Rene Bailey | Music | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Rene Bailey 

Amazing Grace

click to enlarge Rene Bailey - FIONN REILLY
  • Fionn Reilly
  • Rene Bailey

We couldn't drink from the same water fountain or use the same bathroom when we stopped at a service station."

Over tea in a midtown Kingston coffeehouse, Rene Bailey is remembering her teenage years touring the segregated South in the 1950s as a member of the Gospel Light Singers of Moultrie, Georgia. "And, of course, we couldn't eat in the same restaurants or stay in the same hotels [as white people], either," she further recalls. "So when we performed at the churches in the little towns we visited the people in the congregation would put us up for the night. And they would feed us, too. They would make these wonderful dinners for us. But really our singing was our food. As long as we could sing and serve God we knew we were heading in the right direction."

Looking into the loving eyes of this sweet, grandmotherly lady, listening to her laugh, hearing her passionate singing, and picturing her as a young woman, it's impossible to imagine how anyone couldn't love her right back. Or how an entire society could deny her dignity—and that of millions of others, theirs—simply because of race. A week after our conversation come the horrific, shameful events in Charlottesville, Virginia. His heart filled with sadness and rage, your music editor's thoughts immediately return to his meeting with Miss Bailey, and the elegance and profound lack of bitterness in both her demeanor and her uplifting music.

Born just north of the Florida state line in Valdosta, Georgia, Bailey was the third of four children (three brothers; two older and one younger) and grew up two counties west in Thomasville, where her mother was a hotel cook and her father was a barber. "He would barter with the customers sometimes if they didn't have the money," she says. "Maybe they would bring him a bag of flour or a bag of sugar instead." Her mother's brother was the head of the music department at the town's Willow Head Missionary Baptist Church, at which she got her start singing in the children's choir and was baptized at age 11, along with her older brothers. "They baptized 23 of us on the same day," says the singer. "Everybody wore long, white robes and the preacher and the deacon brought you down in the water and then you held your nose while they dipped you in. I still remember that like it was yesterday. It was a nice family church. We sang all the old-time country hymns. I had to learn to sing the notes before I could sing the words. You know—Do re mi. Like that."

After graduating high school Bailey joined the six-girl Gospel Light Singers, who were overseen by "directress" Madam Sophie Reed. Recording for the Dootone and Friendly labels, the troupe toured during the summers from Florida all the way up to Connecticut, where one of her brothers and an aunt were living. Along the way, the Gospel Lights opened for such luminaries as the Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Soul Stirrers (with a young Sam Cooke), and the Reverend C.L. Franklin and his young daughter, Aretha. By the mid-'60s she'd left the group to settle down with her relatives in the Nutmeg State, and it was there that she met her late husband, Samuel, a TV technician. "He came to set up my brother's TV, took one look at me, and said, 'I'm gonna marry you!'" a giggling Bailey remembers. "We were married within a year's time—and we stayed married for 25 years, until he passed."

Although she was a member of New Britain's Union Baptist Church Choir when she and Samuel met, by then Bailey had taken a break from singing on her own in public. Yet it was her husband who encouraged her to return to the soloists' stage, this time to perform in blues and jazz nightclubs. "He didn't even know I could really sing," she says. "But when he heard me one day he said, 'This is what you should be doing.'" Many gospel-reared singers, Sam Cooke perhaps being the foremost example, experienced a backlash when they "crossed over" into secular music. Was this something Bailey encountered as well? "I didn't feel that way, because my husband and family was 100-percent in my corner. They didn't want to hold me back," she explains. "And I'd always loved to sing all kinds of songs. When I was little I loved to sing [country standard] 'You Are My Sunshine,' you know, songs like that."

While performing in the New York area she met R&B icon Ruth Brown ("She made us black eyed peas and rice for dinner, while my husband fixed her TV for her."). Later, as a member of organist Doc Bagby's band, she met the one and only Louis Armstrong. "Doc introduced me to him and I sang a little acapella number for him. He said, 'You sing just like a corn-fed gal!'" [Laughs.] (And how: Bailey's gritty, downhome style, as played out across a pair of late-'60s singles for the Carnival label, is revered among rare soul collectors today.) It was during a visit to Ulster County in 1972, however, that her life would be forever changed when she met another legendary artist: Peg Leg Bates.

Along with Pete Seeger and Levon Helm, the late Clayton "Peg Leg" Bates (1907-1998) remains one of the true giants of Hudson Valley cultural history. Born to South Carolina sharecroppers, he lost his left leg at the age of 12 in a cotton-conveyor accident and taught himself to tap dance for spare change on street corners while wearing a crude wooden leg fashioned for him by an uncle. By his teens he was dancing and singing in vaudeville shows using an upgraded prosthetic, rising swiftly to become one of the country's leading African American entertainers. He performed for the King and Queen of England twice, headlined with the USO during World War II, starred in films, toured the UK with Louis Armstrong, and appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" 22 times. In 1951, he became the county's first black resort owner when he opened the famed Peg Leg Bates Country Club in Kerhonkson, which quickly became one of the region's top attractions and employed hundreds; the Ulster County stretch of US Route 209 was later renamed in his honor.

"I met Chuck Dudley, who led Mr. Bates's band, and he took me to audition for Mr. Bates," Bailey recounts. "And so I met him in front of his house and I sang a little for him. He said, 'Can you come back the second week of next month? You can work the rest of the summer.'" Soon after, she and Samuel relocated to Kerhonkson and the vocalist became almost as much of a local fixture as Bates himself, belting out the dancer's favorite song, "You'll Never Walk Alone," and other tunes at area hotspots like the Granite and Nevele hotels and, of course, Bates's club, where she was a mainstay for 20 years. "Mr. Bates did so much for people," Bailey says about her former employer, with whom she also toured. "He gave work to a lot of people who really needed it. People would come from down South to work for him, and he brought a lot of business to Ellenville and Kerhonkson."

During a gig at the Granite in 1988, Bailey met Saints of Swing bandleader David Winograd. The upright bass and tuba player immediately invited her to perform with the outfit and she's been with them ever since, singing Dixieland jazz, R&B, blues, soul, and even the occasional gospel tune. It's the latter genre that's the focus of the newly recorded Good Old Songs, her first solo gospel album, which was produced by David's son Eli Winograd at his Lone Pine Road Studio in Midtown Kingston. "This record is sort of a gift from me, a labor of love," says Eli. "Having basically grown up around Rene, I really wanted to do something to pay her back for all of the positive energy she brings. It really took on a life of its own while we were working on it, and it's definitely the best thing I've ever been a part of." With a cast of 15 musicians that includes veteran violinist Larry Packer and bluesman Slam Allen, the disc beams with Bailey's alternately full-throated and touching renditions of staples like "Ezekial Saw De Wheel," "Standin' in the Need of Prayer," and "Steal Away."

When talk turns to the recent phenomenon of younger people—of many backgrounds—discovering and falling in love with classic gospel music, the singer is quick to offer her theory on the reason why. "It goes with the times," says Bailey, who since the late 1980s has been the music director of Kerhonkson's Samsonville Methodist Church, where the congregation calls her "Lady Sunshine." "With what's happening in the country at the moment, people want to take the time to turn around. To think a little bit."

But just because her long-desired goal of making a gospel album has been met and she's getting on in years, don't expect Bailey to step away from the stage anytime soon. "No, I'm not gonna stop," she says. "There's a feeling I get with singing that I also get when I think of the wind. I can't see the wind, but I can feel it. It's nice and cool. I can't see the spirit, either. But the spirit is nice and cool, too. As long as I can serve God and touch one person, I'm gonna keep right on singing. I'm not gonna stop 'til I reach that higher ground!"

Good Old Songs will be released this month. There will be a CD release party at the Falcon in Marlboro on Friday evening, December 29.

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