Keep Bringing It! The Sumter Opera House Presents…

Got a few moments?  Take a seat by the campfire and let this old storyteller regale you with yet another one.

Way back in the year 2000, when the Downtown Promotions Committee began working in earnest on ways to get more people back into the heart of our city
, entertainment was high on the list.  The successful decade-long run of header_downtownSumter@Six showed that it was possible, along with other special events including Halloween on Main, Sumter-Shaw Streetfest, and the current entertainment series, “Downtown Friday Nights”.  All have brought thousands of people onto Main Street.  But getting people into the Opera House remained an elusive goal.  There were a few triumphs—every now and again we would celebrate a packed house following a show by The Lettermen, Beatles tribute band The Return, or Bill Oberst, Jr.’s celebration of the life and work of Lewis Grizzard.  But for the most part, despite some high-quality performances over the years, audiences stayed away in…not droves, perhaps, but pretty significant numbers.

The City’s Department of Growth & Development 
and the present Downtown Promotions Committee made a vow to change that, and wow, have they ever!  With 2014 not even three months old, sizeable audiences have already enjoyed comedian James Gregory and the famous Bellamy Brothers.

In between starring acts, Downtown Sumter has continued to support future stars, as well (for example:  long before he became a force on the Nashville scene, singer-songwriter Lee Brice was featured on our downtown stage!).  The traditiontiffany-johnson continues with Tiffany Johnson & Soul Confidante
, appearing on Saturday, March 8 as part of the new “Sumter Opera House Presents” series.  Not only does Ms. Johnson have an inspiring personal journey to share (check out her website at http://tiffanyjohnson.net/, where you can also hear clips from her new CD, Five Minutes More), she’s a powerhouse singer who has toured with various bands since she was eight years old and is busily carving out a career in country music, most notably as a singer with former Dave & Sugar member Etta Britt.  Tickets are $15 and $20, and available here.  The show begins at 7 p.m. with a performance by special guest Sarah Hunter.

Ms. Johnson’s star is definitely on the rise, so check her out now in the historic Opera House’s beautiful and intimate Art Deco setting, with great sound and not a bad seat in the house.

And then, little more than a week later, we’ll welcome a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee to town.

Legendary singer-songwriter Leon Russell 
will perform at the Sumter Opera House on March 19, 2013.  To quote the Opera House website, “one of the most leon-russell-01accomplished and versatile musicians in the history of rock ’n roll, Leon Russell, will bring his distinctive voice to [this] historic setting.”

As a die-hard rock-and-roller, I’ve been vaguely aware of Mr. Russell for most of my life and knew that one of his most important contributions was to Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen. I even knew that he looked kind of like a cross between one of the Allman Brothers and the lost member of ZZ Top, only cuter.  But I was hard pushed to name one of his songs and thought, “this is so wrong.  The guy is in the Hall of Fame!”  So I did a little research and found out that Leon Russell’s oeuvre isn’t just impressive; it’s completely astounding.  He’s one of those guys of whom you say, “Heard of him, don’t know much about him,” and then you hear a song—and another, and another—and say, “I’ve always known this!  I just didn’t know it was him!”

Leon Russell began his career in Tulsa, Oklahoma in a band called the Starlighters, which also produced the renowned J.J. Cale and Taj Mahal drummer Chuck Blackwell.  He went on to become wildly successful as a session musician, playing with acts as diverse as Bing Crosby, the Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan—and Gary Lewis & the Playboys, whose 1965 Number One hit “This Diamond Ring” 
featured his distinctive keyboard riff.

But he has done so much more than playing on other people’s records.  As a Mayer-Russell-2011songwriter, his influence and contributions are extraordinary, and his own recording of “A Song for You” stands as a masterpiece that has since been covered by more than 40 other artists, including Willie Nelson, the late Amy Winehouse, and Christina Aguilera.  (By the way, Russell’s performance of the song at the 2011 Hall of Fame induction ceremony, accompanied by John Mayer, is so deeply felt that it’s almost heartbreaking—definitely worth searching out online.)

Other well-known Leon Russell songs include “Tight Rope” and “Lady Blue.”  His soulful keyboard style, along with a gritty and yet gentle voice, are unforgettable once you’ve heard them, and you most likely have heard them.

The Sumter Opera House is delighted to welcome legendary singer-songwriter Leon Russell on Wednesday, March 19, 2013.  The show begins at 7 p.m., with advance tickets available here
for $30 and $35.  The Opera House is located at 21 N. Main Street in Sumter.  For more info, please call (803) 436-2616.  Don’t miss this chance to see a living legend in performance—and the continuing renaissance of Sumter’s downtown.

In the film Field of Dreams, James Earl Jones uttered the immortal line, “If you build it, they will come.”  Downtown Sumter is still under construction, but it’s certainly well on the way—so, come on!

by Colette Daniels

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