Despite the breakneck pace of technological and social change, dance bands and barbershops abide, fostering in-person connection, celebrating the communal, bringing joy. For 63-year-old Lee Patterson, the two go together: He’s both a bass-player and a master barber. His funk band Room Service and business Master Cuts Barbershop, located at 690 Broadway in Kingston, have each attracted a loyal following, tapping into a broad, diverse community.
The band’s playlist specializes in “old-school classics, like Kool and the Gang, the Spinners, Michael Jackson, Earth, Wind and Fire, Bob Marley, Grover Washington, Jr. and Sade,” according to Patterson. “Most of the popular hit songs never die and have universal appeal.”
Indeed, with its eminently danceable beat, big-hearted sound and tight, crisp delivery, Room Service stole the show at the arts celebration hosted by Kingston’s Midtown Arts District last September. Patterson founded the band six years ago, and its current members, ranging in age from 28 to 73, are Patterson, saxophonist and lead singer Willie Gus Neal, drummer George Thomas, keyboardist and background singer Lisa Love and percussionist Quique Castro. The band will be performing at Keegan Ales on Friday, May 18 and at the Midtown Kingston Festival on August 11. It also plans to participate in festivals – provided the gigs aren’t too far away, given that most of the members have day jobs. In Patterson’s case, being a bass-player and a master barber entail an equal measure of stamina: “All I do is stand all day and then do a gig and stand some more,” he said.
Not that life ever gets boring in the barbershop: Master Cuts’ clients include “Spanish, Jamaicans, Asians. Everyone comes here…Last Saturday, there wasn’t one black person in the shop, whereas sometimes it’s all blacks.” In eight years of doing business, the shop has a loyal clientele and spans generations: His youngest customers are toddlers. “I’ve seen a lot of kids grow up here,” Patterson said.
Some days, Patterson and his two barbers, Dennis Washington and Ryan, are so busy that they skip lunch. “You’re fatigued,” said Ryan (who preferred not to give his last name). “Thank God we have the Chinese restaurant next door.” “Sometimes you get the food and don’t eat it,” added Patterson.
Patterson began cutting his friends’ and family members’ hair as a teen. “A friend said, ‘You should open a barber shop. You’re good.’” Jobs were scarce, so he followed his friend’s advice and apprenticed to a barber, subsequently cutting hair in Monticello and Liberty before opening his Kingston shop. His overhead is relatively low, given that all his furnishings – including the two barber chairs – were picked up at yard sales, thrift stores and from shops going out of business.
Dennis Washington, who also works at the Boys and Girls Club, has 20 years’ experience (and once ran his own shop, according to Patterson). Ryan, who used to work at the grocery store in his hometown of Margaretville, got his barbering license in a school in New York City. Patterson was his barber and encouraged him to get certified after Ryan, who’d been cutting hair in Fleischmanns, expressed interest in working for him. “You either get an apprenticeship and work for so many hours, or go to barber school or BOCES,” Patterson explained, noting that school-trained barbers have to complete 264 hours of training and apprentices 3,000 hours.
The ingredients of a successful barbershop are Quality, Personality and Atmosphere, according to Patterson. “There’s no competition if you’re the best,” he says, noting that his shop charges $20 for a cut, including a beard-and-mustache trim.
Quality refers to skill, creativity and comprehensiveness. Customers, who include women as well as men, can get any style cut they like. Ryan shows me a photo on his phone of the “Frohawk,” a combination of an Afro and a Mohawk popular with the younger crowd. The shaved sides blend more gently into the hair on top than the traditional Mohawk. “We get a lot of skin fades” – essentially the same cut – “which has a shape,” he said.
The “trends recycle, so you’ve done these cuts 1,000 times,” said Patterson. Cuts can be blunt, layered, waved or brushed. He also does “black perms,” which straighten the hair and use different chemicals from those used on Caucasian hair. “Caucasians want their hair curly” – a part-time beautician does the curly perms and hair-coloring – “while black people want it straight,” he said. “I make it curly afterwards.”
Back in the 1970s, it was called a Jheri curl and was popular with gangsters and pimps. They wore their long curls over their Puma tracksuits, Patterson recalled. “It was greasy as a mother, and the back of your collar was soaking. I still do them, and some women want it. Most are older people. It’s less upkeep. With the standard perm, you have to get it washed and set every couple of days and come in every week, while this lasts for months.”
Besides cuts and facial-hair trims, Master Cuts offers an old-fashioned shave. Ryan uses a straight razor because “the lines are crisper and there’s no hair after the shave. Everyone would like to be finished with the razor, because it makes them feel different. It’s a mind-teaser.” Patterson uses his electric shaver, which he claims “is sharp enough so it cuts down” – but never below the skin, into the “white meat.”
