Dorothy Betz and Les Adam close their impressive debut album, "Drive On," with a powerful tribute to the genius of Ray Charles. Composed on the day the legendary musician died, this rousing gospel song, complete with a mournful sax and stirring chorus, vividly encapsulates the grief so many fans felt around the world.
"The day Ray Charles died we got real sad," Les recalls. "I sat down at the piano and began to play and Dorothy began to write, and she wrote out all the words in minutes. Then we worked on it together for about 20 minutes and it was so good. When the guys came in to record they asked, 'How do you want us to play?' I said, 'Do you remember how you felt when you first got the news? I want you to play that moment on this record.' Everyone was able to express their grief through the song. Back in the '50s when he was so fresh, I remember searching the transistor radio dial for his voice. He became very big in people's lives."
Profound emotional moments abound on the duo's CD. These seasoned musicians distill their collective history into a labor of love steeped in Americana roots music. Some songs sound like classic gems unearthed from decades earlier, and in Dorothy's soulful, weathered vocals, one sometimes feels the spirit of Janis Joplin and Maria Muldaur.
CD cover of Drive On
by Dorothy Betz and Les Adam
"When we first started working together, we talked about the timelessness of music and how fleeting styles are, and how it's shallow to stay current and modern," Les notes. "I said let's look at about 150 years of music and jump out of the time thing and really draw from our history and roots. So we're not bound to what's been happening in the last year and half.
"We freed ourselves from trying to be commercial, to create a vehicle where we could get the most real and what we're feeling and thinking into the music without restricting ourselves to being blues players or folk players. Even though we change styles, there's a certain way we deliver the lyrics that's the same."
Among the most potent songs, Dorothy expresses generations of collective feminine pain on the country-flavored ballad "The Wind in The Trees," supported by the plaintive violin playing of Willy Wainwright. "When I wrote it, I thought about it as a cross between Loretta Lynn and Ray Charles in the woods," says Dorothy.
* Dorothy Betz and Les Adam perform at the Hana Hou Caf in Haiku on Wednesday evenings with Vince Esquire. The duo produce the Upcountry Sunday shows bi-weekly at Casanova. Dorothy can be heard DJing on Mana'o Radio Tuesday evenings from 8 to midnight. The CD is available online and at Be Happy in Paia.
And "An Old Woman's Tale" (recorded live at Casanova) tells a traumatic tale of child abuse and the resulting shame that often inhibits victims from exposing their pain.
"That's a true story, a sad one that's all too common," she says.
Another moving track, "Carryin' a Heavy Load," sung by Les, recalls the great labor songs of the past that depicted the backbreaking toil of the working man.
" 'Carryin' a Heavy Load' began as just me playing piano and Dorothy says, 'What's that?' " Les explains the genesis of the song. "I said, it's kind of like carrying a heavy load. If I need some good lyrics out of Dorothy, all I have do is sing some bad ones. If I need her help, I start blurting stuff that I know won't work, so she wrote most of those lyrics.
"The influence on that song was old Negro spirituals. I had this cheap harmonica and when I went to play the harmonica part on it, I just didn't think it had juice, so I pulled out my dad's 85-year-old Hohner harmonica. I hadn't played it since my dad died years ago. When I played it something happened and I felt like I was my dad playing on my album. I sat down and I had this taste in my mouth and I had a memory of being 4 and my dad holding me and giving me a kiss, and then I began to weep. There was a soul connection when I began to taste and feel that harp I had heard all my life."
The two musicians began working together around 12 years ago. Raised in Florida, Dorothy moved to Maui in 1976. Before arriving on our shores, her artistic resume included performing in coffee houses during high school, mentoring by esteemed folk singer Fred Neil, fronting a Boston rock band, and co-writing and co-directing a musical Western adaptation of Shakespeare's "The Tempest" in Berkeley, Calif. On Maui she has performed with Willie Nelson and the Planetary Bandits, the Road Alligators, the Upcountry String Band and as founding member of the Mana'o Radio Orchestra.
