By Peggy Ratusz
Her name is Aileen, and she calls herself Al, but everyone knows her as Big Al. She’s not typical in any way shape or form. On that, I think all who know her can agree. She’s a beacon in the foggiest of situations, a solver of problems and a genuine friend.
Her nickname came about in an a-typical way, and it’s funny that so few people ask her how she attained it. When they do, she tells them she started calling herself Al, to help correct the pronunciation of the first syllable of her given name pronounced Al-een. The “Big” was added later after she and husband Jonathan started their video business. She would literally get in her truck to go track down delinquent clients and metaphysically strong arm them into paying for services rendered. Jonathan started calling her Big Al after that. So at her first open mic, she kiddingly wrote the name “Big Al” on the signup sheet. It was amusing she says, how she could tell the audience expected a big burly guy to take the stage when she was introduced. So I guess for all intents and purposes, it’s also become her stage name.
While getting to know Aileen eight years ago, we exchanged stories about the trials, triumphs and tribulations of our youth. After hearing details of her fascinating and really tragic early life growing up in Walterboro, South Carolina with brothers Harvin and Frank, I find myself, even to this day, still encouraging her to get to crackalackin on an autobiography. Until she does, here’s a little bit of history on this fiercely independent, feisty, and talented nightingale.
Her older brother, Harvin got a guitar for his birthday when she was 10 years old. She was fascinated that he never touched it, and it sat there leaned up against a wall in his room for months on end. Before either of them had sense enough to ask someone to teach them to play it, and before they ended up smashing it to bits in a sibling squabble, it spoke to her. What it said to her could easily have been part of the reason she survived the sometimes dire situations that befell her on a daily basis, especially in her preteen years. Her parents fought hard and she swears she could hear them from the womb. When Aileen was 11 years old, her mother left the family.
When she was 12 she found her alcoholic father dead in his bed and was at once sent, along with her brothers, to live the rest of their childhoods in an orphanage in Clinton, South Carolina.
Those first few years at Thornwell were hard, but her survival instincts were strong. About three years in, a new girl was assigned to share Aileen’s room and she brought with her, a guitar. “I credit Kathy Lynch for getting me started on guitar. We confiscated another guitar we found in a closet full of unused instruments at the orphanage high school. It was a cheap Harmony guitar that she started showing me chords on; we became best buds and ended up writing ditties and playing country music together to help pass the time.”
The senior play at the children’s home was Al’s first time on stage where she and Kathy played a few tunes to open for, during the intermission of, and to close out the “hillbilly themed” show. She would go on after that to be crowned homecoming queen of Thornwell—which was more tainted with stigma than it was an honor, as she tells it. “After high school graduation, I took that Harmony guitar with me. I guess you could say I stole it to commemorate, well, everything.”
In 1970, Midlands Technical School in Columbia is where she received her Associates degree in Inhalation Therapy (now called Respiratory Therapy). She lived in a nursing dormitory and most every weekend she’d be left alone while the other girls headed off to spend time with family. Music was the way she kept her fears and tears at bay. She’d stroll the halls with that Harmony guitar on her shoulder, her voice and guitar-pickin’ echoed off the dormitory walls. “I played day and night until my fingers would literally bleed. And I would siiiing to my heart’s content. I had a transistor radio I would listen to and teach myself folk and country music by Peter Paul and Mary, Kris Kristofferson, Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn.”
Phyllis Cleary was another friend she met at a Christmas party at her boyfriend’s house. Phyllis started playing holiday tunes on the piano and as they became acquainted, Phyllis encouraged Al to visit her home where she also gave guitar lessons. Within a few months, the two of them started playing at a second floor bar called the Second Level in Five Points. “Being in the orphanage, I was isolated from any kind of music really, and Phyllis expanded my repertoire to include 60’s and 70’s pop stuff.”
“My mother was legally kept from us by court order while we were still minors. So when I turned eighteen, we reconnected. When I was twenty, I went to Florida where she lived and spent a week with her during that summer. We’d planned to visit again the next summer, but she was murdered before we could fulfill those plans.” Her case was featured on a Naples, Florida Cold Case program in 2010 and remains unsolved today.
It’s hard to believe that people like Big Al, who have endured such loss, upheaval, and inconsistency, could have at pivotal times, gained a strong sense of direction like she did, when it would have been feasible for her to have gotten sidelined by grief and despair. Dare I say music, though on the back burner at times, indeed served as a life line? And speaking of life lines, through her strong sense of self and determination to pursue a career in the medical field, she’s saved the lives of at least three strangers out there in the world. If there’s ever anyone you hope to be around in a crisis, it’s Mrs. Jonathan Pearlman.
From Columbia she moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina where she took a job as an instructor in the Respiratory Therapy program at the Technical Community College. She’d passed her “National Registry” which rendered her eligible for higher paying career opportunities. Back in those days, recruiters would see graduate’s names on that list and begin calling them for interviews. She was summoned by one of her instructors from Midlands, Fern Fetner, who had taken a job teaching in the department, and felt Al was the perfect candidate to fill a teaching job vacancy.
