Martin Luther King Tribute Concert @ the Strand Theater

By Don Wilcock

Just when Martin Luther King’s “I had a dream” speech seems at best to be a half-forgotten apparition and at worst the prelude to our culture’s 21st century nightmare, something like Saturday’s (January 13) Martin Luther King Tribute Show at the Strand Theater in Hudson Falls brings the great civil rights leader’s vision back into sharp focus as we approach the 50th anniversary of his passing.

Organized by veteran R&B/gospel singer Milayne Jackson, this annual tribute concert brings together a disparate group of performers and community leaders of all ages, races and styles to honor America’s greatest civil rights leader. The event is a prelude to Martin Luther King Day, a federal holiday marking his birthday on Monday (January 15).

Opening the celebration will be guest speaker Senator Betty Little. Jackson will debut her new band Blue Train featuring keyboardist Gary Brooks, guitarist Willie Pierce, bassist Lucas Ruedy and drummer Carleton “Pops” Brown. Also on the bill is the area’s premier gospel group the Heavenly Echoes. Travis Tucker will recite MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Jeff Kingsley will perform a pair of original story songs and the Jonathan Newell Band will play a short set.

Blue Train is a living embodiment of Dr. Martin Luther King’s testimony to the strength of togetherness in our American melting pot. Milayne Jackson is ubiquitous in the Greater Nippertown music scene and has worked with Gary Brooks for more than 18 years. “The Martin Luther King celebration has always been very prominent in Glens Falls, my hometown, and I was always a big part of it,” says Jackson. “As a matter of fact, every year I always did the Mahalia Jackson song, “If I Can Help Somebody” ’cause that’s the song she sang for Dr. King’s funeral. So, that was a big part of it. Catherine Reid and I do it every year.”

Jackson launched her own Martin Luther King celebration when the new pastor of her Methodist Church forbade her from singing “If I Could Help Somebody” in the church because it was a secular song. “Of course, I support Dr. King. He was a great pastor. I loved him, but he was for all the people. So, I decided I didn’t need this. I have enough friends and support after all these years in the community that I’m going to start something else that includes everyone, is all inclusive. And so we started off. We did Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, ‘We Shall Overcome’ and just put everything together.”

Gary Brooks was just a teenager when Martin Luther King was killed, but he was already performing in the classic rock band The Shames: “(The Martin Luther King legacy) never really touched my life that much until we started doing these showcases, and the people that show up for them are moved. It’s rewarding for me at the end of the evening to see how satisfied a lot of the people are by the guest speakers, the
music and the whole presentation.”

Blue Train is guitarist-vocalist-former bandleader Willie Pierce’s first gig since Ernie Williams passed in 2012. At the turn of the century, he was one of my best finds when I headed the Northeast Blues Society, ranking with Williams and George Boone as the Local 518’s best authentic blues talents. Tas Cru and Albert Cummings went on to forge national careers, and had fate dealt Willie a different hand, he’d have been right up there with them.

Recently, Pierce contracted a skin condition that resulted from a broken leg, making his whole leg “raw like a bun. Six months later, I’m OK,” he explains, “I can stand for 20 minutes and half an hour. I’ve also had kidney cancer, but they came in through my back and killed it.”

Carleton “Pops” Brown is an old school drummer. “Wait until you hear this guy,” says Jackson. “He played with Bernard Purdie and Aretha Franklin. We call him Pops. He had a stroke, but he’s getting back into it.”

Brooks adds, “He talked to me about it, and we agreed to let him come to a rehearsal, and one thing led to another. He’s so thrilled to be back playing again. He has a brand-new drum set, and he’s all gung ho. It’s all coming back to him. He’s getting better with every rehearsal.”

Lucas Ruedy is one of Greater Nippertown’s go-to bassists and was Buck Malen’s right hand guy at Malen’s Albany jam sessions. “He’s been playing bass with the Killer B’s. Recently he resigned from the Blues House Rockers,” says Brooks, “but he plays with a lot of different people. He’s one of the best bass players in the region, in my opinion.”

Blue Train is the living embodiment of Dr. King’s dream. “Me, Willie and Milayne share the lead vocals,” explains Brooks. “We have an extensive repertoire. The songs are coming together quite easily. I’m kind of amazed. We’ve got plenty of material, that’s for sure. It gets better every rehearsal.”

Appearing for the first time at this annual tribute are the Heavenly Echoes. The best kept secret in Local 518 sacred music, these guys are world class performers who just happen to live in our area. Fronted by Earl Thorpe, whose resume reaches back to classic doo-wop groups of the ’50s, they will have with them James Carr who’s a religious second cousin to the Coasters in his delivery and Decky Lawson, a powerful quarterback of a young vocalist, Hayes Coleman – the Cary Grant of the group – and Joe Abbey of JV & the Cutters on bass.

Pianist Catherine Reid will sing “Higher Love” with Jackson. And there will be some surprise speakers.

“I want people to express what they feel about Dr. King,” says Jackson. “Everybody loves Dr. King. Yeah, of course, he was a preacher, but he was so much more than that.”

WHAT: The Martin Luther King Tribute Show
WHO: Blue Train, the Heavenly Echoes, Jeff Kingsley, the Jonathan Newell Band, more
WHERE: The Strand Theater, Hudson Falls
WHEN: Saturday (January 13), 7pm
HOW MUCH: $10; students & seniors $8

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