story by Cindy Reid photos by Susan DeLoach
Motown and More, a new show debuting at the USCB Performing Arts in February will bring together some of our region’s best musicians, Marlena Smalls, Velma Polk, Elaine Lake and the renowned Lowcountry Jazz Band as they team up once again for a show that will play tribute to the great Motown artists. They will be performing music from Aretha Franklin, Dianna Ross, Gladys Night and the Pips plus a few surprise selections.
Beaufort is a small town with big talent. It doesn’t get any bigger than an evening with these three fabulous singers and Beaufort’s own celebrated jazz band lead by David Hershey. Each is s star in their own right but when they team up- watch out! Any genre of music they chose would be good but choosing the music of Motown makes this an extra special evening. As Dr. Marlena Smalls says, “Everyone enjoys the Motown sound, it has the blues of the south, the New York sound, the Los Angeles sound and so Motown music represents the various sounds from many communities of America. At the same time as Motown’s popularity you still had the blues and rock and roll, but Motown is in the soul of all of that music.”
She ought to know, as Dr. Marlena Smalls is an internationally known vocal artist and the founder and director of the The Hallelujah Singers. Born in Ohio to South Carolina parents, she began singing in Ohio and went to Central State University before embarking on her singing career. Dr. Smalls’ talents have taken her around the globe and she has toured heavily in Europe, performed for the Queen of England, and held a concert in the Frankfurt Opera House in Germany. In 1985, she founded the Gullah Festival in Beaufort, which would celebrate the culture and preserve its many traditions, and by 1990, she had formed the Hallelujah Singers to preserve the Gullah culture of the South Carolina Sea Islands. Dr. Smalls and the Hallelujah Singers have performed at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC and their CD Juba is now sold in the Smithsonian gift shop.
She is a sacred music vocalist, also singing gospel, contemporary, jazz and blues. Inducted into the South Carolina Black Hall of Fame in 2004, Marlena has performed for the Queen of England and many U. S. and international dignitaries. She has worked with film producer Joel Silver and Academy Award winners Tom Hanks, Demi Moore and Glenn Close. In addition to many productions for PBS, SCETV and GPTC, she is known to international audiences as Bubba’s mom in the Academy Award winning motion picture “Forrest Gump”.
Of course the women will be visiting the hits of the Supremes and in addition Marlena will be singing “Try a Little Tenderness,” “Fever” and the Joe Cocker arrangement of “Unchain My Heart” by Ray Charles. She says “We all had a great time last year collaborating on the Etta James show, and I am excited that I am a part of it again. This is something that is just good. The music makes you feel good. There is nothing better than sharing. Just share the good.”
A native Beaufortoian, Velma has sung professionally for over fifteen years. She has had the pleasure of entertaining for several highly ranked public servants, including South Carolina Lt. Governor Brantley Harvey, as well as members of the U.S. Secret Service. Velma credits her loving Granny for teaching her to harmonize and instilling her deep love of music, especially gospel. Velma especially loves, “Singing praises for my Lord most of all because He has blessed me so.” Since her musical theater debut in “Honky Tonk Angels” Velma has appeared as a lead cast member in both “8-Track, The Sounds of the 70’s” and “Honky Tonk Angels Christmas Holiday Spectacular” at USCB, amongst other show. An accomplished musician, Velma also plays the piano.
For this show, Velma will be performing the Aretha Franklin hit “Think,” done in the style of the Blues Brothers movie, as well as “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” among others. She says she loves working with her collaborators, “We are such a good team and work so well together. Honestly we are all worker bees! Everyone, Dave, Marlena and Elaine are so talented but we aren’t in competition because we truly complement each other.”
She says, “This is the music I grew up with and it brings back such memories. That nostalgia is real and the artists of that era were so good, I like so many of them. Dusty Springfield is right up there for me, she is a favorite personally.” Velma says, “We are all really excited for the show and I know it is going to be really fun!”
Elaine is originally from Pennsylvania and holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in music with a focus on performance. She was the recipient of the Mary Landon Russell Award for Outstanding Musical Achievement and was a four year member of the Lycoming College Chamber Choir and Tour Choir with performances in Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia. Some of her previous lead roles in numerous plays, musicals and reviews, including “She Loves Me,” “The Boyfriend,” “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and “The Perfect Wife.” After spending eighteen years raising her two beautiful daughters Misti and Bayli, she appeared in “Honky Tonk Angels” and followed that up with roles in “8-Track, The Sounds of the 70’s” and the “Honky Tonk Angels Christmas Holiday Spectacular,” amongst other shows. Elaine wrote and performed two professionally recorded CDs for children, “My Room” and “Rockaby Moon.” In addition to her vocal talents, Elaine plays the mountain dulcimer.
As one of her solo songs, Elaine will be performing “Gee Whiz,” a number suggested by collaborator Marlena Smalls. Elaine says, “I have never sung this song before so it is fun and exciting to have a new song to debut!” Of her fellow performers she says,”We absolutely love working with each other, it is a joy to be on stage with these ladies, and the band. We have so much respect for each other.” She says, “I love the artists and the music of the Motown era, Velma and I sing several songs already in our show from that time. For many in the audience this will be a trip down memory lane. It is Motown and ‘more’ so there will be a few surprises as well. It is going to be a very entertaining evening for everyone.”
The Lowcountry Jazz Band
The Lowcountry Jazz Band is a sub-group of the Lowcountry Community Concert Band, which is sponsored by University of South Carolina Beaufort’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). They are primarily an academic group that promotes and curates jazz in the context of a large ensemble dynamic or “big band.” Band leader Dave Hershey is a retired US Army musician who retired after 24 years of service as a Trumpeter and Music Production Specialist. He has held the position of soloist on national and international tours, Principal Player, Section Leader, Group Leader, and Music Support Division Chief during that time period. His assignments were in Kaiserslautern, Germany; Ground Forces Band in Atlanta, GA; and the US Military Academy Band at West Point. Dave served as Chief Recording Engineer and Producer for the acclaimed West Point Bicentennial Commissioning Project. Dave Hershey is a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and has been a member of LCCB for 2 years.
“I like Motown because it really started the cross pollination of the blues and introduced the blues to a much wider audience,” says Dave, “This concert will, at the very least, be fun because music brings people together on both sides of the stage. In the Lowcountry Jazz Band, fun is the first ingredient to all of our rehearsals and events. Last year’s success has us all filled with anticipation for this year’s show.”
Dave says the musical arrangements were done by his old friend Paul Murtha, who was the chief arranger for the United States Army Band. He and Dave were at West Point together and Dave says, “I knew what he could bring to this type of show and he had done a wonderful job on the previous show so why change?” Dave says, “I was lucky enough to be in the audience for his music back at West Point, and we are fortunate to have him do these arrangements.” He says, “To sum it up, performing with these wonderful musical people is like preparing a special meal. Last year’s recipe was Etta James and this year it’s Motown and more; when you start with gourmet ingredients and apply some hard work mixed with love….you know a memorable musical feast will be had by all.”
“Motown and More” will be performed February 17 – 18 at the USCB Center for Performing Arts in Beaufort, SC. Ticket prices are Adults $30, Senior Military $25 and Students $15 .
For further information go to www.uscbcenterforthearts.com