When checking Grenoldo Frazier’s website, his calendar of appearances will note he is scheduled to play the Fourth Friday of January, 2019, at 5 S. Water St. in Wilmington. Except Grenoldo won’t play that gig. St. Peter booked him for the ultimate command performance—one he couldn’t refuse.
That Grenoldo’s calendar listed the former home of the Water Street Restaurant as his next engagement seems the most appropriate. “In 1992 Tony Rivenbark walked into Water Street Restaurant and confidently stated, ‘I think you need to hire this man.’” Sen. Harper Peterson recalls. Peterson made Water Street into a hub of music, booking local and touring acts for two decades. “His ‘audition’ took less than 30 seconds, but his memorable performances lasted for the next 20 years at Water Street. The walls of the old slave auction house, built in 1835, couldn’t contain him, though. His legend was instant, and soon he was in high demand all around town, the state and beyond,” Peterson notes.
In all honesty, Grenoldo was an artist in residence at Water Street. His credits were national and his accomplishments were vast, but for many locals, myself included, the image that is carried is of Grenoldo at that upright piano, making it dance and sing in ways no one else could even imagine. George Scheibner of WHQR’s Soup to Nuts agrees.
“It was in the mid 1990s,” Sheibner remembers. “I’d been to Water Street before, but I was unprepared for the Grenoldo Frazier experience . . . swing[ing] with blues and jazz and tunes from the Great American Songbook. He sang Fats Waller, Jimmy Rushing and Cole Porter with fervent reverence, and he never let up on his stomping shoe-leather rhythm. Plus, his patter between songs told me he really knew the background of every number. He had stories about them that he shared with sly humor and colorful offhand references.”
For Grenoldo music and the process of creation were not separate experiences, and the interplay between the artist and the work was fair game—if not essential information—for the audience. “Grenoldo turned Water Street into a down-home Café Carlyle that night with himself front-and-center as our own hometown Bobby Short,” Scheibner explains.
His life was the stuff of legend. A small-town kid, he was born and grew up here. In 1972 he made the leap to New York to make it big. Gosh, did he ever. According to his official bio, he was a touring pianist for the shows “Journey Into Blackness” and “Harlem Heyday,” an anthology of African-American music of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He played Barnaby Tucker (the sidekick clerk) in the 1975 Broadway revival of “Hello, Dolly!” with Pearl Bailey. (He is on the “Hello, Dolly!” Wikipedia page in the grid of performers.) Though he performed in, directed and composed shows aplenty that took him around the country, he also hung a proud hat on the completion of his own fully written and composed shows, “Deadwood Dick” and “Mama I Want To Sing.” Getting to perform on “Sesame Street” and “Sesame Live” was no small feat either. Music coursed through Grenoldo’s veins and every cell of his body. Yet, it was the hard work he put behind it that garnered recognition.
Of all my memories of Grenoldo, the one that has informed so much of my life and work since was a conversation we had over a decade ago about a project I wanted to develop. About two sentences into my excitement, he nodded his head and cut me off. “It’s best not to talk about too much—but to just do it, you know?” He lived that philosophy, as his credits and work ethic shows.
In 2014 he was inducted into the Wilmington Walk of Fame. “His ‘star’ was deserved,” Peterson notes. “But as unmatched as his talent and showmanship were, it was his sweet and caring manner with just regular folk that made him most adored.”
One of his most devoted fans, Francine DeCoursey, rarely missed a chance to see him live. “Though Grenoldo was an international success, performing on Broadway and around the world, he came home to Wilmington to take care of his aging mother until her passing,” she recalls. “The first time ever I heard Greonoldo Frazier sing, the majestic power and soulfulness of his five-octave range, finessed with such lush precision and artistry, it literally took my breath away! In a seamless medley of gospel and ‘love-gone -wrong’ ballads, it was as if he had taken hold of all of the pain and sadness of generations, reached deep into his oversized heart, and expertly crafted each song into a gift of healing love and sheer magic! He touched the deepest part of my soul!”
Like many of his fans, DeCoursey developed a lasting friendship with Grenoldo. It’s his beaming smile, fabulous laugh and generous spirit she will miss most. “I came to love him like a brother,” she tells. “When I moved my beloved mother to Wilmington so I could care for her, Grenoldo was oftentimes the only reason I could get her out of the house. She instantly loved him like I did, especially since he always played her favorite ‘Blueberry Hill’ just for her. One night at Grenoldo’s regular Friday gig at Water Street, shortly after Mom’s passing, he saw me in the crowd, and nodded to me, ‘This one’s for you, darlin!!’ and he crooned ‘Blueberry Hill’ just for me. Suddenly, the lights flickered in the house, and all went dark for a moment or two, then they came back on! Grenoldo said with such tenderness, ‘See that, Francine? That’s your sweet mama, just letting you know she loves ya!”
Grenoldo was a consummate performer; he couldn’t stop if he tried. He put the time in to hone his craft, but he also understood the importance of “a rising tide lifts all boats.”
“Grenoldo and I first met when we were cast in Tapestry Theatre Company’s nontraditional production of ‘The Man Who Came to Dinner’ in the 1990s,” recalls Rhonda Bellamy, executive director of The Arts Council of Wilmington and New Hanover County. In 1998, she, Grenoldo, Maxwell Paige, Daren Beatty, and Alicia Alexander created the Black Arts Alliance, Inc. to provide more opportunities for African-Americans to participate in Wilmington’s burgeoning arts scene. But for all that he gave to the public, perhaps it is what he shared with kindred artistic souls that speaks the most.
“Over the course of our 25-year friendship, we have had many occasions to perform together.” Bellamy notes, “but my fondest memories are in this small back room where his keyboard sat on a small table over which hung an aged New York Times article on Aretha Franklin. I’d bring my cell phone, which was capable of delivering music on demand (to his amazement) and he’d play along to songs he wanted to learn. Of course, it only took hearing a song a time or two before it was mastered. Our private ‘concerts’ lasted for hours, peppered with whatever interesting tidbit we wanted to share with each other.”