-old‘s attempt at writing a pop song is. Not particularly sophisticated or exciting, but that’s what got me into it.

When I was in high school playing saxophone a few years and starting to double instruments, I was getting into “honor bands” - new territory for me. I played in a high school “jazz intensive” at the Vancouver Jazz Festival for three years. I thought about saxophonist Eli Bennett, who is very good - he played in the band for three years - and I thought maybe I should try out. I got in, but, by far, I was the weakest person. I then knew I had to practice and practice.

Playing in that setting allowed me to take what I was working on with songwriting and start writing for large ensemble. I think it was Grade 11 or 12 when I started writing for big band. I was then picked for the national honor band in Grade 12 and I remember flying across the country for my first meeting with Terry Promane (associate professor and jazz coordinator at the University of Toronto) and he explained what was expected and the plan. When he got to the end of his talk, he asked if we had any questions and I said, 'well, I’ve brought this chart in for big band, can we try it?' He did let me try it and it was fine and I decided then I was going to write for big band.

I workshopped some charts with the B-band at Humber under faculty member Mark Promane and he was awesome. Second year, my big band director wasn’t as enthusiastic. It was a huge shame. The entire point of being at school is to learn. I mean if the chart is so terrible and not worth a read, I get that. I got the runaround and it was not fun. I couldn’t get it played in class so I started my own band.

I called 18 people and said, 'let's all get in a room together.' I wanted to hear how it sounded. I wasn’t the only one – you could count them on one hand. It was me and my charts. It’s mostly been that over the history of the Socialist Night School big band. It’s open for others to bring in music too.

B.K: Are there arrangers you draw inspiration from?

C.M: I’ve played so much big band music throughout the later years. At 16 and not playing much big band, it was an interesting place to start. I played a lot of classic Count Basie, Sammy Nestico arrangements. I remember playing a lot of Duke Ellington charts in high school because of the Jazz at Lincoln Centre program. I remember them being really demanding. The clarinet parts of Ellington’s “Diminuendo in Blue,” which is super virtuosic and in a high register, I couldn’t play most of the notes at that age. Being assigned that music and told to play was a great way to get good fast.

I was also getting introduced to composers/arrangers Maria Schneider and Daniel Jamieson, who I ended up studying with and working for. We played music from the Jazz Institute in Chicago, then run by Nicole Mitchell when I was in it. I discovered arrangers Bob Brookmeyer and Vancouver’s Darcy James Argue, who became somewhere between influence and hero for me.

B.K: How did you read his charts? They are so complex.

C.M: His charts are so impeccable. He’s so focused on the copy side of it. Just because it’s clear and easy to read doesn’t make it any easier to play. My band will say this about my charts as well. It looks hard on paper but easier to play.

B.K: The concept of your new big band album, The Twilight Fall?

C.M: It’s about this odyssey – the life cycle of you. It’s the story of your life – the dreamland you may inhabit the rest of your life. It started as commuter dreams. What happens when you fall asleep on a long train ride. This is you re-experiencing everything you’ve lived.

B.K: What about the recording process?

C.M: When we were in mixing and recording, I found myself conducting myself – trying to remember all of the cues – the parts – the long score. I must have a visual association to this music. I must see what the measures look like as they pass.

B.K: Your dad was in radio
C.M: He’s been in the business, I think, 30 years. He was on the radio when I was very young. He was morning man at z95.3 in Vancouver. Matthew McBride.

I grew up listening to the music he played on radio. A lot of  '70s and '80s pop music. I remember being quite young and Dad went in to do a blindfold test of five-seconds-a-song and you had to guess what it was and he knew all of them. I thought to myself, of course, my Dad knows everything. He was the kind of guy who would break new artists on the radio. It’s a unique upbringing, for sure. One you don’t realize until you pause and look back.

B.K: What’s his thoughts on your music?

C.M: He says I’m responsible for getting him into jazz. I came into the music through the singers; listening to Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Then it was the saxophonists – Coltrane – Charlie Parker – Lester Young; because I listened to the Basie band.
My parents are super supportive and enthusiastic about the whole thing. They’ve been following me through this journey.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Me and Mrs. Mirvish

For 12 years, I rented a one-room, third-floor flat facing Markham Street across from The Green Iguana Glassworks and my buddy Darrell Dorsk in Mirvish Village. The room served as home office for the Jazz Report magazine - published by myself and Huntsville, Ontario high school teacher Greg Sutherland. Greg and I hung in 19 years and wisely retreated when advertising dollars began to dwindle.

