Monday, June 11, 2012

What's Blues Got To Do With IT?

Sunny Nash--author, journalist and former Brunswick recording artist--took the downtown Palace Amphitheatre Stage at the first Bryan Texas Blues Festival.

I didn't know if I still had IT! You know what IT is? That stuff that makes you good at something. I guess I do still have IT!  Because a lot of people seemed to enjoy my IT on stage at the Bryan Texas Blues Festival. The important thing is that people enjoyed my performance and I enjoyed performing the music. Many old musician friends and fans came out. In fact, two of the best bass players in the country--Rick Moses and Brian Lippman--both of whom I have had the privilege of making music, came backstage after my performances, and so many others. It was great seeing everyone again. I thank each and everyone of you for your support back in the day and to this new day.

Let's do it again next year. But just for fun like this time. The music industry was good to me but at this point in my life I have nothing more to prove on that front. Writing books is my IT these days. Search in the box below to find my Web Sites, Blogs and other literary areas. In fact, I hope you will join this Blog to get my updates, or subscribe to my feeds on face book. Thanks for your devotion and loyalty over the past years and in the future. 

Hats off to the City of Bryan, Texas!
Sunny Nash
Sunny Nash, Jeff Zwolinski
Sunny Nash
Jeff Zwolinski, Drummer
Bryan Texas Blues Festival
Sunny Nash began her music career learning to play the blues and other forms of music when she met Houston’s KYOK radio celebrity and media personality, George Nelson, who presented her a scholarship for winning the Miss Texas High Contest in 1965; she was a sophomore in high school. For the talent portion of the competition, she sang a medley of the 1964 R&B Motown hit, Every Little Bit Hurts, by Brenda Holloway; and the jazz standard, Misty, written by pianist, Erroll Garner in 1954.

After winning the contest, I sang those songs on television shows and was interviewed on radio.

"I learned to sing all kinds of music--blues, R&B, gospel, pop, country and classical--from listening to records and the radio," Nash said. "Then later, I took piano lessons and learned to read sheet music, and started playing piano by ear." Nash listened to Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn, Nancy Wilson and Frank Sinatra to learn to sing jazz and blues

"It was all about phrasing and timing," Nash said. "How to group the words of the song, emphasis and finesse. I learned that singers do not have to sing every note they know to perform the song well. In fact, singing too many notes sounds like you are just showing off everything you know and not really making the point of the song."

During the summer of 1966, George Nelson booked Nash to sing jazz and blues songs live on KYOK broadcasts with the Conrad Johnson Orchestra at the El Dorado Ballroom on Elgin Street in Houston’s Third Ward. Although she was only 16, her jazz and blues performances were reviewed in newspapers as mature and moving. Nash also performed at Ray Barnett's Cinder Club with John Roberts and the Hurricanes, getting the attention of Don Robey at Duke-Peacock Records. "George told my mother not to sign me up with Robey because that bunch was too rough for a little girl or a grown woman or man!"

Nash also hung out at radio stations a lot, learning from DJs how to spin records and talk trash, she said. While performing in Houston, Nash shared stages with blued-eyed soul singer, Roy Head, and R&B teen group, Archie Bell & the Drells, discovered by Skipper Lee Fraiser, legendary Houston DJ at KCOH, the first black radio station in Texas. "George and Skipper Lee were both very protective of the young acts in their charge."

In 1967, KTSA radio celebrity, Ricci Ware, saw Nash in a talent show he was hosting in Bryan. 

"I had borrowed Washington School Principal Oliver Sadberry's reel-to-reel tape recorder and laid the track that I sang to in the talent show," Nash said. "I didn't really know what I was doing. But I knew what I wanted the music to sound like; and my best friend and Miss Texas High Contest accompanist, Raymond Buchanan, two years older than me, was gone off to fight in Vietnam. So I played Moon River over and over into Mr. Sadberry's little reel-to-reel tape recorder until I had what I wanted as my accompaniment. It wasn't as good as Raymond would have played it, but it sounded pretty good. When the judge announced me, he made a big deal of my music track and treated it as part of my talent act. Ricci Ware thought it was pretty good, too, and arranged an audition at Abe Epstein Enterprises in San Antonio to work as a studio musician, background vocalist and label recording artist after I graduated later that Spring."

