A legendary New Orleans street performer's debut album, Sugar Sweet, Grandpa Elliott has been entertaining audiences in the French Quarter for over sixty years, but his popularity has gone global since 2009 after the Playing for Change hit viral video for “Stand By Me”, featuring 37 musicians from all over the world received over 30 million views on sites like YouTube and Vimeo. Grandpa is the first artist to be signed to Playing For Change Records/Concord Music Group.
“Grandpa” Elliott Small, singing on the streets of New Orleans since he was a six years old, can capture a crowd with a single note. His mellow baritone makes the sounds of a busy New Orleans street fall away with its warm sincerity and while the blues may inform his lyrical harmonica playing, he has his own unique sound. Sugar Sweet, produced by Playing For Change founder Mark Johnson and Reggie McBride, was recorded in New Orleans with the Playing For Change Band. Grandpa Elliott has been singing with the PFC Band for the past year and they have developed an uncanny rapport. Their enthusiasm and ability to lay down sturdy, elastic grooves is evident throughout the album, adding sympathetic backing to Elliott’s soulful vocals and sinuous harmonica.
“Grandpa Elliott embodies everything the Playing For Change project is about,” Johnson says. “Soul, talent, and perseverance. He brought the rawness of the street into the studio and cut the tunes in one take, with no set list and made every song his own. There’s a line in ‘Sugar Sweet’ that says ‘I love you more than the blood that runs through my veins.’ That’s how Grandpa feels about music. You can hear it in every note he sings.”
On the title track, the guitars of Jason Tamba from the DR Congo and Zimbabwe’s Louis Mhlanga play a New Orleans style rumba with a hint of ska, while drummer Peter Bunetta lays down subtle percussion fills. Grandpa Elliott’s voice is fluid, with quicksilver phrasing that falls before and behind the beat, playing with rhythm and meter. “Ain’t Nothing You Can Do,” an early hit for Bobby “Blue” Bland, gets a makeover that combines the swing of Tamba and Mhlanga, with an R&B feel, Elliott’s vocal slips from a buoyant tenor to a playful, bluesy growl as he adds subtle harmonica accents. Grandpa Elliott learned “Share Your Love With Me” from an Aretha Franklin recording and the band gives it a stripped down, old school R&B reading. “Fannie Mae” was cut at a rousing live concert performance with Keb’ Mo’ sitting in on electric guitar. It includes a blazing harp solo from Grandpa Elliott and lets the band show off its considerable instrumental prowess.
Grammy-winning producer/engineer/filmmaker Mark Johnson founded Playing For Change on the simple idea that the world can find peace through music. It’s been an incredible year for the project and momentum continues to build as Johnson and the musicians of Playing For Change were named “Persons of the Week” on ABC’s World News Tonight with Charlie Gibson last month and have been profiled many times nationally including NPR’s Morning Edition, CBS News Sunday Morning and PBS’ Bill Moyers Journal just to name a few. They have already performed twice on NBC’s The Tonight Show and Grandpa recently performed an emotional rendition of “Stand By Me” on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report.
Playing For Change has been one of 2009’s most unlikely and startling cultural phenomenons. Hear Music/Concord Music Group’s two-disc CD/DVD Playing For Change – Songs Around the World, released April 28th, stunned the music industry selling over twenty-six thousand copies in it’s first week and landing at #10 on Billboard’s Top 200 Pop chart. (The Playing For Change – Songs Around The World - Deluxe Edition, featuring the full-length documentary Peace Through Music broadcast this summer nation-wide on PBS, will be released on October 13th.) This remarkable and unpredicted popular response has been driven by tens of millions of video hits, countless blogs and pure viral communication between fans and followers. The project’s deep emotional resonance, combined with the muscle of the internet and word-of-mouth has struck a profoundly enduring chord world-wide.
The PFC Band and Grandpa Elliott can be seen on a nation-wide tour this fall. After all these years of persevering through incredible hardships and performing for free, Grandpa has become an instant icon. “A man don’t live that long and, when you’re in your 60s, you know you’re ready to go any time,” he says with a smile. “So I’m looking for success to happen now. I’m eager and hungry and there’s no stopping me.”