Archive for Kwaku Saunders

Fronting for Uncle Charlie

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, Photo-Essays with tags , , on October 31, 2015 by playthell

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Promoter Darryl Anderson  and Mayor Todd Strange

This Could be the Start of Something Big!

When I was a very young man selling life insurance, my sales manager called me into his office one day and said “We really don’t offer benefits much different from a dozen other companies; the key to selling is to sell yourself, make the customer like you so that they will buy from you rather than the other guy.”  Riding around Montgomery Alabama wheeling and dealing with concert producer Kwaku Saunders, as he put the various pieces in place for a Charlie Wilson concert on November 7, I witnessed the truth of the manager’s claim.

We set out early, driving down from Atlanta at six in the morning, and from the moment we hit town he went to work.  The first stop on a crowded agenda was a press conference with the Mayor of Montgomery to announce the forthcoming concert and receive the Mayor’s personal welcome.  There was a slight chill in the clear morning  air as we were joined by the concert’s promoter Daryl  Anderson at Montgomery’s beautiful River Front Park, the venue where the concert will be held.

A Fabulous Venue for a Concert

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The producer will convert this elegant band shell into a state of the art sound stage

The Mayor was warm and exceedingly eloquent in his comments as the television camera’s rolled, employing terms like “ambiance” – with the proper French pronunciation – in his descriptions of the venue.  Listening to his southern drawl I had figured him for a country music fan, but the enthusiastic way spoke of Charlie Wilson’s forthcoming concert one would never know.  He sounded like a sho nuff soul man from way back in the chicken shack, cut from the same cloth as Elvis who was a huge fan of black music.

There were hearty smiles all around and a whole heap of back slapping. It was a portrait of good will as both sides congratulated each other for making the event happen. It was a portrait of a deal well done, because the essence of a successful deal is that both sides get what they want. For the Mayor and the promoter there was far more at stake than a single concert.

After explaining the complicated arrangement with the state that brought River Front Park into being, Mayor Strange pointed out that he had not found a way to make it pay.  Hence he was all ears for whatever the promoters had to say.  The promoter was seeking to promote a series of events this beautiful venue not just hit it and quit it…and this was seductive music to the Mayors ears  It sounded like a match made in Nirvanah, a splendid example of the art of deal making.

Although there are standard steps in successfully promoting a concert, securing the act and the venue being basic to the project, actually producing a successful public event that makes, rather than loses money, is far more art than science.  It involves being able to think on ones feet and sell the dream of a glorious evening when all will participate in a joyous occasion to various people who are vital to your success. In this instance it was a performance by the legendary song and dance man Charlie Wilson, with the lady killer crooner El Debarge as the opening act.

A few years ago promoting  concert featuring these two stellar performers would have been a piece of cake.  Although they are performing at a high level and some music critics, commentators and fellow musicians feel that the are better than ever, they appeal to an old school crowd that require more effort toget out than the youth market.  However among young musical performers its a different story; they know these artists because they were influenced by their work.    In fact, the nick name “Uncle Charlie” was bestowed on Wilson by Rappers who got their grove on listening to Charlie when he was the leader of the ultra-funky Gap Band.

Kwaku’s task was to sell this concert to the right demographic and see to it that everything is in order to deliver a great show, while satisfying the myriad demands of the artists contained in “riders” i.e. special clauses in their contracts. It was fascinating watching Kwaku as he artfully put all the pieces of this complex puzzle together so that things will move with the precision of clockworks.

Nobody does it better, as his splendid track record as an events producer will testify.  Kwaku has worked in every phase of the business first as an agent with Norby Walters – who taught him the tricks of the trade – then on to the Super agency William Morris.  From there he went into artist management – Mint Condition, The Sounds of Blackness, etc – and finally events production, where he produced Jazz in the Gardens for the city of Miami Gardens, taking it from a non-entity to the largest music festival in the South, attracting as many as 50,000 paying customers a night over several days.  He is one of the best in the business of putting performing artists on stage.

From the press conference with the Mayor we went straight away to a meeting of the Special Events office for the City of Montgomery.  Although the coming event and the promise of future events had a built in appeal, Kwaku still had to convince them to get on board for some complicated and potentially costly tasks.  Although he is a big guy, his luminous smile, soft spoken demeanor and abundant charm cast him as a jovial giant.  It is a winning combination; plus he can “talk a gopher outta his hole” as folks used to say when describing smooth talkers back in the day when I was growing up in Florida.