Actually, Master Cuts’ barbers will trim or shape anywhere there’s hair, from the collarbone on up. “I’ll take the straight razor and make slits through the eyebrows,” Patterson said. “We’ll trim the ears and nose and hair poking out of their shirts,” added Ryan. But “I’m stopping there; no butt-cracks,” joked Patterson.
The Personality aspect of the business “means that you ask a client, ‘How you doing?’ and make them feel comfortable as soon as they walk through the door,” Patterson said. “When they leave, they feel 100 percent better and say, ‘I’m glad I came by. You made my day.’” “Their confidence is boosted,” added Ryan. “When they leave, they’re ready to take on the world.” Common topics of conversation are politics, family, jobs, sports and relationships, said Patterson.
“A lot of customers we know by their first name, and we pick up the conversation we were having the last time they were here,” said Ryan. Many clients come in once a week: same day, same time. “We get to know what our customers are going through, which helps.”
Master Cuts sticks with tradition when it comes to the third essential ingredient, Atmosphere. “Younger barbershops are very different. They play rap, have videos and everyone’s on their cellphone. They don’t hardly talk anymore,” said Patterson. In contrast, “I have an old-fashioned feel.” The shop plays R & B and soul music, hits from the 1970s and 1980s, including Earth, Wind and Fire, George Benson, the Temptations – “old-school stuff,” he noted.
Hours are generally from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and sometimes longer on the weekends, depending on how many customers there are. The average cut takes 20 minutes, so they’ll take people up to around 6:30 on weekends. The dartboard and double mini-baskets hung on one wall are staff amenities. Once the door is locked, “We unwind with basketball,” said Ryan. Added Patterson: “We spend the whole day cutting hair and listening to the people talking, so at the end of the day, we’re exhausted.” Customers are discouraged from lingering: “They give me respect and say, ‘Let’s go outside’ if there’s an argument,” Patterson noted. “This is a business, and if they mess up any shot they have, they can’t come back anymore.”
Patterson also encourages fathers to bond with their sons through reading, as attested by his participation in Barbershop Books, a New York City-based initiative that distributes children’s books to barbershops to be read by dads to their kids while they’re waiting to get their hair cut. “One of my customers, Irwin Rosenthal, put me onto it,” Patterson said. “He was down in the City, saw the books, told me about the website – and the next thing I know, he texted me that he was sponsoring me, because I have a great shop and all the kids come here.” Master Cuts has been part of the program for a couple of years. One particularly popular book is No David, in which the main character, a kid named David, breaks all the adults’ rules.
Patterson, who has six kids and lives in Kingston, said that he’s starting to see the neighborhood change, though he has never complained. “It’s not so bad,” he said. “You never see any kind of violence in the streets. Fights happen here and there, but you see that everywhere.” He said that he has a good landlord and doesn’t worry that he’ll get displaced. “He just bought the building and wants me to stay.”
As our interview winds down, Room Service band members begin to arrive for the weekly practice session. Patterson has been playing bass since he was 14 and has been performing in bands, including Lee and the Funkmasters, Day One, the Dreadnots and the Ravers, for 30 years. He performed with recording artist and New York Blues Hall of Fame inductee Slam Allen and has opened for bands such as BT Express.
Over the years Room Service has had many musicians. Lisa Love, who plays keyboard and sings background vocals, is the newest member. She’s a singer/songwriter from Woodstock who studied classical music as a child and knows Patterson from a Latin band that they were in together.
Lead singer and saxophonist Willie Gus Neal took up the instrument 11 years ago, on his 45th birthday, at the behest of his wife; after purchasing a sax at Barcone’s, he taught himself to play and joined the band four years ago. Born and raised in Poughkeepsie, Neal is the cook for the Mid-Hudson Regional Hospital.
Twenty-eight-year-old drummer George Thomas, who has been with the band for a year-and-a-half, is a 2008 graduate of Kingston High School, where he was in the jazz band under the direction of Robert Shaut. The experience was “pretty important,” he said, noting that he also played gospel and was in a rock band with guitar-player Adam Sickler. “This is the first time I’m playing funk in a band, and the style is a lot more adaptable than I thought. It’s kind of like a mixture of jazz and blues put together with a lot of chops. It’s really basic, and the little notes are highlighted. It has a lot more soul.” Thomas added that the difference in ages isn’t a problem for him, given that “I grew up in a church, and all the musicians I’ve played with are Lee’s age.” Thomas just graduated from the Ridley-Lowell Business & Technical Institute, where he trained to be an electrician.
Quique Castro, who is half-Cuban and half-Puerto Rican, plays percussion. He’s 72 and retired. Andrew Jordan, from Cheap Date, will be playing guitar at the May 18 Keegan Ales performance.