By Stan Schwartz
His life has always been about music—playing, writing and performing. Chuck Overton has worked with some of the biggest names in the music business, starting out as a child music prodigy here in Vandalia, Mo., at age 5.
His talent would take him to Detroit where he would earn record contracts and start an R&B band called Brainstorm. From there he and the band would travel the world Overton’s main instrument, the alto saxophone. He also sings and plays guitar. Eventually, he decided to return to Vandalia, Mo., for a visit about 10 years ago, and never left.
Even after returning to his roots, Overton has continued to work his craft, writing new music and improving on what he’s already done. After listening to some of the music he’s recently produced, Overton said, his wife, Vavaline, encouraged him to make another album—a legacy album. “She told me, ‘You have to do this,’” he said.
He was between recording sessions last Friday when he sat for an interview. He did a recording session at Pete Szkolka Studios in Columbia, Mo., on Thursday and was going back again on Saturday.
“He’s a pianist and engineer,” Overton said about Szkolka. “He’s co-producing this album with me.” Before this, it had been at least 10 years since he’s recorded his own music, in studio.
Last summer, he was asked to take part in the Vandalia Public Library’s summer programs—Tales and Tails. Overton wowed the young audience with his sax playing, his singing and some amazing stories of the people he had worked with over the years. He even wrote a poem for the children, encouraging them to stay in school. It was during this performance that he explained he was still creating music and was hoping to produce a live show.
This new album he’s working on, he said, should be finished in about six to eight weeks, depending on when he can get studio time and the availability of the other musicians he needs for the songs he’s written.
“I’m putting out all the songs I’ve written,” he said, either for himself or for other artists in the industry. “I’m going to put it all out there,” he added.
Working in studio with him, Overton said, is Szkolka, who is playing piano and guitar for the album. Overton has a young woman playing drums and a base player to help with the music. He puts Szkolka in the same category as someone who would work with Quincy Jones because of how seamlessly he moves between musician and studio engineer.
“He’s that talented,” Overton added, referring to Szkolka as “A relaxed genius.”
This is an ongoing process for Overton. He said a bout with COVID-19 hampered his ability to play the saxophone. It took months, he said, for him to get back to the level of performance he was comfortable with.
“I’d been on stage all my career,” he said. “And then the coronavirus hit—and it took me down.” That was almost two years ago, and it was the performance at the library where he finally felt good enough to play again. A doctor, he added, said that he probably wouldn’t be able to play again. Luckily, the music could not be stopped.
“The only problem I’m having is with my arthritis,” he said. But as far as playing music, Overton said, he’s fine.
“I’m really fired up about this,” Overton said. “I’ve got some older musician friends—mentors really—that are encouraging me to keep going.” Friends and family members are encouraging him, as well, he said, “And it’s keeping me pumped up.”
Overton said he recorded his first song in 1971, and a promoter from England picked it up and released it there as “Northern Soul.” It charted in the top five that year.
He’s hoping that this type of music will see another resurgence. But R&B and jazz are not the only music genres Overton is interested in. He said he has some hip-hop ideas, as well.
“I want to cover a lot of audiences (with this music),” he added. He wants people to understand that this type of musical journey is continuous.
“As my journey progresses,” he said, “I’m hoping to influence young people” who want to be in the music business. “Whatever you want to do,” he added, “don’t stop. It’s not a money game, it’s about artistry.”
Whether one reaches the stars or not is beside the point, he explained, if you just reach the moon, you’ve done well.
He’s also working on the album as a prelude to a live concert he wants to put on in Detroit this coming October.
The last time his band, Brainstorm, did a reunion concert in the Motor City, he said it was a sold-out house.
“We were one of the biggest groups in the Detroit in the late ’70s,” he said.
“I started music at age of 5, at church, because my mother sang,” he said. His father also sang and played piano. When schools were still segregated, Overton attended the Lincoln School, where African American students attended classes. Overton, who also does carpentry work, is helping to renovate the old Lincoln School building.
Overton said his first band teacher, Larry Johnson, had at one time been a saxophone player in Lawrence Welk’s band. Johnson always told him to make sure he made his saxophone sound good.
Other artists who influenced him, he said, were Grover Washington, Charlie Parker, Junior Walker and John Coletrane.
The performers he’s worked with and inspired him were Marvin Gaye, Teddy Pendergrass, The Isley Brothers, and Smokey Robinson. Overton did a 14-day run with Robinson at the Apollo Theater in New York.
“The way he handled himself after all the years (performing) and he was so humble,” Overton said. Robinson is in his 80s and still touring. That, Overton added, is what pushed him to continue creating and performing.