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Meet Mary Witt of The O-Tones in Northampton

Today we’d like to introduce you to Mary Witt.

Mary, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
In 1990 I was living in Atlanta and went to a Swing music and dance camp in NY state. It was there I met my later-to-be band mate Ann Percival. We sang and played Swing tunes together all week and 3 years later I moved to MA to form The O-Tones with her and another former member. We started playing Swing dances all over New England and have since branched out to play weddings, parties, fundraisers, festivals, and more. New England is a wonderful place to be a musician because so many cities and states are within easy driving distance and there are so many varied opportunities to play the music we love. With 3 singers in the band, we arrange old Jazz tunes from the 40s with luscious harmonies, as well as make our own versions of Soul, R&B, and Motown classics.

The singers also play guitars and bass and are joined by sax, piano, and drums for a great combo of sounds. The O-Tones have a solid groovin’ rhythm section topped by stellar soloing on sax, guitar, and piano. From Swing to Blues to Soul to Latin, people say the music is fun for dancing and/or listening for all ages!

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
It has been mostly smooth. There has been some change in personnel over the years, but 4 of the 6 members are original. Plus we have extremely talented subs for everyone (except for me because I am a combo singer/bass player/manager/booking agent/publicist!). Having subs makes us always available to play when we are not booked even if some of the musicians are already playing with other bands on a requested date. It also keeps things fresh, playing with various musicians, getting inspiration and adding versatility to our repertoire.

Struggles include losing a band member and finding the right fit to replace them. A band is more than a bunch of musicians playing music. It is a living organism, a family, a collaborative. Finding the right chemistry of musicianship and personalities is important in order to keep the music at its best and the atmosphere of the performance fun and enriching. We all play music because we love it and enjoy working together, but we also do it for a living, so we try to choose the best matches for our sound and vibe.

The economy has changed over the years, and it brings challenges of getting the best gigs for our band. Many weddings are turning to DJs or even just a playlist made by someone in the wedding party. While this offers infinite musical choices, it does not add the pizazz of live music to the party. Watching people react to live music is exciting, whether it’s someone who recognizes a song from their past or another person having to get up to dance even if they are still eating. It’s satisfying to experience these moments. Even budgets for live bands for weddings and parties seem lower than in the past, but we continue to do what we love and find fabulous clients who appreciate the caliber and musicianship of our performances. Many of our leads come word of mouth, but we also find each other online through various sources. There are so many avenues for networking.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about The O-Tones – what should we know?
Our band, The O-Tones, plays the music we love, therefore every song has passion and harmony and soaring improvised solos. We don’t just cover the songs from the past, we make them our own with unique vocal arrangements and horn parts as well as overall band sparkles. I say we play weddings but we’re not a wedding band. It’s kind of a joke, but also true because we don’t play every song every person knows. We learn special requests for a wedding or a party to make it special, but we also love when a potential client says they picked us because of our unique sound and vitality. We take a Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald solo song and make it 3-part harmony. Our Motown tunes have our unique touch on them but are still recognizable to those ready to hop on the dance floor by the first few lines.

We are proud of the special attention we give our clients to give them what they are looking for, not a cookie-cutter song list or traditions just for the sake of tradition. We listen to what they want to make their day special. All of our clients comment on how they got just what they were hoping for and how much all their guests enjoyed the music during the ceremony, cocktails, dinner, and dancing. It’s very satisfying when people come up on our breaks or after the show to thank us for our music.

We are also delighted to have been involved in many fundraisers over the years. We have played for national groups like the Hadassah Foundation in Westchester, NY, fundraising for Puerto Rico relief, political candidates, as well as many local groups working with the homeless, food pantries, people with disabilities, children at risk, arts organizations (including in the Berkshires), and many more. Some of these have been lavish galas with exquisite themes and others have been simple parties with silent auctions, food, speeches, and dancing. We find it easy to be flexible around their programs, and easy for them to feed us during our break for their speeches. Most events (including weddings) have schedules, but the band needs to remain open to time and agenda changes as the night progresses. We are happy to flex around the programs as needed.

Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
As a band, a Swing and Motown band from Philly/DC area, Big Night Out, were an early inspiration. Now one of their singers even subs with us sometimes. Musically, we have many influences and inspiration, but some include: Marvin Gaye, Ella Fitzgerald, The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Nina Simone, Smokey Robinson, Bonnie Raitt, Wilson Pickett, Diana Krall, Keb Mo, and many more.

Personally, I have been influenced by growing up in a musical family (mom still plays piano at 98, dad played cello, sister sings and plays guitar) and enjoy taking that early training and immersion to new places over the years. A high school friend introduced me to Jazz and that opened up many avenues. I sang in the Southern Baptist Church choir and learned a lot about group singing. I grew up listening to Soul and R&B and Motown on my little round orange transistor radio with a chain. I always loved those sounds and practiced dancing to the grooves. I attribute my solid bass groove to that internalization of dance rhythms. The swing sound grabbed me when I first heard it and I wanted to learn more about it and find out how to sing and play it. I grew up singing harmonies with my sister but didn’t realize till high school (when a friend pointed it out), that I could sing harmony to anything. This brings me great joy as it allows me to sing with many different musicians in a wide variety of styles. I find that harmonies add that extra layer of spice to a song.

My mother and father were early activists and social justice advocates, and I find myself still inspired by that, and love bringing that together with the gift of music they gave me. I have met many people since who inspire that special combination of music and purpose. It’s an honor to be part of a program raising money for a good cause. And we also love just having fun with the music at a celebration! My mother had many careers and inspired me to think outside the box. I am always stretching as a singer by attending vocal workshops and listening to a lot of different styles. I also expand my horizons professionally by networking with other business people and learning a lot of guerilla marketing along the way. I enjoy the challenge of how to go the next step in a creative way!

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