Black History Month | ‘Make the same sound’: Johnstown’s rich musical heritage spans generations and genres |


A group of photos hanging inside the Flood City Youth Fitness Academy show some of the common threads that have connected the local black music scene over the decades.

The first photo shows the group Four Chaps and a Chick, probably from the 1940s or 1950s, with brothers William Cashaw and George Cashaw.

Natural Wonder, a popular band in the 1960s and 1970s, had Bernie Cashaw and Wilma “Kitty” Cashaw, William’s children, in its lineup, as well as Rick King and Rodney Webb.

King and Webb then performed with The Exciting Gospel Messengers, a band that included Jeffrey Wilson.

And now Wilson, a deacon, performs with the Smooth Sound Band.

Photographs of these four bands, along with other images, are not only on display to preserve history, but also to inspire the next generation of musicians.

“Having those examples on the wall and seeing the flow of the transition from around the 1930s or 1940s is that it tells these young people that they can do it too,” Wilson said in an interview. in the music room of the academy. . “Even though there have been changes in the way you do it with all the technical advancements, it still all comes down to those base notes.”

Flood City instructors teach children these notes, chords, rhythms and harmonies – using about half a dozen instruments.

“We would be remiss in not helping to raise a whole other group of young people who would be able to carry on, to play those weddings, to hold services in churches for funerals or family reunions,” Wilson said. . “It’s extremely important for us to pass that on and make sure they’re in control of how they play their music or sing those songs. It is a pleasure to see the zeal of young people.

Music “was my destiny”

Growing up, Devon Haselrig heard party music coming from the Frontier Club, located near his home in the city’s Prospect neighborhood, on Friday and Saturday nights.

Then came gospel music in church on Sunday mornings.

“(The Frontier Club) was one of the hot spots in the community, in the black community of Johnstown,” Haselrig said. “There were several places at the time. The Frontier Club had bands from time to time, especially on summer nights.

“That’s how I was aware of hearing all these things on a Saturday night. Then you get up on Sunday morning and go to church singing ‘This Little Light of Mine’. Mrs. Janie played the piano, boy, and those bass notes that she hit, they resonated through my whole being, and it shook my body and stayed there. and I had to try to make the same sound.

Music was “an innate gift” for Haselrig.

“It was built into me,” Haselrig said. ” It was there. … It came with me and I fully executed it. Music – and especially church music – was my destiny. I didn’t know it, but that’s where it started. Even though he’s gone somewhere else, that’s where he stays.

“I have relatives who are in the same situation. It’s not something we decided to do. It was something innate. »

‘Training Ground’

Haselrig began performing live in the 1970s.

“It was exciting,” Haselrig said. “It was like a baby tasting sugar for the first time.

“You know how they squirm and their eyes light up and they shake like ‘wooooowwwww.’ It was like that to play.

Since then, he has been playing piano and keyboards in churches, becoming part of the region’s rich gospel tradition.

“I think there are – in general in Johnstown – a lot of talented people here,” said Jeff Webb, associate professor of music at the University of Pittsburgh in Johnstown. “In the black community, African Americans have long used the church as a musical training ground, especially keyboard players. If you could play the keyboard in a black church and play gospel music, that’s It was a great training ground.

Moreover, these musicians needed to learn to improvise.

“If you play for a gospel choir at a gospel church, you’ll get the sheet music for the piece of music earlier in the week,” Webb said. “They’ll say, ‘We’re going to do this song on Sunday.’ And, right now, you can throw that piece of music away. You’re not going to play any of the notes that’s on that piece of paper. It won’t be at that beat. It won’t be at that dynamic. You have to use your ears.

“I did that quite a bit when I was a child in church. I did more singing, but occasionally I played (keyboards). The Reverend would start singing, and it was enough to be where Reverend and the choir would start singing, and you just had to be where the choir was, and every once in a while they would change keys without you knowing, and you had to find out where you were.

The gospel genre has been combined with jazz, blues, soul, rock ‘n roll, pop, folk, country and R&B for generations.

“It’s extraordinary,” Wilson said. “I think for Johnstown what it shows is the connection again of migrants who came from the South and brought whatever music from the Delta or music from the Deep South to Johnstown and then brought it into somehow recreated for here.”

“Musical journey” shared

Douglas Miller, born in Johnstown on December 31, 1949, became a Grammy-nominated singer who placed several albums on Billboard magazine’s Gospel Albums chart.

