‘The power of music’

With ‘In Harmony,’ Lloyd Kaplan and Tom Shaker chronicle the stories of early vocal groups

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Lloyd Kaplan has an unparalleled passion for music.

You can hear it in his voice when he talks about his time playing in the Army Band or when he mentions his long teaching career.

Kaplan, along with co-author Tom Shaker, is sharing his love of jazz in a new book, “In Harmony: Early Vocal Groups Remembered & Celebrated.”

The 87-year-old musician has been playing music for as long as he can remember. His older sister, Rita Stein, was a “jazz enthusiast,” Kaplan said in an interview. “She used to listen to and buy recordings, and so I heard a lot of music in the house. And I loved it.”

Kaplan didn’t get serious about his music career until he joined the Army in 1953. He ended up at Fort Bliss, Texas, where he joined an Army band. Kaplan attended Bryant College for two years to study business, but “it wasn’t for me. I was no businessman, believe me.”

Kaplan says he developed a bit in the Army Band. “I had to, or I would’ve been kicked out,” he joked in an interview. “That changed my life.”

While he’s been playing tenor sax and clarinet professionally for more than 60 years, Kaplan considers himself an educator first and foremost.

After his time in the Army, Kaplan enrolled at the University of Rhode Island in 1956, going on to earn his bachelor’s in music education. He then attended Brown University for a master’s in teaching.

“But then, in 1966, I got my real job,” Kaplan said. “That was at CCRI.”

Kaplan created and taught lecture courses in music history at the Community College of Rhode Island until the early 2000s. During his time at CCRI, Kaplan spent his winter breaks down in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. It was in Myrtle Beach that he started to teach older adults.

In 2010, Kaplan began creating courses to teach at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at URI, and during the winter at OLLI at Coastal Carolina University in South Carolina. Prior to the pandemic, Kaplan was set to teach a music course at URI. Instead, he’ll be teaching the course outdoors, hopefully this upcoming summer.

“I had intended to teach a course at URI for the OLLI about the vocal trios and vocal quartets of popular music and jazz. So I had started to write a lot of notes and listen to music and try and get prepared for the course,” Kaplan said. Then the pandemic hit, and he found himself with lots of research and material, but nowhere to share it. “I figured I would continue.”

And continue he did.

Kaplan unknowingly wrote four chapters of “In Harmony” based on the preparations for his course. Instead of letting it go the wayside, Kaplan reached out to Tom Shaker, and old friend and fellow musician, for input.

Shaker also grew up around music, learning from his father and his large record collection. He has been a college professor for over 30 years, teaching at institutions like Northeastern University, Dean College and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. He co-authored “A Treasury of Rhode Island Jazz & Swing Musicians” and is an award-winning filmmaker. Shaker is also the host of “The Soul Serenade” on WICN, where he plays 1960s and 1970s soul and funk music.

In an interview, Shaker talked about the process of writing with Kaplan. “It was an unexpected joy. Lloyd and I talk frequently about music; he just calls me up and we talk about music, which I love.”

The goal of “In Harmony,” according to Shaker, was to share the little-known history of early vocal groups. “There wasn’t a lot about early groups, so we decided to rectify that and write a book.” Shaker said he and Kaplan had students in mind when writing.

“We’re hoping that the book can be a guide to lead, but there are hundreds of other groups on smaller labels, and once you get down that rabbit hole, you’re stuck,” Shaker shared. “There’s so much great stuff.”

Take, for example, the history of the Boswell Sisters. As the authors write: “In the world of music there are innovators and culminators … Rarely does an individual or group achieve both; yet, the Boswell Sisters did indeed accomplish this during their relatively brief career.”

Martha, Connie, and Helvetia “Vet” Boswell “laid the foundation” for future musicians, like the Andrews Sisters and Ella Fitzgerald, who was quoted as having said, “Who influenced me? There was only one singer who influenced me. I tried to sing like her all the time, because everything she did made sense musically – and that singer is Connie Boswell.”

Then there is the story of the Sons of The Pioneers, which “is one of the American Dream.” The group recorded music from 1945 to 1980, with “songs that brought images of the American West, a place that was full of cowboys, cowgirls, cattle, ranch hands, and clean living.” Since the group’s inception, there have been over 40 members.

Then there is the history of the Golden Gate Quartet, “who may have invented rap” back in the 1930s. “No matter what line-up, no matter where they are based out of, and no matter what the time period they sing in … when they sing, whatever they sang, it was all from the heart and soul … Now that’s a legacy to be proud of.”

“Writing about music is a lot like writing about food. You can use every metaphor, simile and adjective in the world, but the proof is in the pudding (pun intended),” Kaplan and Shaker write. “While we’ve enjoyed writing about the amazing tempo changes of The Boswell Sisters, the incredible mouth orchestrations of The Mills Brothers and the lush western harmonies of The Sons of the Pioneers, you, the reader, have to LISTEN to fully enjoy the music. The authors hope that after reading this book you’ll ‘do your homework’ and actually listen to the magic of all these vocal groups.”

This reporter did her homework, and listening to the Ravens croon while reading about their pioneering performances or hearing the Delta Rhythm Boys doo-wop on “Take the A Train” gives Kaplan and Shaker’s book a new dimension.

Writing “In Harmony” was a learning experience for both Kaplan and Shaker.

“I became familiar with a lot of groups that I wasn’t familiar with, thanks to Tom,” Kaplan said.

“I didn’t know a lot about these groups,” Shaker said. “Lloyd kind of leans towards jazz-inspired groups and I lean towards R&B and gospel groups, and together we were able to cover our bases.”

Shaker said working with Kaplan was “really a pleasure from beginning to end,” and he considers Kaplan a mentor. “With all his experience and education, he still hasn’t lost an ounce of enthusiasm for music and its inspired me to do those things as well.”

In a year that has been filled with so much hardship, Shaker is proud to present “a wonderful thing; to share something creative that came out of such a hard year.”

But it’s more than just music to Kaplan and Shaker. To Kaplan, music is about community.

“It’s the communication with people. Because whenever I taught, I tried to be funny, believe it or not. I try to make it an entertaining experience. I know I made people happy along the way. And when I performed I made people happy,” he said. “When we played in South Carolina, it was like a club because the same people would come in every week. Communicating and making people happy is the essence of what I love about [music] the most.”

To Shaker, music is the most powerful force in the world.

“Especially this year, but always in my life, I have music on. I can’t imagine a life without music,” he said. “It’s one of the most powerful things out there; it’s like love. It gets you through the tough times and makes the good times better. I would never underestimate the power of music.”

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