by Michael Corcoran
Gilbert Askey left Austin for good at age 17 in 1942, but the former Motown arranger, who received an Oscar nomination for his work with Diana Ross on “Lady Sings the Blues” and had a part in “discovering” the Jackson 5, said Austin has never left him. I interviewed the trumpet man, who married an Australian woman 30 years ago and lived in her country ever since, on one of his annual visits to his East Austin hometown, where everyone still calls him “Brother.”
The L.C. Anderson High School graduate, billed in the biz as Gil Askey, passed away peacefully at home the morning of April 9, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia, relative State Rep. Dawnna Dukes confirmed.
Dukes was Askey’s first cousin once removed. In 2011, she talked about how Askey made an annual trek to Austin and usually stayed a few weeks. “Brother makes an effort to see everyone around from the old days,” said Dukes. Some of his friends went back to first grade with him at the Olive Street School. Askey’s oldest sister Verna Jo Hooey, is still alive, though stepfather Luther Simond, at whose house Askey stayed during visits, passed away in 2012 at age 91.
Timing smiled when Askey was in town in early February 2011, just three weeks before Ross, his boss for more than 10 years, was set to appear at ACL Live at the Moody Theater. That was the peg I needed to write a blowout feature on the local musician who was musical director for the most successful female recording artist in history.
Over coffee at Denny’s, however, Askey put off questions about his glitzy musical résumé and instead told long stories of growing up dirt poor in East Austin. He made imaginary street maps with the side of his hand — “Hackberry, Juniper, Willow…” he’d recite.
Askey was musical director on tours by the Four Tops, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Supremes. He co-wrote tracks for Curtis Mayfield and Linda Clifford, and yet he wanted to talk more about musicians he played with on the Anderson High Yellow Jackets marching band, including Kenny Dorham, and band director B.L. Joyce.
It was as if he’d written a book about his life in his head and when asked about it, he didn’t want to be rushed through the early chapters. “I’m gettin’ to that,” he said whenever a question about his career was posed, “but first I’m going to tell you the stuff people need to know about.” He wore big glasses slid to the end of his nose and looked over them for emphasis. “Mr. Joyce thought that if the white schools had a band, the black schools should have one, too.”
Benjamin Leo Joyce, a master tailor by trade, formed the first Anderson High Yellow Jackets band in 1933 and ruled with an iron baton until 1955, when a new school district ruling that band directors must have music degrees forced him out, amidst much community uproar. His replacement was his former first trumpeter Alvin Patterson, who led the band until desegregation closed the school in 1971.
Askey’s mother was Ada DeBlanc Simond, the noted African American historian and author who penned the “Looking Back” column in the American-Statesman for several years. Askey’s father, Aubrey, left when Askey was 2 and, with his mother already having three kids by age 26, he was raised by his grandparents. Gilbert and Mathilde DeBlanc, Creoles from Louisiana, wno spoke French in the house.
Askey’s cousin was R&B singer Damita Jo (DeBlanc), a favorite of Joe and Katherine Jackson of Gary, Indiana, who named their tenth and youngest child Janet Damita Jo Jackson.
Askey was a 10-year-old in 1935 when Joyce recruited him to play trumpet at Kealing Middle School, whose band he also ran. “I was shooting marbles, and this kid said, ‘You should try out for the band,’ and I said, ‘The band’s for sissies. I want to play football,’” Askey recalled. Joyce was in earshot of that exchange and within days Askey’s grandmother was in Joyce’s office. “He sold her an old beat-up Martin trumpet for, like, $10, and the next thing you know I’m taking lessons from Mr. Joyce.”
Like most of the neighborhood kids, Askey was intimidated by Joyce, who would carry a small billy club at band practice and rap kids across the back if they were goofing off or playing jazz. “I came to realize he had another side to him,” said Askey. “He really cared about us.”
Two hours into the interview, Askey had barely mentioned Diana Ross or the rest of his time at Hitsville USA. Another appointment ended the talk, and it seemed that this article would have to be filled in by others talking of Askey’s charmed career. He was leaving town the next day to visit his sister in Dallas and then back to Oz.
But about 9 p.m. that night the phone rang, and it was Askey. “I was just thinking,” he said with a stammer he’s had all his life, “that you might need some more stuff for your story.”
During the next 90 minutes came tales about the Supremes being introduced to chitlins in East Austin and a 10-year-old Michael Jackson hesitating to go on “The Ed Sullivan Show” until he saw “Uncle Gil” in the wings.
When he was tired of talking, Askey picked up his trumpet and gave an example of how he used to freelance jam with the bugle player on base near Wichita Falls. An officer heard the playing and, rather than discipline Askey, made him a member of the Special Services Band. “I still had my job to do every day, but I didn’t have to pull guard duty or KP (kitchen patrol), so it was a step up.”
