July 25, 2006

Hugh “Peanuts” Whalum

185_peanuts.jpgThere I was sitting with my uncle “Peanuts”, who’s literally a legend in a kind of musical microcosm... someone who’s played with Nat King Cole, Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald. Once I asked David Sanborn if he knew him and he said, ‘Of course I do. Who doesn’t know “Peanuts” Whalum?’ So my resolution this year was, “I am going to somehow document what my Uncle “Peanuts” does…’ To have him sit there and play songs for me… Oh goodness. It was such an experience! It was hard for me to concentrate on what I was doing. Everything he played I loved. 90% of the songs I didn’t know. I thought I knew a lot of Jazz standards - but, around someone like him, you know nothing. This man is a giant… he’s a five foot five giant! - Kirk Whalum

In the category of Talent Deserving Wider Recognition and Best Kept Musical Secret, Hugh “Peanuts” Whalum shines with unparalleled brightness. On his self-titled debut on Rendezvous Entertainment, the singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist stamps pop, swing, jazz, blues and gospel standards, underexposed classics and inspired originals with his exquisite vocal sensibilities and instrumental savvy, playing both piano and tenor saxophone.

Spanning decades and crossing genres and generations, the 75-years-young Peanut’s musicality and sensitivity find perfect expression on the 11 tracks of an album that is both timeless and classic. Produced by his nephew, Kirk Whalum (the chart-topping, No. 1-selling saxophonist who has been relentlessly occupying the top of the charts for that past few years), Hugh “Peanuts” Whalum takes his place among the great interpretative singers and instrumentalists of all time: Tony Bennett, Johnny Matthis, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, among others.

Backing the singer is a stellar band formed around Peanut’s trio (the artist himself on piano, tenor sax and vocals) with Rob Block on guitar and Jeff Anderson on bass. The A-list of players includes nephew Kirk Whalum joining in on saxophone, Rick Jackson (Amy Grant, Larry Carlton) on additional keys, Chester Thompson (of Genesis fame) on drums, and Lalo Davila on percussion. Additionally, a special guest appearance is made by Kenneth Whalum, III (“Peanuts” and Kirk’s grand nephew and nephew respectively).

Although Hugh “Peanuts” Whalum is a fixture in the city that gave birth to the blues, St. Louis, this gracious gentleman was born in Memphis. “A few years ago”, he says with a laugh. “I began playing violin when I was eight. I had six lessons, which is all the formal musical training I ever had.” From the violin, he moved on to the cornet and a spot in the YMCA band. He and his three brothers were also an in-demand quartet in Memphis and the surrounding areas, where they opened for their father, a well-respected orator and lecturer. “Peanuts” continued on trumpet through his third year in college, when “one of the tenor saxes in the swing band finished college and there was no one to take his place, so I started goofing around with tenor saxophone and that turned out to be ‘the calling’, if you will.

As a member of the Central State Collegians, he played Carnegie Hall, sharing the stage with Woody Herman, Billy Eckstine, Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald. He and his college cohorts (including the renowned Frank Foster) were called in on a gig in Dayton, Ohio, when the band that was hired to back Billy Eckstine cancelled. Eckstine was so impressed that when he played Indianapolis, “Peanuts” and company were brought in once again. “On this particular night”, “Peanuts” recalls, “Jazz At The Philharmonic” was in town… So look who’s coming to see Eckstine, but Ella Fitzgerald, Lester Young, Howard McGee, etc. They sat in, so I played with young and McGee and behind Ella.

Following graduation (with a degree in chemistry), he toured with the Lionel Hampton Band on tenor sax, ultimately relocating to St. Louis, playing solo piano at hotels, theatres and clubs around the city, gigging on sax with the likes of Miles Davis and Ed Thigpen when they came to town. “I have a picture with Miles and Ed,” “Peanuts” chuckles. “We’re wearing Zoot suits.”

In the ‘50’s, as part of the Jeeter-Pillars band, “Peanuts” played behind Nat King Cole and his trio. “Whenever Nat would come on and be announced, ‘Lady’s and Gentlemen, Nat King Cole’, the first thing Nat would say is, ‘I’d like to introduce you to my friend.’ He’d call me out of the band, you now, to come and play with him. So every song he played, I played with him… that didn’t strike me then, but jeez, I think about it now, and say ‘Whoa, was that me? Was that really me?”

It may be hard for “Peanuts” to believe, but for anyone listening to the musical magic on Hugh “Peanuts” Whalum, it makes perfect sense.

Although long known for his distinction on tenor saxophone, vocals finally took center stage for “Peanuts” when a club he was playing couldn’t afford a trio during Lent, as business would fall off in a highly Catholic part of the city. “Peanuts” volunteered to do a solo gig, singing and playing the piano. “You’ve never seen me scuffle like that. That week I went to work. I couldn’t play anything, but I could sing and when someone would request a song, I’d try to find something complementary, key-wise, on the piano. I’d sit there and play, laughing. Do you know business picked up… business picked up during Lent.”

PeanutsWhalum.jpgWith Hugh “Peanuts” Whalum, business is bound to pick up again. Romantic and elegant, “Peanuts” and his velvet voice imbue every lyric with added meaning and subtlety. His choice of material is impeccable. Covers of songs like the Elvis perennial, “I Can’t Help Falling”, and Frank Sinatra’s “Why Try To Change Me Now” find perfect balance alongside Sammy Cahn’s rarely recorded lyrical gem “It’s Always Four A.M.” (music by Ron Anthony). With Whalum and Whalum, the latter becomes one of the most evocative and atmospheric songs in memory, making it hard to imagine that anyone but “Peanuts” could match the songs’ bittersweet eloquence. Producer Kirk Whalum says, “It’s the kind of lyric that’s so magical, so carefully thought out. It tells a story, has depth… such a great twist of imagination to say, ‘When you’re all alone, it’s always four a.m.”

Other standout tracks include “I Don’t Know Why”, “The Best Man” and “Beautiful Friendship”. Rounding out the romance is album-opener “I’ll Close My Eyes” which has been recorded by everyone from Cannonball Adderley to Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Shore and Dinah Washington. “Peanuts” makes it entirely his own, with delightful nuance and shading. “The song came out in ‘40’s or ‘50’s; it’s always been very special and dear to me, but the versions back then were slow. On this one, I bounced a bit.”

Hugh “Peanuts” Whalum is a secret that can’t be kept any longer. If his reputation reaches as far as his inspired talent, he’ll be a legend not only in St. Louis (where he’s considered a local treasure) and with jazz insiders, but also around the world.

Hugh “Peanuts” Whalum, the one and only, is unequivocally a giant. With any luck, and “God Willing,” as “Peanuts” is want to say, this man, who should be a household name, “soon will be.”

Kirk is presenting his uncle on August 10, at the Vic in Los Angeles. Then the next night, Peanuts is performing with Kirk Whalum and the Rendezvous All-Stars at the Long Beach Jazz Festival. Audiences will see what SMOOTH really is when they hear the velvety timbres of the Peanut!

He will also join Dave Koz on the Dave Koz & Friends At Sea Cruise in November. When most gentlemen Peanuts' age are passengers on cruises, he will be taking stage and "working" during his trip.

To me, artists like Peanuts are the real American idols.

Posted by Peter Böhi at July 25, 2006 8:55 PM