For this week’s Throwback Thursday, Giant Step President/CEO Maurice Bernstein takes us back to the very first Groove Academy show with Leon Thomas and The JB's in June 1990.
This was the very first Groove Academy show. Before I started working with my original partner, Jonathan Rudnick, I was doing clubs and parties in New York. And where possible, I tried to incorporate live music into my events. There were really only a couple of nightclub venues that had the live music capability, though - MK and Nell’s.
I’d often fly around on my roller skates to drop off show flyers promoting my parties. During one of my runs, a friend of mine who owned a boutique in the East Village told me about a musician friend of hers who looking to make a comeback. And once she told me her friend was Leon Thomas, I immediately jumped at the opportunity. Leon was a jazz singer who’d worked with artists like Pharoah Sanders and Santana. He also had his own albums on the Flying Dutchman label in the 1970s, but you really needed to be a bit of a crate digger to know who he was.
I set up a meeting with Leon and his manager who came to see to me in my walk-up apartment in Alphabet City. They told me about how Leon’s comeback plan included bringing PeeWee Ellis, James Brown’s saxophone player, into the fold. And turned out that PeeWee was going to bring his friends Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley from the JB’s along as well.
I got very excited, and managed to get MK to pay for them to do a warm up show, which they did. Understandably, however, the guys also wanted to do something that would earn them more money, so I decided to take the event idea to a proper concert venue.
It was then that I remembered meeting Jonathan Rudnick a year prior while interning at Town Hall. Jonathan helped take my proposal to Larry Gold, the owner at SOB's. Larry agreed to put up the money to make the show happen and I was absolutely thrilled.
I didn’t want the show to be an ‘SOBs presents’ sort of situation, and I also didn’t want the show to be under my own name since my other events already were. So, I came up with the name Groove Academy to give these shows their own separate identity.
Leon Thomas and the JB’s did a combination of Leon’s music, some of his blues songs, as well as music out of the JB’s repertoire – “Soul Power,” “Cold Sweat,” and others. James was still in jail at the time.
It was a real experience for me, because it was my first time working with heroes of mine in such a capacity. Leon’s style is very unique – he yodels and whistles – very elegant. However, Leon was unfortunately a lot older than he was during his prime, and just wasn’t able to deliver how he wanted. It was a shame but I was still incredibly grateful for the opportunity.
On a happier note, the JB’s were fantastic, and this show really launched the beginning of The Groove Academy working more with Maceo, Fred, and PeeWee.