Category Archives: Music

Remembering Aretha Franklin at Robinson Center with the ASO

On Tuesday, November 16, 2004, Aretha Franklin showed why she was an unparalleled entertainer.

She shared the Robinson stage with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.  The ASO brought Miss Franklin to town as part of the festivities surrounding the opening of the presidential library.  Long a favorite of the Clintons, Miss Franklin sang at his 1993 inaugural festivities the night before he took the oath of office.

Resplendent in a series of white dresses, Miss Franklin was in top form feeding off the love from the audience.  While backstage she may have been dealing with back and knee issues (which I saw first hand), when she stepped on to the stage she was giving her all as she rolled through hit after hit from her starry career.  She sang, she played the piano, she entertained!

It was a sold out house and her voice and energy reached the last row of the balcony.

Prior to her appearance, the ASO played a few selections including variations on “Hail to the Chief” and “America.”

Earlier in the day, I had the chance to meet her.  The ASO had contacted me to see if I could pick up three copies of Bill Clinton’s autobiography for her to have him sign.  I was out and about on Clinton Library-related errands that day, so I happily obliged.  I picked up three copies and delivered them to Robinson Center.  Miss Franklin was on a break in between rehearsals and was about to be interviewed by Craig O’Neill for KTHV.  I only got to shake her hand and briefly say hello, but I could tell she was thrilled to receive the books.

I obviously did not ask to be reimbursed for the expense. The chance to spend a few seconds with her was payment enough.

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Little Rock Look Back: Townsend Wolfe

Townsend Wolfe, who led the Arkansas Arts Center for 34 years, was born on August 15, 1935.  He was hired to lead the Arkansas Arts Center 50 years ago this month.

Though not the founding director of the Arkansas Arts Center, Wolfe was the director for well over half of the institution’s 57 year history. Hired in 1968 at the age of 32 (making him one of the youngest art museum directors in the US at the time), he retired in 2002.  That year he was honored with the Governor’s Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement by the Arkansas Arts Council.

A native of South Carolina, Wolfe held a bachelor’s degree from the Atlanta Art Institute and a master’s degree from the Cranbrook Academy of Art. He also received a certificate from the Harvard Institute of Arts Administration, and honorary doctoral degrees from two other institutions.  After teaching some classes and seminars at the AAC in the early 1960s, he was recruited to return full-time to the Arkansas Arts Center by Governor and Mrs. Winthrop Rockefeller.

During his tenure at the Arts Center, he first was responsible for creating financial stability. After drastic cost-cutting measures, he refocused programming which led to the creation of the current Museum School, a focus of works on paper for the collection, cultivating a thriving collectors group, establishment of a children’s theatre, expansion of statewide services, and several additions to the physical structure.  He encouraged others to collect art and expanded Arts Center programming into Little Rock neighborhoods.

In addition to serving on the National Council of the Arts, Wolfe was a member of the National Museum Services Board and the board of the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts in New York. He was curator for an exhibition in the First Ladies’ Sculpture Garden at the White House in 1995, and was the recipient of the 1997 Distinguished Service Award (outside the profession) by the National Art Educators Association.

Over the years, Wolfe has served in a variety of capacities for the Association of American Museums, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Wolfe, who died in 2017, was posthumously honored by the Arts Center earlier this year with one of its Portrait of a Patron awards.  In 1973, he received the first Winthrop Rockefeller Memorial Award from the Arkansas Arts Center.

RIP Ron Robinson

News has broken that longtime Little Rock ad man Ron Robinson has died.

His contributions to the advertising profession in Arkansas would be worthy of note in and of themselves. But Ron was much more than that.  He was a collector — of stamps, of movie posters, of sheet music, of many things.

If Arkansas was included in a piece of music or a film, Ron Robinson wanted it represented in his collection. The Central Arkansas Library System (CALS) houses and is in the process of cataloging Robinson’s vast collection of sheet music, film posters, and other memorabilia connecting those industries with Arkansas’s history and culture.

The Ron Robinson Theater in the Arcade Building on the Library Square campus, the newest performance space in the River Market district bears Robinson’s name. Programming in the 325-seat multi-purpose event venue is designed for all ages and includes films, music performances, lectures, and children’s activities.

The Ron Robinson Collection includes a large number of pieces of sheet music of songs about Arkansas or with the state’s name in the song’s title, containing everything from Tin Pan Alley tunes describing the state to hits by Arkansas musicians such as Patsy Montana and the Browns to would-be state songs. The collection also includes a number of vintage recordings-including Edison disks of the “Arkansas Traveler”-and other materials depicting the state’s music. It will include Robinson’s huge collection of Arkansas-related movie posters, from which the Butler Center co-produced with him an exhibition last year called “Ark in the Dark,” as well as a vast number of pieces of Arkansas political memorabilia.

