Remembering Phoenix Jazz Legend Margo Reed

The late Margo Reed.
The late Margo Reed.
Courtesy of Patricia Myers

When Valley jazz singer Margo Reed passed away last month at the age of 73, the beloved vocalist left behind an indelible legacy. And according to her friends, family members, and fans, its one filled with cherished memories and unforgettable performances by one the true gems of Arizona's jazz scene.

Reed, who died on April 15, was revered by many of her fellow musicians because of her incomparable and transcendent singing voice, as well as the way she captivated audiences.

"She had such a real gift," says local jazz vocalist Delphine Cortez, who performed alongside with Reed at such Valley venues as Scottsdale's Kerr Culutral Center over the years. "When Margo sang her songs it was like she was telling a story and she had every emotion, whether it was something that brought people to tears or gave them chills."

Reed was a mainstay in Phoenix's jazz community for more than four decades who lit up numerous venues both past and present with her performances, ranging from such bygone spots as Boojum Tree Lounge and the Century Sky Room to long-running weekly residencies at Scottsdale's Kazimierz World Wine Bar and Remington's Restaurant.

Upcoming Events

Jazz pianist Joel Goldenthal, who accompanied Reed during their decade-long stint at Kaz Bar from 2002 to 2012, says that "there was something truly unique" about the singer. And when she performed such signature numbers as a medley of Shirley Bassey's "If" and Judy Garland's "Over the Rainbow," it had a profound emotional impact on audiences.

"She was the most natural, unaffected, raw, what-you-see-is-what you get kind of singer," he says. "She had songs that people connected with at every performance, like her signature medley of hits that were the quintessential Margo. It was chilling."

Local jazz scribe Patricia Myers, a longtime friend of Reed's who has covered her career since the early '70s, says that the singer affected audiences throughout 60-year music career.

"Margo always conveyed joy and passion in her music. It just delights those of us who have listened to her for decades," Myers says.

Reed got an early start to her music career. In fact, she was born into it. A native of Illinois, she and her six siblings (including her sister Francine Reed, a renowned vocalist and recording artist in her own right) were reared in performing by their gospel singer father.

Michael Reed, their brother, remembers how music was a large part of their childhood.

"When we all grew up, our father trained us and taught us how to sing, so we sang together from an early age," he says.

And the sibling also performed together, first at churches and gospel events before they moved onto proms and eventually club gigs throughout Illinois. "It wasn't just gospel music," Michael says. "We were singing whatever was popular at the time, just what was out on radio, everything from the Motown stuff to the more popular tunes."

In 1972, Margo left Illinois and moved to Phoenix because of her sons' asthma, later to be joined by her siblings. It didn't take long for her to find her way into the local jazz scene, although it came about through her day job as a housekeeper at the old Kon Tiki Motel. According to her brother, Reed would constantly sing to herself while at work, which led a fellow employee to encourage her to try performing at the Century Skyroom, a popular downtown Phoenix jazz spot at the time.

"She went down there to sit in, they liked her and that started her singing career here," he says.

Myers says that Margo's career as a local jazz gem grew from there.

"By the late 1970s, Margo was rarely without a steady gig," Myers says. "She became a major figure on the local jazz scene."

This weekend, Myers and other members of Reed's nearest and dearest will gather at a pair of events honoring her life and will share such memories of her lengthy career. Siblings such as Michael and Francine will be in attendance, as will some of the musicians who shared stages with the late singer, at the events, which will take place from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday, May 2, at the Rhythm Room, and on Sunday, May 3, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Soul Cafe in Scottsdale.

Some of Reed's many friends and fellow musicians, including those who will appear and perform at the celebrations, shared memories of the singer and her legacy, influence, and unforgettable voice with New Times.

Margo Reed from TIKI Films USA on Vimeo.

Michael Reed, brother: Margo was always a vocalist. We were in churches all the time, in our early years. My father had two groups called the Mates of Harmony and the Singing Crusaders and we listened to them as the rehearsed at the house sometimes and that's how we learned stuff.

Joel Goldenthal, pianist: Margo's entire family started out singing gospel with their father and they were all excellent. They all have the 'Reed throat' as I call it.

Bob Corritore, Rhythm Room owner: The mighty Reed family began their singing careers in 1946 when they were just little kids singing on a Chicago, Illinois church program that was broadcast on the radio.

Michael Reed: Then we started singing at proms, post-proms, special events that people had and stuff like that. We were very popular with the proms and post-proms in Illinois. We'd go from a prom in one town to a post-prom in another town. It became more than just gospel music, we were singing whatever was popular at the time, just what was out on radio, everything from the Motown stuff to the more popular tunes. We were very, I would say, renowned in the Midwest area. We played Chicago, we played all around.

Goldenthal: Margo one of the first to move here in the 1970s due to her son's asthma and the rest of the Reeds followed her eventually.

