Jeff Pearlman

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Wayne Wilentz

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Back in the 1970s, he was the white keyboardist in the famous black soul group, Skyy. Which led to more than a few sideways looks—and a blissful career in music. POSTED July 26, 2012

Back in the mid-to-late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a New York-based funk bank named Skyy.

If you are of a certain age, and loved George Clinton-esque music, Skyy was for you. The group’s 1981 hit, Call Me, was absolutely everywhere, and a string of R&B hits followed. If you watched Soul Train or American Bandstand, you knew Skyy.

And here’s the quirky thing—Skyy was an unambiguously “black” group, in the way things were categorized back in the day. It featured three female singers (sisters Denise, Delores, and Bonne Dunning—all black), a male singer/guitarist (Solomon Roberts, Jr.—black), a guitarist/keyboardist (Anibal Anthony Sierra—black), a bass player (Gerald Lebon—black),  a drummer (Tommy McConnell—black) and a keyboardist, Wayne Wilentz, who was, ahem, white.

Nowadays, race has taken a backseat in music. Rappers are white, country singers are black. There’s crossover and randomness and, thankfully, nobody gives a damn. But when Wilentz was part of Skyy, well, he received more than a few crooked looks. But, come day’s end, he could also jam. And that trumped all.

Nowadays Wayne, who lives near Washington D.C. and is married to Lisa Winston, one of America’s great baseball writers, has turned his focus toward jazz. He has recorded multiple albums, and fronts the Wayne Wilentz Quartet. His resume is a dazzling one. Music has been his life.

Here, Wayne talks about life in Skyy and why jazz gets him going; why KISS belongs nowhere near the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame and what it was like to meet Marvin Hagler.

Wayne Wilentz, the Quaz is yours …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Wayne, I’m gonna start with something blunt, and I mean no disrespect: I hate jazz. I really do. I mean, I like the idea of jazz., Smoky club, stiff drink, soulful sounds, etc. But I just can’t get into the music. I listen, and I just sorta get, well bored. Question for you: What am I doing wrong? Is there something I should be listening for? Someone I should be listening to? Because, right now, if you asked me to pick a night of Justin Bieber or jazz club, I might—dear God—go with the Biebs.

WAYNE WILENTZ: Bieber? Really, Jeff? Say it ain’t so! Are you the kind of guy who’d rather see “Transformers 6: Rise of the Legos” more than “Rashomon”?

OK—so you are not “doing” anything wrong. I get this from a lot of very intelligent, educated people (including my wife), and it’s exactly as you say. They like the idea of jazz, but the actual music seems self-indulgent, or just unintelligible. Sometimes we forget that jazz was at one time the popular music of this country. In many ways familiarity breeds contempt, but with music it actually breeds comfort and joy. Of course there are good tunes that if played too much (“Hey-Ya” for instance) will get on your nerves. What I am saying is that music is a language, and if someone starts chattering in your ear in Urdu and won’t shut up while you are having dinner or a drink, it will not be a pleasant experience. My parent’s generation grew up on jazz, and to them it sounded very normal and familiar. For musicians, it represents the greatest freedom and connectivity possible with other musicians. This is why it won’t die, no matter how unpopular it may be with the masses.

Listening ideas: Late in the evening—no TV on, no looking at your phone or IPad, just a nice glass of Malbec or a Martini. Put on Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue.” Don’t turn it off until it’s over—45 minutes out of your life. Then the next night do the same thing, only no liquor. Just listen to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme.” If you aren’t convinced that there is great art going on here, then I give.

J.P.: This is totally and completely out of nowhere, and I’m only asking it because, as I write this, I’m in a coffee shop, and Strawberry Fields is playing. Wayne, how do you explain the greatness of the Beatles? What I mean is, it seems in music we often think like sheep—one person says, “Bruce is amazing in concert!”—then we all are required to say “Bruce is amazing in concert!”—whether amazing is the right adjective or not. Well, everyone loves the Beatles, and they’re the 100 out of 100 pick as the greatest and most influential band ever. So, Wayne, why? Why is it true? What did they do, musically, that was so groundbreaking and different? If anything at all?

W.W.: The Beatles are derivative trash and they sucked.

Kidding! I am a huge fan, and always have been. What made them so special? Start with the fact that you’ve got two of the greatest songwriters in the history of music in the same band! Not to mention a third guy who was no slouch either. And—they could sing their asses off! It seems that every generation since their inception has grown to love the Beatles, which is a testament to their genius. Here’s another thing: they could write in different genres and make brilliant lasting contributions to each—Blues: “Oh Darling,” Rock: “I Feel Fine,” Ballad: “Because,” Folk: “Julia,” Country: “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” Protest: “All You Need is Love.”

