Monday, January 19, 2015

6 Year Anniversary Blog with Freda Payne

All Photos:  Alan Mercer                   Assistant: Psymon Imagery

Though best known for her 1970 R&B crossover smash hit 'Band of Gold,' Freda Payne has always first and foremost been a jazz singer, dating back to The Jimmy Wilkins Big Band at age 14. Her debut album, 'After The Lights Go Down Low And Much More!!!' was arranged by Manny Albam, while a more pop-oriented follow-up entitled 'How Do You Say I Don’t Love You Anymore' was helmed by saxophonist/arranger Benny Golson. Freda performed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem alongside Billy Eckstine backed by Quincy Jones and His Orchestra, comedian Redd Foxx and the dance team Coles & Atkins. She also graced the stage with Duke Ellington for two nights in Pittsburgh, after which he composed “Blue Piano” just for her. Freda Payne’s training and experience render her a rare vocal artist who is stylistically beyond category.

As iconic in 2015 for her timeless beauty and stage appeal as she is for her artistic versatility, Freda Payne remains among music’s and show business’ brightest shining star survivors. Her latest album, ‘Come Back To Me Love’ and her first for the Artistry Music imprint, marks not only a return to the big band and strings-laden classics from her mid-`60s beginnings with Impulse! but also marks a return to her hometown of Detroit.

“It’s a dream come true,” Freda enthuses with a smile, “Just like in 1968 when I was living in New York seeking my fame and fortune, and ran into Brian Holland of Holland-Dozier-Holland. He told me they had just left Motown and started their own company, Invictus. I flew back to Detroit, signed with them and a year later had a Top 5 record, ‘Band of Gold.’ So releasing this album on Mack Avenue’s Artistry Music imprint is truly serendipitous—a flashback to something really good happening for me at home in Detroit, my good luck charm.” Berry did write those three songs for me.  However, they were never released.

In 2011 she was asked to record with Sir Cliff Richards when he did an all soul CD recorded mostly in Memphis, Tn. This all came about through her association with entrepreneur,  David Gest. She was then booked to tour with Cliff Richards in his SOULICOUS  TOUR in the UK playing all arena’s. Freda’s latest recording  is now on the Artistry Music label for Mack Ave. records.  It is titled  ‘COME BACK TO ME LOVE.’  It’s her first CD in twelve years.  This is probably one of her best recordings to date. This CD takes Freda back to her original jazz roots with big bands , Strings, and small trio.  All this goes in concert with her starring in the musical play ELLA FITZGERALD FIRST LADY OF SONG, which got her a rave review in the Washington Post in 2014.  She is currently performing  in countries such as New Zealand, Australia, and the UK.

Asked if much has changed since those first 1963 jazz recordings, she marvels, “In `63 I was nervous as hell—uptight and pushing too hard to be perfect. This time I felt like I was in heaven. I was in Capitol Records’ Studio A [another company she recorded for in the mid-`70s] with 40 musicians, singing over impeccable arrangements. I was much more relaxed and secure within myself.

AM:  How are you Freda?

FP:  I’m fine.  I’m just dealing with life.

AM:  Did you have a good New Years?

FP:  I had a wonderful New Years.  I didn’t work on that night but I did a sold-out  engagement on December 23 at Vibratto in Beverly Hills.   Have you been there?

AM:  Yes, it’s so beautiful.

FP:  It’s a lovely restaurant/club.  Everybody loved it.  Berry Gordy and Billy Dee Williams came and loved it. 

AM:  I’m sure you performed songs off your latest album.

FP:  Yes that album has been out and it has sold really good. 

AM:  I sure hope you are able to record another album for the same label.

FP:  I’m crossing my fingers and hoping they want me to do another one since this one was so well received.

AM:  It’s the most high profile recording you’ve done in a long time.

FP:  You’re right.  I haven’t had a major record deal since the 80’s when I recorded a song called ‘In Motion.’ 

AM:  Wasn’t Leon Sylvers involved in some way?

FP:  Leon’s brother Edmond Sylvers produced the song.  I ended up getting into a little squabble with the label because they wanted Leon to produce the whole album.  Here’s where I learned a lesson.  I was doing like that song, ‘Stand By Your Man’ because Edmond was my boyfriend at the time.  The label wanted Leon to produce the whole thing and Edmond wasn’t happy about it.  I stood by Edmond and the label said they were done.  That’s what happened.  So I learned my lesson about standing by my man.  If it’s not in my best interest I’m not standing! (Laughter)

AM:  Do you have some dates booked for 2015 yet?

FP:  Yes I’m coming back to Texas in a town called Teague about 100 miles outside Dallas. 

AM:  What are you doing there?

FP:  I’m doing a Gospel Musical called ‘Crowns.’  It was written by the actress Regina Taylor.  It’s been around for about 10 or 15 years.  It’s about these Black church women who wear their hats.  All the songs are Gospel tunes. 

AM:  Is this your first time performing in a Gospel play?

FP:  Yes, but it’s not staged.  We will be standing there with our hats on, reading the dialogue off the music stands.  We are performing the show three nights on January 29, 30 and 31.  I’ll be home on February 1.

AM:  Did you enjoy performing in the play in Dallas a couple months ago?

FP:  I enjoyed it a lot.  I had to work hard because I needed to learn a lot of lines and it was a staged play.  You saw it.  Did I do OK?

AM:  You did great!  Any live performance piece is lucky to have you be a part of it. 

FP:  Thanks, I’m glad I got to sing one of the songs from my new CD.  Then I’m doing the Portland Jazz Festival in February.

AM:  Do you think you will be doing jazz festivals now?

FP:  I want to do jazz festivals.  In May I’m going back to the Dirty Dog in Grove Point, Michigan.  That’s where my record company is located. 

AM:  I saw this great video of you performing in Detroit.

FP:  Yes, that was August 30 at the Detroit Jazz Festival.  The band was the Jazz Men of Note from the Air Force.  The band was spot on. 

AM:  You are an A List performer Freda!

FP:  Well…my dear…I’d like to believe that after all these years I am.  (laughter)

AM:  You won’t have time for any plays.

FP:  The thing with plays is you have to donate so much time learning everything.

AM:  Do you receive the same creative fulfillment from doing a play as you do a concert?

FP:  No because I feel like it’s not my thing and I feel that my singing sells me more.  I also like performing on my own.  I hope that doesn’t sound narcissistic.

AM:  No it makes sense.  You are always gracious and generous with people.

FP:  Well that’s how I want to be.  People who are more narcissistic seem to make it bigger faster but they pay for that karma in the later years. 

To learn more about Freda Payne visit her web site

Monday, January 5, 2015

Sterling Day and the Gift of Knowing

All Photos:  Alan Mercer            Lighting:  Eric V.

Sterling Day is an empath, clairvoyant, and clairaudient. She can offer truth and insight to whatever life may be dealing you. Where ever you are in the journey of yourself, as well as your life....She will give you her undivided attention.

It is important to have truth when making choices in life, no matter how big or small they may be. It is also vital to go into a reading with an open heart, and the willingness to hear the truth. Sterling is simply a messenger here to help. She can tell you that whatever the situation you may be facing, there is always an answer. And more importantly, there is always hope.

By working with the names and vibrations of your voice, she will tap into your energy and deliver messages and answers to all that you may question. Sterling is a contributing author and writer for OM Times Magazine.  She has been helping clients worldwide for 9 years with no tools, and time frames are her strong point.  Helping clients see into the future, and learn and heal from their past is her specialty.

I met with Sterling in her home for these photographs and our conversation.  Even though it was the first time we met, she felt like a dear, old friend.  

AM:  When did you discover you had this gift Sterling?

SD:  I’ve always known.  In 1979 when I was five years old we took my grandfather to the airport.  He was in the oil business so he was always traveling.  I didn’t want him to go because I had a premonition something was going to happen to a plane and it did but it wasn’t his plane.  It was that famous hostage situation at the time.  My mom asked me how I knew about it. 

AM:  Did you stay tuned in after that?

SD:  No I got away from it but it always followed me around.  I just wanted to be a normal kid and be in sports, but I was always able to pick up on other people’s feelings.  

AM:  Were you a popular kid?

SD:  I was always well liked because I was able to relate and empathize with a lot of people.

AM:  When did you get serious about it?

SD: I was twenty seven when it really hit me in the face.  The more I tried to avoid it and run away from it, the worse my life became. 

AM:  Were you afraid of it?

SD: No, but it was a responsibility I didn’t want.  The older and more mature you get, the more responsibility you must take on. 

AM:  Did you start giving readings to friends first?

SD:  Yes I was always giving readings to friends on the side.  I just didn’t feel comfortable due to my family and their acceptance of me being this way. 

AM:  Was your family afraid of this?

SD:  No, my mother was into metaphysics, but I made many bad choices in my twenties and I lost credibility with my family for a while.  They didn’t take me seriously at first. 

AM:  What made you pursue this as a full time vocation?

SD:  In 2008 when the economy went bad my friends suggested that I do it and I didn’t know what else to do so I started doing it.

AM:  What was the first step?

SD:  I aligned myself with a very reputable web site and within six weeks my life changed. 

AM:  Did you have to prove yourself?

SD:  I aligned myself with Shay Parker, who is very reputable.  I did have to be tested and certified for her.  Then I started writing some magazine articles called ‘Recreating You’ because I had to recreate myself at that time.  The cool thing about what I do is that not only am I able to foresee things in the future.  It is much more than that.

AM:  What is it really about then?

SD:  It’s about giving people their power back by letting them know there are choices.  There is truth and truth is power.  No matter what the situation is, as long as you can see it for what it is, you can make the right decisions.

AM:  What do you say to the non-believers?

SD:  We are all born with intuition.  Jesus was a prophet.  We all have the gift of knowing.  If I was 100% accurate and knew all the answers I’d be playing power ball and living in Fiji, but we’re not supposed to know everything.

AM:  What is the best thing about what you do?

SD:  I can help people recognize the truth about what is going on in their lives.  The great thing about what we do is you realize that life is always about choices and you have the ability to create the life you want.  Everything is based on the choices you make. 

AM:   Do people want to know the same things all the time?

SD: Yes, most people have the exact same questions.  They want to know about love and money.  I think now, more than ever, people want to know about themselves. 

AM:  Why is that?

SD: Because we are in an age where we are being forced to look and know ourselves really well because other people are looking at us through social media now.

AM:  It seems your gift is more for others than for yourself.

SD:  Yes, most psychics agree that it is more difficult to read yourself than a total stranger.  We can’t see the forest for the trees in our own lives. 

AM:  Is there anything worth being afraid of?

SD:  The greatest thing to be afraid of is limiting yourself and cutting yourself short. 

AM:  What is the best thing about what you do?

SD: The coolest aspect is when you help others learn about themselves you learn about yourself too.  So as much as I may have helped someone I have been able to learn from them as well. 

To learn more about Sterling Day visit her web site

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Joy To The World

Joy to the world! The Lord is come
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare Him room

And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven, and heaven and nature sing

Joy to the world! the Savior reigns
Let men their songs employ
While fields and floods
Rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy
Repeat the sounding joy
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy

No more let sins and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make
His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found
Far as the curse is found
Far as, far as the curse is found

He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness
And wonders of His love
And wonders of His love
And wonders and wonders of His love

All Christmas Tree photos:  Alan Mercer

"Joy to the World" is one of the most popular Christmas songs in history. The words are by English hymn writer Isaac Watts, based on Psalm 98 in the Bible. The song was first published in 1719 in Watts' collection; The Psalms of David: Imitated in the language of the New Testament, and applied to the Christian state and worship.

 Watts wrote the words of "Joy to the World" as a hymn glorifying Christ's triumphant return at the end of the age, rather than a song celebrating His first coming. Only the second half of Watts' lyrics are still used today.

The music was adapted and arranged to Watts' lyrics by Lowell Mason in 1839 from an older melody which was then believed to have originated from Handel, not least because the theme of the refrain (And heaven and nature sing...) appears in the orchestra opening and accompaniment of the recitative Comfort ye from Handel's Messiah, and the first four notes match the beginning of the choruses Lift up your heads and Glory to God from the same oratorio. However, Handel did not compose the entire tune. The name "Antioch" is generally used for the tune.
As of the late 20th century, "Joy to the World" was the most-published Christmas hymn in North America.

The definition of JOY
The emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by possessing what one desires 

    the expression or exhibition of such emotion 
  a state of happiness or felicity  
  a source or cause of delight

Go beyond happiness, because, as we all know, happiness is fleeting and temporary.  Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of your life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and the determined choice to praise God in every situation.  

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Sarah Dash Feels Her Blessings

All Photos:  Alan Mercer            Lighting:  Eric V.

A founding member of the popular 1960’s female soul group Patti LaBelle & the Blue Belles, Sarah Dash continued to pursue a variety of outlets for her creative talents. In addition to recording four impressive solo albums, Sarah has sung on albums by the Marshall Tucker Band, Laura Nyro, and the Rolling Stones. In addition to recording with Keith Richards' X-Pensive Winos, she twice toured the United States with the all-star band.

The seventh of 13 children, Sarah was born in Trenton, NJ. Her father was Church of Christ father of the state of New Jersey and a bishop, while her mother was a nurse. Although she initially sang gospel music, Sarah turned to secular music as a pre-teen, when she formed a vocal duo, the Del Capris, with schoolmate Nona Hendryx. The two women were soon joined by Cindy Birdsong and Patricia "Patti LaBelle" Holte. Originally named the Blue Bells, the quartet changed their name to Patti LaBelle & the Blue Belles after discovering that the name the Blue Bells was already taken by another group.

Patti LaBelle & the Blue Belles were a success from the onset. Their debut single, "I Sold My Heart to the Junkman," was a hit, and the group was chosen to open shows during the Rolling Stones' first American tour. Although many believed that they were in danger of breaking up after Birdsong left to join the 'Supremes,' the three remaining members moved to England for a year and dramatically changed their image and musical approach. Returning to the United States as LaBelle, the three vocalists began performing in space-age costumes and featuring cutting-edge, sexually oriented, and politically charged tunes. Sarah's four-and-a-half-octave voice and her pension for silver bras, space-age skirts, and flowing feathers continued to draw attention. The revised edition of the group even surpassed the success of the original, with the Number One Pop hit single ‘Lady Marmalade.’  

Signed as a soloist by the Kirschner record label, Sarah Dash released her self-titled debut solo album, which featured the hit disco single, ‘Sinner Man,’ in 1978. Although she continued to record as a soloist, Sarah increasingly worked as a session vocalist. She appeared on the Marshall Tucker Band's 1981 album, ‘Tuckerized,’ and began a long involvement with Keith Richards when she appeared on his 1988 album, ‘Talk Is Cheap,’ singing two duets, ‘Make No Mistake’ and ‘Rock Awhile.’ She continued to work with Richards and his band, the X-Pensive Winos, singing on Richards' 1991 album ‘Live at the Hollywood Palladium’ and his 1992 album ‘Main Offender,’ for which she co-wrote the single ‘Body Works.’ Sarah also appeared on the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels.’

In 1983, Sarah released two dance singles for Megatone Records in San Francisco, both produced by Patrick Cowley. The first was ‘Low Down Dirty Rhythm’ and the second single ‘Lucky Tonight’ featuring background vocals by Sylvester, was very successful, even rising to the #5 spot on Billboard's Dance Chart, and was even a Billboard "Pick of the Week." Sarah was excited about her career again and went on an extensive tour of major U.S. dance clubs.  In 2008, the long-awaited new album from Labelle, ‘Back to Now,’ was released to rave reviews.  Sarah sings Lead vocals in the group's political song, 'System.'

Sarah released a ballad called ‘I'm Still Here’ in late 2011, and a dance music single ‘Hold On (He'll Be Right There),’ in May 2012. Sarah was honored by her hometown of Trenton, New Jersey, by being the grand marshal in the annual Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Much of Sarah Dash's focus since the early '90's has been on helping to raise money for homeless single women with children in New York.

AM:  Do you ever get tired of being interviewed Sarah?

SD:  No, I can talk forever.  I’ve done three hour interviews.

AM:  You have such a great story being part of an iconic, legendary musical group.

SD:  If we ever stop to think about how blessed we are…to have three career changes and people still know who you are.  We were Patti Labelle and the Blue Belles, where we recorded classic songs like ‘Danny Boy’’ and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’  Then we moved on to LaBelle and had that monstrous hit. 

AM:  That cemented you.

SD:  ‘Lady Marmalade’ did cement us.  That one song took care of us for many years.  Then we all have enjoyed solo careers over the years.  Patti has had the most success because she was the most prepared after the break up.  Nona and myself still got to record many songs.  I had the international hit ‘Sinner Man’ and had international fame before either Patti or Nona.   Patti was big in the States.  Of course touring with Keith Richards and the X-Pensive Winos and singing on the Rolling Stones ‘Steel Wheels’ gig didn’t hurt at all.  I’m not trying to brag.  These are my stats.

AM:  They are your accomplishments.  I bet you’ve been around the world a time or two.

SD:  Oh yes I’ve been to Japan, Australia, Spain, South America, the whole world.  I couldn’t have asked for a better place to be.  Then being able to record jingles was great.  Revlon fed me for a long time.  I just feel the blessings of this life tremendously.

AM:  You’re one of the few lucky ones and deservedly so.

SD:  It’s called being blessed.  Luck runs out. (laughter)

AM:  Sarah your albums are timeless.  I love to listen to your music.

SD:  Thank you, I think my first solo project solidified that.  ‘Sinner Man’ is still played in clubs.  (Album producer) Don Kirschner knew what he was doing.

AM:  The ‘Close Enough’ album is really good too!

SD:  That is my brother’s favorite of my albums too. 

AM:  I’m also loving your newer song ‘I’m Still Here.’

SD:  Thank you, I wrote that one.  I open my show with that song now.

AM:  Is your show a collection of your songs?

SD:  The ‘Sarah Dash: One Woman’ show is not all the songs I’ve recorded.   It’s more a piece about life and my musical journey on a personal level.  I also do my special arrangement of ‘I Only Have Eyes For You.’ I talk about going to Paris.  I went straight to Louis Vitton and bought a hunting bag!  (Laughing)  I thought it was a make-up bag and had room for hairspray but that was where the gun was supposed to go!  My agent told me I couldn’t keep it and I had to take it back.

AM:  You are enjoying social media aren’t you?  You are really good about posting on Facebook.

SD:  I’m good with all media.  Way back in the day before you could fax, you could send a telex.  My father got all his kids one so we could all keep in touch.  After that I was one of the first people into computers. 

AM:  Are you from a large family?

SD:  Thirteen children.  I’m number seven.  I’m the middle child.

AM:  Did you get forgotten?

SD:  No, my presence was very much known. (laughing)  There were a lot of different personalities in the family, much like the world, but we all support each other.  We are happy to be around each other but we know who we are.  There are no surprises as to what is going on.  We’re very respectful of each other.  We can fight amongst ourselves but you can’t come in and fight with us. 

AM:  Was that your parents who instilled this in all of you?

SD:  Of course, it all comes from parenting.  I would say my mother and father did a very good job raising us.  My father was a pastor and my mother was a nurse.  After she had her thirteenth child she decided she wanted to be a nurse.

AM:  You come from a family of over-achievers.

SD:  Yes, we are lawyers, doctors….

AM:  World class stars! (Laughing)

SD:  We’re like any other family.  We’re just aware of who we are and we are respectful.  You tend to move the way your family moves.  Some will go against the grain and all you can do is pray for them. 

AM:  You certainly can’t change a family member!

SD:  You cannot try to change someone in your family as they are not going to be changeable until they’ve made up their mind to be changed.  The prayer is to know the difference.  I thank God.  Some people are offended by that word, but we all have a higher power that we go to and we can name it and call it what we want.  That has been my sustaining power through the years.

AM:  I knew you had strong faith.  It’s never left you has it?

SD:  I always say, “I thank God for sustaining provision.”  All you have to do is sit still and believe it to see it.  Sometimes it’s not the proportion you want but you’re never without.  At the times you are without you have to have faith it will only be for a short time and not all time. 

To learn more about Sarah Dash visit her web site

Monday, November 10, 2014

Mel Tillis Makes People Happy

All Photos:  Alan Mercer   Lighting: Eric V.

Country music legend, Mel Tillis, started performing in the early ‘50’s with a group called The Westerners while serving as a baker in the United States Air Force, stationed in Okinawa. In 1956, Webb Pierce recorded a song written by Mel entitled “I’m Tired”, and it launched Mel’s musical career.

Mel’s stutter developed during his childhood, a result of a bout with malaria.  As a child, Mel learned the drums as well as guitar and at age 16, won a local talent show. He attended the University of Florida but dropped out and joined the Air Force.  While stationed in Okinawa, he formed a band called The Westerners, which played at local nightclubs.

After leaving the military in 1955, Mel returned to Florida where he worked a number of odd jobs, eventually finding employment with the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad in Tampa, Florida. He used his railroad pass to visit Nashville and eventually met and auditioned for Wesley Rose of famed Nashville publishing house Acuff-Rose Music.  Rose encouraged Tillis to return to Florida and continue honing his songwriting skills. Mel eventually moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and began writing songs full-time. Tillis wrote "I'm Tired," a No. 3 country hit for Webb Pierce in 1957. Other Tillis hits include "Honky Tonk Song" and "Tupelo County Jail." Ray Price and Brenda Lee also charted hits with Tillis's material around this time. In the late 1950s, after becoming a hit-making songwriter, he signed his own contract with Columbia Records. In 1958, he had his first Top 40 hit, "The Violet and a Rose," followed by the Top 25 hit "Sawmill."

In 1976, Mel Tillis was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters International Hall of Fame, and that same year, he was named Country Music Association’s (CMA) Entertainer of the Year.  Also, for six years in the 70’s, Mel Tillis won Comedian of the Year.

On September 21, 1999, Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) named Mel Tillis the Songwriter of the Decade for two decades.  Mel was the recipient of the Golden Voice Entertainer Award for 2001. He also won the 2001 Golden R.O.P.E. Songwriter Award.  The Grand Ole Opry inducted Mel Tillis as its newest member on June 9, 2007. In October of 2007, Mel Tillis became a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Mel Tillis' home state of Florida honored him on March 25, 2009, inducting him into the Florida Artist Hall of Fame.  In 2012 Mel received the National Medal of Arts from the President of the U.S.

Mel has written well over 1,000 songs, and approximately 600 have been recorded by major artists.  In June 2001, Mel received a Special Citation of Achievement from BMI for 3 Million broadcast performances of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town”. Songs which have reached this coveted status are in a very select group of world-wide favorites.

Mel has recorded more than 60 albums. He has had thirty-six Top Ten singles, with nine of them going to Number One - “Good Woman Blues,” “Coca Cola Cowboy,” and “Southern Rain” to mention a few.

Mel Tillis has been in the music/entertainment business now for 50 plus years. He and his band, the Statesiders, have worked concerts all over the 50 states, Canada, England, and other countries.  He has appeared on such television shows as 20/20, The Tonight Show, The 700 Club, Prime Time Country, 60 Minutes, Crook & Chase, David Letterman, and he has served as host for Music City News Awards and Music City Tonight.

Mel has appeared in numerous feature films including “Every Which Way But Loose” with Clint Eastwood, “W.W. & The Dixie Dancekings,” “Cannonball Run I and II,” “Smokey and the Bandit II with Burt Reynolds, and the lead role with Roy Clark in “Uphill All The Way.”  He has starred in several television movies as well including “Murder in Music City” and “A Country Christmas Carol.”

Mel Tillis has six children: songwriter Mel "Sonny" Tillis, Jr., singer-songwriter Pam Tillis, Carrie April Tillis, Connie Tillis, Cindy Tillis, and Hannah Tillis. Mel has one brother, Richard, and two sisters, Linda and Imogene. He also has six grandchildren.

AM:  Mel, my friend Larry Ferguson set us up.  He was Dottie Rambo’s manager.  I know you recorded a song with Dottie.  Did you ever hear it?

MT:  I sure did.  It wasn’t in my key but it came off alright.  I couldn’t believe we recorded that song and then she was killed in the bus accident.  What a tragedy.

AM:  Very sad indeed.  I hadn’t heard that song until recently myself but I sure do know all your other music!

MT: I’ve been around for a while.  I’m in the 58th year of my career. 

AM:  You’ve been a superstar all my life.  It must just be the most natural thing for you now.

MT:  Yeah, it’s pretty natural now but in the beginning it was pretty scary.

AM:  What made it so scary?

MT:  I was in unknown waters and I didn’t know what was going to happen.  Music and humor have been a part of my life, all my life!  It seems like everything I did led to music, humor and singing.  Back then I stuttered so bad and I still do a little bit.

AM:  Did you understand that you were different from others when you spoke?

MT:  My daddy stuttered a bit and my brother did too and I stuttered a lot.  I thought that was just the way we talked.  I didn’t know the difference.

AM:  When did you realize you stuttered?

MT:  When I started in elementary school in Florida, I came home the first day and asked my mama if I stuttered.  She said, “Yes, you do son.”  Then I said, “Mama they laughed at me.”  She told me if they were going to laugh at me then give them something to laugh about.  When I went back to school the next day, I consider that my first day in show business.  I learned how to make them laugh and they’ve been laughing ever since.   It’s not on a count of that stutter.  I don’t play off that.  If it’s there, it’s there.

AM:  It certainly never held you back.

MT:  I went to Hollywood and did all those variety shows.  I did them all.  They would write the stutter in the cue cards.  I told them not to do that because I may not stutter on that word.   It will happen where it’s supposed to.

AM:  You are a more natural person.

MT:  Yes I am.  All I know how to do is be me.  What you see is what you get. 

AM:  Did you enjoy making the movies you did?

MT:  Oh yeah, I’m not an actor but when I was a kid we did a lot of play acting. I was Gene Autry.  I always enjoyed playing pretend.

AM:  When did you know you could sing?

MT:  About the time I found out I couldn’t talk. (Laughter) I’ve been singing all my life starting in Sunday school class.  My first grade teacher Miss Clark found out I could sing and took me around to all the other classes and had me sing for them. 

AM:  When did you start writing songs?

MT:  I wrote a couple of songs while I was in Okinawa when I was in the Air Force.

AM:  How did you end up in the Air Force?

MT:  I finished high school and attended the University of Florida for a while.  Then I felt like I was going to get drafted, so I went home where my dad had a little bakery.  My dad told me, “Son, if you’re not going back to school then you’re going to have to work in the bakery shop.”  I told him, “Daddy, I don’t want to be a baker.”  He said he would pay me $20.00 a week and $10.00 of it will be room and board.  Then I told him up until about ten minutes ago room and board was free.  He told me it wouldn’t ever be free no more.  Then he told me to walk across the street and get the mail.  So I did that and there was an Air Force recruiter there with his table set up on the sidewalk.  He had his uniform on and it was sharp.  The Uncle Sam poster was there pointing at me, saying “We want you.”   I thought how nice it felt to be wanted.   So I delivered the mail and told Momma and Daddy I joined up.  The crying started then.  They took me to the train station in West Palm Beach on Christmas day.

AM:  What did you do in the Air Force?

MT:  After I got into the Air Force they gave me an aptitude test.  I waited anxiously to see what I was suited for.  The test let us know whether I should be a mechanic, a clerk or go to officer’s school or what.  I was the second to last guy to get my orders and when they came in I was told to go to the Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio to the 4th Army Baking School.  (much laughter)

AM:  That is too funny!

MT:  Every time I tell that story my Daddy is laughing in his grave.  It was really a blessing.  I had a little radio in the baking area of the kitchen that I’d listen to and they had a band that played every Saturday called the Westerners.   One day the band announced that the singer had done his time and was going home so they would need a new singer.   I couldn’t say one word in those days.  My friends told them even though I couldn’t talk I could sing.  Finally I started singing and the crowd hit the dance floor.  The band asked me to sing another one, so I sang a Hank Williams song and then a Webb Pierce song.  I ended up singing the whole time.  So they hired me and I became one of the Westerners.  Not one of us was from the west! (laughter)  I played with that band for two years.

AM:  Were you finished with the Air Force then?

MT:  After I got out of the Air Force I went back to Florida and my cousin helped me get a job with the railroad as a fireman.  It was a real easy job.  All I did was keep the engineer alert with my singing voice.  So I had a railroad pass and I had a lot of time off.  I’d use that pass to ride right into downtown Nashville.

AM:  Were you trying to get discovered?

MT:  There were only about six or seven publishing companies at the time.   I was told to focus on writing songs since I couldn’t talk yet.  I went back to Florida and wrote about five songs and returned to Nashville with them.  Webb Pierce recorded my first song called, “I’m Tired’ and it went to number two.

AM:  That happened pretty fast.

MT:  Now my name was all over Nashville as the boy who couldn’t talk but could write songs and sing.  Then Columbia Records invited me to come by and bring my guitar.  I got there and Lefty Frizzell was there along with Little Jimmy Dickins, Johnny Horton and about 5 more Columbia artists.

AM:  That must have been exciting and nerve wracking.

MT:  I started singing my songs and they all wanted them.   Before I left the room that day I was signed to a five year deal with Columbia Records.  I also got signed to the publishing company.  I left the railroad at that time.

AM:  You were ready to be a full time writer by this time.

MT:  I wrote Charley Pride’s first two singles.  There was also a booking agency and they booked a bunch of people including Minnie Pearl.  Minnie had a bunch of bookings and she needed a guitar player and singer.  She also needed a fiddle player and asked if I knew anyone.  I told her I just met one today, so I went down and asked him if he wanted a job paying $18.00 a day for one show or $36.00 for two shows.  His name was Roger Miller.

AM:  Did Minnie Pearl give you good advice?

MT:  About a week out, Miss Minnie was watching from beside the stage and she noticed that I never said anything.  Roger Miller would do all the talking for me.  She told me if I was going to be in this business I had to learn to introduce my own songs and thank the people for coming and then sign autographs after the show.   I told her I worried they would all laugh at me and she told me no they would laugh with me.  Not too long after that I began to be on TV shows.

AM:  Do you remember the first TV show you were on?

MT:  The first show I did was the Mike Douglas Show out of Philadelphia.  Jimmy Dean was the co-host and he told the Mike Douglas people that I stuttered and they didn’t want me on the show so Jimmy said if you don’t want him then you don’t want me, so they agreed to see my act.  I ended up being on the Mike Douglas Show 48 times!  From there it was movies and hit records.   That’s the way my life has been.  I love to entertain.  I’m 82 years old.  People ask me when I’m going to quit and I say, “I ain’t quitting.  This is what I do.  I make people happy and that’s a blessing.”

To learn more about Mel Tillis visit his web site

Monday, October 20, 2014

The World Music of Strunz & Farah

All Photos:  Alan Mercer

Strunz & Farah’s music is perhaps best described as original multi-cultural acoustic instrumental improvisational guitar music, or world jazz. Their music emphasizes and luxuriates in sensuous melody and rhythm with a colorful and passionate expression, and is saturated with their cultural roots. Afro-Caribbean, Latin American folk, flamenco and Middle Eastern music all converge in an essentially jazz context, especially in the sense of improvisation, and is a unique contribution to the diversity of contemporary guitar music.

Renowned world, jazz, popular, and classical artists they have recorded collectively or individually with include Stanley Clarke, Sting, Hubert Laws, Dr. L. Subramaniam, Hayadeh, Gerardo Nuñez, Manoochehr Sadeghi, Jihad Racy, Edwin Colón Zayas, Liona Boyd, and Ashish Khan. They have also recorded with Joan Baez, and have recorded with and performed often with Jackson Browne.

Strunz & Farah are the innovators of an entirely new expression for the acoustic guitar. Well ahead of their time they created an original style that now is widely influential. They have each brought the musical influences of their native lands into their highly virtuosic, rhythmic, and improvisation-rich original instrumental compositions, inspiring fans and many guitarists worldwide. Their meeting in 1979 in Los Angeles, where they are still based, marked the first time that Latin American and Middle Eastern music, along with other important elements, came together on the guitar. They remain the undisputed masters of the style they created.

Jorge Strunz was born in Costa Rica. Given his first (three-quarter size) guitar at age 6, he grew up also in Colombia, Mexico, Spain, England, Canada, and the United States, studying and playing flamenco and classical guitar. He performed flamenco guitar professionally as a teenager, accompanying Spanish dancers and singers. He later also played electric guitar in numerous rock bands. He then turned to jazz and jazz fusion, and then focused on his own Latin American roots, Caribbean and Latin folk music. Strunz developed an original, lyrical style, and a way of playing guitar that is his own synthesis of hand techniques from flamenco, Latin folk and classical guitar combined with state-of-the art virtuoso linear plectrum playing. In 1994 and in 1998, Strunz received two Presidential awards from the government of Costa Rica for his cultural contributions.

Ardeshir Farah was born in Tehran, Iran. While still a teenager, he moved to England for schooling. He played guitar since childhood, focusing on popular music and improvisation. He has performed and recorded extensively with many of the top expatriate Persian singers and musicians in the US who fled Iran after the Revolution. Farah was the first to use Middle Eastern inflections in a contemporary guitar setting. His distinctive touch has a unique exoticism.

They prepared a repertoire, began performing, and recorded their first project, Mosaico in 1980.  Although record companies at that time were not ready for this new music, Los Angeles jazz radio embraced it and world/jazz industry pioneer Richard Bock got the duo signed to the prestigious jazz label Milestone for whom they recorded their revolutionary albums ‘Frontera’ in 1983 and ‘Guitarras’ 1984. These records defined world music on guitar years before the “world music” category existed.

Since 1980, they have made 20 albums, 15 of which are studio recordings, including their very popular titles Primal Magic (1990), which topped the Billboard World Music charts, and the Grammy-nominated Américas (1992), and Heat of the Sun (1994; top 10 Billboard World Music chart).  Their latest recording is Moods and Visions (April 2014), celebrating 35 years of highly successful collaboration, continuing and evolving the duo’s original synthesis of multi-cultural elements into a flowing, melodic and rhythmic acoustic guitar style of the highest virtuosity.

