O'Donel Levy
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O'Donel Levy

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The best kept secret in music


"Singapore's "Wild Man" Comes Home"

Singapore's 'wild man' comes home.
After years in Asia, city blues guitarist is set for local gigs
By Carl Schoettler
Sun Staff
Originally published March 26, 2003
O'Donel Levy plays a long, lovely solo on his guitar while a photographer dances around him, searching for the definitive image of the jazz musician at work.
Levy's a big man in a beret and a dark blue suit who improvises with taut concentration, funky force and spidery delicacy. As the solo ends, he's a bit winded.
"Your heart just goes out through the strings," he says. "It's like everything you want to say you always seem to be able to say it better, speak better, through [the guitar]. You know: emotion, your deep down emotion. There are no words to describe what comes out of the strings."
He's sitting on a high stool in Sallie Ferguson's Courtney's Place restaurant, where he'll play the first of a series of performances tomorrow night.
"It's going to be OD's house of blues and lies," he says. "I'm going to tell a lot of lies and play a lot of blues, and it's going to be happy, happy all the way."
Levy's an ebullient guy. He's back home in Baltimore for a spell after spending most of the last 13 years in Singapore. He has established himself as the premier jazz, blues, funk guitar player in Singapore. He has been a partner in a couple of clubs, notably the Saxophone, where he played nightly for years, and OD's Backstage Music Bar, a kind of upscale bar for people who want to let their hair down. He has also run a couple of digital recording studios, producing records, commercials and whatnot.
Not bad for a kid who grew up in the Gilmore projects, at Gilmore and Presstman streets in West Baltimore.
"Boyd Anderson, he was the first to put a guitar in my hand," Levy recalls. Anderson played saxophone and a little guitar. "He asked my mom if I could come up to his house. He'd teach me the chords on a guitar so he could practice his horn. So he showed me three chords, B-flat, E-flat and F. That was it. And that's what I played, one, two, three, four ...
"Next thing I know, three weeks later he had me in a bar. I'm in a place there playing my little three chords on stage, scared as hell. The Wagon Wheel, I think it was on Laurens Street.
He was 16 years old.
'A very clean place'
Singapore, for jazz fans without an atlas, is a tiny island country just off Malaysia at the tip of a peninsula that dangles off the end of Southeast Asia. A commercial-shipping-electronics center, it's probably the richest speck on the map. Certainly the cleanest.
"Singapore's a very clean place," Levy says. "Everything's nothing but flowers. You're not allowed to have any dents on your car. Your car must be clean. You can't throw cigarettes out. ... The streets are so clean you could just about eat off [them] even where the buses are. It's immaculate."
He landed in Singapore when he was on tour with Herbie Mann, the jazz flute player. Mann had rehearsed with Levy and his band at the Blues Alley Club in Washington. He liked them so much he used them as his band for a couple of years.
"I got a chance to write some charts, some of my scores," Levy says. He put some scores together for an appearance with the Houston Symphony orchestra.
"Most of the music I write is from other people's experiences, not mine. People who have had broken hearts, been married, separated, whatever," he says. None of which he has been. "I listen to people tell me stories and I write music."
He played Australia and the Far East with Mann. In Singapore, a fine jazz pianist named Jeremy Monteiro, a VIP with the government, made him a job offer as a multimedia audio engineer.
"Pretty handsome offer, too," Levy says. "So I jumped off the tour."
He and Monteiro often play together. They opened Switzerland's Montreux Jazz Festival in 1988 with "a rousing, early-on morning concert" that remains a classic on CD. They were joined by John Stubblefield on tenor sax, and bassist Eldee Young and drummer Redd Holt, two more Singapore expatriates. They were famous in the 1960s as Young-Holt Unlimited. Boomers may remember their hit, "Wack Wack."
"Singapore's a great place to go and hang out. I don't think I would ever want to live in a place like that," Levy says, even though he has lived there 13 years. "You have no privacy in the country. The country is 26 miles from one end to the other. That's the whole country. You can drive [it] in 20 minutes or less. And there's nowhere to go."
Rolling straight ahead
He rides a motorcycle, just as he used to do in Baltimore when he was young. He likes to ride while he thinks, or think while he rides. He crosses over to Malaysia with a friend, Reuben Young, a drummer, who also rides.
"I'm out there at 300 kilometers an hour [186 mph]," he says, perhaps with a bit of hyperbole. "You cannot turn it. You can't lean sideways. You can only go straight ahead. We were rolling.
"We'd ride up through the jungle and these big monitor lizards look like big 'gators walking out in the road. You put your life on standstill, like going back in Fred Flintstone days.
"And so beautiful, so nice, you're in another world, like. And all the ladies with their sarong things wrapped around them. All Malay people and they're speaking Malay and they serve you food. A whole table full of food costs you $3 American.
"The east side is where you want to go when you want to put your life on hold. ... A lot of Malay guys with guitars and we all sit around and play, with drums, and have a good time."
Lots of American musicians play Singapore: George Benson, the guitarist Levy replaced in Jack McDuff's organ trio, Chuck Redd, the Washington vibraphone player, Charlie Byrd, the late guitar virtuoso. Levy's already played a couple of gigs with Redd and Joe Byrd, Charlie's bass-playing brother. Lady Rebecca, the big-voiced Baltimore singer, went over, then stayed to tour the Far East for six years.
Famously buttoned-down jazz and classical trumpeter Wynton Marsalis also showed up. "He took his [coat] and tie off at last and relaxed," Levy recalls. "Yeah, Wynton finally came out of that tie. He came up on stage and spent the whole night with us.
"As much time as he's been away, Levy still thinks of Baltimore as home.
"These are my roots," he says. "They will always be. ... This will always be my home base. "But this time," he adds, "I'm kind of embarrassed. When I went down and saw those boarded-up houses ... .I'd say, oh, my God, I'm coming out of this paradise."
He arrived home in January and was playing with Joe Byrd and Chuck Redd within days. Byrd calls Levy "the wild man from Singapore."
"I put those guys in all kind of tricks," he says. "They're used to playing just straight-ahead standards, which is cool. I love standards. I grew up with them, of course. That's my heart. But sometimes I want to have some fun. I play something weird and put 'em in a trick."
He sings a verse of a blues song he wrote. He learned to sing a bit when Lady Rebecca was in Singapore.
Welcome to my house.
If it feels a bit cold inside.
Blues run this household.
There ain't no place in here you can hide.
"Lord have mercy," he says, laughing.

