Art Blakey, a fixture in the local music scene, has found a fresh outlet for his classic soul style.
The singer has teamed up with the Day Nites, a soul band consisting of members of the Hi-Lites (Nick Fritsch, Bob Basone and Matt Garrett), along with Tom Fallon of The Alarm Clocks and New Salem Witch Hunters.
But more than 50 years ago, the soul singer established himself with the famed group The Hesitations. The band released its biggest hit, a cover of “Born Free,” in 1968.
Tragedy followed that success, when one of the band’s singers, George “King” Scott, was killed later that same year. The Hesitations disbanded. In the 2000s, the band regrouped with a new lineup, featuring Blakey, leading to local headlining gigs and, even, a Europe tour.
“You’ve gotta love this business. You can’t do it if you don’t love it,” Blakey says. “It takes too much away, sometimes, but it gives so much, too.”
Now, Blakey turns to his latest project with The Day Nites, with a return to the stage on Saturday, Jan. 21 at a Beachland Tavern show celebrating venue co-owner Mark Leddy’s birthday, performing a set of Hesitations songs, plus a mix of R&B and soul classics. DJ Erin "Hot Trash" Ryan will also perform at the show. Tickets, $12-$14, are available to the show at beachlandballroom.com.
We caught up with Blakey to hear more about his history in Cleveland’s music scene and about his upcoming performance.
Cleveland Magazine: Could you reflect on your time with the Hesitations — on that time in your life?
Art Blakey: Just like you said at the end: What time in life? Because this goes all the way back to the ‘60s, with just this group, the Hesitations. I’ve been in a lot of groups around the city, actually starting in the ‘50s, when I was just leaving elementary school. We came up in the doo-wop era, and I wouldn’t have missed that for the world. (I'd) change nothing from that time.
It’s one of those things that once you start, you get that bug, it’s over. You’re going to be like one of the old doo-wop songs, "Looking For an Echo." Every time you find anything that had a reverb to it, you stop and sing. That was back then, though.
CM: Tell me about some of the other projects you’ve been involved in.
AB: The first group I recorded with was The Wigs, who changed their name to The Wigs, because they used to be The Crescents. We recorded two songs, “Chicken Switch” and “Sweeter than Wine.” Those were the first two that I was on a label with at the time. That was with Carl Maduri and Golden Crest.
I’ve been a part of this city itself since 1941. I’ve seen this city then, in the middle of now, and right now. Boy, what a difference.
CM: What differences do you see, especially when it comes to the music scene in Cleveland?
AB: The original music scene that I came from, I mean, we had nightclubs all over the place, to practice our craft back in those days. The music itself: You listen to the music and it’ll tell you what era civilization is in. Back in the ‘50s, it was more so love songs. When I first started listening to that music, it was war. Some of your favorite songs were “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B,” that’s when “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” — a whole lot of things — because at that time, we were at war.
After that, the ‘50s came along and it was a fun time. Songs like “Rama Lama Ding Dong.” Everything was tied to a dance, or whatever. It was still a time when people danced together. You touched a girl’s hand a couple of times, at least.
Then you get to the ‘60s and it turned around again. Listen to the music, it’ll tell you: Like we had “Born Free.” Later, Neil Young had “Four Dead in Ohio.” Because at that time, we were shifting again.
CM: How does it feel to hit the stage again with the Day Nites?
AB: We’ve been lucky; we did a couple of shows around the area in the last three, four months. We’ve been gliding along.
CM: How did that come together? How long have you been playing with the group?
AB: We’ve been together now, about three, four years. Give or take a year or two. We started it one time, and after a bad winter, we had stopped for a while because where we were rehearsing at, the roof fell in from the snow. And then, at that time, we were wondering, “What’s next?” We were Thee Affections at that time.
CM: And then the pandemic, right?
AB: Then that. We had a few things lined up, and then it hit. And, I think, if you look around, everyone’s trying to get back to normal. We’re still scratching our way back.
CM: It’s still a recent thing. How did the group team up in the past few years?
AB: Well, I had met them at the Beachland Ballroom a while back … and at cookouts, and all of that. One day they gave me a call and said they were starting a group, a band, and was I interested? I said, ‘Certainly. That’s what I like to do.’
As The Hesitations, we did a couple of shows from the Beachland. As a matter of fact, I think that Mark (Leddy, co-owner), when we first did our shows at Beachland, it was the catalyst that launched us back into the limelight. From that, we got back to Europe.
Europe in ‘07, that was one of the best times, as far as what this is all about. I think it was the best time I’ve had since I’ve been singing. They kind of let you know what you didn’t, over there. The first time we were there, we did a thing for the armed forces, and we did a radio show at the time for Dick Clark, before we went to Germany the first time. I was sitting there, thinking, "Wow, I’m in another country." Because before I started singing, I had been no further than Ashtabula, Ohio; Twinsburg and Chagrin Falls.
CM: That’s a long way from Chagrin Falls.
AB: (laughs) I had never left the state.
CM: How does this new project stand apart from your previous work singing with the Hesitations?
AB: The difference is, there’s no voices, per say, that was like the old singing group. It’s hard to duplicate when you’ve had four other guys singing chord backgrounds and so forth; that’s what they did. What we’re trying to do now, we’re trying to incorporate some things that were not naturally done with a couple of members in the band. And then learning to expand ourselves, you could say. We’ve come along fairly well with the new harmonies and rehearsals. That’s one good thing: they like to rehearse. They don’t take it for granted.
Find more information about the Day Nites at facebook.com/thedaynitesband.