By Richard J. Skelly – January 16, 2019
Like a lot of veteran musicians who frequent Garden State clubs, coffeehouses, and other venues, guitarist and singer Jerry Steele never let his passion for music interfere with making good money.
Steele spent 30 years as a booking agent at the Harry Walker Agency in New York City, booking famous and not so-famous people on the lecture circuit, before “retiring” to the career choice of his youth: playing in small groups and at solo gigs in the greater Princeton area.
He lived for a number of years in Westchester County but in 1987 he moved to the Princeton region and lives in Lawrenceville where he and his wife, Telfair, raised three daughters.
He has also gained a lot of enjoyment and artistry playing with prominent friends like Buddy Miller and keyboardist Tom Reock, while making a name for himself on the winery circuit.
“All that time at the Harry Walker Agency I’d been playing music as a sideline, and I realized when I retired I could do whatever I wanted. So now I’m a full-time professional musician,” he says during an interview in the wine barn office at Terhune Orchards.
Steele performs there on Sunday, January 20, from noon to 5 p.m. as part of Terhune’s free Winery Sunday Music Series.
“There are a surprising number of wineries in New Jersey, and I like to play them,” he says, citing the afternoon and early evening hours. “I’m too old to play bars where we start at 10 p.m.” says Steele, who graduated from Princeton High School in 1968.
Like a lot of area musicians who plied their craft in Trenton-Princeton-New Brunswick corridor clubs in the early 1970s, he cut short his college career as an English major at Lehigh University, as the easy money lure of the music scene proved too powerful.
His parents —Martin, a physicist at the David Sarnoff Research Center and Marian, a housewife who played clarinet as an avocation — were hurt by his decision to drop out in 1971. But, undeterred, he moved to Manhattan, where he says he starved trying to make a living as a musician and eventually took a job as a roadie with Philadelphia-raised pop singer, Patti LaBelle. It was right when her hit “Lady Marmalade” broke nationally.
Steele continued with LaBelle as a roadie tour manager and saw them become the first African-American group to land on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.
Though the paychecks were good, Steele says he needed a break from incessant touring, and took a job at S.I.R., Studio Instrument Rentals, in Manhattan for several years. Then another friend, Tony Thompson, asked him if he would be interested in going on the road with an emerging band, Chic.
Still touring, Chic is a collaboration between songwriter-producer Nile Rodgers and bassist-songwriter-producer Bernard Edwards.
“The money they offered to go on the road was too good to turn down,” Steele says, “and I was getting kind of bored just hanging around S.I.R. This was 1978 when disco was exploding. Chic had a single, ‘Le Freak,’ which was then — and still is — the biggest selling single in the history of Atlantic Records.”
“I was not a big disco fan then and I’m still not a big disco fan, but I had to respect what they were doing. They made these meticulously clean, greatly produced recordings,” Steele says. “Nile’s [guitar] style is so distinctive, you know it’s him.”
Steele later worked with Rodgers in the recording studio. “I worked on Madonna’s ‘Like A Virgin’ album and Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ album,” he says. “All of that was exciting, but around 1983 or 1984 I had young kids, and the studio hours were horrible. They’d start working at midnight, and the family was not holding up.”
After responding to an ad in the New York Times, he took a job as a booking agent at the Harry Walker Agency and was able to assume more of a normal, home-based life.
Pressed for memories about his time at Princeton High School, where prominent alumni include producer Joe Boyd, producer-singer-songwriter Buddy Miller, singer-songwriter John Popper of Blues Traveler, and Chris Barron of the Spin Doctors, Steele says he played a wide variety of music in his teenage years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Local musical mentors and sources of encouragement for the young guitarist and singer were Bill Trego, the choir director, and Bill Cook, an English teacher, both at Princeton High School.
Asked about a galvanizing musical moment during his youth in Princeton, he says, “It was the same thing that every musician of my age mentions, when the Beatles were on Ed Sullivan,” the now-iconic TV broadcast viewed by millions on black-and-white TVs in February, 1964.
“I had just started to realize I had some musical ability, and in high school a guy I knew, Dave Olsen, started talking to me about bluegrass music, so I joined a bluegrass band in high school,” he says. “Buddy Miller was in that scene peripherally, too, playing upright bass. I got into bluegrass. Then Buddy and I had a country band after high school for a while, called the Lonesome Drifters.” Steele’s friendship with Miller continues to this day.
Just two years ago, Steele began hosting “Homegrown,” a radio show at WDVR-FM in Stockton. Steele is on Wednesday mornings from 6 to 9 a.m. on 96.9 FM playing Americana and folk music.
“When I started working for WDVR two years ago, I needed material to play. I was visiting Buddy in Nashville, told him about the new radio show, and I said, ‘Buddy I need tunes.’ He took out one of his many laptops, stuck a thumb drive in there, copied a bunch of stuff and handed it to me. There were 20,000 songs. He said, ‘Here, this’ll get you started.’”
Steele credits his resurrected performing career to keyboardist/arranger/composer Tom Reock.
“He does these annual shows at the Kelsey Theater at Mercer County Community College, and he’ll take a classic album and recreate the whole thing,” Steele says, adding Reock makes creative use of video and other media to create powerful, educational presentations about iconic rock albums.
Aside from shows with Reock’s various bands and his solo gigs, Steele recently worked with Lisa Bouchelle and Hal Selzer and is part of an Eagles tribute band, Best of the Eagles, who will be playing in February at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank.
In addition to his guitar playing and singing with these bands, Steele is also known as a pedal steel guitar player and has spent time on the road and in the studio with Miller, Emmylou Harris, Mike Auldridge, and another prominent Princeton-raised musician, Mary Chapin Carpenter.
Steele started performing live shows in 2000 at places like Triumph Brewery, the Yankee Doodle Tap Room, and the Princeton Arts Council. He says he likes to divide his time between solo shows and shows with Reock and the popular tribute band.
His approach at solo gigs is freewheeling and spontaneous. “I just play stuff that I enjoy playing and that people want to hear. I cover all the big ones: James Taylor, some Beatles, Elton John, some Buddy Miller, and other stuff that’s not that well known.”
Jerry Steele, Terhune Orchards Vineyard & Winery, 330 Cold Soil Road, Princeton, Sunday January 20, noon to 5 p.m. Free.
The Sunday series continues with Bill Flemer, January 27; Darla & Rich, February 3; Michaela McClain, February 10; Kevin McGowan, February 17; James Popik, February 24; Brooke Dicaro, March 3; return visit by Jerry Steele, March 10; Kingston Ridge, March 24; and Bill O’Neal and Andy Koontz, March 31. 609-924-2310 or www.terhuneorchards.com.