Rickey Calloway; UNF Groundskeeper by Day Funk Superstar by Night and after 40 Years, a Debut Album

By Aasen, Adam | The Florida Times Union, December 3, 2008 | Go to article overview

Rickey Calloway; UNF Groundskeeper by Day Funk Superstar by Night and after 40 Years, a Debut Album


Aasen, Adam, The Florida Times Union


Byline: ADAM AASEN

Every day, people walk by groundskeeper Rickey Calloway as he inspects the University of North Florida campus, probably not giving him a second thought.

"He's a pretty quiet guy," maintenance worker Gerald Smith said.

But little do they know that at night, the mild-mannered Calloway puts on a cape and transforms into a 1970s funk superstar.

In his all-white suit and dark shades, the 55-year-old twists, spins and even does the splits. He conjures up the spirit of R&B legend James Brown with his raspy crooning, slamming his fist into the air with each crashing of the drums. His ruby-red boots move nimbly, as if he was walking on hot coals.

"It's like he's stuck in a time warp," said Michael Hilliard, a singer with Lorenzo and the All-Stars, a band Calloway has played with for 40 years.

At 13, Calloway started sneaking out to perform in Jacksonville nightclubs. He recorded one of his songs but never signed a recording contract, and he put his dream of a career in music to rest when he started working at UNF in 1985.

What he didn't know is that while he was beautifying UNF's landscapes, his song Tell Me - which he recorded when he was 19 - had been an underground R&B favorite in the United Kingdom, and other spots around the globe, for decades. One Japanese funk DJ even shelled out $3,000 for an original copy.

Forty years later, Calloway is finally recording his debut album on Kay-Dee Records and is planning shows in Europe. He doesn't dream of fame anymore, he's just having fun.

"It's not about making it big anymore," he said. "It's about making some good songs."

Calloway said he didn't care about music until at age 12 he saw a film at the Ritz Theater called The T.A.M.I. Show, a 1964 music documentary featuring The Rolling Stones, The Supremes, The Beach Boys and - Calloway's new hero at that moment - James Brown.

The next day, the self-professed class clown walked up to his friends at recess at Moncrief Elementary and asked, "Do y'all want to see something funny?" He hiked up his pants and slid around, doing his James Brown impersonation. Everyone got a kick out of it.

Friends eventually talked Calloway into performing at a talent show at Raines High School in front of at least 1,000 students. He sang James Brown's Out of Sight and received a standing ovation.

Word spread and people wanted to see Calloway perform. So when his mom - exhausted from working two jobs - fell asleep around 11 p.m., 13-year-old Calloway would sneak out and walk to clubs on the Northside.

Bar managers were reluctant to let a baby-faced kid inside, but band leaders pleaded, Calloway said. When cops entered the bar looking for underage patrons, Calloway would hide underneath the drums. He'd return home around 2 a.m.

In ninth grade, Calloway dropped out of Northwestern High School and started touring Florida, earning $60 a show.

At age 19, he decided he needed to record his own material. He went around to all the bar managers and band leaders he knew to raise $600 to record his song, Tell Me, an up-tempo soul song with funky guitar licks and James Brown-like vocals.

Although it never topped any charts, Tell Me popped up on radio stations around the country. A producer offered him a recording contract, but Calloway's uncle talked him out of it, saying the three cents-a-record deal was beneath him. His uncle told him there would be other offers. There weren't.

Fast-forward more than 30 years. Calloway still performs around Jacksonville on occasion.

He did a tribute to Chuck Berry during halftime of a Jacksonville Jaguars game. He performs at charity events at UNF and special shows at the Ritz, but the shows are now a rarity.

Five years ago, Calloway discovered that Keb Darge, a Scottish DJ of the Deep Funk genre, brought Tell Me over to the UK and started playing it in dance clubs. …

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