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CEA 2006 Hall of Fame: Soul Man
The CEAs honor Kenny Smith's lifelong dedication to Funk and Soul
One of the most heartwarming and vindicating moments of this year's Cincinnati Entertainment Awards ceremony will come when local Soul/Funk legend Kenny Smith takes the Taft Theater stage to accept his long overdue Lifetime Achievement Award. If he accepts, that is.
"Can I turn it down?" Smith says with a hearty, self-deprecating laugh from his independent insurance sales office. "No, I wouldn't turn it down. I think it's great that we have something like this in Cincinnati."
That is classic Kenny Smith. He's delighted when people pay attention to his work, but he doesn't necessarily want a big fuss paid to him personally. That's just not his style.
Maybe if Smith had been more of a self-promoter with just a shade more self-interest, he'd be living easy and large right now by virtue of a lifetime of endless royalty payments. But that didn't happen.
Bad business decisions (and outright fraudulence) have kept Smith from enjoying the monetary fruits of his long musical labors throughout his career. Case in point: He wrote "Think Before You Walk Away," a song that was re-recorded by The Platters and has been included on any number of the band's greatest hits packages over the years, and yet Smith has never received a single royalty check from his publishing rights.
Smith will be the first to tell you the money doesn't necessarily matter to him. His love of songwriting and of music itself is what has fueled his drive over the past 50-plus years. He began singing Doo Wop at Withrow High School in the mid-1950s, forming The Enchanters and touring with them for six years. In the '60s, Smith began a long stint working at the legendary Castle Farms club and took a position with Fraternity Records first as an artist and then as a writer, arranger and producer.
In 1971, he wrote and recorded "Lord, What's Happened?," a regional hit that led him to a Chicago company offering him the host position on a television dance show called Soul Street. The show lasted only 10 episodes before poor business dealings forced it off the air.
Smith continued to record and release singles and work weekend gigs, but the nature of live entertainment changed in the mid-'70s, with the emphasis shifting to DJs and Disco rather than live Funk/Soul bands.
By then, Smith had already started selling insurance for Allstate. His long, successful tenure with the company resulted in his induction into the company's agent hall of fame, one of only two African Americans to hold that distinction. He's as clearly proud of that accomplishment as he is of his impending lifetime honor from the CEAs.
"They did a bronze bust of my face," Smith says. "It's kind of weird looking at yourself in bronze. It's like I'm already dead. But it's a really nice thing. Something like that and this lifetime achievement award show that I did contribute something. I always worked hard."
This has been a big year for Smith so far. Back in May, he saw the release of One More Day, a compilation of many of his rare and obscure singles - vinyl copies of which have sold for as much as $7,000 among collectors - on Darren Blase's Cincy-based Shake It Records. The album has been receiving consistently glowing press, most notably a 4-star review in the latest issue of Mojo, the British music bible.
"Darren just showed me the Mojo article," Smith says. "I didn't know they were that big. These things are humbling to me because I was never a flag-waver, if you know what I'm saying. To hear from not one voice but a lot of voices of different editorials, to be called a legend - I haven't gotten over that one yet."
The big news on the horizon for Smith is his work on an album of all-new songs with local musician/engineer Craig Wilson. The album won't be finished until after the first of the year, but Smith is excited about its potential.
"I've got four songs done É I got a long way to go," Smith says with a laugh. "I don't expect it to be done until spring. I think the Internet and other things are opening up some doors for independent marketing. I think it will be worth marketing - if it wasn't, I wouldn't even want to put it out. We're looking for another partner, because it's gonna be first class."
The more immediate concern is the CEA ceremony and the performance that Smith will present that evening.
"Dan McCabe asked me if I would do something ... what could I say?," Smith says with a laugh. "I don't sound like I did years ago, because time changes things. I haven't performed in years, so I'm having to change the keys in order to get through this."
For the CEA performance, Smith will be backed by local Indie Blues/Rock trio Pearlene, an inspired pairing. Pearlene bassist Jesse Ebaugh credits McCabe with conceiving the notion of performing together.
"Dan called me and said, 'Hey, I've got this idea for the awards show,'" Ebaugh says. "I'd heard the record and thought the music was really cool. I can remember going to the (Contemporary Arts Center) when Chris Burgan put that show (A Thousand Tears Too Late: A History of Cincinnati Soul) together there and being interested in who Kenny was and watching the Soul Street programs and identifying him as a character, but it never jumped out to me as an opportunity to play with him until Dan thought it up. Pearlene is tight and talented, and we're the kind of guys that can play anything, but it was Dan's imagination that put us together."