In their performances and recordings, which have sold about a million and a half, one can savor the fruits of one of the most unique yet enduring and harmonious musical collaborations in the world of the guitar.

AM:  Did either of you envision lifelong music careers when you were children?

Strunz:  I did.  Definitely, I wanted to be a musician ever since I can remember.  I decided I wanted to be a musician by the time I was fourteen.

AM:  So you never wanted anything else?

Strunz:   I went to school and studied other things, but it was to please family.  Both of us did.  I went to Georgetown University for five years.  Ardeshir graduated with a degree in architecture from USC, but we were always musicians the whole time. 

Farah:  That part of the story is very similar for the both of us.  I also loved playing music from a very early age, but from the part of the world that I’m from, it was about do your studying first and then you can play your guitar.  I come from a family that has seven architects and Engineers. 

AM:  So that’s why you studied architecture.  Did you enjoy it?

Farah:  In some ways, yes.  My family is all into buildings.  I used to practice guitar three hours a night when I went to USC.  Then I would look at my school books for twenty minutes. 

AM:  Can you talk about your background?

Strunz:  My dad was a foreign services officer so he was a diplomat so we did travel around a lot and lived in a lot of different places.  I did get to go to a lot of schools and live in different countries.  I had an enriching childhood, certainly rich in different cultures.  It can also be a bit confusing but I sorted that out later. 

AM:  You speak English with no discernible accent.

Strunz:  My native language is Spanish but my father spoke English to me and my mother only spoke to me in Spanish so the kids in the family all grew up perfectly bilingual.

Farah:  My mother’s two brothers both married Germans.  My stepfather is American.  My mother’s sister’s husband is also American.  From childhood we always spoke English and German.  We did a lot of traveling to Europe.  Iran is so close that it’s very common for Iranians to drive through Turkey, Greece and France.

AM:  I love a worldly upbringing! (laughter from all)   Which reminds me that you are considered the leaders in the category of World Music. 

Strunz:  That may a bit of a stretch, but there were some people involved in doing collaborations with international musicians at the time that Ardeshir and I got together, but it was very few.   There were bands like Weather Report who had international groupings.  We weren’t the first but we were in the vanguard.  We were the first to use third word culture exclusively and melding it with international and American influences. 

Farah:  World music became a category in 1987.  That’s when Billboard magazine coined the name. 

AM:  Was that a plus for you to have a category?

Stunz:  It helped a lot because we would fall through the cracks all the time. 

Farah:  In this country everything is categorized.  You have to be rock or jazz or something.

AM:  Do you relate to jazz music?

Strunz:  Very much so.  I was very much into John Coltrane in the late 60’s while I was living in New York City.  Later on I was into Miles Davis.  I liked the playing of Pat Martino and spent a lot of time studying him.  I definitely have a love for certain types of jazz.

AM:  When you were developing your sense of style did you realize it would be so unique?

Farah:  We were very unique.  We just followed our instincts and drew from our backgrounds and influences.  We created the music that came to us naturally.  We were not trying to fit into any particular category.  I would say we are very unique.

AM:  I love how you get the credit for it as well.

Farah:  In the beginning it was hard because record companies thought we were too unique.

Strunz:  They weren’t sure what our music was.

AM:  So then you started your own record label.

Strunz:  We did. 

AM:  Was it natural for you to be business men?

Strunz:  No it wasn’t.  It was a hat we had to learn how to wear.  My wife helped out a lot with that.  She is our third team member in a sense.  We had to learn how to manufacture records.  This is back in 1980.

AM:  Did downloading change anything for you?

Strunz:  Well, illegal downloading has made a difference for all musicians.  We’re an endangered species.  There are only 30,000 musicians globally who earn a living from playing music.  It’s hurting music a great deal and we are affected. 

AM:  Is there any style of music that you haven’t recorded yet that you want too?

Strunz:  Our style is already a conglomerate of styles and we specialize in it.  We don’t want to specialize in other styles of music so much.  We love flamenco for example, and sometime people call us flamenco, but we go out of our way to tell them no.  We do not play flamenco.  It’s an influence but that’s all.

Farah:  It’s a completely different style of guitar music.  What they do is completely different. 

AM:  Is there a spiritual aspect to your music?

Strunz:  All music has a spiritual component to it.  I say spiritual and do not mean religion.  Music comes from the spirit.  It deals with feelings and emotions that can’t really be put into language.

Farah:  It certainly has a spiritual element to it.  It also has a strong political statement.  We have the coming together of different cultures and brotherhood. 

Strunz:  These kinds of collaborations tend to be global collaborations.

AM:  You have unity of all mankind.

Strunz:  We are all in the same boat and we have to deal with global issues together. 

Farah:  We are fortunate to live in Los Angeles which is a very cosmopolitan city.  

To learn more about Strunz & Farah visit their web site