News Column

Playing Smokey's songs: Galloway man musical director for Motown legend

November 17, 2013


Nov. 17--After working for the past nine years as a full-time member of Motown legend Smokey Robinson's touring band, keyboardist Demetrios Pappas, of Galloway Township, knows when Robinson releases a new CD, it usually means more TV appearances and more live performances.

Robinson, 73, is scheduled to release a duets album next year. Randy Jackson, formerly of "American Idol" fame, will produce the CD.

Pappas, 57, is already preparing for the additional work.

"It's been a really good run for me. I've been really lucky. I've been able to hang in and work at my profession, the one that I love," said the pianist.

Pappas' gigs with Robinson started in 1990 when he began his stint as a substitute keyboardist. Back then Robinson employed different some musicians for East and West coast gigs. Pappas would be called when Robinson needed a keyboardist for shows east of Chicago.

During that time, Pappas had to juggle his stints with Robinson, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with other gigs. Pappas graduated to being a full-time keyboardist with Robinson's live shows in 2004. Robinson asked Pappas to take over as his live music director in 2008, a position Pappas has held ever since.

Robinson is one of the greatest songwriters in the history of popular music. He co-wrote the No. 1 pop hit "My Girl" for The Temptations in 1964 and "The Tears of a Clown," which reached No. 1 in 1970 when he was a member of the R&B vocal group the Miracles.

Robinson said he had another bandleader, Sonny Burke, who hired Pappas.

"My bandleader was a top-notch keyboardist. If he hired somebody, they had to be great, so he hired Demetrios. Demetrios sat in with us whenever we were on the East Coast. That's how he started with us. Of course, he's great. He's now my bandleader, so he's fantastic," said Robinson Wednesday during a phone interview from Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.

Robinson said he requires all his musicians to read music, and Pappas reads and writes music.

"I used to augment myself with string players wherever I went for every show. I stopped doing that maybe four or five years ago, but, you know, he knows string parts. He conducted the strings, and sometimes, we augment now. When we go to certain places, we play with symphony orchestras, and he is very capable of handling all of that," said Robinson, who added Pappas also is a great guy. "He's my brother. He's a great musician, and I love him, and I'm very happy that he's here."

The only time Robinson released a new CD while Pappas has been music director was in 2009 with the album "Time Flies When You're Having Fun."

The release of that disc saw Robinson -- and Pappas -- appearing on the TV show "Live from Daryl's House" with Daryl Hall, the lead singer of Hall and Oates, and Pappas and Robinson performing with Eric Clapton on the British music television show "Later... with Jools Holland."

Clips from both performances can still be seen on YouTube.

Although he is a music veteran, Pappas admits he can still become star struck. That happened when he and Robinson showed up for the Jools Holland show.

"The thing is Jools has his own trio that he plays with," said Pappas about Holland, who was a founding member of the British pop band Squeeze. "That night, his guitar player was ill, so his best friend is Eric Clapton, so he had Eric Clapton play with us. When I got to the show in the afternoon, here is Eric Clapton waiting for me to rehearse the band. I was like 'Oh man, this is surreal. Aww, this is crazy.' That was a special thing."

Pappas appearance on "Live from Daryl's House" was in August 2009. Pappas can clearly be seen playing a Korg synthesizer, particularly in Robinson's cover of the song "Don't Know Why."

"They keep running it," said Pappas, who added he ran into Hall again backstage at a Robinson performance in 2012 in South Carolina. "He said, 'You know, that song you guys did with us is the most popular show that I've done since I've done the show.'"

Playing with Robinson, Pappas has performed at such notable venues as Carnegie Hall in New York, Royal Albert Hall in London and the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.

Pappas arrived in Atlantic City in 1982 after spending a couple of years at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. In the 1980s he worked at a variety of theaters and lounges in Atlantic City, starting with the former Wild Swan Lounge at the Tropicana Casino and Resort.

"In the 1980s when it was a healthy environment for all of us local musicians, we were doing lounge gigs during the day and theaters at night and after-hour bars. It was a busy time. I miss that. It was a whole society of musicians. It was a whole family of people that knew each other, that worked with each other in different bands and then, of course, all the players in the showrooms," said Pappas, who added saxophonist Michael Pedicin of Linwood was a contractor who threw him quite a bit of work at casinos that included the Tropicana.

Looking back, Pappas said it was that variety of experience that prepared him for his current job with Robinson.

Pappas first began working with Robinson in 1990 at Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut when then Foxwoods entertainment consultant Bobby Young, a former Atlantic City bandleader, hired the keyboardist. Pappas had worked for Young as a house musician at the old Golden Nugget, and the bandleader liked what he heard.

"Smokey came in to do a weekend without his keyboard player or his sax player. So, he (Young) called me and said. 'I need you,'" Pappas said. "They started throwing work my way. Some years, I worked a half a dozen gigs. Other years, I worked a dozen gigs. That was all through the '90s."

When Pappas wasn't performing with Robinson, he was playing both inside and outside Atlantic City.

Pappas played with other local musicians, such as contemporary jazz saxophonist Howard Isaacson of Smithville before hitting the road in 2003 with the Funk Brothers -- a group of top-notch studio musicians who played on some of Motown's most famous records, including discs by the Miracles, the Supremes and the Temptations. When Pappas is in town, he plays keyboard with the Ed Vezinho and Jim Ward Big Band on the first Monday of every month at Sandi Pointe Coastal Bistro in Somers Point.

Grammy Award-winning music producer Joe Donofrio of Brigantine has known Pappas for more than 30 years. Pappas has accompanied Donofrio's wife, singer Cathy Rocco, when she has performed. Rocco still sings Pappas' arrangement of Harold Arlen's "Over the Rainbow." Donofrio has seen Pappas perform with Robinson.

"I'm very familiar with Demetrios' playing, so I know what he brings to the table. You could definitely hear his signature being added to Smokey's music. With that said, it was in the context of Smokey's charts and everything," said Donofrio, who describes Pappas as a friend and a great soulful player. "He just has a certain style of playing. ... Immediately, I said, 'That's Demetrios.' He has a distinctive style."

Even though Pappas had the full-time keyboardist gig with Robinson, there was no guarantee Robinson would ask him to take over as his live show music director. Pappas' time playing in Atlantic City gave him the experience needed to make Robinson comfortable enough to offer him the job.

"He asked me what my experiences conducting were, and I told him about all my Atlantic City experiences because I had been conducting for many years already in Atlantic City. I did that 'Basin Street Follies' in the Showboat for years and that was all sight conducting because we were getting a new act every several weeks," said Pappas, who also spent time on the road in the late 1980s conducting for the late Tony and Emmy award-winning singer Nell Carter. "My Atlantic City experience was crucial because I would have been a knucklehead trying to conduct all that stuff."

Pappas has been with Robinson for so long now that he has his own impressions of what his employer is like.

"He's probably one of the sweetest guys I ever worked for. He's just a sweetheart, so respectful, very sure of himself. He knows what he wants, and he's definitely strong as far as that goes, putting his point across," said Pappas, who added Robinson is an extremely loyal guy, which partially explains why Pappas has been with him for so long. "He loves his road family."

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