Crooner Wade Visits Hartford
Besides being the first African-American to host a network TV game show, the versatile crooner/actor Adam Wade has enjoyed a more than half-century career crowned by countless appearances on stage, screen, and television, and a glorious, too brief flurry of chart-busting recordings in the 1960s. Among his hit singles was his tuneful trifecta of romantic ballads in 1961, "Take Good Care of Her," "As If I Didn’t Know," and "The Writing on the Wall."
Wade, who’s now a vigorous, still smooth-toned 78-year-old performer, first arrived on the New York scene in 1960 as a young, totally unknown singer from Pittsburgh. Almost immediately, the aspiring singer with matinee idol looks made a big splash in the Big Apple with his suave, warmly emotional singing style. It was so well-fashioned with vocal velvet and heartfelt romantic feeling that Wade was invariably compared to another young singer/romanticist of the time, Johnny Mathis.
But it was Nat King Cole, not Mathis, who was Wade’s prime inspiration. That long-lasting, forever glowing love for Cole comes back full-circle for Wade as the veteran entertainer presents his musical homage, a blend of song and narration, to his boyhood hero on Saturday, February 15, at a catered dinner and cabaret performance at the Artists Collective in Hartford.
Beginning at 6:00 pm, festivities include dinner and a one-act musical revue featuring Wade, backed by his longtime accompanist, the noted pianist Frank Owens, plus a special guest appearance for what Wade promises will be an unforgettable highlight of the evening.
Wade lives in Montclair, New Jersey, with his wife, the singer/actor/revue writer and musical theater producer, Jeree Wade. "When I left Pittsburgh to come to New York City," he said by phone, "I was trying to imitate Nat King Cole, my boyhood idol, not Johnny Mathis. So I guess that tells you how good my imitating skills were."
Cole, Wade explained, was always his main inspiration, and was even the subject he chose when he was given an assignment in college to write an essay on his personal hero. "My father introduced me to Nat’s music when I was a kid," Wade said. "He was my idol since high school. Nat and I were both born on March 17, St. Patrick’s Day. Nat’s mother’s name was Perlina; my mom’s was Pauline. When I arrived in New York City, the very first musicians I worked with were Freddy Cole, Nat’s brother, and Freddy’s trio. So you can see, Nat and I were connected by a pretty good line of coincidences."
Called "Nat King Cole Remembered," the show features Wade on stage reprising many Cole classics, generously ranging from romantic ballads like "Blue Gardenia," and "Mona Lisa," to jump tunes like "Straighten Up and Fly Right," and "Route 66." Wade said the goal of the show is to have the audience remember when they heard Cole sing the songs himself, and what the songs meant then and now. A biographical narrative that Wade wrote is interwoven, recounting conversationally on stage as he spins a connective web between the famous songs.
The narrative chronicles Cole’s fascinating life from his youth as a gifted, jazz-obsessed son of a strict Baptist minister father, to his monumental musical triumphs -- first, as a superb jazz pianist, and then to his greatest fame as one of the most celebrated crooners of the 20th century. Cole’s path led to trials and tribulations: agonizing confrontations with racism, failing health, and death from lung cancer in 1965.
Wade’s professional life has also had fascinating facets, including an opening chapter when he skyrocketed to fame. His instant success led to a creditable amount of recordings and hits before he bowed out of the rapidly changing, increasingly rock-dominated music scene to focus on acting.
Fame, maybe even a shot at superstardom, came out of the blue in 1960, surprising even Wade himself. All of a sudden, in his 20s, the young, rookie singer went from obscurity to being a hot product. The kid from Pittsburgh was suddenly in the limelight singing at the prestigious Copacabana, the fabled, Manhattan nightclub where international celebrities and royalty gathered. "My knees were knocking," Wade said. "That’s how new I was. I was in show business for five minutes, and the next thing I knew I was opening for Tony Bennett at the Copacabana. It was like I instantly had to learn how to fly."
By the late '60s, times and tastes had changed radically, with fewer opportunities for lyrical balladeers like Wade. Always resilient, and a renaissance man of diverse showbiz skills, he reinvented himself as an actor. "It was a terrific ride," he said. "I loved every minute of it. The 15 minutes of fame have come, and I enjoyed them most immensely. As a result, I got myself a fine woman as a wife and took care of my kids’ schooling. I’m going to be 79 soon, and I’m having a ball."
