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50 years later, East Side duo's groundbreaking music is getting its due

It might sound quaint now, in an era of unrelenting narcissism across much of our country’s cultural plain, but there was a time when musicianship and a sense of civic duty were deeply entwined.

Though you’d be forgiven for being oblivious to this fact, nearly 50 years ago, a pair of men living on Buffalo’s down-pressed East Side were hatching a plan to marry groundbreaking and forward-looking soul, funk, pop and R&B to a broader philosophy premised on self-actualization, entrepreneurship and a sincere belief their efforts could and would make Buffalo a better place to live for its most downtrodden citizens.

They almost made it. Their partnership lasted 15 years. They ended up estranged, their recordings out of print, their friendship decayed, their vision of a unified Buffalo that transcended the Main Street divide unfulfilled.

Decades later, a Los Angeles-based producer and record label owner – along with a New York DJ, producer and A&R man – stumbled upon this Buffalo duo's music, tracked down any recordings they could find and has released an album of Key & Cleary's songs.

Grandiose concepts

Sylvester Cleary, a former Marine born and raised on Buffalo’s East Side, and Jesse Key, a one-time cotton laborer from Mississippi who’d unwittingly followed the line of the old Underground Railroad north, met in 1970, just as Buffalo was enduring the initial days of an exodus from its urban environs that would render the once thriving industrial city a down-but-still-breathing ghost town.

The two men began wood-shedding grandiose concepts, of which the conjuring of a musical vision premised on positive vibration was but one. They were motivated by, in Cleary’s words, a desire to change the “deplorable situation” that was their Jefferson Avenue neighborhood, all boarded-up storefronts, homes gone to seed, and a generally dismal patina of economic distress that colored all.

Jesse Key, left, and Sylvester Cleary. (Photo courtesy Now-Again Records)

By 1972, the two were running the Key & Cleary Construction Company, a sizable African-American-owned construction business in Buffalo. They were proprietors of a think tank of their own design, one that included the pointed production of prose, poetry, painting and music, all of it tempered by an optimistic activist stance.

Key & Cleary bought a primitive drum machine, turned their Zen-like ruminations on the need for self-motivation amid soul-crushing urban blight into strikingly futuristic paeans to the endurance of the human spirit, and set about changing Buffalo through song, while simultaneously running their construction business.

Hopeful intensity

Eothen “Egon” Alapatt. (Now-Again Records)

Eothen “Egon” Alapatt was doing fine in Los Angeles after leaving his native Connecticut to pursue his music business dreams. He’d been manager of uber-cool indie hip-hop label Stone’s Throw Records from 2000 to 2011, formed an immensely productive partnership with hip-hop legend MadLib, became the creative director for the estate of the late hip-hop game-changer J. Dilla, and finally, built up Now-Again Records, the boutique reissue imprint he’d launched in 2002, to the point where he could concentrate on it full-time. Alapatt wasn’t rolling in the dough, but he was making it, and doing what he wanted to be doing. Then he heard Key & Cleary.

“I was immediately blown away,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘This is going to go way over everyone’s head and I’m going to lose a lot of money, but I have to do it anyway.’ It took me a long time, but I knew I was going to put this music out.”

A Key & Cleary newspaper ad from the '70s. (Photo courtesy Now-Again Records)

A New York DJ, producer and A&R man named David Griffiths had hipped Alapatt to Key & Cleary more than a decade back, after stumbling upon one of their earliest recordings while rummaging through used vinyl in a record shop. “I think I actually heard their song ‘Young People’ first, maybe at the old Record Archive location on Mt. Hope Avenue in Rochester,” Griffiths recalled. “It was on the Amherst label, one of the late (Record Theatre and Transcontinent Records impresario) Leonard Silver's imprints, out of Buffalo.”

Griffiths knew there was a niche market for urban music from this period.  Getting Key & Cleary’s music out into the world became a mission he pursued with zeal.

After tracking down as much of Key & Cleary’s material – which had never been compiled, was largely out of print and, in some cases, existed only in the form of demo recordings archived on old, worn cassette tapes – as he could, Griffiths took an activist approach with Alapatt, who immediately began scouring eBay for existing copies of the duo’s releases.

“David put all of the songs he’d found together with the songs I’d found on a disc and said, ‘This could be a fantastic album,’” Alapatt recalled. “I didn’t really need much convincing, once I heard it. The soulfulness of it, the way they used the drum machine, the lyrics outlining their belief in community togetherness and a philosophy of proactive change – songs like ‘A Man’ and ‘What It Takes to Live’ give an incredible reflection of what was happening in Buffalo at the time, and what is still happening in many ways, sadly.”

Griffiths and Alapatt firmly believed the world needed to hear this music. Now they just needed to convince the music’s creators.

Reunion for one

Griffiths tracked down Cleary in Forestville, where he serves as president of the Chautauqua County School Boards Association, sits on the board of Forestville Central School, and is an area director on the New York Caucus of Black School Board Members.

Shortly before Christmas last year, nearly a half-century from the day he met Key and started launching grandiose plans for Buffalo, Cleary held a copy of the twin-disc Now-Again Records release “Love is the Way” in his hands for the first time.

“It is the greatest feeling of freedom, joy, and love I've ever felt in my life,” Cleary said. “Like the lyrics in one of our songs, ‘What It Takes to Live’: ‘You can love somebody close to you, but you've got to love other people, too.’ This music was creatively filtered through Jesse and myself, but it belongs to the world. It was destined.”

Cleary and Key have been estranged since the mid-'80s. Though Key, who still lives in the Western New York area, was offered every opportunity to be involved in the compilation’s release, he demurred, and has also declined to speak about the topic publicly.

“This is a chance for Buffalo to understand a little more about its own history,” Alapatt said. “Your city is full of real-deal people, and Key & Cleary were the realest – true Buffalo visionaries.”

Elegiac anthems

Griffiths believes the music and the message, gracefully intertwined as they are, might resonate with several generations of listeners.

“Spiritually, Key & Cleary have a lot in common with hip-hop,” he said. “They come from the same place – the idea of making something from whatever they had on hand and at the same time, exploring sounds from different places. They were outside the mainstream, they were determined to make something original, they were proud, they were brave, and they were having fun.”

“There’s a straight line from Key & Cleary to (Buffalo hip-hop artists) Westside Gunn & Conway, who are still dealing with the same problems of racism and economic disparity in Buffalo,” Alapatt said. “Key & Cleary were trying to deal with these issues in 1970, and they were quite literally getting firebombed and threatened because they were daring to challenge the status quo through their construction company and their music. The saddest part of the story is that even people as powerful and talented as they so clearly were had to end up leaving the city of Buffalo.”

The time that has passed since Key, Cleary, and their primitive drum machine first turned clear-eyed reflections on their East Side struggle into elegiac anthems of self-empowerment has done nothing to diminish the power of that initial vision, in Cleary’s eyes.

“Thoughts and ideas are real, tangible things,” he said. “Anything that exists was once a thought or an idea first. They shape our reality. The combination of how Jesse and I processed ideas and visions to inspire others was always electrifying and touched everyone around us. It always amazed me.”

. . .

Key & Cleary’s “Love is the Way” is available in both CD and vinyl formats at Revolver Records’ Elmwood and Hertel locations and via Now Again Records.

Sylvester Cleary said, "This music was creatively filtered through Jesse (Key) and myself, but it belongs to the world. It was destined.” (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

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