Saturday, August 14, 2010

Recalling the gift of having been allowed to spend 'Sunny' hours and days with my friend Bobby Hebb

"We're in the university of life and last time I checked, no one is in a hurry to graduate."
Perhaps the gentlest soul I’ve ever met in the years I’ve been privileged to interview musicians, Bobby Hebb looked up at me and smiled when he said that.
I quickly scribbled that down in my now unreadable reporter’s notebook, took a long deep sip of the Scandinavian roast coffee that he’d prepared.
“I think you’ll like this,” he had said, urging me to go ahead and try his formula for boosting the coffee’s spirit-lifting taste, attitude even.
Hebb spooned some brown sugar into my cup and poured in some real cream, not of the low fat variety – for he was only 5-foot-6 and 130 pounds – and we looked out the back door of his tidy home in Bordeaux.
“It’s nice to be back home,” he said, before leading the way back to the living room/dining room/family room combination that was filled with the tools with which he served humanity.
There was a baby grand, some guitars, a keyboard.
“Listen to this,” he said, walking over to the stereo near the front window. He put a CD in the changer, let it load up and then pushed play.
The song that was Hebb’s greatest gift to the world – one composed of his own despair, alone in a New York apartment – softly escalates in volume, gradually filling the room. Bobby’s eyes glisten with soft tears of joy.
“This is my favorite version,” he says as a very different – though still oh-so-familiar – version of Bobby’s classic, “Sunny,” escapes from the speakers.
“This is Eugen Cicero,” he says, softly, so as not to interrupt this music. For the next seven minutes or so, the living room in Bordeaux is filled with the European pianist’s version of “Sunny.”
It’s all instrumental – although in this listener’s mind, the lyrics are ever-present – and is deceptively simple: piano with upright bass backing. While exploring ”Sunny” in a way that would have made Bobby’s old friend Thelonious Monk proud, Cicero offers up doses of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and Chopin's Polonaise in A-Flat Major.
We sip our brown-sugar-hinted, almost espresso, and listen. Neither of us wants to speak, as Bobby’s eyes dance, his denim-clad leg bounces oh-so-slightly to the beat.
But even when music isn’t playing or being performed by this gentle and disarmingly humble pop star, this friend of Beatles and jazz greats, who left Nashville to conquer the world only to return when there was nothing left to prove and perhaps he needed refuge from the storms of life, there is a rhythm to this day.
Bobby hadn’t been interviewed for a long time, other than by my friend Michael Gray, who was curating the Night Train to Nashville exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
Michael’s exhibit – born of his own enthusiasm and embraced by his bosses at the Hall – was groundbreaking, in that it recognized the R&B side of Nashville, Frank Howard and the Commanders, Eddie Frierson, Earl Gaines, Roscoe Shelton, Jimi Hendrix, Billy Cox, Ted Jarrett, Marion James.
It was mostly an observance of what had happened on Jefferson Street – before the historically black nightclub district and thriving surrounding neighborhood was cut in two, basically murdered when Interstate 40 brought “progress” to Music City.
The interstate, when constructed, surgically separated that district right at its heart, a concrete and steel amputation that killed a district and clubs that had not only nurtured local musicians but brought in the best of the touring R&B acts. Word pictures offered up by those who still survive – and so many of them have died even in the years since the exhibit – paint a picture of a lively strip that would compete with Harlem and its Apollo and other clubs as musical venues.
But Bobby Hebb was one who was not really an R&B star. Though he was a black artist nurtured in Nashville and though he played and sang R&B, he also played and sang jazz and pop. His truest early musical friends included Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Bashful Brother Oswald – among the best purveyors of the White Man’s Blues – from his days with Acuff on the Opry.
Later he came to know and be known in the New York jazz circles, where Monk was a pal and his dark influences became a part of Bobby’s musical palette.
And later still, he, like so many black artists, found greater acceptance in Amsterdam and Tokyo than in the U.S.