During those 12 years, Markham Street rarely bustled with activity. It was a fading shell of good intentions. The main attraction was the cut-rate price for the Sunday edition of the New York Times that brought activity every Sunday to David Mirvish Books – next door to my hideaway. Cars rolled in and out – families gathered, then dispersed.

Each August, the Mirvish family threw a street party. The top of Markham street was roped off and a stage was rolled out. Stars from various Mirvish-supported musicals would sing and dance while Ed and wife Anne sat patiently under unrelenting heat. Cookies and pink weiners were served along with a few rides for the kiddies. Ex-mayor David Miller designated August 12 as “Ed Mirvish Day."
Early years, it was Italian restaurant Carlo and Adelina’s Place that drew the most attention.  When in town on a film shoot, actors John Travolta and Robert De Niro could be seen coming and going. Slathered with the most sumptuous garlic cream sauce, my partner Kristine and I often dined on the veal and chicken. Lunch time, I’d order a takeout veal sandwich and vinegary salad and listen to three recurring versions of “Time to Say Goodbye” while chef Vince and Adelina Nicolucci assembled my prize. Sadly, Adelina never fully recovered from the death of beloved Carlo.
Suspect Video, attached to Honest Ed’swas my go-to film library. From directors Ingmar Bergman to Aleksandar Zarkhi, I rifled through foreign films – each with a small story to tell. Coated in black, the room was a sweltering claustrophobic hull during summer visits. I’d often choke on noxious cigarette smoke and chuckle at all the glam-boy toys and alien figurines behind plexiglass. Yet, it was a cinephile’s pleasure palace.

Darrell Dorsk played the best jump blues sounds. The Green Iguana Glassworks had been in play for over 30 years. Open the front door and a bell sounded and alerted Darrell of your arrival. Through stacks of bike parts, old frames, past soldering irons, sheets of glass, memorabilia or the funniest quotes about Richard Nixon, Darrell would come flying down the stairwell and quickly engage in conversation. It was always an epic performance.
As  years pass and both Kristine and I nurture a growing passion for photography, David Mirvish Books began to play a central role in our education. Mirvish had the most eclectic books: Essays on photography, picture books and “how-to.” Mirvish also carried the Jazz Report. In fact, I always got a chill seeing our magazine racked at Coles, Book City, Mirvish, even at Pearson airport on newsstands.

