Bili Redd Thedford. Photo by Tom Sanders/TomSandersPhoto.com
by David Horacio Rosales Rojas
“I’ve Got You Under My Skin” was composed by Cole Porter in 1936. It has been performed by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Mel Tormé, Sammy Davis Jr. and Louis Prima, just to name a few. Yet on a Saturday night in late 2013, a vocalist named Bili Redd Thedford walked into the lobby of the Terranea Resort in Palos Verdes and sang the lyrics as if he were making them up in that very same moment, while thinking of a stunning somebody who had recently gotten deep in his heart.
Thedford is able to reinvent any standard with the rhythmical changes and nuances of his voice, which remains elegant upon soulful heights and powerful during smooth moments. He can also turn popular tunes from the 1960s and 1970s into sophisticated jazz compositions, akin to those in the repertoire of his idols Billy Eckstine and Nat King Cole. An inalterable grin reveals how joyful he feels to be on the stage.
But his story as a performer didn’t begin merrily at all. Thedford was born in Los Angeles in July 5th, 1942. His mother died a month after delivering him. He and his sister Carol, who is a year and half older than him, were handed to a series of foster families in early years of their lives.
“My father dropped us off at daycare when I was two or three of years old and never came back,” Thedford recalls.
“Some of the people that raised us were difficult,” he says. “They would take us in as foster children to supplement their income or for whatever social reasons. The first seven, eight years, were pretty rough times. We had some horrendous things, child-abusive situations.”
In the midst of such torments, lacking the slightest encouragement, a passion for music emerged within him instinctively: “As a child I whistled a lot. I just couldn’t stop. We went on long car trips and they’d say: ‘Stop that whistling!’ But every song or tune I heard, I whistled.”
“I was about eight years when things began to take a turn for the better and life began to be a little nicer for both my sister and me,” the singer remembers.
This sunnier chapter started when they arrived at the Gentry’s, a couple he describes as “beautiful, incredible people.”
“I think they may’ve had some information as to how we had been raised and the trials me sister and I had been through. They were a complete 180 from what we had been experiencing. All of a sudden we could be children, we could have fun, we could live, we could run and we could play,” Thedford says.
This warmer home was also his place of birth as a performer. “When we got to the Gentry’s, my sister and I would sit up these orange crates in the garage and put a sheets over them,” he says. “I would get on top of these crates, wearing a cowboy hat, vest, boots and gun, and I would sing cowboy songs and she would dance, because she wanted to be a ballerina.”
“We would do little shows for the neighborhood kids. I didn’t have any idea of what I was doing. It was just like: ‘I can sing and they like that!’ I wanted to be the clown. A lot of that stems from being so sheltered and afraid as a child. Life was not good. But one day you come outside and the sun is shining and I wanted to celebrate, sing, dance…
“The rest of the kids around me probably didn’t have those instincts because they didn’t have my background. To them the sun shone every day. For me it’s like: ‘Oh man, this is brand new!’”
There’s gratitude in his smile, a lifelong thankfulness to sunbeams.
On the road
At age 10, he moved in with his maternal grandmother, Ann Higgins. “When I turned 13, I heard some guys singing in a doo-wop group and I said: ‘I’m supposed to be one of those guys!’ My uncle, the great drummer Billy Higgins, lived in the house with us and he would have a lot of musicians come over and practice.”
Thedford often visited a neighbor who had a piano. He taught himself a few chords and sang what he heard in his new home. In 1957, his family relocated in Pacoima, where he ran into a partner from his high school in LA, named Leonard, and met other friends. The boys formed a vocal group. They sang under streetlights and serenaded at their girlfriends’ houses.
“In 1959 we met Johnny Otis and he took us to studios in Los Angeles and recorded us,” he says. “The company bought us suits and took us in the road with all the grown-up singers. We were just kids and we got to go out with professionals every night. They taught us how to deal with people and how to handle a crowd. It was great training that is hardly found today.”
The first two singers that Thedford “really adored” were Billy Eckstine and Louis Jordan. “Eckstine was the greatest thing I’d ever heard: a guy with this big baritone voice, who made women swoon and they loved him. I thought: ‘Probably when I grow up I’d look like him, which I kind of did.”
The resemblance is indubitable, both in his olive eyes and the suave charm of his stage persona.Of Jordan, he admired the way “people loved him because he would give so much.”
