The legendary R&B piano great who lit up.
The legendary R&B piano great who lit up Toronto’s Yonge Street strip back in the 60s with Frank Motley, King Herbert and Jackie Shane can’t think of a better way to celebrate his 75th birthday on Saturday (January 17) than by pounding the night away with Julian Fauth, Chris Whiteley and Diana Braithwaite at the Silver Dollar. Count on a lease-breaker of a party – it’s being recorded by Electro-Fi for a live album release.
How’d you hook up with Billie Holiday?
When I moved to Washington, DC, in 1951, I used to go to the Howard Theatre and hang out at the back with the entertainers, and Billie Holiday happened to be there one night. I was much younger than her, but for some reason she took a shine to me. We’d meet in a bar or club and talk, but we never dated.
What do you remember about the first time you played Toronto?
It was in 1955, and it was real cold, like nothing I’d ever experienced. I came up with Frank Motley for a gig at the old Holiday Tavern on the corner of Queen and Bathurst, across the street from the Paddock. We were booked for two weeks and we wound up staying six months. Toronto took a little getting used to, but after touring through different places in Canada, I came to realize this is where I shoulda been all my life. I loved the people in Toronto. I felt like I belonged here, and everyone treated me like I did.
How’d you meet up with Jackie Shane?
We ran into him at Montreal’s Esquire Showbar in 1960. He was sitting near the front with a red suit on and his hair done up like Little Richard. When Motley said, “Get that kid up here and let’s see what he can do,” I invited him up onstage for the next set. Man, let me tell you, Jackie set that place on fire. The way he sang those Ray Charles and Bobby “Blue” Bland songs, I mean both women and men thought he was it.
Are you excited about Saturday night?
At my age, it’s wonderful just to be alive, so I’m thrilled to still be able to move around and play music. Knowing that there are younger people interested in hearing my stuff keeps me going. Before moving out to Barrie, where I am now, I lived in Toronto for 35 years, so I really look forward to coming back and meeting people I haven’t seen in a long time.