Harlem, The St Nicholas Projects & The Music of Marvin Gaye..
This is the story of the first band I was in and our very first show, a shared memory as told to me by my 6th grade classmate Gerald McDonald, who I had a huge crush on ;-) Some of you may remember I started posting this last year, but I never posted the end, so as you've requested here is the complete story. Thank you Gerald for reminding me of this, of course I've never forgotten it, as it was so outrageous I could never forget, but being a little girl at the time, I've often wondered if it happened exactly the way I remembered. Turns out, it did.. READ ON..
Where I'm From..
Without mentioning the year, I'll say that the culmination of this event took place during the summer of my last year in elementary school. I'd always loved music and wanted to play an instrument badly. So, in the beginning of that school year I joined the P.S. 92, Mary McCloud Bethune School's Orchestra. I had no idea what instrument to choose. The music instructor, Mrs. Stratfield, suggested the cello, and I agreed. From cello I went on to play bass guitar. A great friend of mine, Julian Green, who lived in the St. Nicholas Projects (I lived in Lionel Hampton Houses), and his brother Tim Green, had already been playing guitar professionally in Funk bands and performing all over Europe. Well, Tim began to teach Julian guitar and me the bass. We learned pretty quickly too. By the end of the spring we'd formed a band with two brothers, also from the St. Nicholas Projects, Kenny and Everett Veasley. Their older brother Freddy played Funk keyboards professionally. He taught Everett keys, and Kenny taught himself to play drums by ear - and he was funky. After joining forces we still needed a place to practice and someway or another, we got Mr. Byrd, to give us open access to a room in the St. Nicholas Projects Community Center, of which he was in charge. By mid summer we'd already had a few songs down pat and were pretty tight! We added a percussionist, Big Larry to the band and were well on our way to stardom, LOL!!! The only thing that we needed were singers. Before I go any further, I must take you back to the beginning of the school year. Our teacher that year, Mrs. Judy Evans, our 6th grade teacher was amazingly educated and Afro-centric. She taught us as if she were teaching adults, giving us the gumption to reach for whatever we wanted in life. We were the TOP class for that year. Well, a couple days after the school year had begun, Mrs. Evans made an announcement to the class that we'd be having a new student, that had been skipped a couple of grades, joining our class. You can imagine the chatter in the room. Seemed as if no one wanted a Nerd joining our class and we were about to give this new kid hell! But, on that day, in walked the cutest, prettiest little girl I'd ever seen. She was scared and timid to the point of being terrified, but, she was beautiful. That was the first time I had ever set eyes on Vivian Sessoms. Now, back to the story! We needed singers, so we put out the word in our "Hood" that a spot was open. I can't remember who, but someone suggested 'Lil Vivian from 200 (200 was the building Vivian grew up in). She had sung in our class production of The Wiz and she was GREAT!!! At first her mother objected to her being in the play (I'd later find out that her mother sung professionally also), but I guess with a little nudging from Mrs. Evans, she landed the role of Dorothy. When we held auditions for the singing spots and little Vivian blew the other girls out of the water!!!! We had our Star!! One problem though, just as when she starred in our school play, Vivian was still afraid of singing in front of people. Well, unbeknownst to a few of the guys and me, Vivian would quickly lose that fear. At the beginning of her first practice with us, Vivian walked in the band room guided by one of the biggest, smoothest dudes I had ever seen around our side of town. It was her Uncle Lincoln. We started out pretty slow, but needless to say, by the end of that practice we'd all done pretty well. Within two weeks we had about 5 songs down pat. The tightest of them all was Diana Ross's Love Hangover. Vivian sang the ---- out of that song. And, of course, I held the bass line right in the pocket, LOL. During those days, trips from NYC to Atlantic City were well awaited for when summer hit. Mr. Byrd gave an annual bus ride to AC every year. Since he'd given us access to a room for rehearsal, he considered us to be "His Band", so he often checked in on us. Well, it was during one of Mr. Byrd's unannounced visits, that he brought us some of the best