Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Reed, Eggers & Viola In Concert @ The State Theatre


Reed, Eggers & Viola

Melody, Harmony


The Spaces In-between

Andy Reed never ceases to amaze me. It started in 2000 with the Haskels, a great new-millennium power pop band that slugged it out in the trenches, gigging’ for a few buck and drinks. They never gave up and by 2001 they recorded Rewind for Chad Cunningham’s alter ego Bullfrog records. It was a great disc from the opener Have You Heard This Song Before to Song of Hope, Tomorrow Knows and Comic Book Hero. It was an incredible first effort that gave us all a glimpse of Reed’s xxxx talent. The Haskels released a power pop masterpiece entitled Let Down before cashing in their chips. Reed took a gig in Detroit to further develop his craft and he learned a thing or two about the music business- you got to take the bull by the horns, nobody else is going to do it for you.  He came back to mid-Michigan ready to advance his craft as a songwriter. Reed released the textured and beautiful LP Songs from the North in 2005 followed by the Great Compression EP (2006) and Fast Forward (2008) with each disc representing Reed’s unstoppable growth as an artist. In 2009 Reed Recording studios opened for business. He started getting business by word of mouth. He may not have been an immediate but the word was passed around like boys on a playground. Soon enough bands from across mid-Michigan were knocking on his door including the Verve Pipe, Brett Mitchell, Mandi Layne, the Tosspints, Big Brother Smokes, Laurie Middlebrook and dozens of others.  Reed has the capacity to provide warm analog sounds as well as powerful digital recordings with his use of vintage and modern gear. Before long, Reed made a name for himself as the premier producer in Mid-Michigan. He was our Todd Rundgren - A Wizard & True Star. As Reed’s notoriety as a singer/songwriter grew past the boundaries of Michigan, he released his penultimate masterpiece, the exquisite Always on the Run by American Underdog (Andy’s alter ego) in 2011. Reed’s CD/LP was getting serious interest across the power pop charts and the internet reaching all parts of the states and overseas. Andy was gaining accolades like lovers kissing and then kissing again and again. It was in this backdrop of ascending fame when Reed formed friendships with Steve Eggers of the Toronto-based power pop trio The Nines; and with Mike Viola (That Thing You Do, Jellyfish, XTC).The event is billed as Mike Viola, Steve Eggers, and Andy Reed Together-Alone “One Night Only.”  This is a triple threat of musical might, beautiful sounds and good vibrations. The concert is at the historic and sexy State Theatre in Bay City on Friday February 15th, 7:30pm. General Admission is $10. Love is in the Air!

The following interviews of Mike Viola and Steve Eggers reveal their like-minded pursuit of sound and substance and keeping music alive.


Steve Eggers

Climbing Mt Everest


What led to this collaboration with Andy and Mike?

 I actually got onboard toward the end of the planning, and I thought it was a great opportunity. I knew Mike but I hadn’t really worked with him outside of a show we did together. Mike actually reached out to me and said he was doing the show with Andy in Michigan and asked if I’d be interested in doing it as well. I said, “Yeah, absolutely,” because I knew a little bit about Andy’s stuff and I knew Mike, so I thought it was a great opportunity to kind of hitch onto their gig.

While doing research for the interview I heard an organic link between the three of you. I think you match up really well as singer/songwriters. You have a catalog of music that has a power pop feel

Yeah, I think most people kind of get tagged with any label, you know. I think most musicians are always going to be saying, “Well, we’re more than that. We’re not just kind of tied into just a label.” It’s a bit defining, but at the same time, the luxury with that is if you like these particular bands, it’s a good way of identifying what kind of music you play, right? So if you’re looking to find that type of music, like Eric Carmen or Big Star in any of these kind of bands. It helps if you’re eclectic. It’s hard starting out to get a fan base so at the very least what that label does is pinpoints or gives people an indication of the kind of music you play, so it helps to promote you in that way. Actually I don’t mind it that much.

How do you get that big warm sound? I think it’s just a spectacular sound.

How do I do it? I don’t know. I think its trial and error, to be brutally honest with you. Like when we first started the technology was pretty limited. You either paid a lot of money to go into a big studio - most of us didn’t have the money - or you had to do your own thing. When I started out with four-track cassette decks and things like that. I actually kind of fiddled around with a four-track. They were literally like a cassette that would allow you to record multi-track four times over. That’s where I started to learn to do my own stuff. So a lot of the early songs we did were pretty low-fi, but I think as you get older, you just get a little more used to fiddling around in the studio plus the technology’s better now.

I just think flat-out you’re a great singer.
You sound like Eric Carmen to me or Steve Martin from the Left Banke. You have a great falsetto.

A lot of those guys I like. It’s funny. Eric Carmen. I kind of went through a phase. I even went through a phase that people might think would be kind of cheesy. Like I really enjoy the Eric Carmen solo album, some of the stuff on that was great. He’s just a super strong song writer. So yeah, that’s a compliment, so thank you. 

The Nines were described I read as a band that picked up where the Beatles left off. What do you think of that? What does that mean to you?

