Recently we interviewed Franklin Willis, music educator, vocalist, and education consultant. Willis, who performed twice as a part of our Emerging Artist Series at Sips & Stanzas, spoke candidly about the landscape of African American music, the importance of music education and what the museum will mean to our culture.
Describe your background. How were you introduced to the music world?
I was introduced to music at a young age while singing in the youth choir at Temple Church (Nashville, TN), performing in school talent shows, family reunions or any opportunity I was given to showcase my singing ability. I received my formal musical studies at Nashville School of the Arts (NSA) and was exposed to a variety of music genres and performance opportunities. While in the madrigal choir at NSA, I discovered my passion and joy for singing; upon graduating, I attended the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga on a vocal scholarship. During my matriculation, I had the opportunity to sing at several community gatherings and functions, including serving as a vocal soloist with the Chattanooga Preservation of African American Song, a community vocal ensemble whose mission is to revitalize the history of music composed by African Americans. I then transferred to the University of Memphis to complete the Bachelor of Music in Vocal Music Education.
For the past nine years when I’m not on the stage singing, I am preparing our future singers, musicians, and songwriters in the classroom as a music educator. I currently serve as the music teacher at Andrew Jackson Elementary School (Metro Nashville Public Schools). My specialty is embedding musical instruction that will empower and engage all children to achieve their best.
How has music influenced your life?
It is the one constant in my life. It’s what can connect me to a person without speaking. It serves as a soother, wakeup call, or even a celebration. I couldn’t imagine a world without music.
How has the landscape of African American music changed over the years?
In my opinion, African American music has always helped shape and describe what’s going on in current events. From Negro spirituals to Hip Hop music. Our music tells a story. Sometimes a story of pain, hard times, trials, or even times of rejoicing, celebration, or a shout of praise. Our music will always adapt and change to tell the story.
Why is music education important?
Music Education Is important because music is something that reaches across all cultures. Music connects people that have the most and the least in common. Because of that music education is important so that the conversation and creativity continues. I believe that the study of music is a unique creative experience that provides opportunities to reinforce skills and concepts of other disciplines while developing lifelong learning skills. I am passionate that the cultivation of musicianship begins at a young age and that every child has musical potential.
You were a part of NMAAM’s Emerging Artist Series at Sips and Stanzas. What was that experience like?
For me, this was an amazing opportunity to share my gift with others. Art is unique in that it can be interpreted differently from one person to the next. I enjoy creating experiences for an audience through my artistic expression. The way I feel when I perform and my interpretation of the material affects how a member of the audience interprets it and shares with another and so on. The best thing is that a group of people can all hear the same thing and have several different or alike interpretations. That’s what is so great about music! So, to be featured as an emerging artist and to be able to share my talents and create a unique experience for a group of people was FUN!
What will a museum like NMAAM mean to the city of Nashville?
The Museum will serve as a resource for learning. A place to store information and preserve history. It will be a place where visitors to the city can see firsthand the love of art and how important it is in the local culture. Also, how African Americans have contributed to not only American culture but to the world culture.
Fill in the blank: My music matters….because it does the talking when words don’t make sense.
Living on Soul chronicles a concert at the legendary Apollo Theater featuring the late Sharon Jones and the late Charles Bradley along with other top soul, funk, and gospel performers that are a part of the Daptone Records family.
Sharon Jones was the lead singer of Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings a soul and funk band based in New York. Jones was nominated for her first Grammy in 2014 for Best R&B Album for Give the People What They Want. She recorded six albums with the Dap-Kings and was known for her exhilarating live shows. She was also very vocal about her battle with pancreatic cancer and passed away in November 2016.
Charles Bradley was an artist that celebrated the feel of funk and soul from the 1960s and 1970s. His final album Changes was released in April 2016. After a bout with stomach and liver cancer, Bradley passed away in September at 68 years old. Bradley was known as the “Screaming Eagle of Soul.”
In December 2014, the Daptone Records family presented a three-night Super Soul Revue concert at the Apollo and filmmakers Jeff Broadway and Cory Bailey caught it on film for the documentary Living on Soul. It captures the rousing shows along with background of the musicians.
I spoke with Jeff Broadway about Living on Soul and its impact now that two of the artists in the film have passed away.
Shameika: In your own words, what is Living on Soul about?
Jeff Broadway: This film is about a family of musicians. A family that has traveled a long and winding road together. The Apollo wasn’t the destination; but it was symbolic of the collective success the artists have shared in their journey together. We wanted to celebrate them as performers, artists and people.
Shameika: What made you decide to create this film?
Jeff Broadway: Neal Sugarman invited us on the road when Daptone took their Soul Revue to Europe in Summer 2014. It was at Glastonbury that Neal learned of the Apollo’s residency invitation, and we knew we had a real music film on our hands then.
Shameika: Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley have both passed away, yet have prominence in the film, what makes their presence so powerful in the film? Will we learn anything new about them?
Jeff Broadway: They were powerful people and performers alive; and now that they’ve passed on, their presence in the film is only that much weightier. Depending on your frame of reference, there are certainly things to learn about each of them in the film.
Shameika: The Hollywood Reporter’s review on the film said that the rapport between various races is powerful in the film. Can you talk about how music brings people together and how the film portrays that?
Jeff Broadway: The Hollywood Reporter also called the film one of the best live performance films in recent memory. We’re more focused on that. However, people do like to speak about the black-and-white nature of the Daptone camp, though it doesn’t register with them at all. We thought it important to include Sharon’s story about meeting the Dap-Kings for the first time, but by and large, the issue of race is not one we felt pertinent to this film.
Shameika: Why do you think it’s important to preserve moments like this legendary concert on film, and have a museum like the National Museum of African American Music to preserve and celebrate music?
Jeff Broadway: Daptone kind of represents one of the final bastions of a classic American tradition; soul music. The opportunity to film Sharon, Charles and the rest of the gang in the house that James Brown built was important for so many different cultural and musical reasons. We are just grateful that we were the people to do it, and that institutions like the NMAAM exist to preserve and celebrate important American culture.
Shameika: What’s your favorite moment in music history?
Jeff Broadway: There are too many to cherish to have just one.
Living on Soul is available on iTunes and On Demand.
Public Enemy member Flavor Flav is returning to television! The six-time Grammy nominee and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee announced he is developing a Las Vegas based variety show, Flavor Flav’s Vegas. Flavor Flav will host and executive produce the show.
Creating his own variety show is a longtime career goal, Flavor Flav says. “I always dreamed of being a variety show host, and I think it’s about time,” he explains. “Las Vegas needs a talk show. I want to be the one to bring Vegas its first real live talk show. It won’t just be me interviewing guests, but also I’m going to have a variety of people coming through my show that are in movies, television, etc.”
I had the chance to chat with Flavor Flav about creating the variety show, his dream interview guest , and his favorite moment in music history.
Shameika: How did you come up with the idea for a variety show?
Flavor Flav: Well I came up with the idea back in 2003 and it was before I started doing reality television. It’s always been a big dream that I’ve wanted to come true. The reason why I wasn’t able to do it before was because of my schedule, touring with Public Enemy, reality television, and all of that stuff going on didn’t allow me the time to do this. Now, Public Enemy isn’t touring right now and I’m not doing reality television right now so I have a lot of time on my hands. So now is the time to develop my dream. I want to reach my goals and I know I can do it with the help of my fans.
