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UNF’s Hidden Treasure: Rickey Calloway

Wesley Leblanc

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If you’ve been to UNF, you’ve likely seen Rickey Calloway. Sometimes he’s pressure washing the sidewalks, sometimes he’s installing sprinklers, but no matter what he’s doing, he’s always working hard to keep UNF clean and beautiful.

What you might not know about Calloway, though, is that when he finishes a shift here at UNF, he might not be heading home for the night just yet. Instead, he might be getting ready for a performance on stage at one of Jacksonville’s many venues.

With over 25 records, made popular in not only America, but Europe as well, Calloway has been playing funk music on stage since the Sixties, although the form has transformed over years.

Calloway’s story begins in the early Sixties, at a time when he had no plans to enter the scene of funk, or music in general for that matter.

“I used to go to the movie theaters every weekend,” said Calloway. “One Saturday, they had a special show and this show was called ‘The T.A.M.I. Show’.”

The T.A.M.I. (Teenage Awards Music International) Show was a movie that took the best footage of two concerts and combined them on film for fans everywhere to enjoy. Calloway especially remembers The Supremes, Mick Jagger and Marvin Gaye. None, though, stood out to him on screen more than James Brown.

“I saw this man dancing and all these people screaming and I got glued to that,” said Calloway.

Calloway became so fascinated with Brown’s performance that he saw the movie five times.

In elementary school, Calloway was a self-prescribed class clown. Calloway revealed to the world–the kids around him at recess–a talent nobody knew he had: James Brown impersonations.This imitation would take place every recess and each time, the crowd would get bigger and bigger every day.

Unable to contain his desire to bring this impression to a bigger stage, something that he believed brought joy and happiness to those who witnessed it, Calloway approached a local band called The Mannish Boys. He asked them if he could do his James Brown impersonation during their show.

When Calloway’s time to shine arrived, he did what he did best and did so to the delight of crowd, who according to Calloway, went absolutely wild.

The man who announced him to the stage would tell Calloway after his performance that he sang off key and struggled to maintain tempo. But after this criticism came an offer that would, unbeknownst to him, launch Calloway’s journey into the music industry.

The same man who informed Calloway of his shortcomings offered him lessons in singing and timing. After about a year of training, Calloway was able to maintain the right pitch and do so without getting out of time. Opportunities began pouring in around Jacksonville and Calloway was performing his James Brown impersonation for crowds sometimes reaching 1,000 people. Each and every time, the crowd went wild, according to Calloway.

Riding the high of this local success and praise, Calloway did something that he looks back on as a “dumb thing.” He got on a Greyhound heading from Jacksonville to Macon, Ga., where he would get some time to perform in front of famous soul singer–and voice of South Park’s Chef–Isaac Hayes’ manager.

Things didn’t go as planned.

“He told me, ‘No, you stop right now,’” said Calloway. “You look like you got a lot of heart and you look like you’re going to be somebody one day but what you need to do son, is go back home, finish school and pursue your music, get better and then come back.”

“I cried,” said Calloway.

Calloway would never return to perform for that manager again but that’s because he didn’t need to.

Taking things into his own hands, Calloway decided he was done with James Brown impersonations and wrote a song called “Tell Me,” that he would later record. He called up a local band to help him record the song.

“We did one take of the song because it was perfect,” said Calloway.

This song garnered the love of the community as it played on the radio and landed Calloway multiple gigs in Jacksonville and surrounding areas.

“This record started out around 1968, 1969, and it has never stopped,” said Calloway.

Sadly, through all the ups and downs he went through, he never made it to the top, according to Calloway.

Needing to take care of himself and his family, Calloway began working at UNF as a maintenance worker and has been doing so for 32 years. His time here at UNF, though, is soon coming to an end as he anticipates leaving when Delaney leaves, who is retiring from his UNF presidency in May of 2018.

“I don’t want to work under another president here at UNF,” said Calloway. “Delaney is a very special guy and I’ll be leaving when he leaves.”

But all of that could change.

His last performance was supposed to be this past Wednesday, but just last week, Calloway received an offer that might serve as his last shot into the mainstream world of funk.

Out of nowhere, Calloway was asked to come play two shows in London later this summer. No stranger to the European spotlight, having previously played in Paris and other European cities, Calloway believes that these shows in London have the potential to help him achieve the dream that’s always been on his mind.

“[The people setting these performances up] have already been talking about world tours and if the money is guaranteed, if the contracts are right, then I’ll walk away from UNF very early and give it a shot,” said Calloway.

“You hit this ceiling and you just go, ‘Boy everything I’ve done has just gone belly-up,’ but in the last four years, the ceiling is starting to open,” continued Calloway.

He’s not sure if these London shows are going to finally make him big, but he’s looking forward to the opportunity to try one last time.

Regardless, he’s happy with the opportunities he’s had, both on the stage and at UNF.

Looking back at his time here at UNF, he asks that those looking to shoot for their dreams take it easy and spend some time in the right places and in the right ways.

According to Calloway, the best thing students can do after graduation is live near their parents. Take care of them while you prepare to take on your dreams.

“Stay close to your parents because they’re your best friends and pursue your dream, don’t be scared to take chances and know that the worst thing that could happen is you get knocked down,” continued Calloway.

Calloway urges students to pursue their dreams, as he feels they are the solution to the world’s many problems.

“We wouldn’t have had James Brown. We wouldn’t have had Michael Jackson or Prince. We wouldn’t have had Obama or George Bush had not these guys pursued their dream,” said Calloway. “You guys are going to save the world; I really believe that.”

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UNF’s Hidden Treasure: Rickey Calloway