Written in the Stars

For Ben Folds, his destiny was a foregone conclusion

Most national music pundits place the ascendant star of Ben Folds around 1993 in Chapel Hill, when he formed the Ben Folds Five with bassist Robert Sledge and drummer Darren Jessee. While there’s some truth to their assertions, most local music scribes of the era (of which yours truly was one) will tell you that Folds had every earmark of a star-in-the-making as early as 1988, and that it was just a matter of time before he would be playing on the international stage.

Back in those days, before “modern rock” was even a genre and guitar-driven power pop was de rigueur, Folds and Millard Powers formed a group called Majosha. Ironically, Folds was the band’s bassist, even though he is a world-renowned pianist (and is equally proficient on drums), while Powers, now the bassist with Counting Crows, played guitar. Their very first show was a Duke University Battle of the Bands — which they won, a harbinger of things to come.

Majosha was short-lived, but Folds’s next effort was even shorter. He, Evan Olson and Britt “Snuzz” Uzzell formed a group they dubbed Pots and Pans. In this one, Folds played drums, Olson (a vocalist-guitarist by profession) played bass and Uzzell sang and played guitar.

After only a few months they formed Bus Stop, which quickly became a hot commodity after winning Dick Clark’s USA Music Challenge — 1992, the American Idol of the day. With Folds’s brother Chuck on bass and Eddie Walker on drums, this is where Ben Folds became pianist-vocalist-songwriter-arranger Ben Folds.

Evan Olson, still a successful performer and songwriter after a brush with the big time, remembers it well.

“Ben made me a much better musician, better songwriter, better singer, better performer,” he muses. “Just being around him, he has this subliminal influence on people. He’s such a creative force and he’s so good at what he does, you can’t help but pick it up.” Olso says he’ll be forever grateful, “even though it was only for about a year.”

Next came the obligatory moves to Nashville, then New York, before returning to North Carolina and Chapel Hill’s fertile musical grounds.

Never a huge radio star, Folds has nonetheless forged a remarkable career marked by recording no fewer than 30 albums (including collaborations). Universal critical acclaim, has followed. Yet, his greatest exposure came as a judge on the NBC a cappella vocal group competition The Sing-Off from 2009–13.

Folds will make a sentimental journey back to his roots April 20 with a Command Performance at the Carolina Theatre. The show is billed “Ben Folds and a Piano.”

And that’s really all you need.  OH

—Ogi Overman

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