In addition to his years of globetrotting gigs as a nightclub entertainer, and countless performances on the road with nationally touring musical productions, Wade has appeared in more than 100 movies, theater productions, commercials, and television shows. Not bad for someone who eased his way into the acting profession by doing voice-overs for commercials -- a natural, mini-forum for his golden-toned delivery.
Wade’s yard-long resume includes appearances in such movies as "Shaft" and "Gordon’s War," as well as on such hit shows as "Hill Street Blues," "Law & Order," "Sanford and Son," and "The Jeffersons." All this, plus doing Vegas shows, Broadway plays, and perhaps most significantly, creating with his wife a musical theater production company, Songbirds Unlimited Productions. In 1984, they produced a musical revue tribute to the Harlem Renaissance, Shades of Harlem, at New York’s Village Gate, and two years ago they played to a packed, highly appreciative dinner theater audience at Hartford's Artists Collective.
In his role as a pioneering figure who broke down racial barriers, in the 1970s Wade became the first African-American to host a national televised game show, "Musical Chairs." Asked if he encountered any racist flak for hosting, Wade recalled that the show was excluded from airing on a CBS affiliate in Alabama, a below-the-Mason-Dixon-Line blow taken, he knew, because of the color of his skin. Plus, he added, there was a flood of hate mail from viewers.
"I’m sure [the show’s producers] hid some of the letters from me," Wade said, "so I wouldn’t get upset. One I did see was from a guy who used all kinds of expletives, saying he didn’t want his wife sitting at home watching the black guy hand out the money and the smarts.”
Even this experience was, at least symbolically, yet another link with Nat Cole, who, years earlier, ran head-on into deep-seated racism as the first African-American to regularly host a TV variety show. Cole’s leap over the color barrier in the 1950s ignited a firestorm of controversy in Southern states. A number of potential major national sponsors shied away from running commercials on Cole’s show out of fear of losing some profitable markets in the Old South, where their products might be boycotted by outraged white viewers.
In Leslie Gourse’s 1991 biography, Unforgettable: The Life and Mystique of Nat King Cole, the jazz historian wrote, "Advertising agencies couldn’t find a client to take on the Cole show. One cosmetics company infuriated Cole by saying that Negroes couldn’t sell lipsticks. 'What do they think we use?' Cole fumed. 'Chalk?'"
As Cole sardonically quipped after bowing out of his highly acclaimed and popular show, "Madison Avenue is afraid of the dark."
Although the plug was pulled on Wade’s TV show after just a few months, he was and still is delighted with the exposure that having his own program provided. "It probably added 30 years to my career,” he said. "It’s crazy. You’re nobody, and then you’re somebody, and then you’re nobody before you snap your fingers. As my friend, the great singer Billy Eckstine, once told me, ‘Show business is the only business in the world where you can go to bed a star, and wake up the next day, and be on the other side where nobody knows your name.’ ”
Although Wade doesn’t dwell on repellent racist attitudes and incidents that he, like Cole, encountered over the years, he does prize one anecdote about an insult that initially stung but, ironically, had a bittersweet, theater-of-the-absurd ending. "I had a country and western hit," he said, "so a hotel in Houston, which favored country and western fare, offered me, sight unseen, a two-week stint. But when my agency -- which was the William Morris Agency back then -- sent them a picture of me, and they realized I was black, they paid me double not to come. It’s the only job I ever had in my life where I got paid for not working." He's still getting the last laugh on the bigots who slammed the door on him years ago.
When asked what he considers to be his greatest accomplishments over the past half-century or so, Wade doesn’t even mention any of his lengthy showbiz credits. "I’m most proud of two things. I went back to college, which I hadn’t finished, at age 60, and earned two degrees: my BA from Lehman College, and my MA from Brooklyn College, where I studied theater history and criticism. Spike Lee delivered our commencement address. And the other is that, as a young man, I worked as a lab technician for Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed the vaccine for polio. I was the first one in my family to go to college, but dropped out in my sophomore year from Virginia State University. I promised my grandmother back then that I would finish college someday. Many years later, I kept that promise."
