I still vividly remember that Saturday night of April 4, 2009. I was sitting on my recliner in the Little Bitty in the Syracuse city neighborhood of Eastwood when the phone rang.
Former New York state Senator Nancy Larraine Hoffman was on the line for me.
I wasn’t working on any sort of story for the big daily that she’d be involved in, hadn’t left her any messages, and in fact couldn’t remember even having given her our home number. I knew something newsworthy was up, and with the sun having already set, I sensed it was not good.
“Mark, I hate to tell you this, but Roosevelt Dean died today,” she said. “I knew you’d want to write about it.”
Oh, I hated to hear that. And yes, as the music writer and critic for The Post-Standard and its sister site syracuse.com, I needed to write about it, and quickly. I thanked the formerly prominent politician, a woman who had been married to one of the best guitarists in Syracuse and had indeed run partially on a ticket that promised less politics and more blues.
Roosevelt Dean, you see, was The Voice of Syracuse. He sang with a deep and wonderful sound and played his red guitar Clara Mae like a ringing bell and although he’d been battling cancer for eight years, he was just 65. What a loss.
I called sources and got quotes and did what I had to do. I put stuff on line and the story made A1 of the Sunday morning paper. I continued to work it the next several days, too. That’s how much Roosevelt Dean meant to our city.
And to me. You see, in the 18 years that had gone by since I’d become the music writer and critic, I’d seen his shows and listened to his CDs and handled the professional part to the best of my ability, and we both knew it. But my favorite moments were when my phone would ring and that deep voice would say “I’m out here. Come on down.”
It would would be Rosey, in his van, parked on the side street outside the newspaper building. He wanted to hang in private. Sometimes he’d have a cassette in the deck with a new song on it to play for me, so he could watch my face as I listened. Then he wanted to hear my immediate, off the cuff, can’t-think-too-hard-before-I-write-it opinion.
Rosey’s longtime bass player, Jim Pavente, is throwing a party to celebrate his life at 8 p.m. this Saturday, July 25, at
Firudo Asian Food & Bar, 3011 Erie Boulevard East, Syracuse. Admission is free.
I interviewed Pavente for a story on the Live Space Entertainment site. If you’d like to read the piece, click the link below.
I also hunted around for what I’d written in the aftermath of Dean’s death. Here’s the some of story from the blog piece I wrote two days later. You can tell why he was so loved around these parts.
Central New Yorkers loved Dean.
Blues fan Ed Fish left me a phone message as soon as he saw the news in my Post-Standard story Sunday morning.
Fish recalled this brush with Dean at the first Syracuse Area Music Awards show at the Landmark Theatre.
“Roosevelt pulled up in a limo. He saw me and my girlfriend standing outside,” Fish said. “He said, ‘Walk in with me, it’s too cold outside.’ And then he had us sit with his family. He said, ‘You blues fans, you are my family.’ ”
Sound man George Gleason sent me an e-mail, offering to donate his services to any tribute show planned in honor of Dean. “I was a sound guy who was enriched by Mr. Dean,” Gleason said. “I would like to donate my company’s services, sound system and engineers, so those who loved Rosey may come together in his memory.”
Comments started getting attached to my declaration this morning, “I’m still feeling sad about the community’s loss of Roosevelt Dean.”
Bass player standout T.A. James, who played with Dean while living in Syracuse, quickly commented from Raleigh/Durham, N.C.: “Now that my crazy weekend is over and I now have time to absorb it…DAMN…”
On syracuse.com, 33 people commented at the end of my story, and every single one of them had something positive to say about the effect Dean had on their lives.
I spent some time this morning going through our Post-Standard archives for stories I’d written about Dean since I became The Post-Standard’s music writer in spring 1991.
Here’s a retrospective of Dean’s career through my eyes, ears and words.
I’ll never, ever forget Dean and his deep voice calling me up to run downstairs because he was going to pull up outside the Clinton Square entrance to The Post-Standard because he had something he wanted to talk about.
In February 1995, he told me about his writing method. Dean let the song rattle around in his head for a while. “If it leaves me, it’s not good,” he said. “If it stays with me, it’s a good song.”
Accompanying that feature story was my review of his album “I Don’t Wanna Leave You.” I wrote that the CD “lifts the Syracuse blues balladeer’s sound to a whole new dimension. For sure, Dean still croaks out the hard-luck tunes with the best of them. But on this 15-song collection … he mixes a lively handful of upbeat tunes.”