But during decades in which he had been all but forgotten here in his hometown, Bobby’s most famous tune had become a part of America’s musical vocabulary.
“Sunny,” at its heart, is a breezy song. But it was born of sorrow, both personal and national. Bobby was in his New York apartment when he learned his brother Harold, among his musical heroes, had been stabbed to death.
Harold was a member of the Marigolds, a group that was an offshoot of Johnny Bragg’s The Prisonaires, an all-convict band that spent its time away from the penitentiary playing for the governor and other members of Tennessee’s ruling class.
In fact it was Bragg, whom I knew slightly, who had provided the perfect entrée to my desire to speak with Bobby in the first place. When Johnny died back in 2004, I wrote the obituary and pushed for my employer at the time, The Tennessean newspaper here in Nashville, to give it decent play. Johnny may have been a convict, but he also was a musical wizard and he too had created at least one classic in the song, “Just Walkin’ in the Rain.”
When I called Bobby to say I’d like to interview him – after I was told that he was relatively reclusive – his first response was: “I know who you are. You did a really nice job on Johnny’s obituary.”
Then he told me to come out the next day to his home to do an interview for the newspaper and, in the process, gain a friend
Anyway, I got a bit sidetracked here, Harold had been stabbed to death outside the old Club Baron – now the home of the Jefferson Street Elks Lodge.
The day before Harold died, the whole country had been thrown into a down spiral of mourning when JFK’s brains were blasted away by a weasel-faced coward who hid in the Texas Book Repository in Dallas.
Both these events were a part of the inspiration for “Sunny.” It wasn’t that Bobby was using those events as his lyrical and musical driving force. He actually was pushing away from those melancholy events and the black dogs of depression when he wrote what may be the perfect pop song.
He simply wanted to lift both his own mood and those of anyone who would listen.
On that first day we spent together -- and it truly was a day, and there were more – Bobby told stories of his life, of Nashville’s black music, of Mr. Acuff and of Luke the Drifter.
We drank cups of brown-sugar-flavored coffee and we laughed at old pictures and listened to music.
And Bobby’s lilting voice and laughter as well as his Zen-meets-Instant Karma rap – for he would take off on long and philosophic tangents that mixed hippie ideals with Christ’s teachings and Eastern mysticism – are in my head and heart even today.
The most powerful images though are of the slight man, who at his piano, at his keyboard and with a guitar, performed not only “Sunny,” but other songs of his life and of my own.
The day was flavored with music and tales of Dylan, Seeger, Monk, Lennon/McCartney and the slight giant who had all but been forgotten named Bobby Hebb.
To sit in the living room and listen to the composer and the first voice to record the classic “Sunny” sing that tune and then playfully move away from it in lyrics and texture, sampling other sounds and other times, was one of the gifts life has given me.
In the years since that long and happy day in October 2004, I’ve called him a few times. We’ve joked on the phone. And he always thanked me for telling his story, finally, in his hometown.
In recent years, he was very ill, although the last time I spoke with him he wasn’t letting that stop him from dreaming.
I had tried to get publications, both local and national, to let me tell his story one more time. But no one was interested. That didn’t bother Bobby, though.
He had made his mark. His story finally had been told here. A local museum had helped him celebrate the music of himself as well as that of his family and friends.
I have been privileged to share time with so many great people, from famous artists and athletes to regular people who have thrived and made their own marks on the world.
When one of them is gone, so is part of me.
And I felt that loss, that amputation of a piece of my heart when Bobby died Aug. 3. I was out of town, on vacation at the beach, when I was told Bobby’s long battle with lung cancer had ended. My friend, Peter Cooper, the Tennessean music writer, had been tasked with writing the obituary, from which I am proud he was able to find some useful information in the story I wrote after my first “Sunny” day with Bobby. He knew I’d want to know Bobby was gone.
I went for a walk on the beach and “Sunny” played in my head.
And it did as Bobby always intended: it lifted my spirits.
Thank you, old friend.

