Songstress, Ms. Tanqueray Hayward

This Earth Blows Winds of Fire

BY HAIKEEM STOKES

            On this magnificent late fall day, I’m to meet with one of Philadelphia’s latest and soon to be greatest vocalist simply known as, Tanqueray. Just for sanity's sake, I’ll omit all references to the gin from this interview.
            We meet at Mina’s World, a quaint eatery along West Philly’s historic 52nd Street corridor that offers coffees, teas, and various bite-size delights. Upon arrival, Tanqueray’s smile and vibrant aura greet me at the entrance as we exchange pleasantries then walk to the counter to order two cappuccino’s, a blueberry coffee cake, and a chocolate croissant. Since it’s such a lovely day we decide to traipse approximately half a block away to Malcolm X Park where we find a bench and begin our interview. 
            I immediately address the elephant in the park with, “So, is Tanqueray your birth name or stage moniker? If it’s your government name, please tell the story behind it.”
            After laughing a bit she replies, “Oh yes, Tanqueray is all me, legitimately. My mother decided to give me this name because she thought it would set me apart from others, therefore making me unique. It may have been subliminally embedded inside of my mind because I’ve always marched and danced to the beat of my own drum. I was always sure to stay clear of trouble because there was always only one Tanqueray around and that was me.”

          We laugh a few seconds then I ask, “Where are you from originally?”
          Without hesitation, she answers, “Ironically, I was raised not too far from here in beautiful West Philadelphia. In fact, my entire family is from this surrounding area. I have many fond memories of my youth, from walking the trails inside Cobbs Creek Park to playing in its recreation center. Going to the 52nd Street YMCA and the library; my glory days of running track while attending Overbrook High School. I definitely grew up a West Philadelphia girl.”
          “From your profile, I see that you’re a member of the Armed Forces. What was the motivation behind that decision?”
          “Actually my grandmother was a huge influence behind that decision. Although I did have several members of my family that were enlisted or even retired at the time, my grandmother’s push was the strongest in that direction. She always said that there was something about me that was larger than life itself and the service will allow me to explore the world and find purpose. I realized all these years later she was correct, as I am not too far from retirement. The purpose she spoke of is the ability to teach, which my current occupation is also.”
          After taking a few moments to consume our bite-size delights and cappuccinos, we observe the bustling thoroughfare, then continue the interview.
I ask the obligatory, “How long have you been singing, and do you remember your first appearance in front of an audience?”
          Tanqueray pauses slightly while looking to the sky then back to me as she answers, “Wow. It just hit me that I’ve been singing since I was seven years old. Your question instantly transported me to the first time I sang a solo in the children’s choir at my grandparent’s church. I was more anxious than afraid but when I blew my first few notes and noticed the explosive reaction of the congregation I was hooked. I believe my mother’s diverse taste in artists helped me find my voice. She’d play a lot of R & B, Soul, Pop, and Jazz. Whitney Houston was one of my absolute favorite singers early on. Her voice had so much range and richness. She was truly incredible to me.”

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          “Do you happen to come from a family of talented singers and/or musicians?”
          “My mother could sing very well but she only did so around the house. On the other hand, my younger sister was the songbird. She sang in: school choirs, solo competitions, showcases, and anywhere there was a microphone. Thankfully, throughout the years my mother always had music playing in our household. On a funny note, singing may have saved me from being bullied in high school. I was all of 60 pounds in the ninth grade and probably about four feet tall. It had to be my delivery that was so impactful, and I believe it psyched out the minds of bullies. They probably didn’t know what to think of little ole me.”
          After sharing a healthy chuckle I ask, “Besides Whitney Houston, do you have any other favorite vocalist?”
          Tanqueray claps while stomping her feet as she answers, “Of course I do! Aretha, Patti, Chaka, Gladys, En Vogue, Mary J. Blige, Michael Jackson, Prince, and Teddy Pendergrass just to name a few. My list is truly too extensive, but those are my starters. Like most children, I wished to dance like MJ, his moves were incredible. As a woman, I’ve tried to do my best Janet or Beyonce moves, but those two are something else. The group En Vogue was the second coming of the Supremes for me. I also attempted to copy their moves but I didn’t have anything to move. However, their harmonies were phenomenal. So, eventually, I developed my own style on stage. I simply rock out to the music and do me. I feed off the crowd’s response and do what I can to give a full performance. ”
          “Do you have any pre-show rituals or are there any must-haves that you require backstage?”
          “First and foremost I pray, but that goes without saying. Second, I eat like there’s no tomorrow. Thank God for this fast metabolism because I throw down backstage, which I believe is because of nervousness. I still am a bundle of nerves before each performance, but it’s good because that’s part of what keeps me grounded.”
           “How did the concept come about of you paying tribute to the icons and who is your favorite to do?”     
           “The tribute concerts are my absolute favorite to do because I strongly believe in paying homage to the greats that came before me. They all have literally pathed roads that weren’t even there and made it possible for us as singers and musicians to perform today. So far, I’ve done tributes to Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan, and Mary J. Blige. The one that has had the largest impact has to be Aretha Franklin. The show was scheduled far in advance and unfortunately, she passed a week before the tribute show so it was beyond emotional for me as well as the audience but we got through it together. Since the show was of high demand, there were five more added that all sold out, so I consider that a truly blessed event.” 
           “As far as Philly is concerned, which stage have you performed on the most?”    
           “With much adornment and gratitude, it is Warm Daddy’s on Front & Reed Streets in South Philly. I used to do a song or two with Mosaic Flow every once in a while during their sets. One day, a founding member of Pieces of a Dream, Cedric Napoleon sat in with the band and really liked my vocals. After the show, the manager approached me and asked if I’d like to begin doing full performances once a week with the band. I agreed and the rest is history.”
           “Speaking of history, do you have a solo album in the works?”
           “Yes, yes, yes, there is a full-length album in the making! So far three songs are doing extremely well on the charts overseas, particularly in the United Kingdom. When COVID-19 is over and we can freely travel throughout the world again, I’d love to do a concert there first. The titles are This Thing, Single Mom Blues, and This Kind of Love. I wrote the lyrics to the aforementioned titles plus three more unreleased songs and a Christmas song. I plan on having at least ten songs on this first album then see how it goes for the second effort. I’m currently working with the super-producer, T.L. Shider who has been a Godsend. We click in the studio like peanut butter and jelly.”
           “Is there anything else that you have coming up that you’d like to keep the public abreast of?”
           “In 2021, I will be starring in a musical, so I’ll have to schedule that around my perspective tour dates. I’m excited about the opportunity because it will give me a chance to do something slightly different, yet still in my field of expertise.”
           “When it’s all said and done what would you like your legacy to be?” 
           “That I motivated people through my teaching skills and through song. I strongly believe in helping others to be better versions of themselves, especially the youth. Making a positive impression on our youth is monumental.”
           “What advice would you give to an inspiring young singer?”  
           “Please follow what’s inside of your heart and never let anyone douse your dreams. Always keep a strong belief in yourself. Keep trying until you succeed. Never let anyone tell you that you’re not worthy. Your dreams matter so never give up hope. And definitely pray.”

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COMEDY BY ANY MEANS NECCESSARY

A Conversation With Comedian Extraordinaire, Dave Lester

BY HAIKEEM STOKES

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      Strolling past Harlem’s Apollo Theatre on my way to meet with Mr. Lester for our conversation, I can’t help but take pause and give a symbolic kiss skyward to all of the greats who have rubbed the stump and graced that stage. Many have tried but few have survived the Apollo’s Amateur Night audience yet those that have went onto superstardom. This also applies to the hilarious spirit I’ll be face to face with very soon.
Hanging a left onto Frederick Douglass Boulevard, pass the great Harriet Tubman's Memorial Statue I finally reach my destination, Chocolat Restaurant, and Bar. Seated at their outdoor café is the incredibly funny, Dave Lester. After we partake in gracious portions of lobster mac and cheese and hot teas we begin our session.
    My first question is, “How long have you been considered a Professional Comedian?” 
     After taking a moment he responds, “I received my first check for being funny some 15 years ago, but officially I’ve been making people laugh my entire life. In fact, I performed stand-up for the very first time in 1989. I remember it specifically because N.E. Heartbreak was at the top of the charts and I was perfecting my best Bobby Brown impressions.” 

After laughing out loud I ask, “How did you break into the business?” Dave Lester shakes his head then answers emphatically, “I’m still trying to break into this mutha! It’s been a long hard 23-year climb and fortunately, I haven’t lost my footing. I can remember somewhere in ’92 or ’93 while I was in college I used to do small haunts throughout The Village just to cut my teeth, so to speak.”


    I then ask if he remembers his first real comedy gig?
Mr. Lester answers, “Back in ’97, I was booked to open for J.B. Smoove by his promoter. And I mention that because it is a compliment to be tapped by someone’s backing rather than just the club’s manager.”
    “So what’s the largest crowd you’ve ever performed in front of and do you remember how you felt afterward?”
“So far it has been in front of a capacity crowd at the Apollo Theatre. They were having a tryout for someone to warm up the crowd for Steve Harvey’s Showtime stint. And it was an incredibly pleasing feeling due to the fact that I didn’t get booed off of that mutha!”
    “Say you’re sculpting a “Mount Rushmore of Comedy”, whose faces would you have to place upon it?

And it’s perfectly fine to include yourself if you’d like.”

“Oh wow. That would be an incredible thing to do, I imagine. So let’s see. I believe I’d have to go with, Richard Pryor, Patrice O’Neal, Dave Chappelle and last but certainly not least, Dave Lester. In that order specifically. O’Neal, who was named after Patrice Lumumba, did comedy that was nothing short of genius. Pryor’s comedy was groundbreaking because of his heart and honesty. Chappelle however, is likened to something you desperately need yet hate to take, and that is medicine.  I’m more of a charming beast. I’m a bad brother let me tell you. I can’t be stopped. Well, this is what I hear from the 10 folks that have been my core supporters throughout my career.”