That’s a little far-fetched, but I’ll use it as a quote. (Laughter) Yeah, that’s super-complimentary. I mean the Beatles! You know you’re talking about this power pop thing. I think most musicians in general aspire to find the Mt. Everest of music and that would be the Beatles. There are so many people who have been influenced by them. It’d be a complete lie, of course, if I said I wasn’t influenced by them. It’s a promotional thing.

You know the reason I think why there are so many people who still really like the Beatles and still follow the Beatles is because of their ability to evolve and to kind of embrace all these kind of different influences and to digest that and create something brand new. So I think if you went from aspiring to be like them to creating something else, to fiddle with them and make them your own.

Now you’ve collaborated with some pretty big hitters like Andy Partridge, Jason Falkner, Bleu and played with Roger Hodgson from Supertramp. Were these times of growth?

Oh yeah, for sure. I’m a fan of these guys, right? I’m a fan first and foremost. I remember with Roger Hodgson, it was… I felt like, you know, a little kid. Literally. I mean I grew up listening to Supertramp. They were just such monumental albums. Listening to these people is what inspired me to get into music. Yeah, I remember doing all the fan type of things where I brought my Supertramp record to the gig and got it signed (Laughter).

I was super-conscious of not looking like a super geek fan, right? I was just over the top. All these guys were great. Andy Partridge was incredible. I’ll tell one thing, working with some of these guys…first of all, most of them were super humble people and super self-effacing, so it was great to meet these heroes and to realize that they’re cool too. You know, you can be totally disappointed with people that idolized when you’re a little kid.

And from a growth perspective it was totally cool too. I think you get used to as a musician kind of your own thing and then when you’re up against these heavyweights, you’re forced to look at it like work in a way, to kind of push yourself to do the best you can.

It seems to me that you really went deeper with your recent LP album, Gran Julke’s Field. You’re talking about a metaphor to escape and solace.

 Um, well it’s funny. Some of this stuff, I hate to say it. This will sound so superficial and laid back. When I was younger, the name came from like when I was a teenager…I don’t know if it’s a good thing to print, but we smoked a bit of weed.

I remember coming up with the name. We just had this whole storyline that we created as kids. As I got older, I did that album probably in my 30’s. We kind of went back to it and just took the name and thought we had this funny storyline. We tried to give it a little bit more depth to it than just the rambling of a couple of high guys. So we took the idea of the whole record itself and linked it to the idea that music is therapeutic for people, at least for me. I’ve always been more of a musical person to some extent than a lyrical person. Music has always been a way of escaping into this altered reality. So that was the premise of the record and how we approached it.

It seems that your daughter Elizabeth was in there as an inspiration as well

Yeah, yeah. Chantel Elizabeth. She was only five at the time and when you have little kids, you know, it’s actually pretty cool because you start to live through your kids. You relive your youth because you see a lot of the naiveté they have and the way they look at things. So I wrote this tune. It reminded me of that song in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Buffalo Girls, Won’t You Come Out Tonight,” and so that was the premise behind it. Yeah, you write about what’s around you.

Are the Nines still together?

Yeah, we’re kind of funny. Since when we started, we were always kind of a quirky band. We got songs on a major label in Canada when we were really pretty young. It was funny. We didn’t play a lot of live shows. We did a lot of recordings and stuff so we got signed off demo tapes and things like that back in the day when you could kind of submit demo tapes. We always had a core of musicians that I’ve always played with over the years when we do album. The Nines to some degree are a studio project and has been going on for several years, so we’re kind of together.I don’t look at us in the same way as I would a typical band that’s touring and playing a lot of live shows and stuff like that. We’re more of a studio project.

You recorded a disco song that was a tribute to the Bee Gees and the era. Did your fans understand what you were trying to do in kind of resurrecting that era disco?

 I really like the Bee Gees and I actually thought that they were such a cool band and that they kind of went through different phases, but the thing with the Bee Gees is their songs were always great, like it didn’t matter what they were doin’, whether it be the earlier British Invasion stuff they did all the way through to the soul stuff and what became more disco. I just thought they had such brilliant songs. The inspiration for that was so funny. I

rented a keyboard that was like this retro kind of keyboard that I thought had a lot of really cool sounds on it. The drummer that played on the record we did was a disco drummer. That’s what he did. I almost forced him to do more kind of straight ahead rock beat but he was actually a disco drummer so I thought, “Let’s do a disco tune.” It was hard not to go full-out Bee Gees. Like we did it first as a demo, as a full-out Bee Gees thing, and I thought, “Oh, I can wipe the vocals clean and then make it more my own thing.” I just couldn’t do it because it sounded so good. The funniest thing is it almost brought back a bit of the disco sucks thing where some of the fans were like, “I don’t get disco. I don’t like it,” and yet other people really liked it. You know, the luxury of not being on a record label and not selling gazillion records is that you can do whatever you want, and I really love that kind of music so I really didn’t care. I did it for myself.

How does it feel to play solo, to be outside of that cocoon that the Nines provided?