She left everyone and everything behind in Columbia. She made a New Year’s Resolution that she’d get out and sing and play solo if she had to, just to bring music up to the front burner of extracurricular activities. In short order, she was booked to play a Multiple Sclerosis benefit. That led to meeting Doyle Wood who was a music booker for Fayetteville’s Bordeaux Hotel Lounge. For the next three years, she played once a week for happy hour there at the lounge.
She also met the husband of one of her students, Mike Rogers who expressed an interest in playing music, so the two of them put a repertoire of songs together and called themselves “Just Two.” They played for a year at Gatsby’s Pizza. She wasn’t just kidding about making music more of a centerpiece in her life.
Simultaneously, a guy who so many in our Asheville music community know and love, Jonathan (JP) Pearlman had moved to Fayetteville that very same year. He brought with him a degree in Broadcasting and worked as a media specialist at the college. It just so happens, as these things go, she was required to take classes through the Media department to learn how to work instructional equipment. Jon was one of the technical instructors. When she needed to record an instructional video for her class, the Media department sent Jon over to carry out the mission. They became fast friends with love of music at the center of their relationship. He invited her over for dinner and showed her around his home recording studio, played her a few tunes. “I thought he was one of the most talented people I’d ever met in my life. I introduced him to Doyle Wood and Doyle booked him at the Bordeaux.”
They performed together after becoming romantically involved and even had a short lived full-fledged band together called “Headline News” and for one night only Al played keyboard and guitar in it. “JP and I played a duet of Stevie Nicks and Tom Petty’s Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around and I felt like I was really cool.”
The Pearlman’s married and moved to Asheville in 1983 and eventually started their business, Pearlman Audio Video. As they concentrated on making a living and forming a family, they quit playing music out on stages for a chunk of time, had a son and named him Jaron. For ten years straight they hosted what they dubbed The Pearlman House Jam to help make up for not playing out much. “We’d set everything up and throw a huge party in the yard and get every musician we could find to come play.”
It wasn’t until Jaron was almost grown that Big Al ventured out again in pursuit of public outlets for her musical desires and aspirations. “In the basement of what is now Piano Emporium on Hendersonville Road, they’d hold a Bluegrass jam. You could just sit on a bench in the back and pick along with whoever was playing up front. At Smiley’s Flea Market music store, the old geezers would get together to pick some tunes, and I started showing up to play with them for a while. Marty and Don Lewis (The Sons of Ralph) hosted a weekly jam at the Feed and Seed in Fletcher and they’d let me sit in and play my brand of country tunes. Jon was regularly going to the Jazz Jam at Tressa’s and Jaron was driving by then and never around so I was not going to be left out or sit at home!”
And incidentally, son Jaron has since pursued his own music engineering career and is also a drummer who currently performs with The Indigo Girls.
Jazz promoter and singer, Sharon LaMotte invited Al to join the female songwriting group we were both part of called SongSisters, so that’s where we met initially. That group was started by our dear friends and hip music chicks, Kelle Olwyler and Amy Ray Stupka. Al also met songwriter and actor Sarah Kim Wilde and the two of them struck up a co-writing relationship for a time. She also played a few shows with a young man I introduced to her, named Aaron Ratliff. This amazingly gifted singer asked her to play in a band he was forming. Aaron started an open mic night in Swannanoa, where Al also met Jazz and Blues artist Linda Mitchell. She still plays bass and guitar and sings with Linda and flutist Kate Barber and they call themselves “Electric Cabaret.” You’ll find them at least once per month at either The Root Bar in Swannanoa or The Town Pump in Black Mountain. She and I, along with pianist and music teacher, Beth Heinberg and percussionist Nancy Asch formed our girl group called “The Revamps” and we played twice a month at Tressa’s for almost two years.
When a person lives life to the fullest like Big Al does, it’s no surprise that the past 10 years have found her mastering more instruments, writing prolific songs and sharing stages with some of Asheville’s most talented players and singers.
“When you look at my songs, you can tell that I’m writing myself into them whether they’re in first or third person. Some songs I don’t even play out because they’re so personal.”
In the song “Strange Dream” which she says is her best song, the ssecond verse is: “I wore several coats of armor, a true hero in my time. I took after the intruders, because they were no friends of mine, and the people stood there cheering, when I saved the child from the ruins; such a strange dream.”
Here’s the bridge of a song she wrote for her mother called “Little of a Trace:” “Light in her eyes, sometimes fading, doing what she has to do, tired of waiting. The silken threads she had broken through, she spread her wings and away she flew. She’s a butterfly and she looks so pretty, against the blue sky, as she flutters by, and she drinks it up, from the buttercup and she spreads her pretty wings to fly away.”
In her song for Jonathan called This Song the last verse is particularly romantic and sweet: “I’ll play this song for you, I get my guitar in tune, while you pour us both a glass of Champagne. I’ll play this song for you, you‘ll nod your head like you often do, then you’ll smile and say that it sounds OK.”
Aileen is an Irish and American name meaning light. BEFORE I looked up the meaning of her name on the internet just now, I had already written the sentence in the first paragraph of this profile: She’s a beacon in the foggiest of situations, a solver of problems and a genuine friend. Now how do like that?
Peggy Ratusz is a songstress, vocal coach and writer. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.