Willie “Taters” Mavins
Mavins, a native of South Carolina, became a Syracuse fixture after he moved to the Salt City in 1959. He became well-known as the open mike host at the Orange Grove on Marshall Street, giving many Syracuse musicians the chance and the motivation to tackle the microphone and put themselves out into the scene.
In 2004, Mavins joined the men of Los Blancos on the album, Cookin’ with the Cats, and more recently, Mavins performed at “The Last Waltz,” recreated at the Westcott Theater in November. Mavins led the grand finale, “I Shall Be Released,” adding his experience and soulful depth to an incredible night of collaborations.
Mavins was recognized by Mayor Stephanie Miner, who proclaimed March 1 Willie “Taters” Mavins recognition day in 2012. It’s a testament to the impact the man has had and continues to have on local musicians, including singer, songwriter and guitarist Colin Aberdeen of Los Blancos.
“I could write a book about Taters,” Aberdeen says. “He could sing and dance like the soul and R&B greats. He could play the most sensitive and soulful versions of rock radio hits like Bob Seger’s ‘Turn the Page’ that would make the ramblin’ man himself proud of his song, with this incredibly deep folk-blues vibe. Willie is a helper, a supporter, a nurturer, a philosopher, a songwriter and a loving father. I love him like a big brother.”
Self-proclaimed keeper of the vibe, Scott Sterling excels at his position at the Rochester and Syracuse Dinosaur Bar-B-Ques. Since 1998, he has worked as chief sound engineer at the ever-popular barbecue joints and consistently rocking music venues, bringing his experience on and off the stage to the job.
Sterling started playing guitar at age 8, while he was growing up in New Hope, Pa. He had several bands — including B.S. Boulder, Essence of Evil and Thrust — which helped jump-start his career before he moved to Syracuse in 1979. He promptly entered the scene and started playing and working with local musicians including Mark Doyle, Penny Jo Pullus and others in bands including Natives, ETV and Rockin’ Bones.
He went on to work in management and production with groups spanning Dracula Jones, Penny Jo’s Trailer Trash, Bone China and more. He stays active today by managing the funk-rock outfit Turnip Stampede.
“I’ve had many fun time periods,” Sterling says, looking back. “And aside from my time at the BBQ, as a guitar player, I would say my time in Rockin’ Bones was most significant. We played in New York City a lot and had label interest and many great upstate gigs doing all original music. We won an MTV contest and played Darien Lake, CBGB, Cat Club, opened for the Georgia Satellites.”
He also calls his time with Dracula Jones an amazing journey.
“We started from truly nothing and nowhere. All on our own, doing everything our way, we grew a mad following in every corner of New York state, played Boston, Maryland, Maine, Pennsylvania and all original music.”
Before taking the position at Dinosaur, Sterling worked on production, sound and booking at the Lost Horizon from 1980 to 1985 and as an assistant to Tom Decker at Decker Audio from 1980 to 2000.
His resume is astounding, showing off a long list of band names he’s worked with or performed with over the years, including Masters of Reality, Vagabond and the DeSantis Orchestra.
But somehow, even with all the roles he’s played, “Keeper of the Vibe” sums up Sterling’s magic best.
Since the early 1970s, harp player Skip Murphy has been hopping on stages locally and abroad. He got his start following and sitting in with Cross Creek, a great local country rock band, and started his own group, Cumberland Stage, in 1975.
In 1976, he started running entertainment for the Firebarn Tavern, a downtown music hotspot, and in 1977 the legendary group Out of the Blue was formed. Impressive local musicians Michael Miller, Mark Tiffault, Al Chapman, Ron Shuman, Don Davis and James Moore came together for the project, and still more joined in, including John Kane, Lee Tiffault, Joe Colombo and Bill Stevens. They went on to open for groups including Asleep at the Wheel, James Cotton, David Bromberg and more.
In 1978, the group crossed the pond and toured Europe, playing London, Amsterdam and the French Alps. When they returned stateside, they continued playing regularly until 1984.
Murphy didn’t slow his musical involvement after they disbanded. He helped at local festivals as a stagehand or manager and started hitting stages again about 10 years ago with local greats including Mark Hoffmann and Dave Liddy. He currently performs with Skip Murphy and the Merry Pranksters.
Murphy notes that the greatest thrill of his career has been playing with the musicians he has, including his son, Spencer, who he has watched grow up to become a professional jazz musician in New York City.
“I have been blessed to play with so many great players,” Murphy says. “And they all welcomed Spencer as a youth to the stage. He was raised by the music community in many ways.”
Murphy also has a knack for emceeing and will show off his stage prowess at the Sammy Awards on Friday night.
“I am humbled, to say the least, by this award,” Murphy explains. “Whether it is playing in a band, managing a stage at a festival, being an emcee or writing programs for different events, I have been so lucky to be involved in any way I can. This whole award thing is a little spooky, but playing and hosting have been a hoot. But really, it’s the friendships that I have made along the way that have kept me smilin’ and feelin’ blessed.”
One of Syracuse’s greatest bands is finally getting their moment of Sammys glory. The Seven, originally called The Upsetters, began in 1966. After another name change and lineup switch, The Seven settled on the name and members Chuck Mellone, Tony Licameli, Al Ruscito, Frank Sgroi, Chuck Sgroi, Nick Russo and Chuck Wheeler.
