Onstage at 2011’s 7908 The Aspen Songwriters Festival with (FROM LEFT) Sam Bush, John Oates, Donavon Frankenreiter, and Matt Nathanson
The Levinsons with Daryl Hall and Oates at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel in December
John Oates performing at last year’s 7908 festival in Aspen
One night last fall in Aspen, Fort Lauderdale couple Mark and Robin Levinson, owners of Levinson Jewelers, were looking for something to do. They had no idea their evening plans would turn into a fast friendship with a music superstar, as well as a new philanthropic passion. A friend suggested they check out the first concert of a new event, 7908 The Aspen Songwriters Festival. On that stage appeared some of the minds behind the past few decades’ most legendary songs, including Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs, chatting to the intimate audience. The Levinsons were hooked. “It was so cool,” Mark Levinson recalls. “It felt like they were connecting with you alone, with no one else in the room.” And behind the whole event, they soon learned, was John Oates. As half of the famed Philadelphia duo Hall & Oates, John Oates helped pen some of the biggest radio hits of the late ’70s and ’80s, and his passion for the craft of songwriting is what sparked the festival in the first place. “What people hear on the radio or a CD or on the Internet is the record, with lots of components coming into play—the producers, the studio, technology,” Oates says. “But the heart and soul is the song and the composition.”
His goal was to share his passion for the craft. After a few songwriter-focused experimental concerts in Aspen’s historic Wheeler Opera House were huge successes, Oates and the venue’s executive director, Gram Slaton, decided to expand the concept into a four-day festival, now dubbed 7908 The Aspen Songwriters Festival.
That inaugural September 2010 edition attended by the Levinsons featured on-the-fly collaborations from music-industry stars like Butler, New Orleans R&B legend Allen Toussaint, and country troubadour Jimmy Wayne, interspersed with explanations of the origins of some of the past decades’ biggest hits.
While the initial event was a series of relaxed concerts, the Levinsons saw the potential for so much more—for the festival to unveil some of the mysteries of songwriting to the general public, as well as foster the craft among young people.
They tracked down Oates’s e-mail through a mutual friend and suggested a lunch meeting. “When I met them, I realized, Wow, here I’ve got some allies who can really help enhance this project,” says Oates. “They came back with all kinds of ideas about potential scholarships, and becoming a nonprofit where we could mentor young songwriters, and the ideas began to flow.”
With the 2012 edition planned for March, the team ramped their efforts into high gear. To that end, the Levinsons will host a fundraiser with Oates at their Fort Lauderdale home, the first they’ve ever hosted there, on January 7 for just 50 couples. The event is also underwritten by fellow South Florida/Aspen residents Gerry and Ellen Greenspoon, Scot and Barbara Hunter, and Doug and Lynda Weiser. Among the highlights planned is an acoustic performance by Oates himself. “It’ll be just me with a guitar, and I’ll tell some stories about some of the songs I’ve written,” he says. “It’ll give people a sense of what they can see on a grander scale with the festival.” A live auction with several music-themed items is also planned, including a near-priceless opportunity for a bidder to record a song of his or her choice with Oates in his private Aspen studio.
All of this, though, is just the beginning of something much larger. The Levinsons and Oates hope for satellite festivals, and hint that the first might take place in South Florida some time soon. “There’s no agenda other than just benefiting music and songwriters of the future and letting the festival grow and grow,” says Levinson. “That’s the exciting part, that there is nobody that’s in there for anything other than the arts.”