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Some days it seems like Raiford Starke knows half the musicians in South Florida -- and has gigged with the other half. Take, for example, the drizzly Saturday a couple of weeks ago when Starke showed up at Hollywood's Fiesta Tropicale in Young Circle Park. Clad in black jeans, a black T-shirt, and a black cap, the bushy-bearded Starke hit the main stage at one in the afternoon, toting an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. At his side was Magda Hiller, a Hollywood-based musician who has spent ten years making a name for herself on the local folk scene. Starke accompanied Hiller's perked-up folk set with blazing guitar leads and feverish harmonica solos.
Next it was off to the tour bus parked backstage for a quick bottle of water before his next gig. He was set to play electric guitar and harmonica in the cover band, the Seminole Swamp Band with Lee Tiger, a Miccosukee musician. As Starke entered the bus, though, he spotted yet another musical compatriot: Blind Willie James, a portly black gospel singer from St. Petersburg. He made a beeline for the couch on which James was sprawled. "Is that Colin?" James asked, sticking his hand out for Starke to shake.
"Yeah," said Starke, responding to his given name with a smile.
"Colin Kenny," James rumbled, pumping Starke's hand. "Listen to me, listen to me," he sang, and laughed. James was alluding to a song Starke wrote in 1984, about a girl with whom he was once smitten. James liked the song so much he added it to his repertoire.
Such is the life of Raiford Starke, a musical journeyman who's been writing and performing music for most of his 38 years. Although more accustomed to playing a supporting role over the years, Starke decided last spring to take a little of the spotlight himself, releasing a stunning solo CD entitled Speak Me. (The CD is available at Peaches in Fort Lauderdale as well as at his shows; he hopes to make it available online soon.)
Starke's vision of releasing an album dates back so far, he originally thought the platter would be vinyl. But it wasn't until the death of his musical compadre and hero, Dicky Wilson, that Starke applied himself to recording an album. Starke took his time recording Speak Me -- which consists of half a dozen Wilson compositions, as well as a few of Starke's own -- laying down tracks for nearly two years at Mirror Image Studio in Gainesville and the Seminole Mobile Studio in Big Cypress.
The album is a delightful survey of genres. It opens with the title track, an upbeat acoustic strummer with a melancholy organ fill that provides the harmonic high end to Starke's smooth, dark baritone. Starke explores the high end of his voice on the countrified "Girl From Immokalee," with sideman Johnny B providing a light, swinging dobro accompaniment. Starke explores the sounds of zydeco on "No Troub Doc," which features the bouncy accordion squonk of Bob Taylor. "Midnight Drive" is a light rockabilly guitar jive with distorted flourishes.
Over the course of the disc, Starke emerges as a musician willing to try his hand at just about anything: blues, country, rock, even bluegrass.
This loose style is what compelled Hiller to enlist Starke as a backing musician, both for live shows and on her new disc, Delicate Cycle. "I liken his playing to kids coloring in a coloring book," she says. "He doesn't color inside the lines. He doesn't play it safe."
Hiller says unpredictability is the key to his fretwork. "He takes risks that a lot of other players won't take for fear of hitting a bum note or something," she notes. "I love the life in his playing. It's completely different to anyone that I've played with."
Lee Tiger, who has collaborated with Starke for six years, concurs. "His playing is very easy to flow with," he says. "His heart is really into it. It's just part of the thing of music that is magic. I get a charge out of playing with him. He's very skilled in his guitar work, but he also has a lot of heart. He's down to earth. He gets his message out. He has the magic to be able to do that."
In fact Starke has been working his magic for 20 years. He grew up in Falls Church, Virginia, where he started performing "with a bunch of old guys that played Johnny Cash and stuff." He left Falls Church for Treasure Island, Florida, in the early '80s, where he eventually met Dicky Wilson at an open-mic night at a local biker bar.
The two eventually hit the road together, making money working on oil fields in east Texas while collaborating on a band called Cottonmouth. The band lasted until 1985, when Starke got fed up with the drugging and drinking of the other band members. Starke, however, maintained his friendship with Wilson.
In the late '80s, Starke found himself back in Florida, building chickee huts in Big Cypress for the entrepreneurial Seminole Indian Chief Jim Billie. Chief Billie was also a singer and guitarist, who made use of Starke's talent in his backing band. The group performed a style of music Starke coins "swamp rock," a mixture of jam rock and bayou funk.