August Wilson: The Black Poet Laureate’s PLAY “Fences” = Inspired Composer Dennis’ SONG “Fences”
Click on the title … to hear the song Fences. Words by Dennis Chandler & Clebert Ford. Music by Dennis Chandler. Fences
Here is the … long, long … backstory behind … the song … Fences
About the subject of diversity. To explain the beginnings of this special song, let’s go back in time … and tie up a loose end, too. Mention was made earlier of Dennis earning a Doctorate-in-Diversity, so to speak. Some may recall reading about his bandleader days with the band named “The Pilgrims”. They got to serve as houseband for CKLW, then called … “a legendary radio powerhouse”. What made that station so strong a power broker? For the Uniformed … back in the day that’s how they “broke” new records … (read: “dropped”, as they say today). Airplay was very important and if supported … with live performances … record sales soared. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CKLW
So when the station solicited Bandleader Chandler to couple his band with their events and promotions …. Dennis jumped at the chance. That’s how he had such wonderful opportunities … to perform with … and … for … so many different folks. Artists and audiences included. Those lessons learned … from his days of playing around the Detroit / Windsor area in the EARLY 60′s … helped him to cope with Cleveland’s social changes of the LATE 60′s.
That’s when the waves of turbulent social unrest came and hit home … here in Ohio. Little did Dennis think he’d be seeing it firsthand … as a member of the Ohio National Guard. He was called up from their Reserves to serve active duty … at various venues of protest. The-powers-that-were-at-the-time thought their presence would help reduce the numbers of attendees. History proved them wrong.
But, back to about Blues in the hoods, so to speak. That’s how he happened to be deployed … to a place that he often played … Geneva-on-the-Lake. Then he was called up to the Cleveland communities … Hough, Glenville and Collinwood. BTW … the last one was near a place Dennis played … in his youth. Not on a stage but on a train … as in the real thing … the Collinwood Railroad Yards.
Then came what was named, the Truckers Strike. Pvt. Chandler found himself near MY ‘hood … Shaker Square. How so? He was called up to report to the Armory that was in the area. The one around the corner from the Colony. As an RKO Theatre Manager (for the Colony and the Vogue Theatres) … I invited the Commandant … to send his troops over to the Square. We hosted them for a special screening … I do not remember the movie. I do recall from the candy stand … they took all they could eat. But, MY intermission time … was spent with Pvt. Chandler.
( On a serious note … thank goodness Dennis was NOT called up for Kent State.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kent_State_shootings
It was worrisome enough for us … that my brother Phil … could not be located that day. Why? He was enrolled at KSU. First a little background how he came to be there. He had begun collage at Ohio Wesleyan University. When he ran out of funding he did a stint in the Navy. So then came Kent. Daily after his classes he would commute to the Colony … to do chores for me. That day in May … when he did make it out of Kent … he showed up late to work. He told of being there … trying to leave … to get to his car … when everything went crazy. Phil came to the Colony from Kent quite shaken up. I recall what he told me … what he saw. I respect his privacy and do not press him today for details. As a writer … I remind myself of Socrates … “All things find the mind”. Thus some of that day has to be in his words … in his writings … his lyrics. )
Back to ’bout duty in Hough, he found himself looking through a barbed wire fence … when he saw some musician-friends. He had played with them at various eastside venues like … Gus’ Show Bar and the famous Leo’s Casino. What started initially as a warm smile-of-recognition … made them do an astounded “double-take”. Later it was shared that seeing … a rifle cradled in Dennis’ arms … instead of a guitar … was what stunned them. But, in down-home fashion, they didn’t miss a beat … (pardon the puns). Graciously, they told Guardsman Chandler they understood …that Dennis was “duty-bound”. Then … together they worked to take down the fences.
After Dennis pivoted to find … behind another fence … another familiar face. Musician-Dennis sang, “Fannie Mae”, thus again disarming musically … the honorable Cleveland Councilwoman for the Hough area … Miss Fannie Lewis. How it happened was upon her introduction to him … he had a certain tune come to mind. The 1959 song titled, “Fannie Mae” by Buster Brown. She loved it. But, she said she was stumped because she did not know the song … and, “I consider myself a Blues aficionada”. By the way … later in life we got to know her well … so much so that she insisted we call her, “Mother Lewis”. We were Blessed. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fannie_Lewis
Back to being behind the fences … and beside Miss Lewis. That’s where the media-types were stationed. One who heard some of those reports? A name now well known … the local media legend LEON BIBB. He talked about hearing about Hough while on duty in Vietnam. https://clevelandhistorical.org/files/show/65 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leon_Bibb
Another song comes to mind. “Right Here, Right Now (Turn Love On)”.
Anger can turn into fury. Once in a not so distant past … in a fairly close by ‘hood … fun was had in Fairfax. Alot of good music was made for a lot of good people. It was at a place called Leo’s Casino … located in the old Quad Hall Hotel. https://case.edu/ech/articles/l/leos-casino
That’s where Musician Dennis got to play with iconic Bluesmen like Jimmy Reed who was also there. Fun too was when we met … the great Gladys Knight.
But, back to about … the ‘hood of Hough and the hard times there … that inspired the start of the song, “Fences”.
Barriers between friends: Dennis came away from those encounters with an idea for a song titled “Fences”. But, he found that it would be many years before the song would move to the front burner of his brain, so to speak. When it did, it was after convalescing from chemos during his battle with Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML). Then once up and out again, another sort of healing happened.
