As encore celebrates 35 years of covering Wilmington’s entertainment, arts and community news, it only makes sense to celebrate long-standing musicians who have been around just as long (or longer). There’s easily a century’s worth of songs between bands like Polar Bear, The Wolfe Gang, (formerly Michael Wolfe and the Wolfe Gang), singer-songwriter Laura McLean, and gospel-jazz pianist Stephen Bradley.
“I began playing the piano at the age of 14,” Bradley remembers, “at the Holy Trinity United Holy Church under the supervision of the Rev. Delores Halsey. While in high school, I served as the pianist and songwriter for the gospel group, The Reflections of Christ and the Carolina Sub-District Choir.”
The Reflections of Christ released one 45 vinyl, which included “Time Is Winding Up” and “These Are the Last Days,” both penned by Bradley. He also founded the contemporary gospel group Reality by the time he was 16—the same age as Laura McLean when she picked up her first guitar.
Both mainstays of ILM have witnessed musical growth and changes (some welcomed, some not) over more than three decades.
encore (e): Tell us more about how you got your start in music?
Laura McLean (ML): I have been playing since I was 16 and underage at the Pony Express. A certain musician was known to bring his own beer and pass out mid-gig in his car. I saw my chance and would run in and say, ‘He’s passed out—can I finish the night for ya?’ Soon, I had Thursday nights, then weekends, competing for gigs with Mike Cross, Sam Milner, Neil Morris and other heavies of the day.
Now I compete with the hundreds of guitar players I taught through the years! I am still learning and teaching new things, giving out as many instruments to local kids as I can. I started out barely framing chords, and now, they call me “Guitar Guru.” Life is good.
Stephen Bradley (SB): I became the pianist and songwriter for The Pentecostal Fellowship Choir of NC Central University in Durham, NC. We recorded one album at the Holy Trinity Church in Wilmington [with] engineer Walt Bowden and released on the Blue Waters label. I established the Sacred Arts Workshop—an annual workshop for the purpose of educating arts departments in churches in southeastern NC. Christian Music Hall of Fame inductee, John P. Kee, and I formed a contemporary gospel group, Union, also featuring vocals of my talented wife, Charlene Monroe Bradley.
In 1983 I served as musical director of the local jazz fusion group, Psalms. The group featured Madafo Anokye Wilson, Mike Ashe, Greg Eavey, and Charlene Bradley. They played many Wilmington area clubs, concerts at UNCW, as well as festivals in the area.
Also, in the ‘80s I served as the organist for the Union Baptist Youth Choir of Wilmington and the organist for the St. Luke AME Zion church of the city. I worked as a studio musician and assistant engineer at Twin Oaks Studios. In 1989, along with chief engineer and songwriter, Randy Drew, we scored the motion picture, “Burning Vengeance.”
e: What is your perspective of the local scene? How has it changed, grown, evolved over the last 30 years?
LM: In 1994 Rolling Stone picked us to be the next Seattle. The next weekend they rolled the same noise ordinance poo they are sliding in now. We are still musically better than Seattle, not tied to power chords in a grunge-mind way. Diverse and mighty, our music scene just keeps getting better. Onward Soldiers, Paper Stars, The Collective, Wesley Wayman Sayer, Jared Cline, Delia Stanley, the Sanchez twins [Entangled Dreams], Benny Hill—the list never ends and is fabulous.
SB: Our area has an abundance of talented musicians. The overlapping of musical genres has helped us build a rich sound that is unique. Also, musicians from the area are performing all over the United States. I am glad local musicians have several venues to display their gifts, too.
e: Is music your full-time job? Do you have a “day job”?
LM: I cannot just play shows and be happy. I must teach what I know. I am super lucky to teach at Dreams of Wilmington in guitarr, songwriting, digital production, and graphics, and I have a few private students. I also run the calendar for Authors Round the South, a booksellers trade organization. I usually do as many benefits as paid jobs, to keep it real and help out different community groups.
SB: I graduated from New Hanover High School in 1977 [and] received a BA in Business Administration from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. I am currently employed by Duke University Medical Center, where I serve as a chaplain/counselor. Also, I am the Pastor of the Ekklesia Church in Wilmington.
e: Tell us about any recent recordings, songs written or events.
LM: I am currently working on a retrospective mix of old and new tunes. My latest stuff is a tad intergalactic, and I play some new instruments. You can find me Monday mornings at the Wrightsville Beach Farmers Market, and weekends I play the Sour Barn and the Pilot House. When Athenia Press runs Femme Speakouts, I bring my gear for them and participate in the coolness.
SB: As the Pastor of the Ekklesia Church, I host a weekly jazz service, The Invitation, that features 13 of our area’s musicians.
e: Which local artists/bands do you love right now and why?
SB: Jaron “J-Breez” Bradley (drums and vocals for Hip Pocket Band and drums and vocals for LeRoy Harper Jr. All Starz), Sherome Clay, Taylor Lee and Polar Bear.
LM: Onward Soldiers and Paper Stars are my faves. Good writing, great guitars, mixed tempos and just A+ bands all around. Solo faves include Wes Sayer, Jeremy Mathews, Haley Heath, Delia Stanley, Annie McLelland, Jared Cline and Jim Ashley!