Subway performers take to Suburban Station, each with their own musical backgrounds.
Suited professionals on their way to the office dart around schools of unhurried senior citizens, gossiping students and pacing police officers. Soft pretzels, plain slices and rich ethnic combinations create an aroma indigenous to Suburban Station, the underground SEPTA concourse at 15th and Market streets.
Calming elevator-like music and bellowing train time announcements juxtapose in the air. And everyone is on the move, headed somewhere: Thorndale, Lawndale, Lansdale. Everyone is going somewhere, except for Dr. Russell Rich, Gregory Underwood, Kia and Day-Day.
These street performers are, for the most part, stationary. They remain in Suburban, singing, playing and dancing, while people pass them by. They perform, hoping to pick up extra cash, to hone their art and entertain passerby.
By Track 0, in a corner adjacent to a Dunkin Donuts, Rich plays his tender saxophone for a woman who is recording the show on her cell phone. He stands on his marble tile stage, next to a cream folding chair and the open case of his instrument.
After he finishes his song, he stops, and asks, “Baby, let me hear that.” Even on a cell phone recording, the clarity of his instrument is clear.
Rich is no stranger to music, or Philadelphia. Born in Louisiana, he said he came to Philly, “in search of something.”
“Life, liberty and the pursuit of music,” he said.
He began his love affair with music in fourth grade, playing the trombone and performing in the band. He later studied music at Southern University in Louisiana.
Once in Philadelphia, he taught music and assisted the band at Roxborough High School. For those who care to listen, he can teach them about the nuances of style in sound in each type of saxophone, from soprano to bass.
Now, he makes a living doing what he loves, every weekday, from 6 to 11 a.m.
“Instruments are my thing – that’s what I do,” Rich said.
He even has a few fans – people he sees every day – who request specific songs from the musician. On the weekends, he plays at a few restaurants around the city, including Firinji in Ardmore, Pa. But what keeps him coming back day after day, in the first hours of the morning? He says it’s more than the “decent” money he makes.
“I do it to put a smile on someone’s face, to leave a good impression on them while they’re at work,” Rich said.
He added that the best part is, “when someone’s lying in bed with one of my tunes stuck in their head, even if they don’t know where they got it from.”
Rich is only one of the many street performers at Suburban Station.
Travel deeper into the station and one will find Gregory Underwood, playing gospel, blues, R&B and jazz on his guitar, accompanied by his hearty voice. Every Wednesday and Friday, from 8:00 a.m. until he’s “ready,” he sits with his acoustic guitar and his for-sale CD’s, strumming along almost methodically.
Underwood said he prefers an electric guitar, however, these are now banned due to more strict station regulations on performers. Like Rich, Underwood, studied music in high school in Philadelphia. When he was 10, his father, also a musician, instilled in him a love of music while teaching him the guitar and the piano.
After many years, he has returned to music. But his career isn’t limited to the station – he performs on Sundays at Warm Daddy’s, at Front and Reed streets. Underwood said he only has one rule for playing: Always think positively.
“I can’t play if I’m sad and I can’t make other people happy if I’m sad,” he added.
Deeper still in the station, along a slightly dimmer passageway, two teenagers, Kia and Day-Day, dance.
In this grimy hallway, the sisters clad in simple black attire perform for subway goers. To the beat of Will Smith or Nicki Minaj, the girls put on an energetic hip-hop show. But, they admit, they enjoy all types of music, not just hip-hop.
To set up their stage, they place large cardboard planks down to make room for their retro CD player – not an iHome – and big red bucket marked for “donations.” Behind them, a yellow sign for the Broad Street and Westbound Trolleys and a mural of a young girl complete the scene.
These sisters have been dancing since they were around 7-years-old, but have never received any formal dance training.
“We’re self-taught,” Kia said.
“We come here and practice to get perfect,” Day-Day added.
Dance is what they’re most focused on. They come to perform almost every day, and practice constantly. To construct the dances, they collaborate and choreograph them together. While they admit that the hallway leading to the subway isn’t the best location for dancing, they’ve had some memorable times down there.
“Sometimes other dancers jump in with us – but, they always ask first,” Kia said.
It is sometimes the tendency to label a street performer as a talentless beggar, but neither Rich, Underwood, Kia or Day-Day fit into this category. Rather, they are passionate about music and they relish in bringing some joy into commuters’ otherwise dull morning.
Kia and Day-Day said they hope to become famous.
“I hope all of this pays off,” Day-Day said.
Emily DiCicco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.