West Philadelphia’s Gretchen Elise Walker – Director of Development at St. Mary’s Nursery School by day, warmly received singing-songwriting jazz vocalist by the rest of the day – has a story to tell about Wawa that has nothing to do with computer-ordered hoagies. And it comes with a happy ending, come Saturday, October 10, at 3 p.m. when she independently releases her new soca-rific single “Wawa” and its full-length video in a free online get-out-the-vote event featuring City Commissioner Omar Sabir. “Wawa” will be broadcast here at and live on her FaceBook, Instagram, Twitter and Youtube channels with the social media hashtags: #wakeupandjump #getoutthevote and #wawa. The track will be available for purchase on October 10 at BandCamp and all major streaming platforms.
The entire process for the Gretchen Elise Wawa musical journey – one that started spiritually as a Delco-born kid driving down Baltimore Pike past the original Wawa dairy – restarted in 2017 when her band was hired to play a West Park Cultural Center fundraiser in 2017.
“I wanted to help promote ticket sales for a Wawa Raffle Basket they were raffling off at this event, and was going to sing the blues-jazz tune, ‘Black Coffee’ but thought that would actually make people weepy,” said Elise. “The day of the event I was in my corner store and heard some upbeat Salsa music. I thought I need to go with a Caribbean beat. I had the bassline and Soca groove in my head and called the song on stage and the band just flowed with it; a fusion of styles. People got up to dance. During the set break one of the event participants came up and asked us to play it again. We make people jump on the hook – ‘Wake up and jump! Wake up and jump! Get your coffee. Get your coffee.’ It became my most popular song ever.”
The song quickly became beloved by all age groups. Philadelphia Jazz Project’s Homer Jackson told her that the track was perfection (“Exudes your intent. Exudes Wawa’s intent too…The only worry is if the company has the guts to go with the power of the Afro-Caribbean vibe of the song. But, isn’t coffee Afro-Caribbean anyway?”) and even thought that she should be able to license the tune to the grab-and-go marketeers.
“I thought if I could pursue this as a distinct project, license it to Wawa, it would get me back in the studio working on a next album. I would get a video produced, with some kind of crowd participation a la Pharell’s ‘Happy,’ so even if they said no, it would be a win-win,” said Elise.
Around the same time, Elise’s long-time drummer Ricardo Martinó introduced her to local wunderkind producer/multi-instrumentalist Doug Grigsby (“someone to guide me through the commercial music-making process and Doug had licensed commercial work for Sony”). Seeking to support “beautiful music that doesn’t fit in a box,” the team began the process of recording and attempting to license the “Wawa” song, and work on a new set of recordings such as “Laila,” a Brazilian and dub reggae-tinged original tune.
“We did sessions at his tiny third-floor studio with Ric Martinó on drums, Anam Owili-Eger on keys, and Luke Walker on guitar… Musicians I’ve been playing with for 10 years. Naeemah Maddox, who performed the tune with her inimitable sense of humor and impeccable voice with me countless times, created luxurious vocal layers, remotely, from New York,” said Elise. “On the commercial side, I received generous advice from several industry heads on how to pitch the song. Over many months I jumped through hoops to arrive at Wawa’s agency of record and finally at the creative agency that develops creative content for Wawa advertising. They pitched the tune, Wawa declined. I realize my approach was backward. Usually, an agency will go to a music service and direct what they want, or pick from a pool of tunes, not the other way around. But I thought, what do I have to lose?”
When the licensing pitch was declined in early 2019, Elsie got the Barnes at the Bank to agree to sponsor a release event as a community festival in May. “This is my style… Kids, community, interactive,” she said.
Enter COVID-19. Enter a period of long-needed social activism and racial protest. “I was wondering how I could make the ‘Wawa’ release relevant when a friend (drummer Karen Smith) proposed I combine it with a get-out-the-vote event. City Commissioner Omar Sabir was on board to be a special guest. Magz.Fm was on board to host. I started promotions.”
Along the way, last Autumn, Doug Grigsby suffered a massive stroke and remains in the ICU to this day. While a concerned Elise wondered if she should release their “Wawa” collaboration with Grigsb around to bask in the glory, the vocalist realized that their music is about joy. It’s about Philly. It’s about community and creating community. Their “Wawa” track most seem like frivolous fun, but’s sound is warmly embraceable and its vibe is reverently communal.
“I want this joy out in the world right now,” said Else. “I want people to send this positive energy towards Doug. This event is about getting out the vote and recruiting poll workers to improve the numbers at the poll, the chances we will bring in new positive leadership at local, state, national levels. We will proceed. And, maybe, one day, Wawa will come around.”