There’s a very good chance that if you show up at the American Legion Post 148 on a Saturday night, you’ll hear one of the regulars refer to Todd Harrold and his mates as “that white boy band.”Such a label doesn’t bother Harrold one bit, nor does it worry his band – Sam Smiley (guitar), Nick Bobay (organ) and Ryan Bachman (saxophone). It’s clear to Harrold and company that it’s not meant as an insult and, anyway, nobody’s complaining. Saturday nights are crowded and highly energized nights at the primarily African-American post, thanks in large part to Harrold taking his seat behind the kit.
“There’s no getting around it,” Harrold said in a recent interview. “We are white boys, but when we start to play nobody cares about that. What matters is the music. I go in there and play the stuff that got me excited about music in the first place.”
The music that inspired then 13-year-old Todd Harrold to pick up a set of drumsticks falls mostly into the category of 70s rhythm and blues. He also has a soft spot for groove-oriented jazz and funk.
“Really, my whole thing is I’m trying to find songs that have a great deal of soul to them,” he said. “And I want to build connections to musical traditions we might have lost touch with.”
Hence his band’s roughly 200-song repertoire and the eclectic format of “Burnt Toast,” the NIPR radio show Harrold has helmed since 1997. Anyone who has seen Harrold perform in person – whether it’s at the Legion, Club Soda, Duty’s Buckets or any number of local watering holes – can attest to Harrold’s wide-ranging tastes. “Love and Happiness” anyone? “Using Me”? What about a little something from the Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton catalogues? All are fair game at a Todd Harrold show.
Likewise, anyone who’s tuned in to “Burnt Toast” understands the breadth of Harrold’s musical knowledge. Sixteen years ago he took over the show from his friend Phil Seidel and went to work putting his own stamp on what at that time was a four-hour Sunday night slot.
“I’m a huge iTunes fan, and if I hear something good and see how it can fit into the show, I bring it in,” Harrold said. “The show has morphed a bit over the years. I’d say there’s more of a blues and classic R&B concentration than there used to be. When I first started, I mostly played jazz and progressive rock, but I’ve gotten away from that, and now I’ll even bring in clips from movies and things like that. So, overall, the feeling is more like a movie than your typical radio show with song after song after song being strung together with no real purpose or theme.”
Crafting three or four hours of entertaining radio is obviously a huge job. Luckily, Harrold has help in the form of a former student, Colin Boyd. Speaking of students, Harrold has a lot of them. It would be easy to assume, especially if you’ve seen Harrold work the Club Soda crowd, that his life is that of a suave rock star. But in reality, Harrold spends a great deal of his time teaching the next generation of drummers. And he loves it.
“My job as a teacher is to make my students into the kind of musicians they want to be, not the kind of musicians I want them to be. I had teachers who tried to do that, to pigeonhole me, you know? One wanted me to play swing, and I was like, ‘I want to play music that fills the room, not music that clears it!’ I refuse to do that, to force my students in any one direction and I think they respond to the freedom I give them.”
Harrold is a native of Churubusco. As a kid, he played the trumpet, guitar, piano and drums, and in his teens he snagged several awards as a member of his school’s jazz ensemble. In 1992 he formed his first band and released his debut album, Feels Like Rain. Next up came 1995’s Crow, 1996’s Back from Dreaming and 1998’s Mr. Whatever.
As sincere as such efforts were at the time, Harrold said he can’t really listen to them without cringing. Such is, unfortunately, the unending dilemma of the artist driven to better himself, day in, day out and year after year.
“Listening to your old stuff is a lot like looking at pictures of yourself from the 80s or 90s,” he said. “Even though you might look exactly like you wanted to at the time, you can’t help but think, ‘Oh my God, no!’ now. I mean, I wake up in the morning and I have new ideas, new musical ideas that I hope will surpass everything I did, say, six months ago, let alone 20 years ago. And who knows? Maybe 20 years from now I’ll look back on who I am today and think, ‘What an idiot.’”
But there’s no way his public will. Harrold is and has been for many years one of the most popular musicians performing in the Fort Wayne area. Since the 90s, Harrold has put out five more albums (all them true labors of love, considering how often the labels he was signed with tended to fold before they could finish recording and distributing the discs) and has kept incredibly busy playing longstanding gigs and private events. You can also find proof of his appeal in the eight Whammy awards for Best Jazz Performer he has hanging in his house. Of course, the jazz performer thing is not without its controversy.
“I’m very proud of my Whammys, but I’m not sure I play jazz exactly, and I know it’s made people mad, me getting that award when I tend to play a lot of different stuff. This year we’re nominated for Jazz, Blues and R&B, and that’s really gratifying because it shows you can’t fit us into a box, and that is what I think keeps people coming back.”
It could be his eclectic approach to groovy hits that fills rooms, or it could be his simple, direct approach to his art. Either way, Harrold isn’t about to retire any time soon.
“I try to gear what we play to the audience we’re playing for,” he said. “I’m not here to teach you. I’m not here to prove how smart I am. I’m here to entertain you. I want you to have a great time. I don’t really care about anything else. All I care about is making music, and I never want to stop doing that. I never want to stop working. I mean, why would I? Why would I have to take a vacation? I play drums for a living.”
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