(Jun 12, 2015, 5:39 AM PDT)
“Come to find out, the enemy was attacking. So they (soldiers) grabbed us and we ran and ran and wound up in a foxhole. Can you imagine, I was down in a foxhole?”
I recently was part of a packed audience at the historic Maverick’s Flat Grill & Jazz Club on Crenshaw Boulevard in Los Angeles where Sherwood Sledge was entertaining. He took to the stage, dressed impeccably in a custom fitted white suit and sparkling tie. It accentuated his crop of silver hair. When he appeared, before the first note was sung, the applause was stupendous. This vocalist has a committed following in Southern California, split evenly between the gospel and the jazz community. You see, Mr. Sledge has made a name for himself in both those musical genres. I recently met with this artist and inquired about his introduction to music. I learned it began when he was a mere child in Baltimore, Maryland.
SHERWOOD: “I don’t come from a musical family; not that I know of. There were four of us; two sisters and a brother. My sisters are gone. My brother lives in Virginia. I remember my mother telling me that my father used to sit me in front of the radio when I was about six months old. I listened to the radio every day. I’d be sitting there in the carriage listening to this music that was playing on the radio. And so by the time I was three years old, I had started singing. I think my father had a lot to do with it. He introduced me to all the different music of the day. He always took me to stage shows that featured Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald; the big acts during that time. He would take me to the theater and I was inspired. I was singing all the time. My father used to take me to this little hole-in-the-wall gambling joint. My father cut cards. I would beg him for money to go to a movie and he’d say come on and go with me. We’d go on Monument Street and there would be all these guys gambling with the shades over the lights. He would grab me by the hand and say come-on; then announce, my son is going to sing for you and when he gets finished, you all are going to give him some money. I’ll never forget that room. It was in the back and there was something like sand on the floor. They would put money in the Jukebox and I would dance and sing and slide on the sand. The people would give me money. I’d be wearing short pants and I’d put that money in my pockets until they would hang down below the pants hem line.
“When I went to the movie, I could buy everything; candy, popcorn and ice cream. My mother would say, where did you all go? I’d tell her where my father had taken me and she’d fuss, he knows better than that. I told him about taking you to those gambling halls. I explained to my mother that he wanted me to sing and look what I made. When I pulled all that money out of my pockets she had a change of heart.” (laughter)
“I was singing in dance halls when I was four and five years old. When I was six years old I sang with a group called Douglas MacArthur and the Blue Notes. I remember them taking me to Fort Meade. Fort Meade was an Army Camp and I was singing with a six and eight piece band; singing songs like ‘I’m gonna Get You On A Slow Boat to China’ and ‘Don’t Fence Me In’… This trumpet player used to come around sometimes on Sundays and say Can I take Sherwood down to The Biddle Lounge? This popular Lounge was on Federal and Preston Streets and my mom would say, ‘What is Sherwood going to be doing down there?’ And he’d say, they’re gonna pay him. I remember they used to stand me in a chair because the mic was too high for me to reach, so they would put me in this chair. Then when I would come home I’d tell my mama, look what I made today. And my mother would say, baby, I better let you go sing more often.
“Then I used to sing at this dance hall on Biddle Street where the teenagers went on weekends. My older sisters used to take me ’cause my mother said they couldn’t go to the dance hall unless they took me. I could dance. Oh yes – I was a dancer. I was only about five or six years old. And my sisters used to go up to the little combo that was playing there and say, my brother can sing. The combo used to say, ‘what are you talking about?’ But my sisters would insist and sit me up on top of the upright piano and I would sing. I was wailing. I had a big voice to be little. …I wasn’t even five feet when I graduated from high school. I learned to be loud and strong. They used to call me Master Sherwood Sledge; the little boy with the big voice.
“Listening to the radio I could identify the artists I heard, and sometimes the instrumentation. I knew the sound of Charlie Parker when he played and I recognized Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton’s big band. I could tell by the instrumentation who was playing. My father taught me to listen. That’s how I got started in the music business.
“When I got about thirteen, my grandmother said ‘I’m tired of my grandson singing in these hell-holes. You need to get into the choir.’ And that’s when I began singing Gospel. I’ll never forget, after I got baptized, it’s like I had an ear for Gospel music. I started listening to Mahalia Jackson and Clara Ward. I started going to hear all the great Gospel artists during the Golden Era of Gospel which came about during the 1950s. Before long, I became the lead singer at my church. It was Wayland Baptist Church. I was a solo singer at the church from thirteen until I was about twenty-one years old. I had my own Gospel group. We started singing on the programs with the Caravans. We were called the Celestial Gospel Singers. I was only fourteen or fifteen and we sang on every Gospel program. Then I met this group from Pittsburgh, PA called the Jessie Martin Singers. I joined them when I was about eighteen or nineteen. We travelled through the Midwest singing at various churches. In the meantime, after coming back from Pittsburgh, because I stayed in Pittsburgh about a year or two years, this girl named Thelma Jackson was a member of the famous Ward Singers. At the Cornerstone Baptist Church, they had a radio broadcast on Sunday nights and Thelma said ‘tell Sherwood to come over here to the church and give me a hand.’ So I ended up going over there and broadcasting every Sunday. Cornerstone Baptist Church in Baltimore, MD had an eleven-o-clock broadcast at night. It was a big church. People came from everywhere to attend. I used to sing there. Now what happened, she (Thelma Jackson) sang with Clara Ward and Clara Ward was someone I always admired. I used to listen to Clara and she inspired me. In fact, I used to try and copy some of the things she did (vocally) and Clara Ward became the one who initiated me going over to start my overseas travelling.