Repetition of the same music passages over and over again was the key to getting it to sound the way I wanted it.

In 1968, Epstein released Nash's country blues recording, I Am Nothing Without You, written by Ricky "G├╝ero Polkas" Davila, then a songwriter for Epstein Studios and also a DJ at San Antonio's Radio Jalapeno, KEDA 1540 AM, the nation's only conjunto radio station, which Davila's family has owned since 1966, important players in the music industry in San Antonio. Playing a mix of rock, soul, conjunto, Tejano, R&B and oldies, Davila became the legendary KEDA voice 44 years ago, shortly after which, the song he wrote for Nash created for the young singer a Gulf Coast sensation from Texas to Florida, where she sang a mix of blues, country and Tejano music.

Abe Epstein
Nash's ability to use her speaking voice on microphone, play piano, overdub her own singing voice using recording equipment and her general interest in the recording business increased her value to the studio. From Epstein, Nash learned the technology of the era in music and audio production, and sound engineering. 

"At the studio, I also helped write, voice-over and produce radio commercials for local stations," Nash said. "Abe had a 4-track studio. Four-track recording may sound simple when compared to infinite digital track recording today, but recording complex mixtures of music was very complicated at that time. Mostly every session had to be perfect. And there was little or no overdubbing in the recording industry at the time. This was during a time when track recording on analog tape was still in its infancy."

From Epstein, Nash also began learning the sound recording business, setting up amplifiers, microphones, mixers and speakers at performances. "I strung wire with the guys in the band and picked up most anything that wasn't heavier than me, which was most everything," Nash said. "I wanted to learn everything about the music business and I did. I can set up mics, mixers, amps, lights, screens, projectors, cameras and all kinds of event and staging equipment. I even built my own video studio with sound. I like doing that kind of thing, knowing one kind of plug from another. And now, with the Internet, I'm having a blast!"

When Nash's contract with Epstein ended, she returned to Houston, where she worked as a studio musician and technician, formed a band, played local nightclubs and appeared often on the television show, Dialing for Dollars, with pianist, Paul Schmidt, who had pioneered early television in Houston. “I was fortunate to have a chance to work on television with Paul Schmidt,” Nash said. “It wasn't often that black artists got chances like that in 1971. And Paul, who was not opposed to working with young black artists, was one of the best pianists in the country, having played and recorded with Arnett Cobb, Pearl Bailey. Jimmy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra and most anybody else who was anybody in the music business. One of the most important things I learned from Paul was to leave ego at the door. He wasn't interested in working with Divas or anyone else who thought they were too gifted and precious to work hard.”

The Third Movement by Sunni Nash
In Houston, Nash arranged music for other performers, laid original music tracks for those who could not play an instrument and began writing songs of her own. In 1971, Nash went to New York and auditioned for Brunswick Records. They signed Nash to a contract as a studio musician and songwriter. With Curtis Mayfield’s Super Fly soundtrack trio, headed by drummer, Quinten Joseph, Nash co-wrote and recorded The Third Movement and released it on BRC, reserving its Brunswick brand for stars like Jackie Wilson, the Chi-Lites, Barbara Aklin, Tyrone Davis, Laverne Baker and other proven money makers.  Well, The Third Movement now has a new generation of worldwide Internet cult followers of old-school, deep funk. Who would have guessed?

After a successful career in music, Nash decided she'd had enough. "I was tired of living on the road out of suitcases or sitting around studios all day waiting for a session to start, although the money was really good," Nash said. "When you are changing the course of your life and career, you have to be careful not to waste time. You have to know what to do before it's too late to act or you lose your enthusiasm for something like going to school. I wanted a real life and a solid profession that I would not mind my child following, the same example of great mothering my own mother had set for me."

Using her voice, love for radio, production skills and knowledge of electronics from her old recording studio days and music-making nights on the stage, Nash became the area’s first black radio professional for mainstream audiences in her groundbreaking position as radio news reporter on WTAW Country in 1974. "Bill Watkins heard some commercials I'd recorded for Radio Shack and said, 'I want that voice on this station! Who is that!' When he found out who I was, he called and offered me a job. He didn't know or care that I was black. When we did meet, Bill did not take a second glance at me when he pushed a tape recorder into my hands and told me what time the College Station City Council met later that day," Nash said. "I learned a lot from Bill and the job helped me pay for school, get some real news credentials and get very connected in the community."

