I always imagined Stephen Wade as sort of the “Broadway Joe” Namath of D.C.’s 1980s theater scene. Originally booked in 1981 for a three-week run in Arena Stage’s Old Vat Room, Stephen ended up performing for a whopping 10 years, in front of an estimated 334,000 people.
Stephen was the toast of Washington, and I figured after each performance he swept through the stage door with a showgirl on each arm and hit the town before retiring to his suite of rooms at the Ritz-Carlton.
Not exactly, Stephen said when I rang him up this week.
“I had to live a rather disciplined life for that,” he said. “The first few years, I would rehearse the entire show every single day before I did it. I never telephoned in a show. I was there.”
It seemed like Stephen was always there — well, here — and it might have surprised some that his show was about as old-fashioned as you could imagine. It was called “Banjo Dancing” and it was just him playing the banjo, clogging, telling stories and talking about folk music and the people who made it.
“I didn’t know at all — none of us knew — that it was going to take hold the way it did,” Stephen said. “For the first year at Arena I signed a new contract every two weeks. After that, [Arena Stage founders Zelda and Tom Fichandler] said, ‘Let’s forget that. You’re just here.’”
Stephen’s back, performing Saturday at AMP by Strathmore in North Bethesda, Md., joined by instrumentalists Zan McLeod and Russ Hooper. He returns there on Nov. 16.
Born in Chicago, Stephen picked up the banjo after an early dalliance with the electric guitar. He’s long had a connection to the Washington area, even before he and his wife bought a house in Hyattsville, Md., more than 20 years ago.
He earned the money to buy his first banjo while working in a record warehouse in Fairfax County at age 18. (His job was to package defective 8-tracks — that evolutionary dead end of recording formats — for return to the manufacturer.)
And when he wasn’t performing “Banjo Dancing,” Stephen was scouring the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian for details on the music he loved. His 2012 book “The Beautiful Music All Around Us: Field Recordings and the American Experience” explored 13 iconic folk songs. This summer, Smithsonian Folkways released his album “Across the Amerikee: Showpieces from Coal Camp to Cattle Trail.”
Stephen has been around the country collecting stories and collecting songs, meeting and interviewing the people who make music. When he was a fixture at Arena Stage, the people came to him.
“A number of senators and congressmen came, and their constituents, too,” he said. “I got to know a number of great people. Sandra Day O’Connor came to my show. Teddy Kennedy came. We had a great time. I said, ‘I bet you didn’t know all the best banjos were made in Boston.’ He didn’t. He was an opera guy.”
I asked Stephen if he was surprised at the success of “Banjo Dancing.”
“Oh yeah, always,” he said. “I am still genuinely grateful. That’s not humble pie. That’s the truth.”
One of the things Stephen Wade said to me was: “I’ve been in and out of this town a long time. I remember seeing Roy Buchanan at the Crossroads.”
The Crossroads was a club in Bladensburg, Md., and Buchanan was one of those amazing guitarists that Washington seems to produce.
Singer Billy Price toured and recorded with Buchanan in the early 1970s and is organizing a tribute show to the guitarist on Sept. 30 at Bethesda Blues & Jazz. It will include string-slingers such as Tom Principato, Bob Margolin and Anthony Pirog, as well as drummer Robbie Magruder and keyboard player Malcolm Lukens, both of whom played with Buchanan.
Buchanan died of his own hand in a Fairfax County jail cell in 1988. He was 48. What made him so acclaimed?
“He was deeply rooted in American roots music: blues, rhythm and blues, rock-and-roll, soul and country,” Billy said. “He was conversant in all those genres. As a guitar player, he was just incandescent. He would just take it to places beyond where it had ever been taken before.”
Billy promised that the show won’t be a sterile tribute performance, though the cadre of guitarists won’t be able to help sounding like the master. “For the most part, they were all deeply influenced by him,” he said.
I asked Billy if it was hard to be the mere singer in Buchanan’s band.
“Yes,” he said with a laugh. “I often had the sense that people were kind of tolerating my first two verses so we could get to the guitar solo. I think I was right about that.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly