Before the late Hank Crawford went on to a stellar career as a hard-bop saxophonist and revered Ray Charles sideman, he started out as a student at what would become Tennessee State University. So did Memphis soul great Carla Thomas, who was attending the school (then known as Tennessee A&I) when her 1960 single "Gee Whiz (Look at His Eyes)" hit the national charts the following year, putting Stax Records on the map.
James Brown/P-Funk trombonist Fred Wesley attended TSU for a period, as did Grammy-winning producer/songwriter Shannon Sanders. Other distinguished musical alums range from Duke Ellington bassist Jimmy Blanton to Nashville soul man Tyrone "Super T" Smith. As for instructors, the late W.O. Smith, a jazz bassist who'd performed with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, changed lives as a TSU music professor.
As the university celebrates its centenary, TSU has issued a project that commemorates the past century of music: an album with each track representing a different decade, performed by current TSU students as well as instructors and alumni. Titled simply 100 Years, it charts the evolution of American popular music from W.C. Handy's 1912 "The Memphis Blues" (performed by pianist Brendan Boyd) through jump blues, bop, and the transmission from another universe that is Little Richard's "Lucille," all the way to Stevie Wonder's "I Wish," Run DMC's "It's Tricky" and Destiny's Child's "Déjà Vu."
"It shows off the amount of talent we have, currently and throughout the years," says Dr. Mark Crawford, TSU coordinator of commercial music, who helped assemble the project last summer after getting the idea from TSU president Dr. Portia Shields. The album includes previously recorded tracks by TSU mainstays Charles Dungey (romping through Big Joe Turner's "Roll 'Em Pete") and Benjamin Kirk (leading the 1985 TSU Jazz Collegians through Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night in Tunisia") before bringing the circle round to current TSU student LaTisha Spence, whose composition "Life Is Good" represents the school's present — and future.
CDs are $10, available through the TSU music department; call 963-5210 for more information.
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