J.P.: Wayne, here’s what I know: You’re married to one of my all-time favorites; you were born in New York City, moved to Washington in 1989, have a BS in speech from Northwestern, was a keyboardest for SKYY and now do tons of jazz. But what, exactly, has been your musical journey? How’d you first get into playing music? What was your path?

W.W.: Whew … here goes. Just one thing—an appreciation of my wife, who has stuck with me and my insane career choice for 28 years. She is the greatest, and I am a very lucky man.

My parents divorced when I was 6, and we moved from suburban normality to urban abnormality at that time. I turned to the piano to deal with the upheaval, and my mother (who at one time had been a professional singer and dancer) made sure I got lessons. The problem was, I had a very strong ear, and could already play songs I heard on the radio, but my teacher used a strict classical method. I grew bored, and asked my mom if I could stop lessons. She was fine with this, since she wanted me to be a lawyer like my entire paternal family. Yet I turned to the piano for solace, and spent a lot of my free time there. My older sister sang quite well, and she constantly encouraged me to play, and gave me stuff well beyond my years to listen to.

I started a band at 12, and stayed in rock/blues bands through high school. At 15, I heard The John Coltrane Quartet on New York’s WLIB FM (it became WBLS), and was transformed. I continued playing rock, soul and blues, but jazz called me. I went to Northwestern University with the intention of learning how to write scores for movies (I am a huge film fanatic—check out my blog). It turned out that they had no such program, so I stuck with film and radio, and got my music education in the clubs in Chicago. I got to play with some greats of blues, and worked with a nice jazz quartet too.

When I returned to NYC after college, I fully intended to start a career as a jazz pianist. What I didn’t really understand is that nobody starts their career in jazz in New York. That’s where you go when you have perfected your art, and want to compete with the big boys. I was far from ready. So I played cocktails around town, and did some rock cover band work, along with the occasional jazz gig here and there. Through connections with my cover band, I got a chance to audition for Skyy, and got the gig thanks to 1) Prepping very hard for the audition, and 2) Being white and resembling the guy who’s place I was taking. We don’t look alike at all, but there’s that white, Jewish deal. We toured for a year (1982) opening for Kool and the Gang and played some amazing venues, including the Schlitz Soul Festival at the Cotton Bowl.

When Skyy was not on the road, I got to play locally with the Coasters, and for a while at my stepfather’s restaurant in Manhattan, where I started getting my jazz chops back.

After eight years with Skyy, I was feeling marginalized in my creative role with the band thanks to sequencers and the like. Lisa needed to relocate to try her hand as a baseball beat reporter, so the Minors were the way for her. That meant that I had to find a place where there were both minor league teams and a decent thriving music community. DC turned out to be the answer. I quit the band, and we moved to DC, with the intention of going back to jazz. I love it here, and have had a great career playing jazz, in particular Brazilian Jazz, which I adore.

J.P.: You were the keyboardest for SKYY between 1981-89, and appeared on Soul Train three times. I am beyond fascinated by this. A. Because Skyy’s music seems so far from what you do now; B. Because, bluntly, I think most people think of Skyy as a “black” group—and you were the white keyboardist. I’m actually fascinated by the racial makeup of the group. This was before a lot of breakthroughs in race relations in the US; before people felt more comfortable breaking barriers. What was it like for SKYY? Were you guys all family, race be damned? Were you the quirky white guy? Was it awkward? Cool? Did idiot white people you know ever say, “What the fuck?”

W.W.: As I said in the previous answer, I didn’t blaze this trail, Larry Greenberg was in the band before me. He was the guy who wore the cowboy clothes I had to fit in.

Skyy rehearsed in East New York in Brooklyn, and I had some interesting experiences there. Most people in the neighborhood assumed that the only white guy crazy enough to be in that neighborhood would be an undercover cop. I often had people run up to me on my walk from the subway yelling “Officer, Officer! We need help over here!” I also remember one Mother’s Day when a huge guy jumped from behind a dumpster to block my path. Before I evacuated my bowels he yelled, “Happy Muthuh’s Day”, and walked away.

No white people ever questioned what I was doing, incidentally. The only time I got that vibe was when Skyy went back to Jefferson High (where most of them went to school) for a Q&A, and a student asked me what I was doing with the band. I think she meant it in a curious manner, so I didn’t take umbrage.