Also an alumnus of Willie Nelson's former backing band, the Planetary Bandits, Les has played keyboards with an array of musicians on Maui including Kris Kristofferson, the Doobies' Pat Simmons, Merl Saunders, Bill Kreutzman of the Grateful Dead, and Los Lonely Boys, as well as the Road Alligators and the Vince Esquire Band.
Long before moving to Maui in 1975, he began his musical career as a young drummer in L.A. fueled by a passion for jazz. Then a pivotal introduction tolegendary Hammond B-3 organ player Jimmy Smith changed his life.
"I was a jazz drummer when I was 17 and I was trying to hear him play in a club," Les recalls. "I was with a friend and we walked to the back where a door was cracked open and they were rehearsing, the hottest organ trio that ever lived. We were really close and Jimmy Smith said, 'Come in.' After they played for a while he said, 'I would invite you to the gig but you're too young.'
"That night I went to the gig in a suit and wore a hat and tried to look older. Jimmy Smith came up and let me in and said, 'Put him in the front row.' They were playing two nights and the manager said, 'We can't do this again.' So the next night I brought a note from my mom that said, will you write down you're his chaperone, which was a state law. I used that until I went in the Army when I was 19. I could go anywhere Jimmy was playing and he would let me in for free because he was mentoring me. He showed me some stuff which was pretty essential to what I do now. There was a lot of racism in those days - black artists did not take on little, short haired, really straight looking white boys."
With Les handling keyboards and Dorothy playing acoustic guitar, the duo is surrounded on "Drive On" by a host of Maui musicians including Willie K Band bassist Don Lopez, John Pollock of the Haiku Hillbillys on mandolin, violinist Willy Wainwright of Gypsy Pacific and drummers Bob Jones, Kerry Sofaly, Josh Greenbaum and Mike Buono.
And John Zangrando adds uplifting saxophone to the eulogy "Next Time."
"That was written when my mother died," notes Les. "That was a gift for me (composed by Dorothy) as comfort when I got home from the funeral. We've played it at a couple of wakes and people have asked for it. John Zangrando was at a funeral where we played it at and he loved the tune."
Another guest, Cathy Richardson, who played Janis Joplin in the Off-Broadway musical "Love, Janis," and sings with Big Brother and the Holding Company and Jefferson Starship, contributes backing vocals to the closing "The Day Ray Charles Died."
"She wants to record 'Next Time,'" Les continues." "She's an incredible singer. When she comes over she jams with us at our gigs."
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Maui student Andrew Molina just won a third-place trophy in the high school variety category at the 2009 Brown Bags to Stardom finals held at Honolulu's Blaisdell Arena. This 16-year-old Baldwin High School sophomore performed Jake Shimabukuro's song "Wes on Four" on ukulele.
Brown Bags' producer Johnny Kai praised the young musician's proficiency.
"He is an amazing ukulele player and surely one of those that will be an icon in the world of ukulele players," he said.
Various acts from 31 schools including Kamehameha Schools Maui and Maui High competed in four categories.
Andrew is a third-generation musician in the Molina family. Grandfather Henry Molina of the famous Molina Brothers Orchestra still plays sax at the age of 84. Andrew's dad, Jay Molina, plays bass with the New Project band and works the luau show at the Wailea Beach Marriott Resort & Spa.
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In another talent contest, Band Champ, produced by Tom Moffatt, the group Why Bother, featuring Kamehameha Schools Mauijunior Dane Lum Ho and senior Kala'e Camarillo won the Maui semifinals at the MACC on March 6. Seven bands from Maui's high schools competed, and Ten Feet headlined.
You can see videos of the groups that competed, including raging rockers Ragdoll Physics and a budding young Who of 15-year-olds named FitzRoy on the Band Champ Web site. The finals will be held on Mar. 21 at Oahu's Pipeline Caf. It will be shown on KHON2 at 9 p.m. March 25.
* Contact Jon Woodhouse at firstname.lastname@example.org.