Shameika: Is there a particular variety show that influenced you from the past?
Flavor Flav: My biggest influence was the Arsenio Hall Show because when Arsenio’s show was on, there was no other show like his. I said well I can do a show like that and I can hold it down. So here I am about to develop my dream which is a talk show and variety show of that style.
Shameika: You launched a Kickstarter campaign to help get your dream off the ground. Talk about that.
Flavor Flav: The reason why I wanted to do this Kickstarter campaign because I want to produce this show myself. I want to give the fans something special. I don’t want to go through a major TV network to do a show like this when I can do it myself. Not only that, I want to own my own show as well. That’s why I’m doing this Kickstarter, raising the money through that will allow me to do this myself so I can give the fans what I want to give them; not what another network wants me to give fans. I also want to see who my real peeps are, you know what I’m saying? I have a lot of peeps out there for me.
Shameika: Once you get the show going, where will fans be able to watch?
Flavor Flav: My goal is to really eventually have it on ABC or NBC. I want to go major and plus I wouldn’t mind live streaming, or it being on Netflix. I just want to give something back to the world that made me who I am. Wherever it will be most successful is where I want the show to be.
Shameika: Teddy Riley has signed on to be the musical director of the variety show. How did you get him on board?
Flavor Flav: Teddy Riley is my good friend. We both live out here in Las Vegas and Teddy and I have been friends for a very long time. Ever since he moved to Vegas, we have become tighter since we get together a lot more. I told Teddy about this show I wanted to do and I asked him if he would come on board and be the musical director and he said, ‘Flav you better have me as a part of your show! I’d be more than honored to do the music for the show.’ You don’t know how proud I am to have him in my life. I’m just proud to be able to call this man my friend. Teddy Riley is a great brother, so I can’t wait to get this thing underway. When Teddy adds his expertise to it, I got a hit show. I’m about to take over the world, it’s going to be bigger than any show I’ve ever done in my life.
Shameika: Who would be your dream interview on your show?
Flavor Flav: I think Barack Obama and the reason why is because me and him are first. He’s the first black president ever and I always wanted to meet him. That’s history right there. He’s history and I’m history. So, I’d love for two parts of history to come together on one stage and I’d rather it be my stage.
Shameika: In an interview with In Touch Weekly, Tiffany “New York” Pollard mentioned that she would love to go out with you again. Do you two keep in touch and is that something that could happen?
Flavor Flav: I haven’t seen New York in so many years. I heard that she’s been having TV shows and much success and I’m proud to be able to have given her a jump start in life. One thing about Flavor Flav I want to be able to be successful without going back to revisit anything that I’ve done. That was a huge part of my success and I don’t want to have to revisit that.
Shameika: What else are you working on?
Flavor Flav: I’m working on another EP that I’m going to release to the world, music wise. We’ll see what the EP does. My main focus is bringing y’all some real good television and I want to be able to bring y’all good television for the next 15- 20 years. With a show like Flavor Flav’s Vegas, it will be the platform for me to do that.
Shameika: Why do you think there is such a need for a museum like the National Museum of African American Music?
Flavor Flav: I feel like there’s a need for a museum like this because people really need to know about their musical culture, musical heritage, and what a museum like this does; it brings that all together. We have kids coming into the world right now that don’t have a clue about all of this came from, it gives kids an opportunity to learn where it all came from.
NMAAM: What is your favorite moment in music history?
Flavor Flav: Learning that Public Enemy has succeeded in getting Dr. Martin Luther King Junior Day recognized in Arizona. It’s my favorite moment. We had a lot of help from others.
Imagine rising up the Billboard charts with hits such as “Superwoman,” “Secret Rendezvous,” “The Way You Love Me,” and “Romantic,” with music titans like Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, L.A. Reid, and Babyface crafting the soundtrack before stepping away from the spotlight. After a nearly two-decade hiatus, R&B singer Karyn White is back, equipped with more than just her vocal prowess, but now she can add actress, scriptwriter, and executive producer to her resume as she takes the next phase of her career into her own hands and on her own terms.
Gale & The Storm is Ms. White’s first feature film. She stars as the lead character, co-wrote the script, and executive produced the film. The movie is about a legendary funk singer who at the height of her career walks away from the industry thanks to feelings of betrayal. She meets a successful music producer who eventually helps get her back into the game. White also released the soundtrack, Gale & The Storm: Bringing Back the Funk that is an album full of throwback 70s funk and soul sounding songs.
She most recently had a role in the Centric series, “Beauty & The Baller” playing the ex-wife of a professional athlete.
I had the opportunity to chat with the singer about coming back into the entertainment industry after a 17-year hiatus, her new film Gale & The Storm, and the 30th anniversary of her self-titled debut album Karyn White.
Shameika: You took a lengthy hiatus from the music industry. Did you think that you would come back around to entertainment or had you been planning a return? What were you doing during the years you were away from the spotlight?
Karyn White: Honestly, I would be lying if I said I thought I’ll just take a break and raise my daughter then get back into the business. That would be the craziest plan. First of all, we all know the music business is about the now, so you have to keep constantly grinding or putting out records or people will be like who is that? I really went through a dark period in my life. I went through a divorce, my mother passed, and all of this was at the same time. I was also raising my daughter.
I was very successful at reaching my goals. All through school I was really focused on wanting to be an entertainer, so I was really honestly working towards that since I was 14 years old and then it happened for me at 18 with my first record contract. I didn’t really like who I was becoming, I felt like is this success? I felt like I was losing myself, I took a lot of stuff for granted, success happened for me so fast. I was trying to regroup, so it kind of happened that while I was regrouping, I looked up and time was just going by. I was becoming more insecure about coming back as time went on. I started to second guess myself. Everybody thinks that once you’ve had success you should have all this confidence.
In the meantime, let me tell you what I was doing because this is rare because most artists don’t start other businesses. I became an investor. I was flipping homes before it really became popular. I would buy these homes in these beautiful areas that were foreclosed. Then I would take over the note, go in and finish building them and make them beautiful, and sell them. I did that for a few years. I was making great money before the market crashed. I was still that person, very goal driven. I knew to be a singer or at the level that I was on, I mean when I left the business I was peaking and if I had stayed I could have been as big as Mary J. Blige. But I didn’t feel like I was strong enough and I didn’t want to compromise myself of my daughter. It wasn’t drugs or alcohol or anything it was just a battle with myself.
I really feel like I was preserved, because coming back I feel so young! I really feel like God preserved for me this time.
Shameika: You look amazing! Spill those beauty secrets!
Karyn White: To go a step further, forgiveness. I believe in when you are walking in love and not holding that anger that people have when life lets you down and you let yourself down, it can start showing up in your body. I believe that having forgiveness and having that childlike spirit keeps me young and keeps me fresh. Of course, also doing physical exercising, and I love the results. I do Pilates, weight lifting, and train, so I try to make sure I exercise 4-6 times a week. The less you eat the less your stomach has to work. It helps you look younger and not age you faster. I started doing more fasting and eating healthier, and the last six months I’ve become a vegan. I’ve seen a huge difference in my skin. I drink a lot of water, no sodas.
