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Front Page - Friday, October 25, 2019

Engineer, musician takes 2 paths to happiness

Danny Sample made his living working as an engineer for TVA, but his piano skills put him on the stage with Isaac Hayes, B.B. King and other legends of music. - Photo by David Laprad

Danny Sample has played keys in the courts of musical royalty. In the 1970s, he shared the stage with Isaac Hayes and Dionne Warwick on “The Man and Woman Tour.” Later, he opened for saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., and blues legend B.B. King.

But tonight, he’s adding more spice to the ceviche at Chattanooga’s Embargo 62. Tucked in a corner near the entrance of the Cuban-themed restaurant, Sample and the rest of his jazz trio are swinging their way through bebop variations of Leon Russell’s “This Masquerade,” Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” and – just for fun – the theme song from “The Flintstones.”

Sample’s playing is fast and fluid, his long fingers dancing gracefully over the keys like raindrops on a rooftop. After he, his bassist and drummer wrap up each tune, the half-dozen patrons at the bar offer a smattering of applause.

Without fail, Sample smiles and says, “Thank you.”

Sample, 63, has been performing for gatherings large and small for more than 50 years. Born into a musically inclined family, his first instrument was a plastic guitar his parents gave him as a Christmas gift. The piano came later after his brother asked for one.

“My dad took me and my three siblings to our bedroom and laid out six $100 bills. That’s what the piano was going to cost,” Sample recalls. “My brother played it a little but gravitated toward the guitar. I sat down at it and was like, ‘Hallelujah, I’m there.’”

The first time Sample touched the piano, he tried to do a glissando. Unable to slide his young fingers up and down the keys, he used one of his mother’s hairpins.

“I scratched every key on the first day,” he says with a laugh. “I don’t recall getting in trouble, but I did practice the scratches off.”

Soon after Sample took up the piano, the rich jazz heritage in his native Memphis steered him toward bebop, a style of music characterized by a fast tempo, complex chord progressions and frequent changes of key.

The uniquely American sound – popularized by sax player Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk and others – surrounded Sample. It was in his house, spinning on his father’s turntable; down the street, where an older boy named James Williams was learning to play jazz on his family’s piano; and it was in the city’s clubs.

Sample cut his teeth on bebop while hanging out with Williams, who would grow up to play piano for jazz drummer Art Blakey.

“We’d pick a tune and see who could play it the best. He was very competitive, even though you wouldn’t know it from the way he walked,” he recalls. “He walked like he was embarrassed people were looking at him. But on the piano, he became a monster.”

So did Sample, who was performing jazz in Memphis clubs by age 10 – several years before he was legally able to be in them. Spurred by competition for work, he pushed himself to become even better.

“You didn’t get a gig unless you could play, so you had to raise your level of musicianship,” Sample explains. “Guys would say, ‘I want to sit in.’ And you’d say, ‘Do you really?’ Because that’s when the tunes would get really fast. And everyone would drop out and you’d have to do a solo, and when you had done all you could do and were ready to hand it back to them, they’d say, ‘OK, you’ve played everyone else’s licks, now play yours.’

“Guys did that to me during gigs. They weren’t being mean; I needed to learn the craft.”

Sample’s family was not just musically inclined, it was also mechanically minded, with his brother and one of his sisters becoming engineers. So, when Memphis State College (now the University of Memphis) offered him a full ride, he realized he needed to choose between a practical career and playing music for a living.

“I decided to look in the newspaper, and if I didn’t see a job for a musician, I was going to become an engineer,” Sample remembers. “I saw plenty of jobs for engineers but not one for a musician. Case closed.”

Instead of taking classes at Memphis State, Sample attended Christian Brothers College – now Christian Brothers University – a private Catholic institution in Memphis. While there, he continued to devote time to music, even as he studied engineering.

Sample’s fellow students discovered just how talented he was when his music appreciation professor asked him to play for the class. He decided to perform a piece by Brahms and handed the sheet music to his teacher. But, as he played, he lost his way.

Instead of panicking, Sample simply made up music in the style of Brahms. “Having a jazz background, I knew how to improvise,” he points out.

Sample’s ad-libbing fooled everyone but his professor, who clued in the rest of the class. “He was off this sheet, and you never knew it,” he said.

Sample spent the next few years alternating between a semester of school and several months of performing. One evening, while he and his brother were playing to a packed house at Bill’s Twilight Lounge, the manager of Hayes’ band told them the singer needed a keyboard player and bassist and offered them the job.

After touring with Hayes, Sample’s band opened for King, who considering hiring the entire ensemble. But in the end, the blues legend decided their level of musicianship was higher than he wanted on stage with him.

In time, Sample graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and moved to Chattanooga, where a job with TVA was waiting for him. He then spent the next 31 years working there, eventually working his way up to plant engineer at Raccoon Mountain before retiring in 2011.

Although engineering was Sample’s trade, music was still his craft. Over the years, he continued to take the bandstand in Chattanooga and around the country at clubs, colleges and festivals, including the Oregon Mount Hood Jazz Festival, the Hill City Jazz Festival, Birmingham City Stages, Memphis in May, Riverbend, Nightfall and the grand opening of Bessie Smith Hall.

Because Sample never recorded an album, these performances were the only opportunities people had to hear him play.

During Sample’s many years of playing music, he became more than a consummate piano player; he also developed into an engaging storyteller, having collected a few tales along the way.

At his home studio before performing at Embargo, he laughs about missing a gig at a nudist camp and then leans in to tell about the time he eyeballed Hayes’ “well-endowed wife” during band practice without knowing who she was.

“I was single and going into guy mode when another player warned me off,” he adds. “At the time, Isaac had a piece of paper that allowed him to carry a gun.”

Sample could fill a splendid evening with his stories. But there’s one tale he’ll never tell: a tale of regret. Instead of looking back on his life and lamenting his career, he says he made the right choice.

“I don’t have to worry about hunting down a gig. R.T. Bolden, a tenor sax player who was performing at Plabanos a few years back, was pushing 80 when he passed away. I wouldn’t want to have to play music because I didn’t have a way not to.

“Music is feast or famine, and unless you know how to set money aside, you’re going to have to play until you drop.”

So, instead of pounding the pavement to find work, Sample now performs when he feels like it, as he did earlier this year as part of the Jewish Federation of Chattanooga’s Cabaret Music Series and months later at Embargo.

He also plays bass guitar at church, records friends in his home studio, keeps tabs on his two daughters and spends time with his wife, who occasionally will lend her singing voice to his playing.

In other words, Sample is enjoying the fruit of his labors. He might not have albums on iTunes or a channel on Spotify – or a Facebook page or a cell phone, for that matter – but he does have the things that are meaningful and important to him.

This includes a collection of CDs by musicians he admires. Sample selects one by the late Phineas Newborn, Jr., an obscure jazz pianist he calls his musical hero, slips it into his computer and clicks play. Within moments, Newborn’s 1961 cover of the Parker tune “Cheryl” fills the room.

“You have to hear him play fast,” he says a few minutes later, clicking on “Oleo,” a hard bop tune by Sonny Rollins.

Sample lets Newborn roll for a few minutes and then says, “Yeah, this guy can play.”

He’s not the only one.