When Sylvia Johns Ritchie thinks back to how her foray into piano-playing began, she envisions the holidays. Specifically, she remembers playing “Jingle Bells” on a toy piano at a mere 5 years old, after having heard it on the radio once.
Through time, as Ritchie’s toy was replaced by a baby grand, the pianist trained with one great after another, including Dr. Robert Carter of East Carolina University and Julliard’s Rosina Lhevinne. They each demanded eight hours of practice a day. It paid off, too, as it introduced Ritchie into the world of a touring musician.
She has traversed Europe and the U.S. since, and even landed in New Orleans in the ‘80s where she headlined her own act at a local nightclub. She has played with such greats as Pete Fountain and Al Hirt. Once in the Big Easy, she began infusing jazz rhythms into her playing style, and made an impression on local celebrities, which led to her authoring “New Orleans Celebrity Cookbook”—wherein proceeds helped start a French Quarter Festival. Thus she became known as the New Orleans “Duchess of Song.” In 1986 she added two original holiday tracks to “The Miracle of Christmas” album—a project for the archdiocese of New Orleans to raise money for parochial schools. All the school choirs—900 kids to be exact— sang at St. Louis Cathedral, and over 25,000 copies of the CD were sold.
Once the millennium hit, Ritchie landed in Natchez, MS, where she served as music director at Natchez Little Theatre. She taught in the Concordia Parish School District and played with her six-piece show band Rendezvous.
After her husband’s passing a few years ago, Ritchie returned to her roots in North Carolina. She now calls Brunswick County home. “It’s wonderful to be near my family again,” she says, “and to catch up on old times!”
Through all the touring and moving, Ritchie has kept music close to her heart and soul. Her latest album, “Some Girls Have It All,” showcases her vocal and keyboard expertise, as well as her band, Class Act. Featuring master musicians and teachers Barry Langston (organ, bass, acoustic guitar) and Nel Nichols (harmonica), nine other seasoned artists join the ranks: Jim Nelson, Dave Toma, John Fonvielle, Perry Hewlett, Dan Thomas, Laurie Kelly, Al DiMarco, and Joey Gore. With 2017 GRAMMY-award nominee and owner of Cape Fear Studio J.K. Loftin (percussion, electric guitar), Ritchie spent countless hours fine-tuning songs about love lost, love found and lasting friendships. “We’d spend three hours with J.K. on each of the 3-minute songs!” Ritchie explains. “It was exhausting and so worth it.”
“Some Girls Have It All” is self-penned and features Americana-pop tunes with her new Class Act band. Langston is well-known for his weekly performances at the Olympia Greek restaurant, while Nichols plays at the Rusty Nail with the Cape Fear Blues Society.
Outside of playing with her band, Ritchie performs locally at church service every Sunday morning, and books weddings and special events. Ironically, her latest album isn’t exactly about storybook endings and happily-ever-afters. While some songs explore family dynamics, like “Knot In the Family Tie—specifically, its effects on children and the remaining spouse when love walks out the door. Others cover friendships—human and animal (“A Friend Like You). They cover heartbreak, romance and all emotions between.
“After ending a romance, I was playing in a New Orleans nightclub, and I observed a couple dancing,” Ritchie tells. “They were so in love and I said, ‘Some girls have it all.’ My friend was going through a messy divorce and relayed to me the woes of being left with two young children and no money. She said, ‘It’s so hard to walk in these single-mom shoes.’”
Ritchie will play with her band at Ted’s Fun on the River this weekend. Ted’s co-owner, Kelly Jewel, a man whose easy musical style has delighted southeastern Carolinians for decades, calls Ritchie a powerhouse piano player. He expects at least one new song by Ritchie, “Not That Liberated,” to be a radio hit. “It talks about accomplished women being able to take care of themselves when a man ‘hits’ on them,” he observes. “[It] swings with a great up-tempo beat.”
Ritchie revisited Cajun influences of NOLA for “Dancin’ Boots,” a party song audiences can dance to. She also found influence from Ray Charles for the bluesy tones of “Lovin’ My Blues Away,” which is about couples who literally and figuratively “love their blues away.”
“‘I Forget’ is about being so in love with someone, you forget about everything but them,” Ritchie continues. “‘Nobody Knows’ is about knowing someone’s sensitivities so well that you can predict their feelings.”
Ritchie and Class Act will celebrate their album release on Sunday, Dec. 10, 4 p.m. – 6 p.m. To learn more, listeners and fans can go to sylviaritchie.wixsite.com/piano.