Saturday, September 17, 2011

Fate Marable: Father Of Pittsburgh Jazz

Fate Marable Band from Traditional Jazz

Fate Marable was born in Paducah, Kentucky, in 1890 and learned to play piano from the lap of his mother. He was taught well, too, playing professionally by his ninth birthday.

In 1907, at the of age 17, he began entertaining on the steamboats that churned up and down the Mississippi River. Marable started out playing on the paddlewheeler "JS 1" as part of duet - he tickled the ivories alongside a violinist - but soon picked up players and became a cruise bandleader.

He worked for Captain Joe Streckfus' Line, which featured dances on their bread-and-butter day trip excursions. His cruises plied the Mississippi from New Orleans to points northeast along the Ohio. Streckfus considered his boats "floating ballrooms" and was a hands-on operator, attending every rehearsal and critiquing the performance.

Marable dug the jazz sound being played in the delta and soon incorporated it into his playlist, picking up players from NOLA and along the river towns who were familiar with the music. His musicians were more than just jazz cats, though. They had to keep the customers happy and the boat's dance floor full, so his card included jazz, ragtime, standards and current tunes.

The bandleader was a technician and perfectionist, only tolerating artists who were professional in their craft and able to play music from a sheet, but allowing those with the chops to improvise. His groups went under the banner of the Society Syncopators, Kentucky Jazz Band, Metropolitan Jaz-E-Saz Orchestra and the Jazz Maniacs.

The band served as a musical doctorate program for those who would eventually become a who's who of early jazz artists - Louis Armstrong, Baby and Johnny Dodds, Zutty Singleton, King Oliver, Johnny St. Cyr, Tommy Ladnier, Red Allen, Pops Foster, Narvin Kimball, Gene Sedric, Jimmy Blanton, Earl Bostic and Al Morgan were numbered among its members.They spread the sound of jazz from its Big Easy birthplace throughout the Mississippi and Ohio River valley towns, traveling as far north as St. Paul and east to Pittsburgh.

By the early twenties, Marable's band was widely considered the best dance outfit not only on the river, but in the country.

Marable was famous for another thing, too - he played the boat's steam calliope, and the organ music could be heard echoing along the river for miles, announcing both the arrival of the steamship and his band. It was said that the keys would get so hot - we assume from the steam, though maybe his playing had something to do with it - that Marable had to wear gloves when he performed. He also sported a hooded raincoat while playing because the steam would condense from the pipes and rain down on him.

Like most riverboat musicians, he needed an off season gig, generally beginning after Labor Day, to keep the daily bread on the table. When the boats were drydocked for the winter, Marable would work out of his business base of St. Louis, his hometown of Paducah and Pittsburgh, where his family stayed while he was touring on the steamers. In fact, we believe his son, Fate Marable, is still alive and kicking in the Steel City at the age of 87.

Marable led a band and played piano at the Leader House on Wylie and Crawford Avenues (which would continue on as the Crawford Grill in 1930), the Centre Avenue Bailey Hotel, considered the elite black stopover in the City and where African-American performers playing Pittsburgh would stay, and other Hill District hot spots.

His band is thought to be one of the first pair of all-black swing orchestras performing in the city, along with Lois Deppe and the Serenaders. He also performed on the Pittsburgh steamboat circuit for their local excursions on boats like the Senator, pounding away on the calliope when he wasn't leading the band.

Not only did he expose the City to jazz, but Marable was a considered a seminal influence, sometimes called the founding father of the storied line of Pittsburgh jazz pianists like Mary Lou Williams, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Erroll Garner, Billy Strayhorn, Ahmad Jamal and Horace Parlan, along with local keyboardists like Dodo Marmarosa and Johnny Costa.

And while not credited to Marable publicly, we wouldn't be surprised if his calliope chops didn't help to jump start the emergence of Pittsburgh's famed Hill District organ houses and local Hammond players like Gene Ludwig, Bill Heid, Wendell Freeman and John Papi.

While he didn't personally shape any of their careers (although a couple may have sat in with his band), Marable was the man who introduced jazz to the City. He was the shadchan who started the torrid jazz love affair that would last for decades between the town and its players and continue on today.

Marable continued to lead paddlewheel bands until 1940, when an infected finger threatened to cut short his livelihood. He recovered, but that marked the end of his Pittsburgh era as he retired from the river and opted to finish out his career playing in St. Louis clubs. He died there at the age of 56 from pneumonia and was buried in his home town of Paducah.

