When you fly over Inglewood CA on your approach to the runways at LAX, if you look down you will see a large round columned white building next to a half-mile wide hole in the ground. The hole in the ground is the construction site of a new NFL stadium; the white building is the LA Forum, former home of NBA games and now a major LA music venue. This was the site Monday of King Fest at the Forum, the City of Inglewood’s community celebration of the birthday of Martin Luther King.
KingFest at The Forum was not in The Forum; it occupied the northwest corner of the parking lot, which was exactly right for a bright sunny Monday in LA. There was a cluster of sharp-peaked white tent booths with local town representatives, funeral parlors, social services, Africa-themed clothes and jewelry, churches, auto dealers, and local politicians. An inflatable climbing wall and a bounce house entertained the kids while parents got free blood pressure tests in a mobile hospital van or grabbed a bite at the food court which featured LA’s Famous Pink’s Hot dogs.
While I am not a resident of Inglewood, I spent much of my childhood there and love the community. But my real reason for attending was the music – a full day of it featuring R&B, gospel, Motown and rock groups from across the city. A large stage dominated the grounds, backed by a banner with MLK’s visage and full lights, sound, green room, security – the works. At 1:30 my friends Dessy Di Lauro and Ric’key Pageot and their band Parlor Social were due on stage – my focus.While Parlor Social was setting up I was in the photo pit chatting with folks in the audience. The MC was giving us announcements and updates when a backstage staffer came up to him and engaged in an animated off mic conversation. The MC turned to the crowd and announced that the owner of KingFest’s sponsor, the local black radio station KJLH 102.3FM, would be here to say hello.
An excited buzz went through the crowd; they knew something I didn’t. People got off their chairs and crowded against the stage barriers. Ric’key and Dessy stopped warming up and looked dumbfounded as two men slowly made their way up the rear stage stairs on toward the MC — one middle aged black man leading another, much taller black man dressed in all black, sunglasses and a stocking cap. It was Stevie Wonder.
Stevie walked us verbally through the history of the Civil Rights Act and the life of Martin Luther King and told us that “we are focused on making history reality…we are getting closer, but we are not there yet…unless we are a united people in these United States we are not united.” He added that “not everyone who says they can sing cannot be a singer and not everyone who says they can be a president… .”
Wonder was supposed to introduce the headliner, Faith Evans, but since she was not on the bill until 4:30 and he arrived unannounced at 1:30 she wasn’t there. So he was guided over to Ric’key’s keyboard, ran his fingers over it to get the feel and sang a birthday song to MLK while Ric’key and Dessy frantically pulled out their cell phones and the band’s drummer picked up the beat. Then – and I don’t know how it happened – someone must have whispered into Wonder’s ear that there was a band onstage ready to go called Parlor Social. With Ric’key standing next to him and Dessy on her mark across the stage, Wonder shouted out, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Parlor Social!”. The next thing we heard as the cheering died down was Dessy’s “Oh My God”.
She recovered and launched into a wild set that ranged across the ample stage and held the crowd right up against the fences. Often described as “If Cab Calloway, Lauryn Hill and Outkast had a love-child, it would sound like Parlor Social”, they bring together jazz, rock, swing, roaring twenties, tap dancing, rap and blues into a musical mélange that is fun to listen to, dance to and see live. Obviously Stevie Wonder though so because he stayed around for the whole set.