Even with the Big Eight-Oh looming little more than a year down the road, Wade, a onet-ime, top high school and college jock whose biggest dream as a kid was to play with the Harlem Globetrotters, is still doing the showbiz equivalent of fast breaks and slam dunks. Approaching octogenarian status, he’s still racking up double figures on everything from singing and acting, to running the busy musical revue production company with his wife. "Retirement?" he said with a slightly quizzical tone. "No. Never. They’ll just have to scoop me up and put me in a box. I’ll probably already have on my tux and be ready to travel, so they won’t even have to worry about that."
"Nat King Cole Remembered: A Love Affair," a cabaret musical/dinner performance, begins at 6:00 pm on Saturday, February 15, at The Artists Collective at 1200 Albany Avenue in Hartford. Tickets: $75.00, advance sales only. Information: (860) 527-3205.
Celebrating "The Girls in the Band"
"The Girls in the Band," the great in-depth, beautifully made and historically invaluable documentary on women’s shamefully obscured role in jazz, will be shown at 7:30 pm on Friday, February 14, with a post-screening live performance added, to mark the occasion of the film’s opening night at Hartford’s Real Art Ways.
Director/producer Judy Chaikin’s acclaimed documentary is laden with a compelling array of revealing interviews of women instrumentalists and big band players, priceless vintage clips and swinging sounds by artists, who, most unjustly, you may never have even heard of before.
It’s a powerful indictment of the deep-seated sexism and racism that women jazz musicians have contended with while moving from trials to triumphs in a machismo world where gender mindlessly trumped talent. The long lost era of the 1930's and ‘40's, in particular, comes vividly alive, with the film trumpeting the glory of unknown players as well as mythic heroes ranging from the groundbreaking band, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, which was the first integrated all-women’s band in the United States, to the towering individual genius of the pianist/composer Mary Lou Williams.
Never sugar-coating the bitter historic facts about the blatant discrimination, humiliation and exploitation of women, the film zips along at a dazzling, up-tempo pace thanks to the resilience, wit, candor and hearts and minds of those veterans who thrived and survived. Great anecdotes, some profoundly philosophical; some ringing with irrepressible joy and spirit, abound as women riff on their experiences in on-camera interviews. Not only does this vibrant documentary set out to right old wrongs, sing praises to the undeservedly unsung and shed new light where darkness reigned, it also makes history, swing in a gripping, revelatory manner.
To make the celebratory film’s opening night even more festive, RAW is partnering with the Hartford Jazz Society to present a classy live performance right after the film featuring the Mary DiPaola Trio, with DiPaola on piano, Brian Jenkins on bass and Ben Bilello on drums.
A sweetheart deal, particularly on Valentine’s Day, admission to the film and live performance is just $10.00, general public; $5.00, RAW members. Information: realartways.org and (860) 232-1006. RAW is at 56 Arbor Street in Hartford.
Free Jazz’s “Johnny Appleseed”
Jazz steps right back into the limelight at Real Art Ways at 3:00 pm on Sunday, February 16, as saxophonist Jack Wright, the “Johnny Appleseed” of North American free improvisation, is the featured guest artist in RAW’s monthly Improvisations series.
Born in 1942 in Pittsburgh, Wright, an iconoclastic American original, has been performing and evangelizing for free-form improvised music since 1979, trodding a picaresque pilgrimage of performing, preaching, philosophizing and encouraging young improvising musicians throughout North America and Europe, with even a missionary foray to Japan in 2006.
Along his odyssey on the road, Wright has taught history at Temple University, been involved in radical politics, worked as an organizer on the community level, and written and painted while continuing his perpetual autodidactic studies of European literature and history.
On his Kerouac-like, mini-memoir posted on his website, Wright noted humorously how he used “to rage and stomp around like a Dionysian; now he can make soft and squeaky sounds, mixed with occasional lion roars and dog barkings. ...He may be obscure, but he comes close to doing exactly what he wants in his life, and that is no simple matter for any of us.”