Shameika: Talk about your filmGale & The Storm. Is this your first project that you have actually written and starred in?
Karyn White: I’m so courageous. You have to know your strength and weaknesses, I’m not fearful. It can open you up and you realize you can do it, you can dream it, you can do it. Gale & The Storm is my first time writing a feature film. I co-wrote it with my partner Derrick Muhammad. It’s loosely based on my life. It’s funny, people call it like a Love Jones type of Tarantino type of film. It’s got a quirkiness to it which I love. I took acting lessons after I took that 17- year hiatus. I trained with the best acting teachers that coached Halle Berry, Brad Pitt, and Beyoncé. I’ve been taking vocal lessons again, and picking up that instrument again in your 40s and hearing music different now, so my vocals are so much better. It’s so much fun. I’m 52 but I don’t believe it because I don’t feel like that. We had a premiere in Sacramento to a sold-out audience. You can watch the film online by renting or purchasing it.
Shameika: The Gale & The Storm soundtrack is a throwback. Can you talk about some of the songs on the soundtrack?
Karyn White: Oh yeah! We’re bringing the funk back. We wanted you guys to feel the essence of the 70s. I used independent artists, and with me being an independent artist, I used unsigned artists like Joe Leavy, Anthony ‘AK’ King, for something that Donny Hathaway would sing. I’m singing songs with an Al Green feel or like a Teena Marie, James Brown, Parliament, Bootsy Collins. I love that era of music, the 70s was dope. It was so fun. The brilliant part about it, people are seeing that movie thinking they are going to see Karyn White but you don’t see her. It’s a way for me to get out of the box of people expecting me to do the same type of music. I was able to say this is Gale Storm and put myself in it and be able to do all of these different styles. It takes me out of a box and hopefully it worked. The fans that said they would have never expected me to do and they love it. You have to evolve y’all. I know you all love “Superwoman,” but can we move on? (laughs).
Shameika: 2018 will mark 30 years since your debut album Karyn White was released. Do you have plans to commemorate the occasion?
Karyn White: Thank you for telling me! (laughs) I have to do a re-release on that! I will be able to get my masters back from Warner Bros. which is huge and I get to control my music. This is what Prince fought for and why some things happened with him once he got his masters back but I won’t go into that. I’m excited! I’m like I am about to get these masters back and I’m about to work this catalog! My ex-husband Terry Lewis was saying we can re-do some songs, you know the ones we worked on together, and we are definitely for owning our stuff and licensing our own music and just being in business and not just the show part.
Shameika: Who do you listen to? What albums do you have on repeat?
Karyn White: I listen to a variety. As for new school music, I love Jhene Aiko, Kendrick Lamar, Childish Gambino, Jay Z, I love Beyoncé as an artist. As far as others I love Roberta Flack, Chaka Khan, Al Green, Sarah Vaugh, classical music, Nat King Cole, Nina Simone. I’ve fallen in love with real music again, and I just am really kind of everywhere. I still like to keep my ear to the streets, I love hip hop too.
Shameika: Why do you think it’s important to have a museum like the National Museum of African American Music that celebrates and preserves our music?
Karyn White: Knowledge of self is power. It gives you history and that’s everything, that’s what the problem is now. Our culture is very rich and if you don’t know this, then you can believe lies. I believe it’s important to have as much knowledge about self is everything.
Shameika: Fav moment in music history?
Karyn White: I would have to say what inspired me. It was seeing Michael Jackson on Motown 25. That moment inspired me to dream huge. To see that made such an impact on my life. It made me dream and it was magical.
Check out Karyn White’s website for more information.
Take the soulful vocals of Syleena Johnson and bridge it with the production skills of legendary soul/ blues singer and guitarist Syl Johnson and breathe life into it and out comes a collaborative effort called Rebirth of Soul.
Under her father’s creative direction, Grammy nominated singer Syleena Johnson honors the musical traditions of Syl Johnson and his peers. The new album features Syleena covering timeless soul hits from the 50s and 60s that still have a relevant message today. “The inspiration behind Rebirth of Soul is my father. I wanted to honor him and classic soul music in a time when auto tune and electronic beats reign supreme. While I am not against this kind of creative musicianship, there is so much more to the real thing. True soul music tells stories; stories that can heal a nation,” explained Syleena. With the nation in racial and political turmoil, a stand out track on the album is Syleena’s version of her father’s 1969 Black Power anthem, “Is It Because I’m Black.” “It has been made apparent that we are still dealing with some of the same issues as we have in the past. The state of our country shows how this song can still resonate even now,” the singer noted.
I spoke with the singer about working with her father on a project that speaks to the soul, and about some of her favorite musical moments in history.
Shameika: How did you come up with the title Rebirth of Soul for this album?
Syleena Johnson: Actually, my sister did. The album was my dad’s idea, and I was telling her about it and she said, call it Rebirth of Soul.
Shameika: Aside from working with your father Syl Johnson on this album, what else made it different to record versus your previous albums?
Syleena Johnson: One thing I had to hone in on was technique. I had to tap into their stories, as opposed to me writing my own stories and tapping into my own soul. It was their story and the places they were at when they sang those songs. Also, we used live instrumentation. Every single instrument was live and I sang along with it. Right now, we don’t really do that in the industry, using live instruments while recording. We record the track but you might add live instrumentation afterwards, but we don’t do it like did. We really channeled the entire era. We also sought out to use musicians from the era as well.
Shameika: Do you think you will use live instrumentation again with your future projects?
Syleena Johnson: Probably so.
Shameika: You have been vocal about your relationship with your father on a personal level, but how was it working with him on a professional level in the studio?
Syleena Johnson: Tough. Very tough, but I always learn a lot. Anytime I work with him I learn a lot, it’s hard because he’s very critical and he’s my father so he’s going to be overly critical of anything that I do.
Shameika: Did Syl Johnson pick out all of the songs for the album or was it a collaborative effort?
Syleena Johnson: We picked them out together. We had a blueprint of what era to focus on. So, I would ask him about certain songs and he’d say ‘that’s not in that era!’ (laughs). I would just keep picking and picking until he would say yes. My dad picked most of the songs on the album, but I picked songs like Otis Redding’s “These Arms of Mine,” Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools,” and “We Did It” is my dad’s song that my mom co-wrote with him.
I also picked “Makings of You.” My dad picked “Monkey Time” and “Lonely Teardrops,” “Make Me Yours,” and “I’d Rather Go Blind.”
Shameika:It is not an easy feat to cover a Jackie Wilson song like “Lonely Teardrops” but you knocked it out the park!
Syleena Johnson: Thank you! That song was so tough. Jackie had very distinctive runs and I wanted to try to get the timing of the runs. One of the of the things I like to do is just study. When I was younger I was trying to determine whether or not I was able to sing and my dad told me I couldn’t sing and tell me to shut up all the time. So, the way that I learn whether or not I was good enough to sing a song is I would listen to the radio and use my ear to train my voice. So, this was like second nature for me, I knew to go back to what I knew and that’s to listen and that’s what I did. Once I did the song like they did it, or as close to the original as I could, I’d record it, then I’d go back in the booth and put my spin on it. I just really wanted to conserve the integrity of the record to honor their type of soul.