Bili Redd Thedford was a fulltime musician from the early 1960s to 1980. He went on the road as a bassist, percussionist or background singer for George Benson, Minnie Riperton, Boz Scaggs and Melissa Manchester, among many other artists.
“I was traveling with Andraé Crouch and the Disciples,” he says. “In our first tour out of the country we went to Indonesia and a few other places. That was around the late 60s or early 70s. Barack Obama was in elementary school in Jakarta. We sang for him then. I didn’t know him, but the reason I know we did was because we sang for every elementary in Jakarta.”
Thedford considers the memories and the experiences of those years around the world to be invaluable. Nonetheless, the demise of his first marriage marked the end of the adventurous chapter in his life and the beginning of a homely one.
“I spent nine months a year out of the country,” the singer says. “I had a wife and three kids. Nine months is too long. You miss birthdays, holidays, graduations… When you came home, your wife is accustomed to being to boss. She runs the house.”
“We got married in 1965 and divorced in 1979 or 1980. When you’re young and have a little bit of money, all of a sudden it gets really crazy. I owned houses and all that stuff. What I pretty much did was tell her, because she was going to have the girls: ‘You guys can have pretty much all of it. Take my car and I’ll take my clothes and my instruments.’ I didn’t want to get into that battle of how do you split a dog.”
Bili Redd Thedford. Photo by Tom Sanders/TomSandersPhoto.com
When Bili Redd Thedford married for the second time, he came home every night. “I said: ‘I’ve got to be a different person,’ because I was the reason my first marriage didn’t work out”. He stopped performing, opened a building company in Missouri and dedicated his body and soul to provide domestic stability to his spouse and new children.
His creativity didn’t allow him to turn his back on art. He took painting as a new means of expression and did well in various exhibitions. Nonetheless, during that period of silence, which lasted the 19 years of his second matrimony, music kept waiting for him in the West Coast, as if that Billy Eckstine alikeness were the symbol of an inescapable fate.
“One day my second wife just said: ‘I can’t do this anymore’. ‘What to do you mean?’ I told her. I was still in love,” he recalls. “I put my tail between my legs and came back to LA.”
He returned to California as a much more well-rounded performer, who could not only sing, play bass and drums, but had gained experience in plenty of musical genres. “I don’t have a vocal style, because I’m going to sing a blues, then ‘Fly Me to the Moon,’ then ‘Spanish Harlem’ and then some Latin thing. I don’t want to lock myself into one corner. There’s so much blues, jazz, pop and country/western music that I appreciate.”
The importance of versatility was engraved in his mind since he visited a titan of jazz. “Back in the 60s, a friend of mine had a beach house in Malibu. Two doors up from there were Miles Davis and Cicely Tyson, when they were together. One day, my uncle Billy Higgins came over and said: ‘Let’s go up to see Miles.’
“Herbie Hancock was there too. Miles took us into a studio-type room. All these records were stuck on the walls. It was hard rock bands, Willie Nelson, Appalachian and hillbilly music, old blues, Antonio Carlos Jobim… all these different albums from all these different places. Herbie went like: ‘What on Earth is all this!’ Miles said: ‘You gotta be into all this stuff to get your stuff right.”
Again in California he encountered a new musical partner, jazz pianist Richard Sherman. He first played bass for him, but ended up being the singer of the group when they knew he could back up his physical similarity to the colossal Mr. B. They play at the Terranea Resort in Palos Verdes two Saturdays a month and at the Holiday Inn in Torrance every Thursday.
He also met his wife, Lilly, a singer from Honduras who has been married to Thedford for three years. Aside from performing, he’s also a composer interested in rhythms and landscapes from all over the world.
“I don’t know how or where the music comes from,” Thedford says. “The universal web is so big, there’s so much going on, there is always music. You can take a portable radio and play certain music that you can’t see and you can’t feel. But it’s coming from somewhere. Some people pick up music. Some people say: ‘I know how to build that!” Somebody walks into a field and says: ‘I can make a beautiful arrangement out of these flowers for a wedding!’
“I believe that God gives each of us a different type of an antenna to receive different information. I just lie in my bed, hear this stuff and pick up my phone…”
He hums and records himself. The child who couldn’t stop whistling really made it.
Bili Redd Thedford and the Richard Sherman Trio will perform December 14 and 28, 7:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., at the Terranea Resort (100 Terranea Way, Rancho Palos Verdes) and every Thursday, 6:00 p.m. to 9 p.m., at the Holiday Inn in Torrance (19800 S. Vermont Avenue).