Eventually, photography won out over jazz storage space and we became a photographic studio. This is where I captured portraits of Jeff Healey, Kirk MacDonald, Emile-Claire Barlow with Eliana Cuevas and Dione Taylor, Archie Alleyne, Doug Riley, Phil Nimmons, Shakura S’Aida, and hundreds more.
Once Adelina called it quits, Butler’s Pantry moved in. We were thrilled to have a new restaurant in the area, one saxophonist (the late) Dr. Kira Payne and I had been frequenting, on lower Roncesvalles.  From time-to-time, Kira would pick me up and we’d spend an afternoon talking literature, music and art, while feasting on the jambalaya.
During the big changeover, a music guy and architect Mike Clifton and pal Barush Zone moved below The Green Iguana and opened a used CD shop. Another place to hang and socialize.
Let’s get to Mrs. Mirvish. Evidently, Markham Village was a gift from Ed to wife Anne. Anne was a grand supporter of the arts and yearned to create an artist colony in Toronto. This very unique and quaint street was preserved and shared with artists of all stripes. My building housed painters, a seamstress and downstairs -  The Art Zone, specializing in stained glass, operated by jazz saxophonist John Johnson’s wife Kathryn Irwin and her sister, Jane. The building became one big family.
Rents! This is what sent my head spinning. My flat ran $150 a month – front window space main level; $400 a month. Entire floors, $1,500 monthly. There was basic electricity, but each renter was responsible for their own hydro line and paid according to usage.
It was mid-summer and Butler’s Pantry had been open a short time. Kristine and I would take the window booth to the left; Ed and Anne, the middle booth. There were days I’d walk in and Ed would be sitting alone and he’d ask, “Have you seen Anne?” I’d vow to look out for her.
Ed had no idea who I was. There were times Anne would be situated waiting for Ed and I’d walk through the front door and she’d ask, “Have you seen Ed? I’m to meet him here.” I’d keep an eye out. The ritual was so damn sweet!
One afternoon, I heard a cry for help and noticed a woman had stumbled and collapsed in front of Butler’s Pantry. I quickly hustled across the street and was met by Mike Clifton. Mike helped her up as I pulled a chair onto the sidewalk. The woman was in severe pain and I didn’t recognize who she was.
The next hour was spent in conversation – the history of the street and artists who had come and gone. She then introduces herself – “I’m Anne Mirvish, and you?” I point to an upstairs window across the street and tell her I rent from the family. She then gives me a history lesson about the building and asks, did I know her son David? I explain my fascination with the bookstore and what we did as a magazine and truly appreciated the rented space. She then says, “You must visit me at the pink building front-end on Markham near Bloor.”
A couple days pass and the telephone rings, “Bill, is that you? It’s Anne – could you meet me at David’s store? You were so very kind staying with me. I want to talk to you.” We arrange a time.
I show as scheduled and before me stands Anne. “Bill, I’m painting a portrait of Lincoln Alexander. When I get farther ahead, I want you to come by my studio.” At this moment, I’m hers. “I’m just going to run downstairs for a minute and when I get back, we’ll talk some more.”
I hang around the front desk, skim through a few art books and no Anne. Then an attendant says, “you might as well go about your day, she won’t be back.” What? “Once she goes to the basement she starts sorting through carboard boxes and rearranging. This could take hours.”
True to habit, that’s what occurred. How could one not embrace and savor?
I ran into Anne on several other visits to Butler’s Pantry. Each time she’d introduce me as the nice man who helped her recover from the fall. Ed was always gracious, then asks what I did. I tell him I’m a musician and my photo appears on a post in the women’s shoe-wear section courtesy of Gino Empry, when I played the jazz club Lites with Pat LaBarbera. “It’s an honor to be part of the great names that cover the walls of your store,” I say. Empry notified me first floor was reserved for the Barrymores, Angela Lansbury and the biggies and how fortunate for me to make it to women’s shoes. I asked Gino – “what if they think I have a foot fetish?” He didn’t get it.
Honestly, I was never as taken with Honest Ed’s as I was attracted to Mirvish Village and I will cry boulder-size tears if the street is leveled and replaced with spiritless condos. Honest Ed’s? Fine with me. But please, please keep Anne’s dream in play!
Anne Mirvish passed away September 20, 2013.

The Golden Age of Doo-Wop and the Last Knights of Song

Those first train rides to Brooklyn were salvation compared to those creep-zones linking Hollywood and Vine and along Sunset Boulevard. Brooklyn was all about families –Jews and the Italians. Hollywood –predators and chicken-hawks.

I loved the noise, the hugs and being called “Billy”. I also loved the respect bestowed on musicians in New York of the 60s. Coming from a large family with Italian roots, I understood the calming sensation of being surrounded by loving women on my mother’s side- pots of steaming pasta, shelves filled with cakes and pies, ham so salty you’d have to pause and cleanse the palate to savor the next plate. Nobody spoke in time - everyone interjected to a broken beat. Conversation was a boxing match; the victor – the last word.

Traveling coast to coast across America, I logged some serious mileage. Not that of a rock star gobbling pavement to the next gig, but just a guy making his way from point a to point b, c, and d.  I never felt a bond with the west other than scenery. Cacti are a lovely sight from a distance but a thousand of miles of prickly needles extending as far as the distant horizon could never compete with four-stories of aging brick tenements - the sound of street traffic and haggling vendors. This was when I felt most alive.

Backside a cash register on 8th Avenue in lower Manhattan was a musician advert – “looking for a Hammond B-3 player – plenty of R&B work up and down the Atlantic coast – call Vic.” Each week I’d drop in the record center and sort through new titles. On one such occasion I’m thumbing through the jazz section and pull out a side with vibraphonist Gary Burton and a guy standing next to me says, “don’t buy that one, this one’s better, Lofty Fake Anagram, he says.” He then introduces himself as Al Kooper and goes on telling me which Gary Burton sides impress him. At least he had an opinion!

With only a weekend gig playing solo piano at Louie Jordan’s downstairs next to the Bitter End CafĂ© to occasionally rely on, I dialed the number from the cash register. The next year or so was a baptism in East coast rhythm & blue; Italy, American style - big humor and doo-wop. Up and down the coast, crazy gigs, a weeklong, sometimes two, back of a van.

This flashback comes courtesy of a Facebook video post by Johnny Scupelliti (Johnny Doo Wop from the Reactions). Johnny sings with my old Brooklyn bandmate – Vic Bonnadonna – stage name, Vic Donna. Vic was a local teen sensation following on the heels of Frankie Avalon and other boy-toys of the era. Good looks, wavy hair, big smile and easy-going. Vic was signed by Atlas Records and paired with popular Harlem doo-wop group the Parakeets and went on to record two sides with the group as Vic Donna and the Parakeets.

These days those singles are a collector’s find; the big score. When Vic and I hooked up he’d finished his days with the Compliments, another doo-wop unit.

That video I’m talking about has 133,000 plus Facebook views, 2465 shares and is from December 2015 at the Brooklyn Doo-Wop Club. Men now in their mid-seventies gather and sing their old hits, those of a generation who hung out on street corners and harmonized acapella.

Doo-wop is a music born on the street corners in African-American communities of New York City, Detroit, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles in the 1940s. Big popularity arrived in the 1950s and early 1960. The first recording to use the words “doo-wop” was in the 1955 hit, “When You Dance” by the Turbans. Late fifties, the Italians got on board and became significant partners in the rise of the music’s popularity. There have been various revivals over the decades but as I write, only a small pocket of engaged folks still follow the singers and music. Vic, Johnny and crew move from place to place and set up monthly doo-wop celebrations and still sing with great skill and passion. I found Vic’s telephone number and here’s his story.

Bill King: What is the Brooklyn Doo-Wop Club all about?

Vic Donna: It’s not there anymore but there’s another one in New Jersey where I live. It’s a club where all the guys who used to hang out and sing on the street corners in the 50s - anybody who may have recorded with one of the doo-wop groups of the time like myself, even those who came out of the woodwork and wanted to be a singer. We go to different corners. Some even go into rest rooms for the echo like we did when we were teenagers. There’s a place here now that’s a restaurant everybody goes to with a disc jockey, sound-system and open mike; kind of a thing if you have a group and anything that has to do with the fifties. They remember me from the two records I made back in 1957 with the Parakeets. It’s my claim to fame over there. I didn’t even know about this until I moved back from Las Vegas. Out west there was nothing, but here, people still loved the sound. There were a couple groups working in Vegas and I was in one. Our group was put into the Las Vegas Museum of Music Hall of Fame.

Bill: The Parakeets?

Vic: You used to make fun of the name.

Bill: I would still do that! That was the thing at the time – the “bird groups’ The Swallows, The Ravens, The Orioles, The Penguins, The Crows, The Flamingos, The Blue Jays and The Larks – the others were drawn from cars.

Vic: They sang like birds. It was on the Atlas label - a small label from Harlem. It was an all black label and I was the only white guy on the label.

When I came back people would walk up to me and ask, “are you the Vic Donna who made those records in the 50s?” Somebody had spread the word. Not long after, people started asking me to be in groups. I worked for a while then formed the new edition of the Vic Donna group. In Brooklyn, there was an old record shop called Rhythm Records that sold rare antique records from the 50s. All of the guys who sang that music or were familiar with that music used to hang out there. They’d even hang around and sing in the shop. That’s how that Brooklyn Club got started. The record shop closed and we had nowhere else to go. A friend of mine got a hold of this place in the marina which had a bar, the one you see in video, and they let us use the place once a month to go and sing. Eventually, that closed to so now we do it in New Jersey.

There are a lot of on-line radio stations keeping the music alive. There are shows still coming from campus stations like Rutgers. Once a week they have an hour or two of doo-wop music. I’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately. From my background and what I know and the quality of my group, we are now one of the best-surviving groups around and have built a nice following.

Bill: Brooklyn of your youth?

