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Sound, Heart and Spirit: Friends Recall Beloved Richmond Musician Debo Dabney 

Debo Dabney (Courtesy of the Richmond Jazz Society)
Debo Dabney was a frequent performer at Richmond Jazz Society Events and made his first and only recording, the album "Organized," in 2014 at a jazz society concert. (Photo: Richmond Jazz Society)

This story is a personal one for me. I was fortunate to play music with Debo on many occasions and also counted him as a friend. He even played at my wedding. My wife, who is not generally a fan of jazz music, loved Debo from the first time she saw him on one of our early dates. I remember vividly how uncomfortable I was when he referred to my then-girlfriend as “Mrs. Solomon.” She decided that the one thing she really wanted at our wedding was to have Debo play piano. 

I first met Debo in 1999. Every Thursday night he played piano with the band Chez Roue at a Main Street restaurant slash bar called “Southern Culture.” It was a crowded scene with a lot of smoke and drinking and dancing and noise. The music included  blues, jazz, country and swing and Debo had a special feature on the Ray Charles number “What’d I say.” He always knocked it out of the park. 

Debo was as fun to watch as he was to listen to. He was animated and energetic when he played. His enthusiasm was contagious. He could play any venue, whether it was a church, an assisted living facility, a wedding reception or a crowded bar and get a great response from the audience because he possessed a rare sensitivity and was always able to read a room.  

Debo was born in Manakin Sabot in Goochland County and he grew up in both Henrico County and the historic black Richmond neighborhood Randolph. His aunt started him on the piano at age 7, and  he started performing at his family’s juke joint soon after.

“You could go to where I used to live... and you could buy alcohol and get your 50 cent shot,” Debo recalled in a 2014 interview. 

“I was a kid and I used to watch these guys,” Debo explained. “And then sometimes I just play this little something on a piano, and it kind of lured me in the business. They seemed to accept what I was doing. So that's a way of, you know, getting approval and you know, it just motivated me” 

Debo learned a lot about how to present himself onstage from legendary entertainers that he met through his uncle, a promoter. When he tagged along with him to shows at the venue now known as the Altria Theatre, he met some of the innovators of the rhythm and blues genre.

He recalled some of those names when I spoke to him in 2014: “James Brown, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson… people of that caliber. And so, at a very young age, I got to hang out with them backstage and that was a motivating factor to check out the charisma and aura,” he remembered. 

Ras Mel Glover, Jr. is a guitarist who attended junior high school with Debo. One of the things that impressed him about his friend of more than 50 years was his diligence. 

“Man, Debo practiced all of the time,” Glover said. “When we passed by his house, you'd hear him playing some classical pieces. Or he'd be playing 'Hang on Sloopy' [originally recorded by the Vibrations]... by Ramsey Lewis. 

And, Glover said, Debo kept up that work ethic his entire life. 

“We always used to joke after talking to each other. Okay, well, I'm gonna go practice. Me too, Debo.” 

Debo’s playing style was quirky, unpredictable and entirely his own. Singer Desiree Roots Centeio says Debo had a way of weaving children’s songs or tv show themes in the most unlikely places says,  

“He would put in ‘The Young and the Restless’ theme or ‘The Addams Family' theme,” said Centeio. 

“The way he could just twist that into a solo was always amazing to me,” she recalled. 

Centeio met Debo at a church in Elmont when she was 12 years old. Over the years, they performed in a lot of churches. As she got older, she recognized the deep spirituality in his music. 

“He was so grounded in his faith and hearing that pour out when he played gospel music, it was almost like the organ was preaching to you,” said Centeio. “Because just every ounce of belief that he had in God came out of his fingers, onto that organ keyboard and it was just mesmerizing. Just every ounce of belief that he had in God came out of his fingers onto that organ keyboard and it was just mesmerizing.” 

Saxophonist Roger Carroll was 19 years old when he first played with Debo. For more than 20 years, they played jazz, blues, country and swing together in Chez Roue. He recalled that Debo spoke about the spirituality of everything. 

“I remember we had two rehearsals in all the years we had Chez Roue together. I don't think we ever played the first note of music, we hung out and talked and what Debo called the fellowship,” said Carroll. “He said that was more important than actually talking about notes and music was knowing who you played with.”

Glover summed up Debo Dabney’s lasting contributions succinctly. 

“His  sound, his heart, his spirit, in the way he touched everybody that he met through his music and just through his greetings, his smile. That's Debo Dabney - 'Bo.'” 

Herbert Alan Debo Dabney III died April 9, 2020. He was 68 years old. The music he played and his warmth as a person keep his memory alive, for everyone that was lucky enough to have met him.

 

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