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Buffalo musicians achieve greatness, give back to their hometown

Sep 21, 2016

You might say the Buffalo area is a crucible for great music. Some of the most influential musicians Buffalo has produced include:

  • Composer Harold Arlen, who wrote “Over the Rainbow,” “Stormy Weather,” “The Man That Got Away” and numerous other contributions to the Great American Songbook
  • Vocal group The Modernaires, whose style and harmonies influenced generations of musicians such as the Four Freshmen and the Beach Boys
  • Jazz fusion band Spyro Gyra
  • Soul jazz saxophonist Grover Washington Jr.
  • Cory Wells, one of the three lead singers in the popular rock band Three Dog Night.

If you score a beautiful apartment at Canterbury Woods Gates Circle, an innovative choice in retirement living communities, you’ll be within walking distance of many clubs and bars where these awesome performers got their start. Larger venues for great concerts and performances are close by and easy to get to.

We’re focusing here on two amazing musicians who got their start in Buffalo and, although they have achieved international fame, have never forgotten where they came from.

Rebel. Iconoclast. Inventive musical genius. Ani DiFranco has been called all of those things.

After releasing more than 20 albums and gained legions of fans, DiFranco hasn’t just put Buffalo on the musical map. She’s been active in supporting the creative scene in her hometown.

A busker at a local farmer’s market from age 9, the talented singer, songwriter and guitarist was well known for her performances at local bars and coffee houses by the time she was 14. She graduated from the Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts high school and attended Buffalo State College. When she was 18, she founded her own label, Righteous Babe Records, and issued her eponymous debut album the following year, 1990.

Over the next two decades, DiFranco’s distinctive, original guitar playing, sophisticated, socially conscious songwriting and outspoken support of causes such as reproductive rights and artistic freedom gained her wide recognition and admiration. She’s won dozens of awards for her music, including a Best Recording Package Grammy in 2004 for her album Evolve.

As DiFranco’s career gained steam and she traveled around the world as a performer, Buffalo remained close to her activist heart.

Through Righteous Babe Records, she set up the Aiding Buffalo’s Children program to support the city’s public school system. (The program was folded into the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo.)

She and her longtime manager, Scot Fisher, another Buffalo native, learned in 1995 that the historic Asbury Delaware United Methodist Church was about to meet the wrecking ball. Through the label, DiFranco and Fisher purchased the crumbling, 1876 building and set out to renovate and repurpose it. After 11 years of hard work, the result was Babeville, a performance space that includes the 1,200-seat Asbury Hall; the Ninth Ward, an underground bar and intimate venue for smaller concerts; and Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center, an art gallery and screening room. The offices of DiFranco’s label, Righteous Babe Records, also are housed at Babeville.

Located at 341 Delaware Avenue in the heart of the Theater District, Babeville offers an upcoming lineup that comprises the best in contemporary music, including Neko Case, Kurt Vile and the Violators, and the Mountain Goats, along with special performances by legendary artists such as An Evening with Joan Baez on March 26.

Like DiFranco, Johnny Rzeznik was on his own early in life.

Rzeznik grew up in Buffalo’s East Side Polish neighborhood. Even though his parents were musicians, he and his four older sisters probably never dreamed that he would parlay his good looks, charm, talent and strong work ethic into international superstardom as the front man and guitarist of the rock band the Goo Goo Dolls.

By the time he was 16, Rzeznik had lost both of his parents. His sisters, who took over the job of raising John, influenced his musical ear by introducing him to classic rock and punk music. While attending McKinley Vocational High School and, briefly, Buffalo State College, he started playing guitar and in 1985 formed a band with bassist Robby Tacak, the original front man, and another school friend.

The name Goo Goo Dolls reportedly came from an ad for a toy in True Detective magazine. According to an article in Rolling Stone, the boys came up with that name because they needed it to play a gig one evening.

The Goo Goo Dolls performed a lot and became a mainstay in Buffalo’s underground scene. They released their first album in 1987. During those early years, Rzeznik said in an interview with Rolling Stone, he worked hard but still had to have regular jobs to support himself.

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