They went on to become one of the most popular bands in Syracuse history. The band made stops in New York City nightclubs including Ungano’s and The Bitter End. They worked with famed Central New York songwriter Larry Santos and went on to sign with Thunderbird Records over London’s Parrot record label.
Their album, The Song is Song, the Album is Album, was released in 1970 on Thunderbird, and the three songs released from the record hit the charts hard. “Heatwave” charted for seven weeks on WOLF-AM radio, and their cover of The Zombies’ tune “Tell Her No” stayed on the WOLF charts for 10 weeks. The band got airplay on New York City’s WABC and WCBS, Philadelphia’s WFIL, Miami’s WFUN and more. The Seven is remembered for its impressive and extensive success.
John Dancks, better known as JD, has played in the Syracuse area for 50 years and has become the first-call bassist for anyone playing blues, country, rock, jazz and folk. He’s played with national names such as Tony Trischka and Russ Barenberg in addition to the best of the local crew, including Mark Hoffmann, Danny Weiss, Tom Witkowski, Cookie Coogan, J.T. Hall, Dave Liddy and others. He’s also added his tasteful bass additions to many studio sessions both locally and with the national label, Rounder Records.
Dancks was born in the Bronx in 1949 and moved to Cazenovia when he was 6 years old. By high school, he was working his way into the scene and playing with Sammy Hall of Famer Dave Novak, who he continues to perform with today.
But he got his real start when he met members of the legendary bluegrass band, The Down City Ramblers. Dancks eventually became a member of the group after serendipitously becoming roommates with one of the members: violin maker, player and repairman Tom Hosmer.
It was during that time that Dancks met John Cadley, who has become one of his greatest friends and musical partners, and his wife, Georgia, who he has been with for 42 years. He has three daughters and five grand children.
“I am very humbled by this recognition,” Dancks says. “It has been my food fortune to live in Central New York with such an incredible depth of talent and diversity. Words cannot express how grateful I am to all the musicians I have come to know and share in our creative endeavor.”
Jimmy Van Heusen
LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD
Born Jan. 26, 1913, in Syracuse, Edward Chester Babcock, called “Chet” by close friends, became better known as Jimmy Van Heusen, one of the most accomplished songwriters in history.
He’s won four Oscars and one Emmy, among other accolades. He wrote more songs recorded by Frank Sinatra (85) than any other composer and wrote for another legend, Bing Crosby.
Although his list of accomplishments and honors is lengthy, he said his greatest honor was being elected by his peers as one of the original inductees to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1971.
Van Heusen was born an entertainer. Since he was a child, he entertained friends and audiences with his musical talent and wit (which also got him into trouble at times). He was a disc jockey for WSYR and WFBL radio as a teen, and it was around 1929 that he and his childhood friend, Ralph Harris, came up with his stage name that he’d come to use for the rest of his life. As the two were staring out the 11th-floor window of Hotel Syracuse, they saw a billboard for Van Heusen collars. The name James came from Ralph’s favorite cousin by the same name, and the stage name morphed into Jimmy Van Heusen.
In 1939, Van Heusen had his first big hit, “Darn That Dream,” a song written to be performed by Benny Goodman. The floodgates opened after that, and the hits continued to roll. Between 1939 and 1940, Van Heusen published 60 songs, nearly all of which made it to the radio.
Over the years, Van Heusen teamed with two main lyricists — Johnny Burke and Sammy Cahn — and won his first Oscar in 1944 for the song “Swinging on a Star,” written with Burke. It appeared in the movie Going My Way, a Crosby classic and one of 23 Crosby movies that featured Van Heusen compositions.
During World War II, Van Heusen also flew as a test pilot for Lockheed in California in the midst of his writing career, which continued for decades.
In 1961, Van Heusen was described by a newspaper writer as a genius composer who “does not however, personify the image of the genius composer, temperamental, moody and tense, who shuts himself away from the world to ‘create.’” The writer went on, “He is, in fact, quite the opposite. He is charming, personable and witty, with laughing eyes and a great sense of humor. He could, as he says, ‘work in a boiler factory’ and has more than once composed a new melody on a tablecloth in a crowded restaurant.”
Van Heusen continued to bring that love of life to each of his performances until he died Feb. 6, 1990. It is for all of these reasons that he is being recognized with the highest of Sammy honors.
MUSIC EDUCATOR OF THE YEAR
Great music educators go beyond teaching students. They inspire students and provide them with opportunities that push them further than they knew they could go. James Spadafore is a prime example of this kind of music educator.
He began his teaching career with the Liverpool School District in 1978. He started at the elementary and middle schools before moving to the high school in 1992, where he became a music director as well as teacher.
In 1997, Spadafore began the Jumpin’ Jazz Jam, an annual concert held at the high school at which professional artists play sets with the students’ stage band and jazz ensemble. The remarkable list of artists includes Terence Blanchard, Jane Monheit, Joey DeFrancesco, the Count Basie Orchestra, Bucky Pizzarelli and the Duke Ellington Orchestra and more.
Spadafore retired from Liverpool High in 2012.