V.D: It’s pretty much like it’s portrayed in movies. On the street where I lived there were a couple recording groups that had hit records in the 50s. They were my mentors. One time we did the Ted Steele Show. He had a show much like American Bandstand, but it was just local New York. Once every day he’d have a different group of kids from various schools and let them dance to their music. Sometimes you’d cut out of school. The kids arranging all of this told him about our group and put us on the show. It was the first time he had a live group on the show. From that performance, I got a call from someone associated with Atlas Records wanting me, not the group. They were looking for another Frankie Avalon. I talked to the group and explained and at first I, didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to leave the group. The guys in group said, “Vic, are you crazy? This is a big shot for you. Go ahead and do it.” The Parakeets were from Newark, New Jersey and already had two records out. They were supposed to be my back-up group. The record should say, “with Vic Donna, backed by the Parakeets”. Instead, it said Vic Donna and the Parakeets. When it started being played on the air, that’s how the DJs attributed and when the gigs started coming in – that’s what they wanted.

B.K: Who were some of the other doo-wop groups in your neighborhood?

V.D: Cirino and the Bowties – they were in the early Allan Freed rock & roll movies and he toured them. Teddy Randazzo and the Three Chuckles – The Caribbeans and a lot of other groups who never made records, just on the corner.

I put out a CD in 2009 by myself. I didn’t have a group then and did all the voices myself.

Hanging around with record collectors I’ve learned one thing. They have heard everything that has been made during the '50s and are constantly looking for things they’ve never heard before. I said to them I have a lot of songs we sang on the street corners that never made it to the studio – stuff by the Parakeets and the Fi-Tones. So, I put them on an album and put it out there and made my money back, plus some. I didn’t even know how to market it. I just put them in a couple oldie record stores. When I got the Vic Donna group together we did an album too. We didn’t lose or make money.

Hard Times Come Again No More

“Let us pause in life's pleasures and count its many tears,
While we all sup sorrow with the poor;
There's a song that will linger forever in our ears;
Oh! Hard times come again no more.”
“'Tis the song, the sigh of the weary,
Hard Times, hard times, come again no more
Many days you have lingered around my cabin door;
Oh! Hard times come again no more.”

Stephen Foster – 1854.

Coming January 20, 2017, life on planet earth gets a rude awakening. Donald Trump assumes the presidency. Now, this can go a few ways. Trump will either stand with democrat Bernie Sanders – who, like Trump, continually campaigns for fair trade and better wages - or he’ll dismantle all protections, abandon campaign promises and further accelerate the decimation of middle-class workers' wages and benefits. On the nation’s table are so many bone-chilling challenges, we are certain to find ourselves back in “protest-song land,” once again. By that I mean, songs that actually say something: songs that motivate and carry great emotional weight. The next “We Shall Overcome?”

As I look through each Trump cabinet pick, I see a protest song. Everyone could have their names stamped in infamy, depending on their actions or inaction. All of them are conflicted in one way or another.

You could argue that rap and hip-hop music have long been protesting and speaking loud and clear on issues such as racism and social injustice. And those words and the power of those words are heard and felt in that large community. The issue being, much like pop music, words must cross over and reach a broader, sympathetic audience. The chart-toppers aren’t viewed as conscience movers. You can’t impact the world in a positive manner sporting pounds of meretricious jewelry and exiguous Victoria Secret seduction-wear.

The generation that bore Bob Dylan and Joan Baez and Pete Seeger arrived with dust on their boots. These song spokespeople dressed much like the faces in a crowd. You didn’t sing Dylan – you recited the message...however reluctant the preacher may have been.

Truly, the table is set for some great pushback material. Late night comics have been winning at this game. Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Bill Maher and Trevor Noah are making “people’s theatre” out of daily political mishaps. Musicians, for the most part, haven’t caught the big wave.

Perhaps, Meryl Streep’s Golden Globe Awards subtle takedown of “the Donald” was the foot in the door. I sense an impolite greeting for all politicians who think they can willfully manipulate and exacerbate either the left or right. Every word, every motivation, even body temperatures, are being monitored. Not from some foreign entity scanning our brainwaves, but us, clawing away at ourselves.

My generation was saddled with emotional withdrawal from World War II; later a Korean War and then the protracted threat of being stuffed in a winless, unconscionable war in Vietnam. It was the swing-era bands and crooners that consoled my parents through the long, painful ordeal. I can’t really think of a song from the Korean War that held court. Vietnam – now we’re rolling!

Here’s five rock/funk songs that are classics from the Vietnam era with staying power: Barry McGuire – “Eve of Destruction,” 1965; Donovan – “Universal Soldier,” 1965; Buffalo Springfield – “For What It’s Worth,” 1967; Edwin Starr - “War,” 1969 and Crosby, Stills & Nash – “Ohio,” 1970.

