By Stan Schwartz
VANDALIA—Normally young children do a lot of fidgeting, especially when they’re getting ready for one of the Vandalia Library’s Tales and Tails presentations. But when the first soulful tune came out of Chuck Overton’s alto saxophone, it was like time stopped. Young and old alike were enthralled by this legendary musician’s artistry.
Crystal McCurdy, with the Vandalia Library, said she’s known Overton most of her life. She invited him to speak during the library’s summer reading program, Tails and Tales. When she asked the audience if they had heard of Overton, no one raised their hand.
“You will after today,” Overton said. He started out early in his extensive musical career, which included playing with the R&B band, Brainstorm, in the 1970s. He even worked with some of the legends, such as Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson.
“I started music at age of 5, at church, because my mother sang,” he said. “I used to give Elvis Presley shows at the Lincoln School.” When schools were still segregated, the Lincoln School was where African American students attended class. Overton, who also does carpentry work, is helping to renovate the old Lincoln School building.
He said he would charge 5 cents a person for that show.
“I would take the teacher’s paddle and pretend I was playing it (like a guitar), and sing ‘You Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog’,” he said.
When the schools became integrated, he noted, he moved to the south school in Vandalia. One of the teachers there heard him singing the 1959 Paul Anka song, “I’m Just A Lonely Boy” in one of the empty classrooms.
“She told me I need to go around to all the school rooms and sing to the students,” he said.
Through high school and college, he noted, Overton continued to play music. Even after going into the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, he played with the Army Band.
“I met a lot of great musicians there, and ended up getting a Motown (Record) contract through one of my contacts there—Bruce Miller,” he said. But he became part of a new recording company out of Saginaw, Mich., called Tri-County Records. One of Motown’s biggest stars, William “Smokey” Robinson Jr., was made a vice president of that company.
After moving Detroit, the birthplace of Motown, Overton said he got a contract with a company called Tabu Records, through the RCA recording label.
“Elvis had just left, and they were thinking about signing The Miracles (a popular group that used to be with Smokey Robinson or signing my group, which was called Brainstorm,” Overton said. “They chose us, and our first album was called ‘Stormin’,” he added.
Overton was interested in the music abilities of the audience. Some of the children were learning either piano or guitar. And some of the parents played or sang, as well. He had one of the parents write the names of everyone who was there, so he knew his audience.
Overton ended up traveling the world. He played the Apollo Theater in New York City, as well as Madison Square Garden. He noted that he opened for Marvin Gaye and worked with Michael Jackson. He said Jackson was a pure musical artist and genius. Because he was so popular, Overton said, Jackson began to shy away from crowds.
Overton started writing music in school, but became serious about the craft in 1970, he said. He even did an appearance on the show “Soul Train,” a music TV show that ran for 35 years and highlighted some the best musical talent around.
To everyone’s delight, Overton sang some of that song from long ago—“I’m Just A Lonely Boy.”
But when he picked up his saxophone, after putting on his cool blue shades, the tone of the audience changed. He played a piece he had written that morning and then segwayed into a jazz piece.
“I like the saxophone because it works very well with the violin,” he said. Overton related a story about a young girl he met while working in a music store. She had come in looking for strings for her violin. Lots of times, he said, he had full orchestras playing with his band, but right then, he needed a violinist. Most of the people who tried out for the band could play the music, he explained, but they didn’t have the feel for it. Overton asked the girl if she could play after explaining who he was.
To his surprise, she owned one of his albums. He asked if she would like to play with his band. She said yes, but only if he asked her mom first. He gave her some music from the Los Angeles Symphony and told her to take it home and practice, and he would audition her the next day.
“She told me she didn’t need to practice, she could play it right then,” Overton said. “She played every piece perfectly the first time,” he added. “She is now known as one of the greatest jazz violinists in the world. Her name is Regina Carter.”
He left Vandalia when he was 16 and came back—just for a visit not too long ago—and decided to stay. He continues to write music. He’s been working on an album for the past few years, and said he’s almost done.
He also wrote a little poem for the children—and the adults—about school.
“Stay in school, follow the golden rule.
The more you learn, the happier you’ll become.
School isn’t just for 9 months a year; school is for a lifetime.
Can’t you see school is for you? And it’s also for me, too.
School is for the mind body and soul; keep as much knowledge as you can hold.
You don’t have to be a movie star or be a superstar, or drive a big, fancy car.
Everybody is a star no matter where you come from no matter who you are.
I can see that big shiny star inside each and everyone of you—showing a rainbow of many colors—red, yellow and blue.
You’re blinding me with all those rays of light. You’re so beautiful and so bright.
Yes, school is reading, writing and arithmetic—algebra and geometry; calculous and trigonometry, too—but does that mean that’s everything?
By no means.
What about all the feelings you feel inside of you? Always ask questions about how you feel that makes life so real.
There’s only one bad question; and that’s the question you don’t ask.
Explain yourself, you just might encourage someone else.
Don’t be a dropout or a quitter. Follow the knowledge rule—that’s what makes you so cool.
When you don’t go to school, that’s not cool. And I want to say to you, I pity the fool.”