It’s a little scary in a way. I have done shows like where it’s just been me. We’ve done shows where I’m not on the bill. I’ve just come in and done guest spots on other people’s shows. That’s how I hooked up with Mike when he was playing New York and we connected, and he said, “Hey, do you want to come down and do a show?” I did it. It’s good in a way. It’s a little scary, but I’ve really had the luxury of working with really solid musicians that keep you protected in a way. I also feel that in light of who I’m playing with in February we’re our own band. We’re essentially doing a show but it’s still three of us playing together, so it’s a nice little bridge to doing more potential solo stuff.

Do you look for hooks consciously?
I don’t know. I think it’s just natural. It’s the way I do things. I tend do music first and then come up with the lyrics after. I suspect a lot of people create the kind of music that we do without putting the power pop thing around it. I just think that it tends to draw out a melody, and that’s how I’ve always done it. I don’t wake up and think, “Okay, I’m going to go downstairs and write a tune.” I’ve had to do that and it’s been really challenging. I’ve done that when I’ve written with other people where you have to sit in a room and say, “Okay, now we’re going to carve a tune together.” I found that super, super intimidating just because…I’ve often thought that, “Is that just because I’m just lazy and my normal thing would be when I feel the tune, I’ll write it.  I just find that the act of doing it, sitting down and thinking, “Okay, between 9 and 5 or whatever time, I’m going to write a tune” would be really hard.

You really have facility for creating incredible melodies and lush harmony - a perfect prescription for beautiful music. You have been compared to Wings.

Yeah, that’s right. I was a big Paul McCartney, Wings fan too because as a kid I grew up listening to a lot of AM radio, it was just around my house all the time. I listened to Paul McCartney, Eric Carmen, the Raspberries, all this kind of stuff, and actually really super AM stuff like like David Gates and Bread. I just absorbed it all. I was doing one of our albums and working with Jason Falkner of Jellyfish. I was talking to him on the phone because he was doing some mixing for us and he was working with Paul McCartney at the same time. It was funny because I was a big Jason Falkner fan. I was talking to Jason, and he was on the phone with me. “I just spent the day recording with Paul McCartney.” He was excited because he was a huge fan too. So I’d be asking him all these questions about the recording process or what McCartney was like and everything else. I almost feel like I was one degree away from Paul McCartney, this icon of music. There are so few legends in music now, and it’d be pretty hard pressed to find somebody who is a bigger legend than Paul McCartney.

What’s your most satisfying experience as a singer/songwriter/musician?

I don’t know. I like just simple things. The greatest thing for me still is coming up with ideas and recording them. I think it’s a naïve and simple answer but I still have the same inspiration as I did when I was a teenager. I really do believe, and again it sounds kind of cliché and cheesy, but it keeps you young. It keeps you creatively young and excited about things. I still have that real joy of working with people and doing music.

   How has the music business changed?

When I was younger you could send a demo in or be at a club and you’d have scouts come to check you out. Record labels would sign you up and do development deals. They just don’t do that now. I came from that time when if you didn’t have the machine behind you, you were really trying to sell your record at shows or to push them to the record store. The great thing about the internet is that it opens up the doors to expose your music and have a way to get it out there to a lot of people. The negative part of it is there’s just so much stuff that it’s hard to find interesting or cool bands. You really have to search it out. Music’s a lot different now. I remember people like my dad saying, “Oh yeah, well I remember the days of rock and roll and the excitement of Elvis.” The bottom line is that it is kind of sad because there was a time when you could buy records and albums and kind of experience the whole album.
The other side of it is that there’s some creative control that you can have and also to your point, you can make money selling your records and playing shows and selling merchandise. I think the musicians that are truly successful are jacks of all trades.


Mike Viola

It’s all just one glob of effort, inspiration, and luck.

How did you find out about Andy Reed?

I found out about Andy through the network of like-minded pop, I guess pop for the lack of a better description, but singer/ songwriters that play like in the Beatle vein. Unfortunately our little niche doesn’t have a proper word to describe who we are, but pop music I guess. There’s a little network of like modern musicians, and Andy came to my attention a guy who was doing it right up in the Detroit area. I was up there on tour, and I met him. He was a great guy, and we started sharing records with each other, and yeah, I just fell in love with his music. He’s just a strong writer.

There’s labels attached to your work – power pop, singer-songwriter that may fit imperfectly

It’s actually misleading, you know, because a lot of the stuff we do is nuanced. I feel like Steve Eggers is our modern-day Billy Joel and Elton John, like he’s covering those bases - so for someone like Steve power pop doesn’t make any sense at all but to call him a singer/songwriter would be doing his recording work injustice

Whenever I hear the term singer/songwriter I think of Gordon Lightfoot, who I love or James Taylor who I love but that’s not what Steve’s doing and it’s certainly not what Andy’s doing

I’ve watched you on YouTube and you do a lot of acoustic stuff. You seem too have a singer/songwriter vibe…and you wrote some cool songs like El Mundo De Perfecto

