Making music on State Street: The stellar Floyd W. Cheatham III and his soulful saxophone

August 9, 2006

Most nights, if you’re lucky, you can find Floyd W. Cheatham III on the 200 block of State Street, across from the Overture Center, making beautiful music on his saxophone. He’s performed there off and on for almost a decade — and those of us who admire the haunting, evocative sounds of his music, hope he’ll be around for many more years.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI first met Floyd more than a decade ago, when he was working for Bob and Tania La Follette at the King Street Cafe. Then, in 1997, I saw Floyd play Daddy Bates in a CTM production of “The Tap Dance Kid,” and wrote in my review for the Wisconsin State Journal that his performance as a vaudeville tap dancer was “captivating.”

Nine months later, Scott Milfred, then a mere reporter, now the Wisconsin State Journal’s editorial page editor, wrote a feature story about Cheatham and his music: “A ‘Guardian Angel’ Plays His Soulful Songs for State Street,” accompanied by a Steve Apps photograph, put Floyd on the front page of the newspaper.

In the intervening years, Floyd has struggled with his demons — drug and alcohol addictions — and sometimes been absent from the music scene. Last week, I encountered him while I was Downtown, and learned that he was clean and sober and once again playing on State Street. So I made a date to talk to him about where he’d been and where he was going these days.

Once we started talking, however, it became clear that although we may not have met until the 1990s, Floyd and I shared memories of the Madison music scene that went back more than four decades.

Born in Joliet, Illinois in 1951, Floyd grew up in Milwaukee and attended Rufus King High School. When he was 15, he began performing with Omar Duprie and the Montclairs, which he describes as “the best opening band” around at the time. “We opened for B.B. King, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, and Sam & Dave at The Scene in Milwaukee, and whenever James Brown came to Milwaukee, we opened for him,” he remembers. “And we opened for Jackie Wilson in Omaha.” The band also played at almost every fraternity house in Madison from 1967-1968, he says.

The Madison music scene was alive, vibrant, and jam-packed with talented musicians during the late 1960s. The Nitty Gritty hosted an incredible array of performers, but there were lots of other places — such The Factory and the Stone Hearth — to hear exciting music. And there were lots of up and coming musicians playing anywhere they could find an audience.

One of them was Gavin Christopher, who went on to work with many outstanding performers, including Chaka Khan, Herbie Hancock, and Phil Upchurch. Floyd remembers performing with Gavin and Stan Stallings, and Billy Stonewell (who also played with Harvey Scales & the Seven Sounds) at the Stone Hearth. I remember Gavin not as a musician, but a photo subject. A handsome young man with a slightly exotic look, he was willing to pose for me while I tried out various films, camera settings, and filters. One wintery afternoon, when I was taking photos of Gavin on the deserted Union Terrace, a man walked by and asked if he could take a photo of us. Gavin and I hammed it up for the camera and then forgot about it. Imagine my surprise when I discovered the photo on the last page of the 1970 Wisconsin yearbook.

But enough about me. This post is supposed to introduce you to a man and his music — and to encourage you to stop and listen to Floyd Cheatham when he’s playing his saxophone on State Street.

If you appreciate and enjoy Floyd’s music, remember to drop some money in his instrument case. Floyd’s clean and sober, but he’s only marginally employed right now, so your contributions are most appreciated.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn addition to his saxophone, Floyd carries some memories in his instrument case: a copy of Milfred’s article, a copy of my review of “The Tap Dance Kid”, and a copy of the program for the CTM production of “Finian’s Rainbow,” in which he played several minor roles. And there’s one more thing: a photo of himself taken during the construction of the Overture Center.

Floyd worked for Findorff as a union carpenter during the first phase of the Overture Center construction. Then, after two years hard work as a carpenter, he succombed to his demons. Now, he’s ready to work again, but he has to retake the carpenter test on September 5th. All of us who love his music, wish him well — and hope he’ll still find time to play his saxophone on State Street after he passes that test with flying colors.

FunkySax June 13, 2007 at 7:20 pm

Nicely done. This is a wonderful, thoughtful piece of work. Much respect to you, and of course, to Floyd. Keep on playing!!

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