For the Tennessean obituary written by my friend Peter Cooper as well as photos of Bobby Hebb, visit

What follows is the Oct. 17, 2004, story I wrote for The Tennessean newspaper in which Bobby Hebb allowed me to share his story with his hometown. There are a few “sidebar” stories at the end.

HEADLINE:One so true to the music

From gospel singer on the streets of Nashville to member of the Smoky Mountain Boys and opener for The Beatles, Bobby Hebb has always felt the music. Now, the artist whose signature is 'Sunny' returns to Music City and his family's roots.

By TIM GHIANNI | Senior Writer
Bobby Hebb's legacy is Sunny. So is his disposition. The former has a lot to do with the latter. His song about the girl whose smile eased pain and erased rain is a pop/rock classic, ensuring this animated 66-year-old Nashville native will never vanish nor starve.
Perhaps the seed to that song was planted by Luke the Drifter, Hank Williams' gospel-wailing alter-ego, who gave the kid a few kind words about writing songs. Or maybe it started with Bashful Brother Oswald, the Opry legend who told Little Bobby to "feel what you sing."
We know for sure The Beatles liked the song. They told Bobby as much when he opened for them during their last tour. Heck, he says his piano playing almost got him a job as the fifth Beatle. "Ringo wanted me to come back to England to work in the studio." Hebb recommended Billy Preston for the job.
Despite all his stellar connections, Bobby's song and the attitude can be most attributed to the careful nurturing of his mother and father, blind musicians, who set all of their children on the path of musical and spiritual greatness.
"They were always my inspirations," he says now, thinking back to his youth spent singing, spooning and dancing for tips on the streets of Nashville with the rest of the Hebb family.
The Hebbs may not have been the von Trapps, but they surely were the inner-city equivalent. Instead of the Austrian Alps, the Hebbs' sound of music was birthed in south Nashville's Edgehill neighborhood.
There were two Hebb outfits. The four girls sang with their mother, focusing primarily on gospel music and churches.
"Daddy had a washboard band," he recalls. "Hebb's Kitchen Cabinet Orchestra."
Bobby and his two brothers joined their pop. "Daddy played the guitar. Harold played the washboard. Melvoid played the lard-can bass. I did the tap dancing and played the spoons."
The sound still can be heard in gospel gatherings around town and in Bobby's performances as an easy-listening, guitar-strumming pop star in Europe and Asia.
And it is being heard more here in his hometown now. After decades in New York and in Rockport, Mass. (a seaside village on Cape Ann near Boston), he's returned to his roots. Yes, he'll still travel the world to please his fans. But planes fly out of Nashville, too.
Oh, some of the boxes are still unopened. Other stuff remains up north for now. But the guitar and baby grand in the living room are proof he's home in Bordeaux.
"Listen to this," he says, his piano noodling leading up to some of the chords of his most famous song.
He pushes himself up from the piano bench and takes a step, then pauses to look toward the ceiling, right hand counting the beat into the fan-stirred air. And then it erupts, that voice, softly at first, then building.
"Sunny, yesterday my life was filled with rain.
"Sunny, you smiled at me and really eased the pain."
The song that became his signature and his livelihood was born in his apartment at 2186 Fifth Ave. in Harlem.
He'd gone to New York to seek his fortune in the music business after years spent as a member of Roy Acuff's Smoky Mountain Boys.
Some stories have him writing Sunny in response to the slaying of his brother, Harold, outside the Club Baron. Others say it stemmed from the death of JFK in Dallas the day before.
Sunny has more to do with mood than history.
On the day he died, Harold Hebb was a member of the Marigolds, a group sprung from Johnny Bragg's all-con band The Prisonaires.
An armed robbery conviction sent Harold to prison. His singing abilities caught the ear of the band leader.
Outside jail walls, the group flourished, although Harold's career and life ended as he bled to death outside the club that now houses the Jefferson Street Elks Lodge.
"It was so sad," says Bobby Hebb. "Such loss."
While the Hebbs felt personal pain, they were hardly immune to the pain that had a nation weeping.
Bobby wasn't helped much by the fact that musical cohorts, such as Gerald Wilson and Thelonious Monk, produced dark sounds.
"I needed to pick myself up. I needed an upper. It all goes back to playing with Roy Acuff and feeling the music."
Writing Sunny "was therapy."
He stands and walks across the room, dropping into an easy chair. He reaches to the coffee table to rescue a ceramic cup half-filled with Scandinavian roast coffee.
"I usually drink tea," he says, sipping robustly on the coffee that's well flavored with brown sugar and cream.
He surveys his surroundings. "What I like about this house is that it's not too big. Everything I need is here. That's not to say it's got everything I want, just everything I need.
"I didn't need much yard. I have someone cut it for me, anyway. But I also didn't need to have a really big house. I needed to have room for my things, but not so much room that I needed to spend a lot of time cleaning it. I needed to spend my time on the music."
There are three bathrooms, including one upstairs. "I don't go up there much, because there's no furniture," he says. There's also a black 1991 Mercedes in the driveway. "I bought that on Clarksville Highway."
The 5-foot-6, 130-pound fellow in denim is pretty much like anyone else in this upper-middle-class development. But when he opens his mouth, in speech or in song, it becomes apparent he's someone special.
And it's not just Sunny. His satchel is filled with songs he's written. And he's certainly not averse to singing the works of others, guys such as Dylan and Hank Williams.
"I recorded Cold Cold Heart for the new record," he says, pointing out his admiration for Hank's work.
"I don't know Bob Dylan personally. I do know Pete Seeger. And Leadbelly (Woody Guthrie's folk-singing black associate of Goodnight Irene fame) was a cousin of mine. Used to be at all the Hebb family reunions."
Without warning, he leans back in his chair and mixes his own soft, sweet voice with Dylanesque rhythm and attitude.
"It ain't no use to sit and wonder why, Babe/It don't matter anyhow
"And it ain't no use to sit and wonder why, Babe/If you don't know by now.
"When your rooster crows at the break of dawn/Look out your window and I'll be gone
"You're the reason I'm traveling on/Don't think twice, it's all right."
He laughs at himself. "That's my favorite Bob Dylan song."
Perhaps Dylan's tale of rambling and lost love strikes a chord with him because it describes parts of his own past, which includes two divorces and a definite rootlessness.
But that clearly is not the direction of his future.
First of all, he remains in close contact with his daughter, Kitoto, 27, an aspiring actress and bus driver who lives in Massachusetts. "I love you, too," he says at the end of a phone conversation during which she's calling to check on her pop's health now that he's moved home, embracing his roots.
"My main thing now is to work with my family, get the Hebb family singing gospel together," he says.
"I want to teach it to all my nieces and nephews. I want them to carry on the family tradition."
He looks over to the piano, where the sheet music for Will the Circle Be Unbroken shares space with a couple of other gospel songs the family is working on.
"I loved my childhood. It was rough, but what's not rough? Life's not a piece of cake." Then he cues up a familiar song on the CD player.
"Oh, the dark days are done and the bright days are here,
"My Sunny one shines so sincere.
"Oh, Sunny one so true, I love you."