By the way, when I met Lisa (who was the PR person assigned to Skyy) she assumed I was the band manager!

J.P.: People often talk of the legacy of disco, of hiphop, of early country. I feel like they never speak of the legacy of funk. So, uh, does funk have a legacy? Is there an importance to the music? Or will it go down as Alf does to 80s sitcoms—there, but sorta just, well, there?

W.W.: I feel that funk has more of a legacy than the other styles you list above. James Brown, Sly and The Family Stone, AWB, Tower of Power, Gap Band, Rufus, Aretha, Stevie, Kool and the Gang, Parliament. You don’t think that’s a legacy? Please!

By the way, without funk, hiphop would have nothing. Can you imagine rapping to “The Candyman”?

J.P.: You earned a Gold Record for the “Skyy Line” album. I always watch the Grammys and Academy Awards and inevitably think, “This is such bullshit.” What I mean is, why do artistic endeavors need awards and citations? Isn’t it just about the music, and putting out the most unique and impactful sound possible? Or do notations and commendations matter?

W.W.: Gold Records commemorate sales, don’t forget. They are not an award for achievement in the arts, but an award for achievement in commerce. As for the other stuff, I like it when my peers appreciate what I have done. That being said, the awards shows are dreadful unless somebody has a freak out on stage, or pulls a Sacheen Littlefeather stunt.

J.P.: Please explain this.

W.W.: That’s not me. That’s Larry. No wonder he wanted to dress like a cowboy! The band had this weird backstory that they were from another planet, Enzalea or something else that sounded like a skin disease. They dressed like that for the first recordings, then for the one that was out when I joined they had more of a city slicker get-up. Compared to what they are wearing in this picture, the cowboy routine looks like GQ.

J.P.: What is it like to record an album? For example, you recorded four of your albums at Backstreet Studio. What is the process like for you? Maddening? Euphoric? How long does it take to nail a song that’s good enough and perfect enough to appear on an album?

W.W.: I love the recording process, and in jazz it’s a bit different than it is with pop. With a jazz record, you like to get the best overall group performance, without doing too much overdubbing and punching in over mistakes. With pop, perfection is usually the goal, and you painstakingly get everything right. It’s incredibly time-consuming, and unless I am being paid by the hour as producer/engineer, I try not to do that.

I do find that I can concentrate harder on playing if I am not doing the recording at my studio, but it’s a nice deal for artists who come in here to my studio to get keyboardist and engineer for one low, low price.

Recording is neither maddening (unless you have computer problems) nor euphoric. It is always fun and educational. At least it is for me!

J.P.: One day, the earth will become too hot, it’ll explode and we’ll all be dead—as if humanity never even existed. So why is music important?

W.W.: I once heard that music is embracing someone without touching. So it has value right away; you get a hug without having to worry about catching a disease.

Seriously, it’s a question that can apply to almost anything. Why is it so important to keep Barry Bonds out of the Hall of Fame? What difference will it make that he took steroids after the world is a cinder?

Music gets people through some very hard times, because there is an emotional connection there. I know it made my not very happy childhood tolerable. Music can also have political and social ramifications, to which those of my generation can attest. It can make people go to battle, it can make them want peace, it can help them understand the plight of others.

As for Justin Bieber, well I can’t help you there.

J.P.: What is the absolute greatest moment of your musical career? The absolute lowest?

W.W.: When I released my CD of all original Jazz/Brazilian/R&B songs (“Break of Dawn”) in 2004, with many of my favorite singers and musicians, we had a party in Adams Morgan in DC. It was so great—a packed house, and a great live show. The club was filled with musicians, fans and friends, and it was all about my music.

Also playing at Radio City Music Hall with Skyy was a thrill that I will never forget.

That Cotton Bowl gig was amazing—the line-up (in this order of appearance); Skyy, Lakeside, Luther Vandross, The Commodores, Kool and the Gang, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder. I got to meet them all! I also got to meet Preston Pearson and Ed “Too Tall” Jones who were working the event as celebrity security. Where the hell were phone cameras when you needed them?!

As for the lowest point, two come to mind: Right after moving to DC, I was making ends meet playing with a cover band in some roadhouse club in Virginia. The place smelled like an ashtray, and the clientele was straight out of “My Name is Earl”. A patron got very drunk, and got kicked out of the club. Sadly for us, they kicked him out the back door where all of our cars were parked. On the break we went outside to find all of our windshields smashed with a cinderblock.

