Anyone who’s paid attention to contemporary R&B music scene in the last 20 years or so may have noticed the concept of the rhythm-and-blues band is all but dead. The days of full-sized bands like the Commodores, the Isley Brothers or Tony! Toni! Toné! all moving and playing (actual instruments!) as one soul-music making machine has become an “old school” notion.
Local musician Gary Oliver, 56, a senior press operator for the Bemis Co. by day, proudly waves his “old school” flag. For more than 20 years he has created his own opportunities by organizing, funding, promoting and performing at shows with his Relatively Jammin’ Blues Band in venues all over Akron.
On Saturday night, Oliver and the RJBB will headline the second annual Stone Soul Ball in the President’s Hall at the Akron Urban League, with opening act Marilyn Rivers and Ladies. Last year’s inaugural edition drew more than 350 blues and R&B lovers and Oliver hopes to top that number this year.
“I saw a whole lot of new faces last year and it just seems like live entertainment is kind of dry around here, and to have something of that quality at a nice place like the Urban League, I think, helps to bring new people out and then good word of mouth,” he said, adding that many potential concert-goers, particularly older folks, simply don’t feel comfortable going to bars and clubs at night for live music.
“Fortunately, we’ve never had any problems. People really just want to come out and have a good time, look good, take pictures and see a good show. We’re just trying to keep up that tradition.”
In addition to the music there will be some contests, including a Soul Train Line Dance, a Best Dressed Couple, and a Down Home Blues Singing contest. The prizes, donated by Oliver’s buddy Howard Paar, executive director of the Akron Civic Theatre (the RJBB has played Lock 3 Park several times), include tickets to this summer’s B.B. King concert, the Doo Wop Celebration VI and the All-City Musical.
Oliver’s band isn’t called “Relatively Jammin’ ” because they jam just a little bit, but because the band consists entirely of a few generations of Oliver’s music-loving family. Oliver is a guitarist and singer; daughter Marilyn “Akron’s Own Queen of the Blues” Oliver is a vocalist; his sister Carmen Whitehurst plays keyboards and sings; bassist Barry Davidson is his nephew; and drummer Eric Johnson is his cousin. Oliver’s wife, Yvette, works behind the scenes.
The RJBB also sports granddaughters Marsharee Oliver, who has been performing with the band since she was 4 years old, and Alana Oliver as dancers. Concertgoers will likely see the next generation on the stage as his 10-year-old grandson Royal Oliver and 4-year-old great-great-nephew Terrell Alexander will be adding their dance moves.
“They all love music, and as long as those kids do right, I’ll find a place for them in the band. … It’s a family affair,” Oliver said of his growing multigenerational soul machine.
Over the years the band’s repertoire has consisted of classic blues and R&B tunes from the ’60s to the ’80s, but for the 2013 Ball, the RJBB will debut an original tune Mind Games, written and performed by Marilyn Oliver.
“It’s real smooth, man, real soulful, got an old-school type groove to it. [Concertgoers] are going to like it, I tell you that,” he said. The RJBB’s Stone Soul Ball set also will be recorded for a live CD.
Over the years the band has opened for many luminaries including Roy Ayers, Tony! Toni! Toné! and Aretha Franklin. And in keeping with his love of the old-school style, Oliver models his shows on the R&B stage revues of yore with matching costumes and dancers.
“We spend money on ourselves to try and look nice, to make the people sitting in front of us appreciate us. We never went somewhere with blue jeans and T-shirts on,” Oliver said.
“We’re so old school. … It really bothers me today, to see these big groups that come on the stage looking like they just came from the garage cutting some wood, or something with plaid and blue jeans and tennis shoes. I just can’t see that,” he said.
Oliver admits the tension of paying for and promoting your own shows — he also organizes a day-long event called the Stone Soul and Rock & Roll Music Festival in the summer — and wondering who, if anyone, will show up, is a bit draining.
“If you’re scared you’re going to lose, you don’t do this; you better find another occupation, because you just don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.
But ultimately all of the pre-show stress helps make those moments of onstage musical and familial bliss that much more sweet.
“Whatever you’re worrying about, when you hit that stage, man, it just is what it is,” he said. “I love it, man, that’s all I can say.”