Ebaugh says Smith has been careful in their rehearsal process, not wanting to make any missteps in his first live performance in nearly 30 years.
"He's been a little pensive in approaching it, and he wants it to come off exactly right," Ebaugh says. "He's taking it little bit by little bit. He's always been a songwriter and never fancied himself a singer or a player. I think he sells himself short. I think he's a better singer than he thinks he is. We've been doing nothing but trying to boost him. We're like, 'Man, these songs are fantastic, and we're doing it because we love it.'"
At the end of the evening, though, it will be the Hall of Fame award that will give Smith the most satisfaction.
"This is a very special thing for me. I couldn't be any happier if I was walking at the Grammys. This is my Cincinnati Grammy. I guess it would be better to say that I haven't woken up yet." ©
THEATER HALL OF FAME: Making a Difference
The 10 years that D. Lynn Meyers has served as producing artistic director at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC) coincide exactly with the 10 years covered by the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards (CEAs), presented for 2006 in a ceremony Friday at UC's College-Conservatory of Music.
During that decade, Meyers has staged 46 regional premieres at ETC. She also helped establish the League of Cincinnati Theatres (LCT) and served in a leadership role during the league's early years.
Four times since 1996 Meyers has been called upon to step to the podium and induct someone into the CEA Hall of Fame, recognition that's linked to LCT's Award for Continuing Excellence. In 1999, she introduced Cincinnati native and Broadway regular Pam Myers; in 2002 it was veteran professional actress Dale Hodges; in 2004 she profiled Cincinnati Playhouse leaders Ed Stern and Buzz Ward; and in 2005 she introduced playwright Joe McDonough, whose writing she's championed at ETC.
All in all, it seems fitting that, for the 10th anniversary of the CEAs, Lynn Meyers herself is honoree to be inducted into the CEA Hall of Fame.
Meyers grew up on Cincinnati's West Side and didn't know much about theater. She aspired to be a writer while attending Mother of Mercy High School; the arts weren't a thread in her life.
"I grew up in a remarkable and eccentric and eclectic family," Meyers says. "Everybody had two and three jobs that they did really well. Work was a prize, not a burden. My grandfather worked at American Linen during the week, then at Findlay Market on the weekend.
"I need people who want to come to work every day as much as I do," Meyers says. "If you have that desire, the rest of it happens."
She cites her lighting and scenic designer, Brian c. Mehring, another West Side product.
"He's brilliant, and he understands the gibberish of my language and turns it into something visual," she says. "There's nobody like that on the planet. I've been blessed to work with some really good designers, but he can read my mind and my heart. It's that passion I thrive on."
She laughs when she recounts how Mehring helped her learn to drive a standard transmission car two years ago.
"I couldn't get the idea of letting out the clutch and engaging the gears until he told me it was like a cross-fade," a lighting concept in which one set of lights fades while another one is brightened to reveal something new.
She describes her new technical director, Richard Sillen, who previously worked in New York City on conventions and meetings.
"He told me, 'I want to do work that matters! I can work anywhere and do good work. I want my soul in something,'" she says.
That's how Meyers conducts her artistic career - with her heart on her sleeve - and that's what she expects of those around her.
Why does Meyers continue to create theater in Cincinnati? After all, she has connections around the country from her tenure at the Cincinnati Playhouse during the 1980s. She's directed in Canada and New York City. She's abridged major novels and directed well-known actors in recordings of books-on-tape. She's been involved in casting major motion pictures such as The Shawshank Redemption and Milk Money. She knows performers and playwrights everywhere.
"I love the idea at the end of the day that the work I do adds up to making a difference," Meyers says. "I feel like Cincinnati is a town that keeps reinventing itself. If I didn't feel like the work was really challenging, I probably wouldn't be here. I'll wear the same old clothes and drive the same old car, but I don't want to do the same old thing.
"Ensemble Theatre gives me a freedom you don't find in other places. The best an artist can hope for is to continue to keep working. That's what ETC does for me."
Working - and working hard - is what Meyers is all about.
