Watch Grover Washington Jr. embody the heart and soul of Philly at the Shubert Theater in 1981 - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Grover Washington Jr.’s eternal influence on the music world can be heard everywhere, but his spirit truly lives on in Philadelphia. His roots lay elsewhere; born and raised in Buffalo, he relocated to Philly after a short Army stint. Yet after meeting his future wife Christine, he fell in love with the city. The couple lived together in Chestnut Hill until Washington’s 1999 death from a heart attack at just 56. During his lifetime, fans flocked to see him play at Penn’s Landing events and frequently perform the National Anthem at Sixers games. You can still feel his legacy throughout the city today. Head over to any jazz-bar jam session and you’ll likely hear some of his biggest songs being covered and reinterpreted. Walk over to the corner of Broad and Diamond and you’ll notice a massive mural honoring his memory. Take a look at his June 27, 1981 performance at Philadelphia’s Shubert Theater – later the Merriam Theater, now the Miller Theater, available in full on YouTube – and you’ll be reminded that the man embodied the city’s soul with as much warmth, love, and talent as just about anyone.

Back in summer 1981, jazz was at a pivotal turning point. The 1970’s had further splintered the genre with the electric experimentation of fusion; many fans pined for 60’s bebop explosion perceived as a creative highpoint. Meanwhile, Diana Ross, Lionel Richie, and Olivia Newton-John had the biggest singles on the R&B charts. Soul music was and always has been pop but the industry was a few years away from the Prince and Michael Jackson records that would complicate such strict genre distinctions. Washington stood at the cross section of it all – pop, jazz, R&B – and savvily combined these various sounds into his singular but controversial mix.

Grover Washington Jr. - In Concert (1981)

At the Shubert, he begins with one of his biggest hits: “Winelight”, the unabashedly smooth title track from his 1980 album. That descriptor would soon birth its own genre – “smooth jazz,” shorthand for a commercialized, watered-down version of the real stuff. The critical consensus has often viewed this sound as treacly and sacrilegious yet many musicians reject the label completely. Washington’s wife Christine later told NPR: “He hated that label. Radio produced that label – there were no musicians anywhere in the world that started that smooth jazz label. He felt music was music and it was only good music or bad music.” (It’s a timeless sentiment shared by many artists in many genres – think of Erykah Badu and Tyler the Creator critiquing the limiting categorizations of neo-soul and rap, respectively.)

Washington’s musical approach pointed towards the dance floor as an alternative to the binaries of bebop purists and far-out fusion. The Shubert performance is a perfect showcase for his deeply influential sound and the rapturous response it so often generated from crowds. Washington was not just a terrific performer and a savvy artist; he was also a truly great instrumentalist. On “Winelight,” he flexes his skill with a lengthy, melodic-minded solo. He’s also backed by an incredible all-star line-up of musicians including some of his most trusted collaborators: pianist Richard Tee, guitarist Eric Gale, and percussionist Ralph McDonald. The rhythm section is stunningly stacked with two of the grooviest and most important musicians in history: bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Steve Gadd.

The concert wraps up with Washington’s two biggest hits. First: the Bill Withers collaboration “Just the Two of Us” featuring Zack Sanders on vocals. The presence of the iconic Withers is certainly missed but Sanders and Washington still create a silky, timeless duet. It all concludes with a thrilling rendition of “Mister Magic,” Washington’s definitive solo hit from 1974. In the decades since, it has become something of a standard, elastic and eternal and endlessly funky. Just a year after the original, Roberta Flack released her own version of the track, turning it into something slower, haunting, and gorgeous. Modern listeners are likely familiar with the version Amy Winehouse recorded for her 2003 debut Frank. These days, you’re likely to hear the song performed by funk groups across the world. The live version heard at the Shubert theater is a true showstopper. Gadd’s groove grounds the whole thing with a four-on-the-floor thump, while Washington wastes no time before magnificently wailing on the opening chorus. Gale’s guitar solo is a stunner of jazz shredding, reminiscent of George Benson’s speedy skill. Then comes a double dose of drum solos from McDonald and Gadd. It’s a knockout moment, both virtuosic and totally danceable.

The concert video ends on a bittersweet but touching conclusion: a freeze frame of Washington, turned to the band as he cues their big finish. Today, Philadelphia artists continue to blend jazz, soul, pop, and the rest with invention and soul. The city is also the origin of many great young saxophonists; Immanuel Wilkins, Hiruy Tirfe, and Yesseh Furahah-Ali are recent innovators on the instrument. Just in time for 80’s week, immerse yourself in an hour of Washington’s musical magic and check out the show below.

Related Content
View All Related Content

No news added recently