Monday, January 30, 2012

Bobby McFerrin: The Sounds of Music

By Deardra Shuler

Bobby McFerrin is best known for his #1 chart topping Grammy Award winning song “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” But Bobby has moved on since that song, far surpassing it with a genius of talent that deserves every accolade he receives in the music world he dearly loves. Mr. McFerrin has a truly amazing vocal gift in the genres of jazz, pop, spiritual, blues, classical and R&B. His musical prowess is so appreciated that McFerrin is a ten-time Grammy Award winner.

While McFerrin will be performing on Saturday, February 4th at Lehman Center of the Performing Arts, located at 250 Bedford Park Boulevard West, in the Bronx, NY, at 8:00 p.m., he can thrill your a.m. hours with his song “Sweet in the Morning,” performed with Voicestra, a group he founded, comprised of 12 a cappella vocalists and whom he featured on his CD Medecine Music. Bobby and Voicestra also released Circlesongs, a Sony Classical album of meditative works comprised of eight improvisational tunes steeped in Middle Eastern and African tradition. Via the classical genre Bobby’s version of Stravinsky Minuetto & Finale Pulcinella Suite and Vivaldi Concierto en Sol Menor (G Minor) had me enraptured by the beauty of his vocals and music composition. To claim that Bobby McFerrin knows his way around all forms of music with ease and pure genius is no understatement.

This writer was not as familiar with the music of Bobby McFerrin outside of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” when I began this article. However, I have resolved to remedy my lack of exposure to McFerrin’s music, after visiting YouTube, which opened up a brand new world for me in reference to the music of Bobby McFerrin. I only had to close my eyes to be transported into the melodic harmonies of the Islands or carried away to South Africa. Bobby’s music awakened an innate rhythm within me that hoisted my imagination into the tropics, savannahs, deserts, and grasslands of the Motherland via his song “The Garden,” also on his Medecine Music CD.

McFerrin is the master of improvisation. His vocal skills, his creativity, diversity and four-octave range has been known to turn live audiences into a virtual orchestra as he leads the crowd down the pentatonic scale. His music is unique, inspiring, as well as haunting as is emphasized in Bobby’s “The Elephant’s Child.”

Bobby McFerrin was born to music. His soul chose it when he entered life in 1950. What else could he be destined for having been born to two classically trained parents. In fact, his father, Robert McFerrin, Sr., was the first African-American male to perform solo at the Metropolitan Opera. So was it any wonder that Bobby took to music like a fish to water. At 8 years old, he began playing piano and clarinet. Versatile in all music genres, Bobby listened to the music of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, James Brown, Sergio Mendes, George Gershwin, Led Zeppelin and Brazil ’66, et al. He tried it all: bands, cabaret, even dance. Then at 27 years of age, Bobby declared himself a singer. Bill Cosby gave him his first big break by arranging for this ‘human orchestra’ known as Bobby McFerrin to perform at the Playboy Jazz Festival. The Kool Jazz Festival followed, leading to a contract with Elektra Records. By 1984, he was ready to release his first solo vocal jazz album which was titled The Voice, wherein he recorded with no accompaniment or overdubbing.

Oftentimes, McFerrin has performed spontaneously without rehearsal, using his own body to produce percussion sounds, while singing various vocal parts, employing his arsenal of vocal techniques.

Mr. McFerrin won Grammys for “’Round Midnight” with Herbie Hancock, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” and “Spontaneous Inventions,” etc. After the release of another of his masterpieces “Simple Pleasures,” Mr. McFerrin demonstrated he had other talents and became an orchestra conductor. He started his conducting debut with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and led dozens of world orchestras thereafter. In 1990, the talented performer recorded the first of two albums with Chick Corea, entitled “Play.” 1992 saw a collaboration with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the outcome of which gave the world Hush, a set of Bobby’s original and classical standards. His teaming with YellowJackets, a jazz fusion band resulted in Bang! Zoom. By1994, he was named creative director of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. In 2010, Bobby released his first new album in eight years, VOCAbuLarieS, in collaboration with composer and vocalist Roger Treece, a Voicestra member.

