In one of Charlton Singleton's first City Paper appearances, he was decked out a yellow vinyl suit. Back in the day, the noted Charleston jazz man was a backing vocalist and cornet player for SKWZBXX, a now-defunct ska band. (Oh, and for the record, it's pronounced "squeezebox.") And in the Sept. 2, 1998, issue of the City Paper, Singleton and his cohorts were featured in a photo in the City Scene section of the paper. "SKWZBXX beat the August heat by donning matching yellow jumpsuits — in vinyl, no less," the caption read.
Back then, the grayscale newsprint hardly did the photo justice, but the band was indeed sporting flamboyant suits the color and consistency of raincoats. Singleton recalls that they bought the matching set in a Winston-Salem, N.C., Goodwill just down the road from a venue they played. Hurricane Bonnie had recently slammed the N.C. coast, and the band thought it would be a hoot to wear rain jackets and declare their next concert a "relief show" — not to raise money for the good citizens of N.C., but to breathe a sigh of relief, as South Carolinians do every time they dodge a storm.
"Those were great days," Singleton says. "As a matter of fact, I was just talking with Jon [Holt, the bassist from SKWZBXX] yesterday, and sometimes we sit around and say, 'Man, we were poor as hell, we were hungry, we were always yelling at each other, but wow, those were the best times.'"
Rock bands with horn sections did indeed breathe a rarefied air in the '90s, as Singleton remembers the band frequently got partnered up with big-time touring ska acts and even played a Ziggy Marley after-party show. In those days, Singleton was paying his bills with substitute teaching and playing organ at Our Lady of Mercy and St. Patrick Catholic Church — a steady music gig that he has kept to this day.
A few things have changed since then. The one local radio station where Singleton and the band might hear a SKWZBXX tune — 96 Wave — has since crested and died. The old Millennium Music on the corner of Calhoun and King, where Singleton once worked as a manager, was one of the many casualties of the online revolution. "The venues in town were a lot different," Singleton adds. "You could go to the Windjammer, go to the Music Farm, go to Cumberland's — when it was on Cumberland Street — and find a local band playing there whether it was a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday night, and it would be packed. Packed."
SKWZBXX stopped playing together full-time in 2000, although they still reunite for the occasional one-off show. For a while, Singleton played with party band Plane Jane, but his biggest endeavor to date is as artistic director for Jazz Artists of Charleston, a nonprofit organization formed in 2007 to foster a jazz community in the Holy City.
Perhaps Singleton's biggest musical high came in March 2010, when he conducted the Charleston Jazz Orchestra in a tribute to his favorite band, the Count Basie Orchestra, in his favorite venue, the Charleston Music Hall. He had met and played with members of Basie's group while playing in a jazz band as a student at S.C. State University, but this time, he was in charge.
Singleton owes a debt of gratitude to the late Jack McCray, an author and promoter widely regarded as the Holy City's biggest jazz advocate. Singleton and McCray had batted around the idea of a jazz orchestra for years until 2007, when, Singleton says, McCray called him up and said, "Remember when you had that idea about the orchestra? How fast do you think you can put it together?" He says McCray was a connector, always on the scene and introducing musicians to each other.
"He knew the backstory on the backstory on the backstory," Singleton says. "He was our voice, our face, our mentor, our leader, our professor."
After McCray's death in 2011, Singleton and others held a New Orleans-style funeral procession through the streets of downtown Charleston to celebrate the Holy City's preeminent jazz expert. And leading the parade was the man in the yellow jumpsuit himself, Charlton Singleton, with his trumpet in hand, helping to transform a sad moment for many in Charleston to a joyous celebration.