Charley Gardner’s Angels

The local musician will be accompanying three of his favorite female vocalists in a show this month.

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Charley’s Angels: Sandy Gardner, Cindy Cain, Chuck Gardner and Janet Rutland Photo courtesy Chuck Gardner.

Charley’s Angels: Sandy Gardner, Cindy Cain, Chuck Gardner and Janet Rutland
Photo courtesy Chuck Gardner.

Here are a couple of things you should know about Chuck Gardner’s Charley’s Angels show, set for Sunday, June 5 at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame’s Jazz Depot in Tulsa.

First, the only person who consistently referred to pianist, arranger and composer Gardner as “Charley” was his old Uncle Lyle from Minneapolis.

Second, Gardner has dubbed the concert “Charley’s Angels” instead of “Charlie’s Angels” because he doesn’t want anyone to think it’s a direct representation of the well-remembered late ’70s-early ’80s TV show that made actresses Kate Jackson, Jaclyn Smith and, especially, Farrah Fawcett household names.

“However,” he says, “the inference is there. In fact, Janet told me she wanted to be Farrah Fawcett, but I said, ‘No, Tony’s already applied for that.’”

“Janet” is Janet Rutland, one of the three angels working with Gardner on his show. The other two are Cindy Cain and Sandy Gardner, Chuck’s wife of 38 years, who’ll also play bass. “Tony” is veteran Tulsa drummer Anthony Yohe, a longtime musical cohort of the Gardners and one of the least likely people in the known universe to be mistaken for Farrah Fawcett.

“I’ve been wanting to do a concert with these three gals for a long time,” Gardner says, “and I thought ‘Charley’s Angels’ would make a good framing device to bring us all together. Each one has her own following, which is one of the reasons I selfishly picked them. They’ll all bring in their different crowds.

“As a piano player,” he adds, “I get more of a kick out of accompanying professional singers than I do just playing piano by myself or with a trio. It all comes from when I was in the Air Force, doing the Serenade in Blue Armed Forces Radio shows at Capitol Records in Hollywood. That was during the Vietnam era. I had the great opportunity of working with Rosemary Clooney, Anna Maria Alberghetti, Gisele McKenzie, all sorts of different singers. That’s when I really started enjoying this accompanying business.”

He’d gotten his first taste of it about a decade earlier, while stationed at Hickam Field in Hawaii and leading an Air Force group called the Pacificaires. He’d joined the Air Force band program only a few years earlier, in 1957, after working in various musical outfits as a young civilian in his home state of Iowa.

Then, in the very early 1960s, an up-and-coming jazz-pop vocalist who’d just recorded her first album for Capitol Records visited the Hawaiian Islands. Her name was Nancy Wilson, and she was scheduled to appear on a Honolulu television show. The station, however, didn’t have a pianist on its staff.

“They called us at Hickam, wanting to know if we had a piano player who could come out and back her,” Gardner recalls. “I was sent over, and I remember she was just gorgeous, but I had no idea who she was.

“She told me, ‘I have this new arrangement, and I’d like to do it with you.’ I said okay, and we rehearsed it once and then did it on the show, which was just a local Honolulu TV show. The song was called ‘Guess Who I Saw Today,’ and I got to thinking, after I later heard her recording of it, that I might’ve been the first person ever to play it in public with her.”

Nancy Wilson was far from the only recording artist Gardner worked with during his time in the Islands.

“There was something called ‘Sail with the Stars’ that Matson Lines had with cruise ships going back and forth from Honolulu,” he says. “They would bring, oh, Vic Damone or Mel Torme over, and when they got to Hawaii they’d do a couple of shows before sailing back and the Pacificaires would back them. I remember Hoagy Carmichael coming over, which was great. I really had some wonderful opportunities there.”

The latter part of the decade found Gardner back on the mainland, not only working with and ultimately leading the U.S. Air Force Academy Band, the Falconaires, but also playing other gigs in and around his home base of Colorado Springs, Colorado. That’s where he met one of the three singers who’ll be appearing with him on the Charley’s Angels show.

However, their initial meeting at the Academy’s Officers’ Club, did not go well.

“I did not have a job that particular night, so the leader of Sandy’s band called me to play with them,” Gardner remembers. “I knew they had a vocalist, and I thought, ‘Oh, brother. Here we go.’ I wasn’t very happy about subbing with some singer I didn’t know.

“She was thinking the same thing, because she didn’t have her regular piano player and didn’t know what to expect from me. So when we met we really didn’t hit it off right away because that stigma was there with both of us.” He laughs. “But then, after about three or four tunes – I guess ‘Girl from Ipanema’ was really the one that did it – we looked at one another and the earth moved. That’s how it all started.”

Their professional association quickly became personal, and within a few weeks Chuck and Sandy were engaged. They also continued to play music together, with Sandy learning bass from a member of the Falconaires.

“She is so talented,” he says. “She plays piano; she has a better ear than I do. She can pick up a bass and play with any country band by ear with no problem whatsoever. She reads well, too. She’s very well-rounded, and as a musician she’s very underrated – although I realize I’m prejudiced.”

Married in 1978, the two worked professional gigs in several more states before landing in Tulsa, Sandy’s hometown, in the early 1990s. Soon, they’d met and started playing with both Anthony Yohe and Cindy Cain.

“The thing about Tony isn’t just his drumming, which is great,” notes Gardner. “It’s his dependability. I can always depend on him to be there early, to be dressed properly – all these little things you have to worry about with musicians.” He laughs again. “Tony’s always there and a perfect musician, as far as I’m concerned.”

He has similar praise for Cain, one of the first vocalists he worked with after settling in Tulsa.

“Cindy has that sultry blues-type low voice, along with great stage presence,” he says. “It’s a unique voice that’s immediately recognized as ‘Cindy’ and no one else. The way she sings a song goes right to the soul.”

And the third member of Charley’s Angels, he adds, “has great musicianship and a wonderfully pleasant voice. We played back in the ’90s at the old Adam’s Mark [Hotel], with the late bassist John Rigney. She has a big following, but I still think she’s underrated, or maybe taken for granted: ‘Well, there’s Janet, she sings.’ Yes, she does, but she really sings.”

Charley’s Angels, featuring Chuck Gardner on piano, Anthony Yohe on drums, and Sandy Gardner on bass and vocals, along with vocalists Janet Rutland and Cindy Cain, is set for 5 p.m. June 5 in the Jazz Depot, 111 E. First St. in downtown Tulsa. Tickets are available at JazzHallTickets.com or by calling 918-928-JAZZ.

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