“After I met Clara Ward, we became real good friends. She came out here and she was taking Gospel music into cabarets and Las Vegas and things like that. When I came out to Los Angeles in 1964 somebody invited me into a group called the L.A. All Stars, where Mel Carter used to be the lead singer, before he went into pop music. After they heard me sing, they drafted me into that group. Clara Ward got a chance to hear me because of that and we became friends. She recommended me and my group, which at that time was called The Twenty-First Century, Ltd. We auditioned for the USO. Once the man over at the USO, Jimmy Sheldon, heard my group he said, when do you all want to go? Next thing we knew, we were on our way to Viet Nam and all these different places around the world.
“You know, when I was in Viet Nam doing that USO performance, all of a sudden the people in the audience started running towards the stage. I was thinking to myself, I know we’re good but I didn’t think we were that good where they would mob the stage. They were running towards the stage screaming come on – come on. Get out of there! Come to find out, the enemy was attacking. So they (soldiers) grabbed us and we ran and ran and wound up in a foxhole. Can you imagine, I was down in a foxhole?”
I shook my head in amazement. I absolutely could not imagine Sherwood in his sparkle tie and white suit crouched in a foxhole with bombing and gunfire going off all around him. His eyes were wide with the memory of it as he described the scene to me.
SHERWOOD: “We had to stay there and they were bombing and that kind of stuff was happening all around us. I’ve done a lot for my country. I sang for the DMC and we performed in areas where we had to sleep under these nets because if the flies bit us we would be dead. Those mosquitoes and flies carry diseases; Malaria and stuff like that. I’ve had a multitude of shots and many vaccinations travelling for the United States Government. All of those booster shots they give the men in the Army and Navy, I’ve had all of those shots. We toured Thailand, Burma, Okinawa, Guam, the Philippine Islands, Hawaii, where that movie ‘From Here to Eternity’ was made. I performed in those barracks. Did I say Japan? We were in Sicily and Naples, Italy; lots of places.”
Once he stopped touring the world, Sherwood became a popular session musician. He was hired to sing backup by some of the top producers in the country, including Quincy Jones. Sherwood was part of the background singers on the A&M records label produced by Jones titled, “I Heard That” and “Roots” that became a Gold Record album. Sledge was also part of the original soundtrack for the “Roots” television series. He sang the love theme during the “Blacula” movie and his voice has graced a number of TV series including Family Manners, Dick Clark Live with Diana Ross and the Barbara Walters television special with Diana Ross. He appeared on the Donna Summer TV Special, and sang on The Parkers show. I asked him who he thought was one of the most exciting artists he has had an opportunity to work with. This is what he told me.
SHERWOOD: “I think Cannonball Adderley was the most exciting artist. It was a big thing at Fantasy Records when he did this recording of John Henry. It was about John Henry, the Steel Driving Man.”
NOTE: John Henry is a folklore character in the realms of Paul Bunyan, based on John Henry, a very real man. He was a six foot, 200 pound Southern slave, born in the 1840’s or 1850’s, who built his legend while working on the railroads as a steel driver. Many songs and folklore are based on his incredible legacy of survival, power and strength.
SHERWOOD: “Randy Crawford played a part on that session that lasted two or three days. Plus, that was the biggest session I’ve been a part of because we had to fly up to Oakland, California. Cannonball Adderley was really engaging and Robert Gilliam played the part of John Henry. Randy Crawford played the part of his sweetheart. I got a chance to meet them all. You’ll see on the chorus, my name, – Sherwood Sledge. Well, I think that was Cannonball Adderley’s last recording and I got to be a part of that. I also got to meet Quincy Jones, and there’s nobody like Quincy Jones. Quincy changed our singing group name to The Wattsline and became our manager. What I learned from him was studio protocol and how to record and all that kind stuff. Then he introduced me to Billy Eckstine, and who would ever think I would meet Billy Eckstine? Billy Eckstine recorded that song “You’re the Best Thing That Ever Happened To Me” and Herb Alpert, (the “A” of A&M Records) called me in his office and said, ‘we heard your voice and your voice is so warm we want you to do the vocal background for Billy Eckstine.’ So I got a chance to talk and laugh with Billy Eckstine. I think he was also one of the most exciting celebrities that I had a chance to work with and get to know.
“I did a recording session with Carole King at the peak of her career. I also worked with Etta James, who got a Grammy Nomination for her recording of ‘St Louis Blues.’ She sang the original ‘St. Louis Blues,’ a copy of Bessie Smith’s recording, including the choral part of those songs from black films of that day. They hired me to do the bass line. Then they put the music in front of us and I said, oh – I’m out of here. I can’t read that music. And they said oh – come on Sherwood. Let me show you how it’s done. And that’s the vocal session we did with her. She was Grammy nominated for that session in 1975 and I was on that recording.”
The stories go on and on. Sherwood Sledge is a seasoned veteran with many more stories and anecdotes to share. He’s well known and deeply rooted in his Gospel community, performing at churches around the country, but just as popular on the jazz scene. He’s mastered the elegance and command of the stage and his audiences just like his predecessors; Joe Williams, Billy Eckstine, Sammy Davis Jr.; Clara Ward and Billie Holiday. He’s one of the few vocalists I’ve seen who will put the microphone down and walk the room, never loosing a beat or dropping a note. Isn’t that what Lady Day did back in the 40s? He can sing a ballad and you can hear a cat piss on cotton. This is the type of control and mesmerizing performance Sherwood Sledge offers each and every time he takes to the stage. Next time you see his name on the marquee, be there!