Shameika: You absolutely nailed it. Your father obviously has made an impact on the music industry but aside from this particular project, how did Syl Johnson inspire you musically?
Syleena Johnson: I just had an a-ha moment the other day. I really grew up in a house filled with music. It was my whole life. From listening to music, just really engulfed music. My father would play his guitar every single day and I would come out on the patio and just sit on the floor and just watch him. I did that every single day. I wanted to be just like him. I wanted to play like him. I wanted to sing like him. I wanted to even eat like him. If he had tea, I wanted tea. (laughs).
Shameika: What are your favorite songs on the album?
Syleena Johnson: “Lonely Teardrops,” “Chain of Fools,” “I’d Rather Go Blind,” and “These Arms of Mine.” That one is my favorite record. I picked that one, and the reason why I picked that song was because of the movie “Dirty Dancing.” I saw the movie, the part where Patrick Swayze and Baby were about to get it on for the first time, that song was playing. I was like that is the best record ever! I was so excited to be able to do that record. It is my favorite and a dream record. I could have picked so many, even from the Isley Brothers, that I didn’t even touch. There are so many records during that time that I could have done. I think I chose the best ten for this record.
Shameika: Switching gears, why do you think it’s important to have a place like the National Museum of African American Music to preserve and celebrate our music?
Syleena Johnson: Why wouldn’t we? Let’s be honest, black music has been the inspiration for all music. Even when we came over during slavery, we came over with the spirit of gospel music, we came over with music. It graduated into other forms and spiraled out into many things with storytelling. We’re a cornerstone in music that music really stems from us. Soul music comes from the African American community. So absolutely we should have a museum, we are a poignant part of history.
Shameika: What is your favorite moment in musical history?
Syleena Johnson: Probably The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill because it was the first time an African American woman won five Grammy awards in one night, and she had ten nominations. It is one of my favorites along with My Life by Mary J. Blige. Those are cornerstone albums.
Rebirth of Soul will be released November 10 on the Shanachie Entertainment label.
With a recognizable rich baritone voice that’s as smooth as butter with jazz fueled phrasing, Will Downing’s 20th album Soul Survivor celebrates his 30th anniversary in the music industry.
Downing started his career in the ‘80s and over the course of time, the industry has hit some high and low notes, sounds have changed, but one thing remains the same; Downing’s ability to lead any music lover into a euphoric state and take them on a musical journey.
Soul Survivor weaves together elements of contemporary jazz, house music, R&B, and soul throwing back to three decades of feel good music. The album features duets with Shanachie Entertainment labelmates Avery Sunshine, Maysa, Najee, and Phil Perry.
I got the chance to chat with the Prince of Sophisticated Soul about the new album, working with some familiar faces, and why making timeless music will always be his goal.
Shameika: This is your 30th anniversary, 20th album, so what is the key to Will Downing’s longevity in the business?
Will Downing: God, good luck, and musical consistency. From day one I’ve been pretty much doing what you are hearing now. A hybrid of R&B, contemporary jazz, a little bit of traditional jazz, and some soul all lumped in together. I think that what I’ve recorded over the years, are good songs. Good songs last forever. I’m very blessed and fortunate in that regard.
Shameika: Is that what prompted you to name this project Soul Survivor?
Will Downing: Yes, and actually I wasn’t the one smart enough to do that (laughs). Actually, a friend of mine Hollis King, we were talking and I was telling him that it was my 20th album, 30th year recording. I told him I was going to call the record 20/30 and the phone went silent. So, he said, “this is too monumental of a thing to be that cold and impersonal to just say numbers. You survived when others couldn’t because some people can’t say they have five albums out or seven albums. You are a soul survivor,” he said. So, that’s what made me run with it.
Shameika: The album is a tribute to the different eras of music that you have participated in, from each decade? Is it fair to assume that’s what you were going for when you put this album together?
Will Downing: Yes, see you aren’t as crazy as you think (laughs). We kind of went back to the original, the first song I released in America was a version of “Free” by Deniece Williams, then it was a version of “A Love Supreme” which was originally done by John Coltrane, it was kind of a house feel. It was basically a nod to God. So that was my thinking of ‘I just want to say thank you’ when it came to certain songs. It was basically taking little pieces of all the things that I’ve done over the years and we just sort of closed our eyes to what is happening musically in the world today since everything is so trendy. We said let’s just write some really great songs, remake some great songs, and really just make some music the way we used to make it, and that’s what we did.
Shameika: Talk about working with Avery Sunshine. The two of you singing together is just magic!
Will Downing: Avery and I worked together before on a duet in the past. The way I was introduced to Avery, was I had this friend call me and say “Will this is going to sound crazy but I just heard this woman that sounds like the female equivalent of you.” I said I have got to hear this. I did my homework, checked her out and found that she did remind me of me, like the phrasing is some of the stuff that I would do or even lyrically that they were writing. Out of the blue I called her and we’ve been buddies ever since. She’s incredible and has a great spirit. I love the marriage of our vocals together. It’s very easy to work with her. We are doing some shows together, we have a few dates lined up in November in December.
Shameika: That sounds like a great show! What is your goal every time you step into the studio? This is your 20th album, did you say you wanted to put out timeless music?
Will Downing: That was my mindset, to really not get caught up in the everyday of the music business or social media. I don’t hear enough music out here that represents music the way I remember it. You can call it old school, classic, or whatever, but there’s some good stuff and when people want to hear good stuff, they always go back to the classics. My job as an artist is to make something timeless and classic, to make it last more than three or six months. I like my records to be remembered like I remember Songs in the Key of Life or What’s Going On, or all the albums that I have loved over the years. We just decided to make what we thought was a good record. There’s nothing on this record where we felt like we had to do it just for radio, we said if it feels good, that’s what we’re going with. It all just worked out musically.
Shameika: The single “When We Make Love” has you tapping into your inner Barry White. Talk about that.
Will Downing: (Laughs) You can call me Barry Black! Well that pretty much sums it up, we were going for that Barry White. There are certain artists that have moved me over the years. When my voice changed at a very young age, Barry White was one of them. So, this is like a musical nod to Barry in a way.
Shameika: Talk about the remake you did for “Stop to Start.”
Will Downing: This is a song I’ve always loved. I kind of forgot about it for a while then a friend of mine called me and said she wanted to hear that song on my radio show. So, I put it on, then I thought this would be a great song to remake. I’ve always done the Stylistics in the past and I’ve always loved Russell Thompkins high voice and I can obviously do it a whole octave lower and give it a different spin.
Shameika: You also worked with Najee on this project. How did you decide which song to put him on?
Will Downing: We were doing two projects at one time. He was working on his album, Poetry in Motion, and I was working on that and we were doing a tribute song to Al Jarreau. We were driving somewhere and “Hurry Up This Way Again” came on and he said ‘I’ve always heard you singing this song.’ So, kind of as a surprise for him, I did an arrangement of the song and played it for him the following week in hopes of putting it on his record. He said since I was on another record on the album, they didn’t want to make it a duet album, so I decided to just keep it and put it on my record.