Michael Reed: Margo and Laverne, my oldest sister moved out here because Margo's son, Sheldon, had asthma. We kept sending them money to support them living there and Margo got a job at the old Kon Tiki Hotel [on Van Buren] doing housekeeping and Laverne got a job managing the Patricio Apartments. Margo got her first start with music out here because when she was cleaning rooms she was always humming and singing and this girl told her about the Century Skyroom on 12th Street and Washington.

Patricia Myers, jazz writer: One of the other housekeepers at the Kon Tiki said, "You know, you're always singing while your working, you oughta go over to the Century Skyroom and sing there." So Margo went over and I was remember talking to the manager at the time and he said, "Well, we can't let every chick singer that comes in here perform," but someone told them to let her sing.

Corritore: She quickly became a regular performer there.

Myers: One night the manager of the Boojum Tree, at that time an upscale jazz venue at the downtown Doubletree Inn, stopped in at the Sky Room and heard her sing. Impressed, he asked the manager if he could hire Margo to play a one-nighter in his club. That gig led to other local bookings and tours, including posh hotels and resorts in Seattle, Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe, San Diego, Detroit and Oregon.

Goldenthal: From the first years she was here, she was absolutely revered by the entire jazz and blues community, musicians and audiences alike.  

Myers: I wrote the first article every published on Margo for the Scottsdale Daily Progress in 1974 where I had a jazz column and I wrote about [Margo] and her sister because I heard about her sitting in at Keith Greco's gig at the Town and Country shopping center. And it was unbelievable to me, the sound, the expression in their voices and their faces. I had heard a lot of chick singers and some were just chick singers. There were some exceptions, of course, but Margo always conveyed joy and passion in her music. It just delights those of us who have listened to her for decades and it fascinates new listeners.

Diana Lee, jazz vocalist: I used to sneak into a place called Tommy's in the '70s when I was a little kid and I wasn't even allowed to get in there. It was this old supper club that near Camelback and Seventh Street that was around in the '70s. Picture it: there's white shag carpeting on the floor, there's mirrored walls all around, there's lights on the tiny stage where there was this grand piano where this guy Buddy Weed from New York played and Margo Reed sang. And it was like six nights a week she was there, doing two shows a night. And she would leave the audience in a puddle of goo by the time she was done singing. So I introduced myself and told her I wanted to be a singer and she was my musical mama from that point on, her and Francine. But Margo was just so different. She knew how to get you and grab you by your heart, take you, and not let you go.

Myers: Buddy was an inventive musical disciplinarian, and wrote so many wonderful arrangements for her, especially her blues and man medleys.

Lee: Armin Boatman was another piano player in the Valley that played with her every year since 1974.

Myers: I remember how Margo's style elevated even more when she began performing with pianist-arranger Armand Boatman, and how his stunning command of the piano would super-charge Margo in clubs and concerts.

Lee: She didn't just sing the song, she was the song. She brought so much of herself through it. And as an artist, you have to be naked just to do that and a lot of people can't do that or don't want to do that or are afraid of that. She was not afraid of that at all.

Blaise Lantana, KJZZ musical director: Margo was a dynamic vocalist and a character, but one of the things to know about Margo and about the Reeds is how they changed the whole scene in the Valley to bring vocal jazz and blues to the forefront. Not every town has this kind of jazz vocals but because of the Reeds and what they did, we have other vocalists who have opportunities and she was a big part of that.

Lee: The whole Reed family was musical and have been icons in the Valley for jazz and blues, and Margo was the queen.

Corritore: It was interesting to watch the dynamic of how that family worked. Francine Reed was definitely the leader and organizer, but in the majority of the songs, Margo was given the lead vocal role because that's just how powerful she is. And everybody just made way for Margo on that album with Francine taking a couple of the leads and Michael being featured here and there but it was really a Margo Reed feature and that's just how the family dynamic worked. And that says so much, you have a rich musical family dynasty like the Reed family has.

Myers: I remember many wonderful years of Reed Family Christmas Concerts, onstage at Phoenix Symphony Hall, at El Pedregal Marketplace, [andat Desert Botanical Garden, with Margo counting off each song from the repertoire of gospel, carols and doo-wop. I attended each, starting in 1976 when eldest Reed brother, Tony, organized and staged it in the Scottsdale Mall Doubletree Inn. It was the first time I heard six of the seven Reed siblings together on one stage: Tony (keyboard), Michael (bass) and Margo, Francine, Mellody, Lavergne (vocals).

Corritore: The best part of the year for many jazz fans in Phoenix [was] always the annual Christmas show when the whole family got up onstage together.

Lantana: The great thing about Margo was that she was really supportive. She'd tease around but you never heard her say, "Oh, that singer sucks," or anything like that. She was always positive about other people doing the same thing she was doing, which is pretty amazing right there.

