October 30, 2014
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Seriously singing for toys

As you approach Lakewest Recording, on the shore of Mishnock Lake in West Greenwich, you might think you were at the wrong address. It’s a cinderblock, one-story building with no windows painted white. You would expect to find some sort of waterworks machinery inside but what you find is a 24-track recording studio with some equipment that looks a little long in the tooth but harbors the latest digital wizardry underneath. There are also a good many framed CDs and photographs of musicians who have recorded there who also look a little long in the tooth – Room Full of Blues founder Duke Robillard, perennial blues and jump bandleader Jay McShann and bluesmen Muddy Waters and Jimmy Witherspoon among them – but lately, owner Jack Gauthier has been laying down tracks for a much younger artist.

“I grew up around the music my father was always playing around the house,” said Jesse Liam Gauthier, one of the younger artists that Jack has been working with. “He was always playing these old records from the sixties and fifties, like the Beatles and the Everley Brothers. I ended up falling in love with it and trying to keep that feel good feeling in my own singing.”

Jesse Liam (who dropped the Gauthier for his stage name) is a 21-year-old Rhode Island College senior who loves to sing. More importantly, he can sing very well and you can judge that for yourself on Sunday, Dec. 11 at 2:30 p.m. when Jack Gauthier and Jesse Liam appear at the Warwick Mall for a special performance for the Toys for Tots program.

The Greenville residents will be featuring holiday classics but, with a little luck, we will hear Jesse Liam do a few songs from "One Step Closer," the CD they recently released that features some original songs by Jesse and Jack and some of the better but lesser known songwriters they both have worked with.

“I've always enjoyed making music with my son,” Jack says. “But with this record, I'm seeing that it can really stand up to anything, musically and sonically. I think Jesse's at a point where he's really developed into his own voice and identity.”

"One Step Closer" opens with the wistful country rock of “See You Later, See You Soon” and takes trips to pop, balladry and bluesy stomp.

“I know a lot of people say they like all kinds of music but I really do,” said Liam. “I like the Beatles, I’m a big fan of Michael Bublé and a lot of older songs. I was singing at an anniversary party at the Hotel Viking [in Newport] recently and I sang 'Have I Told You Lately That I Love' for the couple and they were very moved. I think a lot of people appreciate that I know the older songs and like them.”

For Jack, a Grammy-nominated recording engineer, former producer of Dispatch and manager of blues legend Duke Robillard, "One Step Closer" represented an opportunity to put together an all-star cast of support players and writers.

“Through all the years of producing, I've connected with many artists - both musically and as friends,” he said. “They've all made an impact on the business in different ways, yet all of them enthusiastically wanted to be part of our album.”

With guest appearances from Robillard, Mark Cutler and Thom Enright and a slew of talented session players, there is some seriously good music in "One Step Closer."

With its strong Country and Western roots, it’s not likely that the album will be a huge hit on the RIC campus but any of his classmates who are willing to give it a try will at least learn that Jesse, who is a geography major, isn’t kidding when he tells them he is a singer. Most singers study music and drama in college.

“I have taken part in school productions in the past and I have enjoyed it, but I really would rather be a singer,” said Jesse. “Although, I guess I act when I sing. You do have to get inside the lyrics and make them yours.”

“By the way,” said Jack, “Did we mention that we are doing this performance for Toys for Tots?”

Yes, they did mention it. Like most people, the Gauthiers have come to respect one of the most enduring children’s charities in America.

Toys for Tots started in 1947, when Marine Reserve Major Bill Hendricks and a group of fellows collected and distributed 5,000 toys to needy children in the Los Angeles area. The website for the program credits Hendricks’ wife with inspiring it. In the fall of 1947, Bill’s wife Diane handmade a doll and asked Bill to deliver the doll to an organization to see that it got to a needy child at Christmas. Bill found out there was no such agency and Diane gave him the order to start one. He did.

The pilot project was so successful that the Marine Corps adopted Toys for Tots in 1948 and expanded it into a nationwide campaign. Marine Reserve units across the nation conducted Toys for Tots campaigns wherever a Marine Reserve Center was located. The aim of the program was, and remains, to “bring the joy of Christmas to America’s needy children.”

In civilian life, Hendricks did public relations for Warner Brothers, which helped bring a lot of celebrity support. In 1948, Walt Disney designed the Toys for Tots logo and the first poster used to promote it nationally.

Nat “King” Cole, Peggy Lee and Vic Damone recorded the Toys for Tots theme composed by Sammy Fain and Paul Webster in 1956. According to the program’s website, they started collecting new toys only in 1980.

“Three factors dictated this change. First, the Secretary of Defense’s Total Force Program, introduced in the 1970's, assigned Reserves a greater role in America’s defense posture. As a consequence, Reservists had to dedicate every minute of weekend drill time to honing and polishing combat skills. No time was available to refurbish toys. Second, public awareness of the health and safety aspects of toys that developed during the ‘70s made distribution of used toys legally inadvisable. Third, distributing ‘hand me down’ toys does not send the message Marines want to send to needy children.”

Maybe Jesse Liam and Jack Gauthier can resurrect that Toys for Tots song that Nat “King” Cole and the rest of the gang recorded back in 1956. That might get a good response.

“I get confidence from the response,” said Jesse, about singing songs that older people know. “They see that you are going to them and I really get good response from an older crowd. That makes me feel good, that I have made their day.”


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