There's not much left to mark Fate Marable's career. The only record he cut was the 1924 78 RPM "Frankie and Johnny" b/w "Pianoflage" on Okeh 40113 with the Society Syncopators, and he was light years removed from the archival You Tube vid era. But he is the Johnny Appleseed of jazz, sowing its seeds from The City That Care Forgot across the heartland. Those seeds took root deepest in Pittsburgh, helping spawn a vibrant jazz scene of national renown that is still going strong.

(Most of Fate Marable's career in Pittsburgh is mentioned only in passing in his bios. Several mainly local works note some of his contributions, primarily "The WPA History Of The Negro In Pittsburgh," written in 1940 by Lawrence Glasco. Old Mon would like to thank Paul Carosi of Pittsburgh Music History for pointing out that resource in his article.)

Friday, September 9, 2011

America's Small Town Music Capital: Canonsburg

Canonsburg is a small borough of about 9,000 souls, located in Washington County, eighteen miles southwest of Pittsburgh. It was laid out by namesake Colonel John Canon in 1789 and incorporated in 1802. The town is famous culturally for its Oktoberfest, Fourth of July parade, and proud musical heritage.

And with a roster of music-makers from the big time to local heroes like those listed below, why wouldn't they be?

Pierino "Perry" Como: Yes, he started in a barber shop and was quite good at snipping hair, too. Fortunately for the music world, he found something that he was even better at. Como had 14 Number One hits on various lists and 48 songs that charted. He hosted the Kraft Music Hall and specials galore on TV.

Como was honored with five Emmys, a Christopher Award, and shared a Peabody Award with bud Jackie Gleason. He was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame in 1990 and received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1987.

After he passed away in 2001, Como received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and was inducted into the Long Island Music and the Hit Parade Halls of Fame. Como has three individual stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his body of work in radio, television, and music. And as highly regarded as he was in musical circles, he was more highly thought of as a true gentleman.

Canonsburg honored him with a statue and Perry Como Avenue.

Bobby Vinton (Vintula): His dad Stan was a popular local big band leader and got his son rolling on the music track. Good move; after a sluggish start, Vinton went on to record four Number One tunes and had 28 songs that charted in the Top Forty.

He's also the Canonsburg link to The Tempos of  "See You In September" fame. Vinton sang with Clairton's Mike Lazo and Gene Schacter as the Hi Lites in the mid-fifties. Lazo and Schacter went on to form the Tempos when they returned from the Army in 1957. Vinton sang briefly with them again before they went their separate ways.

The town fathers named Bobby Vinton Boulevard and Drive after the Polish Prince. He vetoed a statue, insisting that the money be spent on something the town needed. It took a while for the street names to get the OK, though. Earlier attempts to name a residential road for Vinton were scrapped because some of the homeowners were honked that Vinton called Pittsburgh rather than Canonsburg home!

The Four Coins: Jimmy Gregorakis, George Mantalis, and the brothers George and Jack Mahramas formed the smooth vocal group. They started as part of Bobby Vinton's "Band of Tomorrow" and later became the Four Keys.

As the Four Coins, the quartet charted five Top Thirty songs, led by "Shangri-la" at #11. Their other hits were "My One Sin," "The World Outside," "Memories of You" and their first breakout song "We'll Be Married." They were also well-known for performing ethnic Greek and Italian tunes.

The Four Coins caught their break when local band leader Lee Barrett took them to Cincy to audition for General Artists, which got the ball rolling for them. They left show biz in 1970 to take care of their families, though they did briefly reunite for two final shows in 2003 at the Pepsi Roadhouse and pop up on rare occasion for PBS specials and the such.

Four Coins Drive was named after the group.

Gregg Kostelich: Kostelich is the guitarist for the garage punk rockers The Cynics and famous for his fuzzy riffs. The hard-touring band has been together since 1984 and is an overseas favorite. He got his start playing for a local outfit called Cottonmouth.

Kostelich founded the local label Get Hip, which of course issues the Cynics and other edgy bands, but also has done a great job of preserving the old acts through its Archive Series. He does business in a contrarian way; no big box retailers for his releases. Get Hip wax is only sold at the indie stores as part of his passion for music and insistence that each release get individual attention.

Chuck Edwards (Edwin): The jazz/R&B player moved to Canonsburg in 1959 or so. He took a day job in the mill, with club and session gigs filling the night. He was a popular local performer with several regional favorites on wax, and hit it big with "Bullfight" in 1966. It was taped at Gateway Studios and first released on his own Rene label, to be later picked up by Roulette for national distribution. His 1968 song "Downtown Soulsville" became a huge Northern Soul record across the pond.

