Ted Unseth Tribute To Shirley Witherspoon

Ted Unseth & the Americana Classic Jazz Orchestra (ACJO)

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01/10/12
 
I have unique footage and audio tracks of Shirley with my CJO and I will do my best to do her proud.  She was one-of-a-kind and had a presence and delivery unlike any other. 
 

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I had the honor and pleasure of working with Shirley in the early 1980's; and then again in 1993. I don't remember how we first met, but we hit it off great from the start. And she produced some truly memorable moments that have fortunately been preserved via video and audio. I'd like to share some of that with you here.

 Shirley Witherspoon

 

 

Bessie, Billie, Dinah and Sarah have left a memorable legacy of vocal performances.  Etta James, Ruth Brown, and Ernestine Anderson continue to enrich that literature with an R & B dynamic. So does Shirley Witherspoon from Minneapolis-St. Paul.

 

A cousin of Jimmy Witherspoon...

A veteran of a one year tour (1969-70) with Edward Kennedy Ellington (Cootie, Hodges, Gonsalves were in that band), with a special event booking at the Nixon Inaugural Ball...

Opening act for Maynard Ferguson at Kool Jazz Festival.

 

An actress/singer who has revived the stage presentation "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill," Shirley Witherspoon has been honing her communications and art with big bands and small combos since the age of 16...

 

In the beginning, North Minneapolis churches and R & B bands were the incubator for development. Over time, Shirley Witherspoon has melded and fused rhythm with more than a touch of blues, ballads, and the spirit of gospel. In sum, these influences infuse her performance.

 

- Leigh Kamman, THE JAZZ IMAGE, Minnesota Public Radio

 

 

 

 

Shirley Witherspoon

 

Shirley Witherspoon grew up in North Minneapolis, Minnesota singing gospel in the church. She came from a large family of singers; her cousin was blues legend Jimmy Witherspoon.  She graduated from North High in 1960 of Minneapolis, Minnesota.  She later became a popular local jazz vocalist singer with similarity in styles to Etta James and Ruth Brown. Shirley at the age of 19 started singing regularly at a 3.2 beer bar called the Blue Note off Lake Street and Mr. Al’s in Minneapolis.  She got her first national recognition at the age of 28 in 1969 when she sang with Duke Ellington’s band for the inauguration party for President Nixon at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. This launched a tour with the Ellington’s band for a year.  After her break from the band she moved to California and withdrew from music and focused on her daughter Teal and her seven grandchildren. Once she was ready to focus on her career again she returned to Minnesota in 1979 and started singing with the Wolverines (Classic Jazz Orchestra) in solo shows and theatrical productions.  Shirley performed with the WCJO in the early 1980's and with the ACJO (Americana Classic Jazz Orchestra--same CJO renamed) in 1993 for the 20th Anniversary Concerts in St. Paul. She started doing tributes to Billie Holliday and her own revues at the Cricket and Mixed Blood theaters of Minneapolis.  She was most famous for her recording albums Where Do I Sign? in 1994 and Magic & Love in 1999. Witherspoon’s last performances were in Theatre Latte Da's 2001 production of The Death of Bessie Smith.  Due to health problems, Shirley Witherspoon died on June 12, 2003 at the age of 61 of heart and kidney failure. Witherspoon is survived by her husband, Rusty Lindstrom of Minneapolis; daughter, Teal Brown of Minneapolis; stepdaughter, Sandra Lindstrom of White Earth Indian Reservation; sisters, Juan Turner of Jamaica, Eleanor Huntsberger of St. Louis Park, Pat Lott of Las Vegas, Gloria Witherspoon of Minneapolis, Diane Witherspoon of Los Angeles and Darnell Munson of Kansas; brothers, Harvey and Duane, both of Minneapolis; and seven grandchildren.

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The Gigs

1981 - 1982
 
Ted and Shirley were fortunate to be featured with the CJO on the KTCA-TV "Night Times Variety" Show.  Twice.  Here are some mementos from those shoots.
 
Video

1981.  Ted Unseth & the Classic Jazz Orchestra.  KTCA-TV.  "Night Times Variety".  Special Guest: Shirley Witherspoon.

 

01  "Minnie the Moocher" 

Cab Calloway Orchestra  1930

Video Links:
e.g.:  Click on the Video link below for "Minnie the Moocher"
Note: Best to right-click and choose "open in new window".  While it's loading, you can return to this page.
Note: Videos take a lot longer to load than Audio, so be patient. 

