In July we're kicking off Tuesday Evening Music Club at Frederik Meijer Gardens.
Shawn Colvin was supposed to perform, but she got delayed and there was no way she was going to make the show. They said the show had been canceled and everyone would get their money back ... I went out to get my equipment and everyone applauded, so I played a few songs. It wasn't my show, but people were there and they were ready to hear something. And they booked me back and they asked me to do this every week in the summer.
Were you the first artist to perform?
When they asked me to do it, I kind of talked myself out of it, I said I have friends that can do it. I sort of curated the first series.
Though you're very involved in Grand Rapids, it's not your hometown. You grew up in Gary, Indiana, right?
Me and Michael Jackson. We grew up right around the same time. He was doing some stuff with his family at the time with fairs and stuff. They hadn't even broken into the big time.
Did you know of The Jackson 5 at the time?
A little bit. There was still quite a bit of segregational things when i was a kid, but I would still go downtown. Gary was still not boarded up. It was the pre-'60s, so it was very bustling.
You moved to Grand Rapids when you were 16. What brought you here?
There was a friend of mine I went to boarding school with who was from here and when I came here, I fell in love with it. It was kind of small town without being too small ... Downtown was still a shell [though]. A lot of hookers and broken glass.
What kept you here?
I wanted to make this town the place where everyone else wanted to come to.
Around 2008 you were diagnosed with cancer. How are you doing now?
I think I'm doing well. I try not to focus on it too much. I don't want it to be the identity, but it's [also] a significant place in my life and it opened my eyes to a lot of things on the health care horizon.
It must have been hard to slow down and be less involved in the community.
It was hard. This has been the busiest I've been, this past June. It's been hard getting back that confidence level or even feeling like I've got the energy to do it. Gradually, there have been people helping me feel like I've been able to do it.
Your audience knows you as the Godfather of West Michigan Music. Do you embrace the title?
Not if it means this hard-ass guy that extracts from people favors or else I'm gonna break their knees. I mean, that's not the kind of guy I am. (Does an impression from The Godfather.) If it's more from the standpoint of the godfather terminology where a parental group will say, "We really like what you're doing and would like you to come in and be a part of our family, to help nurture our child and be the person our child turns to," then maybe, but Marlon Brando comes to mind.
OK, let's say it's the nurturing definition.
I would probably embrace that one more because I like the idea of embracing and nurturing people.
Q&A conducted, condensed and edited by Lindsay Patton-Carson. Photo: Dianne Carroll Burdick.