School of rock
After 30 years of touring with headliners like John Mellencamp, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen, Crystal Taliefero returns to Bloomington to direct the next generation of performers.
A YOUNG WOMAN of 22 takes the stage at Jake’s, a popular bar in Bloomington. She doesn’t know that the next eight minutes will be the most important audition of her life.It’s 1985, and the regular crowd shuffles in. She and her five band-mates set up a van-full of equipment on the small black stage. Dressed in white lace pants, three-inch heels and a cut-off football jersey, she grabs the microphone and the group launches into their first song. Just beyond the sold-out audience, mostly IU students, she recognizes a guy tucked in the back by the bar. Nerves clutch her stomach, but outwardly she stays cool and confident. After the first few songs, he slips out.
Two days later, she receives a phone call. It’s her part-time drummer Kenny Aronoff. He says he’ll pick her up in 45 minutes. She’s scored an interview with John Mellencamp.
Today, Crystal Taliefero laughs about that first encounter with the Bloomington rocker. Once a singer and instrumentalist for Indiana University’s Soul Revue, Crystal recently became the visiting director for the storied IU ensemble. As she sits in the same building where she was once a student, she glances at a desk photo of her brother, Charles.
Without Charles, she wouldn’t have picked up a guitar when she was 11, joined Soul Revue at IU or accepted a full-time gig with one of rock music’s biggest stars. The day she received the call, Charles told her to go for it.
“Girl, are you crazy?” he said. “Go!”
So she went.
Crystal headed out to the Mellencamp home and sat next to him in the backyard. Before she knew it, she had an offer to join him on tour. Crystal hesitated. “I said, ‘Well I can let you know Monday. I’ve got to talk it over with my band first,’” she recalls. “He just cracked up laughing. I guess he thought it was cute.”
Mellencamp gave her the weekend to mull it over. Since she said yes that Monday, Crystal has rarely slowed down.
She’s a master of almost every percussion instrument you can imagine – from the bongo and the djembe to the chimes and tambourine. Along with her impeccable vocals, she’s fluent in saxophone, keyboard and acoustic guitar. Crystal’s worked alongside performers like Bruce Springsteen, The Bee Gees, Faith Hill, Joe Cocker, Elton John and Enrique Iglesias.
But her most compelling quality?
“Energy,” says Aronoff, Mellencamp’s touring drummer. “She was always upbeat, happy, and she could sing and dance really, really well.”
GROWING UP IN Hammond, Crystal always wanted to do what her big brother did. Charles picked up a guitar and learned to play, so she was determined to do the same. Mischievous and headstrong, she’d sneak in to his room to practice with his instruments. Anything he could do, Crystal wanted to do better.
After years of following in her brother’s footsteps, the day came for Charles to follow his sister’s. She knew where the music was. He thought he’d stay in northern Indiana and attend school in Valparaiso. But Crystal assured him there was only one place in Indiana to be a musician: Bloomington. With the world-renowned School of Music and plenty of venues where they could perform, the college town was a perfect fit. So in 1981, the two packed their bags and headed to IU, where he organized a band and she stumbled upon the IU Soul Revue.
Founded in 1971, the IU Soul Revue became a staple campus group, performing in auditoriums, nightclubs and music festivals. Ethnomusicologist Portia K. Maultsby led the group during its first year, but by the time Crystal arrived, the baton had been passed into the hands of Dr. James Mumford.
Today, the group’s inspiration remains Motown and the artists of the 1960s, but members continue to expand their repertoire. They put their own twist on oldies like Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” and Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” both featured in their most recent concert “The Potpourri of the Arts.”
A silver-sequined jumpsuit and heels one inch too tall are what Crystal remembers about her debut with IU’s premier funk and soul group. When Mumford assigned her a rendition of Diana Ross’ “Mirror, Mirror,” the freshman music education major just stared at him.
“You want me to do what?” she asked.
She’d been sitting on the bench as an understudy that year, waiting for her moment to shine. When it arrived, she wasn’t sure she was ready.
“I want you to sing ‘Mirror, Mirror’ and stand in front of a mirror. Just you, the mirror and a chair,” Mumford replied. “I want you to look at that mirror and I want you to perform to yourself.”
Ridiculous, she thought. But she went ahead anyway. Her trust in Mumford – plus a deep breath and a Patti Labelle-style outfit so shiny you needed sunglasses – gave her confidence.
Today, each Soul Revue member takes “the mirror test” at the beginning of the year. She tells each one to go home, stand in front of the mirror and literally perform to his or her reflection. At the next rehearsal, they report what they learned about themselves and what they saw when they looked in the mirror. It shows her, and, more importantly, themselves, who they are under the surface and what they hope to gain as a part of the ensemble. Crystal found herself on stage. Now she helps her students find themselves.