A native of Little Rock, Robinson has been an avid collector of all things Arkansas for the past fifty years. He is past chairman and chief executive officer of Cranford Johnson Robinson Woods, a full-service advertising, marketing, and public relations firm. He has served on numerous boards and committees including the Friends of Central Arkansas Libraries (FOCAL), Arthritis Foundation, United Way, American Red Cross Public Information Committee, Arkansas Arts Center, and Arkansas Children’s Hospital.

The late Bob Dorough, Arkansan and musical genius, named a 2019 NEA Jazz Master

Earlier this week, the National Endowment for the Arts announced the 2019 Jazz Masters.  Among them was the late Bob Dorough, who died on April 23 of this year.  The other three recipients are big band leader Maria Schneider, pianist Abdullah Ibrahim, and writer Stanley Crouch.

Dorough’s career spanned more than 70 years in jazz as a singer, pianist, composer, and arranger. His distinctive vocals, clever lyrics, and strong melodies were well-known in the jazz world even before his compositions and vocals for the animation series “Schoolhouse Rock!.”

Born in Arkansas and raised in Texas, hepivoted toward jazz after hearing Benny Goodman and Harry James recordings. During a three-year-stint in the U.S. Army from 1943-45, he worked as an arranger and musician in a Special Services band, then earned a bachelor’s degree in composition at North Texas State Teachers College (now known as the University of North Texas) in 1949.

Dorough relocated to New York City to continue his studies at Columbia University and immersed himself in the vibrant local jazz scene.  After spending six months working at the famed Mars Club in Paris, France, he returned to the U.S. and settled in Los Angeles, performing as pianist-vocalist in clubs and as supporting act between sets for comedian Lenny Bruce. Dorough’s first album, Devil May Care, was released in 1956.

In 1962, Dorough was working on the East Coast when he received a call from Miles Davis who he had met several years before in Los Angeles, asking him to write a Christmas song for him to record. Dorough composed “Blue Xmas (To Whom It May Concern)” and sang it with Davis as well as another track, “Nothing Like You,” used as the closing track of Davis’ album Sorcerer in 1967.

In 1972, Dorough was hired by a New York advertising firm to set the multiplication tables to music to make them easier to learn. It was decided that the songs would make good animation, and Tom Yohe put artwork with the music to create Schoolhouse Rock! Dorough became the musical director of the television series, enlisting other well-known jazz musicians to help write and perform the songs. The animated educational series became a staple of the ABC network’s children’s programming for more than two decades.

In 1998, he was inducted into the Arkansas Jazz Hall of Fame.  The Arkansas Arts Center Children’s Theatre has performed the stage adaptation of “School House Rock Live!” (which was created by Arkansan and AAC alum Scott Ferguson and performed all over the country).

On April 15, 2019, the NEA will host a free concert celebrating the Jazz Masters at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Beginning in 1982, NEA has bestowed the Jazz Master honor on more than 150 people connected to the jazz genre, including Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Dianne Reeves and George Wein. Individuals first are nominated by the public, with an NEA-convened panel assessing the nominations before the National Council on the Arts reviews the recommendations and forwards them along to the NEA chairman, who makes the final decision.

Little Rock Look Back: Robinson Center closes in preparation for Second Act

On July 1, 2014, Robinson Center Music Hall closed so that renovations could commence.  Instead of having a groundbreaking ceremony, Gretchen Hall and LRCVB arranged for a “stage breaking.”  Slats from the stage flooring were pried up with crowbars.

Twenty-eight months later, Robinson Center reopened on-time and on-budget.

(As a side note:  the Culture Vulture announced the countdown before Governor Mike Beebe and various Little Rock leaders used their crowbars for the first breaking of the stage flooring.)

Here are some photos from that ceremony.

Happy Fiscal New Year to many LR Cultural Not-for-Profit Organizations

July 1 marks the start of a new fiscal year for many (if not most) cultural organizations in Little Rock.  The previous year has ended, hopefully in the black.

Just as a new calendar year does not automatically wipe away past problems (oh, if only), a new fiscal year does not erase past issues. But it does provide a new framework and new opportunities for moving forward.

So HAPPY FISCAL NEW YEAR. May FY 2018/2019 be the best year ever!

Services announced for Dr David O. Belcher

Western Carolina University has announced the services for Dr David O. Belcher.

The memorial will be Saturday, June 23, 2018, at 1:00pm EDT. It will be at the Bardo Fine and Performing Arts Center on the WCU campus, where Dr. Belcher often performed.

A dessert reception will follow the service in the Bardo Arts Center Star Lobby.

It will be livestreamed on the WCU website here. (12 noon for those from the Missouri State University and University of Arkansas at Little Rock communities who might want to watch it.)