In 1972, he and the clan Edwards moved to the coast, where the family released some tunes as the Edwards Generation in the mid-seventies. Chuck passed away outside San Jose in 2001 in Pittsburg, California.

Phil Lipari: The Canonsburg native was the featured vocalist on Chuck Edward's first Rene release, singing "Please Come Back" b/w "Later For You Darling," issued in 1962.

Joey Powers (Ruggierio): Look up "one hit wonders" and "Midnight Mary" always pops up. It was recorded by Canonsburg's Joey Powers on Amy Records, and charted at  #10 in 1963-64. While he didn't produce any more hit records, the Joey Powers Flowers were a hot and very much in-demand group in the Jersey/Philly area clubs for years.

He first recorded under the name Joey Rogers, and his initial career was given a boost by Perry Como. The last rumored 411 on Powers is that he's a missionary in Russia, operating a Christian recording studio.

Jason Walker: Known for his soulful vocals, Walker scored a #1 track on the Billboard Hot Dance Music/Club Play chart in 2004 with "Foolish Mind Games" and in 2005 with "Set It Free." Walker cracked the Top 10 three other times, with "My Life" (#3), "No More" (#5) and "Movin' On" (#7).

He's now based in Brooklyn.

Four Townsmen: The group got together as Canon-Mac high school mates in 1959, and had a pair of local hits with “Sometimes (When I’m All Alone)” and “It Wasn’t So Long Before (Graduation Is Here)” on Odell Bailey's Art-Flow Records label in 1962.

The original members were Chuck Marshall, Bobby Kraushaar, Lou Gadani and Pete Kouklakis. Marshall passed away in 1985, Kraushaar retired, and Gadini and Kouklakis, along with Eric Bruce and Pete Povich, reformed the group in 1999. They're still performing a revue with a backing band and have a trio of CDs out.

Donnybrooks: John Alterio, Ken Paige, Frank Trebel, and Bob Kobert, Third Ward School classmates, started as the Phaetons in 1954, guided by their grade school music teacher Lou Popiolkowski. The group entered a talent contest with KDKA Radio as The Four Pals (one story has them named after DJ Art Pallan, but Frank Trebel says "...we selected the name 'the Four Pals' because we were four real friends and pals." Cool!) in 1958, winning a recording contract with Calico Records.

Their first record, "Everytime We Kiss," was a big local hit under the new name of the Donnybrooks. The group traveled the East Coast and performed as part of the regional club circuit on the strength of that song. They cut two records with Calico Records, (four songs) Three were written by  Popiolkowski and one, "Mandolins of Love" was written by Tony Ambrose, another Canonsburg song writer.

After their breakup in 1960, only Kobert continued in the industry, recording for Alanna and Souvenir Records as Bobby Shawn and still performing locally.

Vic DaPra: DaPra made a local name for himself as the lead singer and guitarist from 1972 to 1984 for Sugarcane, which opened for Joan Jett at the Stanley Theater. Now he's more known for his expertise with guitars. He's co-owner of Guitar Gallery and a collector of old axes.

DaPra received the ultimate honor when Gibson named a guitar for him, the Vic DaPra Bourbon Fade, a reissue of a 1959 Les Paul model. He's also written a pair of highly regarded guitar books, "Burst" and "Sunburst Alley." DaPra is a 1970 Canonsburg Hi grad and Gregg Kostelich's cousin.

Big Guns: Jay Kasper, Mike Touville, Mark Knapp and Don Pruse form Big Guns, a country rock band that's had some national exposure and radio play, opening for Hank Williams Jr., Travis Tritt, Willie Nelson, Kenny Chesney and a whole slew of country acts. Around since the mid-nineties, the group tours mainly in the east and south, and regularly play many of the local country festivals.

They were named as the area's "Best Country Band" from 1996-98 by various local publications, and their latest CD is called "Bang."

Antoinette (Manganas): She may not have broken out yet, but the jazz/R&B vocalist has made quite a name for herself in the regional clubs (she started out at Deja Vu). Antoinette has a CD titled "Crush" out and is working on another. She suffered an early career setback when her first album went unreleased after her indie label went belly up, so she's making up for lost time.

But hey, how can you bet against her? Antoinette was raised on Perry Como Avenue and opened for both the Four Coins and Bobby Vinton. There's a whole lotta good hometown mojo working for the lady.

The bandleaders: We've mentioned Lee Barrett, who led his own Orchestra, and Stan Vinton (who also played in the Canonsburg Italian Band with Perry Como). There was a third bandleader that was popular in the area, and that was Lee Kelton, who for a brief period had radio DJ Art Pallan as his singer.

