'Every day has been exciting'
Want to Go?
Charleston West Virginia Blues Society
Blues in Schools Music Education Benefit Concert
WHEN: 8 to 11 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Coonskin Armory, 1703 Coonskin Drive
TICKETS: $15 advance or $25 at door
INFO: Call 206-984-7489 or visit charlestonwestvirginiabluessociety.com
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As a preacher's son, he grew up with gospel music. But even as a young boy, Marshall Petty's heart belonged to rhythm and blues.
He started out on guitar. Then he found an old saxophone. It was love at first notes. Something about those sounds, almost like a human voice, hooked him hard.
In high school at Cedar Grove, in the Army in Germany, in Minnesota, in Ohio, in college at West Virginia State, wherever he went, he played in a band. For years, he toured with jazz-blues organist Winston Walls.
At 67, he still exudes a joyful and infectious passion for music. Blues blood still races through his veins as smooth and strong as those high notes on his saxophone solos.
Performing now as the Marshall Petty Groove Band, he will entertain Saturday during a Charleston Blues Society benefit starring blues luminaries Chick Ellis and Margarett Floyd at the Coonskin Armory.
"My father was a pastor at Mount Tabor Baptist Church in Lewisburg. We moved there from Virginia when I was 3.
"Even coming from a Christian background, my parents must have had a love for R&B, because among all those 78-rpm gospel records was one R&B by Cecil Gant called 'I Wonder.' It was an orange cardboard record with his black face on the front of it.
"As a 3-year-old, I would lean over the Victrola and watch it spin and listen. I listened to that record until it was either lost or destroyed.
"We used to travel from Lewisburg to Washington, D.C., to visit relatives. There was very little on the radio. But when we got into D.C., there was Duke Ellington and Count Basie, and I can still hear the bass and horns and drums. I just gravitated to something other than gospel. When I turned 7 or 8, it was the Platters and Ray Charles.
"When I was 10, we moved from Lewisburg to Gallipolis, Ohio. There was a black radio station called Discing With Doss, 'brought to you by Falls City Beer.' That's when I started listening to artists like Cannonball Adderley, the Coasters and Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. I started playing a guitar and formed a little band.
"At 17, I moved to London and went to Cedar Grove High School. My guitar got stolen. The Hearttones leader, Nelson Saunders, heard this guy trying to teach me to play drums, and he said I was pretty talented. He took me to Cedar Grove where they rehearsed.
"There was a saxophone behind the couch. I started playing around with it. I learned to play by ear, just picked it up and started playing.
"I got more technical training by joining the Cedar Grove High School band. My dad bought me a real saxophone. It was a Selma, but it was a beginner's model. I kept it until I went to Germany in the service where I traded it for a Mark VI.
"I stuck with the saxophone. I love to sing, and the saxophone sounds so much like a voice, and I could go up and down the register and in the middle of the register, all the vibratos, all the tone qualities.
"My mother wanted me to play piano, but I wanted to play baseball and wouldn't make practice, so piano went by the wayside.
"My senior year, we moved to Hinton. Then I went to Bluefield State and studied music. My father had other plans for me. We went fishing one day and he said, 'You know musicians don't make a lot of money and don't have such a good life.' I knew what he was getting at. Seminary. I said, 'But Dad, this is what I want to do.' The subject dropped. He got my tuition together, and I went to Bluefield State.
"After two years, I left for St. Paul-Minneapolis. Friends from Lewisburg had moved there. They needed someone to travel with their band. We were playing for people like Martha Reeves and the Vandellas when they would come to town and needed a backup band. I had my own band, too.
"In 1967, I came home for Christmas, and what was waiting on me but greetings from Uncle Sam. It was the Vietnam era. I ended up very blessed. I went to Germany as a radio operator with very little duties. I played with a band called the Solomon C. Kenner Group, German civilians and a couple of GIs. I had a great two years in service.
"I came back, got married and finished school. I majored in sociology and philosophy at West Virginia State. I was thinking about going into theology, following my father's footsteps. But what I wanted to do with music in church just wasn't going to work. So I went back to what I loved best.
"Plus, I saw my father go through a lot of difficult times in churches. You get disgruntled deacons and next thing you know, you are moving. That wasn't for me.
"I worked on my master's at Marshall. I'm still working on it. All the time, I am playing. I started off with a band in Ohio called the Rockaways. Back in West Virginia, it was the Hearttones. At Bluefield State, we had the Truetones. In Minnesota, I was playing with Jimmy Young and the Royal Knights. We had a band at West Virginia State called the Dynamic Impressions.
"After I graduated, I went to Sandusky, Ohio, and worked with Ford Motor Co. and played with Sam and the Crawlers. Ford was laying off, so I came back home and got with a group called The Music Department and stayed with them until I branched out on my own.
"I had a business, Country Roads Distributing, a vending company. West Virginia came up with this junk food law that said no more pop in schools. Drinks had to have 20 percent juice. I found a company called Juice Bowl in Florida and bought some vending machines and put them in the schools. I did that about six years.
"When I divorced, I decided I would just play music. I went in on a nightclub with a retired Army lieutenant colonel, Marvin Billups. We formed the M&M Lounge. We hired Winston Walls to play for us.
"I told Marvin to buy me out and I went on the road with Winston from 1992 until about 2001. We were in California, Florida, Indiana, Arkansas, Pennsylvania. I really learned more about the music industry, because he was truly a professional.
"I cut my first recording with him on Bob Thompson's Voices show where he showcased different artists.
"I had never been to Florida. In the fall of 1997, Winston moved to Fort Myers. On the way down, I fell asleep around Atlanta. It was still chilly. When I woke up, I saw blue skies, white fluffy clouds and palm trees and the windows were down. Oh, man! I fell in love with Florida! We played in Lauderdale, Miami, Naples, Daytona, Orlando, all over.
"When I wasn't playing music, I taught school. I went through training and became a full-time teacher. I taught for five years at a center for children with social maladjusted backgrounds. I loved it.
"I spent every winter down there until this last one. It was getting expensive. The economy wasn't as good. Snowbirds were sharing meals. Tips weren't as great. So I thought, I've got to come back home. My roots are here.
"I've got the Marshall Petty Groove. We do mostly private parties. I'm more jazz and R&B, so I formed the Groove with David Lloyd on keyboard; Lulu Shepherd, the drummer; Clay Norse on guitar; and Ted Harrison, the bass player.
"When Obama first came to Charleston, we were the introductory band. When John Kerry ran for president, we played for him here.
"We're going to be the backup group for Chick Willis and Margarett Floyd who are coming in from LA. I got active in the Charleston West Virginia Blues Society. We were dormant for several years and were looking for a way to make a comeback. I called Chick to come help us out. We're playing Saturday at the National Guard Armory. People are excited about it.
"My life is not over. I have no regrets. I don't think I've left out anything. Every day has been exciting and important. All the difficult times turned out to be learning lessons. Life has been a great road the way I've done it.
"I get up every morning and say my prayers. Before I go to bed, I say my prayers. I read the Bible daily. Religion is in the blood.
"I just want to live every day like yesterday, to the fullest, and anticipate tomorrow. If it doesn't turn out like I want it, so what?" Reach Sandy Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5173.