Shameika: What do you hope listeners take away from Soul Survivor?
Will Downing: I hope that this is an album that they can put on for years to come. Also, it’s an album from me, that if something happened to me today, that this would be a good representation of who I was and my ability as an artist. Hopefully there are some songs on there that touches your soul and identify with. That’s the goal, or it should be the goal for every artist with every record to create something that someone will pick up 50 years from now and go ‘Damn that guy can sing, or this lady is unbelievable!’ I think we achieved that on this record. I’m ecstatic. I have no regrets on this album. Every note, every breath, it’s the way I wanted to sing it, it’s the way I wanted to tell the story, it’s just right.
Shameika: Why do you think having a place like the National Museum of African American Music to celebrate and preserve our musical soundtrack is so important?
Will Downing: How can it not be? You need something to memorialize that we were here. There was something before today. We are standing on the shoulders of people who built the foundation for who we are. That’s exactly what I’m doing as an artist right now, building something so that someone can come along later and say they learned from me. You have to have something like this to let folks know that we were here and this was our contribution. This is what we are, and we want you to take this a step further and keep rolling with it. To me, that’s what museums are all about.
Shameika: What’s your favorite moment in musical history?
Will Downing: That’s a tough one. I’ve seen so many things that have moved me. I don’t know that I can narrow it down to one thing. I remember when I decided what I wanted to do. I was in high school and my parents dragged me to see James Earl Jones do a one man show on Paul Robeson on Broadway. I went kicking and screaming, but I remember that being the moment I decided after the show of what I wanted to do. Moments like the first concert I ever went to, meeting Stevie Wonder, and as far as things that changed the world, musically like albums like What’s Going On that made people socially aware and conscious. For me musically, the first time I walked on a stage under my own name. I had done many records under an assumed name. The first time I walked on stage was in London at the Dominion Theatre where people actually paid money to come see Will Downing. To me that is historical and monumental in my eyes.
For more information check out Will Downing’s website.
You can’t mention soul music without mentioning the gritty vintage soul R&B of ‘Country Boy’ Calvin Richardson. Hailing from Monroe, North Carolina, Richardson’s nearly two decades of receipts include “Falling Out,” “Keep on Pushin,” “A Woman’s Got to Have It,” “Hearsay,” and co-writing Charlie Wilson’s chart topping hit, “There Goes My Baby.”
After a three year hiatus, multi-Grammy nominated singer/songwriter Calvin Richardson is back with another album that is sure to soothe the soul. The ‘Prince of Soul’s’ new album All or Nothing was released September 29 by Shanachie Entertainment. The album’s first single, “Treat Her Right” produced by blues veteran Willie Clayton is already making noise as a Top 20 single on the adult contemporary charts. The album features 11 tracks that have that classic C-Rich touch. “My music resonates in the heart and soul of people,” explained Richardson. “Working with Willie was special to me because in the blues and Southern soul world he’s a giant, legendary, one of the last of a dying breed that has been around with the likes of Johnny Taylor, Al Green, Bobby Bland, Marvin Gaye and others, and was able to stand out with hits of his own. My being connected to such history is a game-changer for me,” Calvin said.
The National Museum of African American Music had the opportunity to chat with Calvin Richardson about his seventh studio album.
Shameika: It’s good to hear your new music! Talk about the title of the album, All or Nothing?
Calvin Richardson: Thank you! Well, I was working with Willie Clayton on this particular album. We were trying to figure out if I wanted to stick to a particular direction as far as the music I wanted to do; whether it was more ballads, a more R&B sounding album, or a more soulful sounding album. So, at this stage in the game, it’s my seventh album, so I said I want to do a little bit of everything. I said I’m going to do it all or I won’t do anything at all, so that’s how I came up with the title for the album. At this point, I am who I am, I’m Calvin Richardson. I don’t necessarily, in my mind, live inside of a box. So I didn’t want to get in one on this album. I don’t know how many more albums I’ll do after this. So it has to be all or nothing.
Shameika: The last album I Am Calvin that you released in 2014, you were on Eric Benet’s label Jordan House. This album you reunited with Shanachie Entertainment. How did that come about?
Calvin Richardson: Actually Shanachie came back to me. With “Treat Her Right” I just went into the studio and I didn’t have any intention on starting on an album. I just wanted to put something out there into the marketplace since it had been a couple years since my last record which was the song “Hearsay.”
I just wanted to go into this year with new music and figured that at some point I’d come up with a follow-up to that. When it went out to radio, I did it own my own with Willie Clayton and we had the interest of a couple of labels that were wanting to meet with me. I had history with Shanachie, so I was cool with it and comfortable.
Shameika: Let’s talk about a couple of songs from the album. Talk about the current single “Treat Her Right” since it seems like people have forgotten how to do that.
Calvin Richardson: It is a problem for a lot of folks in relationships. A lot of guys, well I can’t totally blame them for that, because some women have allowed things to get to this point where guys don’t have to try to put in much effort or be as conscious to that fact that I pointed out in “Treat Her Right” that have been. They haven’t been held accountable for it, and women have been much more accepting. So “Treat Her Right” was created from my desire to see more people being happy in their relationship. Willie Clayton came up with the concept of the song initially. We just focused on it and put it out there. It’s been out since April and it doesn’t seem to want to go away (laughs).
Shameika: That’s a good thing!
Calvin Richardson: That’s definitely a good thing because it means that need is there to treat a woman right. Coming from a man’s perspective, it’s like this is what we need to do, and this is what you deserve.
Shameika: Talk about the song “Breaking Down Inside.” It has a throwback soul type of vibe to it.
Calvin Richardson: Yeah it does. That’s that Sam Cooke or that old vintage throwback soul. Willie Clayton is an old school cat, with the blues and soul. He’s been around and he’s a legend in his own right. So I was able to tap into him because he was around the artists like Johnny Taylor; he’s been around the blues and soul for a long time. He’s used to making records like that. You don’t have anybody out here today that really touches the music like that other than myself. There are some soulful artists out here but they don’t really go back at it like that and focus on the way things were back then and bring it to today, so who better than to do that than me?
Shameika: How about the song, “The Only One?”
Calvin Richardson: Actually Willie and I had been talking for some years about getting together and our paths had crossed pretty frequently. He sent me that hook some years ago, and the track kind of evolved. I recorded the hook to the song, so I had it about three years and never did anything with it. So every time I’d see Willie, he’d ask if I finished the song (laughs). I was so busy on the road. So when we got together to do this one, he brought it back up again. “The Only One” is just like “There Goes My Baby.” There is one somebody for everybody. The song is vocally reliving that encounter and how things played out and that happy ending.
Shameika: Talk about working with Willie Clayton, he’s a soul legend. What was that experience like? What kind of influence did he have on you in the studio?