While attending Texas A&M, Nash performed on stage in Houston and locally to supplement her income, and she wrote and recorded commercials for local radio productions and political campaigns. As time passed, the local television market began opening up to African American talent and Nash became the first black spokes-model in Bryan for Star Tel Communications. "I had a commercial that ran during Super Bowl back in the 1970s," Nash said.

In 1977, Nash became one of the first African American women to graduate from Texas A&M University, and the first African American to earn a degree in journalism and broadcasting from the University. "I was among the first dozen black women to graduate from Texas A&M University," Nash said. "The first one that I know of was in 1970, the same year as the first Hispanic female graduate. Women of color have been at A&M since the day the doors were opened to us."

With her brand new journalism degree, Nash took her second groundbreaking position, Program Director at National Public Radio (NPR)-affiliated KAMU-FM. "While at KAMU-FM, I helped develop the classical format and produced a number of news items for the NPR program, All Things Considered. I also reported the weather one summer for our sister station, KAMU-TV, until they hired weatherman, Bob Rose. Until he came on board, I was the only person on staff who had taken a course in meteorology and physical geography. I knew the states by shape, a requirement because newsroom weather maps have no labels. Then I figured out how to translate National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) dot-matrix printouts to the weather map in the newsroom. I cheated a little by checking the weather maps on other channels to make sure I was close. This was eons before the National Weather Service had Doppler. I was really glad when Bob took over."

Nash said her love for writing was not enough. "I needed to learn how to make a living writing," she said. "It was a lot different from the music industry, although, it takes the same discipline to be a successful writer or successful musician. Discipline and developing good habits are keys to any success in life, as far as I am concerned. And do not wait for a visit from the muse for your inspiration. Sit down every day in front of your keyboard and play or write. That's all the inspiration you will ever need."

I Can See Clearly Now
In 1978, Nash went to the British Isles with Johnny Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now tour as a vocalist, keyboardist, percussionist and dancer, working with Marvin Gaye’s music director and songwriting partner, Odell Brown. "I was not trying to resurrect my music career," Nash said. "I went as a favor to Johnny. His regular stage candy was not available."

During the 1980s, Nash wrote for magazines and newspapers, became a photographer and producer, and learned graphic design. In 1990, Nash wrote, produced and scored a University of Texas film, We Have Something To Say, nominated for a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and placed in the John F. Kennedy Library. The theme song that resulted from the film won Nash a People’s Sammy Davis Nomination for Songwriting.

We Have Something to Say
A Film by Sunny Nash 
University of Texas Health Science Center UTTV
How Children with Physical and Mental Challenges Overcome Learning Difficulties

Blues Festival
“People often ask me if I still sing," Nash said. "What a loaded question. Are they asking if I can still sing? Are they asking do I still sing professionally? I tell them, yes, I still sing. I came into the world singing. I sang before I wrote one word or took one picture or produced one video. My heart sings even when my lips are not moving. My heart has its own tunes, tunes that keep me wanting to move, wanting to live. I don't make a living at music anymore, but, yes, I still sing. Music keeps me living."

Nash was followed by William Walker, Damu Sudi Alii, Donald Ray Johnson and Nat Dove. Eugene Eugene & the Solid Foundation Band, will accompany the performers.

Bigmama Didn't Shop At Woolworth's by Sunny Nash
Bigmama Didn't Shop
At Woolworth's

by Sunny Nash
The African American
National Biography

Harvard & Oxford
Sunny Nash became a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist for Hearst, Knight-Ridder and Black Conscious; music historian and critic with jazz and blues profiles in the  The African American National Biography: Eight-volume set  (Harvard and Oxford 2008); and a world-renown photographer with images in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York and the Houston Public Library.

Sunny Nash is author of Bigmama Didn’t Shop At Woolworth’s (Texas A&M University Press), about life with her part-Comanche grandmother before and during the Civil Rights Movement. Nash’s book is recognized by the Association of American University Presses for contributions to understanding U.S. race relations; listed in the Bibliographic Guide to Black Studies by the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York; and recommended for Native American Collections by the Miami-Dade Public Library System in Florida.

© 2012 Sunny Nash. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

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