Bobby McFerrin has appeared in a number of films and television programs, including NBC’s The Sing Off. He has performed on A Prairie Home Companion and has sung the themes for Son of the Pink Panther and The Cosby Show. McFerrin has been profiled on 60 Minutes and Nightline.

For tickets to hear Bobby McFerrin on Saturday, February 4th at 8:00 p.m., call the Lehman Center Box Office at 718.960.8833 or go on line at

Thursday, January 19, 2012

O'Jays: Wowed the Bronx Crowd

By Deardra Shuler
Photo by Seitu Oronde

Eddie Levert, Walter Williams and Eric Nolan Grant, of the O’Jays, rocked the house at Lehman Center for the Performing Arts in the Bronx, NY, on Saturday, January 14th, singing songs from their classic repertoire. The entertainers lit up the stage in their sparkling white outfits, regaling the crowd with amusing banter and dance numbers that had some women rushing to the stage, grabbing the hand of their favorite entertainer in the hope of receiving a touch, glance and/or even a smile from the fabulous O’Jays. Adding a spark of warmth inside that made the temperature rise while the weather outside dropped down into the 20s making everyone feel the chill. The O'Jays got the crowd roaring and some feeling pretty hot. One woman even threw her scarf on the stage causing Eddie to gentle wrap it back around her neck as she swooned in ecstasy.

Comedian “Hamburger” is one of the funniest men alive and he proved it, joking with the audience and even embarrassing a few late comers and 'seat stealers.' The late comers unfortunately for them were in the very front row. However, once they got down to the front row there were no vacant seats. Confused and chagrined as Hamburger pelted them with quips, the late comers walked back and forth with tickets in hand, glimpsing at all the filled seats, walking from left to right in front of the stage, until Hamburger had to finally yell for an usher to get down stage and help them get seated. What made it even more hilarious is -- turns out, a daring couple who had usurped the late comers seats, now had to publicly reveal themselves, get up and march sheepishly back to their own seats in the back while the audience laughed hysterically.

Hamburger's opening act set the tone for the rest of the evening, putting everyone in a jovial mood. Eddie got the crowd roaring himself when he introduced the band. He introduced all the band members he knew but when he got to the side of the stage where some of the musicians were white, he apparently did not know their names, so simply introduced them collectively as "the white folks," setting off peals of laughter. All done in good fun.

The O’Jays started their career in Canton, Ohio in the late 1950s. They came to epitomize the Philly sound via their rich harmonies and contemporary funk. Two of the originals, Eddie Levert and Walter Williams still continue to regale their adoring fans with the songs they made famous. The O’Jays sang “Love Train,” “Backstabbers,” “Use Ta Be My Girl” and “For the Love of Money,” to a sold out house on January 14th, proving why the O’Jays have earned 24 Top Ten hits, ten gold albums, nine platinum and ten #1 hits.

In fact, all three O’Jays are putting out individual solo recordings. Walter Williams released his CD Exposed last year and Eddie and Eric are in the final stages of completing their individual CDs.

I had the opportunity to speak to Eddie Levert before their Bronx concert. ”My project is called “Eddie Levert: I Still Have It” remarked Eddie. “There is a song entitled Last Man Standing. This will be my first shot as a solo artist outside the O’Jays. I hope my fans will give me a chance and listen to it. It was hard for me. Even though I tried to reinvent myself while doing my album, it’s difficult not to sound like an O’Jay. I just can’t help it,” chuckled the talented singer. “I stayed within my ballpark so the Cd contains songs that have a spirit of its own. It’s taken me 3 years to complete the project. I am rather proud of it. I wrote and produced it with the help of a few talented people. I still appreciate the art of creating music from the bottom to the top. I like doing it natural, doing it raw with no cut and no chaser,” claimed the 2009 BET Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2011 Trumpet Lifetime Achievement Award winner.