Calvin Richardson: I have a huge amount of respect for him with all of the things that he was able to accomplish, and doing what he’s doing, and the number of hit records he’s had over the years. The fact of the matter is, when I got in the studio and I’ve been in this business, as you know, for quite some time; so he respected that and he knows what I bring to the table and knows how I get down. He was a part of the creative process. He didn’t get in my way but I have so much respect for him, so if he said something I listened. I’m not to that point where I think nobody can tell me anything or I feel like I know it all. I wanted to be able to pull from that knowledge of experience that Willie has and I was able to tap into that. Some of the songs like “Breaking Down Inside,” that song came from him. If you listen to the album, then you already know that I can take any style and make it mine. So a lot of stuff on the album is what it is because of him. I paid attention and did things a particular way because his producers were coming up with the music and spearheaded the direction.
Shameika: You recorded two versions of “Can’t Let Go.” What made you do two very different versions of the same song?
Calvin Richardson: “Can’t Let Go” the original version on the album is track number three. After I did the last album with Eric Benet, I had this idea in my head that I wanted to do an acoustic album so I started working on that and piecing it together and getting in the studio whenever I felt like it. All of the album was going to be acoustic driven, all guitar, so just really scaled down. So that was the first song that set the foundation for that album, and I decided to use it for this particular album. But I said I wanted to change it and make it more up-tempo, make it more musical, make it more of the quartet style that I come from. I grew up in a quartet group so I wanted it to feel like that. I got to messing with it with Willie’s producers and I got to a point where I was really cool with it and I was going to get K-Ci Hailey on it, going back to “I’ll Take Her” when we did that on my 2:35PM album. There was something special and magical about the original version of “Can’t Let Go.” I felt like I was trying to force the new version after the fact because that original version was just, that’s where the magic was. There was also something magical about the up-tempo version too, because it threw back to that quartet sound. So both of the versions embodied something that I couldn’t walk away from, so I had to put them both on the album.
Shameika: Both versions are on point! Switching gears, as an artist that’s been in the game for a long time, are you starting to notice your influence on other artists?
Calvin Richardson: You can look at Charlie Wilson and his song “There Goes My Baby,” and I did the song, so he sang the exact same way I did it, and his song became a hit. Usher came out with his own version of “There Goes My Baby” and it spun off of that version. All of that came from me. I worked on the song with Babyface, but I was the one that sang that song originally and we came up with the song together. When we decided not to use the song, they used it on Charlie’s album. That was an upper echelon artist, but the fact of the matter is I’m relevant, and there are some other artists that may not be on that level, but you see what I’m saying? Who can deny that? Go on YouTube and hear the original version, that’s me. Read Charlie’s book and he talks about it in there about how when he got the song his wife said ‘you can’t sing that song like him,’ it’s documented to corroborate what I’m saying. It’s all good. But what I’m trying to say is we are all affected and influenced by others. It doesn’t have to be consciously, and it can be a part of your world, your life.
Shameika: What is your favorite moment in music history?
Calvin Richardson: For me, and based on my career and my achievements, I’m most proud that I established a name for myself. The fact that I built that I built a fan base that spans from coast to coast, from one side of the world to the other. That’s a major accomplishment for me coming from Monroe. Based on from where I’m from to where I am now, I’m living a dream that I never really dreamed about.
Turn on the radio and you are bound to hear a hit that Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds wrote, produced, or sang. The 11 time GRAMMY winner is still a musical force to be reckoned with after a career spanning four decades. Edmonds is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter who got his start performing with funk legend Bootsy Collins and joining the ’70s group Manchild. From there he became a member of the band The Deele where he would meet and eventually collaborate with his future production partner and co-founder of LaFace Records, Antonio L.A. Reid. Babyface flexed his songwriting skills with the tune “Just My Luck” then “Slow Jam” for Midnight Star’s No Parking on the Dance Floor album. He also penned the classic slow jam “Two Occassions” by The Deele.
In the ’80s Babyface, Reid, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis crafted the sound of the ’80s by tailoring material to individual artists, writing their own songs and creating their own tracks which are now thought of as timeless classics. With the Whisper’s hit “Rock Steady” it showcased the Babyface and L.A. Reid sound and production pattern that was a mixture of dance music with a helping of romance. The hits just kept coming; from “Dial My Heart” for the Boys, “Girlfriend” for Pebbles, “Every Little Step” and “Roni” for Bobby Brown, “My, My, My,” for Johnny Gill, “Ready of Not” for After 7 and the list goes on.
Babyface ventured out on his own as a solo artist in the late ’80s. His consecutive multi-platinum albums Tender Lover, For the Cool in You, and The Day, solidified his career as an artist. As the co-founder of LaFace Records in 1989, Babyface is also responsible for nurturing the careers of artists like Outkast, Usher, TLC, and Toni Braxton. On his website, he says making people feel good is the goal when working on music. “That’s ultimately what any musician or songwriter does,” declares Babyface. “We try to to make people feel good.” That feel good music has garnered Babyface many accolades including several awards, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and more than 200 top 10 R&B and over 50 top 10 pop hits (including 16 No. 1’s); generating cumulative single and album sales of more than 500 million units worldwide.
After releases like Face2Face, Grown & Sexy and the covers collection Playlist, Babyface returned in 2014 with Love, Marriage & Divorce, a duets album with Toni Braxton that later earned a Grammy for Best R&B Album. He then released another solo album called Return of the Tender Lover in 2015.
Let’s stroll down memory lane and take a look at some of Babyface’s receipts over the years!
From the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack, this penned and produced single is a heartbreak ballad. Babyface wrote nearly all of the songs on the film’s soundtrack.
Babyface rolling out his own receipts during a 2016 concert in Dallas, Texas:
It’s been a lengthy hiatus, but a familiar face with a signature sound is marking his return to the music scene by breathing new life into R&B. The music that super producer, songwriter, singer Paul Laurence created during the ‘80s has transcended decades and has become the soundtrack of many of our lives; from romantic interludes to party jams. Laurence is most known for his work on hits like Stephanie Mills’ “(You’re Putting) A Rush on Me,” and Evelyn King’s number one hit back in the summer of 1981, “I’m in Love.” The ’80s would not have been complete without Freddie Jackson’s Laurence produced and penned tracks like “Rock Me Tonight (For Old Times Sake),” “Tasty Love,” and “Jam Tonight” to name a few.
Laurence also stepped in front of the mic as an artist; signing with Capitol Records in the ’80s. He released his debut album Haven’t You Heard in 1985. Singles such as “She’s Not a Sleaze” featuring Freddie Jackson and Lillo Thomas, “Strung Out,” “Make My Baby Happy,” and “I Ain’t Wit It” revealed that Laurence had the ‘Midas’ touch for creating timeless music. Laurence made the decision to walk away from the industry for several decades but recently returned back to the studio. From his new group Melodik, to re-launching his career as an artist and producer, Laurence is hoping to set a precedence for the industry going forward through his imprint Poplar Music Entertainment Group.
I had the chance to chat with the legendary Paul Laurence about some of his career highlights.
Shameika: Who are some of the artists, producer, or songwriters that influenced you?
Paul Laurence: If I had to go back to the beginning I’d have to say James Brown. He was at the forefront of music even then, and if you listen to it now, in some ways it still sounds ahead of its time. Nobody has been able to, even in regular R&B or per say you can kind of reach for and kind of sound the same, nobody sounds like James Brown, even today. I’d say he is the true Godfather of R&B black music evolving into what it is today. To me, he is really the innovator of it all.
