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When he was five years old, Chris Binnings prayed to God to be able to sing like Sam Cooke. Sitting behind his Dad in the back seat of the car while "Cupid" played on the radio, he thought it was the most beautiful thing he'd ever heard. Binnings had no idea then that choosing music would be such a rough road, but he's traveled it well: most recently it led him into the National Heritage Foundation Blues Hall of Fame as the lead singer of the rhythm and blues sextet Stompy Jones.
The aspiring singer grew up with an abundance of regional and familial inspiration. Binnings' hometown of Thibodaux, Louisiana, is just 60-odd miles southwest of the swampy musical hotbed of New Orleans, and the College Inn and the Golden Terrace in Thibodaux regularly booked the likes of Irma Thomas, Fats Domino, The Meters, The Neville Brothers and Ray Charles, as well as The Rhodes, a blue-eyed soul and Top 40 act that featured Binnings' Uncle Earl on guitar. His Uncle Larry only retired his band recently, after playing every Saturday night since the late 1950's and occasionally hosting guest performers like a young Britney Spears. Binnings' grandmother sang with the band in The Blue Room at the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans in the 1940's. His mother sings, and his father has played guitar for nearly fifty years. "Mom was a soprano in choir and won awards for voice and dance. When we were little, my dad would play the guitar and she would sing, teaching my sister and me to harmonize with her," he says.
Serving as more than just inspiration, coming from a musical family also sparked Binnings' competitive drive to succeed. "My Uncle Dennis played piano and sang all over South Louisiana. He was killed in a car accident in 1965 at the age of 19 coming home from a gig. He had been gigging since he was 15. I lived in his shadow my entire life. All I heard growing up was how much I looked like my Uncle Dennis!"
Binnings left Louisiana at age 15 and pursued his musical passions through Texas, New York City, Hollywood, Palm Springs and San Francisco. In garage bands, dive bars and piano bars, he sang everything from Journey to Mel Torme. Along the way he paid the bills working in department stores, on movie sets and on demolition sites, seeking success - and survival - wherever he could find it. "When I was 24 I lived in McAllen, Texas and went to Mexico 3 times a week," he remembers. "I was in a bar singing where a man had been shot the day before. All they wanted to hear was 'Imagine' by John Lennon. They didn't speak English but knew every word."
Binnings moved to New York City to pursue music, working as a window dresser for Barney's New York and Bergdorf Goodman during the day, writing music and lyrics and singing in every piano bar he could find at night. He befriended artists, comedians, actors, singers and Broadway performers, looking for any opportunity to align himself with achievers. A stint working for the property department on the Farrelly Brothers' film, "Say It Isn't So" prompted Binnings' move to Hollywood, where he worked in the television and film industry for four years.
When a major back injury ended his Hollywood career, Binnings found himself scraping to make ends meet, working demolition in Palm Desert and singing at The Nest in Indian Wells. "On my first visit, I was jokingly asked by the piano player if I had a request, seeing as I was 20 years most everyone's junior. I requested Mood Indigo and he didn't know it," he grins. "They became like family to me and I sang there nearly every night while holding down three jobs and rapidly gained a following, even though I didn't work there!" Fred Pollak had known Nat King Cole back in the day in Chicago. When Pollak and his daughter Marisa heard Binnings singing a Cole song at The Nest, the old man could tell the young singer had a gift. He told his daughter she should represent Binnings. Two weeks later Pollak died. Marisa honored her father's wish, setting Binnings up with stage clothes, musical equipment and a band.
After the band's first gig, someone in the audience called the Stompy Jones band in San Francisco and said, "I've got your singer!" The combo had been without a frontman since the retirement of their ailing singer, Peter "Pops" Walsh. After two auditions at the Derby in Los Angeles, Binnings was flown to San Francisco to begin learning the nuances of singing 40's and 50's rhythm and blues under the exacting
supervision of the band's leader, "Little" David Rose.
Binnings' time with Stompy Jones has taken him a long way on his musical road. "I've learned about Louis Jordan, Roy Milton, Wynonie Harris to name a few. We played Disneyland every month on contract. Monica Dupont, a National Heritage Foundation Blues Hall of Fame Ambassador to San Francisco, went to bat for us to get us inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame as a Great Blues Band. We played the San Francisco leg of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics Torch Relay... that was a huge deal."
Chris Binnings' lifelong pursuit of musical fulfillment is far from over; you can hear it in his voice. He's working on a soul album which he calls "smokin' hot!" "I love Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke," he enthuses. "I'd love to go to Paris and start a soul band!"
Don't be surprised when it happens.
- Andi Hazelwood