Sweet Willie

Friends of local musical treasure Willie Akins want to help erase his medical bills

Although he's never gotten the national acclaim he deserves, Willie Akins is one of our city's best musicians, a gifted saxophonist and teacher whose contributions to the local jazz scene are incalculable [Jeannette Batz, "The Ballad of Willie Akins," Jan. 2]. Now he's hoping St. Louisans will return the love. Akins, 63, recently underwent open-heart surgery. His recovery is going well -- he's back to his regular gig at Spruill's every Saturday night -- but unfortunately his problems aren't over. Akins, like so many musicians, has no health insurance.

"I was trying to get Medicaid when I was in the hospital," Akins says by phone from his home in Webster Groves. "I'm still trying to get it, though, because when you get to a certain age, you can't get insurance, you know? 'Cause you so old. And being a musician for all these many years..." Akins' voice trails off in a gentle sigh.

To defray his medical expenses -- which, Akins estimates, amount to nearly $200,000 -- his family and friends are holding a benefit concert at the Sheldon, followed by a catered "birthday bash" at Spruill's, on Tuesday, April 2. Performers at the Sheldon concert include pianist John Hicks, Akins' longtime friend and collaborator; flutist Elise Woods; vocalists Jeanne Treavor, Erika Johnson and William White Jr. (a 14-year-old opera singer); and guitarist Rob Block, who recently moved to New Orleans. The birthday bash features more than 40 area jazz artists, with a special appearance by the Brittany Woods Middle School Jazz Band. Tickets are $10 for each event, and all proceeds go toward the WAA Benefit Fund. Call 618-271-6723 for more information.

Distressing news from the Bottle Rockets camp: Guitarist and founding member Tom Parr quit shortly before the band's scheduled appearance at SXSW. Sources close to the group alluded to "fisticuffs" -- and the fact that Parr didn't get onstage with the rest of the group at the main Bloodshot showcase, despite having traveled all the way to Austin, suggests that some kind of nastiness went down. But according to all reports, the remaining members (guitarist/lead singer Brian Henneman, drummer Mark Ortmann and bassist Robert Kearns) are still on good terms with Parr. The Bottle Rockets performed as a three-piece at SXSW and plan to continue as such for now as they tour in support of their new Doug Sahm tribute CD, Songs of Sahm (Bloodshot).

Sometimes we wonder whether we should just get it over with and rename this column "CD-Release Party Review." Every week, it's the same old song: A bunch of local bands put out CDs and celebrate the occasion by hassling Radar Station. No matter how many of these auspicious events Radar Station trumpets herein, some poor sap slips through the cracks or, just as likely, gets ignored on purpose.

Take the e-mail we received last week from one Sardo Numspa: "Why was there zero coverage of Gravity Kills this or last issue? They just released a new album [Superstarved, on the Sanctuary label] and played a packed CD-release show. One of the original 'local boys make good,' they are still together while others are not (read: the Urge). I think it's a glaring oversight."

To make amends, we decided to turn our fuck-up into a contest. The first reader to correctly guess why we failed to herald this important occasion wins an extremely fancy full-color Greenwheel six-pack carton commemorating that band's CD-release party (at the Pageant on April 11). Full disclosure: The box is empty, alas, but this in no way detracts from its specialness.

Grab a pencil: Radar Station ignored the new Gravity Kills CD-release party because (a) we accidentally set fire to a week's worth of mail and must have burned the press release; (b) band members rendered us temporarily mute by threatening legal action if we compared them to Nine Inch Nails or indulged in gratuitous Ministry jokes; (c) we deliberately cheated GK out of its rightful hype so we could devote more space to Andrew Broder, a.k.a. Fog, who doesn't even live here; (d) none of the above. (If you choose the last response, you'll have to explain what really happened.) Good luck!

Speaking of new releases, Pretty Willie's Universal debut, Enter the Life of Suella, hit the streets on March 26, accompanied by a splashy video for the first single, "Roll Wit Me." Although "Roll Wit Me" is all about the glories of livin' in da Lou, the video, which was directed by David Palmer (Ja Rule, Mary J. Blige), was shot entirely in Los Angeles. "I was pro-St. Louis the whole time, but this is my first video," Pretty Willie explains. "We wanted to execute a half-million-dollar video, and we didn't want to spend half of that half-million trying to get everything brought out here. But I'm proud of the outcome -- we put a lot of St. Louis graphics in there."

The CD-release party takes place on March 31 at the Adam's Mark. Pretty Willie promises a star-studded evening: "Ashanti; Gangsta Boo; my crew, Frontline; all my frat brothers from Ole Miss; Savante Stringfellow, the Olympic long jumper -- he was my college roommate for four years. And BET's supposed to be there to follow us around." The after-party takes place at Club Rio in East St. Louis.

On March 30, hard-hitting emo-rockers Pontiac celebrate the release of their debut EP, Right Next to Everything in the Middle of Nowhere, at the Three-1-Three club in Belleville. Asia Minor and Too Young the Hero open.

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