What set Askey apart from all the other horn players of East Austin was a gift for arrangement and composition that he didn’t know he had until after getting out of the Army Air Corps in 1944 and enrolling first at the Boston Conservatory of Music and then the Harnett National Music Studios in Manhattan.
As an almost required rite of passage for Texas jazz musicians, Askey played for the Houston-based Milton Larkin Orchestra for a year between those two music schools. “You could say that was the time when the trumpet took over my life,” he said.
Askey started writing charts for full bands, eventually leading to a big showbiz break, a three-year stint as arranger/trumpet player with the popular Buddy Johnson band (“Since I Fell For You”). When rock ‘n’ roll exploded and Johnson’s brand of adult blues became passé, Askey toured in the house band on package shows, backing Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, the Platters, the Clovers, Jackie Wilson, Lloyd Price and many more. “Bill Haley and the Comets were the only act on those tours that had their own band,” Askey said.
Askey received his first call from Motown on New Year’s Day 1965 with an offer to produce and arrange six tracks on Billy Eckstine’s “Prime Of My Life.” He ended up doing the entire album.
When the Supremes’ hits slowed down in 1967, Motown mastermind Berry Gordy decided to make a record that crossed over to an older Broadway crowd. He tapped Askey for “The Supremes Do Rodgers & Hart” and also appointed him the group’s musical director on live shows, including the 1970 performance in Las Vegas that was Ross’ last show before going solo.
Ross took Askey with her for 1972′s “Lady Sings the Blues,” “Touch Me In the Morning” the next year and “Mahogany” in 1975. “You know, Diana Ross knows what she wants, and we didn’t always agree,” Askey said when asked about Ross’ diva reputation. “She even fired me once, or I quit, I can’t remember. Berry Gordy stepped in and got us back together.”
But Askey also recalls Ross as the consummate crowd-pleaser, who once even came back out onstage in her bathrobe to do an unscheduled encore because the crowd simply would not leave.
That the Jackson 5’s first album was billed “Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5″ has a connection to Askey. Stepfather Luther Simond was an assistant principal at Norton High School in Gary, Ind., in the late ’60s and knew the older Jackson brothers from school and the younger ones from church. Their Jackson 5 routine had instantly become a sensation in Gary and nearby Chicago, so Simond called his stepson in Detroit and said, “You need to come down here and check these guys out.” Askey passed on the tip to Ross.
During his 2011 Austin visit, Askey stayed with Simond, whom he calls “my dad,” at the house on Hamilton Avenue where his mother once cooked for the Supremes and the Manhattans on an off day on tour. “One of the girls said, ‘This is good; what is this?,’ ” Askey said, with a laugh. “I didn’t have the heart to tell them that they were eating hog guts.”
So many things happen out on the road, but then there’s another town, another show and it all blurs together. Or sometimes seemingly forgettable incidents can change your life. While touring Australia in 1973, Askey and a few other band members were caught in the rain and couldn’t find a cab. A woman pulled up and gave them a ride to the hotel. Seven years later, Askey married the good Samaritan, named Hellen, and relocated to Australia.
In ’82, Askey flew to Los Angeles for what looked to be a month of work, helping to put together the spectacular “Motown 25″ program, which featured a Supremes reunion, plus Michael Jackson’s sensational moonwalk to “Billie Jean.” Askey’s main role was arranging and conducting a soul throwdown between the Four Tops and the Temptations. Askey’s month in the States turned into more than a year when a tour was thrown together after “M25.”
His wife wasn’t happy about that, especially having to raise an infant alone, so Askey retired from touring in 1985. He became well-known in Australia through his work with programs that encourage young people to learn instruments. “Brother’s hobby is finding old instruments, restoring them and then passing them on to kids,” said Dukes. At 85, Askey sat in with a Melbourne jazz combo once a week when he’s up for it. The former altar boy at Holy Cross Catholic Church in East Austin still went to mass every Sunday.
He told me that he regretted that he was unable to attend B.L. Joyce’s funeral in 1980. Askey was working as musical director for the movie “Fame” and couldn’t get a day off the set. But he sent a poem, an “Ode to B.L. Joyce,” which he wrote about the tailor who became one of Austin’s most influential teachers.
“I could’ve been Gil Askey the carpenter… Or Gil Askey the doctor. But I became Gil Askey the musician,” said the poem, which was read at the funeral. It ends with a pair of lines that guided Askey throughout the years: “B.L. Joyce lives in the things which I do, for without him there’d be no me,” it read. “Therefore I’m an extension of him.”
Gil Askey never forgot where he came from. And now he’s home for good.
It was a single note, a G, that Mr. Joyce showed Askey at that first lesson, then sent him home to play only that note until he could play it perfectly. From the smallest details, big things one day come.