Levon Helm, Woodstock Music Community Rally to Make a Teen’s Dream Album
September, 13 2009
Wall Street Journal, 9.13.09
If you happen to come across Killian Mansfield’s “Somewhere Else,” a new album issued by 429 Records, a division of Savoy, you might wonder how several big-name musicians came to appear on a recording by a 16 year-old ukulele player from upstate New York. Levon Helm sings on a track called “Fire In My Pocket.” The guitar licks in the cover of David Bowie’s “Starman” are by Todd Rundgren. Dr. John, John Sebastian and Kate Pierson of the B-52s also make guest appearances.
The album was the dream of Mansfield, who worked to complete it during the past year while battling cancer. His parents, Phil and Barbara Mansfield, run a store in West Shokan, N.Y., and reached out to the nearby Woodstock music community for collaborators. Ralph Legnini, a local producer who taught Killian ukulele, also contacted music-industry pals like Rundgren, provided the studio time and oversaw the record’s production. Mansfield sings solo on two tracks of “Somewhere Else,” and sings and plays ukulele throughout. He also chose the songs, including Prince’s “Kiss,” the Elvis classic “If I Can Dream,” and Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” — an eclectic selection for a 16 year-old. “His iPod constantly blew me away,” his father said. “It was everything from Gogol Bordello to Bach. The spectrum was so broad.”
Mansfield often laid down tracks during rests between treatment sessions, and late in the process a tumor on his arm restricted his playing. “I knew I had an hour or two hours of focused energy with him,” Legnini said. “But I didn’t cut him any slack. He knew that, and he respected that. If I complimented his playing, he’d say, ‘Are you just telling me that because I’m Cancer Kid?’”
Mansfield signed the record deal on his 16th birthday. He died a week after receiving the finished album (part of the proceeds will go to a cancer foundation). Today, his life will be celebrated with a musical funeral in West Shokan. The guitarist John Pizzarelli will perform “Tonight You Belong To Me” at a private service, and afterward “We’re doing a mile walk to the cemetery where we’re all going to sing ‘Blessed’ by Brett Dennen,” Phil Mansfield said. His son’s cremated ashes will be placed in a ukulele case.