Singleton at the piano in his home office | Photos by Ruta Smith

Awendaw native and Grammy Award-winning musician Charlton Singleton is lucky his older sister and brother took music lessons.

“[My musical career] all started with me just trying to copy what my big sister and brother were doing,” Singleton said.

His older siblings were taking piano lessons and 3-year-old Singleton was particularly observant. When his parents noticed him playing some melodies to songs he had heard, they asked the teacher to start giving him 10-minute lessons.

Though his siblings didn’t pursue music later in life, Singleton turned his humble beginnings as a toddler pianist into a successful, lifelong career. 

“I did have this fixation on being a starting shortstop or a second baseman for the New York Yankees,” Singleton said. “But, music just seemed to be the most natural thing for me.”

Singleton went on to learn the organ, violin, cello and his main instrument, trumpet, with a focus on jazz.

A budding musical career

After graduating from South Carolina State University in 1994 with a degree in music performance, Singleton worked at a West Ashley music store called CD Superstore (later renamed Millennium Music), where he met his wife MaryJo in 1994. At the store, Singleton had even greater access to inspirational music. He said he was a “late bloomer” getting into Prince, who became a major musical influence, but when he did, he dove in headfirst.

Charlton Singleton always keeps a mini plunger handy, which is used by trumpet players to create a “wah-wah” sound.

“It was to a point where I was militant about it,” he said. “I would yell at customers [at the music store] if they didn’t know Prince information. I got reprimanded for it, actually.”

Singleton’s love for Prince is evident in his home office where a framed photo of the High Priest of Pop lives on top of his upright piano along with a mini plunger used to create a “wah-wah” effect on the trumpet. Fun fact: The use of a mini plunger as a trumpet mute was popularized by James “Bubber” Miley, an Aiken, S.C., native who played in Duke Ellington’s band, but it may have originated from the Jenkins Orphanage band in Charleston, Singleton said.

During his time at the music store, Singleton started landing more gigs and performing with two current members of Ranky Tanky, Quentin Baxter and Kevin Hamilton, in different bands, but he decided to teach private lessons and in public schools in 2000, including the Charleston School of the Arts. After seven years, he left teaching to pursue performing. 

“I never really pictured myself being a performer, but it just sort of came out that way, and I made the decision to jump in with both feet,” he said.

He co-founded Charleston Jazz Orchestra in 2008, where he served as artistic director until 2018. Singleton released his first solo music in 2011 and was playing gigs often, but he felt that he wasn’t quite where he envisioned himself to be until 2015 when he was named artist-in-residence at the Charleston Gaillard Center, where he remained until 2019; Singleton currently holds the title of artist-in-residence emeritus. 

The birth of a huge success

That same year, Ranky Tanky was born. 

Singleton’s 2019 Grammy

The jazz-inspired Gullah group went on to win a Grammy for Best Regional Roots Album in 2019 with its album Good Time

“It was a very emotional day,” he recalled. “You literally go from just being on pins and needles and not knowing to: ‘Oh my God, did that just happen?’ ”

Singleton proudly displays his Grammy on a table in his dining room. He jokingly said that it makes for a great background piece in Zoom calls. 

Ranky Tanky returned this month from a five-day tour playing in Finland, Sweden and Germany. Next up, they’re playing in the Northeast for several weeks, making it all the way up to Canada before heading west to California and Colorado with vocalist Lisa Fisher, then back to Europe. Every member of the band has at least one other side project he or she is working on, Singleton said. That can make it difficult to get together unless they’re playing shows. 

“A lot of magic happens in sound check,” he said. “A lot of the Grammy Award-winning album was created, in a way, at sound check. Somebody was doing something and somebody added on while we were waiting for them to check their microphones and then it turned into something.”

In addition to Ranky Tanky, Singleton plays with his groups Contemporary Flow and Charlton Singleton and Friends, as well as several orchestra ensembles.

On the road

The walls of Singleton’s office tell the story of his music career with framed concert posters from shows, including Ranky Tanky performances and a Prince cover show with Charlton Singleton and Friends, and a photo of Singleton playing at the Music Hall with famous saxophonist and Goose Creek native Bob Belden.

When asked about some of his more memorable tour moments, Singleton reminisced on times with his post-college ska band called Skwzbxx (pronounced squeeze box). 

“One night, we played at The Elbow Room in Columbia, and the whole WCW wrestling crew walked into the building and Ric Flair jumped up on stage with us,” he said, laughing. “It was one of the most memorable experiences that I’ve ever had. It was a crazy night full of laughter.”

More recently, Ranky Tanky toured with folk and jazz artist Bobby McFerrin in 2019, an experience he said was like no other. “Being out on the road with him and watching him work was amazing. The banter on the bandstand, watching him sing and do all of these polyrhythms with Quentin Baxter, I felt like I could’ve died right there and I would’ve been cool with it.”

Though Singleton has played with many acclaimed musicians, he’s had a lot of run-ins with influential music industry people at the airport. 

One of his biggest fanboy moments took place at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York as a college student while returning from Edinburgh, Scotland. His two friends spotted one of Singleton’s greatest inspirations, S.C. native and jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie, at a newsstand with a funky hat and oddly shaped trumpet bag. Singleton’s friends pushed him to Gillespie. The moment he turned around, Singleton fired off in rapid succession information about his aspirations as a trumpeter and his backstory as a South Carolinian, before the jazz legend yelled, “STOP!”

Singleton’s office is decorated with concert posters (above).

Gillespie asked an out-of-breath Singleton, “Do you play [trumpet] as fast as you talk? … You’d be one helluva trumpet player if you did that.”

Gillespie spent the next five minutes suggesting musicians to listen to and books to read before he said, “We’ve got a plane to catch. It’s always good to talk to someone from South Carolina. Good luck in your career young man,” and he was off. 

Gillespie’s niece invited Singleton to play that very same trumpet he saw Gillespie holding that day 20 years later in 2013 during the South Carolina Jazz Festival honoring Gillespie.

Ushering in next generation

“When younger students of mine ask about the business, I always tell them it’s about relationships,” Singleton said.

Over the course of his career, Singleton has built plenty of relationships — with bandmates, fellow musicians, teachers and local jazz artists. He reflected on his own years coming up as a musician when the prominent jazz artists in town encouraged him to watch their shows and get up on stage to play. 

“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” he said. “We’re now the ones playing in clubs and asking the young musicians today to come in and get that experience. It’s a revolving sort of energy.  For the aspiring musicians today, I say: Be seen. Be heard. Go and establish those relationships.”

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