Music lost another unmistakable pioneer with the death of acclaimed R&B artist Donald Gardner, who passed away Sept. 4 in his hometown of Philadelphia.
He was 87.
The singer, songwriter and drummer departs gifting a repertoire of beloved songs, including the chart-topping 1962 hit “I Need Your Loving,” also referred to as “Need Your Lovin.” The song was later covered by many artists, most notably Otis Redding, Tom Jones and Jackie Wilson.
Born on May 9, 1931, to Raymond and Naomi Gardner, Gardner showed a quick affinity for music at a young age. Picking up the guitar and vocals on his own, the self-taught teenager entered the professional music circuit in 1947.
An artist before his time, Gardner was praised at home and abroad for his blend of R&B and jazz. This genre combo would soon gain the title of soul.
“Honey, you have to live it, you have to be there ... I think I came up at the right time and I always told my mother, ‘Boy, I’m glad you and daddy got together.’ This was really the time to be out here.”
– Musician Don Gardner reflects on life and career in a 2015 interview
In 1953, the solo performer opted for a band dynamic, creating the Sonotones. After bringing Dee Dee Ford on board as keyboardist, the group was in full swing, releasing a number of hit singles. The Sonotones made waves in the early 1960s with “Glory of Love,” “Don’t You Worry” and of course, “Need Your Lovin.”
Eventually, Gardner and Ford parted ways. Gardner returned to a solo career but routinely collaborated with other artists, such as Jeanette "Baby" Washington in the 1970s to record “Lay A Little Lovin’ On Me.” Over the span of his career, Gardner would also work with Dinah Washington, Billy Eckstine and Count Basie.
In 2015, Gardner spoke with Auction Finds about his performing heydays.
“Honey, you have to live it, you have to be there,” he said. “It was amazing people. On stage, they were one way. When they came off stage, they were like me and you, but if they didn’t want to be bothered they’d let you know. Especially Dinah. If she liked you, you knew it because she’d cuss you out. Give you the shirt off her back. I think I came up at the right time and I always told my mother, ‘Boy, I’m glad you and daddy got together.’ This was really the time to be out here.”
Gardner also discussed in the 2015 interview about the changing tides in the music scene and the crumbling bonds between artists.
“We shared with each other. Music, ideas, the whole works. I could go see Sonny Stitt and ask him for anything, he’d give me an answer. I could go see Lionel [Hampton], he’d do the same thing. [Count] Basie, any of them,” Gardner explained. “You go see people now, they’re so busy with all these people around them you can’t even get to talk to them.”
A true vocation, Gardner never retreated from the world of music. Gardner held several hats in the industry, including an artist and repertoire (A&R) manager and nightclub owner into the 1980s. In the 1990s, Gardner would enter a new role as the board president of the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts. Defending the legacy of jazz, Gardner would become a mentor and advocate for young jazz musicians.
In the wake of Gardner’s death, industry artists have spoke of his influence on their careers.
“He encouraged me to try out as a guitar player for Jack McDuff’s organ quartet,” said jazz guitarist, singer and songwriter George Benson. “I believed I had no chance of getting that gig, but Don was confident that I could achieve my goal. I tried out and I got the gig. I was 19 years old and that was the beginning of a career I could never had imagined.”
Gardner is survived by his son Darryl Baynes (Linda), daughter Trina Reaves (Edmund), seven grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and other relatives and friends.
In celebration of Gardner’s life, a memorial service will be held Oct. 11-12 at the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts, located at 738 S. Broad St. The family requests that in lieu of flowers, memorial donations be given to The Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts.