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A wide-ranging and expansive chat with bass baritone Everett Greene

Why did Everett Greene stop singing for so many years? What did Etta James think of his first album? What was Indiana Avenue like in the good ol' days?

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A wide-ranging and expansive chat with bass baritone Everett Greene


Everett Greene possesses one of the great voices of Indianapolis, a smooth bass baritone he's used to enchant Hoosier ears for more than seven decades. If you haven't heard Greene's deep, rich vocals ringing out from a stage or compact disc, then there's a strong possibility you've heard Greene's work as a voiceover artist in a myriad of projects, from documentaries to commercials.

Greene's work as a jazz vocalist has attracted worldwide attention. But Greene is no mere singer: he's a song stylist whose work preserves a refined vocal tradition of elegant jazz singing perfected by artists like Joe Williams, Billy Eckstine and Johnny Hartman. 

I recently attended a two-hour Greene performance and the 82-year-old maestro breezed through the concert with a rarified ease and grace. 

I've been hoping to interview Everett Greene for many moons, so I'm thrilled to present this expansive and wide-ranging conversation with one of Indy's most accomplished music greats.

NUVO: Mr. Greene, you were born in Washington D.C. in 1934. Was music an important part of your life growing up

Everett Greene: Yes, my dad was a musician. He was a drummer and a piano player. My mom sang at the church. I would occasionally get a chance to go with my dad to some of the jobs he played.

I started singing in elementary school. I was in the glee club in second grade. We would travel to different schools singing. I found out later in life that all seven of the guys who sang in that glee club went on to be professional singers. I couldn't believe that. Later on I sang with quartets all around the Washington D.C. area.

NUVO: Gospel quartets or doo-wop?

Greene: Doo-wop. That was during the "bird" era. You know, The Ravens, and The Orioles, and The Cardinals, and so forth. I heard Jimmy Ricks of the Ravens singing bass and he became one of my idols. I thought, "Wow, I want to sing bass!"

NUVO: What was the name of your quartet?

Greene: Our name was The Melodaires.

NUVO: Did you ever make any records with The Melodaires?

Greene: We never made any records. We were young teenagers. My brother was in the group, he was the lead singer. The other guys I'd grown up with. Eventually one of the guys went into the military and I decided I wanted to go into the Marine Corps. My intention was to come back to Washington and pursue music when I got out of the military. In fact, when I first came to Indianapolis I used to drive back and forth to Washington every weekend. I'd get off work Friday night, get into my car and drive all the way to D.C. We may have sang somewhere Saturday or Sunday and then I'd get back in the car Monday morning and drive back to Indianapolis for work. I was young and foolish. The highway didn't mean anything at all.

NUVO: What was it that first brought you to Indianapolis?

Greene: I came to Indianapolis when I got out of the Marine Corps because my mom had moved here from Washington D.C. I came to Indianapolis to spend a week, and one week turned to two, and two weeks turned to boredom. I met some people who told me they could help me find a job if I didn't mind getting dirty and they introduced me to a foundry. Well you know, I'd never seen dirt that I could't wash off. So I took the job, and I learned there is some dirt you can't wash off. (laughs)

I had no intention to stay in Indianapolis, but it wasn't too bad of a job. It was very dirty, but I kind of got used to it — especially after pay days.

But working here and there in the Indianapolis music scene, I really became enchanted with the jazz scene here.

NUVO: Right, you were here when the Indianapolis jazz scene was exploding with creativity. Great musicians from J.J. Johnson, to Freddie Hubbard, and James Spaulding were playing clubs along the Avenue.

Greene: Well, J.J. had already left. But Freddie and Spaulding were emerging. I was fortunate to work with Jimmy Coe and Pookie Johnson. But on top of that, there were lots of unknown greats that would come through Indianapolis. They'd heard about the jazz scene here. People like Jack McDuff and Roland Kirk, these guys would come through Indianapolis and just hang out because they'd heard about the jazz scene. It was really cool just to watch these guys grow.

NUVO: Wow, you got to see Roland Kirk play the club scene in Indianapolis? Do you remember where you saw him?

Greene: Yeah, it was at The Hub-Bub Lounge.

NUVO: Had Kirk started playing three horns simultaneously at that time?

Greene: Yes, he was playing three horns at the same time. There were so many musicians who came to Indianapolis to hang out. But I can't remember all the names. I tell folks that I have too many lyrics in my head to remember names.

But in the meantime I was working on my vocals. I worked on trying to widen my range. I was listening to a a lot of the jazz musicians in Indianapolis, and they made me want to broaden my spectrum even more.

NUVO: Around this time you had an opportunity to perform with Wes Montgomery and his band. How did that come about?

Greene: I entered into an amateur night competition. If you won, you got a chance to sit in with the pros, who were Wes Montgomery, Dr. Willis Kirk, Mingo Jones, and Earl Van Riper. I got a chance to work with those guys for a week at the Hub-Bub. Whether I got paid or not for that I can't begin to remember. [laughs]

NUVO: You were a young musician when you won this chance to sit in with Wes Montgomery and his band. Were you nervous to sing in front of that stellar ensemble of musicians?

Greene: No, no, no, I was very comfortable because I'd been sitting in with the guys all along. I never was nervous about singing because I'd been doing it for so long. It was just fun to have that opportunity without having had any music schooling. I had to really work at my craft.

There were a lot of jam sessions then, especially Saturday matinees, where you could go to almost any of the clubs and if they knew that you could do what you do, then you could sit in with the band. I did that for awhile, then guys would begin to hire me for jobs and I realized it was something I really wanted to do.

NUVO: As I mentioned earlier, you had a chance to experience Indiana Avenue during its heyday, and I wanted to get your take on the Avenue scene. A lot of young people today don't have any understanding of what happened on Indiana Avenue. If you drive down the street today everything is gone except the Walker and Lockefield Gardens.

Greene: Yes, it's all gone.

NUVO: Describe to young people what it was like being on Indiana Avenue during the 1950s.

Greene: It was unbelievable. You had clubs all up and own the Avenue, from Illinois Street to 10th Street. There were many clubs where there where wonderful musicians playing. At night, after the clubs closed everyone would go hang out at after-hours places like the Missile Room, which was just south of Indiana Avenue. That's where a lot of the guys coming through Indianapolis would go to just sit and listen to the local musicians.

Oh man, on Indiana Avenue there was about seven clubs on that one block. Then when you moved on past the Walker Theatre there was Al's British Lounge and other big time clubs. One of the popular things was the Saturday matinees. They'd have jam-sessions starting at 4pm. It was a fun, fun, fun time for the music.

I have to say, I remember there was one saxophone player who was on the scene back then and I knew that a lot of the musicians didn't like to see this guy because he wasn't really up to par at the time. But years later I was working out in California and I was driving out of Los Angeles and I heard this fantastic sax solo on the radio. This guy was just wailing. When the song finished they said his name and I was like, "Wow, this is the same guy the musicians didn't want on the set!" But that's what progress is. You've got to work at your craft.

NUVO: You don't want to say his name?

Greene: [laughs] I will say it. It was Claude Bartee. [Note: After leaving Indianapolis Claude Bartee would go on to play on several classic jazz recordings for Blue Note and Prestige Records with artists including Grant Green, and Pucho & the Latin Soul Brothers.]

When I heard that solo though and they announced it was Claude Bartee, my jaw dropped. But that's the way it went for me too. I gained my knowledge from working with people. I've had an opportunity to work with some of the greatest musicians in the country. I had to really listen and work at my craft in order to not be pushed aside and told, "We don't want you onstage." [laughs]

It's been great though. I have no regrets. The only thing I would do different though is to study more music and learn every interment possible. But I'm still learning. I was at a jam session at the Jazz Kitchen about a month ago, and a guy said to me "you must never rehearse anymore." Wrong! I rehearse all the time. You're always learning.

NUVO: It sounds like you were pursuing music pretty seriously during your first few years in Indianapolis. But there are some gaps in your career history where it seems like you were relatively inactive at times.

Greene: Around 1960, there came along a V.F.W. talent hunt. It was a statewide talent hunt and I entered the contest. I was winning every week and working towards the grand prize. Before the competition was over I was offered a recording contract. I had a friend of mine who was a radio personality and I asked him to look at the contract and he had his lawyer look at the contract. They said it was a good contract, but that I should wait until the competition was over and see what happens — which I did. I was one of ten finalists. And what did I win? A recording contract, and it was from the same person who had been pursuing me all those weeks and months during the competition. Thinking it was the same contract I signed it readily. Later on I realized it was an altogether different contract. I said, "Oh no, I don't think I want to go through with this."

So I just dropped out of the music scene for maybe ten years. I'd sing sometimes with a little gospel group on the weekends and occasionally do a little traveling with them. But I knew I wanted to stay away from performing, because the contract stated if I took any jobs it would be under the terms of that contract. So I waited long enough for that contract to be null and void.

NUVO: Mr. Greene, I want to skip ahead a few decades to 1994 when your first album At Last was released.

Greene: When that album came out everyone assumed I would be singing the song "At Last," but actually it was given that title because I was thinking "at last we got this album done!" [laughs] I had appeared on so many recordings with other people and I'd finally gotten one down on my own.

NUVO: You were 60-years-old when At Last was recorded. That's a long journey to your first album. I'm curious how you felt when it was finally released?

Greene: Actually, I was so disappointed. When I got out of the studio I couldn't wait to play it, and when I heard it I cried. I said, "Oh my god, I wasted all this time and money." [laughs] I sent it to several of my friends including Etta Jones, Houston Person and Robert Irving III, who was playing with Miles Davis at the time. I said I want you to listen to see what you can do to enhance this. They called me and said, "You're crazy. It doesn't need anything. Just leave it alone and let it go."

But later when I listened to the CD beyond my vocals, I heard the magic that the musicians were playing and I thought, "Ok maybe it's not too bad."

You know I recorded that CD at Delmark in Chicago. When we were recording the guy that owned the company told the engineer that I was too old to be trying to make a record and that I should leave it alone. Later on I was performing at a jazz festival in Chicago and the owner of Delmark was there selling CDs. I think I sold two cases of my CD that day, and he comes over to me and asks, "Wow man, were did you record this?" I said, "I did it at your studio." [laughs] He told me to come see him next time I was in Chicago, which I never did.

Those are the kinds of things that make you say, "Okay, cool." So I tell musicians all the time that you're never too old to pursue your dream. Right now at my age I still travel and perform. I never let the age thing be a factor in what I'm doing. As long as I can carry my weight I'll still do it.

NUVO: Are you happy what the At Last album when you hear it now?

Greene: I am very happy with it. I learned not to listen to mistakes. Etta Jones once told me if you go into the studio and try to make an album mistake free it will take you two or three years. So let the mistakes come, and just say, "This is my arrangement for the moment." 

At Last really was one of my pet albums because it was the first one. You know you get record companies promising they want to record you and it never comes to pass. So I said, "I'm going to do it on my own."

NUVO: When you're putting together music for an album what attracts you to select a particular song?

Greene: I pick out all the songs I enjoy singing in the clubs and concerts I do. Those are the ones I want to put on paper. I never really study and think "gee, I think this would go over good." When I record my own albums I just pick songs I enjoy singing.

But when I recorded for a company they'd pick the songs that they liked. "We want you to do all Billy Eckstine songs." Well, I never wanted to be Billy Eckstine. But that's what they wanted, and it's their dollar. So that's the way it goes.

NUVO: In reviews of your work critics are quick to draw comparisons between you and singers like Billy Eckstine and Arthur Prysock. Were those guys important influences for you as a vocalist?

Greene: Yes, because we were in the same vocal range. My uncle was a very good friend of Billy Eckstine and they sang together. I think he might've been a little bit prejudiced, but he used to tell me, "You are a much better singer than Billy Eckstine." [laughs] I hear the things that they do, and if I like something I may take it. But I wouldn't want to copy them note for note.

NUVO: What about Johnny Hartman? I'm a big fan of his music and I feel like I can hear some aspects of his style in your work.

Greene: You know I didn't discover Johnny Hartman until after I came to Indianapolis. A friend of mine said, "I want you to hear this guy" and I fell in love with Johnny Hartman's music.

But I was listening to Billy Eckstine and Arthur Prysock as far back as high school. I used to go see these guys at the Howard Theatre in Washington D.C. I used to go listen to "Little" Jimmy Scott too.

NUVO: Wow, that's one of my heroes!

Greene: He was one of the people I thoroughly enjoyed listening to. He was a fantastic singer.

I get a lot of influence from female singers. Sarah Vaughan was one of my favorite singers to copy from, and we do things in the same key which makes it easier.

NUVO: Today we know you as a great interpreter of jazz standards, but you started out singing doo-wop. I'm curious if you drew a distinction between the doo-wop music you were singing with the Melodaires and the jazz singers you were going out to see at the Howard Theatre?

Greene: You can take a doo-wop song and jazz it up, and you can take a doo-wop song and smooth it out into a nice wonderful ballad. It's the way you interpret a song that makes it what it is. Some of the songs we did in the doo-wop group were old standards. One of the songs we did was "How Much is That Doggie in the Window". Can you see a doo-wop group singing "How Much is That Doggie in the Window"? But the jam we had on it was very popular, you know [sings the ostinato in his deep bass voice] "dog in the window, dog in the window." (laughs)

NUVO: You've done some work with a musician I really admire, the legendary tenor sax player Houston Person. Houston has released over seventy solo albums and he's considered one of the pioneers of soul jazz music. You made two albums with Houston: 1998's My Foolish Heart and 2002's I've Got Love. How did you two start working together?

Greene: I first met Houston many years ago in Detroit and I became very good friends with Etta Jones.

NUVO: Etta and Houston were married, correct? [Note: I later learned this is a commonly held misconception among jazz fans.]

Greene: No, they weren't married. But I thought that for so many years! In fact I discovered that one day when they came through here and I asked Etta about it. She said, "we're married. But not to each other." [laughs] Houston and Etta worked together for 29 years.

After the At Last album was released, Houston told the guys at his studio "we've got to record Everett." So I was in New York for a conference and Houston said when you come out we're going to record some things. They sent me the songs they were thinking about recording and they were all Billy Eckstine songs. [laughs] They were songs I always enjoyed listening to, but I would never sing Billy Eckstine's songs until after he was gone.

I got together with the musicians when I went out to the conference and we talked about the songs. On the next day the pianist Norman Simmons had made lead sheets and I rehearsed with Norman and the bass player Ray Drummond. On the third day we all went in to record the album and six hours later we were having dinner in Harlem. People say to me "you recorded that whole album within six hours?" It was the same way with the At Last album because that was made on my dime. I was so busy watching the clock I didn't want the guys to stop to take a cigarette break. (laughs)

I pride myself on not taking a whole lot of time to record. No album I've made on my own has taken more than six hours to record.

When I did that last album with Houston, I've Got Love, he came to town on a Sunday and we recorded on Monday. When he came in he was tired and he didn't feel like rehearsing. But after we got in the studio we finished with the whole thing in six hours. We never had to do more than two or three takes. I've had musicians call me about that album and say "man, what did you feed Houston down there? I've never heard him sound so good!" [laughs]

It was just a fun process working with Houston. He's such a prolific horn player and he's one of the best accompanists a vocalist could ever have. He knows just the right phrase to throw in on every song.

NUVO: Mr. Greene, you've done so much during your career in the arts. In addition to all your work in music, you've also been involved with theatre too. There was one specific production I wanted to ask you about. During the early 1980s you acted in a production of "The Little Dreamer: A Nite in the Life of Bessie Smith" at Chicago's Ivanhoe Theatre. During your time with this production you performed alongside two remarkable artists, the folk music legend Odetta and the great R&B and jazz vocalist Jean DuShon.

Greene: Yes, after Odetta was fired we had two other Bessie Smiths come in. One was fired right away, and the next one was nine months pregnant and she filled in while they were searching for someone else. That's when they found Jean DuShon. Everyday when I walked into the theatre I'd go look at the marquee to see who I was playing with that day. (laughs)

NUVO: When did you first start performing in theatre?

Greene: I've done theatre since I was young. I did Hansel and Gretel when I was nine or ten. I was in a theatre group here in Indianapolis called the New World Players. We did a few productions. I did some work at the Civic Theatre. I always loved theatre and I used it as a tool to overcome the stuttering problem I used to have. I'd work on doing the lines and taking deep breathes without getting into the stuttering.

NUVO: You're famous now for your smooth vocal delivery. It's hard to believe you had a serious stuttering problem.

Greene: Yes, I did and it was very, very, very bad. I was in Indianapolis when I finally got it under control — it's never really gone. If I get excited now I may stutter a little, but never as bad as it was.

When I came back from Korea I was stationed down in North Carolina, and I used to stutter pretty badly and I got teased a lot. There came a draft of new recruits that had some other stutterers. I made good friends with one of the guys and I said "I tell you what, we're going to work together. We're gonna help each other. We're gonna be patient and let each other finish a sentence." That way you don't feel rushed, that's what causes the stuttering sometimes. I just continued trying to be patient and let the words come when they come. Breathing techniques helped, and they also helped so much with my singing.

To get over the stuttering I would also read a lot. Today one of my greatest passions is to do narration. I've had an opportunity to narrate a couple children's books with Hal Linden productions. Now that I can read things without stuttering or going around the mulberry bush to get to the next word, it's become a passion of mine.

NUVO: Before we wrap up I wanted to ask you about the song "Someplace to Be". I saw you perform recently and I believe you introduced that song as being the story of your life.

Greene: Well, it was the story of my brother's life. I was in California for a conference and my brother was living there at that time. After the conference I went to stay with my brother for a few days. He was playing a song and I said "wow, what is that?" He said, "Oh, I wrote this 30 years ago." The lyrics say "I've been everywhere, looking for someplace to be." I said, "Man, I want to record that!" I told the record company I've got a song I want to record and they hem and haw, hem and haw, and hem and haw. I said, "Well forget it. I'm going to do it on my own." I called Houston and told him to come out, I have a nice studio here and I'm going to get this done. I'm not going to wait for the man to do it because I want to get it out.

That song was one of my absolute favorites. As I listen to the song I equate it to my brother's life. Most of the good songs are about somebody's experience. It was really the story of his life. He'd done so many things and he was good at everything - but you know you're never quite satisfied. "I've been everywhere, looking for someplace to be."

NUVO: Finally Mr. Greene, I wanted to ask about your future plans. Are you still looking for opportunities to record and tour? I know you've performed literally all over the world.

Greene: Yes, I've been to Japan, and Africa and all over Europe, Canada and the United States. But one of my favorite moments was getting to work with the Count Basie band. To have that opportunity to stand in front of those musicians was an amazing thing and one of the highlights of my life. They guys in the band would tell me "we love to see you in the wings dancing and getting in the groove before you come on." I said, "Yeah man, I'm trying to get my knees ready to stand in front of you guys!" [laughs]

I've worked with some really wonderful orchestras and big bands — Buselli-Wallarab, the Smithsonian Jazz Orchestra led by David Baker, the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra. So I've had fun in my life. I've been to a lot of places and done a lot of things. As long as the memory don't go away I'll be around to talk about it.

I'm not finished yet, until my sound is gone I'm going to continue to do what I do.

NUVO: Mr. Greene, thank you so much for taking time to speak with me. I've been wanting to interview for a long time and it was a real honor to have this opportunity. I really encourage folks to check out your work. You're preserving a tradition of music and a style of singing that's important to our culture and you do it so beautifully.

Greene: Well I thank you so much for having me. I know I've talked a lot, but music is my passion. With music I don't have any aches or pains or anything. I can get through anything with music. 

Kyle Long pens A Cultural Manifesto for NUVO Newsweekly and in 2014 began broadcasting a version of his column on WFYI.