Art Porter Sr.
When Arthur Lee (Art) Porter was born on February 8, 1934 in Little Rock, Arkansas to stonemason, Eugene Porter, Sr. and Lillie Mae Porter, little did the world know then, that a musical legacy was in the making. The youngest of two children, Porter began his music education at home with his mother. At 8-years-old, he was playing at his family’s church and at twelve, he performed his first classical recital. By age fourteen, he was a seasoned musician, performing for community activities and hosting his own 30-minute classical radio program on KLRA-AM in Little Rock.
Porter attended public schools in Little Rock and earned a Bachelors degree in Music Education from then Arkansas AM&N College (University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff) in 1954. He began his teaching career at Mississippi Valley State University in Itta Bena, Mississippi immediately after college graduation.
In 1955, he married his high school sweetheart Thelma Pauline Minton - they spent their honeymoon at the University of Illinois in Urbana while he was attending graduate school. Two years later, he was drafted into the U.S. Army where his extraordinary musical talent on the organ and piano, along with his extensive repertoire of religious music, was immediately recognized. Consequently, he would spend the next two years as a chaplain’s assistant in Fort Niagara, New York.
Porter returned to Little Rock in the late 1950s and spent the next twelve years teaching vocal music at Horace Mann High School, Parkview High School, and Philander Smith College.
He supplemented his income by playing piano jazz in the evenings, sometimes as a solo performer, but more often with his group, the Art Porter Trio. The Trio was in great demand, especially for large and small weddings, country club affairs, and city and state social events. Porter and his trio entertained throughout Arkansas and surrounding states. The trio established such a reputation that during a two-week stay in Hot Springs, Arkansas, noted Singer Tony Bennett sat in with them, performing every night. Other entertainers, such as Liberace, Julius La Rosa, and Art Van Damme, often dropped by to join in and enjoy the trio’s music.
Porter earned a Masters degree from Arkansas’ Henderson State University in 1975 and continued his graduate study at the University of Texas at Austin. During this period, his popularity was soaring. From 1971 to 1981, he hosted The Minor Key, a musical talent showcase on the Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN), and Porterhouse Cuts, a syndicated series featuring the Art Porter Trio broadcasted in a thirteen-state area in the South.
Porter’s music found continued expression in the performances of four of his children in their group BenKenArtReg, Inc. The name is composed of the first three letters of each of the members’ names: Benita, Kenneth, Art Porter, Jr., and Reginald. A fifth child, Sean Porter, also inherited Porter’s talent on organ and piano.
He was approached many times to tour, but usually declined, once saying, “I don’t like to travel, especially all the time.” He made a couple of exceptions in 1977, performing at the World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos, Nigeria and again in 1991 when Porter’s son, jazz saxophonist Art, Jr., was scheduled to perform at jazz festivals in Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands and his piano player cancelled. Within twenty-four hours, Porter joined his son to complete a successful tour. Porter’s musical legacy was passed on to Art Jr., whose career, expressed in five albums, ended with his accidental death on November 23, 1996.
Despite Porter’s popularity as a jazz pianist, he found time to pursue his interest in classical music, featured as a guest artist on piano as he performed with both the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra in Little Rock and the Northwestern Symphony Orchestra in Fort Smith, Arkansas. In 1976, Porter assembled former Horace Mann High School choir members, their spouses, and friends at Bethel A. M. E. Church in Little Rock, forming the Art Porter Singers to present a program of Christmas music. The performance of Handel’s “Messiah” followed in December 1977. The Art Porter Singers remain together today and are dedicated to continuing the legacy of Porter’s service with yearly performances, including the annual presentation of the Messiah each Christmas season.
Though Porter received many honors and awards, he found particular satisfaction in the Art Porter Bill enacted by Arkansas Legislature, which allowed minors to perform in clubs while under adult supervision. Porter’s children thus were able to perform with him throughout the state. Bill Clinton, Arkansas governor at the time, as well as a huge fan and friend of Porter, often joined Porter’s group on his saxophone.
Some of Porter’s more memorable performances include two gubernatorial inaugurations for Governor Clinton. In January, 1993, he was joined by Art, Jr. on saxophone for a performance at the Inaugural Interfaith Prayer Service when Bill Clinton was elected president, and during an inaugural reception in Washington D.C. Porter was also responsible for entertaining many heads of state who visited Arkansas during the tenure of governors Dale Bumpers, David Pryor, and Jim Guy Tucker.
Porter died on July 22, 1993 of lung cancer. He was eulogized at Bethel AME Church, where he was the organist for thirty-five years. He is buried at National Cemetery in Little Rock. A newspaper writer noted that Porter’s “natural gifts” were “polished by intelligence, flawless phrasing and good taste…with modesty.” Referred to as an Arkansas treasure, his imprint continues to inspire generations – “music speaks what cannot be expressed, soothes the mind and gives it rest, heals the heart and makes it whole, flows from heaven to the soul” – Angela Monet.