By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
From the time she was small enough to climb upon her mother and father’s coffee table and pretend it was a stage, Amber Weekes found comfort bursting into song. She has always known singing was her destiny. Maybe her passion for vocalizing began in the womb, when her father was crooning love songs to her mother with his Frank Sinatra, smooth-styled voice spilling across their room. Maybe Amber was inspired by the jazz vocalists she heard being played on the Los Angeles radio station, KBCA, famous for playing John Coltrane’s song, “Spiritual” as a morning-drive, theme song. Perhaps it was while little Amber was listening to disc jockeys like Jai Rich or Talley Strode who were pumping out jazz formats and playing Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. Even the late, great, bandleader Gerald Wilson had a noon day show on her mom’s favorite radio station titled, “Jazz Capsule.” The young child was listening. Later, Amber Weekes studied musical comedy and acting in high school, but singing was always Amber’s priority.
AMBER: “I remember vividly that on Sunday, daddy would go to church and mama would be busy fixing Sunday dinner. KBCA (105.1) would be playing and when daddy was coming home from church, as he drove up the street, he could hear the jazz floating out of our house. My parents were really into us having exposure to music. Their musical tastes were very eclectic. We listened to Ray Charles, The Beatles and early Barbra Streisand. They played records by Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan and Dianne Carroll.
“My paternal grandparents were immigrants to the United States. My grandfather was from Barbados and my grandmother was from Jamaica. They had six children to raise and my father, Martin Weekes, was one of six. My grandparents ran ‘Weekes Luncheonette,’ which was on the corner of 155th and St. Nicholas Place and that’s the way they supported their family. My aunts and my uncle and my dad all worked in the restaurant. It was open 24-hours a day, 365 days a year. I don’t know exactly when they opened it, but I believe it was sold in the sixties when drug activity in Harlem became very high. Duke Ellington lived right around the corner and Lena Horne lived close by and so my father and his siblings had contact with Duke and Lena and Sidney Portier and Harry Belafonte. One of the stories that my father tells is that when he was a teenager, around sixteen, in the late forties, I remember him repeatedly talking about how Duke would come in after the gig, two-o-clock in the morning, and Duke loved to have a fried egg sandwich. My father was a short order cook. He used to fix it for him. It was neat to have that history. Daddy said that he remembered that Duke would have his shirt unbuttoned and you could see the neck of his T-shirt underneath his buttoned-down shirt.”
According to a biography by Dana Avant, St. Nicholas Place between 150th and 155th streets was a middle-class neighborhood, with many of the neighbors either famous or they would become famous. Folks like James Bailey of the Barnum and Bailey Circus lived near Weekes Luncheonette and at the northern part of St. Nicholas Place a famed ballpark called the ‘Polo Grounds’ was where Willie Mays hit many unforgettable homeruns. Mays also lived on St. Nicholas Place, right across the street, in an apartment building near Polo Grounds. Other historic figures who popped into the popular 24-hour candy store and restaurant were historic names like Paul Robeson, Father of the blues, W.C. Handy, Langston Hughes, Teddy Wilson, Billy Strayhorn and Ellington. Such public figures as the male singers who made up The Inkspots group, lived in the Sugar Hill neighborhood. So did John Bubbles of Buck & Bubbles, a popular Vaudeville Comedy duo. In 1935, John Bubbles was part of the original cast of Gershwin’s “Porgy & Bess” production. He played the part of ‘Sportin’ Life.’ It was said that the Weekes daughters were so beautiful that men flocked to the Weekes Luncheonette and referred to it as, ‘Glamour Manor.’  They looked forward to catching a glimpse of Aunt Winnie, Aunt Delores, Cousin Blossom and the other brown beauties. Amber shared a story of how a famous actor fell in love with her Aunt Delores.
(L to R. Back row: Aunt Delores Sheldon, Aunt Winnie Weekes, Uncle Robbie Sheldon, Aunt Muriel Weekes, & my father, Martin Weekes; Front row: Grandmother Nettie Weekes, Aunt Joy Weekes, and paternal grandfather, Wilfred Weekes.)