Yeah, but then it’s like you do a record like Electro de Perfecto, and it’s clearly a band record or like the record I did with the Candy Butchers called Hang on Mike. That one is definitely a singer/songwriter record but there’s more to it because it’s almost like in auteur, like being a filmmaker who just puts all his chips on the table to make this film that he hopes some people see. Even if no one sees it, it doesn’t matter. He has to make the film. He’s obsessed with it. He knows how it should look, what the music should be like, and he puts all his money into it. That’s what a guy like me does with all my records and that’s what Andy  and Steve do. People like Bleu is another one that’s in our camp or Jim Boja from Philadelphia. Like there’s one of us in every state, that’s what we do, we make these little art pieces. We’re not trying to get on the radio. We’re not trying to do anything except fulfill this vision. It’s a little niche that has evolved out of the great records from the late ‘60s and the ‘70s and also into the ‘80s, but it pretty much ends there. It’s this walk of musicians/artists that just pour everything that they have into it - money, talent, no talent, over-reaching and expectations into these records. Lo and behold after all these years, I’m still doing it. It’s what I do for a living and I think Andy and Steve are the same way.

We are able to make our little statements. So that’s a long way around. That’s a scenic route explanation for me to just say it’s definitely more than a singer/songwriter because I have friends who are singer/songwriters like Dan Bern who is a folk artist. He is definitely a singer/songwriter. That guy can go on the road for six months with just his guitar in a van and get people to copy what he does. When I play live with an acoustic, it’s just the tip of the iceberg, you know, and the same thing for Andy and for Steve because there’s so much more there. It’s like going to watch Steven Spielberg talk about Jaws, you know. It’s not going to enjoy the movie. It’s just talking around it. That’s a difficult thing. I wish that one of us could come up with a nice term, a neat little term for our niche, but so far we haven’t.

Maybe it’s just that you’re really talented guys. It’s like Here’s the Rub. You’re a great singer but you didn’t have to sing pretty when you sing that one. Did you see that as a new direction, as a new sound for you?

It was for that particular record.  But whatever I do next, I’m not sure what it’s going to sound like. I don‘t know until the songs come up. I don’t really have an idea for what the next thing is. So that’s another thing about guys like us, our sound changes depending on what records we’ll do. I think the director analogy sums it up the best - just because you do Jaws doesn’t mean you’re going to do Jaws 2. Someone else is going to do Jaws 2.  So, yeah, that’s kind of what it’s about. It’s the sound for that record.

I like the quirkiness of Trippin’ Over Nothing and Stumbling. It sounds like there’s something much deeper going on in that song. What did it mean to you?

Well, it involved existential angst. It’s groping for meaning. You know, where there is none.  This is our world today. This is a pointless little flame. You know we burn bright and then we go out. That’s kind of how I look at it anyway. That sounds like a little bit of a looking around for answers kind of tune.

You’ve been on a lot of TV shows. I thought one in particular, Conan O’Brien, he seems to get it. Did he give you any feedback or praise?

Yeah, he was really into it then. I lived in New York at the time and they were filming in New York at the time, so we were the band he would call when, you know, when it was quiet over there. If there was a spot open, he’d call us ‘cause he really loved us so we got to play that show a bunch.

You’re Boston born and raised, and there are some bands from Boston like Orpheus, the Cars and Boston. Did any of those people inspire you?

Oh yeah, they all did… that was kind of my generation of bands like Dance like Dumptruck, Scruffy the Cat - all those local bands at the time totally inspired. I’m a huge Cars fan. I never really thought of them as a Boston band even though they came out of Boston. I don’t think they ever really played the clubs, you know. There was also another band out of Boston called Tribe that was a big influence. They were friends. They were just a great band doing something that no one else was doing. That’s the thing. I love local music, and I love going to clubs to see music. I love playing in clubs, even though that’s getting harder to do these days. It’s still something that I aspire to, and I try really hard to make happen. This is how the whole gig up in Bay City transpired because of Andy. He came see me at the Shelter which is a place underneath St. Andrews Music Hall in Detroit. Andy came to see me last year. I was playin’ there, and he was like, “You know, we should do a gig together.” I said, “Yeah, any time.” And then we emailed back and forth and he was talked about a gig at the State Theatre.

What was your experience doing the movie That Thing You Do with Tom Hanks. Were you working closely with Hanks on the musical part of it? Did he understand and appreciate it? 

 I really didn’t work with him, with Tom but he had a lot to do with the music. He really dug deep to find that song, and once they did, they were really aggressive to get me to do it. I didn’t really want to do it because I had just got signed and I had just moved to New York, and I just didn’t feel like going to LA and singing on this song. Then, you know, it sounded like a really good gig because Don was working on the music too. “If you come to LA, we’ll have fun. I’ll make it a really cool thing.” It ended up being great. I got to meet Brian Wilson too, so it was totally worth it.

 You’ve collaborated with a bunch of cool people. They Might Be Giants, Barenaked Ladies, Jellyfish, STC. Did these collaborations inspire you in any way or change you in any way?

