Stephanie Pettis deserves the international reputation she enjoys, bringing charisma, training and talent wherever she goes.
Originally from Panama City, she studied voice and music around the world and sings in English, Greek, French, Spanish, Italian, Brazilian-style Portuguese and German. Give her a song in practically any language and she can sing it. Give her any instrument and she can play it, though her specialty is the piano and the ﬂute.
She’s performed professionally in Spain, England’s Stratford-on-Avon, at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, in Honolulu, Key West and Atlanta. Stephanie has also toured for the USO throughout Europe and the Middle East.
She developed her multiple musical talents from her late parents, Hercules and Clio Pettis. Her mother, originally from Athens, Greece, trained classically in opera at Julliard School and sang at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, as well as the Peabody Institute. Her father, who ﬂew B-29s in World War II, sang as a tenor. Despite coming from different types of families in Greece, they fell in love, and they stayed in love. They moved to Tyndall Air Force Base and remained in Bay County.
As for Stephanie: “I should have gone to New York, but every time I tried to do that my parents dissuaded me,” she says. Knowing that Panama City wasn’t the venue for her, she chose the closest big city, Atlanta. She credits her late mentor, J. Louis Schlagel III, with giving her a “great friendship and continuing conversations about philosophy, art and history.” She calls him “very inﬂuential, he and my mother.”
How does someone who’s Greek develop a band called “Rio” because of its underlying Latin beat? Easy, if you’re not only thoroughly Greek but much, much more. Beginning her music training at the age of four, Stephanie has played professionally since she was fourteen. She is a classically trained musician and singer who ﬁnished a Bachelor’s degree from Florida State University, studied in Italy, and went on to teach music for a year in a Spanish private school. She then moved to Atlanta, where she developed her band 20 years ago.
In Atlanta, Stephanie became the ﬂute and vocal soloist for The Atlanta People’s Jazz Festival and proﬁted from continual public showcasing through concerts, the club circuit, numerous television appearances, conventions,
music festivals and fundraising beneﬁts. She began playing music with Jerry Farber, a pianist and comedian. Together they played jazz and top 40s music.
When she began to yearn for jazz and Latin music, she started the band Rio. She and her band have one album out; “We Were Dancing.” They’re currently working on another. Her style encompasses Jazz, Latin and Funk to form a high energy, smooth dance music. More informally, Stephanie and the band demand attention “from your heart to your dancing shoes.”
They play “American songs with a Latin beat as well as original songs. My style of writing for those is to take a melody or feeling, like reggae or meringue.” She uses the term ‘montuno’ which translates literally as ‘comes from the mountains.’ It’s a type of Cuban music with a syncopated piano vamp, according to NPR’s World Café. A vamp is like a riff in rock music and is at the heart of Cuban dance music.
Whether it’s Cuban or Brazilian, Spanish or Portuguese, it has a salsa feel.
Stephanie, her husband and son returned to Panama City when her father was dying and have stayed through her mother’s passing. She and her brother Hercules run the local Mayﬂower moving company under the name Van Horn Transfer and Storage Company, a business her father once owned.
She says that she and her brother worked for their father as packers throughout their summers during high school and college. Her father was a strong Greek businessman who transferred his knowledge of business to his children. When her brother moved back to Panama City, he began working as “a packer and humper” to learn every aspect of the business from the ground up. From her father and her brother she learned to become the savvy businesswoman she now is.
Locally, Stephanie and Rio have performed across Panama City, Panama City Beach, Seaside, Rosemary Beach, Mexico Beach, Ft. Walton and Pensacola. Her band Rio has a number of players along the Gulf Coast and in Atlanta. Usually, only ﬁve play at one time. For pianists, there’s Gene Howell in Atlanta and Sean Dietrick in Panama City. Guitarists include Ron Rogers and Steve Cosper; the main drummer is Charles Pagano or Steve Ferry. Tom Latenser plays electric and upright bass, while Jimmy Medina plays percussion and conga drums. Stephanie involves some of the band members in singing — her ﬁrst love. She also performs on the piano and ﬂute.
Stephanie can be almost all things to all people. For those who like a Latin beat, she has that. For classical ﬂute and piano, she does that too. In fact, she plays with a string trio in Panama City. Her performance venues include churches and laid-back garden parties.
She also performs on a regular basis for the Gulf Jazz Society at their festivals and concerts. Additionally, she’s a comedic actress, starring as characters such as Carmen Miranda for ‘inside shows’ either as part of Rio, at the Red Stocking Revue or at the Panama City Country Club. She calls acting “a natural thing.”
If you’re looking for incredible music, either classical or Latin, then look no further than Stephanie Pettis and Rio. You’ll ﬁnd a very talented, very versatile and extremely charismatic type of music. Listen out for Rio’s live performance from WKGC’s studio.
By Carole Lapensohn, Photo by Desirée Gardner Photography