By Barney Blakeney
I don’t get out much these days. There was a time I used to run like the finest race horse. As a bachelor (not quite so confirmed) I’ve done some time in the street – up/down, wrong side/right side, under the lights/in the shadows – I’ve spent a lot of time in the street. But now, I’m at a point in my life where going out doesn’t interest me much. I equate it to eating candy as a child. I ate so much of it; I don’t have much of a taste for it now. Still enjoy sweets! Just don’t eat it as much.
I went out the other night to a blues concert featuring Ermitt ‘Mr. Blues’ Williams and Trane’ N’Chel with The Oscar Rivers Trio and guests. Billed as ‘Afrikan Amerikan Classical Music’ the concert was held at The Point Event Center on Piedmont Avenue in the Ferndale community of North Charleston. The tickets were $25 a pop, but Ermitt hooked me up with a couple of complimentary seats. It was among the best gifts I’ve ever received. Not only was the evening an absolute pleasure, but it also was a most enlightening experience.
Music has been a special place for me since childhood. At Mary Ford Elementary School our teachers gave us a healthy dose of the arts. My first instrument was a plastic flute one of our teachers had us playing. I’ve been blowing or banging on something ever since. My brother from another mother, the late Ellis Mack, introduced me to Jazz. It was on after that. Later, former Charleston Sen. Robert Ford and my editor Jim French introduced me to the Blues.
I’m no great Blues fan, but give me a table and a glass of wine and I’m set for an evening of enjoyment. I, at first, felt a little out of place just sitting there in the audience at the Point Center which is in a converted church building. I hear a similar conversion is in the future for the sanctuary of New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church at Elizabeth and Charlotte streets in downtown Charleston. Now you talk about a beautiful interior! Fourth Tabernacle is a beautiful place. Filled with some good lookin’ women too! Anyway, the last concert I attended was Frankie Beverly and Maze at the old Gaillard Municipal Auditorium in Charleston. Before that it was Stevie Wonder at the Coliseum in Columbia. So I had forgotten what it is to just sit and enjoy a concert. Boy was I in for a surprise!
My friend Donna and I got there a little late. You know women, never ready. She had to change clothes – twice, I think. When we arrived, there was finger food in lobby. Neither of us had eaten, so we stopped for a bite and had a chance encounter with Pastor Alfrieda Deas-Potts, founder of Bounce Back Ministries. Alfrieda, a former journalist, provides services to the homeless and others. I needed her services a little while ago, but couldn’t find her. Funny how things work. Ermitt walked up a minute later. This guy is New York cool. His welcome made me feel special. He promised we were in for a special treat as well.
Trane’ was singing as we walked in. Ermitt had said I’d recognize her from roles in local theater productions. I didn’t, but I recognized several members of the Art Forms and Theatre Concepts crew – particularly Jimmy and Matese Lecque and founder/director Art Gilliard. There was another guy there whom I recognized from the cast of several productions. I assume they were there to support Trane’. I guess there were 50-75 people in attendance, including Constance Heyward and a Nigerian guy whose name I forget – mainly because I can’t pronounce it. Constance is heading up the Juneteenth observance these days.
Before I get too far ahead of myself I need to say the concert, for me, really was about much more than singing the Blues. It also was about a lot of people coming together to support and enjoy local art in a very uncommon way. I regularly sit under the tree with some folks who are well versed in local culture. We sit, sip and talk about stuff I wouldn’t know if I wasn’t at the table under the tree. But the Blues concert was something different. It was a small group of people paying homage to the purveyors of a part of our culture that gets overlooked.
But I’ll tell you what; hearing Oscar Rivers on keyboards, Donald Fields on drums and Paul Gelpi on bass guitar joined by the incomparably talented Abe White on Sax and North Carolina resident Calvin Westdfield on guitar (who came to town for the show) was enough to make me want to throw money on the stage.
I’m amazed every time I hear Oscar Rivers tickle the ivories – and I do mean tickle them! I’m no music critic, but I know good stuff when I hear it. Donna, who is my brother Ellis’ cousin, was dancin’ in her seat, clapping and singing along. I got a kick watching how much she enjoyed the music. And then Ermitt did his thing. Donna whispered, “Old school playa!” as he performed. The New Yorker came to town 14 years ago and brought with him – to share with us – his love of Jazz, Blues, entertaining and all things beautiful about Black music.
I first cut into Ermitt at a show he produced at the old Savannah’s Supper Club West Ashley. Me and Weit went to the show together. Again, it was one of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever attended. Friday’s show was equally thrilling. Ermitt’s love for the stage and all that he brings to it truly is inspiring. If you know what it is to witness someone doing something they really love, you have some idea of what it’s like to watch Ermitt perform. The guy took off his tie, came off the stage and shook everybody’s hand! It was awe-inspiring. I felt it wasn’t just a part of the act, it was a sincere statement of his appreciation for the audience.
Ermitt called me from Atlanta Sunday to thank me for showing up for the performance. He’s invited me to other stuff for which I didn’t show. Osei Chandler and Dr. ‘O’, Ade Ofunniyin, expressed surprise to see me there as well. It’s good to know people care about you and want you to enjoy your life. Thanks, guys. But I want to thank them. Those guys are pillars in the cultural structure of our community. And as Ermitt said, guys like Oscar Rivers, Trane’ and Abe White spend lifetimes and participating in and perpetuating our art. They haven’t got a Grammy and likely never will get one. They sometimes don’t get paid for the gigs they perform. But they keep alive the art and culture that characterizes our people. Considering all that, I really should get out more.