It always does. It’s like going over to a friend’s house, you know, tasting their spaghetti sauce, like, “Hey, what’d you do to that?” “Oh, I added basil.” “Oh, no kiddin, but don’t add it until the end.” “Oh, cool.”  Then you’d go home, and you’d make a sauce that way. Then you’d meet someone else and you’d change it again. By the end of a chunk of time, you’ve got your own identity. I like to use metaphors. I guess it’s just the writer in me, I don’t know, but it’s easier to explain things that way. It’s like you take a little bit from everybody and you give a little bit to everybody. I think that’s what this whole thing is about.  

Okay. This leads to a question about your creative process. Do you set time aside every day or wait for inspiration?

Hmm, it depends what it is. For instance I’m working with an artist now, his name Matt Nathanson. When I have to write for him, it’s a certain amount of time at a specific time of day. If it’s for my own thing, it depends. Sometimes I’ll not even have a song but know that I have to come up with something and then on the way to the session I’ll come up with something. Then at other times I just get tapped on the shoulder by it.

You’ve been on some different labels. Which treated you with the most respect?

Probably my own label. No label. I have my own label that I’ve had since 2005. What I do is I make my own records, and I license them to bigger labels so that I’ve got distribution through Sony but I’m the one in creative control of what I’m doing and I’m in control of how much money I spend and everything like that. This is definitely the new model for a guy like me.

What was your greatest achievement ? 

 I think the biggest accomplishment for me is being independent, being an artist and being able to do whatever I want to do and not have to wait around to make records like I used to. I used to have to wait until my label told me to do it; now I can just go ahead and follow my muse

 It’s all just one glob of effort, inspiration, and luck.






Sunday, January 27, 2013

Sonny Stitt is the Lone Wolf. Saginaw Jazz Icon Up Close & Personal


Sonny Stitt


The Lone Wolf


Sonny Stitt is acknowledged as one of the greatest saxophone players from the last great era of jazz. Stitt recorded 300 LPs from his tentative ascendance in the forties through the halcyon days of the fifties and sixties and the decline and fall in the seventies. He was Saginaw born and bred and though his notoriety and influence has waned in the last thirty years or so there are still a few people that have vivid memories of Stitt’s genius. Sonny was born in Boston but was raised in Saginaw. He attended Central Junior High and graduated from Saginaw High School in 1942. Sonny was a close friend of Jack Bruske, a fellow student at Central Junior High. At the time Stitt played clarinet and Bruske played the coronet.  As their interest in music advanced teacher Ken Mathews mentored the daring duo and tutored Stitt on the saxophone and Bruske on bass.   

Music was part of Sonny’s genetic makeup just like his eye color or temperament. It washed over every fiber in his body and defined him. He became the music. His father taught music, his brother was a classically trained pianist and his mother was a piano teacher. Sonny’s path was preordained. He would follow the shadow of his forefathers. Following graduation Sonny’s wanderlust led his to play across the United States, Europe and the Far East. He toured with several bands including the Tiny Bradshaw Band, Billy Eckstine and Dizzy Gillespie. He performed with such jazz greats as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Oscar Peterson. Bill Cosby admired Sonny’s music and mentioned him more than once on network television. As Sonny continued to evolve and experiment with sound he also became interested in mentoring others. He taught and lectured at several universities including Yale and Notre Dame. Not bad for a kid who cut his teeth at the El Morocco and the Cabana at 6th and Washington. He accumulated several awards through the years including a Grammy nomination for his 1972 masterpiece Tune Up, 1973 Record of the Year Constellation, and Playboy All-Star Jazz Winner 1961.


 Flint jazz great Sherm Mitchell remembers Stitt to be a one of a kind talent with his own unique style and voice. Sherm recalls the Stitt’s complete dedication to craft and his insistence on excellence even when he struggled with substance abuse. He was mercurial and sometimes volatile. Mitchell recalls seeing Stitt and Miles Davis fist fighting onstage, “He had a temper. He got angry when they played the Minor key in Detroit.  It was when Sonny did a solo – they had words onstage. He threatened to knock Miles’ head off and away they went.” It ended their brief collaboration “He was a very bright man”, recalls Mitchell. “I first met him in the sixties. It was the heyday of modern jazz and Sonny was a fabulous musician. He had his own facility with the saxophone – baritone, tenor and alto. We went out with Sonny on tenor sax and my trombone. We worked in Grand Rapids and Toledo. .  I remember Sonny as a reluctant icon – there is no one today that can play like Sonny Stitt.”  As Stitt’s career took off, he was often compared the Charlie Parker – the Bird. Mitchell disagrees, “In no way did Stitt try to copy Parker. Sonny had his own style. He was basically an innovator. He could turn it inside out and put it back together before it’s finished. He could read music and he was just a great player. Mitchell toured with Sonny on an irregular basis and usually within a 200 mile radius of Flint. Mitchell acknowledges that the great talent in mid-Michigan including Flint and Pontiac was often taken for granted with Detroit in such close proximity. Detroit was no doubt a breeding ground for talent but not to the exclusion of the Saginaw/Flint/Pontiac nexus.

Mitchell feels Stitt’s legacy will be preserved like Coltrane or Mile Davis. “Like any of the other great jazz players, Stitt & Parker were so good that nobody could aspire to their level of genius. It cannot be imitated. You don’t hear anyone that can play like that anymore. The new musicians can’t do it. The industry prefers music that anyone can imitate, that way the artist can’t control what they play.”

It is often acknowledged that the music industry doesn’t want original thinking. It’s like the auto industry or current FM radio – they want everything to look and sound the same. Innovation is discouraged in favor of sales. That’s why so many of the modern country and rock bands sound like everyone else. There is no individual identity and they don’t have any importance – it’s all disposable. Mitchell’s lucid analysis resonates deeply like throwing a pebble in the water and watching the ripples grow wider and wider then disappear. 

Mitchell taught music at MSU and the University of Wisconsin and plays fourteen instruments. He feels that you cannot teach what Sonny Stitt played. It is a natural gift that cannot be taught in schools. He sees originality and craft dying off in jazz and music in general, “Every major big band – Basie, Ellington, Woody Herman – once they died off, the industry didn’t want unique composition and performance. They wanted something that could be replicated. Sonny Stitt was so unique you couldn’t imitate him.”


Kenny Anderson was a well-known Jazz band leader in Saginaw and was one of Sonny’s nearly mentors. His widow Gladys Anderson is still living in Saginaw and continues to carry a torch for the great music created by her husband and Sonny Stitt,

“I first saw Sonny at the Cabana. He was playing at the Cabana on Sixth and Washington, right where North Sixth comes into N. Washington.  Oh, Sonny was great. He was terrific on the sax. Terrific. I’d sit there, and I’d get goose bumps just listening to him because I’d been around music all my life practically. And he was terrific. I really was crazy about the blues. But he could blow…I don’t know to this day I think about it. I wonder where he got the breath. And he’d hold a note for a minute or two or whatever, just a long time. He was afraid he might fall out, you know? He was blowing so hard and so long, you know.”

Gladys recalled her husband’s relationship with Stitt, Sonny was about 15 to 20 years younger than Kenny and he would stand out in back behind the Cabana and watch him play. Sonny would stand up on those oil cans to listen to Kenny’s band.  And Kenny would go out and see them and tell them to come on in. Because they were under-age and at that time you couldn’t go in the bars when you were underage.”

 Gladys felt that Sonny’s fame was well deserved. “He could play just about anything. He was just a beautiful artist. It’s just too bad that his health was bad but he’d still perform. He’d walk into the club, and everybody knew him, of course. They’d say, there’s Sonny, there’s Sonny. They were just so elated to see him. Usually his mother would come too. His mother was a musician. She was very nice… she’d come to protect him.”

Sonny and Kenny were closely aligned but they were a study in contrasts. Gladys acknowledged the bond between the two musicians, “Sonny would keep to himself mostly. But Kenny would greet everybody in the place, like in-between, of course they had show girls, you know, and strippers, and everything. Kenny would go in between tables and go and greet everybody. Sonny didn’t trust people easily. He was terrific. He knew his music. He knew it. It was his own music, his own composition. My husband loved him dearly because of his ability and his playing, how well he played. When Sonny would come to the house, he and Kenny would sit and drink and talk for hours on end.” She understood that family meant a lot to Sonny. She recalls, “Sonny grew up with his father Bob Stitt. He had a tavern out on N. Washington. It used to be called Kwaters Bar. It was a very restricted Polish bar. They didn’t have blues band or jazz until Sonny’s father got it. Bob Stitt was a gentle man…a big man. He was very proud of Sonny.”

Frankie Johnson grew up in the Stitt household and considered Sonny and Momma Wickes as parental figures. He loved them dearly and learned many of his life’s lessons through their wise counsel. The following is an excerpt of a recent interview with Mr. Johnson. He gets down to the real skinny and provides us with a first-hand account of the life and times of Sonny Stitt.


 Frank, how did you get to know Sonny Stitt?

 I grew up in the home of Sonny’s mother, Claudine Wickes, from infancy until she walked me to the old bus station to go to the army. That was in 1961. First off, Sonny’s real name is Edward Boatner. His father was a famous composer of Negro spirituals. You can look him up on the internet. There are a lot  of things about him. How he came about with the Stitt name was my foster grandmother. She married a Robert Stitt here in Saginaw around I guess mid-‘30s. Sonny was a teenager in ’37 or ’38, and he took the name. His birth father, Edward Boatner, was very well known world-wide in the music field on his own. In fact, he led a thousand man chorus in 1937 World’s Fair in New York City.

Sonny came from a great musical family. His grandmother was a piano teacher here, taught dance – she was famous. His mom Claudine “Mommy” Wickes was famous too. I remember Sonny from maybe age nineteen.  He bought a new 1955 Chrysler station wagon because he was always on the road. He was married to a girl named Barbara Lancaster. He traveled for two or three years in this green Chrysler New Yorker. He wasn’t the best driver in the world. He was also a drinker, so he usually had someone to chauffeur him around. He would visit Saginaw maybe three or four times a year.


When did he leave Saginaw?

