August 1, 2005
BY Eric Rangus
For someone who prefers to remain in the background, playing piano at Mick’s restaurant in downtown Atlanta can be a pretty tough gig. The white baby grand hangs from the ceiling in the center of the place, making it a conversation piece whether anyone is playing or not.
So when Richelle Fulks sits down for her regular Friday night set, she has a certain ritual she follows before taking the airborne stage. “I have a drink before I go up there,” said Fulks, a classically trained pianist who works days at Yerkes. “Everybody in the restaurant can see me, and the only music is coming from me, so people just come in and stare. I just put my dreads down so I don’t have to look back, because I’ll get nervous and mess up.”
Her position atop Mick’s aside, Fulks shies away from the spotlight—she doesn’t sing, which helps—but her talent and versatility make her a tough act to ignore.
Fulks got her regular job at Mick’s about two months ago, and she is a savvy enough performer to gear her playlist to the crowd. She’ll usually open with a melody everyone knows (Ludwig von Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, for example). If the crowd is older, she’ll play some Duke Ellington. If the diners are younger, she’ll switch to Prince or No Doubt. And she relishes customers who challenge her.
“Just play Mozart,” one of those customers requested on an evening in June during the middle of Atlanta’s annual Music Midtown festival. Fulks was prepared for a lot of festival-related requests and Mozart was a surprise—still, she obliged.
“Now do some Def Leppard,” he challenged. The ’80s metal band was one of the acts playing Music Midtown, and Fulks was ready for it.
“Now go back to something pretty with Mozart,” he said after hearing enough of his rock request. Fulks again, went with the flow. When she was finished, she was rewarded with a $50 tip.
“The Def Leppard throws people off,” said Fulks, whose range obviously extends far beyond the classical works she studied as a child. “People are like, ‘I’ve never heard Def Leppard on piano before.’ And with that Linkin Park song, ‘Numb,’” she said, showing her knowledge of 21st century hard rock as well.
“If you really listen to that song, the guy’s playing a keyboard,” she continued. “People are really surprised to see me get up there and play [Def Leppard’s] ‘Love Bites,’ and then the Eagles’ ‘Hotel California.’ I’m just having fun.”
It’s easy to see that Fulks has a remarkably wide repertoire, but there is one popular, Grammy-winning artist she purposefully avoids. “I know four Alicia Keys songs, but because I get compared to her so much, I tend to stay away because I’m trying to build up my own thing. But I do get requests for her stuff all the time.”
After playing intermittently for years, Fulks’ musical career is rapidly moving forward. She played two gigs during the recently completed National Black Arts Festival (NBAF). Fulks backed up the Live Poets Society during “An Evening of Spoken Word,” on Wednesday, July 20, at the West End Performing Arts Center; the next evening the Live Poets performed “Black Erotica” (another spoken-word performance, albeit adult-themed, as the title suggests) at the Loft at Earthlink Live.
The Live Poets were co-founded and are led by Derrick “Abyss” Graham, a spoken-word artist who has performed nationally with the Def Poets. Fulks met Abyss last year during an open jam session at Atlanta’s Apache Café.
Abyss was looking to put a band together and perhaps set up a future tour, and he liked what he heard from Fulks (who was just getting back into performing at the time.) They sat down together and composed a song in just 10 minutes (Abyss is a guitar-player as well). Their collaboration has grown stronger by the day.
Not only did Fulks back up Abyss during their NBAF shows, they play together at other spots around town (Sundays at the Dave and Busters restaurant in Marietta is a regular stage), and this past winter Fulks and Abyss toured the Midwest, playing college gigs in several states. The stripped down shows were just Abyss and his guitar and Fulks and her keyboard, and one of the most memorable was at Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant, a farm city of less than 10,000, south of Iowa City.
“After we performed—it wasn’t a big crowd, maybe 70 students and eight faculty—we had a Q&A session where anyone could ask anything they wanted,” she said. “Everybody was so warm that we ended up inviting them back to our hotel room, and we just played music and they read their poetry.”
During performances, Fulks gets to show off her playing (often at Abyss’ urging); like her Mick’s shows, she bounces from the classical she’s known since childhood to the modern hip-hop sounds of Ludacris.
Fulks started playing piano at 5. She loved it until she was 9, which is when the inevitable loathing of practice started. Still, there was no denying her talent. She won a statewide competition (the first of many), and got to play for an audience that included poet Maya Angelou (a faculty member at Wake Forest University, located in Fulks’ hometown of Winston-Salem, N.C.).
Fulks eventually went to the North Carolina School for the Arts, where she studied classical piano. Despite a lot of success, she doubted her own abilities and potential. Part of this came from her background (while many classmates were taught at institutes, her piano teacher taught students in the basement of her home). It wasn’t that Fulks’ chops weren’t as good (she was just as talented as the higher-pedigreed players), she just had concerns about making a living as a musician.
“Classical musicians don’t make any money until they’re dead,” she said. “I just had a feeling that this wasn’t going to work out.”
So Fulks applied to the animal science program at North Carolina A&T with the goal of becoming a veterinarian. She got married in the interim, and instead of going to vet school after graduation, she moved to Atlanta to work at Emory’s Division of Animal Resources in the School of Medicine. After two years there, she returned home to work at Wake Forest’s primate center before eventually working her way back to the Atlanta area.
As Fulks’ music career has blossomed, her Emory career is going though some changes as well. After working at the Yerkes Field Station in Lawrenceville since 2000, where she studied maternal behavior in rhesus macaques, on July 25 she moved to the main campus to take a position as a veterinary technician, involved in clinical medicine. Fulks’ enjoys her animal care work and it pays the bills—something music even with the increased number of gigs she’s getting doesn’t always do. However, not all of Fulks work is geared toward earning a paycheck.
She plays on occasion at a juvenile penitentiary in south Atlanta where she performs during poetry readings. She also plays at Harambee, a holistic stress program for inner-city youth. “There are grants for us to come in and teach music and poetry or just talk to the kids,” Fulks said. Even though the program has funds set aside for artists, she doesn’t accept them.
“It’s the least I can do to just go in there,” said Fulks who has two children of her own. “Sometimes I don’t even get a chance to play because they just want to talk about what happened at home. I’m just an ear or a heart or a hug—whatever they need.
“I’ll get a lot of paying gigs, so that’s just fine with me,” said Fulks, who speaks the truth. She is featured on three tracks on Abyss’ upcoming CD and has played both session and live work with a variety of hip-hop and R&B artists. Her next goal is to put out a solo CD.
“It’s called 88 Degrees, because of the 88 keys on a piano,” she said, adding that she hopes to complete work on it in November. It’s mostly instrumental, but also contains some spoken-word pieces, though she is not the speaker.
That might be grabbing the spotlight.