Kwaku got everything he wanted from them and we proceeded to the best hotel in town, where he also got the deal he wanted.  Then he worked out a peachy arrangement with the local Coca Cola distributor to supply soft drinks.  And it was on to meetings with a local promoter who was engaged for his expertise with the Montgomery market, then he worked out a deal with the local radio station.  It was like watching a great performing artist at work; a thing of beauty if you are into business deals.

By the time we headed back to Atlanta all the pieces of the puzzle were in place, and those who attend this concert are in for the time of their lives.  All that Uncle charlie and El Debarge will have to do come show time is walk out on stage and “break a leg” as they say in show business.  The front men will have done everything else – lights, sound, seating, food and drink concessions, security, seating, etc right down to supplying the guitar stands.  Now let the show begin on November 7th!

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What a Place for a Show!

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A Riverfront setting that combines modern design…….
….with ancient Greco-Roman inspired architecture

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Combining the Classic with the quintessentially American
The Promenade is Stunning!

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A great place for a stroll and drinks before curtain call….
……Or Recline on the Veranda of the Sand bar

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Imbibing fine Spirits…..
Maybe even take a Steamboat Ride
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Before the Show begins
The Choices are Endless

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Take Your Choice
And then there’s Charlie!

CINCINNATI, OH - JULY 26: Charlie Wilson performs during the 2013 Macy's Music Festival at Paul Brown Stadium on July 26, 2013 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images)

Large and in Charge

And El Debarge

El 5- EL DEBARGE

Driving the Ladies Crazy with his Soulful Tenor Voice
Kwaku Lays out the Master Plan
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Guiding them through Step by Step 
Its no Wonder the Mighty Three are Laughing
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They know they bout to rock da park with a hellified show!
The Promoter expresses gratitude to the Mayor and Montgomery’s Fans
DSCN8236 And promises many more to follow

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This is a multi-media Presentation, click on links below to see Artist
https://youtu.be/kCiRaZXe7AY
Charlie Wilson Live in Europe
 El DeBarge Live:  “All This Love
https://youtu.be/AXZ5HvjkaJ4
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Text and photos by: Playthell Benjamin
*** Except for Photos of Charlie Wilson and El Debarge
  • Charlie Wilson’s photo was shot by Steven Cohen
** El Debarge Photo was supplied by his management.

Chillin with the Stars at the Cigar City Club

Posted in Cultural Matters, Hangin with Dr. J with tags , , , on October 20, 2015 by playthell
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Kwaku Saunders, Playthell, Julius and Doreese Erving
An evening of Fine Cigars, Great Cuisine, Music and Beautiful People

Oh what a night!  When businessman /promoter Dana Pitcher invited Event Producer Kwaku Saunders and me to join him at the Cigar City Club  to watch the Atlanta Falcons football game I thought it would be fun.  As a serious football fan who loves a good cigar it seemed a can’t miss proposition.  I liked the atmosphere of the club from the outset; the elegant décor with fine wood paneling, crystal chandeliers, leather seats and thick carpets complimented by fine food and drinks it was the ideal venue to watch a game with the hometown crowd.  So long as you were not rooting for the other team.

Since I am a Seattle Seahawks fan I had no dog in the fight.  Hence I was not glued to the TV set and was free to roam about taking pictures of the room and the beautiful people lounging about after deciding that I wanted to document this unique Black business. To my knowledge there is nothing like it in Harlem, which has long been considered the Cultural Capitol of Black America, and was once considered the Metropole of the black world.

When I first arrived at the Cigar City Club I didn’t know it was owned by an Afro-American businessman, Julius Bolton, but once it was made known to me I decided to make a record of my visit.  I chose to do this because I view this club as yet another example of the uniqueness of Atlanta’s Afro-American community.  Ever since I was a boy growing up in St. Augustine Florida, black Atlantans were known for two  things: Higher education and black business enterprise.

To this grand tradition has been added black political power and expanded wealth.  One can easily see the expression of black political power from the moment you set foot in the airport and witness that magnificent photographic exhibit on the history of black Atlantans posted along the walls of the corridor, and the marvelous stone sculptures by artists from Zimbabwe!  And the legacy of black enterprise is embodied today in establishments like the Cigar City Club.

