The Prodigious Son

Buddy Strong will be a famous musician someday. Will he cross over, or cling to the cross?

He loves his church, his family, his music--"There's nothing better than Faith Tabernacle--the choir wailing, my daddy preaching, my mom feelin' the spirit, my sisters singing. I love the way I've been raised."

But hovering at the gates of Buddy's well-ordered life is "the world," as he calls the secular life. Besides contemporary gospel, he immerses himself in recordings of classic jazz, hip-hop, old-school funk and rhythm and blues.

"I love playing along with records by the greats," he says. "I love jazz--it came out of the church, y'all know what I mean? Maybe someday I'll get to play with them."

That may pose a problem. Pastor Strong wants Buddy to stay close to the nest after graduation.

"He's a very important part of this church, and it's important that he continue," the pastor says. "Plus, he's still tender, a boy. Here, he's got me to protect him and to light the fire under him. We'll work it out. We always do."

Clearly, the subject of Buddy's future is unresolved.
Buddy speaks openly about his dilemma, which isn't necessarily an unhappy one. He knows that, whatever his direction, music is his future:

"I'll probably take a few classes at Mesa Community next year, to play in their jazz band and just to stay in the mood of school. But I want to make money, too.

"Contemporary gospel is moving up as we're talking. A guy like [gospel superstar] Kirk Franklin gets big halls to play in--I saw him at the Blockbuster Desert Sky, and he was amazing. I know my dad may not want to hear this, but I want to be a recording artist and I want to tour."

It's not as if Buddy longs to play smoky jazz clubs or hip-hop concerts in faraway cities, or to embrace a sinful lifestyle.

"I'm not supposed to take any secular gigs, man," he says, citing tenets of the Church of God in Christ. "I've never even been to a secular concert."

But the road admittedly is alluring to him.
"I'll try to hold on. But being young and wanting money, you know . . . it's temptation. I've already had offers from gospel groups to go on the road, but I'll have to find someone to replace me at the church first, and it won't be easy. You're supposed to do one or the other--church or the world--though a lot of our musicians do both. That's being a hypocrite."

Pastor Strong is familiar with the W.C. Handy story, which was made into a Hollywood movie starring Nat "King" Cole in 1958. Handy grew up in a rural black church, the piano-playing son of a stern preacher. But he strayed during his early 20s and went on to compose "St. Louis Blues," a catchy melody that became the core of a miniopera. In the movie, at least, father and son have a falling out that lasts until the final scene, when the pastor attends a secular concert in New York City.

"Me and Buddy aren't in no W.C. Handy situation," Pastor Strong says. ". . . I'm a strict dad, but my kids can and do come to me. Buddy and I talked in the kitchen a few weeks ago about how to deal with some boy-girl situations. We talk about everything, including his future. He knows that his musical gift is a priority of mine."

Princess Anne is due to arrive in an hour, and South Mountain High's Bob Diaz is one unhappy music director.

The princess' first stop at the school will be just outside the front door, where Diaz's jazz combo and choir are setting up. Buddy Strong is the band's heart and soul, but he's not here.

A few minutes earlier, Diaz had ordered Buddy to go home, grab a jacket and tie, and get his butt back to school. Buddy hopped into a gray 1983 Cadillac--a gift from his parents--and flew home, about four miles south.

He returns with about 20 minutes to spare.
"The king has arrived," Diaz announces as Buddy walks past the media cluster and grabs an electric bass. "The king is now dressed appropriately for the princess."

Buddy's friend, Jeff Arnold, swings into Miles Davis' "So What," a classic song they figured out by ear. Their effort would pass muster in most clubs.

After they're done, a radio reporter asks Buddy, "Are you doing this for a hobby, or are you serious about this?"

"Very serious," he replies. "Most serious."
Within minutes, the princess' Bentley pulls up. She steps out and strolls toward the band. She's wearing a green dress and those white "princess gloves," as Bob Diaz dubs them.

The princess seems to actually listen to the choir's fine rendition of "Chattanooga Choo Choo" for a few minutes.

"They're very professional sounding," she tells Diaz after Buddy scats the tune home in a silky tenor that sounds like a young Nat "King" Cole. "Do you do this every day?"

It's a moment for Diaz to savor: Anne grew up in Buckingham Palace; like his students, Diaz was reared in a somewhat-less opulent setting--near 11th Street and Washington, in his case.

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