These days Eddie Levert is satisfied with life. He spoke about his life-time relationship with Walter Williams, who he considers to be as close as a brother, and his relationship with those dear to him. “I have to say that this is the happiest time of my life" remarked Eddie sincerely. "I try to infuse that feeling into the songs I write. The CD I am presently working on is really my story. It talks about the happy place I am at with the person I am with. In fact, my opening song is called “Lonely," because when my wife is not with me, I realize how much I miss her.”

"Lonely" is a song Eddie wrote in tribute to the love he feels for his wife, whom he says makes him get in touch with his heart and make up his mind to be a better person.

Eddie talked about how he started off in music. “It was my younger and older brother, Walter Williams and me initially. We began by singing in the church. We did not know what we were doing, we just had good voices. From there, we started auditioning. We auditioned for Decca Records but got our first deal with King Records. In California, we sang pop. In New York, we worked with DJ Eddie O’Jay, who managed us for awhile and so eventually we adopted his name as the group name. We became ballad singers and beach crowd singers, so over the years developed a diverse fan base. In Detroit, we sang with Thelma Gordy and started hanging out with the likes of Wilson Pickett, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Edwin Starr and the Four Tops. Listen to me name-dropping,” grinned Levert, whose statement to me on my Internet radio show, “Topically Yours,” on, Rainbow Soul, suggesting fans come out to see the O’Jays soon because they were planning a possible National Retirement Tour this summer. His talk about a possible O'Jay retirement created quite a stir and took everyone around Mr. Levert by surprise.

Upcoming 2012 shows at Lehman Center for the Performing Arts, will be a Doo Wop show featuring the likes of The Drifters, The Platters, and The Chiffons, et al. Also appearing are: The Spanish Harlem Orchestra, Gloria Gaynor and the Hit Men, Bobby McFerrin, Gilberto Santa Rosa, Forever Freestyle, Salsa Con Amor, Blues Brother Tribute, Capone, Smokey Robinson, The Moscow Ballet Festival featuring Cinderella and again appearing with Swan Lake. Check the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts Show roster for all their upcoming engagements. Tickets are affordable, so get your tickets now.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Unforgettable Doo Wop

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By Deardra Shuler

Lehman Center for the Performing Arts is bringing Doo Wop to the Bronx on Saturday, January 28th at 8:00 p.m., featuring the Coasters, The Herb Reed Platters, The Drifters featuring Charlie Thomas, the Chiffons and Jimmy Beaumont and the Skyliners as part of “Unforgettable Doo Wop.” Doo wop emerged from the streets of New York and Philadelphia as a distinct African American sound.

I had the opportunity to talk to two group originals, Judy Mann of the Chiffons, and the Drifters’, Charlie Thomas.

75 year old Charlie Thomas was eager to talk about his upcoming show at Lehman Center, especially since he spent much of his youth in New York. “I still got my rock ‘n roll shoes on,” quipped Charlie.

Charlie Thomas became a Drifter in 1956, when his group, the Five Crowns, won Amateur Hour at the Apollo. “I was part of the Five Crowns. A group known as the Drifters, were performing the same night as us. Some problem resulted between them, the theatre owner and manager George Treadwell. So we were asked if we wanted to become Drifters. I thought to myself -- how can we become the Drifters when we are standing on the stage performing with them. But somehow or another we got a contract and they put us under the name “The Drifters.” Ben E. King wrote the song, “There Goes My Baby,” we recorded it, and there we were.”

The Drifters had several hits like: “Under the Boardwalk,” “This Magic Moment,” “Save the Last Dance,” and “Up on the Roof,” et al.”

Charlie Thomas has been with the Drifters for 55 years and has traveled all over the globe. “I’ve been a Drifter since I was 16 years old. I came to New York when I was 12. I met The Five Crowns at 13, and became a Drifter at 16,” explained the famed singer. “I used to live on 121st Street, 167th Street and Grand Concourse and I also lived in Long Island and Brooklyn. I am a big Giants fan and true New Yorker.”
Charlie talked about his beginnings. “We used to hang out on the street corner on 8th Ave and 119th St. Groups hung out on the street corners singing back then. Sometimes the bigger celebrities used to come up 8th Avenue and watch the groups perform. Actor Jeff Chandler came and Billy Eckstein. So did Sammy Davis, Jr., and Tony Bennett. They used to throw money to the best group,” recalled Thomas.