In November 1996, I included Dean’s relationship with his guitar, Clara Mae, in a piece I wrote about Central New Yorkers prior to B.B. King’s date in Syracuse with his beloved guitar, Lucille. “Mention the Seneca Whale Watch to Roosevelt Dean and watch his eyes mist over,” I wrote. “That’s the gig where Dean and his crew left Clara Mae behind.” The tale had a happy ending. The band drove back, and band members Rodney Zajac and Jose Alvarez went searching. ” ‘They came back and said, “We found your guitar case. And Clara Mae was in it.” ‘Dean said.”
In January 1997, I ranked Dean’s CD “Live at the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que” No. 4 on my list of top 10 CNY favorites from 1996. “Dean holds the title of ‘The Voice of Syracuse.’ That’s appropriate in this blues-loving town,” I wrote. “And so is Dean’s decision to put out a collection of live material recorded at this city’s blues mecca, the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que on West Willow Street. Dean’s been-there-done-that voice meshes superbly with Jose Alvarez’s slick guitar and the gutsy horn section.”
In January 2001, his 2000 CD “Blues Heaven” came in at No. 3 on my top 10 list. I said the title cut showed his love for his adopted hometown, “simply, Syracuse and all of the clubs that have welcomed Dean to the stage.”
In November 2001, I wrote of the blues bash at Damons that celebrated Dean’s return home after two months in Atlanta receiving treatment for prostate cancer. “Roosevelt Dean sat at his table like a king,” I wrote. “The veteran blues singer shook a load of hands. He hugged countless shoulders. He smiled a little bit. A thousand or so of Dean’s closest friends gathered Sunday at Damons in Cicero … ‘I’m fatigued, but I’m home,’ Dean said.”
In July 2002 I wrote about Dean’s set at the New York State Blues Fest in Clinton Square: “Veteran Syracuse bluesman Roosevelt Dean proved to his hometown crowd that he truly deserved the coveted next-to-last main stage slot. Dean was born in Phenix City, Ala., but he thinks Syracuse is ‘Blues Heaven.’ Carrying his red guitar, Dean came off the stage and traveled amid his fans as his band, The Spellbinders, chorused, ‘Do you feel all right?’ to a big standing ovation. The six-time Syracuse Area Music Award winner certainly answered yes, with his big, rich voice proving that he’s back in full swing after last year’s bout with prostate cancer.”
In January 2003, I wrote about his CD “Somewhere ‘Round Georgia,” “For sure, there’s southern grit to the vocals. And guitar work and musicianship from Dean and his great cast of players. But the truth is, Dean may come from down in those parts of the world, but after all these years here, ‘The Voice of Syracuse’ has a sound that’s synonymous with the big Central New York blues scene.”
In April 2005 I wrote about Dean starting a new venture. “When his doctor told him to cut down his live performances, Roosevelt Dean decided to go for it. Why not start the big band that Syracuse’s veteran blues singer and guitarist has envisioned all these years? After all, Dean says, if he only had to worry about booking a gig a month instead of lining up for more regular paychecks to keep the musicians in his longtime band The Spellbinders happy, there should be enough clubs willing to hire him to make it work. So the 10-piece Roosevelt Dean Blues Band was born.”
In October 2005 I wrote about his ninth CD, “Touch Somebody’s Hand.” “Dean shows why he’s been the most recognizable blues singing voice in Syracuse. … When 18 voices joined him at SubCat Music studios in Skaneateles to record the title cut, a huge, gospel-influenced number, Dean’s work seemed bigger than life.”
In May 2007 I wrote about the CD “Keep All My Secrets,” his first collaboration with old friend Carolyn Kelly, whom Dean convinced to make a comeback and for whom he was willing to fill a supporting role. “Dean produced the 10-song collection, wrote six of the compositions, and adds his able guitar and voice,” I wrote. “Kelly’s the star nonetheless, with her big blues voice belting out the power songs and sensitive soul side snagging your ear, too.”
After Dean’s induction into the Syracuse Area Music Awards in June 2008, I wrote: “Roosevelt Dean seemed to be the happiest guy of all. Not just because he was inducted into the hall, which gave him his eighth Sammy of his illustrious blues career. Not just because he got to sing with his great band. Dean told the crowd he was glad to be alive. ‘It’s been a rough day,’ Dean said as his band rested to let their leader speak his piece. ‘I’ve been sick. Real sick. You have no idea how sick I’ve been.’ But faith has gotten Dean through a battle with cancer that started in 2001. Without that faith, Dean said, ‘There was a chance I would by lying down right now. You would be walking by me looking down.’ Yet there he was, able to belt out the beautiful gospel blues version of ‘Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).” … ” ‘Rosey, you got your due,’ Welcome to the Hall of Fame,’ said fellow Sammys hall member Todd Hobin.”
Dean will be missed by so many. Say, Amen.
Who’s your favorite singer/guitarist, and why? What’s your favorite car conversation, and why? Have you ever joined in a jam, and if so, what did you play?