by Len Lear
Randall Grass, 65, of Mt. Airy, who has been involved in the music industry for more than 30 years as a performing musician, journalist, radio show host and record company executive, is a virtual walking encyclopedia of the music business. Whatever you would like to know about music in the U.S., Randall can tell you.
And much of that knowledge has been condensed into a book, “Great Spirits: Portraits of Life-Changing World Music Artists,” which Grass will discuss and read from on Friday Nov. 6, 7 p.m., at The Blue Marble Book Store, 551 Carpenter Lane in Mt. Airy. The event is free and open to the public.
According to Roger Steffens, author of “The Wailers Discography,” Grass’s new book is “one of the best books about music and musicians I have ever read.”
Randall was born in the San Francisco Bay area, but his family moved to the Philly Main Line in 1964, where he went to Conestoga High School.
Grass earned a B.A. and M.A. from Duke University and eventually wound up writing about music, especially African and Caribbean music for such publications as The Village Voice, Spin Magazine, The Beat, Musician, Downbeat, The Philadelphia Inquirer and many others, and was a contributor to the books “Reggae International,” “The Rolling Stone Record Guide,” “The Alternative Papers” and “Reggae, Rasta & Revolution.”
Grass, who took piano lessons from age 7 to 15 and also taught himself to play a little guitar, ultimately became a popular radio show personality, hosting Roots, Rock, Reggae and The World Beat Dance Party on WXPN-FM in Philly from 1979 to 1991.
The music was awesome, and Randall’s respect for it was obvious. Not too many people voluntarily give up such a gig, but Randall did. “I loved doing the shows,” he said, “but between my very demanding job, my writing, playing in my band and the radio show, I was getting burned out, and something had to go, so after 13 years I gave up the show, but I miss doing it.”
In 1980 Randall and a buddy, Walt Taylor, formed a band, Philly Gumbo, which mixes New Orleans R & B, reggae, soul and blues. After 35 years, Philly Gumbo is still a tasty musical soup. In recent years they have played World Café Live, The Sellersville Theater, The Queen in Wilmington Delaware, The Kimmel Center and festivals such as Oktoberfest, Media Blues Stroll, The West Oak Lane Jazz Festival, et al.
Grass, who previously lived in Germantown from 1977 to 1994, is hooked on Mt. Airy because of the “wonderful houses, great landscape with many trees and near parks, good ethnic and cultural diversity, plenty of people into different things. I can’t really think of anything negative.”
He has traveled and/or resided in more than 30 countries in Europe, Africa, The Middle East, The Caribbean and Latin America. What were the most fascinating places he has been to? “Afghanistan was like going several hundred years back in time; Nigeria has an incredible diversity of cultures and ethnicities; the music scene there in the 1970s was one of the most exciting in the world; Morocco’s blend of Arab, African and Mediterranean culture is fascinating; great music and food, stunning architecture, wonderful people and a great spiritual tradition.”
Needless to say, with all that traveling, there were many unforgettable experiences, some of which are recalled in the book. For example, he was driving into a village off the beaten path in Afghanistan when the whole village came out to meet Grass and his traveling companions.
The locals spoke no English, and the Americans spoke no Pashto or Farsi. The Afghans saw an acoustic guitar Randall had and pointed at it. Since music is the universal language, he took it out and played something that imitated the local music; they lit up, and a couple even started dancing.
When Grass was in Nigeria, he saw on local TV a master goge (one-string fiddle) player. “I tracked him down and asked if he would teach me to play,” said the Mt. Airy musician/author. “He gave me one lesson and then said I should come to the nightclub where he was playing. I did that, and his way of teaching was to have me sit next to him with his drummer and singers in front of a live audience and have me try to follow what he was doing! After one lesson!
“I was the only foreigner and the only white person there. Luckily, his instrument was amplified and mine wasn’t, so people couldn’t hear what I was doing. But the audience got a kick out of it, and some even pressed coins to my forehead, a joking approbation as the custom was to press currency, large bills, to the head of a musician. After that, any time I was in that part of town, someone would call out ‘Baturin goge!’ which means ‘white man who plays the fiddle.’”
— To be continued next week