Smitty: Yeah. Well, you picked a great one.
PW: My teacher!
Smitty: Okay, talk to me about how you got your first record deal. I love this story.
PW: This is a really strange coincidental type story. I was in Patti LaBelle’s band, we were on tour, and we were in New Orleans, and right down the street from where I was staying, Grover Washington was doing a concert. I didn’t know it at the time until I got a phone call from his keyboard player, who I had gone to school with, so we were really good friends, grew up in the same neighborhood, and he called me and said “Hey, it’s Curtis and I’m in Grover’s band and we’re playing right down the street from your hotel. As we were talking, he says “Hold on a second because somebody just walked in and I wanna put somebody on the phone.” And he puts Grover Washington on the phone.
Smitty: Oh, wow.
PW: And he goes “Hello, Pam, this is Grover.” And I was like “Grover Washington?” And he goes “Yeah,” and I’m like “Oh my God, I mean, I don’t even know what to say. I’m just….I love you. I mean, you’re the reason why I play the saxophone. I know how to play this instrument because of you.” And he was very humble and just a sweet persona, and he goes “Well, I just wanted to tell you, Pam, that I’ve been really following your career over the years and I’m really proud of you and I think you’re really gonna go far and I want you to just keep on going, don’t let anything get in your way.” “As a matter of fact, if you’re not doing anything tonight, why don’t you bring your horn down and sit in with me.” And I was like “Are you really serious?” So I was like “Of course. I mean, it would be an honor to just be on stage with you. I can’t even believe this.” So I get dressed, I grab my horn, I go down to the concert, and I’m back stage and I couldn’t believe this was really happening.” And this was totally spontaneous because I was just kickin’ it at the hotel, not really doing anything, and of course the song, the one song that I sit in on is “Mr. Magic.”
PW: You know? Oh, I’ll never forget that feeling. I mean, I’m on stage with Grover and it’s something that I will never forget. I remember it like it was yesterday.
Smitty: Oh, wow! One of the many examples of “giving” Grover was.
PW: At the time, Gerald Veasley was his bass player. And about a year after that concert, I got a phone call from my dad and he goes, you know, “This guy is calling you. His name is Gerald Veasley, he says that he’s on a record label, and they’re looking for a female saxophone player, so it sounds important. You should give him a call.” So I called Gerald and he’s like “Pam, I’ve been trying to catch you for a whole year because I’m on this label and they’re looking for a female saxophone player, and I remember that night you sat in with Grover and I think you will be perfect for this, so give them a call.” So that’s how I got my first record deal.
PW: Strange, huh?
Smitty: Yeah, but, you know, what great connections with two great musicians in Gerald Veasley and Grover Washington, Jr.
PW: Most definitely.
Smitty: Wow. Only good things could happen when you associate with people like that.
PW: It was magical. It was like a magical night, and who would’ve ever known that that would’ve been the night when Grover Washington would’ve actually led me into having a solo career of my own?
Smitty: Wow. What a great story. Speaking of Patti LaBelle, talk about your first gig. Your first major gig with Patti LaBelle, you must’ve been stoked!
PW: Oh, I was stoked, oh my God! I couldn’t believe it. I had to keep pinching myself because I was like, “Okay, I’m gonna wake up and realize that this is a dream.” But I was stoked when I got that gig with Patti LaBelle. Because it’s one thing when you’re on stage and you get to be in a band with somebody major like that, but she was always an idol of mine.
So Patti LaBelle was like this icon for me and I used to go to all of her concerts. I was so blown away during her shows and I was like, “You know, I wanna really be in her band one day.” I’m like “She lives here in Philadelphia, I’m in Philadelphia, maybe somehow our paths will cross and I’ll just get into this band somehow. I don’t know how it’s gonna happen, but I’m getting in that band!” (Both laughing.) And sure enough, a few years later, I started doing studio sessions around Philadelphia and I met her assistant musical director and her husband at the time, who was also her manager. He was starting to produce other people and I did a studio session for a vocalist that he was working with and a few months after that I got a phone call from her assistant musical director and he was like, “Patti is putting a new band together and she wants to have an interracial band, she wants to have males and females in her band, she needs a saxophone player, and I thought you would be perfect for this. So why don’t you come to the audition, it’s gonna be on Saturday and bring your horn and let’s see what happens.” I remember saying to him “You gotta be kidding me, right?” He’s like “No, I’m not joking. Here’s the address, just show up on Saturday.” I went down there and my heart was racing and I was a nervous wreck, and I played. I do think there were maybe one or two other saxophone players there at the audition. I got the gig and two weeks later I was on my way to Japan with Patti LaBelle.
Smitty: Wow! How cool is that?
PW: So I was just on a high all the time.
Smitty: Well, we have Patti to thank for giving you such a great start, and what a great experience. Wow. Yeah, I hope she’s doing well too.
PW: Yeah, me too.
Smitty: You mentioned how Patti LaBelle had an interracial band and she wanted females, a cross-gender band. Talk about what it was like for you coming up as a female with a saxophone because that wasn’t the norm.
PW: You’re right, it wasn’t.
Smitty: Were there obstacles for you or was it just a great novelty thing and everyone embraced it?
PW: Well, no, no, it was 50/50 novelty and 50/50 people didn’t take it seriously. I knew this guy that was a big major accountant, he had a lot of friends in the entertainment industry, so when I finally did my own demo, I was still with Patti LaBelle’s band, I gave him a demo. And he gave it to everyone he knew in the industry, and later he would call me back. He’d be like “Pam, nobody’s even listening to your demo. They’re just not even taking a female saxophone player very seriously.”