The Prodigious Son

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

Seventeen-year-old organist Arthur "Buddy" Strong II is ready to lift the congregation of the Faith Tabernacle Church to a higher place.

The setting for this musical levitation is South 24th Street, between Broadway and Roeser. The neighborhood is commonly considered among the Valley's most dangerous, but all the madness temporarily is of no consequence.

What is, at 10:37 a.m., October 12, is joy.
Seven little girls stand shyly before the congregation at the Sunday service. Buddy's father, Pastor Arthur Strong, has just anointed the girls in the name of Jesus Christ.

"Jump!" the pastor commands them in a powerful baritone. "Jump for joy!"
But the girls, who are about 7 or 8 years old, are too scared to move.
"I guess they didn't get it," Strong tells the 100 or so in attendance. "When I was their age, I would have been jumping for joy. Maybe the spirit's not really in them, huh?"

As he speaks, Alva Owens slowly makes her way to the girls from her seat of honor left of the pulpit. Mother Owens, as the 85-year-old woman is known, slips off her heeled shoes and puts her hands on her hips.

Though she's frail, Mother Owens suddenly raises her arms in the air and jumps. Buddy immediately signals to his 18-year-old cousin, Chris Strong, who's at a drum kit behind the Hammond B-3.

Just as Mother Owens jumps again, Buddy starts a double-time bass line with the organ's foot pedals; Chris cracks his snare drum. Buddy quickly invents a bluesy two-handed line that begins at the keyboard's low end and snakes to the top. By now, the little girls are jumping for joy, as is just about everyone else but Mother Owens, who has plopped back in her chair.

"Hallelujah!" Pastor Strong bellows, swiveling his large body to face his son, his youngest child.

"Meditate on that, y'all. Meditate on Brother Buddy! Whew! Lord, have merrrrrrrcy!"

Buddy has been playing the organ at Faith Tabernacle services since he was about 8, six years after he debuted here on drums. When he started playing the Hammond, he couldn't even reach the foot pedals. Though he never had a formal music lesson until last year, his level of invention is profound, his technical prowess formidable.

"The best stuff in church and the best stuff in jazz is alike," he says later, in a voice as soothing as a lemon drop. He is a towering, dark-skinned young man, with a round face and a countenance that appears somber until he smiles, which he does easily and often.

"We feel the spirit, the mood, the life, in church. Me and Chris improvised to fit the moment. Mother Owens, she the same way. I just followed her lead, like a good musician do. The girls just needed something to get them going."

Buddy Strong already is renowned in his world--church, community, school. He has the makings of a musical master, and on three instruments--keyboards, drums and bass guitar.

Though not yet old enough to vote, Buddy is Faith Tabernacle's musical director, and leads three choirs there. He's won numerous jazz-band competitions (as a drummer), and is in demand around the Valley in many musical genres.

Fellow students at South Mountain High, where he's a senior in the school's magnet music program, gravitate toward Buddy, and not just because he's a killer player. He's a warm and generous spirit most of the time (just don't play the wrong notes or sing flat on his watch).

The school's gangbangers and druggies leave him alone. The girls, however, don't. But Buddy insists with a boyish giggle that they haven't yet posed too much temptation.

Other than his exceptional talent, Buddy Strong is a normal kid: He earns pocket money cutting hair (guys only), and by playing organ at other churches after his Sunday duties at Faith Tabernacle are done. He eats too much junk food. He's not prompt (though always on time for church). He played varsity football as a junior, but gave it up this year because of time constraints and the memory of those taxing late-summer workouts.

Faith Tabernacle youth choir member Monique Miller provides a clue to Buddy's essence: "Buddy knows that God gave him this chance, this talent, and that he'd better go with it. It's all about music and God for him. But he's a lot of fun, too."

Bob Diaz, his music teacher at South Mountain: "Buddy can do whatever he wants to do. He's a monster musician and, more important, he's an excellent person who was brought up right by his folks."

Kathy Strong, his mother: "We've raised him and our other [four] children to live right, to do right. That's the big thing. He's a good son who happen to have the music deep in him."

Arthur Strong, his father: "Sometimes on Sunday, I say to myself, 'Wow, how does he do this?' He's gone so far past me musically, he can't even see me anymore. We can't hardly remember when Buddy didn't play good. He's touched."

Though he just turned 17 in July, Buddy is approaching a crossroads. High school graduation looms, and, with it, decisions.

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.

After the princess steps into the school, Diaz and some of his class assess the performance.

"All things considered, it went pretty smoothly," the teacher says. "You guys didn't choke one bit under the pressure."

"C'mon, man," Buddy says, tongue mostly in cheek, "she just a princess."
That earns a chuckle from Diaz, who considers Buddy a prodigy but cuts him little slack. Diaz has taught music for more than 25 years, the past decade at South Mountain.

A few weeks earlier, Diaz had lambasted the choir after an attempt at "Chattanooga Choo Choo" that bore little resemblance to the smooth performance it would give the princess.

"You got to make a commitment to the note," he told them then. "If you're wrong, you're wrong. Thousands of people are not waiting to hear what you have in mind. You blow a note into the [music] stand, you sing into the stand, where's it gonna go?"

"Into the stand," Buddy Strong answered.
"Where do we want it to go?"
"Into the air, into the crowd, through the air, through the crowd."

Diaz asked the students to sing their last note in the tune for as long as possible. Buddy lasted about twice as long as anyone else.

"You sure you weren't a pearl diver in the Pacific in a past life?" Diaz asked him. Everyone cracked up.

They tried the song again, getting through it without a glitch, but with little elan. Buddy, the de facto teacher's aide, provided an instant critique to his peers.

"That sounded stale," he said testily. "We need to sound almost drunk a little bit. We need to do a blues, to feel it a little more."

Buddy improvised a line, sounding like an ancient blues singer: "My baby, I said, my baaaaby left me, left me feelin' so very baaaad."

His classmates lapped it up.
"You guys got to practice, practice, practice," Diaz told the class, "so you don't end up on the streets. It's hot out there. There are riots out there."

The students roared at Diaz's intentionally ironic comment. Every few years, it seems, South Mountain High is thrust into the media spotlight after a school fight turns into an alleged race riot. Daily life at the school, however, is more benign and sedate than outsiders may suspect. Kids are learning.

Diaz says no one he's taught has more natural skill than Buddy, and that he expects the teen to become famous in whatever musical style he embraces.

Buddy's ear is astonishing. Not long ago, he and a piano-playing pal, Jeff Arnold, learned Charlie Parker's complex bebop classic, "Donna Lee," from a recording during a few lunch breaks. The tune is a litmus test for advanced jazz students; anyone who can negotiate Parker's lightning-fast changes without caving in qualifies as a serious player.

But Diaz has had trouble getting Buddy interested in music-theory classes, and suspects he knows why.

"I think his dad thinks that Buddy will lose some of natural feeling if he knows technically what's behind the stuff he's playing," Diaz says. "I don't think Buddy has been encouraged in that one area."

Pastor Strong doesn't deny it.
"Sometimes, Buddy's teachers just don't understand that the music just come out of him," he says. "In the old days, we didn't know keys. We'd just sing and play, and sometimes it sounded beautiful."

He pauses.
"I had a musical gift, too," he says, "playing piano from when I was a little boy. But when I was a young teenager, a lady asked me to play something in the key of C-sharp. I didn't know C-sharp from B-sharp. I was humiliated, and I quit music for a long time. I went through a lot of frustration about this."

Sometime later, Strong says, he asked God to give one of his children the gift of music that he believes he squandered. The pastor, by the way, sings beautifully and plays a mean piano. Buddy's sisters--Kathy, Kerry and Kimberly--and adopted brother Earl Gray also are steeped in music.

"All of my childrens have music in them," Arthur Strong says, "but when my baby son came along, it didn't take long before you could hear the rhythms in him. I mean, 8 or 9 months old, he was banging on stuff, but with a reason, a purpose. He was able to play drum music in church services at the age of 2--real music. Then, when he was 7 or so, he came to me and said, 'Daddy, I want to try the organ. Please.' I prayed for him, then I anointed him and said, 'Play, son!' Within six months, he played with the choir."

Buddy's version adds detail:
"[An organist] showed me something really small on the B-3, a three-chord thing. For a long time, I kept playing those same chords over and over. I got comfortable on those black keys pretty quick. Then it started coming to me. I've always worked on my left hand--figured my left better can do what my right does. I come out of it with what people say is a great left hand."

Buddy knows he has a phenomenal gift, and he won't engage in false humility. But he doesn't seem stuck on himself, even though he's constantly told he's going to be famous.

"I have a long ways to go," he says. "I want to be able to improvise and to have the discipline and knowledge that the great jazz players have. My goal is to sound where people say, 'That's him, that's Buddy Strong!'"

A few weeks ago, Bob Diaz attended a Faith Tabernacle service for the first time. He later marveled at Pastor Strong's stirring sermon, at how Buddy meshed his youth choir so seamlessly and magnificently into the service, and at the musical telepathy between Buddy and his cousin, Chris.

"I understand a lot more about where Buddy and his father are coming from now," Diaz said. "It takes so much work, hard work, to put something together as good as all that. Everybody working on the same page. Amazing."

Pastor Strong was asked where he envisions his son in 10 years, when Buddy will be 27.

"I'd like to see him take the choir here [at Faith Tabernacle] and make CDs, to see him advance in the church and in the music as far as he can go," Strong said. "I'd like to see him teaching music. I think what he have need to be shared."

The 52-year-old pastor explains something by way of autobiographical sketch:
"I grew up on a farm near Safford. I'm one of 12 brothers and sisters, and six of us became preachers. Been preaching since I was 13. I served in the Army as a medic assigned to Korea. They used to call me 'Rev' over there, 'cause I preached and preached. I would hope and certainly do believe that Buddy have the same calling I have. I believe there's a preacher inside of him, too."

Buddy says he knows his father feels that way, even if he doesn't.
"I don't want to see it," he says of his possible future in the pulpit, "but I see it. The preaching at the service is the fun part. But you also have people always lookin' at you--high expectations--and they expect you to solve all of their problems. Everything that take away from the music, I don't want to mess with."

It was last Wednesday night's youth choir practice at Faith Tabernacle when Buddy Strong's abilities shone most brightly.

The rehearsal began with a group prayer. Then, for the next hour or so, Buddy taught nine women and five men the parts to several new tunes by cutting-edge gospel artists. He started with the sopranos and worked his way to the tenors, singing every section effortlessly and urging them to do their best work.

After the work was done, the rehearsal transformed into a full-blown service. The church was empty save but a few onlookers. But the choir sang, and Buddy, Chris Strong and a saxophonist played as if there's no tomorrow, or rather, as if there is a brighter tomorrow.

Buddy grabs the microphone and starts preaching, carrying a soft, meditative riff on his Hammond all the while.

"Let's not stop praising just 'cuz I turned the music down," he tells them. "Praise His name. Thank you, Jesus! This is what we came for tonight, to give the highest praise, not just to practice songs. This is not just a choir rehearsal--this is a service for God!"

In response, the choir murmurs its praise to Jesus, crying, shouting, gesticulating. The music is trancelike, as Buddy continues his sermon.

"Give all your troubles and your problems to Jesus tonight. He has an answer for every situation. As the song says, my God will supply all of your needs. Come on, everybody! Lift your hands up for Jesus!"

With that, he inexorably speeds the tempo, riffing on a hot, jazzy line. Chris is taking care of business on the drums, as usual. Buddy growls into the microphone like a young Howlin' Wolf, while playing impossibly fast and fluid runs with both hands.

The music rolls on for minutes, building to an exhilarating crescendo. It's magical, majestic, even miraculous. Finally, Buddy brings it back down, slowly and carefully, to the contemplative mode from which the moment sprung.

"Thank you, Jesus," he says, his music now soft and sweet. "Thank you so much. Thank you for this night. . . . And remember why we came here tonight. You can look good, sound good, rock good, do it all good. But if you're not in church, it's just a show. God, thank you."

Arthur "Buddy" Strong II looks skyward and smiles.
"Amen!" he shouts.

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