This Sunday afternoon at 3pm, a story that began 58 years ago with a Christmas gift that changed the life of a young boy will come to life in the very city where it all began, as “The Signal: A Rhapsody” is presented on stage at The Gary Aquatorium on the lakefront of Gary’s Marquette Park.
That young boy was Henry Farag whose sleepy eyes opened wide when he un-wrapped an old-fashioned crystal radio on a frigid Christmas morning in 1956.
“The Signal: A Rhapsody” is a live family-friendly musical presentation featuring the legendary groups The Soul Stirrers (the backing group for Chicago R&B icon Sam Cooke) and The Spaniels (famous for one of the most radio-played oldies of all time, “Goodnight Sweetheart Goodnight”), along with Farag’s own doo-wop revivalist group, Stormy Weather. Tickets are $10.
The production tells the story of Farag’s journey in music and how that radio ultimately took him from the rundown house at 1132 Whitcomb Street he shared with his parents and 10 siblings, to touring the world and performing four times at the White House in Washington, D.C. with Stormy Weather.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Farag recalls in his book, “The Signal” (published in 2001 by Indiana University Northwest) that for the entire week after Christmas he worked and worked to put together his radio.
“I followed the instructions to the letter, carefully screwing in the parts, unscrewing and stripping wires, hanging a ‘ground’ wire out of my bedroom window and connecting another wire to the furnace vent,” he recalled. “Nothing worked and what had been exhilaration had turned into anger and frustration in the space of hours.”
Putting the instructions aside, young Henry tinkered with the set on his own and one clear, cold and starry evening the radio crackled to life. “I heard a woman talking and I heard a song,” Farag recalled.
Having finally captured “the signal” on his homemade radio, Farag said he felt like (radio inventor) Guglielmo Marconi himself. Once over the thrill of making his radio work, a new thrill set in for the youngster when a series of odd vocals sounds like -- “Ooom papa mow mow” and “doe doe de doe doe” -- came through the speaker.
Farag had discovered the street corner sound of doo wop music, the pre-rock ‘n’ roll urban music of inner city folks from New York, to Chicago, to Philadelphia, to the rough and tumble turf of Gary. The woman’s voice who introduced him to this exciting music was future Gary music legend Vivian Carter.
Carter was a DJ on Gary radio station WWCA at the time and the owner of the fledgling local music label, Vee Jay Records; the recording home to some of the first doo wop groups Farag discovered, including The Dells out of Harvey, Illinois and his hometown future legends, The Spaniels.
Farag eventually became close with Carter and the artists on her label, becoming friends with many of them, especially The Spaniels’ founder/lead singer/songwriter James “Pookie” Hudson. Farag and Hudson remained close until Hudson’s death a few years ago.
His friendship with these early doo-woppers soon inspired Farag to form his own vocal groups while in his teens and young adulthood. A series of groups came and went until one of them Stormy Weather, finally clicked. The group formed in 1974 and continues to perform today.
“My mug has been the only constant part of Stormy Weather over the many years, except for the great harmonies of course. We just put a new CD out last summer called ‘Suite for my Sweets’,” added Farag. That CD is joined Stormy Weather’s catalog of fourteen previous releases.
For Farag and many vocalists who grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s in Gary, the Aquatorium holds a special place in their hearts. “We call it ‘the Cathedral of Echo’ because it had just the right echo for singing as we grew up,” he explained.
For that reason, Stormy Weather, The Spaniels and The Soul Stirrers will revisit their old music rehearsal haunt on Sunday to give something back to “the old girl” for all she did for them so many years ago.
“I brought up the idea of having us get together for this show at The Aquatorium to Greg Reising who is a board member of The Society, the group who run, maintain it and publicize the place. Greg wanted to do it. So on Sunday, February 16 we’ll debut the show there.”
“The Signal: A Rhapsody” -- an all original production Farag has written and produced -- tells the tale of life in Gary and the rise of what is now called “The Street Corner Sound” of the urban vocal groups.
The presentation is similar to what the creators of “The Million Dollar Quartet” assembled to tell the famous story of the four biggest stars of Memphis’ Sun Records.
“I call it a ‘rhapsody’ because I am prone to ad lib and improvise as I tell the story,” said Farag, who supplements live singing segments by narrating the story behind the music that inspired him to look beyond the steel mill future he seemed destined for and instead become part of the harmonious sound that caught his ear the night his crystal radio crackled to life.
“The Signal: A Rhapsody” is the latest accomplishment for Farag, who has doo-wopped to success with his own concert production company (Canterbury Productions), his own publishing company (Farag Music), and his own record label (Street Gold Records).
Farag has mastered both sides of the “show business” industry by becoming super savvy on the business end, while never forsaking his passion for singing, performing and recording.
Farag describes “The Signal: A Rhapsody” thusly -- “The 11 member ensemble begins by walking through the audience singing and eventually work their way up to a lit street lamp on the stage. The show is a freestyle vocal rendezvous of old friends on a neighborhood corner.” All told, it’s a 21-song, 80-minute presentation.
“It’s a reminiscence of radio, steel mills, gangs, family, and most importantly Gary’s legendary Vee Jay Records,” he continued. “Vee Jay was the first female Black-owned label that pioneered R&B, triggered the career of The Four Seasons (which ultimately led to “Jersey Boys”), first introduced The Beatles to America (before they signed to Capitol Records), was the blueprint and inspiration for Motown Records. Vee Jay also heavily influenced hometown icons, The Jacksons, including Michael.”
“The Signal: A Rhapsody” reflects back upon and honors many famous artists who contributed to the “Street Corner Sound” legacy, including Jerry Butler, The Impressions, Jimmy Reed, The Dells. It tells the story of their music in an improv setting of musical and historical celebration and it is fitting that the first performance takes place Sunday in the landmark building, the Gary Aquatorium, which contributed to the legacy.
Ticket and show information: (219) 938-8081.
Email Tom Lounges at email@example.com