Sustained excellence, innovation and a sense of historical perspective are but three of the elements used to define a Hall of Fame career. Throw in a healthy dose of charisma, positive vibrations and the infectious rhythms so unique to reggae, and it's easy to see why Neon Prophet was an obvious choice to be this year's Tucson Area Music Awards Hall of Fame inductee.
It's difficult to believe, but it's been more than 27 years since the band first came together in April 1984, playing a dance at the legendary Splinter Brothers Warehouse. Band founder Kini Wade said this show was dedicated to Marvin Gaye, who only days earlier had been shot to death. (How's that for historical perspective?)
Although the band was an immediate hit, it was not until the arrival David Dean that the band truly began to develop its early persona.
"I had seen Kini playing at Delectables with Don Reeve and Joe Jarman, and I just knew I wanted to be a part of that," said Dean. A former member of the fusion-rock-band Central Air, Dean had been gravitating more toward jazz.
"But his jazz buddies wanted him to play percussion," recalls Wade, "and he wanted to play guitar!"
Dean also wanted to sing and was drawn to the harmonies of Wade and Jarman. The richness of Dean's natural bass—with his multi-octave range—was riveting when combined with Jarman's high-end alto.
"It was jammin' and raw and totally different than the music I was connecting with at the time," Dean said. "Kini gave me the opportunity and I'll never forget him for that."
Only a few months after Dean joined Neon Prophet, Wade, the band's drummer, left the group.
"I begged him not to go," said Dean. But Wade was about to become a father to twins. Another drummer was quickly found, and with that, the band, which included Rafael Bejarano on keyboards, quickly rounded into form. Playing a mix of traditional reggae standards, they developed a healthy dose of original tunes penned by Reeve and Jarman, who were playing lead guitar and bass, respectively.
"At that point," recalls Reeve, "I was writing a lot of songs, many of them specifically for the band. There were also collaborations with Joe, who wrote many of our originals. They all went over as well as, if not better than, the covers."
Reeve, who was not a singer, adds, "It was freakin' awesome (having them sing my songs)! The two of them (Dean and Jarman) together really put the band over the top."
After a series of gigs at a club called Smokey's, the band was invited to play at an eastside venue just starting to book bands. With that began the era of the Chicago Bar. Cathy Warner and Bill Shew were relatively new club owners and were just beginning to experiment with live music.
"Bill and I just fell in love with them, and immediately, Bill said, 'Cathy, I want them at the bar.' For whatever reason, Wednesday was the only night available to them, and so that's what we did," said Warner.
Wednesday nights at the Chicago Bar quickly became a happening time and place to be, and before long, it was expanded to Wednesday and Thursday. Warner recalls, "Often, these nights were busier than the weekends, with people lined up outside the bar."
The band played almost four consecutive years on those nights. Warner and Shew sold the bar in 1988, at which point Neon Prophet continued on under the new ownership.
In the midst of this good run, Jarman had some trouble with the law and was forced to leave the band, in mid-1986. Reeve, who was also an accomplished acoustic 12-string guitarist, saw this as his opportunity to make a clean break from Neon Prophet. The Chicago Bar scene was an unqualified success—and yet the band was down two songwriters, a vocalist, a bassist and lead guitarist.
Enter Jamie Cirrito. A more-than-casual fan of the band, he had already been a part of the Neon Prophet scene, occasionally sitting in as a reggae rapper. Dean quickly hired him as a bassist. While this changed the nature and sound of the band, Neon Prophet began to reinvent themselves in a way that would help sustain them beyond anyone's imagination.
Soon after Cirrito came on board, the band found percussionist extraordinaire Plato T. Jones. "We had a gig in Flagstaff that no one was able to make. The club owner called Plato, and he called a friend, and we had a band," said Dean.
Although Jones was living in Phoenix, he was immediately assimilated into the band, commuting to Tucson for almost two years before eventually moving to town. A veteran of many bands and tours, Jones' animated character and playing were the stuff of legend. Together, with Dean and Cirrito, they formed the core of the band that would withstand the comings and goings of many talented players, including Carl Cherry, Keith Borders, Steve Springer, Terry Oubre, Ralph Gilmore and Xavier Marquez, to name but a few.
Today, the band still plays the Chicago Bar (Thursday and Saturday), as well as every Friday at the Boondocks, again working for Warner and Shew, who purchased that club in 1996.
The band—which also features Tony "Falcon" Davis on guitar, Alma Webb and Scott Anderson on keyboards, and Chip Ritter on drums—has a big sound that still pushes the bounds of reggae.
In February, the band and Tucson as a whole suffered a huge loss when Plato T. Jones passed away.
"Of course, Plato is sorely missed," said Ritter.
Warner marveled at how Dean and Cirrito have been able to keep it together for so long.
"If you saw them off stage, you'd think they had nothing in common. But when the lights come on, they have this magical thing."
Cirrito concurred, adding, "We meet in the musical sphere. Musical agreement is everything. If we agree that John Coltrane is a saint, that's all that matters to me."