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Papa John Creach: Violin Virtuoso

Published: 2/22/2014
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Papa John Creach (Wikimedia Commons)

Violinist Papa John Creach began performing in the 1930s, but it wasn't until the 1970s, when he took the stage with the Jefferson Airplane rock band, that larger audiences were able to appreciate the virtuoso who moved effortlessly between rock ‘n’ roll, New Age, blues and jazz.

"Papa John is one of the most versatile and talented musicians alive," Stevenson Palfi, the director of a documentary about Creach, said in a 1987 interview with The Los Angeles Times.

Creach died in 1994 at 76. He performed until the very end of his life.

"I've just kept on going. I think I'll always keep on playing because it's therapy for me. To make me feel good, I pick up my violin and play it. It makes me enjoy life as much as I can," Creach said in a 1990 interview with the newspaper.

"It makes me so happy, really, to see all those faces and a full house, and everybody wanting to shake your hand and tell you, 'I saw you when.’ ... Some of that can be interesting, because they'll tell me about engagements I forgot I played."

Creach was a classically trained violinist. In the 1930s, he began doing symphony work in Chicago. His race was an issue with some people, he later recalled.

"They closed the door on you. You really had to try. 'Who'd ever heard of a black man playing symphonic violin?' That's what they'd say," Creach said in that 1990 interview. "But I never paid them any attention. I just kept on sawing on the thing. And I got pretty good at it. The more I kept on playing, the more people forgot about it being a black man playing the violin."

Creach decided to try playing jazz so he could make more money. It wasn't a smooth transition. One thing helped: In 1943, he picked up an electrified violin and amplifier. Now horns and drums failed to drown out his playing. Creach performed with such legends as Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller.

For the next few decades, Creach worked steadily at hotels, on a cruise ship and in Los Angeles-area clubs. He dabbled in rhythm and blues, playing with Big Joe Turner and T-Bone Walker. He appeared with singer Nat King Cole in the 1953 film Blue Gardenia.

And then came Jefferson Airplane. Members of the band heard Creach play in a Los Angeles club in 1970. They immediately asked him to join them at an upcoming performance in San Francisco.

"That show, it turned out, was a wake at the Winterland for Janis Joplin, and Creach found himself sharing the stage with Jerry Garcia, Santana and others," noted The Los Angeles Times. "He … spent the next five years playing for thousands of fans a night (there were 100,000 for one Central Park show) with the Airplane, Jefferson Starship and Hot Tuna."



Creach was decades older than the musicians with whom he shared the stage –– that's how he got the nickname "Papa" –– but that didn't seem to matter.

"He was young at heart, with nimble fingers, a darting smile and a spirit so indomitable that it seemed he could play all night," Steve Morse wrote in The Boston Globe after Creach's death. Creach "added otherworldly be-bop solos mixed with elegant country-blues that could explode at any time into backwoods hoedowns that induced immediate standing ovations."

Audiences adored the veteran showman, according to Morse. "His live versions of the pop standard, 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow,' were so moving as to prompt tears."

Palfi's documentary about Creach, Setting the Record Straight, aimed to clear up the misperception that Creach was "just an old black guy freaking out on the fiddle, playing acid rock," the director said. Rock 'n' roll “was actually the least-challenging music Papa John ever played –– and the best way to do this, the best way to show just how versatile Papa John really is, was by letting the music speak for itself."

Creach once boasted that after more than 50 years as a professional musician, he knew 3,000 tunes from memory. As his contemporaries retired, he kept going.

"What keeps me playing? The people, the great audiences, everyone's so happy to see you," Creach said in a 1992 interview.

And what did he think about the many women who routinely delivered "daughterly hugs and kisses" at his shows?

"That's nice, but I don't go overboard with it," said Creach, who was married for nearly three decades to his wife and manager, Gretchen Creach. "It's just happy people, and I love people. Maybe you get a few you might want to try something with, but I don't want to be bothered with that."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."

 

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