Charlie Smalls Remembered

The Marlowsphere (Blog #159)

The Wiz Playbills Then & Now The Broadway-bound revival of “The Wiz,” a re-telling of the 1900 L. Frank Baum classic with an African American cast, began previews on March 29, 2024, at the Marquis Theatre ahead of an April 17 opening night. No, this isn’t a public relations piece about the show that premiered 50 years ago. This is a blog about my memories of the show’s composer and lyricist, Charlie Smalls.

I’m able to write with some authority about Charlie Smalls because I knew him, not just casually, but over a period of several years. We were classmates at The High School of Performing Arts at 120 West 46th Street in Manhattan, just blocks away from Broadway. We were both in the same homeroom. He was a music major. I was a drama major, with strong leanings toward music.

Charlie was clearly an exceptionally talented musician and, as it turns out, a talented composer and lyricist. His ability to write lyrics was a surprise to me when I learned in 1975 about the opening of this Broadway show called ‘The Wiz,” but I was not surprised about his Charlie Smalls inscription to Eugene Marlow in Marlow's yearbook.composing skills. Even in high school Charlie was already a player at a professional level. In fact, not only did he play the piano, but he also studied the upright acoustic bass.

I’m quite certain Charlie helped put me on the road to composing jazz pieces. There was a piano in our homeroom and he was often sitting at the piano just noodling around. I don’t recall if he ever taught me anything specific about jazz chords or structure, but I am certain that as a result of our casual meetings at the homeroom piano I was inspired to compose my very first piece at age 15 — a blues in C minor that had classical arpeggio gestures and moved from c minor to C Major and back to c minor. I also used a major ninth chord in the opening theme (although I couldn’t name it at the time). Many years later I named it “Nightcap.” Even more years later virtuoso pianist ArcoIris Sandoval recorded it, with multi-Grammy nominee drummer Bobby Sanabria, and bassist Frank Wagner for one of my albums.

Did I learn the blues from Charlie? Hard to say. I could barely read music—even though my father was a professional violinist and a composer who introduced me to jazz at a jazz jamboree in London, England when I was around eight years old. Consequently, I also didn’t know how to write music down. This was a skill I acquired years later.

Charlie was a presence. He had a big smile and a big personality. You knew he was in the room. He was talented. And he was a good soul. He Charlie Smalls dancing during the GOPA music broadcastwas no wallflower. Every day at midday the entire school of 600 students had a lunch break. During the second half of this period, we had what was called GOPA: the Government Organization of Performing Arts where music was played over the public address system that reached everyone in the school’s lobby area. There was also a lunchroom on the same floor and when the  music blared over the GOPA system, we all danced in the center of the lobby floor. And we loved it! And so did Charlie. Not only did he program and announce the music played from the vinyl records, Charlie was also on the floor in the thick of the dancing throng. It only lasted 20-30 minutes, but this was everyone’s chance to let off some steam from the pressures of the schoolwork. Performing Arts demanded a professional attitude at all times, or you were out!

There are two other things I recall from my memory of Charlie. In my senior year I took on the task of writing and directing the senior show. This was an annual tradition in which the outgoing seniors “roasted” the staff and faculty. The show was called “A Lass in PlAy Land.” It was a rip-off of the plot of “Alice in Wonderland” There was a drama Alice (played by Jennifer Salt), a dance Alice (played by Baayork Lee), and a music Alice (played by Stephanie Dank). Each Alice represented each of the school’s majors. Charlie was my first call when it came time to add music and a trio ensemble into the performance mix. He handled the assignment with ease (no pun intended).

As an aside, you might recognize the names Jennifer Salt and Baayork Lee. Jennifer was the daughter of Waldo Salt (screenwriter of “Midnight Cowboy”) and an excellent writer in her own right. She went on to star in movies and television (e.g., “Soap”) and as a writer for television. Baayork was one of the original cast members of “A Chorus Line” and went on to work with director Michael Bennett as his assistant. She is now in charge of “A Chorus Line” worldwide.

The other memory I have of Charlie is he called me one afternoon after we had graduated and urged me to go down to a club in The Village in Manhattan to listen to a comedian. I had never heard of this comedian, but I trusted Charlie’s judgment. That comedian was Richard Pryor. I remember standing at the back of this smallish club listening to Pryor’s patter. I didn’t understand a word of what he said or why he was saying it. But it was clear how he was saying it was highly engaging and compelling.

Charlie Small yearbook inscription to Eugene MarlowIn my yearbook Charlie wrote: “Keep writing. Stay in the groove because I want to be on my way to see your new B’way hit some time soon. Don’t fail me!” He signed it “Mr. Cool Charlie.” By “writing” I’m sure he meant composing.

Of course, 14 years after we graduated from Performing Arts “The Wiz” opened on Broadway with music and lyrics by Charlie Smalls. He had created a 7-time Tony-winning “hit” show. In the 14 intervening years between graduation and the opening of “The Wiz” I was busy earning two college degrees, serving six years in the United States Air Force during the height of the Vietnam War, then working as a news editor for the leading trade magazine in mass merchandizing, and finally starting a career in video and radio production. Events—personal, professional, and external–took us in different directions. Music, though, one way or another, has been my constant shadow companion.

L to R: Unidentified man, Charlie Smalls (Composer/Lyricist), William F. Brown (Book) and Ken Harper (Producer) during rehearsals for the stage production “The Wiz” photo: NYPL Digital CollectionsCharlie died young, much too young. He was 43 and performing in Belgium when he suffered a burst appendix and died from cardiac arrest in the process. I’ve seen photos of him decades after he graduated from Performing Arts. He smoked and perhaps this was a contributing cause. Don’t know. He had a son whom I’d like to meet.

Either way, Charlie was no small talent. He created an enduring musical work that was morphed into a movie in 1978 and is now enjoying a Broadway revival. There’s no doubt in my mind Charlie Smalls played a brief but pivotal role in my own, long, challenging journey to embracing and realizing my innate musical talent.

I wish I had kept up with him. He was the real deal.

Eugene Marlow, MBA, Ph.D., received the John Golden Award for Excellence in the Creative Theatre when he graduated from The High School of Performing Arts. To date, he has composed over 300 musical works in various jazz, Afro-Caribbean, Brazilian, and classical genres. Four of his charts for big band appear on four Grammy nominated albums. He has released 33 albums and single tracks on his indie label, MEII Enterprises.

Eugene Marlow, MBA, Ph.D., © 2024

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