 He left in 1942 following his graduation from Saginaw High School. In fact he had an opportunity in the 11th grade to leave with a band. You remember Tiny Bradshaw? This was the big band era. Tiny Bradshaw came through town and heard this young man play and he offered him a job whenever he was in Detroit. But Sonny couldn’t go because Mommy wouldn’t let him go. So the day of graduation he got on a bus and met up with the Tiny Bradshaw. That was his first band. This was during the war, so they weren’t recording in 1942 as there was a ban on vinyl recording. That’s how they recorded, you know, vinyl disks.

In 1946 or ’47 he went with the trumpet player, Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band. He took Charlie Parker’s chair.

He was compared to Charlie Parker.

Yeah, their music style was similar. I can tell the difference because I’ve heard his records since I was a child. In fact it was kind of an anchor around Sonny’s neck, being compared to Charlie Parker.

Sherm Mitchell feels Sonny had his own voice.

Yeah, he had his own voice. Well, you know he was playing alto at this time and Charlie Parker did also, but he switched to tenor. I have an early ’50’s recording that shows his evolving style.

I have a story I’d like to tell but maybe I shouldn’t tell. It’s personal about where he went. He spent two years in a prison.

 I didn’t know that.

There was an incident, from what I understand, in Chicago in 1947, 1948, and there was a fellow who died from injecting drugs, one of Sonny’s band mates. Sonny was in the same room. So he spent two years in Ft. Leavenworth. It was a hospital for drug addiction - to help him recover because he was hooked at the time. He was still a young man and around that type of crowd of people there was a lot of temptations.

Edward, his father, never lived with Sonny. I guess Mommy and his father were married, but I think they separated when Sonny was maybe two years old. I did see him once. We went to New York in the early ‘50s, and he had a music studio. He was a piano teacher. I remember he had a room full of manuscript papers and a big baby grand piano and things. Those were the things that I remember, some personal things that people didn’t know.


Robert Stitt, his stepfather, was well known in the city in his own right. He owned a club on Washington Street. It was called the El Morocco. He must have opened the El Morocco in ’56 or 57. It was in Buena Vista Township. It was on the corner of 25th and Washington – now it’s long gone. He opened up that club and Sonny came here to play it. He was a more of a mature artist by that time. Mommy had a group of tap dancers. They were very well known in the state. They called themselves the Silvertime High Steppers. She put on a dance at the old UAW Hall for a fundraiser. It was on Sixth and Washington. There was a bowling alley downstairs. It was built by the UAW Grey Iron. Sonny came back because at that time he wasn’t traveling with a band. He was picking up musicians. I saw his address book once - it was a very large book of musicians in every town that he was familiar with.

In 1970 he traveled with Bud Patterson on organ and Billy James was the drummer. He traveled most of the ‘70s with that group.


Did they record too?

Yeah, he made many recordings. He just overextended himself in albums. He had probably one of the highest number of albums (300) recorded by anyone, any recording artist. He was never under contract to any one record company, this was one way he could go…say to Chicago to pick up a thousand dollars for a few hours work, you know, go ahead and make a record and take the money and run. So yeah, he did that. 


It sounds like you’ve known Sonny from childhood

I’ve done research because he was my hero. It was cool when he came here. He dressed fancy and he was cool. Sonny was a friend of my father - that’s how I got to know him. They were school chums.

My father went in the army in World War II. When the war was over in1946 he brought me, my sister and my mother up from Florida. He took us over to Mommy Wickes’ house which at that time was on Franklin Street. It was very hard for him to find apartments to rent because the soldiers were coming home in 1946. She was living on 714 N. Franklin, and she had an upstairs apartment. We never left after that night. Later she bought a bigger house so we would have more room. We grew up like a family. She did all the cooking. She did a lot of the discipline. Her husband, I called him Uncle Lonnie, he was like my grandfather. Sonny was born in 1924 and he was like a father to me.

Gladys told me that her husband Ken Anderson was good friends with Sonny

Kenny was a premier musician here before Sonny. He was older than Sonny. He was probably 10 or 12 years older than Sonny. He was a mentor to Sonny, Gladys’s husband was.

He was a friend. My dad Jack Johnson also played in Kenny’s band. He’s well known here as a musician. There were several articles in the Saginaw News about him.

Were there any venues in Saginaw where Sonny performed?

At that time he used to play at the Cabana Club, the old Cabana Club, over on Washington. Street. Sonny didn’t play here a lot. If he did, it was just for a jam session. Sonny would come about four times a year. But he didn’t play during the time I was growing up. I heard a story about him playing at the Cabana Club in 1950. He also played at the old Saginaw Auditorium. He came here with Gene Ammons and Choker Campbell, a band leader that played with Sonny in Saginaw and Flint.


Choker Campbell?

Choker Campbell was the musical director when Motown started. He conducted the bands that backed up the Four Tops, the Temptations and Smoky Robinson on their first world tours in the ‘60s. I remember it as a kid. I must have been about 15. Sonny and I rode around all day when he came to town. We went to Flint one night to hang with Choker. I remember Choker describing this new record company in Detroit, and that was Motown.