After graduating from Thomas More College in 1978, she was accepted for graduate study at Yale Drama School, but she couldn't afford to go. On the advice of a mentor, she wrote to 67 regional theaters with a note saying, "Here's a copy of my acceptance letter to Yale. I can't afford to go. Give me a job!"
She had two responses. One was from Alaska Repertory Theatre, which told her they admired her chutzpah but had nothing available. The other was from Playhouse in the Park.
"Someone once said I am 'intolerably annoying,'" Meyers admits. "I think that's how I got the job at the Playhouse."
She persuaded Artistic Director Michael Murray to hire her as his assistant. Over time she became casting director and eventually was associate artistic director when she left in 1990 to pursue new opportunities.
"ETC caught me," Meyers confesses. "I was standing in this neighborhood where my grandfather had worked at Findlay Market - my mom, my grandmother, all these people had built this life for me. In this theater building that two loving people, Ruth Sawyer and Murph Mahler, had bought. I said to myself, 'You can't close a theater when you've got a building!'"
So Meyers is still at it. She refined ETC's mission to be "your premiere theater" and focused on bringing new works to the stage. She's built a reputation for ETC that attracts nationally known playwrights like Lee Blessing and Tony Award winner Warren Leight. ETC repeatedly has been the first theater in America to present a show after its New York City debut.
What motivates her to work in the theater?
"It's a way to begin again and re-create your life," she says. "With every show, with every production, with every moment that you get to create onstage, you get another chance. Theater is about maybe creating life the way it should be or could be or would be. Sometimes it makes the world we live in a much better place. That's why it's worked for me."
Of her recognition by LCT, Meyers is truly honored.
"The league represents so many diverse theater companies, where so many more people are now having a chance to do their craft," she says. "Cincinnati has always had wonderful community theaters, and today we have more professional theater companies and even more semi-professional companies. That's exciting."©
C. Dean Tabler
Director Dean Tabler, who passed away in late February, was more than a theater artist. For many young African Americans, he was also a role model.
In the 1960s and '70s he was affiliated with Barbizon, a modeling agency, and he taught young people about grooming, walking, talking and speaking. According to Don Sherman, founder of the Cincinnati Black Theatre Company - who was one of those kids - it came naturally to Tabler.
Sherman, who produces several shows annually and stages the biennial Cincinnati Black Theatre Festival, calls Tabler one of the pioneers of black theater in Cincinnati, largely because he knew how to get the most out of people.
When Sherman was growing up in the '70s he was too young to go to cast parties - "My mom wouldn't let me," he says, laughing - but he was old enough to be involved in the Progressive Repertory Company of Cincinnati, a theater group that performed regularly at Gabriel's Corner in Over-the-Rhine. He remembers Tabler as having unbounded energy and demanding a lot of those around him.
"Dean had me going to the store, running errands, doing lights, whatever was needed," Sherman says. Tabler also cast the young Sherman in a memorable production of The Amen Corner, a musical based on a short story by James Baldwin.
"Dean was a no-nonsense kind of person," Sherman recalls. "He could be your best friend and your worst enemy. He was really feisty. If you showed a lack of confidence, he would get really upset with you. He really believed in building your character. He could have you walking out the door thinking this was it, that you'd never work at this theater again. Then he'd give you a call and put his arm around you and tell you, 'Hey, I really mean well. But I'm not going to allow you to come in and be this way. I want you to be the best you can be.'"
Tabler's 1996 production of Marcia Leslie's The Trial of One Short-Sighted Black Woman Vs. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae was a nominee in the very first year of the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards. Over the years he presented works by important playwrights such as August Wilson (Fences), Edward Albee (Zoo Story), Charles Fuller (A Soldier's Tale) and Athol Fugard (Sizwe Bansi Is Dead).
At the time of his death, he was preparing to restage his well-received 1999 production of Cheryl West's Before It Hits Home, a play about AIDS in the African-American community, for the 2006 Cincinnati Black Theatre Festival.
"I learned from Dean was that you can't just go by the book," Sherman recalls. "You have to feel it. He taught me you can read as much as you want and you can have all your blocking down, but you have to learn to really feel what is happening and work off the cuff. Some of your greatest creativity comes from that. I learned from Dean to try to go with your gut feeling."
Tabler received an Imagemaker award in 1997, in addition to the Donald P. Sowell Award for his work in the performing arts. At Friday evening's CEAs, he will be memorialized by Sherman.
- RICK PENDER
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