Today’s urban country music has lost footing, buried under whiskey and truck anthems... few reflective of real life. Early on, the songs spoke of extreme poverty and miserable wages. Many were migrant workers. My dad was part of that wandering delegation of young men who traveled to Utah to fight forest fires in the '30s; this after losing the family tobacco farm down in southern Kentucky to bankers. The songs he most remembered were those that spoke of homelessness, near starvation and survival with a bit of Pentecostal exuberance mixed in.

Country music has given us some great contemporary protest pieces. Merle Haggard's – “Fightin’ Side of Me,” 1994; Kris Kristofferson’s – “The Eagle & the Bear,” 2004; Steve Earle’s – “Mississippi, It’s Time,” 2015; Ronnie Dunn's – “Cost of Livin’,” 2011 and John Rich – “Shutting Detroit Down,”, 2009: all live up to their billing.

Classical music has a voice in this too: women’s rights, censorship, social justice – orchestrated and delivered: Ethel Smyth - “March of the Women”, 1910; Sibelius- “Finlandia;” Krzystof Penderecki – “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima,” 1960; Arnold Schoenberg – "A Survivor from Warsaw,” 1947 and Frederic Rzewski – “The People United Will Never Be Defeated,” 1975.

As I’m writing this, my partner is reading aloud postings of sheer frustration and anger across the Internet. Richard Nixon was the fuse-lighter of my generation; Donald Trump may very well be the acetylene torch of our times. Stephen Foster – please!

“While we seek mirth and beauty and music light and gay,
There are frail forms fainting at the door;
Though their voices are silent, their pleading looks will say
Oh! Hard times come again no more.”

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Allen Toussaint – American Tunes

On the day of Muhammad Ali’s passing I find myself rolling song to song through a respectful tribute (American Tunes) from New Orleans composer/producer and pianist Allen Toussaint who died November 2015 while on tour in Spain and reflecting on what it was like to live and breathe music and sport during the early sixties.
Ali’s rise to the top of boxing’s heavyweight ranks was a fountainhead of news – every word - poetic proclamation; prediction and knock-out were a source of black pride and white angst. It was push back time – a decade of social upheaval, civil rights activism and much like 2016 summer main event; Clinton/ Sanders vs. Trump – sanity vs. evil.

Underlining the sixties march for civil rights - the voting rights act - desegregation was the accompanying soundtrack – that Philly sound, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and further south, New Orleans.

New Orleans holds particular significance being the land where contemporary music was birthed. Where jazz, blues, funk & soul found common ground and flourished in a city accustomed to turning a blind eye to graft and pleasures of the flesh.

Composer Louis Moreau’s Gottschalk’s destination of Havana and Brazil in mid 1800’s laid the groundwork for the syncopated marriage between African rhythms, European traditions and Latin American influence. It’s heard in everyday music – from the street to the ballroom.

American Tunes is a penetrating view inside the artist and not to be misunderstood as a tour de force of piano brilliance. It’s about the music and musicians that shaped Toussaint’s long productive life as a writer and producer and sideman.

Toussaint was the Ellington of New Orleans. Quiet mannerisms, a statesman like communicator, sharp dressed man and big shiny limousine - a bow and a nod all rewards for decades of commitment to the Crescent City and those finely crafted hit songs.

“Fortune Teller, Get Out Of My Life Woman, Southern Nights, I Like It Like That, Yes We Can Can, Holy Crow, Mother In Law, Working In A Coal Mine, What A Success, Play Something For Me, On My Way Down” – recorded by Lee Dorsey, Devo, Bonnie Raitt, Three Dog Night, Robert Palmer, Little Feat – even a Grammy for Robert Plant and Alison Krauss in 2007 for Raising Sand’s “Fortune Teller,” just a short list of songs that made it into the mainstream of radio play life.

The bar for piano players in New Orleans stands so high you’d need a crane to reach the summit. From the downbeat there was Jelly Roll Morton whose shadow is still wide and long – Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Dr. John, Henry Butler, Toussaint himself, Harry Connick Jr., Ellis Marsalis, David Torkanowsky and the king – James Booker.

Where Toussaint places among the fleet of hands is that of assimilating all the traditions and bringing them to song. What’s been heard on piano is there in melody and harmony - the words an extension of the times and a pastoral portrait of the streets, neighborhoods, night life and surrounding Louisiana landscape. Toussaint plays it straight on American Tunes with few moments of exposition – mostly flowery embellishment over invention.