Over the years, Charlie appeared with and/or met luminaries such as Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. “I have met so many people who have influenced my life. Back in the day, I met Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis, Pigmeat Markham, Red Foxx, Malcolm X, and Cab Calloway. I used to hang out with the Beatles at the Cave in England. All of them looked out for me and gave me good advice. They kept me away from the drugs and taught me how to present myself on stage. In fact, before appearing at Lehman on Jan. 28th, I am working a cruise for a week with the Monkees and Paul Revere and the Raiders,” remarked Charlie.

“I’ve lived a full life. I have had some wives, some girlfriends and been in the White House 3 or 4 times. I am delighted that President Obama is now the president. I’m married to a beautiful woman who’s interviewing for a job in the White House. I hope she gets it. As for me, I’m a drifter who has to take care of family, so I am moving around the globe,” chuckled Thomas.

Lou Bailey, Jerome Manning, Stephen Brown and Jack Columbo are the Drifters performing with Charlie at Lehman Center.

Mr. Thomas was inducted in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. He also won a Rhythm and Blues Award.

Ronnie Mack who wrote “Puppy Love,” and “He’s So Fine,” discovered the Chiffons, who at the time he met them were 3 Bronx teenagers with a penchant to sing. Ronnie dreamed of being a success as a songwriter. He peddled his songs to record company after record company and despite numerous rejections, kept at it until he met producers Phil and Mitch Margo, Jay Seigel, and Hank Medress a.k.a., The Tokens. The Tokens liked Mack's song, "He's So Fine." Mack brought in the Chiffons to sing it and consequently the song was released on Laurie Records.

“When we started out, we were just doing it for Ronnie. He wanted success so badly but Barbara, Pat and I were teenagers, so we didn’t take it as seriously as Ronnie. Stardom was Ronnie’s dream, we were just having fun,” recalled Judy Mann, the Chiffons lead singer. “We never expected success, but of course were thrilled when Ronnie’s song became a hit. We grew up in the Bronx, so all we knew was the Bronx, success changed us a lot. We got to go overseas and many different places. We appeared on American Bandstand with Dick Clark which was very exciting and also appeared on Murray the Ks show,” said the Chiffon.

Also, recording artists, The Tokens, as producers, split up the group, giving them an additional name to sing under. They were also “The Four Pennies.” While Ronnie Mack did realize his dream of becoming successful, he succumbed to Hodgkins disease and passed away at age 25. Some of the songs made famous by the Chiffons are: “He’s So Fine,” “I Have A Boy Friend,” “One Fine Day,” “Sweet Talkin Guy,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” and “Dream, Dream, Dream.” While the original Chiffons consisted of Judy Craig, Barbara Lee and Pat Bennett, the current Chiffons are still Judy, but now Dawn Mann and Eulena Morris.

The Chiffons were inducted into the Walk of Fame in 2005.

For tickets to Unforgettable Doo Wop on January 28th at 8:00 p.m., call 718-960-8833 or go on line at

Friday, January 6, 2012

O'Jays: Giving the People What They Want

By Deardra Shuler

The O’Jays, who started their career in Canton, Ohio in 1958, came to epitomize the Philly sound with their rich harmonies and contemporary funk. They lit the music world on fire with songs like “Love Train,” “Backstabbers,” “Use Ta Be My Girl” and “For the Love of Money.” These music dynamos are the talent behind 24 Top Ten hits, which includes ten gold albums, nine platinum and ten #1 hits. Relaxing and preparing for his concert in New York, Eddie Levert, the O’Jay’s lead singer, is looking forward to his engagement with fellow O’Jays, Walter Williams and Eric Nolan Grant, at Lehman Center for the Performing Arts, located at 250 Bedford Park Boulevard West, in the Bronx, on Saturday, January 14th at 8:00 p.m.

