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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the August 7, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Grace Little: Trenton’s Amazing Jazz Voice

While most of the acts at this year’s Trenton Jazz

Festival don’t fit the label "traditional jazz," fans of the

musical form may well hear it from the festival’s youngest performer,

vocalist Grace Little. Little, whose powerful voice has earned her

the moniker "Amazin’ Grace," will turn 34 on August 18, the

day after the Trenton Jazz Festival 2002. In contrast to the smooth

flavor of this year’s festival headliners, Little says she doesn’t

consider herself at all an "urban contemporary" or "soft

jazz" vocalist.

Festival headliners Ashford and Simpson, with 22 gold and platinum

records to their name, are expected to draw a big crowd to this year’s

festival. In 2001, more than 7,000 music fans enjoyed the day-long

celebration of music in the City of Trenton. Nickolas Ashford and

Valerie Simpson began their career together in 1964 when they wrote

Ray Charles’ classic "Let’s Go Get Stoned." This was followed

by another smash hit single, "Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,"

for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, as well as "Your Precious Love,"

"You’re All I Need to Get By," and "Reach Out and Touch

Somebody’s Hand." Their most recent hit is "I’m Every Woman"

recorded by Whitney Houston for the move soundtrack "The Bodyguard."

Also adding luster to the festival program is Pieces of a Dream, Alex

Bugnon, Roy Ayers, and Trenton’s home-grown bluesman Paul Plumeri.

"I do a mixture of everything," says Grace Little, in an interview

from her Trenton home. She adds that since she has a daughter of her

own, "I try to keep up with the times, but I consider myself strictly

old school R&B. I like Aretha Franklin, Patti Labelle, Nancy Wilson,

Gladys Knight."

"I sing blues, jazz standards and more contemporary R&B and soul.

I do a bit of everything and I think that’s one of the reasons they

called me for the Trenton Jazz Festival," says Little.

Little was born in Jersey City but grew up in Trenton,

the daughter of a gospel singing mother and a musical father who also

sung in the church. Raised with six other siblings, she attended Trenton

Central High School and graduated in 1985. The family often got together

in the evenings to listen to records and sing some favorites. As a

youngster, Grace was captivated by "Joey," a Natalie Cole

tune that she would play over and over again. By age 12, she had auditioned

and performed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. And by 13, her mother

was chaperoning her to perform at such Trenton night-spots as the

Blackjack Lounge and the Candlelight Lounge.

"My mother was a gospel singer and my father was in a group years

ago," she relates. Although her father passed away a number of

years ago, her mother is still living and working, as a cook at Princeton

University.

"My parents were very supportive and always have been, even when

I went on the road as a 17-year-old and did some traveling," she

says. Little was still in her teens when she began touring with several

big hit Broadway and Off-Broadway shows, including "The Wiz,"

"Oh Calcutta," and "Dream Girls," playing the part

of Effie in the latter, with singer Miki Howard.

Asked about a first big break locally, Little said it was the chance

to perform on the "Al Albert Showcase" on Philadelphia television

at age 13. That in turn led to her bookings at Trenton clubs.

"But I was also doing talent shows in school in those years too.

That led to me hooking up with a teacher in my junior high school,

Roderick Blackstone, and he became my musical director." At age

13, Blackstone became Little’s musical mentor and she began performing

with Blackstone and his four-piece band Fantasy. She worked with Blackstone’s

various bands for 20 years before forming her own group in 1998. And

even then, she continued to play in the Trenton area with Blackstone.

Another important break came one night in 1999 she Little

singing at a private party at Holmes Lounge in Camden when she met

Leon Huff, part of the songwriting team of Gamble and Huff, and one

half of the famed Philadelphia International Record (PIR) label.

"He saw me performing and wanted me to come into the studio to

record a song he had," Little explains. She recorded "Somebody’s

Gotta Move" accompanied by the Dells, who had a big R&B hit in

the early ’60s with "Stay In My Corner." At PIR people like

Lou Rawls and Teddy Pendergrass became Little’s label mates.

"It was a great honor and a privilege to do that song with the

Dells in Philadelphia, and with the success of that, my audience became

a more mature audience," she says. The 2000 single got airplay

in Philadelphia and at other "urban" radio stations.

"The record was not as successful as I would have liked in Philadelphia,

but it did go to Number One in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Virginia,"

she says. Little said PIR has sold out of the single "because

the people who’ve been supporting me and following me for years went

out and bought the CD."

Now she is in the process of going back and recording her next single.

"We’re going to shop that and a few other tunes around to different

record companies." Huff also initiated a project that evolved

into Little’s full-length CD titled — what else? — "Amazin’

Grace," and soon to be released by PIR.

At the Trenton Jazz Festival, Little will be supported by a band she

has put together especially for the festival that she calls Grace

Little and the Amazing 609 Band. The group includes Clyde Funchess

on bass, Jay Wade, drums, Norman Williams, keyboards, Phil Smith,

keyboards, Miss Devora Wise on lead and backing vocals, and Little

herself on most lead vocals.

"Because it’s the Trenton Jazz Festival, I’m bringing in some

other area musicians, including Roy Richardson on saxophone, Michael

Giss on percussion, and Troy, who I know from the clubs, on timbales,"

she adds.

Since she began singing in Trenton clubs as a 13-year-old, Little

has frequented all of the area favorites including Joe’s Mill Hill

Saloon, Maxine’s Restaurant, and Club Trenton in Hamilton Township.

On Saturday, Little will likely sing some Aretha Franklin, some jazz

tunes made famous by Nancy Wilson, and some urban contemporary music

by more recent singers as well.

"With my show, it’s not just old school music, and it’s not so

much in a jazz type of way. I get out there doing me, getting people

up off their feet, dancing to the music, whether it be Evelyn `Champagne’

King or some newer school music, Angie Stone and Jill Scott. My band

performs a taste of everything: some jazz, some blues, and some club

music. It’s a different flavor for everything that I sing."

— Richard J. Skelly

Trenton Jazz Festival 2002, Waterfront Park, Route 29

and Cass Street, Trenton, 609-520-8383. The Fleet Presents Trenton

Jazz Festival 2002. Rain or shine. $25 to $45. Tickets at Ticketmaster

or the Sovereign Arena Box Office. Saturday, August 17, 1 p.m.


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