Musical generations come together on stage in D.C.


Sandra Bears, center, sings with the Hall Monitors at Comet Ping Pong. Bears is a member of the D.C. girl group the Jewels, which had a 1964 hit "Opportunity." The Hall Monitors include the song in their sets. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
John Kelly
Columnist May 1, 2013

For years, I’ve been watching a local garage-rock revival band called the Hall Monitors perform a song called “Opportunity.” They didn’t write the song, but whenever they play it, they make sure to point out that it’s a Washington song, released in 1964 by a Washington girl group called the Jewels.

Hearing the sprightly tune is like getting a little audio window onto long-ago Washington.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

Then Hall Monitors drummer Mike Sullivan found out that not only were the Jewels still around, they also were still in the District and still performing occasionally. It became his quest to have them sing “Opportunity.”

Using old-fashioned technology — the phone book — Mike tracked down Jewels singer Sandra Bears. “I actually had to call a few Sandra Bears before I found the right one,” he said. It took a while until their schedules matched, but, finally, it happened at a gig last week, “Opportunity” shined a little more brightly: The Hall Monitors had an actual Jewel on stage with them at Comet Ping Pong, a club on Connecticut Avenue NW. Sandra, 69, sang it. She also sang “A Fool in Love,” an old Ike and Tina Turner song.

After their set, I asked Sandra whether it was hard to sit in with a band she’d never played with. Not at all. “We warmed up in the back,” she said. “Once he started playing, it was okay. The beat was a little different, but I was comfortable with it.”

Hall Monitors guitarist Kathleen Wilson normally sings “Opportunity.” This time, she sang backup. “I was nervous the whole time I was performing,” she admitted.

The Jewels — originally the Four Jewels — were students who sang together at Roosevelt High. They played at places like the Howard Theatre and the Washington Coliseum before their career took them to the Apollo in New York and the Hollywood Bowl. They spent a year as James Brown’s backup singers, the first women in that role, Sandra said. They worked with Bo Diddley when the guitarist was living on Rhode Island Avenue NE in the District.

“Opportunity” was written by Ryan Evans and Randall Stewart and was released on the Dimension label. It was recorded in New York, but is a cautionary tale that many Washingtonians should heed:

I want to tell a story about a friend I know.

He was on top, the star of the show

But he didn’t remember all the things that were said.

He let success go straight to his head. . . .

Somebody help him! Opportunity, whoa, opportunity comes once in your life. . . .

Accompanying Sandra to Comet Ping Pong was Beverly Lindsay-Johnson, a local filmmaker who has produced several documentaries about D.C. music history, including one about the Jewels and another called “Dance Party: The Teenarama Story.”

About 15 years ago, Beverly’s hairdresser was talking about a group called the Jewels. The name seemed vaguely familiar to Beverly. “You mean the group that did ‘Opportunity’?” she asked. Yep. It turned out Sandra got her hair done at the same place. Beverly wrangled an introduction.

“When I met them, I just fell in love with them,” Beverly said.

And so did the Hall Monitors.

“She blew me away,” Kathleen said of Sandra. “Her voice is still impeccable. She deserves a lot of credit for really being committed to her craft for as long as she has.” (Full disclosure: My band has played with the Hall Monitors before.)

Kathleen said: “It was an exciting thing to think, ‘Yeah, you had towns like Memphis and Detroit with Motown and Stax — great artists and great songs — but here’s D.C. with them, too.’ It made me want to kind of explore our local history a bit more.”

What songs should every D.C. band know how to play? What other songs belong in an essential Washington playlist? E-mail your suggestions — with “D.C. Playlist” in the subject line — to me at kellyj@washpost.com.

Marshall plan?

A while back, I wrote about how some people think that Gen. George C. Marshall was shortchanged, monument-wise. John Foster Dulles got an airport named after him. Marshall, nothing so prominent, despite his contribution to winning World War II and rebuilding Europe .

Bethesda’s Edward A. Padelford has an idea: “The Department of State main building, long called ‘Main State,’ was renamed the Harry S. Truman Building several years ago. Why not rename the Pentagon as the George C. Marshall Pentagon? Marshall was the Army chief of staff in 1942 when it was built. . . . It would only require a new nameplate on the building.”

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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