Shameika: What would you say is your favorite moment in musical history?
Paul Laurence: The first time I heard the first a song that I had worked on-heard it on the radio, that was big for me. That was a personal historical moment. That was the culmination of a dream, and this was before the internet, so it was a big deal to hear your stuff played on the radio. It was the song I did with Evelyn King called “I’m in Love.”
Shameika: You took a 30 year break, then you returned to the industry and released a couple of singles and now you are working with the group known as Melodik.
What made you decide to come back to music?
Paul Laurence: It’s one of the things that I can truly do well and I enjoy it. There was a time when that particular brand of music that I was doing; well nobody was really into anymore. So now everything seems to have come full circle. I believe the industry has settled after the whole Napster downloading issue. I think it’s finally now settled into a thing where people do miss the stuff that I do. Hopefully I’m not tripping (laughs).
My music is starting to now resonate with young folks today because maybe they heard it growing up and it reminds them of their parents because they listened to it. So it really has come full circle.
Shameika: What would you say your sound is as a producer, artist, or even as a songwriter? Can you describe the Paul Laurence sound? Is there a formula that you follow to get that particular sound?
Paul Laurence: There’s a lot of great stuff that has influenced me that I can’t call it. If I had to pinpoint it; I’d call it R&B that actually changed the world. From the ‘70s to Motown and all that is what influenced me; so what you hear from me is a culmination of all of that Motown from the ‘60s to the ‘70s. Then you have the funk bands from Earth Wind & Fire to the Ohio Players to Teddy Pendergrass to Al Green; so my sound is really a gumbo of all of that.
Shameika: Let’s talk about the production backstory on a few songs.
How about your 1989 single “Sue Me?”
Paul Laurence: That song was actually written for Earth, Wind, & Fire. I had met with Maurice White in California and he loved the song, he just had a problem with the words “Sue Me” (laughs). So he’s like ‘we want to do the song but, ‘Sue Me?’ really?’ So I said it’s not what you think, but I think even if I had changed it, he still wouldn’t have done it. At that particular time he was meeting with a bunch of us that were hot at the time, like Larry Blackmon, myself, and some others. So when their next album came out, none of us were on the album, they just used the producers and writers they had been using. That’s the back story. I didn’t want it to go to waste and I loved the song, so I recorded it. Those high parts on the song were supposed to be for Phillip Bailey and then Maurice doing the lower stuff. That’s how it was concocted.
Shameika: How about any of the Freddie Jackson songs that you wrote or worked on?
Paul Laurence: At that time Freddie and I were like brothers and had been in each other’s lives for about 6 or 7 years. He would come in and knock it out and we’d go on to the next one. He gave me the nickname ‘Mr. One Mo’ because I’d always says “One More Time!” That became my name around the studio and he’s the one that started it.
Shameika: What’s the story on remaking Prince’s 1982 hit “Do Me Baby” with Meli’sa Morgan?
Paul Laurence: Actually that was an idea from Capitol Records. The head of A&R called and asked what I thought of Meli’sa Morgan doing the song and I thought it was a great idea. I was thinking of the whole arrangement in my head while we were talking. I didn’t hear anything else during that conversation until we were hanging up. I heard the whole song in my head as he spoke. So we went into the studio and did the song exactly the way I heard it in my head. Of course Meli’sa did a great job with it.
Shameika: How about the song “Help Yourself to My Love” that is on Kashif’s 1983 Kashif album?
Paul Laurence: We were in the studio one day and Kashif was working on his album. We were sitting in the control room one day and I was on the piano and he was on the Moog Bass and we were working on a song. Then he said “LJ, you got a song for me right?” The first few times he asked I didn’t have a song since I think I was working on a Lillo Thomas project. Anyway, so finally I walked in and gave him something. I walked over to the piano and he was actually working on another song at that particular time, and he put it to the side to listen. So I started playing it and he said cool. So he sat with it for a bit so he could figure out what he wanted to do with it and add his touch to it; then we started jamming and recorded it.
Shameika: Talk about your new group Melodik.
Paul Laurence: Melodik is a female group out of Virginia State University. I met one of the members prior to the group. Her dad got in touch with me a few years ago and wanted me to check her out to see if she had something. She had it. Of course over time she went to school, she got in touch with me and said she was singing with a group and I didn’t take it serious, I thought it was some choral ensemble or something. She got in touch with me and sent a video of the group, and I saw the three of them and thought wow. A year prior to that my guys and I held auditions looking to put together a female group and got nothing. So it just kind of fell in place when I wasn’t looking. I asked them if they’d be interested if working on a couple songs of mine and they did. In terms of the future, I’m actually getting ready to record some more stuff with them and we don’t really know what’s out there. It’s about doing music and seeing what happens at this point. It’s about doing music so younger folks can get back into R&B because you don’t hear it much anymore. You don’t really see some real singing from the younger artists anymore. So we’re just trying to get that stuff back out there and get folks used to hearing it again and hopefully something will kick off from it. The first single is called “I Still Miss You.”
Follow Paul Laurence on Twitter for the latest updates @PaulLaurence and check out his website.
Hearing how an artist got their start in the industry is the norm, but the story of how the people behind the musical powerhouses got their start is a rarity. Meet Eddie Ray. He’s the first African American music executive at a major record label, Capitol Records. In his book The Remarkable Life Story of Eddie Ray he recounts how he caught the music bug and starting from being a stock boy at a record store to rubbing elbows with the likes of Al Green , Sammy Davis Jr., and Lou Rawls to losing out on legendary acts like the Jackson 5.
Ray has an impressive resume, with experience in various facets of the music industry from record distribution, promotion, record production, artist development, and commercial music education to name a few. As a songwriter, Eddie Ray is the co-writer of the hit single “Hearts of Stone” which has been recorded by over 30 artists including Elvis Presley.
Eddie Ray has also dabbled in politics, as he was appointed by President Reagan to serve as a Commissioner of the U.S. Copyright Royalty Tribunal. He served in that role for eight years.
At 90 years old, there isn’t much that Ray hasn’t accomplished. Ray has served as vice chairman and operations director for the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. He is also a 2009 inductee into the museum.
I chatted with Eddie Ray a few years ago to talk about his journey from being a stock boy to a music executive and working with some of music’s biggest names; that interview in its entirety can be found on the Soul Train website.
Here is an excerpt from that interview:
Shameika:There have been a lot of stories in the news lately about racial discrimination, so with you being the first African American music executive at a major label, talk about the discrimination that you faced.
Eddie Ray: I was born in a time during Jim Crow where there was total segregation in public facilities in the south. I was born in the mountains and grew up in a small town called Franklin, North Carolina. We didn’t even have senior high schools for black kids. So my family had to go to schools down in the eastern part of the state just to finish high school. I went to a private boarding school in Laurinburg. In fact, Dizzy Gillespie, the famous jazz artist, graduated before I did.
Shameika:In your book, you talk about a time when you faced discrimination at a meeting in Atlanta among other executives. How did that make you feel that you were encountering that for the first time in your professional career?