Lee: What I remember most about her is her generosity and kindness to everyone, especially to artists of all sorts. She never consider herself to be one of these people that was up there. She always gave the praise to everyone else and she was always so generous with her advice and her comments to you, and they stuck with you forever. 'Oh, you have to keep it up, you have to do this, you have to do that.' And she was just so generous and giving.  

Delphine Cortez, jazz vocalist: She was a no-nonsense lady. She was the kind of person that would tell you like it is, she didn't beat around the bush, she didn't lie to you, she told you pointblank. That's what I loved about her as well. She just had this truth about her.

Goldenthal: Margo sometimes couldn't have cared less about the spotlight or notoriety.

Myers: I remember dialing for dollars to produce her first two albums, appealing for donations from friends and fans, a personal-contacted crowd-funding long before that concept existed. The first result was the 1990 cassette Margo with the Buddy Weed Trio on the A side and the Michael Reed Trio on the B side, for which Ed and Marie Ravenscroft of Chaton Recordings donated time and services. Second was a live-concert CD titled Margo Live! with the Armand Boatman Trio at the Kerr Cultural Center, for which Clarke Rigsby of Tempest Recordings donated his expertise and equipment to preserve that special performance.

Dom Moio, jazz drummer: I met Margo at an outdoor concert in downtown Phoenix shortly after I moved here from Nevada and then I started playing with her and the Armand Boatman Trio in the early '90s. And then I helped recorded two CDs with her, once of which I co-produced with Clarke Rigsby.

Corritore: Margo was sometimes very self-critical of her own voice, she didn't like to hear it back. She thought it sounded 'too this' or 'too that.' But to me, that's what gave it the flavor and the realness and the depth. I think her voice was among the greatest of voices.

Goldenthal: Every time she opened her mouth to sing, she was consistent, she was pure.

Corritore: She was simply amazing and knew how to squeeze the soul out of every song. I think her voice was the perfect vehicle of expression. She knew exactly how to reach every note that she desired to hit. It had a cool funkiness to it that made it real. And to me, you can't buy that. The expressiveness of what she would do was beyond compare. It wouldn't matter if the song was a ballad or swing or blues or even a great version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," she would tear your heart out with every one of those songs.

Moio: Her voice was so unique. If you've never heard her before, I couldn't describe it. She just had this whole thing about her time and the phrasing that every drummer loved playing with Margo. My favorite thing about Margo was the way she'd count a tune off. She would snap on two and four it would seem like for 30 seconds and it would just already be swinging before we ever came in, so it was always exciting for her to count the tune off. That was one of my favorite things about her...that, and the fact that she brought it every night.

Lantana: She really had an amazing ear for music and for time. If we all could count out the song like Margo, we'd be in great shape.

Goldenthal: She was wonderful to play with...the musical relationship was so close and so personal. And she was just incomparable to work with. Her sense of timing and her sensitivity to the music and her respect for musicians and the way she just connected on a visceral level with audiences, it was just something unique. It doesn't get any better than Margo Reed.

Myers: I remember the intuitive synergy that developed with pianist-vocalist Judy Roberts in Margo's final performing years. Their minds and music intertwined so naturally that it seemed effortless, although we knew it wasn't. Theirs was a near-cosmic connection at a time when Margo needed more support than ever.

Lantana: Up until the end she was always working. Judy Roberts did an all-vocalist showcases and we all got up and sang: myself, Judy Roberts, Alice Tatum, Delphine Cortez and a bunch of jazz singers, and when Margo sang we were all, 'Okay, that's what I want to be when I'm the best I can be." There was something with all of her soulfeltness, her heartfeltness, in her music was so obvious that all of us were inspired to do better when he heard her. And, of course, every audience was inspired, which is something, because audiences to day aren't really listening to words, there's a lot of people listening to things that aren't necessarily as heartfelt as what she did.

Myers: I remember Margo's last family performance, on Michael's 70th birthday at [Soul Cafe in Scottsdale], his regular venue with his daughter, Tabitha. Francine was visiting from Atlanta, and the foursome sang the longtime gospel favorite, "Rusty Old Halo" that is on the Reed Family CD, Blood Harmony, produced by Francine, Bob Corritore and Clarke Rigsby.

Corritore: I've been touched by many of her performances over the years and I was honored to be able to co-produce the Reed family album.

Myers: I remember Margo's final public performance, with Judy Roberts on piano and vocals at the OC Seven Restaurant in Scottsdale. We didn't know it would be her last, but recognized that she was beginning to weaken. But her voice was strong, her personality so familiar to us, as she sang all our favorite songs -- everything Margo chose became a favorite, the way she performed it. "Never the same twice, always new in some way" we would say. And she would reply, "That's 'cause I can't sing it the same every time; it's how I feel then, that's how I sing it."

Lee: I think she always performed with style and with grace and always left us wanting more.

The Celebration of Life for Margo Reed will take place from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday, May 2, at the Rhythm Room, and on Sunday, May 3, from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Soul Cafe in Scottsdale.

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