In 1990 he went to see a play titled “Fences” at the CLEVELAND PLAY HOUSE.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleveland_Play_House
This play, written by THE BLACK POET LAUREATE OF AMERICA, AUGUST WILSON
The play “Fences” was the most honored in theatre history. This CPH production was done by DIRECTOR TAZWELL THOMPSON. Who is Taz?https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tazewell_Thompson
Audience demand was high and the run was sold out early on. But, they held it over and luckily for Dennis … THANKS TO CPH MANAGER BRYAN BRYD, he got to see it … albeit barely … it was Closing Night … and he had to sit in the tiny Lighting Loft. Good thing, tho. Little did Dennis know that he would have such an emotional reaction to the roles played by the father and son (read: a good guy cry). After the heartfelt sobs subsided … BRYAN insisted he meet the cast members. We went with him backstage for the CAST PARTY. There we met all the players. (Another Angel with the initials BB. What a Light!)
Well, the play’s cathartic effect was carried home and musician-Dennis translated into music that night. The next day … what happened was also magical. As CPH Manager … Bryan brought some of the cast and company, “out ta da house” (as mentoring blues masters used to put it). Here to our home in Solon came actors KIM HAMILTON.
Who was Kim? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kim_Hamilton
Who is Bill Cobbs? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Cobbs
Who was Clebert Ford?https://newfederaltheatre.com/nft-artist/clebert-ford/
Composer-Dennis was truly inspired to finish what he started so long ago, his song about barriers or “Fences”.
Why? The play’s name was “Fences”. The fence served as the framework of the plot due to the fact that the character’s lives change throughout the play in constructing the fence. According to one review, “The title ‘Fences’ represents the symbolic fences the main characters are building around themselves in order to keep people in or to prevent people from interfering.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fences_(play)
With these bigger-than-life characters off the stage and in our living room, Dennis and Ford finished the song. Once Clebert returned to New York City he played a tape of the song for one very special friend of his, MARY ALICE. She was the actress who was honored with A TONY for her portrayal of the mother in the BROADWAY PRODUCTION of “Fences”. She exclaimed “Oh, August Wilson should hear this, you really captured the play!” Sadly, that never happened. AUGUST WILSON passed on without hearing this song … one that he inspired with his words. Also sadly, Actress Mary Alice passed in July of 2022. Her memory is a Blessing.
2015: An update on this song WAS going to be about BB KING requesting to record this song. He took the tracks to add his lead vocals and lead guitar work (via his beloved “Lucille”). He was to record “Fences” along with another of Dennis’ original songs. For that second song … BB asked Dennis to write the music and BB requested my lyricist brother PHIL SMOLUK to write the words. They did. That song’s title? “MY MISSISSIPPI MOON”. Who could know that BB would pass before he did these songs? But, he did get to hear the demos that Dennis did. And that, in and of itself was reward enough … for “Poppa BB” LOVED them. He told the guys so. It was a Blessing.
So … as we all are “waitin’ on Heaven”… may those mentioned Above … get to hear more about “Fences – THEIR Song”.
2016: And Wilson’s words came to life again … when they came off the big screen … in the form of the film titled, “Fences”. This time the director was DENZEL WASHINGTON. “Man proposes … God disposes!”
Rest in Heaven, CLEBERT FORD, KIM HAMILTON, AUGUST WILSON, BB KING and this past year … MARY ALICE. Your presence down here is sorely missed by many. But, we have your work to remember you by, thank God. And thank you.
Love, Dennis, Liz and Brother Phil.
Liz Chandler, Web Writer
Review: `Fences’: Superb and Important March 17, 1990 By DAVID NICHOLSON
Troy Maxson, the central character in August Wilson’s “Fences,” joins the ranks of the important literary characters of this century.
Like Willie Loman in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” Maxson struggles with his past and his human weaknesses while trying to support his family and live a decent life. Ultimately, he loses everything.
“Fences,” is a play about the fences we build that close us off from others. On another level, it chronicles a black family in the 1950s struggling with prejudice in a changing world. Wilson’s drama is one of the most important plays of our time.
Superbly directed by Tazewell Thompson, this production was born last month at the Cleveland Playhouse and brought to Hampton Roads with its cast intact. Bill Cobbs gives an astonishing performance as the proud Maxson and, with his fellow cast members, brings out the anger and beauty of Wilson’s poetic script.
The action is contained in the small, inner-city yard of the Maxson home, “Mecca”. Maxson, who works as a sanitation worker, once played baseball in the Negro League and claims he was denied a spot in the major league because he is black.
Abandoned by his mother and mistreated by his father, Maxson is incapable of giving his family the warmth and love they need. “… You born with two strikes on you before you come to the plate,” he tells his wife.
Maxson prevents Cory, his son, from pursuing a football career, and turns his back on his wife and the safe home he has created.
Wilson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for “Fences,” captures the easy black jive talk of his generation. He writes astutely about the changes between generations, and we see in Cory a more compassionate man better equipped to come to terms with his father than Maxson was.
Cobbs, who has numerous television and theater credits, carefully shows us the descent of this proud man. Tall and long-limbed, he personifies the power and pride of Wilson’s character.
Though Cobbs turned in a remarkable performance, the entire cast worked together for a powerful evening of theater.
Equally compelling is Kim Hamilton as Maxson’s faithful wife, whose marital security is devastated when Maxson turns to another woman. Hamilton begins the performance in Maxson’s shadow, then sheds her tender shell to become a strong-willed, independent woman.
Demitri Corbin as Cory undergoes a similar transformation. As Cobbs fades, his character grows in stature. Providing strong support is Clebert Ford as Maxson’s work buddy, Jonathan Peck as his musician son and Keith Johnson as his half-witted brother.