“I see them, and I see myself,” she says.
Charles E. Sykes, the executive director of the African American Arts Institute, says he had Crystal on his list of potential directors for a long time. He was a horn coach for the IU Soul Revue as a graduate student, and Crystal was in his horn section.
“I tried to hire her years ago,” he laughs. He’s happy that the young woman who five years ago won the Herman C. Hudson Award for outstanding contributions to the arts has returned to shape the next generation.
“She had a strong interest in coming back and sharing what she had accomplished with the Soul Revue,” Sykes says. “This was part of her foundation.”
AFTER HER DEBUT with the Soul Revue , Crystal performed nonstop. She belted out vocals and drove the rhythm for her brother’s band, Kilo. The group’s schedule started filling up, and Crystal took on the extra roles of treasurer and gig coordinator.
Kilo jammed at frat houses and Bloomington’s bars like The Bluebird, an 812 indie music hub. When Shawn Pelton, who now drums for “Saturday Night Live,” wasn’t rocking out with them, Aronoff subbed in. He taught in the School of Music and played with Mellencamp. When he heard his boss was looking for a backup singer, he invited John to come listen to the band.
That was Crystal’s fateful audition at Jake’s. That’s when her professional career as a musician skyrocketed.
She began rehearsing for the whirlwind tour in the spring of 1985. But before she hit the road, just weeks before her would-be graduation, she promised her voice professor Camilla Williams that she’d finish her education. Williams didn’t approve of rock music, but she knew this opportunity was once in lifetime. She gave Crystal her blessing.
Mellencamp’s band was the best rock ‘n’ roll boot camp she could have asked for, she says. Although she had the vocal parts locked down, she had just a week to not only learn, but perfect the harmonica.
She flubbed her first performance, but the show was taped, so the audio could be edited. But the following week’s performance on “The David Letterman Show” would be live. No mistakes allowed.
After that first blip, Crystal vowed to always come prepared. “I used to dream every night of what I was possibly going to be able to do better the next show,” she says. “One shot. You get one shot. That’s it. If you blow it, you’re out. You’re going home.”
Crystal was ready for the road. From singing harmonies to shaking the tambourine on “Small Town,” the confidence she displayed that night at Jake’s shone through on the stage – even from the back left corner. Crystal and her fellow back-up singer grooved in sync as the band rocked to their left. “By the time we got done with that 30-day rehearsal, there wasn’t any time to be nervous about anything,” she says. “All you did from then on was focus on what kind of magic you could make happen.”
Crystal and the band became tight-knit off-stage as well. Aronoff says he and Crystal always got along on tour. He even suggested they start their own talk show due to their unmatched energy.
When the band had time off, Aronoff says, they’d play sports together. “When we’d play basketball, she was a badass,” he says. “I could tackle her, I could wrestle with her, I could crack jokes with her, I could put her in a headlock. And she’d give me it right back.”
With an older brother, Crystal was used to the shenanigans that come with hanging out with the guys. She played with a predominantly male band in college. She defeated her buddies in a few rounds of basketball on the Mellencamp tour. But Crystal really learned to hold her own as the sole woman on Billy Joel’s Storm Front tour in 1989.
She connected with Joel through an old Bloomington friend, Jimmy Miner, who was in New York City managing Joel’s tour. He called Crystal and invited her to the studio for an audition. She rolled up in cowboy boots, spurs, a flannel shirt, a huge belt buckle and a bolo. The city musicians chuckled. But by the end of the day, Billy confirmed from the sound room, “You got the gig.” She landed a spot on his recording team and then a major tour. But not without a slip-up.
“I was the newbie,” she says of her trip to Japan with the band. “Rule number one: Do not bring your drama or your problems to work. Because They. Don’t. Care.”
One night, Crystal went with the guys to a Japanese spa in Osaka. When she realized they’d left without her, she panicked. She had no key, no directions to the hotel and not a lick of Japanese. After a night of tears in Osaka, she got to the hotel about four in the morning. The next day at rehearsal, Crystal marched over to Billy (yes, Joel) who was warming up on the keys.
After listening to a short rant, Billy turned to Crystal.
“Well, did you take the address and the phone number with you?” he asked.
“No,” she said.
“And that big key with the handle, did you take that?”
“No,” she said, and sank down a little farther.
“Well, did you write down the name of the hotel on the piece of paper that’s on your night stand with the pen next to it? You’re on your own, Crys. You’re out here on the road.”
