Garden of Eden
Growing up in Shreveport, Louisiana, in one of the poorer regions of the nation, Donnie Eden knew what it was like to be an at-risk child before the label even existed.
"I came up being the oldest [of four male siblings]," he says. "We had to scrape by till we were old enough to survive on our own."
Eden's eventual move out of poverty had a pretty swell soundtrack. Now president of Denver production company Alpha Entertainment, he picked up the drums as soon as he could walk. Eden developed his skills to such a level that in sixth grade, he was playing gigs with well-known local blues acts.
"I actually played in nightclubs then, because they made allowances for me," he says. "That group was the blues band called Guitar Slim. That was the first gig I got paid for -- so you could say I was a professional from the sixth grade on."
As a drummer, Eden has played with luminaries of the R&B world, for American troops stationed overseas and for audiences in Denver. He credits his success to the support he received from his family and his community; now, he says, he wants to extend the same kind of support to others.
"It's important to me personally," he says. "I want to help as many kids as I can -- kids that are at risk and need help."
Eden couldn't have picked a better time. With a slumped economy and employment prospects looking grim for many applicants, the numbers of Colorado homeless and families is on a disheartening rise. According to statistics provided by Margie Milenkiewicz, coordinator for the state's Department of Education of Homeless Children and Youth, there were more than 4,000 homeless children living in the Denver metro area in 2002. In addition to homelessness, Milenkiewicz says the state is plagued by an increase in the population of working poor - individuals and families who may not be homeless or unemployed, but who nonetheless struggle to get by on their wages. And as state legislators begin to finalize debate on who will get what in the next budget, organizations that serve the interests of homeless children and families in crisis are prepared to get crunched again. One such group, Family Tree -- an organization that works with the homeless community as well as abused and neglected children and battered women -- has already been affected by the state's fiscal policies.
"We're just now experiencing some pretty significant cuts, primarily because the funding to the counties have been impacted, so their purchases of services from us have been reduced greatly," says Ruth Ann Russell, president of Family Tree, which relies on a combination of state, federal and private funding. According to Russell, Family Tree helped 23,000 families last year.
When Eden heard about the obstacles that face the cash-strapped Family Tree, he felt compelled to do what he could to help. After talking with Tree employee Nicole Hanson, he came up with the idea of putting on a benefit concert.
"[Hanson] explained to me the who, what, where, when, why and how of what they did, and we started talking about what I could do to supplement some of their funding." Eden says. "This benefit is all about helping at-risk families, homeless kids, battered kids and runaway kids, because the government has cut funding for Family Tree, and we're working to supplement that cut."
After about nine months of planning, Eden's event will take place on Wednesday, May 7, at the Supreme Court Cafe and Nightclub and feature local acts Jakarta and Fat Daddy, who specialize in providing an old-school, '70s soul, dance-party vibe. That is, after all, the kind of music that Eden knows best.
Eden came of age musically in the '70s, when his family moved to Houston and he began playing drums and singing vocals for the Masters of Soul, an R&B revue that specialized in the honey-dripping harmonies and flashy dance steps popular at the time. While playing as part of the house band at the Cinder Club, Houston's premier R&B venue, he made contacts with major acts, including Houston natives Archie Bell and the Drells, the Crusaders, and Gladys Knight and the Pips.
Eden eventually went on to play with a group called Funktion, who opened up and went out on tour with the top echelon of soul groups such as Earth Wind & Fire, the O'Jays and the Isley Brothers. The group played what Eden calls "Southern funk: R&B, but with a Southern flavor."
Funktion moved to Los Angeles, bought a rehearsal studio that doubled as a living space, tightened its sound and established a residency at a well-known club in Compton called the Name of the Game, a popular playground for legends like the Temptations and New Birth. Throughout the '70s, the group performed 52 weeks a year in L.A., Las Vegas, Reno and other western cities before eventually dissolving.
"Those were the good old days. We had a lot of fun in those days," Eden says, laughing. "A lot of the members went on to join other groups. One guy, Barrington Scott, went on to sing with the Temptations, Ron Wilson went to Bloodstone, I toured with Charlie Wilson and the Gap Band and Yarborough and Peoples, so we all kind of split up and went our own ways."
Eden plans to tap these experiences as president of Alpha Entertainment, an organization designed to help musicians and produce benefits for community-service organizations. Run with his wife, Stephanie, Alpha will offer recording and booking services to bands and take a shot at bringing more diverse acts to the Denver area.
"I'm trying to widen that playing field and bring more of what's conducive to what the people are saying they want," Eden says. "They want more than two or three black acts per summer -- and not only black, but they want more than what's coming here."
For now, though, he's concentrating on the successful completion of the company's first big project.
"I won't judge the success of this benefit by this event alone; I plan to do several other events," he explains. "Last year, Family Tree helped so many at-risk kids and families. I think it's astonishing that there are so many people who really care about what's going on in today's society."
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