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“Have you had the opportunity to work with any of the icons of comedy? If so who and if not who would you like to work with?”
“I work with myself all the time, so that counts for something in my book. But seriously, I had the chance to work with the incredible, Patrice O’Neal very early on in my career. He would always give me feedback after a set and offer priceless advice. Patrice and Todd Lynn mentored me early on. Truly remarkable people with incredible talent.”
    “Are you interested in doing television or movies at all?”
After a slight pause, Mr. Lester replies, “This may sound funny but I could care less about acting actually. Unless of course, it had to do with me performing comedy. I imagine that fitting into a role is extremely restrictive. Most comedians are allowed a certain amount of improv when doing different roles. I believe when it comes down to it they don’t get the final say on how it goes. I need that wiggle room to do me. This is how serious I take this here. I strive to be the best there ever was and will be. So to answer your question, hell yes! I will do them both for the right amount of money and suitable character.” We both laugh then Dave sips more of his beverage while settling in for the next question.

“Please describe your brand of comedy.”

He laughs a bit, then surveys the area carefully while saying, “Are there any kids in earshot?” We laugh then he offers, “I am a masculine male that is constantly evolving. I am a bit of a late bloomer as well so I often find myself redefining my role in society at large. I’m a modern man with an old school backbone that’s cut from a different cloth. My responsibility with this platform I have is to make the world a better place than before I arrived.”    

“Finish this sentence. I consider Stand- Up to be…”

“Everything. We are like miners that dig deep into the ugly of everyone’s soul to capture that single piece of coal that we can massage into a diamond.”    

“What has been your craziest day job thus far?”

“Wow! I’d have to say when I was a pole for pleasure. Basically, I couldn’t find sustainable employment for roughly over a year so I had to smash on demand. It was a very grueling job and my employer didn’t give two craps how I felt about it. Just so long as I stayed ready at all times. So I was pleasuring for food, room, and board.”  

 “Do you have any other interests besides comedy?”

“I’d like to direct films and documentaries someday. I also love mentoring youth. I’d love to open a wellness facility for at-risk youth.”    Peering a ways down the Boulevard, I see Central Park which reminds me to ask, “How long have you been involved in the Comedians vs. Hacks Softball League?”

“Oh wow, glad you asked. That’s one of my favorite things to do. I love it and I appreciate all who have been involved these past 12 years. The way it all came about was a longing to see my cronies in the daytime. As a comedian, we perform at night and most times during after-hours. We are like vampires almost literally. So I created this as a way to enjoy my people outside and under the sun instead of just the moonlight. And just being perfectly honest, I liked the idea of being able to play a sport where you could drink beer while you were doing it. One time, while on the mound pitching, I was eating ribs and chugging brew in between pitches. It was some kind of wonderful. I also cook all of the food and supply all of the beer. I strongly believe that food is love, so for me to cook for all of my people is a great honor. The mere fact that they trust their digestive systems to me is a great testament I like to think.”
    “Do you have any career regrets to this point?”
With a sly grin, Dave answers, “I regret getting married. If you want to totally derail your hopes and dreams while trying to stay on a career path then get married. I’m not saying it was all bad, it just wasn’t all good. If you’re going to shoot your shot with that, then get married before trying to follow your dream or after you’ve accomplished it, not in the middle of it.”

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After regaining my composure, I ask Mr. Lester, “What has been a definite high point in your career as well as a low point?”
Looking toward the Harlem sky he grimaces a bit then replies, “I have to say that an extreme low was bombing on live television. It was very early in my career and to be honest it was too much too fast for me because I wasn’t properly prepared. I jumped at the chance to be on television thinking it was going to lead to instant stardom but that did not happen. I wasn’t ready for that big of an opportunity at all. Hindsight is a mutha. The positive that I took away from the experience was that I found my voice and came face-to-face with who Dave Lester was and wasn’t. I am a thinking person’s comic. I’m not a slapstick, pratfall type of personality. I have something important to say within my act and the intelligent get it. And so far the high point of my career was recording my first comedy album last year. That was extremely special to me.”
    “What bit of information would you wish to give an inspiring comedian?”
“Ask yourself why exactly are you doing it? Meaning, do you simply want to be rich and/or famous or want a lot of friends or just want to be propositioned quite often?

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“Ask yourself why exactly are you doing it? Meaning, do you simply want to be rich and/or famous or want a lot of friends or just want to be propositioned quite often? Most times it seems the best Comedians are the individuals that are naturally funny. If you have to try in the least little bit it may not be for you. You have to be that honest with yourself. Please be a historian of the craft. You have to do the research and take this here thing seriously. Pay homage to the legends. Make sure that you stay true to who you are and follow your own path. Don’t simply chase that dollar because it’ll lead you into a brick wall. And to be honest, my motivation to do comedy today isn’t what my motivation was yesterday. It began as a way to talk to the prettiest of women. I was stellar with the so-so women but I needed an “in” with the crème de la crème type chicks and comedy was the perfect liaison.”