After working with Gamble & Huff, the O’Jays began a remarkable union that produced nearly 30 chart singles during the ‘70s, plus a series of best-selling albums and numerous #1 R&B hits. Their 1973 Ship Ahoy recording featured one of their signature songs (and theme song of the NBC hit “The Apprentice”), the #1 R&B hit “For the Love of Money.” 1975's Survival was a hit that spun off “Let Me Make Love to You” and the R&B hit “Give the People What They Want.”

“New York is one of my favorite places. New York is a 24-hour place just like Las Vegas,” said the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee. “I love, love, love, New York and always enjoy performing in that city” said the singer, who is putting the finishing touches on his solo album. In fact, all three O’Jays are putting out individual solo recordings. Walter Williams released his CD Exposed with the song “It’s Raining Outside,” which is getting a lot of buzz. Eddie Levert and Eric Nolan Grant are in the final stages of their solo CDs.

“My project is called “Eddie Levert: I Still Have It” remarked Eddie. “There is also a song I wrote entitled Last Man Standing. I hope my fans will give me a chance and at least listen to it. Since this is my first shot at a solo recording outside the O’Jays, it was a hard thing to do. Especially since I have recorded so long as an O’Jay, it was hard to reinvent myself for my solo album. I think I provided songs that make my CD a special offering. I know that I am proud of it. I both wrote songs and produced it. I did not produce it alone because I had the help of a lot of other people,” said the soul singer. “I used to write with my son Gerald before he passed. Now Gerald’s daughters are interested in going into the music business and have begun to work on their own music” claimed the 2009 BET Lifetime Achievement Award and the 2011 Trumpet Lifetime Achievement Award winner.

Eddie talked about how he started off in music. “It was my younger and older brother, Walter Williams and me initially. We began by singing in the church. We did not know what we were doing, we just had good voices. From there we started auditioning. We auditioned for Decca Records but got our first deal with King Records,” said the soul singer.

Recording the music of Gamble & Huff brought the O’Jays a lot of success. But eventually they started to write their own music and in 1997, Levert, Williams and the O’Jays’ newest member, Eric Nolan Grant, released Love You to Tears. The O’Jays signed with MCA where they released For the Love, receiving their fourth GRAMMY nomination. In 2003, they appeared in the film “The Fighting Temptations” starring Cuba Gooding, Jr. and BeyoncĂ© Knowles.

Eddie Levert is satisfied with his life these days. “I have to say that this is the happiest time of my life. I tried to infuse that in the songs I write. It’s really my story and talks about the happy place I am at with the person I am with. In fact, the opening song on my solo CD is called “Lonely.” That song came about because my wife, Rachelle, decided to go to Africa with a friend to mountain climb. And, she actually climbed to the top of Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, one of the highest mountains in Africa. Few people do that and succeed. My wife did. After having climbed to the top, my wife and her friend later went to a region where they spotted a tribe of monkeys. My wife called me to tell me she was in a jungle area surrounded by monkeys. It made me realize how far away she was from me and if anything happened to her, how helpless I would be to try to get to her. That is when the song “Lonely” came to me. It conveys how lonely I am when my wife is not with me. She makes me want to be a better person and get in touch with both my heart and mind.”

Interested parties can hear the entire interview with Eddie Levert on my radio show Topically Yours, at, Rainbow Soul.

The O’Jays are currently performing at various engagements around the country. “We are in the midst of planning a national tour” remarked Levert. “We are getting old now and are thinking of retirement, so this may be our last national tour, which if all goes well, will commence in the summer. So tell your readers to come out and see us since it may be their last opportunity to do so before the O’Jays retire.

Fans can get tickets for the O’Jays concert on Saturday, January 14th,at 8:00 p.m. in the Bronx by calling the Lehman Center for the Performing Arts Box Office at 718.960.8833 or by going on line at