Lonnie McFadden has found his groove

Arriving at a Lonnie McFadden show is to enter into a veritable feast of smiles - and if the singer/dancer/trumpeter has his own way - plenty of mingling with the dance floor. His infectious personality is only matched by his obvious passion for his music.

“I knew a man, Bojangles, and he danced for you in worn out shoes… He talked of life, he talked of life. He laughed, clicked heels instead.”(Mr. Bojangles, Jerry Jeff Walker)

It’s not every day that you get to meet Mr. Bojangles in the heart of Kansas City.

If you frequent any of the town’s talent-rich clubs, you have probably observed that the art of jazz, blues and soul can add up to serious business. Nimble-fingered, focused musicians pour out their years of training into guitars, drums or saxophones, while intimate crowds respond with the reverence you rarely find outside of a cathedral. That audience passivity might fly for any random performer at Jardine’s or The Phoenix, but Lonnie McFadden, the self-proclaimed Mr. Bojangles, goes into each performance with the intent of creating a personal connection and a good dose of fun.

Arriving at a Lonnie McFadden show is to enter into a veritable feast of smiles – and if the singer/dancer/trumpeter has his own way – plenty of mingling with the dance floor. Lonnie’s infectious personality is only matched by his obvious passion for his music, which crosses over multiple genres. One might assume that jazz standards and the like are his usual fare, but depending on the night, Lonnie’s musical palette might jump from Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World” to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”

“I’ve started to do a lot of Motown now,” Lonnie explained. “It’s what I grew up doing in my teenage years when I had a Top 40 band. Now I’m at a point where I’m realizing people my age want to go out and dance.”

It’s a logical mission for a man who has spent a good part of his life as an acclaimed hoofer. His father James “Jimmy” McFadden, a seasoned tap dancer who performed with everyone from Cab Calloway to Count Basie, was instrumental in Lonnie’s own development as an artist. From an early age Lonnie and his brother Ronald were raised on a heavy helping of Count Basie recordings, which became the soundtrack to the siblings’ first tap lessons. Of course, five-year-old Lonnie did not exactly know at the time that “school” was in session.

“The earliest memories I have of my dad are of him showing us how to do steps,” Lonnie said. “Even in church he was teaching us about music. We would be listening to the choir and my dad would ask us, ‘Can you hear the break?’ He was showing us at an early age how to figure out when the turnaround is coming. By the time we started taking piano lessons, we already kind of understood the structure of music by ear.”

The quick learners that they were, the McFadden brothers performed their first professional tap act alongside The Scamps at the Muehlbach Hotel – a hefty gig for a child all of six years old. Piano lessons were placed on the agenda around that same time, but it wasn’t necessarily an innate adoration for music or dancing that originally sparked Lonnie’s desire to be a performer. It was his father’s personal stories about Sammy Davis, Jr. and other legends that lit the fire.

“Even when he was talking about the bad times like being laid off in Philly, having nowhere to go, and living off of peanuts and Pepsi Cola, I thought that was awesome,” Lonnie recalled with a joyous grin.

The fresh-faced, bright-eyed child listening to his father’s stories eventually transformed into a young man of unfettered determination. Teen peers who deemed the piano and tap dancing “uncool” would ensure that Lonnie opted instead for the trumpet, an instrument that he would carry with him into his adult years. While Lonnie learned piano theory as a child from the wife of veteran musician Leo Davis, it was his own drive and his father’s encouragement that shaped his skills as a trumpeter. His father was adamant about Lonnie studying the ins and outs of Louis Armstrong recordings, and that careful attention to tone and musicality paved the way for his first go-round at Top 40 and R&B bands.

Lonnie McFadden "doing Louie2." Photo by Jerry Osterle

Over the past few decades, Kansas City natives have probably become most well-acquainted with Lonnie as part of the tap dancing dynamic duo, the McFadden Brothers. The pair has played all the expected KC jazz establishments, but their time together also led to stints as Wayne Newton’s right-hand men in Las Vegas. More recently in April 2008, documentarian Rodney Thompson premiered his film Sons of a Hoofer, a piece that chronicled the McFadden brothers’ history. The pair still plays regular gigs, but individual life paths have made those appearances less frequent.

