André Cymone hugs Wanda Davis during the close of ‘The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound.’ All photos by Steven Cohen for MPR.
What a stupid grin I have on my face. I keep picturing moments from the show at the Fitzgerald Theater last night, a vibrant event called “The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound” after the subtitle of Andrea Swensson’s new book Got to be Something Here. It served as a book launch; a history lesson; and most of all, a tribute to the black Twin Cities musicians who laid the bedrock for Prince’s astronomic career.
Swensson, host of The Current’s Local Show and originator of the Local Current Blog, spent the last four years researching the Minneapolis Sound pre-Prince. But that’s a story better told in her book announcement and Got to be Something Here itself; instead of recounting the show’s lead-up, I’d like to share some of the most memorable moments, stealing the conceit from one of my favorite pieces of Swensson’s work.
When I think about “The Rise of the Minneapolis Sound,” I’ll remember watching Cameron Kinghorn explode into song with his band, Nooky Jones. They performed “Minneap’lis Minnesota” by Rufus Lumley, “Silent Lover” by the Big M’s, and “It’s You For Me” by the Amazers to kick off the show. Then, they melted into the background to hold it down as house band.
I’ll remember hearing contemporary artist PaviElle shout, “Love you, Sonny!” before performing her mentor’s “Tears on My Pillow” from 1965. Like soul singer Sonny Knight, who passed away this year, PaviElle comes from the Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul. As Swensson explained on stage and in her book, the stretch was bulldozed to make room for I-94 in the late 1950s, displacing about 80% of its residents, who were primarily black.
Watching Wanda Davis, the “Minnesota Queen of Soul,” shimmer as she sang “Take Care” and “Save Me.” Years after performing with red-hot band Maurice McKinnies and the Blazers, Davis blushed as the crowd jumps to applaud her. She flew all the way from Dallas, Texas to appear on this stage.
Watching André Cymone (check that link’s prescient opening paragraph) pull moves I’ve never seen from him as he performs Maurice McKinnies’s “Sock-a-Poo-Poo ’69.” He played call-and-response with trombonist Ryan Christianson and trumpeter Adam Meckler, singing, “Sock it to me one time! Sock it to me two times!” with impassioned screams. Meckler and Christianson fired off a series of oh-so-satisfying horn blasts.
Watching the Valdons reunite on stage for the first time in 36 years. The four men wailed in their matching blue suits, playful and earnest, resurrecting their 1960s heyday for a 2017 crowd. Their harmonies sent a shiver down my spine during “I Who Have Nothing,” originally recorded by Ben E. King.
Watching Wee Willie Walker, fresh off the plane from a musical cruise, stroll onstage in a good mood and an iridescent suit. PaviElle sang opposite him during “There Goes My Used to Be,” a song that turned 50 this year.
Watching Swensson interview Joe Lewis, JT Apollo (aka Jeffrey Tresvant), and Ronald Bronson of the original Family, a band name Prince would repurpose for his 1980s group. The Family recounted their recording session at Sound 80, a studio so state-of-the-art that when word got out they were working there, they said, chuckling, “the group grew.”
Watching the crowd surge with warmth for Prince, a man who could not be at this celebration of his friends and forebears, but whose presence occupied hearts and minds nonetheless. Cymone performed three early Prince songs, “Soft and Wet,” “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” and “Uptown.” Swensson joked about Prince’s world-famous side-eye, pointing to a picture after she read Dick Clark’s infamous American Bandstand line: “This isn’t the kind of music that comes out of Minneapolis!”
Lastly, I’ll always remember the last song of the night, a total surprise that brought every artist back on stage to sing for Sonny Knight. “Sonny loved this song,” Swensson said, and as his picture appeared on-screen, Nooky Jones started up Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home To Me.” Cymone and Wanda Davis shared a verse; the Valdons sang another; members of the Family nodded at each other and shared a thumbs-up. Swensson swayed and sang, and the whole crew exchanged hugs at the end of this historic night.