Hilton Felton Jr., 60; Celebrated Jazz Pianist

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 17, 2007

Hilton Felton Jr., 60, a multitalented musician who was a fixture behind the piano at Washington restaurants and lounges, died of a heart attack Feb. 13 at his home in the District.

Since 1993, Mr. Felton had been the house pianist at Kinkead's, a restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue in Foggy Bottom. Working solo during the week and with a bassist on weekends, he chose his repertoire from among the thousands of tunes he knew by heart.

He led several bands through the years, toured with major headliners, had his own record company, performed at presidential inaugural balls and served as musical director of touring Broadway shows. Yet he preferred to work close to home, where he established a devoted following among Washington's elite.

Legendary New York Times journalist R.W. "Johnny" Apple, a regular at Kinkead's, requested that Mr. Felton perform at his memorial service Dec. 5 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Author James Patterson mentioned Mr. Felton in several of his novels, including "Cat and Mouse," in which he wrote, "Hilton Felton was playing his usual seductive-as-hell jazz piano downstairs, as he did six nights a week. . . . Everything seemed just right. Couldn't be better."

In 1988, Mr. Felton auditioned for restaurateur Bob Kinkead, who then owned the restaurant 21 Federal.

"We must have auditioned 10 or 12 people," Kinkead recalled. "The minute he played, I said, 'That's the guy.' He's an extraordinary pianist. He's irreplaceable."

Hilton Clay Felton Jr. was born and grew up in Norfolk, where his father was pastor of Rising Sun Baptist Church. By the time he was 9, he was the organist at his father's church. He studied classical piano in his youth but gradually found himself drawn to jazz.

He moved to Washington in 1965 to play organ at Hughes Memorial United Methodist Church in Northeast Washington. Before long, he was appearing at nightclubs throughout the city.

Equally proficient on the Hammond B-3 organ and piano, he became a member of Chuck Brown's Soul Searchers, a leading rhythm-and-blues band of the early 1970s. Later, Mr. Felton led a group called Eternal Equinox and founded a record label, Concept. He released about 25 albums over the years, many of which included tunes he had written.

During the 1970s, Mr. Felton taught music at H.D. Woodson High School in Washington and worked as a pianist at the Mayflower Hotel and cocktail lounges around the city. He toured with guitarist George Benson, appeared on recordings with singer Eva Cassidy and became known as an easygoing, endlessly versatile musician.

"His technical prowess was superb," said musician Davey Yarborough, who recorded several albums with Mr. Felton. "There were few people who could match his repertoire. He could play any type of music, from the Brandenburg Concertos to Fleetwood Mac."

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