One could summarize Cliff Starkey’s resplendent musical career in one sentence: It’s not where the egg cracks, it’s where the bird flies.
That is because the narrative arc of his musical journey began with Schroder, the character in the Peanuts comic strip who had a precocious skill for playing his toy piano — a talent showcased in the Charlie Brown television specials.
“I would see Schroeder play the piano and I would play the grand piano in school and just figure it out,” Starkey said. “I would just use my ears. I would hear the melody and pick my way through it. It’s all about the rhythm.”
Starkey turned out to be every bit as precocious as Schroeder.
When asked how many top-flight musicians had Schroeder as a childhood inspiration, Starkey laughed and responded: “That’s funny. I never thought of that.”
You could lay a sensational soundtrack on Starkey’s innately elegant sense of rhythm, a prime reason why Reading’s gifted pianist and vocalist is the 2017 winner of the Frank Scott Award that is presented annually by Berks Arts Council.
The award was founded and is sponsored by the Jerlyn Foundation, led by Carolyn and Jerry Holleran, longtime friends of iconic local jazz musician Frank Scott (1923-1995).
The award honors Scott’s memory and his contribution to the jazz heritage in Berks County. Scott, a renowned saxophonist, opened two nightclubs in the Reading area and played with musicians such as Bing Crosby, Ray Charles and Bill Haley and the Comets.
Starkey was presented with the award during Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest on April 5, prior to the NYPD Jazz Band and the Berks High School All-Star Jazz Band concert at the DoubleTree by Hilton Reading.
“It gives me a great sense of accomplishment,” Starkey said of the Frank Scott Award. “I have no words for it. I vaguely remembering playing with him. I may have sat in with him but I don’t remember doing a full gig.”
Starkey has a personality bubbling with grace notes and ebullience, the omnipresent sparkle in his eyes reflective of his lifetime love affair with music.
His career fell into place with cosmic elegance, shaped by several significant influences besides Schroeder.
“My Uncle James was my first influence,” Starkey said. “My uncle would play jazz and I would say, ‘Wow.’ I knew I had to learn that skill. My uncle would show me stuff and I would take it home and expand on it.
“I had the passion since I was a little kid. I worked for it and reached for it. I did not have formal training. I know the theory behind music and what it takes to read music but I don’t read music. I am not from the school of reading music. I’ve had good influences. My uncle taught me how to walk a bass line on the piano (playing quarter notes on the lower piano keys instead of chord progressions.)”
Then there was Ed Butler.
“Ed Butler was an older gentleman who worked at the Children’s Home of Reading,” Starkey said. “He played the guitar. I met him and they had a room there where we would go and jam. Just play music, have a great time and learn, and stay off the streets. Ed Butler ran that room.”
And Bennie Sims, the Reading bassist/producer/bandleader/educator.
“Bennie Sims is like a big brother to me,” Starkey said. “Once I met Bennie history was made because he saw something in me. I owe Bennie lots of props. Bennie played with Marty and the Mangoes. I was in a band called Prime Time, playing Top 40. And then Bennie made me a part of the Original Groovemasters.
“Bennie always was involved. We went to audition for the Three Degrees band in Philly. They had musical charts and I like to play instinctively. I was really nervous. Bennie was a buffer and relaxed me. He told them to wait until I got comfortable with their chord progressions and they would like what I did with it. Bennie was a good salesman. I started playing with the Three Degrees in 1989 and did so until four or five years ago.”
The Three Degrees are an American female vocal group originally formed in 1963. Although a total of 15 women have been a member over the years, the group has always been a trio. And Cliff Starkey traveled with them internationally.
Sims also brokered Starkey’s gig with Simone, the singer who is the daughter of acclaimed vocalist Lisa Simone.
“Simone was at Marty Mellinger’s studio and Bennie was in the project,” Starkey said. “He got me over to play and I played with Simone for several years. I kept venturing out there (in the music world) and wound up in The Cutting Edge Orchestra, which was an upscale wedding band. Doc Gibbs was in it. He is a master percussionist from Philadelphia and he was noted for playing with Grover Washington and Anita Baker.
“Emeril Lagasse knew of Doc Gibbs because Emeril is interested in percussion. Emeril wanted to do something innovative with his “Emeril Live TV Show” on the Food Network. Emeril was a musician at heart and Doc got me in The Emeril Live Band.’
Starkey also was a member of Pieces of a Dream, the acclaimed fusion band.
Having spent so much time on the road, Starkey now is content to stay home.
“I now base myself locally,” he said. “I do a lot of stuff with Erich Cawalla (Reading bandleader/vocalist/saxophonist). I also have the Cliff Starkey Band, which is a put-together band that does public and private functions.
“I’m doing after-school programs. Teaching Olivet (Boys & Girls Club) kids at the GoggleWorks how to put beats together and create music. Reading High School has an after-school music program where guitarist Josh Taylor and I teach. There is a brand new Olivet building at Pendora Park that has a recording studio. I was involved in designing and putting it together. I show students how to run a studio.”
Starkey knows only too well how a strong influence can transform a career, even a life.
“I love working with kids,” he said. “I see myself in these kids … kids with raw talent who need a place to play. Just awesome. I love when I interact with young musicians, teaching them something and showing them my bag of tricks. I love to give back.”
Cliff Starkey knows only too well how a good influence can transform a life.