American Tunes is also a collection of originals and songs of interest – music that shaped Toussaint’s life. Fats Waller’s “Viper’s Rag”, Doc Daugherty’s “ Confession (That I Love You), Professor Longhair’s “Mardi Gras in New Orleans”, Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom”, Bill Evan’s “Waltz for Debby”, Earl King’s “Big Chief”, Duke Ellington’s “Rocks in My Bed”, Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “ Danza op.33” and many others.

American Tunes is slated for release June 10, 2016 – produced by Joe Henry and found on the Nonesuch label distributed by Warner Music Canada.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

A Conversation With ... Jadea Kelly

Songwriting more and more is about revealing something of the author. Gone are the times when writers pointed a finger at another and masked the source. Taylor Swift goes for the throat. Beyonce gives the cruelty of infidelity both a visual going over and aural take down. Singer/songwriter Jadea Kelly pulls no punches in her latest, Love & Lust. Love hurts; break-ups happen. How to express that in poetic terms is the challenge.
I caught up with Jadea early week and posed a few questions:

Bill King: I first learned about you from the time you served with publicist Richard Flohil. Hardly a day went by he wasn’t singing your praises. What did you gain from the experience?
Jadea Kelly: I remember meeting Flohil when I was a business meeting. He didn't know that I sang or played til very late into working together ha ha. When we met he asked 'do you type?'  I laughed 'of course I type'....and I started working as his assistant the next week. Working for Flohil introduced me to sooooo many musicians and artists.

B.K: He’s serious about getting things right.
J.K: Flohil definitely has an amazing ear. For him, music needs to move two of the three following things. Feet, heart and your groin.

B.K: I noticed a video of yours online and your body is covered in words. What was that statement?
J.K: Our lyric video for 'Make It Easy' was directed by Gaelle Legrand. Because the song is about desire - and being ashamed of your desire - I wanted to physically lie in a bed and have the lyrics present on my skin. It conveys what the song means on an entirely more personal level.

B.K: There are so many ways to approach songwriting. Do you have a practiced method?
 J.K: For me I co-write a lot. I also record vocal hooks and lyrics into my phone. Many of my songs remain as complete nonsensical mumbling until the final recording day

B.K: On Love & Lust you narrow the song list down to 65 from demos. How did you arrive at these?
J.K: My producers Tom Juhas & Stew Crookes really helped me centre in on the song choices. We wanted the album to have a cohesive story...and we obviously chose the most memorable and heart-felt tunes.

B.K: Stream of conscious writing can at times be more effective than pen to paper – sometimes you have to let the brain empty without interference.
J.K: It's true. I think it's important to not forcibly write in order to confront certain emotions.

B.K: Break-up records can be most revealing and upsetting. Was this about a real relationship?
J.K: Yes it was. 

B.K: Iris DeMent is among the names Emmylou Harris and Patsy Cline you list as heartbreak singer/songwriters. Iris DeMent is little known yet she has the big teardrop in the voice – a standalone artist who cuts deep. Have you seen her play live and do you own any of her music?
J.K:  Yes. I have seen Iris DeMent and Emmylou perform live. Absolutely breathtaking each time. Their voices are so delicate and vulnerable.

B.K: When you are internalizing and trying to express issues of sorrow/loss and pain do you try to give equal weight to both melody and words?
J.K: For sure. The melody and lyrics are one in the same region. I try to challenge myself with both. Inventing unique and odd melody lines are my game. I also want lyrics that surprise people and are surprisingly honest.

B.K: That Nashville writing experience. What have you gained from this and who are you writing with?
J.K: Nashville songwriting feels like the big leagues. It's professional and in constant motion. I have learnt a lot from my time there...especially with song structure and song clarity. 

B.K: Have you been able to place songs with other recording artists?
J.K: Not yet!

B.K: Album release date?
J.K: June 3, 2016

B.K: It’s a wild-west show with recordings these days. How do you see this release playing out? Are you a slow burn advocate or a strike quickly?
J.K: I'd like to burn slowly....and create a career with longevity. That’s my hope.

B.K: What’s the tour schedule looking like?
J.K: Summer touring then we're headed out on tour with Sweet Alibi in the fall....across Canada to a number of theatres....and into the United States for Americana Fest.