When the McFadden Brothers’ schedule slowed down, things almost hit a complete standstill for Lonnie. The performer eventually found himself divorced and without a steady gig like the one in Las Vegas, and the traditional daily grind of a job at Independence Honda vacated his schedule. Arriving at what you could call a proverbial crossroads about five years ago, McFadden was hit with an epiphany.

“I was getting ready to go to work and putting on my tie in this apartment by myself,” Lonnie recalled. “I’m looking at my life and I’m miserable. I just made up my mind to quit, and I went in and gave my notice.”

The gutsy move in the middle of January, known to be one of the least favorable times for landing gigs, eventually paid off. A few shows per month eventually morphed into steady a performance schedule of five to seven times per week for Lonnie’s solo act. You’ll now find him everywhere from the Plaza III to Bojo’s, and on Mondays he is paying it forward as a tap instructor at Dance Works Conservatory.

It’s easy to understand why the Conservatory would snatch him after witnessing at Lonnie’s Sept. 12 performance at the Plaza III. In what could be described as the evening’s pinnacle event, the artist unassumingly takes out a pair of lovingly weathered tap shoes and begins to hoof away. If you weren’t a believer for the first ¾ of the show, Lonnie sliding across the stage to “I Got Rhythm” should have sealed the deal. A good deal of the polished, dressed-to-the-nines crowd had done their best to keep emotions in check, but it was as if one collective smile had overtaken the room by the final note of “I Got Rhythm.”

With the charismatic personality and crowd-pleasing show that Lonnie delivers, his technical prowess as a musician is often the overshadowed aspect of his act. It’s a fact that Lonnie has come to expect, but not fully accept. Being the triple threat of singer, dancer, and trumpet player, Lonnie has heard his share of cuts from musical peers. He recalled the early days when his fellow musicians would dub the McFadden Brothers as merely “entertainers” or “tap dancers.” The competitive jabs didn’t bother Lonnie much back then, but he is at a point where he would like to be recognized for all of his talents. That fact became quite apparent when he recalled a recent meeting with saxophone great Ahmad Alaadeen.

“I got a compliment from Alaadeen at a jam session,” Lonnie said. “I’ve known him ever since I was maybe 10 or 11 years old. I was at a jam session about three months ago and when I finished, Alaadeen took my hand and said, ‘Lonnie, you are sounding so good.’ I choked up. It really choked me up. There’s a part of me that always wanted the real musicians to accept me as a musician.”

After spending any amount of time with Lonnie, describing the man as “goal-oriented” seems almost an understatement. He is downright determined to become the man and artist he has always wanted to be. In one breath he will declare that “becoming a multimillionaire” is still on his to-do list, and in the next he talks about how he is constantly trying to improve upon his work as a song stylist. At the end of the day, however, Lonnie is willing to roll the dice, even if that means he truly does become the personification of one particularly famous Sammy Davis, Jr. song.

“This ain’t no walk in the park, but for me it’s the only way to go,” Lonnie said. “That day I quit selling cars, I realized I am Mr. Bojangles. I might be a headliner in Vegas 10 years from now, or you might be walking on the Plaza and see me with the hat on the ground. I guarantee you this: You may have pity on me, but I bet I sound good. That much, I know.”

For more information on Lonnie McFadden: www.lonniemcfadden.com

Upcoming gigs…

Friday, September 25, 4:30-8:30 pm
The Phoenix
302 W. 8th St, Kansas City, MO

Saturday, September 26, 7-11 pm
Plaza III
749 Pennsylvania Ave, Kansas City, MO

Tuesday, September 29, 7-10 pm
Maxwell’s Grill
301SE Douglas, Lee’s Summit, MO

Friday, October  2, 4:30-8:30 pm
The Phoenix
302 W. 8th St, Kansas City, MO

Tuesday, October  6, 7-10 pm
Maxwell’s Grill
301SE Douglas, Lee’s Summit, MO

Wednesday, October  7, 7-10 pm
Bojo’s
5410 NE Antioch Rd, North Kansas City, MO

Friday, October  9, 4:30-8:30 pm
The Phoenix
302 W. 8th St, Kansas City, MO

Saturday, October 10, 7-11 pm
Plaza III
749 Pennsylvania Ave, Kansas City, MO

Top Photo:
Lonnie @ the Phoenix. Photo by Glenn Golden