by Carole Verona
Every year, the Philadelphia Music Alliance honors local individuals or groups for their vast contributions to the world of music by placing plaques in their honor along the Philly Walk of Fame on the Avenue of the Arts. There are currently 106 bronze plaques immortalizing Philly’s musical greats.
On Oct. 24 of this year, Chestnut Hill’s Grant MacAvoy, a drummer, was one of 70 musicians honored for their contributions to what has become known as the “sound of Philadelphia.” In the mid ‘70s to the early ‘80s, this musical style evolved and became an international phenomenon. In addition to being an honoree, Grant was asked by Joe Tarsia, chairman of the Philadelphia Music Alliance and the founder of Sigma Sound Studios, to help identify and track down the other 69 musicians who played with MFSB (an acronym for Mother, Father, Sister, Brother), Salsoul, and the John Davis Monster Orchestra.
“Joe Tarsia designed Sigma Sound Studio, which was located at 12th and Race streets,” Grant said. “It was only in that studio that you could get the unique sound that has become identified with Philadelphia. Most of the recordings of these three orchestras were done there. And I played on most of those recordings.”
He explained that the three orchestras combined something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue. “Old, because there were many classically trained orchestral musicians; new, because the rhythm sections developed this specific style; borrowed, because they took music from Stravinsky, Copland and others that already had ‘hits’ in the past; and blue, because we knew that the sound we were creating was something that existed only in that studio and on the records that we made. It wasn’t, ‘Let’s make a record and then go on the road.’ We made record after record after record in that studio. We performed for four walls and microphones.”
The sound of Philadelphia mixed the rhythms of marching music with those of Latin salsa. Grant admitted that it was difficult for drummers to learn this new style of music. “To learn, I turned the drum set backwards, playing everything with my left hand that I would ordinarily play with my right hand. Then it began to click, and I was able to switch back to the normal way of playing.”
Grant recalled the first time he played with the MFSB orchestra. “They called me the night before a concert at the Academy of Music. Their drummer couldn’t make it. I hadn’t played with them before, so their arranger told me to meet him in Kenny Gamble’s office on Broad Street. Nobody had ever written the drum part, but they had full scores for the rest of the orchestra. My graduate school studies in composition and theory paid off. I started writing, and the ink wasn’t even dry when we got the curtain call.”
Grant, 61, went to Our Mother of Consolation elementary school and graduated from LaSalle High School in 1969. He attended Villanova University for a short time, switched to the University of Pennsylvania to study biology, and ended up at Beaver College (now Arcadia University), where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1974 and a master’s degree (minus thesis) in composition and orchestration in 1976.
He searched a lot when he was younger and wasn’t afraid to take risks. He spent time traveling in Europe and even spent a few weeks in the Legionaries of Christ seminary in Connecticut. He loved the monastic life and learned in the short time he was there that you can survive without speaking.
Grant’s greatest musical influence was James Valerio, his maternal grandfather, who came from Italy and got a job playing drums and touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. When Valerio returned to Philadelphia in 1929, he became a percussionist with the Philadelphia Orchestra, a position he held until 1964. “He would take me to rehearsals, where I got to sit and watch while Bernstein and Stravinsky conducted. And I also got to observe how everybody interpreted the music. When I was real young, I started getting training from my grandfather in orchestral percussion. He made me promise never to take a lesson on the drums. Instead, he encouraged me to learn how to take various techniques and apply them in a way that was personal and unique.”
Grant continues to be in demand as a musician and producer. Until the late 1990s, Grant worked for Michael Carney, an orchestra leader who did a lot of work for the White House and the State Department. “I would get a call and we’d fly all over the country, Europe and the Middle East doing shows for diplomats, etc. For performances at the White House, I would pull up in a beat-up old car five hours before I had to play. The Marine guards looked at everything and sometimes took x-rays of the equipment. There are a lot of funny stories I could tell, but what happens at the White House stays at the White House,” he quipped.
Grant also performed for NFL films, commercials and movies. He was even the drummer for Andrea McCardle’s “Annie” on Broadway. In 2009 and 2010, Grant co-chaired the Pastorius Park concert series with Janine Dwyer. “I didn’t realize how hard it would be to make decisions about who would perform. Being a studio musician, I listen with a different set of ears, and I wasn’t really considering a performer’s rapport with the crowd. Also, it was a big job to build the stage. More helpers are definitely needed.”
In 1985, he married Paula Johns, a jazz, cabaret and big band singer. “To this day we’ve never had a musical argument,” Grant said. “We just know when it’s right, and there’s never any question about it. And that’s amazing between two artists.”
MacAvoy does not have a website, but he can be reached at GMacavoy@Yahoo.com.