After Dana introduced us and we struck up a conversation, Bolton struck me as a low key unassuming guy.  I would never have picked him out of the crowd as the owner, as there were several others in the room who looked the part.  But then some guys look like players and turn out to be farmers.   I was intrigued by how he happened to open this Cigar club, because I have been smoking Cigars for decades and have never visited a Cigar Club…in fact it never occurred to me.

Bolton told me that he liked to enjoy good food and drinks with a fine cigar and entertainment but had noticed that in his travels he could never find all of these things in one place.  This was the inspiration for his establishment and he has realized his dream beautifully.  The club has a great live music act, “The Jas Trio,” which on this night featured swinging performances from singer Quida “Sugapuddin” Fanklin  They are a swinging straight ahead jazz ensemble that plays the classic jazz repertoire known to all aficionados of the music.  They could hold their own in any jazz venue.

Bolton is employing technology to best advantage: The cigar store is a giant humidor with a wide number of choices; the television is programmed to switch from voice to silent text while the game is going on, and he has even employed Social Media man, Joshua McCoy, to keep the public apprised of what’s happenin at the club.

The Real McCoy!

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 He’s got the world at his fingertips

 However the highpoint of the evening for me came with a surprise visit from Julius “Dr. J” Erving, a first ballot basketball Hall of Famer who gets my vote as the best ever on the hardwood court.  Kwaku Saunders and Julius Erving have been best friends since boyhood and I met them both when they were students at the University of Massachusetts in 1969.  There were other students in their class who also did well, like the singer Natalie Cole, but I don’t think any have equalled Kwaku and Julius’ impact in their chosen fields.

It was an exciting time in the country, radical changes were taking place in the status of women and minorities, propelled by the energy of the black Civil Rights Movement, which began in the South and engulfed the nation.  Kwaku was a student activist who was a leader of the students that demanded the establishment of a Black Studies Department, and thus sat on the student committee that interviewed the perspective professors who would design the department and offer courses.

I was the first Professor hired and along with a group of distinguished international colleagues we built the first degree granting Black studies Department in the world in Amherst and name it after the most distinguished scholar in the black world: The WEB Dubois Department of Black Studies.  (See:”Dr. DuBois Then and Now” on this site.)  For an extended discussion of Dr.  DuBois’ life and work see the book “Reconsidering the Souls of Black Folk” by the present writer.

They also demanded that black students be given a block of air time on the University radio station, which was called “The Black Mass Communication Project.”   I thought Kwaku a bright young man who was mature beyond his years and would go far in life.

Julius Erving, although just a sophomore, was the most popular student on campus.  People used to point him out to me and declare that he was the “best forward in college basketball.”    I dismissed such talk as home town hype.  Admittedly my opinion was greatly influenced by the fact that at the time I was involved with a lady who was a professor at UCLA, who were the National Champions of collegiate basketball.

Hence I had attende numerous basketball games in the fabulous UCLA arena known as “The House Kareem Built;” it was a fabulous place with real Hollywood stars sitting at courtside.  Sydney Wicks and Curtis Rowe were the forwards on the team and they looked and acted like stars.  Since the conventional wisdom among sports commentators was that this tandem were the best forwards in college basketball I was sure the accolades heaped upon the skinny bushy head kid on campus, who I and nobody I knew outside of Amherst had ever heard of, was nothing more than overinflated puffery and I refused to believe the Hype – as his fellow Long Islanders Chuck D and Public Enemy would exhort us twenty years later.

However as it turned out Julius Erving was the real deal.  I first discovered this when a friend of mine, big Jim Corbin, who had been a college All-American football player and later a high-school basketball coach suggested that we go check this young man out and see for ourselves if all the fuss was justified.  That night U-Mass played Providence and Julius was pitted against their 6” 9’ forward Marvin Barnes, who went on to a solid NBA career but was then the terror of the Yankee Conference – which I had never heard of before coming to U-Mass.  Julius dominated this great player – who was bigger than him – in every phase of the game: rebounding, defense and scoring.   And he did it in such a convincing fashion that Big Jim said Julius was “the best college basketball player” he had ever seen.  And he predicted he would go on to achieve greatness as a pro.  History has proved both of our hunches true!

Kwaku went on to make history as the first black music agent at the powerful William Morris Agency, after a stint with the legendary Norby Walters where he represented virtually all of the top black stars in Rhythm & Blues as well as the pioneering Rap acts that rose up from the playgrounds and small clubs in Harlem and the South Bronx and made Hip Hop a billion dollar industry whose product is enthusiastically consumed world-wide and changed the character of youth culture everybody: for good and bad.