AMBER: “If you ever read Sidney Portier’s book, ‘This Life,’ there’s a chapter of the book called, Cry the Beloved Country, where he actually mentions the luncheonette. Sidney Portier was a young actor at that time and a regular patron at the Luncheonette. In fact, that’s where he met my oldest aunt, Delores. They dated and they were engaged. It’s all in his book. Delores was my father’s oldest sister. Mr. Portier mentions all four of my aunts in the book and that my grandfather had two sons. Sidney and my Aunt Delores were friends until she died. To have that kind of history in my family is amazing. All my life, I’ve heard stories about my dad and my uncles being young people at that special time in Harlem, and how they met so many celebrity folks, like Duke Ellington and Dianne Carroll. Dianne was there at that time. I did meet Ms. Carroll once, when I was very young, and she remembered the luncheonette, saying that when she was a kid it was her candy store of choice. People forget that Dianne Carroll was a singer. I found myself much more interested in her when she was a summer fill-in for the Carol Burnett television variety show. She and my mother had the same piano teacher. Mom, Evan Weekes (pronounced Yvonne), loved to sing and was the church soloist in the church choir.”
DEE DEE: So, your mom and dad were both musicians?
AMBER: “Well, daddy was just musically inclined without even trying. He was able to play the piano by ear. He played the trombone and when he was very young, he was like a Frank Sinatra clone. Daddy always sang. In fact, when he was in the army, he was in a talent show in Germany and was offered a record contract or there was some conversation about him pursuing a music career. But he was a child of the Depression era and my grandparents were struggling. He really wanted to do something that he felt would give him a more stable life. When daddy left the service, he became an Aerospace engineer and then a lawyer. My father was really an extraordinary man. My mom loved to sing as well, but she leaned more towards the classical side of things. Mom is still alive. I have two sisters. Both have beautiful voices and we all sang and played instruments as children. My sister Dwan Weekes-Glenn is a retired entertainment lawyer. Nicole Y. Weekes is a Neuropsychologist and tenured faculty member at Claremont Pomona College. Unlike me, both my sisters are marvelous dancers too.
“Before I forget, my first album, ‘Round Midnight’ came out a long time ago in 2002 and perpetuates a promise I made to myself. I’m a big fan of Oscar Brown Jr., and I’ve committed myself to record at least one of his songs on every album. My first album had his song, “Hazel’s Hips” on it. So “Hazel’s Hips” was kind of an acknowledgement of my mother introducing me to the work of Oscar Brown Jr., and also a way of acknowledging the luncheonette that my grandparents had and the relationship that Sidney Portier had with my Aunt Delores.”
When I looked up these lyrics to Oscar Brown Jr.’s song, they perfectly exemplify Amber’s grandparent’s famed luncheonette and their pretty daughters.
Hazel’s hips are a concert of contours and curves, as she slips to and fro
’round the tables she serves; I buy six meals a day in my fav’rite cafe,
’cause I see hazel that way.
hazel’s eyes are divine and her hair is so fine, but her hips bring the tips!
hazel dips me my soup, serves me my cup of tea, my heart flips when i see
hazel smilin’ at me; so I say, ‘honeybunch, can’t I have you for lunch?’
but hazel just gives me a hunch. Hazel’s legs are a toast and her waist is the most,
but her hips bring the tips!
On Amber Weekes’ newly released “Pure Imagination” album, she continues to celebrate Oscar Brown Jr. Scotty Barnhart is outstanding on trumpet during her polished presentation of Oscar’s famed composition, “The Snake.” On Oscar Brown Jr.,’s “Brown Baby” composition, Weekes and Trevor Ware duet, effectively showcasing Amber’s voice with only bass accompaniment. Ware pulls out his bow, during this arrangement, to beautifully sing his solo.
Trevor Ware is currently bassist with the Count Basie band and he’s an in-demand studio musician, as well as a popular bassist in and around Southern California. Ware helped co-produce this latest Amber Weekes’ release. I asked Amber how Ware got to be a co-producer on her recent album.
