Kansas City Mayor Sly James was born in the early 1950s and raised during the advent of rock ’n’ roll. Music was a significant part of his childhood and adolescence, when he was a member of the band at Bishop Hogan High School and a fan of rock, soul, R&B and other popular music, and it continues to be during his administration.
James recently answered some questions via email about the role music has played in his life and its importance to a city steeped in music history.
Q: What are your earliest memories of music?
A: In high school, Bishop Hogan High School, 1965-1969, I was in the band led by Sister Madeleva. I learned to play tuba with the marching band for American Royal parades and football games. Sister also taught me the bass parts for a couple of school plays.
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I never stuck with either of those instruments, however. I took flute lessons for a while but never stuck with it. I also took voice lessons for a while.
At home, my father was a jazz and blues fan. I remember listening to Nat King Cole and Jimmy Smith (organist) a lot. My most profound memory, however, was hearing my friend Tom Cassidy play the recorder with his band the Amelia Earhart Memorial Flying Band, which I ultimately joined as the lead singer.
Q: Was there a lot of music in your childhood?
A: Music was everywhere in my life! I listened to the radio and played records (45s and albums) all the time. My father loved music, and we listened to jazz all the time because that was “real music” and what I and my friends listened to was “noise,” in his opinion.
Q: Who was your first musical influence?
A: Probably my father.
Q: What was the first album you bought?
A: I’m pretty sure it was “Electric Ladyland” by Jimi Hendrix. Or “The Temptations: Greatest Hits.”
Q: What was your first concert?
A: My first concert was the Jimi Hendrix Experience at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kan. My second concert was Janis Joplin.
I have been lucky to attend tons of concerts, including Sly & the Family Stone, the Jackson Five, James Brown, Elton John, Pink Floyd, Sting, Pat Metheny, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Robert Palmer, the Stones (2x), Jean Luc Ponty (2x), Jethro Tull (3x), Los Lonely Boys, Bonnie Raitt, Kansas, B.B. King, Illinois Speed Press, Sade and at least 50 others.
But my favorites were Steely Dan (5x) and my band, the Amelia Earhart Memorial Flying Band … opened for Jefferson Airplane in 1969.
Q: What was your most recent concert?
A: Buddy Guy at Starlight Theatre.
Q: What was your most recent music purchase?
A: “Suite Life”: Kemet the Phantom, featuring Kyle James
“Love & Hate”: Michael Kiwanuka
Q: What is your perspective on the Kansas City music scene?
A: I grew up in an era where it seemed that music could be found and heard in every corner of Kansas City: One Block West, the Vanguard, Sunday free music in Volker Park, jam sessions on the Nelson lawn and steps, battles of the bands in parks.
Although there is a lot of live music in Kansas City today, it doesn’t feel like there is as much now as when I was growing up. I’d like to get back to the days when the city sponsored free music (David Sanborn et al.) in city parks on Sunday nights.
Q: How vital is music to Kansas City?
A: Music is the soul of this city! It is absolutely vital to our collective personality and history.