Black History Month – Aretha Franklin and Robinson Center

wjc-arethaTwo days before the Clinton Presidential Center opened, at Robinson Center Music Hall, patrons were warmed by the musical talents of Aretha Franklin.

She shared the Robinson stage with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.  The ASO brough 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 the Culture Vulture 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.

Born in Memphis, she moved to Detroit before age five and grew up singing at church.  After gaining some fame singing gospel songs, at 18 she switched to more secular music.  After initially singing for Columbia Records, she moved to Atlantic Records, later to Arista, and now has her own label.

Among her hits are “Respect,” “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman,” “Chain of Fools,” “Think,” “Share Your love with Me,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” “Spanish Harlem,” “Break It to Me Gently,” “Jump to It,” “Get It Right,” and “Freeway of Love.”

Franklin received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1979 and became the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. NARAS awarded her a Grammy Legend Award in 1991, then the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1994, the same year she was a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1994.  In 1999, she received the National Medal of Arts from Bill Clinton.  George W. Bush bestowed her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.  She has 17 Grammy Awards and 14 additional nominations.

Black History Month – Andre Watts at Robinson Center

andre-wattsClassical pianist Andre Watts has performed at Robinson Center with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.

In 1963, 16 year old Andre Watts won a piano competition to play in the New York Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concert at Lincoln Center, conducted by Leonard Bernstein.  Within weeks of the contest the renowned conductor tapped Watts to substitute for the eminent but ailing pianist Glenn Gould, for a regular performance with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The performance was televised nationally, with Watts playing Liszt’s E-flat Concerto, and his career was launched.

Born in Germany to an American soldier and a Hungarian mother, he grew up on military bases.  At age 8, his family moved to Philadelphia. Following his 1963 performance, he won a Grammy in 1964 (at age 17) for Best New Classical Artist.

Since the 1960s, he has maintained a busy concert schedule. Along the way, he played for President Nixon’s first inaugural concert, graduated from college, been featured on PBS Live from Lincoln Center, toured Japan and Europe and the US.  At age 26, he received an honorary doctorate from Yale.  In 2004, he was appointed to the music faculty at the University of Indiana.  At age 70, he still performs concerts.  In 2011, he received the National Medal of the Arts.

Black History Month – Lionel Hampton and Robinson Auditorium

lionelhampton2Bandleader Lionel Hampton made several stops at Robinson Center throughout his career.

Born in 1908 in Louisville, he and his mother bounced around to Alabama and Wisconsin before settling in Chicago in 1916.  Originally a drummer, he started playing around with the vibraphone. In 1930, Louis Armstrong asked him to play the vibes on a couple of tracks for an album – and a new career was born.

In 1936, he started playing with Benny Goodman in an integrated trio and quartet.  In 1940, he left Goodman to form his own big band.  It was with this group that he would appear at Robinson Auditorium.  He continued to tour from the 1950s up until the 1980s.  Though he had to curtail his performance schedule after suffering a stroke onstage in 1991, he would perform from time to time in the 1990s.  His last performance was in 2001 not long before his death.

In his career, he received the 1992 Kennedy Center Honors, 1996 National Medal of the Arts, and numerous honorary degrees.

Black History Month – Ella Fitzgerald and Robinson Auditorium

ellaElla Fitzgerald appeared at Robinson Auditorium in the 1940s.  She made the stops as she crisscrossed the US performing her hit songs.

Born in Virginia in 1917, she was raised in Yonkers. At 17 she won a contest at the Apollo Theatre which launched her career.  Saxophonist Benny Carter and bandleader Chick Webb were both instrumental in helping her establish her career.  She would tour with Webb until his death, and then took over as bandleader.

In 1938, at the age of 21, Ella recorded a playful version of the nursery rhyme, “A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” The album sold 1 million copies, hit number one, and stayed on the pop charts for 17 weeks.

She later toured with Dizzy Gillespie’s band and there met Ray Brown. The two would marry and adopt a son, Ray Jr.  Though they divorced in 1952, they remained friends.

In the late 1940s through the 1960s, Ella joined the Philharmonic tour, worked with Louis Armstrong on several albums and began producing her songbook series. From 1956-1964, she recorded covers of other musicians’ albums, including those by Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Irving Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart.

As she moved into the 1970s, Ella kept performing. She also started receiving honors and honorary degrees.  She was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1979.  In 1987, President Reagan bestowed upon her the National Medal of the Arts.  Her final concert was in 1991 at Carnegie Hall.  She died in June 1996 in California.