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Beale career is comfortable fit for eclectic keyboardist Wood

By Bill Ellis

The Commercial Appeal

In many ways, Charlie Wood is the consummate Memphis musician. He's a veteran of Beale Street, is able to play and sing in styles from R&B to jazz to blues, and has honed his craft under a legend.

Wood is the house entertainer at King's Palace Cafe on Beale, whre he's gigged steadily since the early 1990s. On a street dominated by guitar and piano, Wood holds court with his earthy Hammond B-3 organ, mixing a night's worth of entertainment between Al Green and Billie Holiday covers and his own sophisticated, rhythmically taut tunes.

"Nobody bats an eye about that," says Wood, 30, of his eclectic set lists. "And it's good, because all of that music belongs on Beale Street."

Wood fronts his own trio, which consists these days of drummer Renardo Ward and one of Memphis's veteran jazz giants, Calvin Newborn, brother to the late piano legend Phineas Newborn Jr. Wood, however, doesn't like his combo being labeled as just jazz. These cats can cut anything-and do.

"There's so many great jazz players from here," says Wood. "But they all play R&B gigs, they play blues gigs-the older ones and the younger ones alike. The line that exists between these types of music is largely used by people who market and sell music. Musicians aren't that hung up on it. They just play what's appropriate."

Wood's entry into music was classical. In the mid-1980s, while an English major at Tulane University, he took lessons from a pianist "who was a great teacher and taught me lots of things-principally, that I did not want to be a classical pianist."

At the same time, he got his first professional job as the second keyboardist for Charmaine Neville, daughter of Neville Brothers percussionist Cyril Neville. When Wood returned to Memphis, he played with several rock and R&B bands, including the Scam and the Coolers, which, at one point, had Duck Dunn on bass. Wood also beefed up on his jazz theory at Memphis State University.

Wood's experience all went to service the blues-specifically, the blues of guitarist Albert King. It started around 1990, when King needed a keyboard player for a Chicago show.

Though Wood's tenure with King lasted only six months, it was a busy, eye-opening time. Wood beheld blues from one of the true masters, whose arbitrary demands caused Wood finally to quit. Until the turning point-driving to Los Angeles for a $200-per-man gig-life with King was the best kind of schooling.

"I learned how the blues works,"Wood says with pride. "I understood blues form before that, but I learned how an electric blues band works, where the peaks are, and how a shuffle works. And I learned how to play in all keys. (King) would do an uptempo shuffle in F-sharp, and I had to be there. With the stern presence of Albert King nearby, you were loath to make a mistake.

Wood went back to the Coolers and then formed his own group, called Memphis Underground. By 1992, he found his permanent niche at King's Palace in a trio format, which had, at one time, sax player Fred Ford.

Wood has two self-produced recordings. The second, "Southbound'" came out on CD a few years ago and bridged the gap between Jimmy Smith, Booker T. & the MGs and Steely Dan. It's since been picked up by a European distributor. Wood is now writing his next album.

Wood, who moved to London for six months around 1994, is now content plying his world-class talent on Beale. While many local players leave Memphis to pursue their trade, Wood enjoys the security of his nightly shows.

He has made enough money to get married and buy a house. And he doesn't have to tote his gear from gig to gig.

"It's quite a blessing and a real luxury to be able to walk downtown empty-handed and play a B-3, put a blanket on it, and come back the next night. I moved it around enough."

Cover and page one of the Commercial Appeal "Playbook" entertainment supplement, February 13, 1998