Eddie Ray: At the time I was working with a company called Imperial Records, and we had Fats Domino, who was one of our major artists, and we had Ricky Nelson, who had a big television show called Ozzy and Harriet and their son Rick was on the label. He was with us from the time he was 16 to about 21, and we had a couple of country acts. I never visited my southern distributors for years and years, but I would meet them at conventions in cities like Chicago and New York. They wanted me to come down to the southern states, but the owner of the company did not want me to go. He insisted that everywhere I traveled I went first class on planes and first class hotels. I told him I’m familiar with the south so I’m just going to go. So in Atlanta, first it started at the airport when I came in from Miami, and the distributor had made a reservation for me at a nice motel on the campus of Atlanta University. I told them not to worry about picking me up from the airport because I wasn’t sure what time I was going to get in. I came in late at night and tried to get a cab, and couldn’t get one. So one of the bellhops, an African American, told me that I’d have to get a black cab, but they’d all gone home so he was just getting off work, so fortunately he drove me to the motel. So you see it started off bad. The next morning we had a meeting at the distributorship, and then started going around to the radio stations, a top 40, and country western, and eventually around noon we had a meeting at the Georgia Tech University, and I was wondering how we were going to handle eating lunch because the DJ and the distributor were white. So then the DJ suggested there’s a diner down the street, so why don’t we send out and order something so we can continue our conversation. That’s the way we got around that situation.
A couple years later, they were saying ‘you have to come back Eddie,’ and I did go back. They picked me up at the airport, first class hotel, and they took me to fancy restaurants, it was like a complete change overnight in public facilities. Things were desegregated. It’s amazing that I could go to places like Utah and Iowa to the country radio stations and never run into any racial issues, I never had any problems. They would see me with these country artists, and then I’d tell them, I have another kid that sounds just like Louis Armstrong, (laughs) and he sounded nothing like Louis Armstrong. So, then they’d want to take a listen, it was Fats Domino. Two years later, there wasn’t a truck stop in the country that didn’t have him on their jukebox or stations that weren’t playing him.
Shameika:One of the things that has come up in Rolling Stone articles is that Elvis Presley is the one that created rock and roll. What are your thoughts on that?
Eddie Ray: Back in those days the R&B artists would come out with a hit record. It’s like it is today, how they talk about hip-hop and rap when the white kids do it after the hip-hop artists do it. Back then, the record companies would start cutting cover records with the white artists. So what happened is that it became okay for the white kids to buy the hit records.
So really, they just changed the face, so people would buy the records. Elvis just recreated the sound of what he heard growing up in Tupelo, Mississippi. Elvis was one of the few guys, and I say this now just as I have said it before, but Elvis would sometimes make his cover records sounded as well or better than the original records. For example, the guy that wrote “Don’t Be Cruel,” Otis Blackwell, was from Brooklyn, New York and an African American; he sent it to Elvis sounding just like Elvis. We had him down to Memphis during one of the seminars, and asked him his thoughts about Elvis and his records. His position was, he’d never met him, which surprised everybody, but if I did, I don’t care if it’s on Main Street, but I’d kiss him wherever he wanted to be kissed because he made millions of dollars off that music! (laughs) Most of the covers I did, it really helped the artist out when the other artists covered the songs. Guys like Al Green in Memphis loved Elvis. He was a little bit different than most of the white guys that covered the black artists record. I think it was mainly because he grew up around black people in Mississippi.
Shameika:You started out as a stock boy, and worked your way up the ladder. What do you think about today’s microwave society where people want success instantly and don’t want to work for it?
Eddie Ray: It was different back then. I would have loved to have success fast back then. I think there are some advantages. As soon as I got involved in writing songs, producing, national sales and promotion, what I learned is that when I went to the major companies like Capitol Records I had a tremendous advantage over most of the other contemporary executives that worked there with me because they only knew that part of the business. I knew everything from the stocking, A&R, music publishing, and that gave me an advantage. I learned that you have to learn everything you can. Knowing that you have the ability to move up will help you build confidence in yourself.
Shameika:Since you mentioned Fats Domino, let’s talk about how you impacted the career of Pink Floyd.
Eddie Ray: Oh Pink Floyd! Now that is a story. Capitol Records was owned by an English company called EMI. The British Invasion is what we called it in the ‘60s. Prior to that, R&B and pop music were the hottest thing going. Capitol Records was handling artists like Nat King Cole, Barbara Streisand; the producers stayed and worked for the company, and things had changed so you had independent producers, and A&R got younger artists and younger songwriters and producers. We began to take the 30 to 40% of the total record sales from the majors which were Columbia, Capitol, and Warner Bros. EMI started sending stuff to Capitol and they started turning them down, they couldn’t hear that kind of music that they had been accustomed to and their sales people didn’t know how to sell that kind of music. So what happened is they started going to independents. EMI decided to start a new division at Capitol and they called it Tower Records and they named it after the building in Hollywood. They wanted someone that was the head of A&R that understood this new music and wanted to go through independent distribution, so they hired me. So the first thing I did was go through the catalog. I heard a record from Freddie and the Dreamers. I liked it and said I needed to check on it, and I found in an English newspaper that they were coming to America to do shows like Shindig. I picked them up when they released it and it was my first hit record. The next one I picked up out of Seattle was an Irish guy named Ian Whitcomb, and that record went to number one. I kept watching this group called Pink Floyd in England that was making noise and I picked them up, in 1965 and re-released two albums when they came to America. It’s strange how things happen. I had a reception for them in Santa Monica, I executives, distributors, and it was about 65 of them. Four years later, after Dark Side of the Moon and the other albums came out, there wasn’t a stadium they couldn’t fill. So really I saved them at Capitol, they would have lost them. They didn’t hit big until 1969, but I picked them up in 1965. If I hadn’t of done that, they would have gone to another label. So that’s why I say I saved Pink Floyd for Capitol Records.
Shameika:You also have a story about trying to sign the Jackson 5. How did that feel to see their career blow up like crazy under the Motown label?
Eddie Ray: I lost the Jackson 5 and I lost Janis Joplin. It was close. I went to Chicago to see the group perform. A guy called me- Henry Johnson, who went on to have a great career at Atlantic Records; he told me there’s a group on a small label making some noise from Indiana, so I went out there to hear them. There wasn’t probably even 35 people in that building but I was fascinated with these kids, especially the lead singer. I didn’t even pay attention to the other groups that performed that day. I talked to the dad, Joe Jackson and he said there’s some other label he had to get back to. I thought since Capitol was the major label, it was always between us and Columbia Records. Of course as history would tell it, the other company was number one to. It was Motown. He called and said they were going with Motown because they could offer them a television show appearance with Diana Ross and we couldn’t do that. I always say that we probably wouldn’t have done anything with Michael Jackson anyway (laughs)!
Shameika: What would you say has been the most challenging moment in your career?
Eddie Ray: Good question. I guess it would be switching from the record business into a television production company, but it was only for one year. However the most challenging one would be going from the music industry into government politics. I was the only guy on an independent agency that was not an attorney that had music industry experience that President Reagan appointed. His position was that it was time to have someone that had practical experience and knowledge and spoke the language of the industry. Not only did I do it well, but I dominated it.
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