Friday, May 4, 2012

What IS this "Thing" called love?

If you are a Charlottean of a certain age or a New Yorker of a certain cabaret sensibility, you may already know about the late Earl Wentz. If not, let me elucidate.

He was born in Charlotte in 1938, graduated from East Mecklenburg High School and stayed a North Carolinian through college (Queens, Wingate, UNC Charlotte) and beyond. He acted all over the state, especially with the Vagabond Players at Flat Rock Playhouse; there he once played Felix to the Oscar of the respected Pat Hingle in "The Odd Couple."

But his love of the Great American Songbook eventually sent him to New York, where classic compositions can always get a hearing. There he created the American Composer Series, which produced 15 revues devoted to Tin Pan Alley masters, and served as a church organist at John Street Methodist Church for 16 years. He died in Charlotte in the fall of 2009 at 71.

Like composers since the days of J.S. Bach, Wentz led a double life musically. He wrote serious works, including an hour-long requiem for four soloists, and music for secular venues, including an off-Broadway musical with gay themes, "The Marital Bliss of Francis and Maxine." And like the vast majority of composers since Bach, he labored in relatively obscurity and would be forgotten after death -- except for his surviving partner, Bill Watkins.

Watkins has issued a CD through Sixpence Inc. titled "What Is This Thing? Earl Wentz Plays Love Songs of Cole Porter." On it, the soloist embroiders themes from "Night and Day," "You Do Something to Me" and 10 other standards. (Go to to learn more.) Tempos are gentle, rather than jaunty; the piano elaborations are delicate, rather than dazzling. Wentz maintains an uptempo groove all the way through a song just one time: This is the kind of discreet playing he might have done at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, where he once worked.

Watkins plans to issue another three volumes of Wentz's Porter. Incredibly, he has also begun to catalog all of Wentx' musical and theatrical activities over a six-decade stretch at The Earl Wentz Project (, which offers photos, playbill covers and an astonishing amount of detail. You could almost call Watkins' dedication to Wentz obsessive, but that's the way minor figures get into the history books -- and also one of the effects of this thing called love.