He Played Pretty for the People (The Story of Sil Austin) PDF Print E-mail
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Monday, 19 November 2012 13:46

He Played Pretty for the People (The Story of Sil Austin)

In the late 1980’s I was offered a job assignment by my employer in Atlanta, Georgia. I worked at a site called IBM Riveredge and like most new jobs my days were stressful and at times the end of the day was a relief. I quickly noticed a second shift security staff employee, who was very friendly and everyone in the building liked him. He would speak to me every day, and I soon found myself engaging in conversation with him daily before I went to my car. Our conversations would generally be centered on what we saw or heard on National Public Radio or on CNN. It was mostly on political topics like the Gulf War and the George H. W. Bush presidency. Occasionally; we would engage in conversation about yard work and home maintenance, but never on music. A day never went by without me stopping and speaking with my friend that I only knew as Sil. A year had gone by and on April 3, 1990 I had heard on NPR that Sarah Vaughan has passed away. That evening while walking to my car, I heard Sil call to me and he said “Hey Howard .. did you heard that Sarah Vaughan passed today?” I told him that I did hear about it and he said to me “She was a good lady”, “She was a grand lady”. I then began to run down Sarah Vaughan’s history that I knew and he acknowledged it and said that he knew her. It startled me and I said “You knew Sarah Vaughan?” he said “Yes, I worked for her?” I said “You worked for Sarah Vaughan? Wow!” I then asked him what he did for her and was he her chauffeur. He told me no, that he played saxophone for her. I then said “You played saxophone for Sarah Vaughan?” Holy Cow! I said “I did not know that you were a musician?” and he said to me “You never asked!”. He then began to tell me his history that he had recorded over 30 albums and that he recorded for Mercury Records, and SSS Records. I went home that evening and looked Sil Austin up in my Soul Music, Jazz and Rhythm and Blues books that I had at home (this was pre internet) and there he was. After that Sil began to tell me about his musical history of working for and with Roy Eldridge, Cootie Williams, Tiny Bradshaw, Red Prysock, Hank Ballard, Maxine Sullivan, Chuck Berry, Jerry Butler and others. I began to tell everyone at IBM who Sil Austin was and soon he was our celebrity.

Sylvester Austin was born on September 29, 1929 in Florida and he had told me that at a very young age he joined the circus and traveled with them playing in the band. He soon moved to New York and signed with Mercury Records as a recording artist. One of his first recording dates occurred on January 15, 1957. That day he recorded the tracks Cat Walk, The Hungry Eye, The Indians Are Coming and Crazy Rhythm. He recorded heavily in 1957 resulting in seven recording sessions which created two albums Slow Walk Rock, and Everything's Shakin'. His first release was actually in 1956 called Slow Walk. It became a top 20 Pop hit. His version of Danny Boy became his second hit in 1957 and was his signature song. He soon would release other albums; Soft Plaintive and Moody and Sil Austin Plays Pretty for the People in 1961. The latter became the album that he was most remembered for. The album cover was photographed in New York’s Central Park and the Ray Charles Singers were hired to sing the background chorus on the album. Sil Austin Plays Pretty for the People is a classic and as Sil once told me, “this is my masterpiece”. Also, that year the album Golden Saxophone Hits was released. In 1963 The Sil Austin With the Merry Melody Singers album was released called Sil Austin With Strings And Choir Plays Folk Songs. His last notable album on Mercury records would be called Plays Pretty Melodies of the World in 1964. In the later 1960’s, he would switch to SSS Records and some of his more notable albums were Honey Sax in 1969, Songs of Gold and Sil & The Silver Screen. One highlight in Sil Austin’s career was the album Sil Austin vs. Red Prysock Battle Royal! in 1959. This is a timeless classic and Sil was very proud of this recording session which included Sil Austin, Red Prysock (ts) Dave Martin (p) Everett Barksdale, Kenny Burrell (g) Milt Hinton (b) David "Panama" Francis (d). During the time that I had met Sil, he had recorded a very nice CD called Go Girl! with Sil Austin, Grady "Fats" Jackson, and Mark "Kaz" Kazanoff. "Fats" was a former saxophonist with the Big Joe Turner band. They called themselves the Tri-Sax-Ual Soul Champs. Sil did not own any of his albums when I met him. I was helping him to build back his collection of his material. After moving to North Carolina in the 1990’s, I had mailed Sil a couple of his albums which I had recently found. I soon received a phone call from his wife the Rev. Vernice Austin, that Sil had passed away on September 1, 2001. It was a sad day for me that I had lost my friend who had shared so many stories about his life in the music business. On how he had experienced hard times and bad business from record companies and management who did not pay him and ripped him off and good times on how he had helped his younger brother go to college with the money that he had earned in the business. Sil Austin was a modest man and he hardly spoke about his music career unless asked. He was a saxophonist, a songwriter, a band leader, a recording artist and a business man. 

Unfortunately, for me Sil passed away before I got into radio and an interview about his life on THE FUNK SHOW would have been perfect. The title of his 1961 album says it all about his life: Sil Austin Plays Pretty for the People.  

Last Updated on Monday, 07 January 2013 11:07