A life of musical learning delivers a chance to give back

by Len Lear
Posted 3/9/23

I guess you could say that Mt. Airy resident Randall Grass, 73, does not let any grass grow under his feet. Grass has traveled to or lived in more than two dozen countries. Now he's teaching a MALT class.

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A life of musical learning delivers a chance to give back


I guess you could say that Mt. Airy resident Randall Grass, 73, does not let any grass grow under his feet. Grass lived in Nigeria for three years, played keyboards with various African bands and has traveled to or lived in more than two dozen countries in Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean, Africa and Latin America. A record executive, author, member of the band Philly Gumbo (for 42 years) and former host of “The World Beat Dance Party” on WXPN-FM, he’s pretty much always been a man who's got a lot going on. 

And now he’ll be sharing his wealth of musical experience and expertise with students in his Mt. Airy Learning Tree three-session course, “Exploring the Universe of African Music,” starting Thursday, March 16, 7 to 8:30 p.m., at the United Lutheran Seminary, 7301 Germantown Ave. This is not the first time Grass has offered the course, which typically sells out very quickly. 

Grass is a virtual walking encyclopedia of music. His 2009 book, “Great Spirits: Portraits of Life-Changing World Music Arts,” was very well received by music critics. In a typical review, Roger Steffens, author of “The Wailers' Discography,” wrote that Grass' book was “one of the best books about music and musicians that I have ever read.”

Randall was born in the San Francisco Bay area, but his family moved to Philadelphia’s Main Line suburbs in 1964. He went to Conestoga High School and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from Duke University. Randall eventually wound up writing about music, especially African and Caribbean music, for publications including The Village Voice, Spin magazine, Downbeat and The Philadelphia Inquirer, 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 in Philadelphia, hosting “Roots, Rock, Reggae” and “The World Beat Dance Party” on WXPN-FM from 1978 to 1991. “I stopped after 13 years,” he said. “I still loved doing it, but I was driving after work in New York for two and a half hours on the road, exhausted. I had too many things going on and had to let something go.”

How did Grass wind up living in Nigeria from 1974 to 1977? 

“Belly dancing was very trendy in New York Greek clubs at the time,” he explained, “so I thought I'd research a book on it. I went to Morocco and Egypt and found out that Paul McCartney had recorded 'Band on the Run' in Nigeria, so I thought I'd go there. They had a really great music scene. 

“I saw an ad for people to train teachers. Since I have a masters degree in education from Duke, I thought I'd give that a try. One thing led to another. I met some musicians in a band called Bongos and the Groovies. We got together and played and toured all over Nigeria. A state government sponsored the band for an international festival of Black acts from all over the world, but they didn't want a white guy in the band, so I could not take part in that.”

What was the most fascinating country of all those Grass has visited? 

“Afghanistan, in the 1970s. It was like going way back in time. In parts of the country there was no TV, railroads or paved roads, but there were guys with swords and rifles and camel caravans.”  

When Grass returned to the U.S., he lived in Germantown from 1977 to 1996, relocated to New Jersey for a time, and then moved to Mt. Airy in 2015. 

In addition to performing with Philly Gumbo, he is currently overseeing the music for a record company that made “Bad Things Happen in Philadelphia,” a documentary that will be released in May about grassroots efforts to stop the gun violence in Philly. 

He is currently researching a book on Philadelphia music history, “Expressway to Your Heart: Finding the Musical Soul of Philadelphia.” He also may tackle a series of books that would cover  all forms of music, with the possible exception of classical music, which Grass admits he does not know enough about. Three local luminaries whom he interviewed for the book, Charlie Gracie, Bobby Rydell and Jerry Blavat, have all died within the past year.

For more information, visit mtairylearningtree.org. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com