news a bunch of kids from the projects could ever expect to hear: we would be the opening act for Marvin Gaye (at the old Coliseum) in Atlantic City. I will never be able to explain the excitement we all felt; I'll say this though, it was over the top. We practiced hard, and though I honestly don't remember the set we'd put together, I remember it being tight! We reached out to some of the guys in the projects who were already playing professionally by that time and they made sure that we had it right. Julian had his brother Tim (who was already a guitar virtuoso, touring Europe with a Funk band), Everett had his oldest brother Freddy (who had started out playing in the same band as Tim, but was doing a lot of keyboard work in the studios at that time) and I had the help of two bass players (John, who had begun his bass career playing funk with Tim and Freddy, but had crossed-over to Gospel when he got Saved, and Jerome, who was touring Europe with Tim). Kenny was a natural and his ear was amazing! Though he couldn't read a lick of drum music, Kenny could pick up the drum line stroke for stroke - by listening to the LP's. Yeah, we got it right! We got it tight!! Besides Vivian, we had two other girl singers. If I'm correct, one's name was Valerie and the other was Caroline. To be honest, they were only there to fill in space because Vivian had the vocals locked!! LOL!!! As we prepped ourselves for the big day someone came up with the idea of us all dressing in a similar style. I wasn't too keen on this, but I finally gave in. Anyway, we chipped-in a few dollars each and one of the girls went and brought a lot of African print material. I remember that material had a bright, light blue background. So, all of us fella's had Daishikis made, and the girls had floor length dresses, all with the same material. Boy, (LOL!!!) I can't get that picture out of my mind, now!!!! We looked like a Black version of the Partridge Family! LMAO!!!! Well, that hot summer day arrived, and needless to say, we were all nervous as hell! We loaded the bus with Mr. Byrd (and everyone else) encouraging us to perform well. Yeah, they knew too that we were ready. It was a pretty long trip to Atlantic City, but being young, we made the best of it. Julian and I practiced half the way. We were escorted to The Coliseum and, boy, was I both amazed and afraid. If any of you have ever been to that place, you know what I'm talking about. The Coliseum was on it's last leg. As hot as it was, the place was hotter and gloomy. It was also HUGE! We were told that a regulation football field could be placed inside. Putting our nervousness on the side, we did as told and began to set-up our equipment. John had let me burrow his acoustic amp for this gig, which I thought was the coolest thing ever. The day flew by pretty quickly and the people began to pour into The Coliseum. As big as this place was, it became standing-room full quickly. My fear was heightened until I looked out from stage left and noticed my Moms down front. Yeah, Showtime!!! That's right.. and my biggest fan had made it!!! As Mr. Byrd walked out onto the stage to introduce us, I looked at Vivian. She was scared!!! The other girls were trying to console her but she appeared to be horrified. Well, the band went out before the girls and played our opening numbers. The crowd showed us love too! I mean, they knew we were just opening for Marvin Gaye and that this wasn't the Apollo, so I guess they showed us some mercy!! LMAO!!! Then it was time for the girls to come out. After their introduction, we went right into Love Hangover. As she always did back then, Vivian had a nervous jitter in her voice for the first couple of bars. But by the time we got to the bridge, it was all she wrote. The crowd genuinely responded to this little girl. She had them on their feet!!! And, to boot, she got us tight!!! If any of you has ever performed in front of an extra-large crowd, you'd know what I'm talking about. Once Vivian broke out of her shell, she unleashed a flow of energy that we had no choice but to follow! That's REAL! Mind you, she was only about 8 or 9 years old. Her voice was so naturally smooth and strong that one would think she'd been singing professionally for years. VIVIAN ROCKED!!!! And because of that, WE ROCKED!!!! Then, to top it all, when Marvin Gaye came out (he had about a 29 piece band), right after he completed his Intro, he called us back out onto the stage and carried Vivian out on his shoulders, to congratulate us on a job well done. But most of all, he praised Vivian, and that voice. Yeah... that was really cool!!! Thanks Viv, for a memory I'll never forget!