You’ve got a George Harrison song on the album as well.
Yeah, ‘Isn’t It a Pity.’ We changed the melody a little bit to make it more accessible in terms of what I felt he was trying to say. Obviously, the words say it all: “isn’t it a pity, isn’t it a shame, how we break each other’s hearts and cause each other pain.” I thought that it was very obvious that he was trying to get a message across but then he was also the guy who wrote ‘Here Comes the Sun,’ and ‘Something.’ But he was a very peaceful, easy-going guy; somebody who didn’t want to ruffle anybody’s feathers and just wanted to be representative of love and did it the best way he could through music.
You knew John Lennon as well, didn’t you?
We lived next door to each other across the hall (in the Dakota building opposite Central Park in New York City). He was flawless. There was nothing wrong with him; he was absolutely flawless. He was who he was supposed to be. He was supposed to be John Lennon and that’s who he was.
Going right back to the beginning, at what age did you show an interest in music?
Oh, years and years and years ago (laughs). Actually before I was out of my early years – maybe when I was four, five or six. I started studying piano formally with a very good teacher who had graduated from Howard University and was teaching privately and at school. Her name was Alma Blackman. I don’t know if you know of a group called Take Six. She was responsible for teaching them and getting them together. I started working with her when I was nine and the first thing she did was to give me a Rachmaninov piano piece and I thought I was big-time (laughs). She was a very challenging teacher and I worked with her for years and then I went on to Howard University on a scholarship at 15 and graduated several years later and taught school and broke some barriers. I was the first black teacher in an all-white school. It was a great experience. Then I went south and taught school for a year in this very segregated situation where only black kids were there from kindergarten through twelfth grade. I taught English and maths and music to everybody in the school. It was interesting but I think there was a great divine plan and I’ve just been trying to follow it.
Did you play and perform music in your spare time then when you were a teacher?
I did. I worked at an opera restaurant (called the Tivoli Club) in Georgetown, Washington DC, and that gave me a great opportunity to play and accompany not only aspiring singers and classical vocal repertoire but in between the arias and the art songs I would play a little Gershwin. I might even play a little blues – whatever the owner of the club asked me to do because it was a very popular club right around the corner from where the Kennedys had lived. There were a lot of big, moneyed, people and really important artist-type people came in. There were two rooms, one at the back, and one in the front, and I was in the front room with all these singers. You’d hear Verdi’s ‘Aida’ and ‘La Traviata’ and (Puccini’s) ‘Tosca’ and ‘Madame Butterfly’ and I would be the orchestra, playing on the piano. I was young – maybe twenty, twenty-one – so all of that gave me the impetus to do my own thing outside of the classroom, which was a much more formal situation. When I would play some Gershwin, I’d play for instance ‘The Man I Love’ and by the time I finished I was playing Rachmaninov’s ‘Second Piano Concerto’ and people thought it was amazing. I loved the sound of that reaction from them.