I used to go to Idlewild, a resort here in Michigan up near Reed City. We met this fellow named Arthur Braggs. He was an entrepreneur of sorts. What he did, he conducted the numbers rackets here. We lived next door to him on Franklin Street. We called him Uncle Arthur. He had a big club in Idlewild, Michigan. This was before African-Americans were welcome in the other places, resorts, and things. People would come from Chicago, Detroit, Flint and Saginaw. This was where African-American families would go and spend their summer. Mr. Braggs had a club there called the Paradise Club. He would bring in name acts like Dinah Washington. I remember seeing her with a big fur coat on in the summertime. She had a blue Chrysler Imperial, a four-door Chrysler Imperial.


Did Sonny play there also?

He played there once or twice. Sonny was friendly with Mr. Braggs and he would go visit him. Mr. Braggs was a little older than Sonny. He played out there maybe once in a while, but that wasn’t something he did regularly. At that time Sonny couldn’t work in New York. When he got in this trouble in 1947, they took away his Cabaret card. In New York City you had to have a cabaret card to play in a club that sold alcohol and beverages. So they took that away from him because of the incident that happened. He didn’t get it back until 1957.

He would play in New York City, but he had to play in a theater. He couldn’t play in a club. So he did a lot out on the east coast, west coast. He went out with Norman Granz, a jazz entrepreneur. Granz had a touring company, “Jazz at the Philharmonic.” He went to Europe and he took the whole group. That was 1956 and ’57.  In fact, they toured for several years.
When was the last time you saw Sonny?

I saw him the year he passed and once the year before. When we heard on the news that he had passed…My wife is from Cassopolis, Michigan. We were taking our vacation down in Indiana, Michigan border, a farming community. So we drove back up, and we had two kids, me and Mamie. We took on my dad, and we drove over to Washington, DC. We got there. We missed his wake. We got there the night before the funeral. I stayed with his wife and Pam’s brother and my wife stayed at Sonny’s house. I have some pictures of us sitting on his back porch. At that time he was more settled when he married his last wife. He had his own home, you know. Most of the time I knew him, he was a vagabond. Not a vagabond as in not having substance, but he traveled all the time. He never had his own home. But he put down roots.

Did Sonny mentor you?

I called him Uncle Sonny. I’ll tell you a story. I must have been 12 years old, and I was going into the seventh grade. I was going to take band. Sonny came home in the summer before I went into junior high school. He took me to a store downtown, and he bought me this bicycle. They had to put it together, you know. We went home, and we were going to pick it up the next morning. I go home and I tell all my buddies, “Hey, I’m getting this bicycle.” What happened was that night

Mommy came home from her work at the First Ward Community Center there. He called Mommy - he called his mother Queen. He said, “Queen, I’m buying Frankie a bicycle.” She said, “He don’t need no bicycle. He needs a clarinet.” That’s where I got the word clarinet …Sonny started with it and so did I!

I’ll tell you another story. We were riding in this car, me and a friend of mine. It was a rainy day. He was going through a puddle, and he sprayed on a fella who was standing on a curb there. He went around the block and gave this guy some money to get his coat cleaned.

Yeah, Sonny was always a gentleman. I had to sleep with him when he came. Arrangements at that house were normally my sister had a guest room. My mother had her own bedroom. Mommy and Uncle Lenny had their own bedroom, and I had a roll-away bed in an alcove upstairs. When he would come, if he didn’t bring a girlfriend, sometimes he brought a girlfriend, we would sleep in my sister’s room, which was the guestroom. I remember the first time I smelled marijuana. I remember him on the side of the bed smoking, and my grandmother, Mommy, would always air that room out.

You know a funny thing, Stevie Wonder has roots here. He lived next door to us. His family did - on Third Street. They lived next door to us. I remember him. I’m a little older than Stevie and I played with his cousins. This is before he became famous. Oh, I could tell you a little story about them. Sonny had bought a Polaroid camera, one of the first ones. This is the early ‘50s. This was where you take a picture, you pull it off;then you had to put that chemical on it. He was taking pictures. I remember he got all the kids together; the next-door kids and Stevie would have been in that picture. I remember a little blind boy. He was a toddler then. He was born in 1950 and this would’ve been 1954 or ’55. He didn’t stay here long. He moved to Detroit, but his family still stayed there, the Dallas family and the Lawsons. It was a big extended family. They lived right next door to us.


There was so much music in Saginaw.

Sonny has two children, Katea and Jason Stitt. Both of them live in the Washington DC area. I don’t talk to Jason much, but I talk to his daughter. In fact, she’s planning on coming visit us. She wants to know more about her father and she also wants to know about his hometown. I remember her coming here when she was pre-teen. She came to visit one summer and stayed at Mommy’s house. I’ll get you her number. She’s an artist in her own right. She is a poet and she’s also worked with George Clinton. She was doing like promotional things of that sort and she has a radio show, a jazz radio show. I think it’s in the morning.


That’d be great. I’d love to talk to her.


EPILOGUE: Frankie Johnson told me that Sonny’s legacy needs to be preserved that we should build a monument to him. He should be huge in Saginaw.  I agree. Our community needs to remember this remarkable man. We should not let his incredible contributions to music and culture fade from public awareness.


This article was inspired by Mark Leffler