o Bobby is the last male member of the original Hebb family singers, who trace their origins to 1708 12th Ave. S. Harold, Melvoid and Jerome are deceased. There are four sisters living: Helen Hebb, Ednaearle Burney, Shirley Trotter and Cleavette Davison. Among Hebb's many cousins: state Sen. Thelma Harper.
o Hebb remains popular in Europe and in Asia. "I love Germany and Japan," he says. He also loves England, noting that one of his songs Love Love Love remains a hit "after all these years."
o Sunny, of course, is Hebb's biggest claim to fame. His favorite version of the much-covered song is performed by European pianist Eugen Cicero, with upright bass backing, in an all-instrumental version. Over almost seven minutes, Cicero blends in doses of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and Chopin's Polonaise in A-Flat Major. It is available as an import on an album called Swinging Piano Classics.
o A devout "old school" Christian, Hebb also observes Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, during which he fasts from sunset to sunset. "Christ did this for the Christians, he atoned for our sins. But there was something I felt in my heart that I should do that."
o Schooling? "We're in the university of life and last time I checked, no one is in a hurry to graduate."

Sunny is a 6 Million-Air, which means it's been broadcast 6 million times, according to information provided by BMI.
Based on an average length of three minutes, one million broadcast performances are the equivalent of 50,000 hours or 5.7 years of continuous airplay. In other words, if you linked all of Sunny's plays consecutively, it would last more than 34 years.
o Roy Acuff became a hero to Bobby Hebb not just because Acuff hired him, but also because he would refuse to stay in a hotel if the black youngster was not allowed to stay, too. In that regard, the singer and fiddler became something of a pioneer in the world of civil rights.
o Acuff's Dobro player, Bashful Brother Oswald, gave the kid some advice heeded by the Smoky Mountain Boys. "The fellas could not read music, but they could learn to play it how it should feel," Hebb remembers. Oswald took the youngster aside: "He told me, 'Feel the music while you're performing it.' "
o Learning to write songs with emotion was the goal when Hebb approached Hank Williams backstage at the Opry. "Hank was very friendly. ... He says, 'You just sit down as if you were writing a letter.' My mother corrected me on that count. She said you must have a story to tell when you write. She ... showed me the correct way to do it."
o After working on sessions for John Lee Hooker in Chicago, Hebb ended up in New York, where he encountered Thelonious Monk. "Monk was playing this." He stretches out a few measures of classic Monk piano styling. "It was that chord I wanted to learn about."
o "Whoo. I was very excited and very thrilled to get that job," he says, of his spot on the bill during what turned out to be The Beatles' last tour. He played for the biggest crowds of his career, "and the audience listened to me. Some of them sang along with me on Sunny ...."
The performers flew together on the charter and stayed in the same hotels. "All of them were nice. Of course, when they sang on stage, there was so much screaming, they couldn't hear themselves. John and George, well, they were very quiet. But Ringo and Paul were more active and easier to get to know. It was just something to be with those cats."
o One night, at a party in New York, he found himself singing with other guests, including Tony Bennett and Judy Garland. "I was writing songs for (Judy) when she died." Judy wanted me to write a song for her. But her daughter did it. It was called A Natural Man. Liza recorded it. And, of course, Lou Rawls did too." Rawls won a Grammy for his version.

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