I also remember being with a funk cover band in New York during the ‘70’s. We got a gig for the weekend in Poughkeepsie, and rented a truck to bring all our gear. When we got to the venue, it was a luncheonette, and nobody there knew anything about a live band being there that weekend.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH WAYNE WILENTZ:

• Do Hall and Oates belong in the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame? How about KISS?: I like Hall and Oates very much. I don’t think of them as trailblazers, but they wrote some great tunes and Darryl Hall is a tremendous vocalist—the original blue-eyed soul man. So OK—put them in the hall of fame. With Barry Bonds.

KISS? God no.

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Christina Aguilera, Mario Soto, homemade apple sauce, Giligan’s Island, fingernails, Dan Quayle, Time Magazine, flying in first class, George Clinton, Snoop Dogg, Shea Stadium, the harp: 1) Shea (yeah it was a dump, but it was OUR dump!; 2)   Flying First Class (what’s not to love?); 3) George Clinton (Somehow he made great music higher than K2); 4) Mario Soto (Anyone who attacked Don Zimmer is alright with me); 5) Gilligan (For Mary Anne alone, worth watching); 6) Apple sauce (Pectin, anybody?); 7) The Harp (Can be funky. Check out DC home-girl Rashida Jolley); 8) Time ( I’m more of a “Food and Wine” guy; 9) Xtina (She’s got talent. The music is ehhh); 10) Fingernails (As a pianist, I’d be better off without them); 11) Snoop (He’s the best of the rappers. And Moe is the smartest Stooge, too); 12) Quayle (Can I rank him below this?)

• Are you psyched for the Danity Kane comeback album?: Oh yeah, I’m a huge fan. May I just say, “Who the fuck?”

• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details: This is my greatest fear, and I have a lot of phobias, so that’s saying something. I have had countless nightmares about this. Thank God I’ve never been close. One time we were landing at O’Hare, and right before touchdown, the pilot noticed a Piper Cub on the runway and pulled back up. Scared the shit out of me.

• Many musicians I know consider American Idol to be utter bullshit; a shortcut to stardom. Agree? Disagree? Why?: Why does there have to be a longcut? Pop stardom isn’t about talent and creativity as much as it’s about appeal and marketing. As for Idol, I am happy they make anybody sing live nowadays. Almost all of the live performances you see are auto-tuned and computer generated so the light shows and effects sync up. There is no spontaneity in live pop shows. So it’s nice to hear these kids singing their asses off with not much electronic help. I admit I am getting tired of the cute indy guys winning who aren’t half as good as their competition, thanks to tween text voting.

• Who wins in a fight between Emmanuel Lewis and Celine Dion?: Celine looks like a tough cookie. I wouldn’t cross her, that’s for certain. What I want to know is, after she kicks Lewis’ butt, does she move up in class and face Shania Twain? Or will the mob make her take a dive so she can finally face Crystal Waters for the belt?

• Five most famous people you’ve ever met?: Other than the people listed in my Cotton Bowl gig story: Dizzy Gillespie, Wilt Chamberlain, Joe Namath, Marvin Hagler, Bob Dylan.

Dizzy at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago, where I interviewed him for our College radio station. Wilt on Park Avenue in New York right after his trade to the Lakers. Namath at the Club level at Shea, Hagler at a club I was playing in in Greenwich Village, Dylan backstage at a Coasters gig in Connecticut. Word was he was trying to hit on the girls in The Crystals. True story.

• Your wife is a longtime baseball writer. What are your thoughts on Sean Burroughs?: Loved him in Little League. I also love that his nickname in San Diego was “The Bachelor” because all he could hit were singles.

• Most embarrassing moment of your life?: This might be it. Or, when I was a child, my parents took me to see the show “Enter Laughing” by Carl Reiner. I remember being really scared for the protagonist (I don’t remember why), and screaming “Oh No!” really loudly, and the entire theater cracked up, including the actors.

• Is there such a thing as cool? Or is it garbage?: If you have to ask, then you are not cool.

  • http://Facebook.com/englevibes Mike Engle

    Really cool interview! I met Wayne once, passing through DC on a whirlwind university tour with my mom, visiting campuses. We were lucky enough to have dinner at the restaurant where Wayne’s trio had a gig that night. I could tell he was a smart and nice guy…had no idea he had such a cool story to tell! Thanks, Jeff.

  • Drew

    This might be my favorite Quaz. He seemed to really dive into it and give great, detailed answers. Well done Wayne!

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

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