If I told you I know of a great place to catch an excellent dinner show at an affordable price, you might think it a fairy tale. Well, pinch yourself, because this one is true.
Once upon a time, there was a bass player named Jerry Preston who was discovered by Bobby Byrd’s daughter while he was playing in a local Georgia band. Preston then joined Byrd’s band, Famous Flames, who regularly played on the same bill as James Brown and became the inspiration for the JB’s. From there, Preston ended up touring the world with Maceo Parker, James Brown’s famous horn man (who, by sheer coincidence, is playing at the Blue Note from Monday until April 21).
Long before any of this happened, Preston had been bitten by the Asia bug. When he was still a snug 8-year-old, an uncle returned from Vietnam laden with trinkets from the Far East. Among the gifts were some porcelain dolls posed with fans in kimono, their delicate features distinctly Asian. Preston was so enthralled that he stole one from his mother’s china cabinet and hid it in his room.
Twenty years later, Preston found himself in Japan in the middle of a bass solo, when he suddenly looked up and saw, straight ahead in the audience, the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. Their eyes locked. He lost his concentration, missed a beat and blew his solo. Preston was intrigued. After the show, he rushed into the crowd, jumped on a chair and managed to catch her attention (and get her phone number) before she left.
That is how Preston met Emi. On their first date, they had headed to Queen Sheba, a little Ethiopian restaurant in Naka-Meguro recommended by the concert promoter. Ten years later, Preston wandered in again. Solomon, the owner, who has always liked to add a little live music to his menu, exclaimed, “Hey, I remember you — you’re with the JBs! Why not play here?”
And that is how a world-class soul artist has come to play in two funky African restaurants in Tokyo, with customers only paying donations.
At Queen Sheba, the smaller of Solomon’s two restaurants, Kas (bass/vocals) and Mike (keyboards) join Preston, who now gets to let loose on lead vocals. At Blue Nile, a newer venue with more room to move, Koran joins them on sax. Each member gigs around with other outfits, so anyone from their extended musical family can drop in on their act. Sometimes a chorus line of singers ends up on harmonies and several different talents doff the bass.
Tables and chairs are pushed aside so that people can dance — and they do. The vibe is infectious. With a natural exuberance that gets the crowd going, Preston is the undoubtedly the star.
“God has given me a gracious gift to make people happy,” he says with a smile. And though all the songs are covers, Preston’s vocals soar as he gives his own spin to classics by soul’s hall-of-famers. Preston has indeed blossomed into a funk, soul brother in his own right.