How a bike messenger reinvented himself as a busker – The New York Times | Start Classified

If it wasn’t for the pandemic, Sam Pritchard might still be weaving the streets of Manhattan as a bike messenger. But March 2020 and the subsequent office building evictions forced Mr. Pritchard, who, like many other businesspeople, relied on Midtown’s busy commerce, to do a switch.

These days, Mr. Pritchard, now 61, has replaced his bicycle with a keyboard: he’s now a busker and lives mainly on donations. From Union Square to Grand Central Terminal, he entertains crowds daily, even drawing the attention of celebrities like actor Bill Murray and young musicians who now play with him regularly. He calls his show — part dance party, part jam session — “The Sammy Buttons Experience.”

I first met Mr. Pritchard in the early 1990’s when his burgeoning bicycle courier company was often called in to make deliveries for my PR firm. Energetic and fit, he was an enterprising hustler who rode 50 to 75 miles a day on two wheels. Over the years, Mr. Pritchard’s business grew to a 25-person operation with an office on Fifth Avenue. Although he was the boss, Mr. Pritchard preferred the bicycle to the desk and preferred to spend his days on Manhattan’s busy thoroughfares, which currently kill about two dozen cyclists each year.

But Mr. Pritchard had another, more ingrained passion: music. He is a fourth generation keyboardist. His great-grandfather was a well-known stride jazz pianist who worked in the area around his native North Carolina. His father was an equally talented hobbyist, purveyor of modern jazz and R&B styles, who moved to Harlem in the 1950s where he settled with his wife, who gave birth to Sam in 1961. Three years later the family moved to Westchester.

“Like most black kids born in Harlem, music was in my blood, even though my family moved away when I was young,” said Mr. Pritchard, who took piano lessons from the age of four to 13. He mentioned Stevie Wonder, Ramsey Lewis, Earth, Wind & Fire, the Commodores and Sly Stone as his favorites. “The infectious energy and drive of these cats is what I’m trying to bring to the streets today,” he said. “Funky music is good medicine.”

It was a Sly and the Family Stone album, Stand, that got Mr. Pritchard in trouble soon after his family moved to the suburbs.

“We were the first black family in an all-white neighborhood,” he said. “And I was one of only two black kids in my school, so I felt a little bit isolated.” In fourth grade, he took the album to a show-and-tell day. The song he played for the class had a racial slur against black people in the title and lyrics. “There was a great commotion and my father was called to school,” recalled Mr Pritchard.

At Howard University, where he received a basketball scholarship, Mr. Pritchard played some music, and as a young man in New York he played around in production and jammed a few times at the Lenox Lounge in Harlem with guitarists such as and singer George Benson and flutist and singer Bobbi Humphrey, he said. But his growing messenger business would keep music on the back burner for several decades.

In 2018, Mr. Pritchard caught up with a friend and Detroit bassist, Tony Russell, to jam on the streets for fun. Few of these sessions were enough to inspire Mr. Pritchard in a new direction. “Tony told me I was selfish not to play on the street,” he said, “that I had something special to give to people and myself.”

Mr Russell died of a drug overdose in 2020 just as Covid hit New York. Two days after his friend’s death, Mr Pritchard took to the streets with his keyboard, a Bluetooth amplifier and a “shopping cart to move everything around,” he said. He wanted to honor his friend and his friend’s wish for him. “I haven’t looked back since.”

He plays a mixture of original music, soul covers and ballads. “I use drum programs and loops and lay out basslines with my left hand and chords and leads with my right,” he said. “It’s about creating a dance party atmosphere, almost like a DJ, but only with a keyboard.”

In the summer of 2020, Mr. Pritchard not only attracted crowds but also younger musicians who wanted to play with him.

“I met Sammy when I moved to New York in 2017,” Benny Rubin, 22, a saxophonist from Flint, told Mich. “He saw me playing on the subway and invited me to jam at a free festival.” They ended up playing together every day throughout the summer of 2020 and into the fall, which has helped Mr. Rubin “financially and spiritually” since his club performances had been canceled due to the pandemic.

“The experience was cool because I’m into more serious, straight-forward jazz, and it’s all about soul and funk and getting a party started,” said Mr. Rubin. “It’s cool to be with Sam because he also has a lot of life wisdom. He taught me a lot more than just music.”

Another saxophonist, Bernell Jones II, played with Mr Pritchard every day last summer. “I’m from Memphis, so I’m into heavy soul and R&B, so we really have a connection,” he said. “He’s in his 60s and I’m 23, but we’re kind of best friends,” he continued. “Sam has always had an entrepreneurial mindset and a knack for finding the best little places to play and gather crowds. It’s one that has managed to make this a full-time job for both of us.”

The fans are between 3 and 80 years old. Bill Murray stopped by last summer. “I said to him, ‘You owe me $20.'” According to Mr. Pritchard, a few years ago he was making a delivery and saw Mr. Murray waiting in a parking lot to pick up his car. Mr. Pritchard bet the actor $20 it would take him over 20 minutes to get his vehicle. “When I stopped by after delivery 30 minutes later, he was still there waiting.”

That day he told the story to Mr. Murray, who smiled, said he thought he remembered the exchange, and placed a $20 bill in the tip jar.

Another time, Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and Majority Leader, stopped in Union Square to listen. “I told him we needed to have a serious gun control conversation, specifically this AR-15.”

Rather than forcing him to pack up and leave, police often stay nearby to enjoy the music, said Mr Pritchard, who added that he has befriended many of those who patrol his regular spots.

Recently Mr. Pritchard has started performing at weddings, corporate events and clubs. This month he will begin a 10-day residency at the Sound View Hotel in Greenport on the far end of Long Island. In a good week, the Sammy Buttons Experience can bring in four-digit sums. This year he plans to invest some of that into recording his original music and launching a line of merch.

“As awful as Covid-19 has been for so many of us, I know it’s pushed me to do what I’ve always wanted to do, entertain people with soulful music that spreads joy,” Mr Pritchard said . “If I’ve played a small role in helping New Yorkers recover from the tragedy that Covid has brought, it’s all worth it.”

Sal Cataldi is a writer, musician, and former public relations executive based in Saugerties, NY

Leave a Comment