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By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter
On Thursday afternoon, Needham’s seniors were treated to “Ragtime” Jack Radcliffe’s unique brand of great music and self-proclaimed terrible jokes as he gave an hour-long concert at the Center at the Heights (CATH).
Radcliffe began by giving the crowd a brief history of country music, introducing himself as hailing from Bristol, VA, where he claims the “big bang” of country music happened. Making light of his hometown, Radcliffe further commented that Bristol contains two types of kids: “those whose parents make them take violin lessons, and those who make fun of those whose parents make them take violin lessons.”
Radcliffe was among the latter, despite hailing from a musical family. His father, a classical musician, would roll up the rugs and clear space in their living room for his friends to come and perform with him.
But it was two events in Radcliffe’s youth that he says changed his life.
Radcliffe’s mother took him to see Ray McKinley of the Glen Miller Orchestra at eight years old, and to see Louis Armstong and the All Stars when he was nine. Radcliffe would go on to meet Armstrong in New York City, a story he told before performing a few of Satchmo’s hits.
Radcliffe’s mom must never have taken him to see a stand-up comedian, because his jokes were terrible. At one point he credited his singing ability to breathing underwater, only to hold a Poland Spring bottle above his head and take three exaggerated breaths, a joke he acknowledged “even my kids don’t laugh at.” When performing a song in a minor key, he told the crowd that when he plays in West Virginia, it becomes a “coal minor key.” Later, he recounted a brief aside about how after busking for money in Newport, Rhode Island, he handed a bank teller a bag full of one dollar bills and assured her he was a “Chippendale for Seniors.”
But Radcliffe’s bad jokes and “aww shucks” personality bely his legitimate musical talent.
At one point, Radcliffe picked up a guitar and played his own song, “Home Grown Tomatoes,” during which he encouraged the crowd to sing along with the chorus: “Home grown tomatoes, home grown tomatoes, what would life be without homegrown tomatoes? There’s only two things that money can’t buy, and that’s true love and home-grown tomatoes!”
Minutes later, he was on the piano performing “As Time Goes By” as well as Dooley Wilson ever did, and “Georgia on my Mind” like Ray Charles, before taking a violin (an instrument he only learned at 65) and performing his own waltz.
Jack Radcliffe bills himself as one of the most entertaining performers you can see in America today. Last Thursday afternoon, Needham’s seniors learned he’s not just talking ragtime.