Bluesman Louisiana Red (Iverson Minter) also spent a little time in Canonsburg as a ward of his aunt and uncle. However, all he recalls from that spell was beatings from his unc, paddlings at school and a stint in a reformatory. So hey, maybe that's where he first caught his lifelong case of the blues.

Canonsburg touts itself as "America's Small Town Music Capital" on its web site. And they sure won't get an argument from us.

(There's a lot of talent from Canonsburg, so if we missed some acts, rest assured it's just an oversight. Google and a couple of phone calls usually don't cover all the bases. Please let us know of any other town musicians we may have missed. And Old Mon gives his sincere thanks to music writer and historian Dave Sallinger for calling on his network to help whip this post into shape.)

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Terry O'Hara

Terry O'Hara is a wandering minstrel who found roots in Pittsburgh, joining the region's eclectic clan of singer/songwriters after drifting around the country.

The musician, who has lived in Pittsburgh for about ten years now, held a series of jobs during his journey, running the gamut from from dishwasher to street busker. He's more or less followed the Woody Guthrie tradition, hitting the road with his harmonica stuck in his back pocket, guitar strap slung tight and taking notes. And that trail less traveled defined the timbre of his musical being.

He told Scott Mervis of the Post Gazette "I've worked a variety of jobs that were somewhat marginalizing, and I think that's always benefitted my music. This might be one of the keys to making music or writing, in my opinion: to experience alienation and aloneness."

O'Hara has described himself as introspective and reflective, and those traits permeate his songs. His music, depending who you ask, has been described as mellow, downtempo or melancholy, and sometimes all three at once. It's definitively stuff perfectly tailored for drifting away in time and space.

His sound has been compared by various reviewers to Radiohead, Mojove 3, My Morning Jacket, Red House Painters and early Flaming Lips, but the two that stand out to O'Hara are Granddaddy and Sparklehorse.

"Sparklehorse and Granddaddy were bands that blew open the world for me. There was a melancholy feel to the music and lyrics that felt right," he said in the Mervis interview.

To Old Mon, the music is classical in arrangement, but crafted with the toolkit of an Americana roots artist - acoustic guitar, pedal steel, keys, kit and whatever else adds to the layers, forming a seamless matryoshka doll of sequestered sound. Like classical melodies, it's meant to make your senses fade into a reverie. So roll over, Beethoven...

His first Pittsburgh group was the short lived band Autumn Leaves, made up of O'Hara, Ian Peksa, who played drums, and multi-instrumentalist Ian Toole. (O'Hara says "I had never known an Ian in my life and found myself playing with two of them.") They'd meet in Peksa's Cheswick basement for their sessions.

The Autumn Leaves cut a demo and were featured on WPTS, Pitt's radio station, just before Peksa split to the Big Apple. That was the end of Autumn Leaves and the beginning of Summer-Winter.

O'Hara, with a stack of songs waiting for life, explained "I found a bunch of local friends and musicians to help play." The music sprang from paper to tape by their hand, and the result was the 2009 album "Alone is Yes."

Summer-Winter was more a tribal project than a band; thirteen players were listed on the album credits. O'Hara wrote all the songs and played eight instruments. Much of the recording was done at Mr. Small's, and the album is available through CD Baby.

The disc picked up some good press and a positive vibe from the cognoscenti. The cut "Tired" was featured on NPR’s "All Songs Considered" along with a strong write-up for the release. Music maven Scott Mervis gave the album some love in the Post Gazette, too.

The mood of "Alone Is Yes" was captured by Alex Cleary, the reviewer for Americana UK, who wrote Summer-Winter married "...two disparate emotional concepts: the disaffected tragedy of youth and the more perceptive melancholy of wisdom and experience. It feels like a lifetime of reflection has gone into this disc." It wasn't a dance record, but a groove for introspection.

Summer-Winter played a few shows, starting with their release party at Garfield Artworks, and O'Hara began working on his current album, "Bewildered." (available for digital download at He again authored all the songs and had a lot of artists contribute. Mr. Small's was the main studio, and Larry Luther mixed and mastered the tracks, as he did for "Alone Is Yes."

"We tried to go with some different musicians this time around," O'Hara said. There were a dozen players on this effort, both local and New-York based. Like the last record, there's not a lot of early live support behind the album. According to O'Hara "We have yet to play a show and are working out the details on a release show for the late fall."

So stay tuned. When Terry gets his band together and on the circuit, stop by and catch the performance. Summer-Winter will lead you to a pensive corner of your mind that we think you'll like.