Photos by Kate Penn
“This is a humbling time for me, that I lived to see it,” Earl Thorpe said of his induction Monday, March 9, into the Capital Region Thomas Edison (the Eddies) Music Hall of Fame at Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs. Thorpe, 82, was the only of three living members of a 1950s and early ’60s Albany doo-wop group, The Fidelitys, that was able to attend.
The irony to Thorpe’s statement was there was no “it” before Monday night. The first regional music awards show was just 11 months ago on the MainStage at Proctors. Two local musicians were honored then – among individuals, groups and venues in 37 other categories – as the first inductees. But the Eddies Hall of Fame induction ceremony was the first held separately from the Eddies Music Awards, and a physical space dedicated to memorializing the local music scene was unveiled that night for the first time.
Although the event honoring the region’s talent is in its early days, you couldn’t tell from the honorees that it wasn’t a more established, time-honored affair. Thorpe’s statement was one of many that demonstrated nominees and their representatives were moved by the celebration.
In addition to The Fidelitys, 2020 inductees included John Sykes, Lena Spencer, Hal Ketchum, The Accents and Blotto. The Eddies Music Awards and the Eddies Music Hall of Fame are initiatives of Proctors Collaborative, which opened UPH – fresh off a $13.5 million renovation – just 11 days earlier.
The evening started with performances by the PJ Duo, winners of the 2019 Eddies People’s Choice Award for Local Music Artist of the Year and a 2020 finalist for Solo or Duo Artist of the Year. They gave high-energy performances of Blotto’s “I Wanna Be a Lifeguard” and the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” The latter was the first song broadcast on MTV, which played a prominent role in the careers of two of the Hall of Fame recipients.
Co-founders of the regional Eddies Music Awards and Hall of Fame, Sal Prizio
Prizio introduced emcee Erin Harkes, a local singer-songwriter, band leader and comedian, who guided the rest of the program. Harkes emceed the 2019 Eddies Music Awards and was an Eddies Music Award nominee in 2019 and 2020. Harkes noted several threads that connect this year’s class.
“John was a co-founder of MTV. And which act performed on the very first day of MTV? None other than another 2020 Eddies Hall of Fame inductee, Blotto.
“And tonight, we honor Lena, founder of the most celebrated folk coffee house in America,” she continued. “And who got his start on that stage? Future Grand Ole Opry member Hal Ketchum, another inductee who performed at open mic nights there early in his career.”
The audience later learned that Blotto members also performed on the Lena stage early in their career as the Star-Spangled Washboard Band.
The Fidelitys’ Thorpe, first on stage, spoke of the racism the all black, five-member group endured touring the country. Assembled in1956 after Thorpe relocated to Albany from Jacksonville, the group achieved much success in the late 1950s, performing at legendary theatres including the Apollo in Harlem, alongside some of the biggest names of the day. They also appeared numerous times on TV’s “American Bandstand” and one single, “The Things I Love,” reached the Billboard pop chart.
The band leader also described the cyclical nature of the music business. “It happened so fast,” he said. “It’s a wheel. You come up the cycle, you got a major hit. You might go back down that wheel, but then you can go back to the top of the wheel. But once it starts, remember who you are and what you’re doing.”
Next up was Sykes, president of Entertainment Enterprises for iHeart Media, who two months ago also took over as chair of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, succeeding Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner. He was previously an executive at VH1, Chrysalis Records, EMI Music Publishing, and Infinity Broadcasting Corporation. The Schenectady native created the VH1 Save the Music Foundation, which has raised over $50 million to rebuild music education programs in public schools. He also co-produced “The Concert for New York City” – a 9/11 benefit at Madison Square Garden – and the “12-12-12: The Concert for Sandy Relief.”
Sykes shared memories of growing up in the Capital Region, crediting an audience member for a summer internship at Saratoga Performing Arts Center. “I wore it like a badge,” he said of the gig, doing everything from putting away folding chairs to driving celebrity musicians such as James Taylor.
“It changed my life because I got close to artists that I saw only on an album cover,” he added. “It’s why I wanted to do music for everybody in this room, which makes me so proud that Jim (Murphy) and Phillip (Morris, Proctors Collaborative CEO) have included me here today. Because music tells a story of culture and it’s an intimate snapshot of human emotions, politics and relationships. Everyone has that song that defines a part of their life, that evokes emotion. And most of all, we all know that those who are in the business or an artist and amazing artists like Earl (Thorpe), music helps you escape and lets you dream of where you might be.”
The future MTV co-founder’s “dream” began when he came home from school one day to find a cable box with 30 television channels. “My greatest interest was the fact that most of these TV channels were blank and there was snow on them,” he recalled. “And I’m saying to myself, ‘Why can’t there be channels for concerts?’ Because I loved concerts.” An idea was born.
“Muhammad Ali said, ‘What you’re thinking is what you’re becoming.’ I always dreamt about being in music. So, I think what your dream is, is what you become.”
Where Sykes was polished as expected, the three surviving members of Blotto were, well, very true to their spirit as a band.
