The kids are alright

Celebrating musical child prodigies

July 26, 2012

Tony Sarabia and Richard Steele

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Tony Sarabia:

When I was eight years old I tried guitar lessons. When I was 13, I took piano. When I graduated high school, my dad bought me an alto sax. As a result, I can read music, tinkle the ivories a bit and strum — barely — a guitar. I’m not a musician.

I think I passed those genes onto my two oldest sons. But even they were not child prodigies (or what some call, kids with god given talent), they’ve endured hours of practice to achieve the level of musicianship they possess.

Prodigies are kids who have a musical instinct and talent; where practice makes perfect doesn’t apply. They are already at some level of perfection right out of the gate.

One of the definitions of the word "prodigy" is something extraordinary or inexplicable; which applies to a six year old who can flawlessly move a bow across a cello and create musical beauty.

While the Wikipedia list of famous child prodigies is extensive, it’s a blip in comparison to the untold numbers of kids toiling away at daily practice who will never make first chair in the school band. Even for those who do get the top spot, they may shun music a few years down the road for something else; never to return to the cello, piano or whatever other instrument they nearly championed.

Mozart is perhaps the most famous prodigy. He began to take a serious interest in music when he was three years old. According to his sister, the toddler would pluck out thirds on the clavier (a type of piano), recognizing that the sounds would make sense to his ears by flashing a smile.

And from there, the lost keeps growing: opera singer Beverly Sills, pianist Lang Lang, cornetist Bix Biderbick and country singer Lee Ann Rimes.

You can add to that list a relative unknown to most of us but a young man who’s gained recognition in the world of competitive piano playing. Josh Mhoon shouldn’t be playing the way he does given his age: nine years old. But if being a prodigy is genetic, then okay, he should be playing with the nimbleness he displays on the keyboard. His father was a drum prodigy. Joshua was been playing less than two years but he’s already ranked well above his peers, snagging more than a handful of big awards: first place in his category for Duet and Soloist at the 2011 Granquist Music Competition and top honors in the world-renowned National Federation of Music Clubs competition in 2011.

This talent got Richard Steele and I thinking about the more well-known prodigies and that’s the music theme this Thursday. I’ve got some soul, country and jazz. Let’s begin with soul-Motown soul.

Mention Motown and prodigy and the next two words that immediately follow are Stevie Wonder, or Little Stevie Wonder in the early days. Considering he signed on to Motown when he was 11 years old, it’s no surprise that by then he had already mastered drums, piano and of course harmonica.

Today Wonder is considered a genius, back then he may have been considered a novelty; boy did he prove those folks wrong. Wonder recorded Bob Dylan’s "Blowin’ in the Wind" just three years after Dylan released the initial version. The 16-year-old Wonder turns the folk tune into a gospel number which brings more urgency to the message of the song. This version has the signature "thick" Motown sound with added muted trumpet and accompanying vocal by Motown producer Clarence Paul. His interpretation of "Blowin’ in the Wind" reached the Top 10 in the Billboard 100. 

Andy Bey isn’t a well-known name outside jazz circles. The Newark native was playing boogie woogie piano when he was three. He learned to play the jump swing tune "Caledonia" at age five. Before he was 18, Bey had already been on TV as part of the program called The Star Time Kids.

Bey got work with piano legend Horace Silver in the 1970s as his vocalist. Sadly, there are many talented prodigies who fall on hard times due to a number of factors and disappear from the public’s view. For Bey, his lean days came later in life after enjoying a relatively successful career as part of a trio with his sisters. He went into self-exile out after the gigs stopped. However, Bey did make a comeback in 1996 and continues to work today. "Fragile" is from 2001 from his album Tuesdays in Chinatown

Brenda May Tarpley has a voice that helped her family survive even harder times it already faced when she was a young child. Brenda Lee, as she’s known, was singing solos in church when she was three years old. By the time she was five, Lee was already winning singing contests in school.

Lee was only 11 years old when, due to her vocal abilities and growing popularity, she became the family’s breadwinner. Her dad had died that year so someone had to pick up the financial slack and it seems Lee was the obvious choice. Her powerful twangy voice coupled with her small frame earned her the nickname Lille Miss Dynamite. This is one of her early and not as well-known tunes called "Let’s Jump the Broomstick."

There isn’t any guarantee that a child prodigy will grow into a talented adult artist who will continue to outshine their peers. Changing tastes, scandal, untimely death and for vocalists, a maturing voice, can lead to adult obscurity. But given the long list of child prodigies that blossomed into talented adults, the fall is the exception rather than the rule.

Richard Steele:

Andreas Varady is a 14-year-old jazz guitarist who played his first professional gig when he was ten. His dad is also a guitarist and starting teaching Andreas to play at age four. He plays mostly by ear.

The Varady family moved to Ireland from their native Slovakia about four years ago. Like many people who are always on the lookout for fresh jazz talent, I spotted Andreas performing live jazz on a YouTube video. Since then, his reputation has grown, and he’s performed at a number of major jazz venues. In an interview with Jazz Guitar Life, he mentioned Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass as two of his major influences. He also said that he still does things that other kids his age do. That includes school and go-carting. This music track is called “Blues for Edward.” It’s on a CD called Questions, which is co-led by Irish drummer David Lyttle.                       

Emily Haddad was born in Chicago in 1981 into a musical family. Her dad played jazz guitar, and her mom was a jazz singer. Haddad’s amazing entrance onto the jazz scene happened when she was six and performed at a famous Near North supper club called the Gold Star Sardine Bar: There was a sparkling review in just about every newspaper.

I first became aware of her when Dick Buckley played music from her CD during his jazz show here at WBEZ. She performed at major jazz festivals including a performance at the 70th birthday concert for Dizzy Gillespie in Montreux, Switzerland. Dizzy loved it, became a close family friend and later appeared as a guest artist on her first album. Haddad and her father made a memorable appearance the TV show Geraldo. This track is from her self-titled CD. It’s a classic version of “(Somewhere) Over the Rainbow.”

Frank “Sugar Chile" Robinson was born in Detroit in 1938. He did not come from a musical family, but even so, Sugar Chile could play piano by ear at a very early age. When he was three, he won a talent show in Detroit at a place called The Paradise Theater. By age six, he was getting guests spots with the Lionel Hampton band. There’s a wonderful movie clip on YouTube with Robinson making a guest appearance in a 1948 Hollywood movie starring Van Johnson.

One of his most memorable appearances was his performance at a Washington gala for President Harry Truman in 1947. Robinson signed with Capitol Records in 1949, and his first big hit was this one called “Numbers Boogie.”