Tribute: I Remember Margo
By Patricia Myers
S’Wonderful, S’Marvelous, S’Margo. That’s how the song should have been written.
The energy and emotion of her unmistakable sound could chase away the blues or soothe like a mother’s lullaby. Her memorable style is as unique as that of Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington. Margo performed joyously, passionately, every performance an exhilarating celebration of life’s heights or depths. From Margo’s first note to the last, she was indelibly one-of-a-kind, memorable and unforgettably unique.
Margo had a tender and empathetic core, but she was strong. Her rendition of “My Way” represented the way she lived her life, whether working on an assembly line packing bags of dog food in Kankakee, Ill., or cleaning hotel rooms in Phoenix. Her inner strength and deep religious faith sustained her through many personal setbacks and losses.
Margo was the sparkplug, the organizer, the drill sergeant, a petite package of dynamite that was engagingly explosive in Reed family shows. Her stated early influences were Mahalia Jackson, Pearl Bailey and Sarah Vaughan.
So many memories, during the 40 years that Margo uplifted our spirits with her unmatched ability to shape each song and to make every lyric meaningful. Her performances have been “music therapy” for many.
My most vivid and vibrant memories of Margo range long and reach far through four magical decades:
- I remember the first time I heard Margo sing, a duet with her sister Francine in October 1974. They were in the audience at a Saturday afternoon the KXTC (radio) Jazz Festival at Town and Country Shopping Center on Camelback Road near 20th Street in Phoenix. Pianist Keith Greko, the Phoenix Playboy Club’s musical director, invited them to sit in during his set. (The sisters later performed as a duo in the exclusive club, for which I was given an honorary “key” that allowed me to hear other performers there, for my weekly jazz column.) I remember that Margo started “On a Clear Day” and Francine joined in on their scat-patter combination that delighted the crowd. The next month, the pair were scheduled to perform with Dave Cook’s Vanguard Big Band in Sunnyslope, so I wrote the first-ever newspaper article about them, calling them “Soul Sisters” in the Scottsdale Daily Progress.
- I remember Margo in the early-years, performing at Tommy’s Copa West with “Three Trucks and a Van” that she described to me as her brothers Michael on bass and Bucko on drums, with organist Jimmy Van, “our li’l blue-eyed soul brother.”
- I will always remember Margo performing with genius arranger-pianist Buddy Weed at Page Four, a library-themed restaurant on the Scottsdale-Tempe border, where patrons were as quiet and respectful as if in a real library. Buddy was an inventive musical disciplinarian, and wrote so many wonderful arrangements for her, especially her blues and man medleys.
- I remember how Margo’s style elevated even more when she began performing with pianist-arranger Armand Boatman, and how his stunning command of the piano would super-charge Margo in clubs and concerts.
- I remember the intuitive synergy that developed with pianist-vocalist Judy Roberts in Margo’s final performing years. Their minds and music intertwined so naturally that it seemed effortless, although we knew it wasn’t. Theirs was a near-cosmic connection at a time when Margo needed more support than ever.
- I remember Margo wearing a cowboy hat, denim jacket and jeans when she sang for a series of horseback and hay-wagon rides that I organized in the 1980s in the desert of north Scottsdale. Her sidemen also wore Western garb, even former New York City-ite John Daley, who tied a cowboy-kerchief onto his acoustic bass, Susie.
- I remember many wonderful years of Reed Family Christmas Concerts, onstage at Phoenix Symphony Hall, at El Pedregal Marketplace, at Desert Botanical Garden, with Margo counting off each song from the repertoire of gospel, carols and doo-wop. I attended each, starting in 1976 when eldest Reed brother, Tony, organized and staged it in the Scottsdale Mall Doubletree Inn. It was the first time I heard six of the seven Reed siblings together on one stage: Tony (keyboard), Michael (bass) and Margo, Francine, Mellody, Lavergne (vocals). (The Jacksons who?) That same year also started my participation in the Reed family’s annual Christmas gift-exchanges. I had the temerity to suggest that gift claimed and opened in numbered turns could be confiscated by the next person in line, amid howls of delight and/or frustration; that remained a Reed tradition for decade.
- I remember going to hear and support Margo at Del Webb’s TowneHouse in 1978, the night after her son died, the trail of tears on her face as she sang through her pain. When she sang “For All We Know,” those tears were replicated on those of listeners.
- I remember the outpouring of support for a fund-raiser I organized in 1990 after Margo was hospitalized with what first was perceived as heart problems, but tests diagnosed it as esophagitis. We raised $16,000 at the afternoon event from admissions, donations and a silent auction so Margo could pay her medical bills and future medical tests.
- I remember “dialing for dollars” to produce her first two albums, appealing for donations from friends and fans, a personal-contacted crowd-funding long before that concept existed. The first result was the 1990 cassette “Margo” with the Buddy Weed Trio on the A side and the Michael Reed Trio on the B side, for which Ed and Marie Ravenscroft of Chaton Recordings donated time and services. Second was a live-concert CD titled “Margo Live” with the Armand Boatman Trio at the Kerr Cultural Center, for which Clarke Rigsby of Tempest Recordings donated his expertise and equipment to preserve that special performance.
- I remember Margo’s last family performance, on Michael’s 70th birthday at his the Soul Café, his regular venue with his daughter, Tabitha. Francine was visiting from Atlanta, and the foursome sang the longtime gospel favorite, “Rusty Old Halo” that is on the Reed Family CD, “Blood Harmony,” produced by Francine, Bob Corritore and Clarke Rigsby (2005, Southwest Musical Arts Foundation Records).
- I remember Margo’s final public performance, with Judy Roberts on piano and vocals, at the OC Seven Restaurant in Scottsdale. We didn’t know it would be her last, but recognized that she was beginning to weaken. But her voice was strong, her personality so familiar to us, as she sang all our favorite songs (everything Margo chose became a favorite, the way she performed it. “Never the same twice, always new in some way” we would say. Ad she would reply, “That’s ‘cause I can’t sing it the same every time; it’s how I feel then, that’s how I sing it.”
A blazing flame of life, love and music has been extinguished from our lives. Margo Reed left an indelible imprint on the Phoenix music scene, and she will be remembered by many through the years ahead.
I will always remember Margo Reed, a singularly and naturally gifted singer, whose performances not only entertained us, but also strengthened, comforted and propelled us through hard times and happiness, sadness and success.