Shirley_Minnie the Moocher

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1982.  Ted Unseth & the Classic Jazz Orchestra.  KTCA-TV.  "Night Times Variety".  Special Guest: Shirley Witherspoon.

 

02.  "I Ain't Got Nobody" 

Coon-Sanders Nighthawks  1928

KTCA_Nobody_Shirley

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03.  "Some Of These Days" 

Cab Calloway Orchestra  1931

Some Days_CJO_Shirley

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1993.  Ted Unseth & the Americana Classic Jazz Orchestra.  20th Anniversary Concerts.  Bandana Square, St. Paul, MN. Special Guest: Shirley Witherspoon.

 

04.  "Jaybird" 

Lionel Hampton Orchestra  1949

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Audio

 

1993.  Ted Unseth & the Americana Classic Jazz Orchestra.  20th Anniversary Concerts.  Bandana Square, St. Paul, MN. Special Guest: Shirley Witherspoon.

 

01.  "Wringin' & Twistin' Blues" 

Ma Rainey/Fletcher Henderson  1927

This was originally a 'gutbucket' arrangement; i.e. probably nothing written down, all improvised.  We did a basic sketch of all parts a long time ago.  There was no rehearsal ahead of time for this, so it ended up being half-gutbucket, half-written; and is quite loose.  But, dig how Shirley is delivering this--I'm positive she could have been a bigtime Blues singer in the 1920's.

Audio Links:
e.g.:  Click on the Audio link below for "Wringin' & Twistin' ".
Note: Best to right-click and choose "open in new window".  It should load much quicker than Video.  Return to this page while listening. 

Wringin and Twistin_ ACJO 20th

1981.  Ted Unseth & the Classic Jazz Orchestra.  McGuire's Supper Club; Minneapolis, MN.  Special Guest: Shirley Witherspoon.

 

02.  "Goin' To Chicago Blues" 

Count Basie Orchestra/Joe Williams  1961

Contrast the previous track with this.  35 years or so later, band-size has grown considerably and the style is quite different.  But make no mistake, this is still the Blues. 
I'm not sure why, but I sing the first verse (not bad for a Lutheran) and then Shirley takes over from there. 
 

Goin' To Chicago_CJO_Shirley

1981. Ted Unseth & the Classic Jazz Orchestra. McGuire's Supper Club; Minneapolis, MN. Special Guest: Shirley Witherspoon.

03. "Dancin' In The Street"

Martha & the Vandellas  1963

We had a regular gig at McGuire's Supper Club (located in a suburb of Minneapolis) and in addition to our regular sets, they required that we put on an hour and 10 minute Show at the beginning of the evening.  We had an expanded ensemble of full big band capability, so I decided to try my hand at Big Band Arranging.  I did two numbers, the first being an arrangement of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" (which I thought Shirley would sing, but she wasn't comfortable with the range, so... I sang it--a whole 'nother story).  The second was "Dancin' In The Street".  I borrowed from two versions: 1) the Kinks; and 2) Martha and the Vandellas.  And I added an Improv section and a tranisitional section based on Jimmie Lunceford's "Flaming Brass, Screaming Reeds".  End Result: a Slam Bang Show Ender. 
 

Dancin' In The Street_CJO_Shirley

 

1993. Ted Unseth & the Americana Classic Jazz Orchestra. 20th Anniversary Concerts. Bandana Square, St. Paul, MN. Special Guest: Shirley Witherspoon.

 

04. "Peace and Love for All"

Jimmie Lunceford Orchestra  1943

Usually, one ends a session with a bang (as per the previous track), but I wanted this to be the last selection because I think it very special in more than one way.
First, the origin of the tune: very interesting.
Second, the timing of the recording (WW II).
Third, our version.  I had inadvertently counted the tune off much slower than the original tempo and was intially concerned, but everyone picked up on it and there's marvelous 'feel' here.  In particular, Shirley's delivery:
As soon as I got home from the gig, I grabbed the reel-to-reel tape to review what just happened (a great 20th Anniversary weekend).  And when I got to "Peace and Love for All", I was amazed at how the slow tempo worked well; and Shirley's singing--I'll readily admit that I had tears in my eyes after her last note; she had a unique vibrato that could sometimes be other-worldly. 
 

Peace and Love_ACJO_Shirley

 
 
 
 
 
 
Peace, Love and Creativity--
The Hope for Humanity
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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