Fences – Saga of a Song


Click on the above title to hear the song Fences. Words by Dennis Chandler & Clebert Ford. Music by Dennis Chandler.

Back to 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. You might 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? Because back in the day that’s how they “broke” new records (read: “dropped”, as they say today). Airplay was important and if supported … with live performances … record sales soared. 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. 

So when it was time for those first waves of turbulent social unrest to hit home, here in Ohio … little did Dennis think he’d be seeing it firsthand … as a member of the National Guard. He was called up from their Reserves to serve active duty during the time of the riots. That’s how he happened to be deployed to a place that he played … Geneva-on-the-Lake. Then Hough, Glenville and Collinwood came next. (Blues in the ‘hood!) 

Also for the Truckers’ Strike … he found himself near my ‘hood, Shaker Square. It was there … as the manager of the Colony Theatre … I hosted the Guardsmen … for a movie screening. One other event he was called up for was the Truckers Strike. (Thank goodness Dennis was NOT called up for Kent State).

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 … turned into a stunned look on their faces. Later it was shared that seeing a rifle cradled in Guardsman Chandler’s arms instead of a guitar was what did it. But, in down-home fashion, they didn’t miss a beat emphasizing they understood that … Dennis was “duty-bound to be there”. Then, together, they took down the fences.

After that he pivoted to find behind another fence … and another familar face. The honorable Cleveland COUNCILWOMAN for the Hough area … Miss FANNIE LEWIS.  Dennis also disarmed her … musically, so to speak. How it happened was upon her introduction … 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.

Back to being behind the fences … and beside Miss Lewis. There also stood one of the local media-types. His name was Leon Bibb. He was a veteran who served duty in Viet Nam and he said, it bothered him to be watching this war-like scene. He had to report on the riots … here in Hough … here in his hometown.   

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. This play, written by THE BLACK POET LAUREATE OF AMERICA, AUGUST WILSON, was the most honored in theatre history. This CPH production was done by DIRECTOR TAZWELL 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, CLEBERT FORD, BILL COBBS, who along with CAROLYN RAY continued to work their magic. 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.”

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.

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. That one BB asked Dennis to write the music for 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 demo that Dennis did. And that, in and of itself was reward enough … for “Poppa BB” LOVED them.

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 and BB KING. 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.