In a video introducing the band – each inductee was introduced by a three-minute video documentary created by Proctors Collaborative’s Kate Penn – Bill Polchinski (aka Broadway Blotto) shared, “People characterized us as new wave and then you know, we added like this whole layer of stupid on top of everything else and that that made us different. No one was quite as stupid as we were.”
Polchinski, along with Bowtie Blotto (Paul Jossman), Sergeant Blotto (the late Greg Haymes)Lee Harvey Blotto (Paul Rapp) and Cheese Blotto (the late Keith Stephenson) achieved notoriety through appearances in the Northeast, developing a significant fan base along the way. Not only did “I Wanna Be A Lifeguard” play on MTV’s first day on the air,
Drummer Rapp reminisced that, “If you told me that a goofy song about wanting to be a lifeguard (would be a hit) and that I’d still be referred to as Lee Harvey Blotto 40 years later … that’s kind of ridiculous. But thanks. Thanks to John Sykes for whoever you hired that called up … and said, ‘I heard ‘Lifeguard’ is a video. Can we have it and play it?’”
Hal Ketchum’s induction was preceded by a stunning musical performance by Harkes and Bob Buckley of one of Ketchum’s songs, “Past the Point of Rescue.”
Ketchum started playing drums at age 15, later switching to guitar. He spent nearly 20 years as a carpenter and furniture builder before getting his break in the music business. He found success after leaving his hometown of Greenwich in Washington County for Austin, Texas, and later Nashville, TN. There he quickly established himself as a country music star with no less than 17 hits on the Billboard country charts, including three that reached No. 2. He was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 1994.
“I wish (Hal) could have been here to accept this,” said Frank Ketchum, who shared that his brother has Alzheimer’s and cannot travel. “I know that he would have given a very entertaining acceptance speech. Hal has the passion for the written word and the stories they tell. He’s a gifted writer and vocalist and he loved conveying those stories intimately with live audiences across the country. His performances will be missed, but his music and stories will live on.”
Lena Nargi was born Jan. 4, 1923, in Milford, Mass., the daughter of Italian immigrants. In her mid-30s, newlyweds Lena and Bill Spencer made their way to Saratoga Springs to find a space for a coffeehouse as “a means to make money.” Neither had an interest in folk music at that point; Lena Spencer’s passion was for jazz and swing. But folk coffeehouses were the rage and after six months spending weekends renovating a dilapidated second-floor space, they opened Caffè Lena in May 1960. The first artist was, of course, a folk musician: Jackie Washington of Boston. Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Don McLean and many other storied musicians followed.
Joe Deuel, a longtime Caffè Lena soundman, accepted the award on Spencer’s behalf; she died in 1989. Deuel said the seemingly fragile venture endured despite many challenges.
“I think when Lena and Bill started the cafe, they really thought they were going to work in folk music for a couple of years, make enough money to go to Europe and pursue their art there,” he said. “It didn’t quite work out that way.”
Lena “really didn’t know anything about folk music. She managed to learn by focusing on getting really good at (it), and her husband left her after a couple of years and she just doggedly pursued the place … It’s truly amazing to me that the cafe is still there after 60 years, considering especially (that) the place didn’t make a dime for the first 58 years. I really do not know how that happened.”
The founder “richly deserves” the honor, he continued, adding this “never-ending stream of volunteers are just as important as Lena and all of us who work and run it.”
The final inductee was The Accents. Benny Cannavo put together the group with Peter Rizzo, Vince Sicilano and Carmen Filanova almost a decade after leaving Italy in 1949. Benny Cannavo and The Accents were off and running, primarily playing Italian weddings and gatherings. Sixty-two years and some 40 band members later, they are still performing. Benny retired, but his sons Frank and Joe keep the beat in one of the area’s most popular bands. They are nominated for a 2020 Capital Region Thomas Edison Music Award in the Party Cover Band of the Year Award category.
Both sons spoke for Benny, who posed for photographs. They noted that all the other original members were still living but unable to attend. The sons also recognized the current members, all at the ceremony.
“This is a great honor and we appreciate and love all the support you’ve given us throughout the years,” said Joe Cannavo. “And hopefully we can continue it for a little while longer. I just want to add that it’s truly humbling to even be honored with who was (also inducted) tonight. It’s just, you know, they’re legends. They really are. And we’re just happy to be a part of it.”
Also recognized during the ceremony were the 2019 inductees, folk musician and educator Ruth Pelham and Celtic singer-songwriter Kevin McKrell.
Rachel Hamlin from Proctors Collaborative, administrator of the Eddies Awards and Hall of Fame ceremony, told the audience that UPH was asking the music community to share local music memorabilia – tickets, posters, albums, photos and musical instruments – which will be temporarily displayed at Proctors and later brought to the Hall in a permanent exhibition.
Hamlin also reminded the audience that the second Eddies Music Awards – honoring over 140 musicians, technicians, promoters and venues nominated in 34 categories – is scheduled 6 p.m. April 5 on Proctors MainStage. Tickets are available at proctors.org.