“That’s when I realized, I’m touring,” she says. You are by yourself, so take care of yourself. Get with it! “Oh man, I walked back with my tail between my legs.”
To this day, Crystal cites that moment as her transformation into a professional. Now when she plays with Joel, she shows up, shuts up and does the job she was hired to do. With, of course, a joke or a story here and there, earning her the nickname “Crystal Tell-A-Story-Walkin’.”
"HERE WE GO!" Crystal shouts at the top of the Soul Revue rehearsal as she counts off the band. It’s just a little over a month before their fall show.
The group meets twice a week on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for about two hours. In addition to traveling and playing small shows on campus, they prepare for a fall concert in November and a spring concert in April.
Trumpets blare Sly and the Stone’s “Dance to the Music” out of the Neal Marshall Grand Hall into the lobby, transforming the wood-floored venue into a 1970s disco club. The band grooves across the full width of the hall. Seven microphones line the front, and Crystal stands at the heart of it all..
Wearing a long patterned skirt and a tan hat tied with a brown bow, she surveys the stage from song to song, measure to measure, second to second, listening and watching. As the group moves into the third song of the set, Etta James’ “At Last,” she finally takes a seat. But a minute later she’s moving again, to the other side of the stage to check on the horn section. Her glasses rest at the end of her nose as she inspects each musician.
Sometimes she asks for more sound, and at others she requests a soft, sweet hum. She demands crisp dynamics, and above all, energy. She whispers a piece of advice to each student and continues to monitor the room.“She accepts nothing but perfection, and that raises the standards of every person,” says senior bassist and three-year Soul Revue member Aaron Shapiro. “She listens.” That attention makes them want to play at a higher level, he adds.
At the end of the set, Crystal joins the students at the front of the stage, links her hands with theirs and takes a quick bow. While the band works out a few kinks, she addresses a group of vocalists huddled to the left of the stage. She’s like a football coach with her players just before kickoff.
The group breaks one more time to run the set they’ll perform in a little over a month. As the band vamps, Crystal eyes the drummer and sets the beat.
“Come on and daaance to the music!” a vocalist shouts as they take the stage. Crystal peeks over her shoulder as the singers enter and find their way to the place on stage where she stood 30 years earlier. After a high-energy run of Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland,” Crystal jogs over to the center mic, grabs her students’ hands and takes a second bow.
NOW THAT SHE'S juggling the role of teacher, mom and part-time member of Billy Joel’s band, Crystal walks a thin tightrope. And yet she wants to do more. With only 18 credit hours left, Crystal intends to fulfill the promise she made to her professor 30 years earlier. She’ll finish her degree.
“I’ve been blessed all these years, but I have got to take the time and finish it,” she says. “It’s just that I didn’t have time. I was working. What are you gonna do? Stop? You gotta get it while it’s good. So that’s what’s haunting me right now, and that is what I must do.”
In the meantime, every Thursday evening after rehearsal she hops in her car and drives to the home she shares with her 15-year-old daughter, Kodee, in Franklin, Tennessee. Kodee hit the road with her mom when she was 8 weeks old, so she’s used to the often unpredictable life Crystal leads.
“We called her a rock-and-roll baby,” Crystal says. “She was an easy baby, and she adapted nicely.”
Crystal’s mother, who passed away about a year ago, was her rock in those years, she says. “Granny nanny,” as they called her, made it possible for Kodee to come to every show. Billy Joel even set up a private suite for Crystal on tour, with her a room for her mother and daughter right next door.
“My daughter had a baby crib in every hotel room, even the Four Seasons,” she says.
After a weekend at home in Tennessee, she’s back on the road to Bloomington. On one trip from Franklin to Bloomington, she says, all of her memories rushed back. “I was driving and these emotions came over me when I came down Highway 37,” she says. “I started seeing all these things. Oh my gosh, that’s where I had my first flat tire! And that’s where I changed it. And that’s when I came late to work the first time with Mellencamp ‘cause I had to change my tire, and I had mud and oil all over me, and I got FINED a whole week’s pay for being late!” She laughs.
Whenever her schedule seems too hectic, Crystal reminds herself why she returned to IU. “I want to try to pull out that inner soul of each one,” she says of her students. “I want to bring out something special about themselves that they didn’t realize they had before. I want to pull out their Diana Ross.”
As she sits to the side of the rehearsal stage on a recent afternoon, she listens as a smooth, bluesy solo rings through the room, the final song they run in rehearsal.
“Dreams are dreams,” the soloist sings. “Some dreams come true.”