‘I still feel my late friend’s presence around me and in all the things that I do.’
“When I was about 7 or 8 years old, my best friend died. He and I were students at Ludlum Elementary School, which is now Barack Obama Elementary School, in Hempstead. As I dealt with his death, I was lucky to have had a great homeroom teacher. She really cared. She sat me down and held my hand. I wanted to know, where was my friend? She helped me to understand that he wouldn’t be with us anymore.
“This teacher was instrumental in helping me get through this tragic event. After that, music became my new best friend. The Jackson 5 had had a huge impact on me after they became the first African American family on the cover of Life magazine. My mother gave me the Jackson 5’s “ABC” album. I was inspired by Michael Jackson. I started taking drums in school and learned to play the old-fashioned way, with a rubber pad and size 2b drumsticks. I learned to read music, and when I got to junior high, I joined the marching band.
“One day, I was offered the opportunity to dance and sing in front of everybody; I was too shy. I kept my pursuit of music fully intact, playing the drums at first, thinking I was better off in the background. But I wanted more, so I took up the bass guitar because when you play it, you stand up in front of the drummer. At the time, I had an idea that I couldn’t sing, but practice makes perfect.
“One of my teachers at Hempstead High School said he thought I was very talented, and that I should join the school choir. I also joined a local band, where I was the baby of the group. During a rehearsal, I grabbed the microphone and sang ‘Get Down on It’ by Kool & the Gang. That was my official coming out as a performer. Since then, I went to college on a full scholarship and went on to perform with a who’s who of the music industry. But deep down in the end, I still feel my late friend’s presence around me and in all the things that I do. I can still see his face as clear as day. He’s come to me in my dreams. I feel he’s living vicariously through me.”
Our best made plans pale in comparison to what God has planned for us.
“While I was a student at Hempstead Middle School, I had a girlfriend whose father had a limo company. He was hired by The Weather Girls, who had a huge disco hit, ‘It’s Raining Men.’ I absolutely loved Martha Wash’s voice and thought she was one of the best singers on the planet. It’s a coincidence that would echo years later when I began my music career. I began to get serious about music as a student at in high school, where I played drums in the International Art of Jazz Ensemble. The instructor was tough on me. He was one of those old-school guys who was really hard on students. I used to think he was picking on me, so one day I said, ‘I don’t think you’re being fair to me.’ He took me aside and said the reason he was so hard on me was he believed I had the talent to be a great R&B player!
“I went on to win a music scholarship to LIU Brooklyn. I worked the graveyard shift at UPS. One day, I was working at the conveyor belt when a record box fell out of one of the deliveries. It contained the 45 ‘Just Us’ by Two Tons O’ Fun; their backup singers became The Weather Girls. When the box broke, I saw that the 45 was an excess item in the package. I felt it was a sign of some sort, so I kept it. Not long after that, I got a phone call from the music director for Evelyn “Champagne” King, who needed a drummer for a performance by – you guessed it – The Weather Girls’ Martha Wash. As soon as we started rehearsing, it was like I was born to be her drummer. I went up to her and said, ‘I’ve loved you ever since I was in junior high school.’
“One day I was home; I remembered I had that record. I brought it to one of our performances, and she autographed it, ‘To City, thanks so much, love, Martha Wash.’ It’s framed and hanging on my wall at home. I continued to play drums for such legendary artists as Philip Bailey of Earth, Wind & Fire, Jeffrey Osborne, Tito Puente, Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington orchestras. I landed the role of Sam Cooke in the ‘Buddy Holly Story’ on Broadway, also played drums and upright bass in the production and met Paul McCartney, who owns the publishing rights to Holly’s song catalog. Our best made plans pale in comparison to what God has planned for us.”
I can make myself sound like Dr. King.
“My stepfather came into my life when I was young. He was a door-to-door salesman of Ebony magazine Black history encyclopedias and gave me a set, which I remember was about eight volumes. They were all mine. I could scribble my notes in them, rip out and save pages – and they were full of information we hardly ever got at school. They taught me about Crispus Attucks, the first American killed in the American Revolution; Frederick Douglass; the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Reading that encyclopedia gave me more of a diverse and inclusive education than a lot of my friends had.
“That early exposure to Black history has served me well as I’ve traveled as a performer abroad and across the United States. I’m the lead vocalist, percussionist and musical director for the City Sounds Music Ensemble, a nine-member group that also includes a bass, guitar, keyboard, sax and trumpet players, and two female singers. We are the unofficial artists in residence at the Elmont Memorial Library theater.
“The first show I put together there was themed ‘Love One Another Right Now,’ with songs from different eras on the subject of love. The library invited me back, and I kept coming up with other ideas for shows: ‘Soul Train Caboose,’ ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us Now’ and ‘MLK Is Still the Way,’ the latter performed with Town of Hempstead senior Councilwoman Dorothy L. Goosby. Mrs. Goosby read Dr. King’s ‘Letter From Birmingham Jail,’ and I acted it out. I am also an ordained Baptist minister, which makes it easier for me to emulate Dr. King, make myself sound like Dr. King and embody his spirit. Audiences are looking to be entertained, but when I recall what Dr. King went through in order just to bring about peace and equality, and how he died so violently, I feel a sense of real responsibility to educate as well as entertain and to show that African American history is American history. The Elmont public library has given me a platform to preserve African American culture one tune at a time. While every show I do for them is different, everything we do – pop, R&B, etc. – is an offshoot from the work songs the slaves used to sing. It’s America’s music, and it’s for everybody.”