- Baltimore SUN Papers

""O'D." / The Worlds Best Bars"


There's Very little room, it's difficult to get a drink and the music is louder than a Klaxon in a river gorge, yet the Saxophone is unarguably one of the great bars. Why ? Mostly because of the band. O'Donel "O'D." Levy and his crew crank out the rhythm and blues from a precarious perch atop the bar counter. Down below moody black-and-white photographs , a life-size can-can mural and the battered remains of a long-defunct horn section adorn the walls of this one-time Chinese chophouse.

Around midnight, when the bar reaches full hue and cry, the atmosphere starts to ring as a milling thong of "O'D." followers - crossing all social boundaries with stewardesses, advertising executives and plain old R&B lovers - tap and sway to the roof-raising melodies.

Who says Singapore ain't got no soul ?
- NewsWeek International


Singles by O'Donel Levy:
Groove Merchant 1001 Granny
Groove Merchant 1015 Baa Waa / Dawn Of The New Day
Groove Merchant 1027 Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky
Albums by O'Donel Levy:
1971 Groove Merchant 501 Black Velvet
1972 Groove Merchant 507 Breeding of Mind
1972 Groove Merchant 518 Dawn of a New Day
1973 Groove Merchant 526 Simba
1974 Groove Merchant 535 Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky
1976 Groove Merchant 3313 Windows
1976 Groove Merchant 4408 Hands of Fire
1976 LRC 9313 Windows
1977 LRC 9319 Time Has Changed
1989 ILM PROD. Through A Song



Feeling a bit camera shy


Years of touring, writing, arranging, producing, etc for Herbie Mann (Atlantic), Dave Valentin & Kevin Eubanks (GRP) ,,, and other worldly artists - I have a lot of experience in the art of entertaining and performing. To make the people happy ! Just ask my buddy George Benson !