The Whitmanesque, good, gray poet of free jazz displays the Wright stuff at RAW’s Sunday matinee as he hooks up with the series’ curator/performers, trumpeter Steven Haynes and guitarist/bassist Joe Morris, in this rehearsal-free, open-ended session of collaborative improvised music. With the death of old-fashioned conventions, everything is permitted except, of course, clichés, which are absolutely anathema. Tickets: $12.00, RAW members; $15.00, non-members. Information: realartways.org and (860) 232-1006.
Of Love, Lust, The Beatles & Bach
Sure to cover all themes from love to lust, from the Beatles to Bach, pianist/vocalist/composer and raconteur Jim Roberts returns by popular demand to the Music @ Japanalia cabaret series at 7:30 pm on Friday, February 14, at Japanalia Eiko, 11 Whitney Street in Hartford.
A stylish entertainer and classically trained graduate of Manhattan School of Music, Roberts applies his cabaret cachet, classical chops and chic but cheeky comic sense of humor to a diverse repertoire that blends classical and popular music. Warmly embracing Broadway shows and original works, his song list also gives big hugs and kisses to love songs, both naughty and nice, by such titanic tune smiths as George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Noel Coward.
Among this master blender’s tricks of pianistic prestidigitation is his ability to take two radically disparate seeming pieces, like Stephen Sondheim’s "Send in the Clowns" with Johann Sebastian Bach’s "Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring" and fuse them into one seamlessly unified piano work. Similarly, in his musical ministrations, he marries The Beatles with Vivaldi, happily hitching "I Get High with a Little Help from My Friends" to "The Four Seasons."
His writing credits include "I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change," a show whose 6,000 performances made it then the second-longest running Off-Broadway musical in theater history. His show, "The Thing About Men," was voted Best Musical of the 2003/2004 season by the New York Outer Critics Circle. And his children’s musical, "The Velveteen Rabbit," toured the United States for a decade. As a much-in-demand performer, he has appeared at such well-known New York venues as Merkin Concert Hall and the 92nd Street Y. Tickets: $48.00, stage-side table seating; $28.00, general row seating. Reservations: (860) 232-4677.
Hot Pizza, Cool Jazz
Joe Carter, an exceptional guitarist fluent in the musical language of both North and South America, leads his new North Meets South Quartet at 6:00 pm on Sunday, February 16, at Pizzeria Lauretano, 291 Greenwood Avenue in Bethel.
Musically, Carter travels on both sides of the equator with style and swing from Rio to New York, bringing fresh, savory ingredients to everything he serves from pieces by such all-American composers as Cole Porter and Duke Ellington to slices of bossa nova and samba from Brazil. His fellow travelers on his equatorial explorations are vocalist Joan Bartalotta, bassist Bill McCrossen, and drummer Jerrod Cattey. Information: pizzerialauretano.com and (203) 792-1500.
Libraries’ Top-Shelf Picks
Vocalist Erin O’Luanaigh, a promising, young newcomer, and veteran pianist John Brighenti collaborate in an admission-free cabaret tribute to Peggy Lee at 1:15 pm on Thursday, February 13, at the Barney Library at 71 Main Street in Farmington. O’Luanaigh can be heard on her debut album, Honeysuckle Rose, and on four tracks as a featured guest on Brighenti’s album, Swingin’ On a Sunday Afternoon, which was recorded live in 2013 before a packed house at the Hartford Public Library’s Baby Grand Jazz Series.
O’Luanaigh returns as the headliner rather than a supporting player in the free Baby Grand Jazz Series at 3:00 pm on Sunday, February 16, in the atrium at the Hartford Public Library, 500 Main Street. For her encore booking at the downtown library, she’s accompanied once again by Brighenti, a mentor and colleague on piano; along with Lou Bocciarelli on bass, and Tom Devino on drums. Information: hplct.org and (860) 695-6295.
Mims’ Museum Musings
In collaboration with The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, the Music @ Japanalia Series presents a jazz brunch in the downtown museum’s café featuring vocalist Sylvia Mims leading her trio on Sunday, February 16, with seating at 11:00 am and 12:30 pm. Ranging over blues, ballads, bossa novas, and Broadway fare, the young singer is accompanied by two noted musicians, pianist Donn Trenner and bassist Dave Daddario. Tickets: $35.00, general public; $25.00, museum members. Reservations: (860) 838-4100. The museum is at 600 Main Street in Hartford.
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