If it weren’t for the pandemic, Sam Pritchard may nonetheless be weaving via the streets of Manhattan as a motorbike messenger. However March 2020 and the next emptying out of workplace buildings pressured Mr. Pritchard, who like many different businesspeople relied on the bustling commerce of Midtown, to pivot.
Nowadays, Mr. Pritchard, now 61, has changed his bicycle with a keyboard: He’s now a road musician, residing principally off donations. From Union Sq. to Grand Central Terminal, he entertains crowds every day, even capturing the eye of drop-by celebrities just like the actor Invoice Murray, and of younger musicians who now play with him recurrently. He calls his present — half dance celebration, half jam session — “The Sammy Buttons Experience.”
I first met Mr. Pritchard again within the early Nineteen Nineties, when his upstart bike messenger firm was typically known as in to make deliveries for my public relations agency. He was energetic and match, an entrepreneurial hustler who logged 50 to 75 miles a day on two wheels. Over time, Mr. Pritchard’s enterprise grew to a 25-person firm with an workplace on Fifth Avenue. Despite the fact that he was the boss, Mr. Pritchard most well-liked the bike to the desk, selecting to spend his days on the closely trafficked thoroughfares of Manhattan, ones that at the moment claim the lives of roughly two dozen bicyclists per 12 months.
However Mr. Pritchard had one other ardour, extra deeply ingrained: Music. He’s a fourth-generation keyboardist. His great-grandfather was a famous stride jazz pianist working the circuit round his native North Carolina. His father was an equally gifted hobbyist, a purveyor of contemporary jazz and R&B types, who within the Nineteen Fifties moved to Harlem, the place he settled down along with his spouse, who gave delivery to Sam in 1961. Three years later, the household relocated to Westchester.
“Like most each Black child born in Harlem, music was in my blood, although my household moved away once I was younger,” stated Mr. Pritchard, who took piano classes from age 4 till he turned 13. He talked about Stevie Marvel, Ramsey Lewis, Earth, Wind & Hearth, the Commodores and Sly Stone as his favorites. “The infectious vitality and swing of those cats is what I attempt to carry to the streets in the present day” he stated. “Funky music is sweet medication.”
It was a Sly and the Household Stone album, “Stand,” that received Mr. Pritchard right into a little bit of hassle shortly after his household had moved to the suburbs.
“We have been the primary Black household in an all-white neighborhood,” he stated. “And I used to be one in every of solely two Black children in my faculty, so I felt a bit remoted.” Within the fourth grade, he introduced the album to a show-and-tell day. The song he played for the category had a racial slur for Black folks within the title and within the lyrics. “There was an enormous hubbub and my father received known as to the varsity,” Mr. Pritchard recalled.
At Howard College, the place he was on a basketball scholarship, Mr. Pritchard performed some music, after which as a younger man in New York, he toyed round in manufacturing and jammed on the Lenox Lounge in Harlem just a few instances with the likes of guitarist and vocalist George Benson and flutist and vocalist Bobbi Humphrey, he stated. However his rising messenger enterprise would maintain music on the again burner for a number of a long time.
In 2018, Mr. Pritchard met up with a pal and bass participant from Detroit, Tony Russell, to jam on the road for enjoyable. Only a few of these periods have been sufficient to encourage Mr. Pritchard in a brand new route. “Tony instructed me I used to be egocentric to not play on the streets,” he stated, “that I had one thing particular to present to the folks and myself.”
Mr. Russell died of a drug overdose in 2020, simply as Covid descended on New York. Two days after his pal’s dying, Mr. Pritchard hit the streets along with his keyboard, a Bluetooth amp and a “purchasing cart to maneuver all of it about,” he stated. He wished to honor his pal, and his pal’s want for him. “I haven’t seemed again since.”
He performs a mixture of unique music, soul covers and ballads. “I take advantage of drum packages and loops, and lay down bass strains with my left hand, and chords and solos with my proper,” he stated. “It’s about making a dance celebration ambiance, nearly like a D.J. however solely with a keyboard.”
By the summer time of 2020, Mr. Pritchard was not solely drawing crowds, however youthful musicians who wished to play with him.
“I met Sammy once I moved to New York in 2017,” stated Benny Rubin, 22, a saxophonist from Flint, Mich. “He noticed me taking part in within the subway and invited me to jam at a free competition.” They ended up taking part in collectively day by day through the summer time of 2020 and into the autumn, which helped Mr. Rubin “financially and spiritually,” he stated, since his membership gigs had been canceled due to the pandemic.
“The expertise was cool as a result of I’m into extra critical, straight-ahead jazz, and he’s all about soul and funk and getting a celebration going,” Mr. Rubin stated. “It’s cool to be round Sam as a result of he has plenty of life knowledge too. He has taught me about far more than music.”
One other saxophonist, Bernell Jones II, performed with Mr. Pritchard day by day final summer time. “I’m from Memphis, so I’m into heavy soul and R&B, so we actually join,” he stated. “He’s in his 60s and I’m 23, however in some way we’re finest pals,” he continued. “Sam has at all times had a enterprise mind-set and a knack for scoping out all one of the best little locations to play and collect a crowd. It’s one which’s been capable of flip this right into a full-time job for each of us.”
Followers vary from 3 to 80 years previous. Final summer time, Invoice Murray got here by. “I stated to him ‘You owe me $20.’” A number of years in the past, in keeping with Mr. Pritchard, he was making a supply and noticed Mr. Murray ready to retrieve his automobile at quite a bit. Mr. Pritchard guess the actor $20 it was going take him greater than 20 minutes to get his automobile. “Once I swung by after the supply half-hour later, he was nonetheless there ready.”
That day, he instructed the story to Mr. Murray, who smiled, stated he thought he recalled the trade, and put a $20 invoice within the tip jar.
One other time, Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the bulk chief, stopped to hear at Union Sq.. “I instructed him we wanted to have a critical dialog about gun management, particularly these AR-15s.”
The police, as a substitute of constructing him pack up and go away, typically stick round to benefit from the music, stated Mr. Pritchard, who added that he has befriended lots of those that patrol his common spots.
Just lately, Mr. Pritchard has began acting at weddings, company occasions and golf equipment. This month, he’ll embark on a 10-day residency on the Sound View resort in Greenport, on the far finish of Lengthy Island. In a superb week, the Sammy Buttons Expertise can herald 4 figures. This 12 months, he plans to take a position a few of that in recording his unique music and in beginning a line of merchandise.
“As horrible as Covid-19 has been for therefore many people, I do know it was the factor that pushed me to do what I at all times wished to do, to entertain folks with soulful music that spreads pleasure,” Mr. Pritchard stated. “If I’ve performed some small position in serving to New Yorkers take care of the tragedy that Covid has introduced, it’s all price it.”
Sal Cataldi is a author, musician and former public relations government primarily based in Saugerties, N.Y.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/04/nyregion/sammy-buttons-sidewalk-musician-nyc.html How a Bike Messenger Reinvented Himself as a Avenue Musician