He would later become an artist manager whose group “The Sounds of Blackness” was declared his “favorite group” by that intrepid saxophone player in the White House, President Bill Clinton.  During his tenure there Kwaku had several occasions to book his group at White House events and “Sugar Willie” even broke out his horn and joined them on one occasion!

Before Kwaku became the manager of this group they were just another choir in the Twin Cites of Minnesota. It was under his astute and careful guidence that they became a world wide attraction.  Kwaku is now a successful producer of big live events around the world.  As I write he is producing a concert with the legendary R&B artist Charlie Wilson at the River front Amphitheater in Montgomery Alabama on November 7.

After his Hall of Fame basketball career Julius returned to what he would have done had he not made it into pro-basketball, become a successful businessman.  Today Julius is involved in international deals that take him as far away as China!  As a long time student od Chinese society I had many questions for him, and his thoughtful observations conveyed a sense of wonder at the size of Chinese cities and the pace of modernization.

Sitting and rapping with them my mind wandered back over four decades when they were just young men with enormous promise, and reflecting on how that promise has been fulfilled in grand fashion.  In a solemn moment of reflection Julius noted the passing of his former coach in high-school and U-Mass, Ray “Speed” Wilson,” and told me that he would soon be departing for Rhode Island to deliver the Eulogy at his final rites. There was a profound humility in his voice as he spoke of this man who he says taught him much more than the game of basketball.

What I find most impressive about these two old friends – whose relationship is explored in the outstanding NBA Television documentary “The Doctor -”  is how little success has changed their fine personalities and character.  In this documentary, which was aired nationally, we learn that Kwaku actually nicknamed Julius “The Doctor” and he in turn called Kwaku “The Professor.”  And there we were almost a half century later hangin out and reminiscing in Atlanta’s cigar club….Oh what a night!

 

It was a Grand Party!

The “Doctor” and the “Professor

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Friends 4 Life
Debating the Atlanta Falcon vs. New Orleans Saints Game
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Much pompous drivel was spouted before the Saints crushed their hopes
 Big Dana Pitcher Was in da House

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A Louisiana Businessman and Bon Vivant making his mark in Atlanta
Although he is a relativly Young Man Dr. J’s hair is Steel Grey

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Julius Says its a family trait; his father had it and he loves it
And from the look of things…..

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…….so do the ladies
A Visionary Entrepreneur

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He saw a vacuum and filled it: fine food, drinks, live music and great cigars
He created and elegant environment

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That attracts a Smart and Stylish crowd
It’s a Cigar Smoker’s Paradise

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That offer a dazzling array of choices
A Well Designed Humidor

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Carfully designed to satisfy the taste of the most demanding epicure
Exotic Tobacco Leaf from Far away Lands

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Find their way to these shelves
Its the kind of Posh Place…..

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Gentleman of high style and substance are drawn to
And beautiful women flitter about…..
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Like luminous technicolor fire flies in Africa’s night
Satin Dolls like Duke Elington Conjured up……

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In Black, Brown and Biege
It’s also the Lair of…..
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…………..Redbone Foxes!
 Even the waitresses are fine!

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Like this Tall, Tan, Terriffic Beauty
Or this Pulchritudinous Eye Candy

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The guys get a kick outta watching Sarah work the floor….perhaps some girls too
And there was great Music!

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James Schneider and the JAS Trio was Killin
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 The bass and the drums were locked in the pocket!
Quida “Sugar Puddin” Franklin
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Swung a Jazz Song with Blues and Soul
For those whose taste runs to Chess and Champaign

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Its Yours Upon Request
From Night to Night you’ll find Him…..

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Watching over the care of his customers
And big Dana….Who invited me to the Cigar Club

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Scoped the scene with a for real  Louisiana Players Lean

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Double Click on links below to view videos
Playthell Benjamin Television Commentary
https://youtu.be/MpafVd8puCo
The Sounds of Blackness
https://youtu.be/RE08EFwKyLA
Julius “Dr. J. Erving: A Documentary
https://youtu.be/X3_1hZDi-qw
Photos and Text: By Playthell Benjamin
Video selections by: Playthell Benjamin
Multi-Media presentation conceived and designed by Playthell
Atlanta, October 2015