AMBER: “Well, Trevor started playing with me when I first began performing in Los Angeles clubs. I met him originally through vocalist, performer Sweet Baby Jai. He did a couple of shows with her. A long time ago, there was a place called the Tower Restaurant that was inside the TransAmerica building. It was a beautiful restaurant. I was doing a gig there and it was either Baby Jai or Barbara Collins (who was representing Baby Jai at the time), who recommended that I use Trevor Ware. It may actually have been Elliott Douglas who was playing piano on that gig. I know that Elliott and Trevor had worked together quite a bit. Anyway, Trevor wound up working that gig with me. There was something about Trevor that resonated with me in a different kind of way. After that gig, we became good friends. He was my steady bass player for a long time and for a while he was my musical director. We recorded the “Round Midnight” album in 2002. Trevor Ware and reedman, Louis Van Taylor produced it. I knew Louis and we had worked together, but I’ve had a longer relationship with Trevor. There’s just a level of comfort that I have with Trevor. So, I hadn’t done an album in a really long time and I was ready to do another one. Trevor just seemed like the logical person to call. There’s a kind of organic engagement between the two of us. He and I started putting together the concept of the album and of course it changed over the two years it took, from conversation to completion. But it really did start with him. You know, over the years we haven’t worked together that much because he’s just become the A-list bass player for everybody. When it came time to do the recording, I really wanted him involved. He started the production, helped me figure out most of the album and what the repertoire was going to be. Because of Trevor’s busy schedule, it seemed challenging to finish it in the time-frame that I wanted. So, it just evolved into including other producers and musicians like Mark Cargill, who I’ve known longer than I knew Trevor. I’ve known Mark since I was nineteen. Mark is an extraordinary violinist and string arranger. He does the string arrangements for the television series, ‘Dancing With the Stars.’ Mark had seen my Facebook posts about doing the album and he offered to assist.
“I had gone to Louisiana in April and when I came back, we were trying to complete things. We thought, well why don’t we do “Gone at Last”? But I want it to sound New Orleans authentic. Trevor said, well, I can’t write a ‘second line.’ Let’s get Kenny Sara to do it.”
Kenny Sara produced the Paul Simon tune, “Gone at Last” and Amber Weekes employed the Bucjump Brass Band to authenticate the Louisiana sound and production that she wanted. Kenny Sara headlines the Sounds of New Orleans, a four-piece band whose forte is New Orleans based jazz music, R&B and funk. They have become an entertainment fixture at Downtown Disneyland’s Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen for over ten years. On this latest release, “Pure Imagination,” Weekes captures the toe-tapping excitement of Sara’s production, with the band adding gospel overtones, vocal chants and modulations that make you want to dance and shout.
Amber Weekes has a smooth, pleasing style. Her voice is crystal clear and during this repertoire, she pleasantly performs a Baker’s Dozen of notably familiar songs. Opening with the title tune, borrowed from the Willy Wonka movie, Amber Weekes invites jazz vocalist Sue Raney to make a guest appearance. She has studied with Raney and their voices blend nicely. I am struck by the Weekes way of stylizing her music, leaving space for the songs to breathe. Her phrasing is measured, like an instrumentalist rather than a singer. She doesn’t hold the tones out for long periods of time or delve into lengthy legato phrasings. Weekes displays skills by going straight to the notes without sliding. Every word is clearly enunciated and every melody is emotionally enriched. Her choice of tunes shows an expansive appreciation for many genres of music and includes compositions by Paul Simon, Duke Ellington, Oscar Brown Jr., Barry Manilow and Johnny Mercer. She introduced me to “When He Makes Music” by Marvin Fisher and Jack Segal. Lyrics like:
“His laughter is an echo in the breeze, that hushes larks and thrushes in the trees and calms the wave that rushes from the seas, when he makes music,” are lyrics that remind me of what makes a great song. Producer, Mark Cargill, adds an amazing violin solo on this ballad. His instrument sprinkles angel dust over Amber’s sweet delivery.
All in all, this is a treasure trove of great songs by a vocalist who understands the importance of an honest and emotional delivery. Blessed by her ancestry, music is just part of Amber’s DNA. The release date of this Amber Weekes project is scheduled for January 3, 2020.
Players on the Pure Imagination album include: Amber Weekes, vocals; Peter Smith & Tony Compodonico, pianists; Trevor Ware, bass/co-producer/background vocals; Jeff Littleton, bass; Charles Ruggiero & Nathaniel Scott, drums; Mitchell Long & Ramon Stagnaro, guitars; Justo Almario & Danilo Lazano, flute; Keith Fiddmont, alto & tenor saxophone; Dale Fielder, baritone saxophone; Curtis Taylor, Jeff Kaye & Scotty Barnhart, trumpets; Mark Cargill, violin/string arranger/conductor & co-producer; Munyungo Jackson, David Jackson & Don Littleton, percussionist; Nick Mancini & Gabriel “Slam” Nobles, vibraphone; Sue Raney & Mon David, vocals; Paul Baker, harp; Brian Swartz, horn arrangements; Mark LeVang, accordion; THE BUCKJUMP BRASS BAND: Robbie Hiokie, trombone; Randall Willis, tenor saxophone; Louis Van Taylor, baritone Saxophone; Vince Tividad, sousaphone; Mark Justin, piano; Kenny Sara, bass drum/snare drums/percussion/background vocals/ handclaps.