EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect a change in date for the Blackbyrds’ anniversary concert at the Howard Theatre, which will now take place in January 2024.
In the mid-1970s, the D.C. music scene was coming into its own with popular radio exposure. Leading the pack were the Blackbyrds. With much of their history tied to the District, the Blackbyrds will celebrate their 50th anniversary with a concert in January 2024 at the historic Howard Theatre in Northwest D.C.
Formed in 1973 with students at Howard University, the group was guided by their music professor, the late great jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd. The group’s name was adapted from Byrd’s 1973 Blue Note album titled “Black Byrd.”
Before coming to Howard University as a music professor, Byrd’s career had him playing trumpet with other jazz luminaries like Art Blakey, Herbie Hancock and Thelonious Monk. He brought that jazz experience to Howard, but he sought something different. That is what inspired the formation of the Blackbyrds.
“Byrd remembered when jazz hit the big time, everybody was dancing,” said Joe Hall, the original bassist and still a member of the Blackbyrds. “So, he wanted to bring the feet back.
Drummer Keith Killgo and Hall are the only two original members of the current lineup of the Blackbyrds. Also in the current group are Roberto Villeda on keyboards, Sean Anthony on percussion, Charles Wright on guitar, Marshall Keys on saxophone, Thad Wilson on trumpet, and vocalist Paul Spires.
Since their start, the group has enjoyed many hit records on both pop and R&B charts. They still tour in America and other countries. In 1974, “Do It Fluid,” was the first hit for the Blackbyrds, followed by “Walking in Rhythm” in 1975. After a string of other hits, it was not until 1976 that the song “Rock Creek Park” hit the charts and native Washingtonians knew all the words. There is an interesting side note to that song.
“It became too familiar, so it was like, never mind, in the D.C. area,” said Killgo. “But every place we play ‘Rock Creek Park,’ that city will replace the name with their famous park.”
Hall said the first time they went to London, the fans knew all the lyrics. They were waiting outside the dressing room, and they knew the names of the band members. Today, crowds in other countries still come out to enjoy the music of the Blackbyrds.
“It’s been that way ever since. They really love American bands,” said Hall.
Killgo, a D.C. schoolteacher, reflects on the importance of the anniversary.
“The most impressive part is that it is 50 years of improving on what we started,” said Killgo. “We’re playing a lot better now than we did back then, and we have had so many contributors along the way.”
The Blackbyrds’ 50th-anniversary concert is sure to be a high-energy event. The band will perform their most popular songs, and in dedication to Donald Byrd, they will also perform several of his songs, including “Black Byrd,” “Flight Time” and “(Fallin’ Like) Dominoes.”