Miller’s “musical journey began at age eight when, without formal training, he began playing the organ at the Jefferson Memorial First Born Church of the Living God in Johnstown, Pennsylvania,” according to his obituary. .

Throughout her career, Miller has recorded “When I See Jesus,” “Unspeakable Joy” and “My Soul Has Been Anchored in the Lord” — and received an honorary doctorate in Christian music education from the Christian International Bible College.

“Douglas Miller’s musical legacy transcends his vast catalog and will continue to reach classrooms, choir lofts, orchestra pits and music halls around the world,” reads his obituary.

Miller was among countless black singers and musicians in the Johnstown area, who performed locally and across the country, in churches, smoky clubs and concert halls.

There were Oliver Haselrig, Willis Hickerson, Bobby Holmes, the Piano Gospelettes (Dorothea McCray, Gwendolyn Triplin-Carter), Sterling Echoes, Pleasant Hill Gospel Band, Wings of Faith, Margie Hill, Alfonzo Surrett and David Myers, who have previously played on “Saturday Night Live.”

And, over the decades, white musicians including Joe Pass, Brooks Paxton, Nick Jacobs, Michael Bodolosky, Frank Filia, Laddie Timko and Lou Purazo often played alongside them, making music together without anyone caring. “race boundaries,” as Wilson explained.

Today, the Smooth Sound Band – featuring Wilson, Ra’Anee Watson, Daniel Hutton, Venus Hall, London Jefferson, Stephen Lewis and Hayden Jeffreys – is one of the most popular bands in the Johnstown area.

Being in Smooth Sound offers members a way to connect with the community and grow as musicians and people.

“It’s kind of funny, because I joined a band because I wanted to get past my stage fright, and they definitely make sure I get past my stage fright,” Watson said. “Deacon Wilson) will do like an introduction — like, ‘And we’ve got something really special coming up for you next.’ and I just look at him like, ‘Noooo. What are you doing?’ It’s great, though. It’s great, though. It really is. I love being in the band with them. We’re like a little family.

“They had a place to go”

Black musicians of the past have played at the Frontier Club, Elks Flood City Lodge, Coke Plant Social Club, Flamingo Club and other nightclubs.

“We’re talking about a time when the normal establishments in town might not have accommodated African Americans, but they had a place to go by going to places like the Coke Plant Club,” Wilson said.

Special events, including the June 19 celebration and annual reunions, are held where current musicians can perform. There are stages at bars and other locations, including the Venue of Merging Arts and Peoples Natural Gas Park.

But, overall, Webb said finding places to play locally can be difficult for any band.

“Placemaking (is an issue) certainly, but also the ability to pay,” said Webb, who fronts Jeff Webb and Delectable Sound. “As a musician, you want to be fair. and therefore you have developed a particular skill set, and you should be paid for your skill set. I don’t think it’s illegal to say that for a three-hour concert, everyone is supposed to get a hundred dollars.

“For my group, that means $700. There’s a lot of resistance to paying that kind of money for a Friday or Saturday night gig, especially if you’re talking about a local bar or a local restaurant or whatever. There must be places that can accept real talent, whether it’s two or seven people.

“There needs to be a commitment to finding ways to fairly compensate that talent. and I don’t know what the answer to that is.

Earlier this month, Webb and 16 other musicians – black and white – performed at the State Theater in Johnstown, a century-old venue that had long stood vacant until recent years. They played the entire album “Songs in the Key of Life” by Stevie Wonder, as the first installment of the Classic Vinyl Concert series.

“The response we’ve received from this concert has been overwhelmingly positive,” Webb said.

“We sold out, and the excitement for the next one was palpable.”

“Everyone encourages me”

The joint was packed.

“Terrifying,” Watson said. “It was terrifying because we sold out. There were like 400 people there. I’ve never, ever, ever played in front of such a big crowd before. … It was both terrifying and exciting for me .

Watson sang two solos – “Pastime Paradise” and “If It’s Magic”.

“When they were cheering us on, and when they were cheering me on to do my solo, I just broke down crying because it was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe they’re all cheering me on like this,'” Watson said. “It was just amazing.”

Watson, who only recently moved to the area, is now part of Johnstown’s rich symphony of black music.

And she feels that this connection will last for a long time.

“To be completely honest with you, I don’t know what the future holds,” Watson said. “Another passion of mine is travel. My job allows me to travel. So I don’t know if I would continue to live in Johnstown. However, because of my passion for travel, I still feel like I would like to stay in the band (Smooth Sound) and still be involved in the Johnstown music scene, because that’s where it all started for me.


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