The Embassy Theatre
125 W. Jefferson Blvd., Fort Wayne
$20 · (260) 424-6287
The Embassy Theatre’s annual Down the Line concerts, in which local bands pay tribute to national ones, grew out of a similar series that happened at the now-defunct Columbia Street West.
The C-Street series was inspired by so-called Hoot Nights in Austin, Texas (Hoot is short for hootenanny).
Fort Wayne’s Down the Line 15 happens March 6 and will feature Ty Causey as Stevie Wonder, Todd Harrold as Bill Withers, Fatima Washington (and friends) as the Supremes, and the Institute for the Musically Insane as Isaac Hayes.
The Embassy’s chief marketing officer Carly Myers said the event will be made pandemic-safe with a masked-when-in-motion requirement, timed entry, one-way traffic flow, zoned concessions, and a 530-ticket limit.
Here are interviews with three of the participating artists.
Todd Harrold As Bill Withers
When fans compare singer and drummer Todd Harrold to the musical legends he seems vocally to evoke, two names come up more than any others: proto-hip-hop artist Gil Scott-Heron and soul singer Bill Withers.
“If you listen to Gil Scott-Heron and then you listen to me, you’re going to go, ‘Oh, yeah, he stole a whole bunch of (expletive) from Gil Scott-Heron,” Harrold said in a phone interview. “I have stolen a lot of stuff from a lot of people.”
If you are at all familiar with Harrold, you know that he is not just one of Fort Wayne’s hardest working and most dependably entertaining performers. He is also a walking encyclopedia of popular music.
And he knows a few things about Withers.
“You’ve got to remember … that when Booker T. Jones discovered him, he was repairing toilets on airplanes,” Harrold said.
Withers had a joke about this, Harrold said, that he used on interviewers after he got famous (for singing, not for toilet repair): “People ask me if I think what I am doing is important. And I say, ‘I’ll tell you what. I won’t sing for a month and you don’t (use the toilet) for a month.’”
Withers had a pragmatic nature that appeals to Harrold.
“He wasn’t like a star,” he said. “He didn’t have that star thing happening at all. He seemed really natural, like a natural person. He didn’t have a hit until he was 33 years old.”
On Withers’ first album, Just as I Am, Stephen Stills was the guitarist, Harrold said.
“I mean, listen to ‘Grandma’s Hands,’” he said. “That’s Stephen Stills on lead guitar. It’s the same guitar sound as, like, ‘Wooden Ships.’”
Harrold has participated in Down the Line twice before. In 2012, he performed the music of Steely Dan, and in 2018, he performed the music of Stevie Wonder.
Harrold is currently recording a new album with pianist Eric Clancy and guitarist and Sweetwater Sound exec Bob Bailey. His musical expertise and enthusiasm can be enjoyed every Sunday night on his WBOI radio show, Burnt Toast.
Fatima Washington As the Supremes
Fatima Washington wanted to cover the Supremes for Down the Line, but it hinged on one thing. To be more precise, it hinged on the availability of two people: Her favorite backup singers, Debbie Moore and April Cotton. The latter performs under the name Soulest.
“They’re amazing vocalists as solo artists,” Washington said. “People asked us a lot in 2019 and 2020: ‘Are you guys a group? You should be a group.’”
One thing that was distinctive about Motown’s girl groups, especially the Supremes, is that any of the participating singers was good enough to be a solo artist, she said.
“Every one of those women had amazing voices on their own,” Washington said. “But something magical happened when they came together as a group.”
So when Washington presented her Supremes plan to Moore and Cotton, she told them that success hinged on their participation.
“I said, ‘Are you guys down? Because if you’re not down, I’m going to pick the Jackson Five’,” she recalled. “’And I’ll just be a whole bunch of Michael.’ But they were in. And I was super, super grateful. I was like, ‘OK, cool. Now we can do the thing where we all dress up alike and everyone can get a chance to shine.’ That’s what we plan to bring to the stage.”
What set the Supremes apart from other girl groups was a “distinctive soulfulness,” Washington said.
“I think every artist I have done for Down the Line has had that,” she said. “If you think about Whitney Houston, there was a distinctive soulfulness that transcended (the pop music she recorded early in her career). If you think about Aretha Franklin, a lot of her songs came from classical piano tracks. But she had this amazing, soulful voice that sat on top of that and just made it just boom.”
Washington believes that she, Moore, and Cotton exude a similar soulfulness.
“There is an honesty that comes from our performances,” she said. “And I think bringing that to the stage will help personify what Diana Ross and the Supremes did in their day.”
Ty Causey As Stevie Wonder
It has been a difficult few months for Ty Causey. His mother passed away last September, he had COVID-19 in November and his eldest son died in his sleep in January.
It would have been understandable if he had backed out of his Down the Line appearance.
But Causey said his strong religious faith guides him in all things and it told him to do this show.
“I am a human being and I’m a Christian,” he said. “The Bible says there is a time to mourn and a time to be happy. There’s a time for everything. I took some time to do what I had to do. And now I am ready to get back to work.”
This is the second time Causey has assayed the role of Stevie Wonder at a Down the Line concert. The first time was eight years ago at Down the Line 7. That appearance generated so much buzz that Causey decided to give Wonder an encore.
“People who couldn’t come that time have said, ‘Man, I wish I could have seen Ty do Stevie Wonder,’” Causey said. “So I said, ‘You know what? Maybe I’ll just do that again.’”
Causey said he admires Wonder’s songwriting, his singing, and his passion. If he didn’t think he could do Wonder justice, he wouldn’t do him at all.
“There’s some artists that you just leave alone,” he said. “Don’t try to improve anything, because there is nothing to improve.”
Causey will perform with a full band at Down the Line, but for his usual shows, he performs with backing tracks recorded by guitarist W.R. Sanders before his death in 2016. Causey and Sanders performed as a duo for many years.
“He was just a considerate person and just the salt of the earth to me,” Causey said. “And he said, ‘Ty, I am really going down. I am getting sick. I need to lay down some of my guitar parts for you, so when you do shows by yourself, you’ll still have that full sound that we have when we play together.’ That just lets you know what kind of person he was, what kind of integrity he had.”
Causey said he is currently recording his 17th album.