Don Gardner couldn't wait to begin his musical career: He was just a 16-year-old kid from North Philadelphia in the 1940s, when he started sneaking into area jazz clubs to sing, and would earn international renown as a rhythm-and-blues singer and drummer with a 1962 top-20 hit, "I Need Your Lovin'" with Dee Dee Ford. But, by age 40, he'd sold his drums and, for the most part, given up on performing, disappointed by waning audiences for his work.
It turned out that he was just preparing for a remarkable second act, as mentor and supporter to a new generation of musicians as executive director of the Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts.
Mr. Gardner, who never could bring himself to retire, remained in that role until his death on Sept. 4 at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. The cause of death was not determined, though friends said Mr. Gardner had recently started an experimental cancer treatment. He was 87.
Lovett Hines, director of music education at the Clef Club, said it was rare to see Mr. Gardner perform in recent years.
"That wasn't a passion anymore, though he never lost his skill or his ear," Hines said. "The Clef Club became his dream, became his career. To see it become a creative resource environment, a home for musicians, that became his obsession."
Mr. Gardner had always fostered emerging talent, first as a band leader, then as a manager, and finally at the Clef Club, which was founded in 1935 as a social club for the American Federation of Musicians Local 294 — formed by black musicians who were excluded from the white union local — and grew into a center for music performance and education.
Yet, he had no formal training of his own. He learned to sing gospel in church, and taught himself to play the drums. The jazz clubs were his music school: jazz vocalist Dottie Smith taught him to play the cocktail drum, and Joseph "Philly Joe" Jones introduced him to the sock cymbal. In the '50s, Mr. Gardner started his own band, the Sonotones, giving his start to Jimmy Smith, the influential organist who made the Hammond organ a jazz staple, and to the saxophonist Grover Washington Jr.
In recent years, Mr. Gardner resided at one of the apartments developed by Kenny Gamble's Universal Companies. Hines recalled that Mr. Gardner kept in touch with Gamble by phone: "He would scold him, 'Why'd it take you so long to call back?' I'd say, 'Don, why you talk to Kenny Gamble like that?' He'd say, 'Well, I helped raise him. That was his relationship with everyone in the world of music."
While visiting Pittsburgh, Mr. Gardner advised a young George Benson to try out as a guitar player for the Jack McDuff quartet.
"I believed I had no chance on getting that gig, but Don was confident," Benson wrote in an email to Mr. Gardner's family, adding that Mr. Gardner practically chased him to the tryout. "I got the gig. I was 19 years old, and that was the beginning of a career I could never had imagined." It would include multiple Grammy awards and a triple-platinum album.
Mr. Gardner did not enjoy that same level of commercial success, though he was a regular on the "chitlin circuit" of black-owned clubs and, later, toured internationally alongside acts including Sam Cooke, the Drifters and the Shirelles — and though "I Need Your Lovin'," which he cowrote, was later recorded by Otis Redding and Tom Jones.
His son, Darryl Baynes, 57, recalls visiting Sigma Sound Studios when Mr. Gardner was recording with Baby Washington, and joining Mr. Gardner on the road when he was managing Curtis Mayfield.
"It was far from glamorous," Baynes said. "It was a very hard life, traveling around playing music. Sometimes a lot of people would show; sometimes not a lot of people would show."
But Mr. Gardner's gold records on the walls of the Clef Club — those were proof to a new generation that it's possible to cobble together a career in music.
Jazz musician Orrin Evans, 43, said that growing up, he never questioned whether it was a viable way to make a living, in part because of Mr. Gardner and the Clef Club.
"We've seen so many different organizations fail that present the arts, in Philadelphia and elsewhere," he said. "To have that building [on South Broad Street just north of Fitzwater] still be around and still standing, that alone has been a major influence in my life."
Mr. Gardner had three children, and is survived by two of them — Baynes, a North Carolina science educator, and Trina Reaves, a Georgia elementary school principal — and by seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
More than anything, Mr. Gardner was a great giver of advice, solicited or not. Recently, Baynes said, he heard from a man who told him how Mr. Gardner had wandered into the restaurant he was renovating. "My dad walked in and pointed out to the guy all the stuff that was wrong. He said, 'Can you fix it?' So he did, and then he ran the restaurant for a while."
It was the same with music, Hines said. "If someone was singing off pitch or if the rhythm wasn't locked in, he could tell right away — and he didn't hesitate to tell young musicians what to do."
Recently, Evans has been listening to Mr. Gardner's old records. He was surprised at how soulful the singing was.
"I wish some people would go back and check it out more," he said. "It's some great music that kind of slipped through our fingers."