The hard-working Gainesville musician pays tribute to Carole King and her classic 1971 album when the Free Fridays Concert Series returns to Bo Diddley Community Plaza this week.
Cathy DeWitt and Carole King go way back. Well, at least in the sense that DeWitt, the longtime Gainesville musician, started listening to King more than half a century ago.
“I think I heard some of her early stuff before she became popular,” DeWitt said before singing softly the lyrics to King’s 1962 Top 25 hit “It Might As Well Rain Until September.”
Holding a copy of King’s iconic 1971 album “Tapestry,” DeWitt sang the praises of the Grammy Award-winning pop artist.
“She’s a brilliant songwriter. I love her sophisticated chords. Her lyrics are great. She plays piano and sings, and that’s what I do, so she has definitely been a major influence on me,” DeWitt said.
On Friday night at Bo Diddley Community Plaza in downtown Gainesville, DeWitt will channel the very best of King during “Tapestry Rewoven—Again!” The concert kicks off 25 consecutive weeks of Free Fridays Concert Series at the plaza, which had been closed for a year to undergo $1.8 million in renovations.
The two-hour music event begins at 8 p.m. DeWitt will be accompanied onstage by some of Gainesville’s best musical talent, including Mike and Carolina Boulware, Brad Bangstad, Heather Hall, Janet and Maggie Rucker, Rob Rothschild, Bruce Shepard and Ron Thomas.
DeWitt and Boulware, her former husband, performed many of King’s songs locally back when the “Tapestry” album came out. More than four decades later, they continue to honor King and her music.
“We’re being true to the original arrangements,” DeWitt said about Friday night’s concert. “People want to hear ‘Tapestry’ like it was.”
The Bo Diddley Plaza crowd can expect to hear all 12 songs on “Tapestry,” from “I Feel the Earth Move” and “So Far Away” to “You’ve Got a Friend” and “Natural Woman.”
“We’re doing the whole album, plus other songs that Carole and her husband [Gerry Goffin] wrote for the Byrds, the Animals, Dusty Springfield and many others,” DeWitt said.
In fact, when the Beatles first visited America in 1964, they insisted on meeting King and Goffin. Even before then, John Lennon had stated that he wanted Paul McCartney and him to become the Goffin and King of the U.K.
Friday night’s free concert will be an encore of the “Tapestry Rewoven” performance DeWitt and Co. gave in January at the Spanish Court inside the Historic Thomas Center. That event, held on the 45th anniversary of the album’s release, sold out to an enthusiastic, standing-room-only crowd.
“People were so tuned in—they were mesmerized,” DeWitt said. “It took them on a journey to wherever they were when this music came out.”
DeWitt remembers when the music from “Tapestry” topped the Billboard pop charts for much of 1971. The album was No. 1 for 15 weeks in a row. In terms of time on the charts—over 300 weeks between 1971 and 2011—it ranks fifth overall.
“When they put out ‘Tapestry,’ they didn’t have any idea it was going to take over the hearts of what we now call the Baby Boomers,” DeWitt said. “Who can say what it was? Every song seemed to speak to a very large group of people.”
Growing up in that era, DeWitt said that King was one of her mentors (along with Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon), representing innocence, change and power for women of the generation.
“She had a lot to do with feminism and paving the way for all the female singer/songwriters who came after her,” DeWitt said. “Her songs have melody and meaning. Those are two things I miss in much of today’s music.”
In 2010, when King and James Taylor went on their Troubadour Reunion Tour, DeWitt attended their sold-out concert in Tampa.
“They made the big area seem intimate,” she said. “I had tears running down my face.”
When DeWitt takes the Bo Diddley Plaza stage on Friday, she will do her best to honor King and her contributions to music. Then again, DeWitt has made her own lasting contributions to the Gainesville music scene and community.
DeWitt grew up in St. Petersburg in a musically gifted family. Her older brother Peter was a prodigy, giving recitals and concerts even before he was in grade school. Her father, Bruce, was a jazz musician, at times playing in New Orleans clubs owned by Louis Armstrong and Pete Fountain.
DeWitt, however, missed much of that period.
“By the time I came along, my mom made him get a real job!” she said. “I didn’t get to hear my dad play much. We did have a piano at home, so I would hear him there, but never really out at a gig or anything. He actually did give me a few pointers about jazz when we were both older.”
Bruce DeWitt’s talent still rubbed off on his daughter, who was making up songs on the piano when she was just four or five years old. As a girl, DeWitt sang in the church choir and little talent shows she would put on with her neighborhood friends.
DeWitt’s mother taught English. It wasn’t unusual for DeWitt, only a teenager, to grade the papers of her mom’s students. When she moved to Gainesville to attend UF, she pursued a degree in journalism, but her passion remained music.
“I came to Gainesville to go to college and, like so many others, I never left,” she said.
Early in her singing career, DeWitt sang mostly the jazz tunes of Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan, Diane Reaves and Ella Fitzgerald. Even today, DeWitt enjoys performing such classics as “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.”
“Those songs were also on my father’s set list,” she said. “After he died, I found an old list of his songs written on a piece of cardboard.”
For 20 years, DeWitt hosted the weekly “Across the Prairie” radio program on WUFT’s Classic 89. The show focused on folk music. DeWitt interviewed everyone from Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger to Riders in the Sky.
Meanwhile, she taught music at several private schools in Gainesville and performed with a number of bands around town, including MoonDancer and Patchwork.
Then, in the 1990s, DeWitt was given the opportunity to perform music at, of all places, Shands Hospital.
“I was dragged into it kicking and screaming,” she said. “I never expected to work in a hospital. I didn’t think I could handle seeing people in painful situations, whatever it turned out to be.”
At first, DeWitt volunteered to arrange a concert series for patients in the pediatric oncology unit. She brought in other musicians to assist her.
“It was amazing,” she said. “Kids were dancing around with their IV poles. The music made such a difference. It was really startling.”
DeWitt wrote a grant to get a piano for the hospital lobby and started bringing in pianists.
That was the beginning of the musical component of what would become one of the most successful Arts in Medicine programs in the country.
“I was the only musician in the program for several years,” DeWitt said. “Now there are 10.”
The experience has been transformative not only for the patients but also for DeWitt.
“Now I can see the person behind whatever their disease or dysfunction may be,” she said. “I can communicate with them through the music, even when they are in a non-communicative state. Music is an amazing tool for dealing with nonverbal communication.
“It’s a privilege to get to do this, to be with people in these intimate, vulnerable moments and often improve their outlook or even level of pain. I definitely feel like I’m doing good in the world, and I’m grateful every day for the opportunity.”
— Noel Leroux
For further info, visit Cathy DeWitt’s website.
Keep up with the Free Fridays Concert Series on Facebook.