Mention the name Gerald Alston and you immediately think of soul drenched with an infusion of gospel. The lead singer of the legendary Grammy Award winning R&B group The Manhattans joined the group in 1970 with a voice that was influenced by the likes of Sam Cooke. With Alston’s soulful lead vocals, The Manhattans scored with hits like “Kiss and Say Goodbye,” “I Kinda Miss You,” and “Shining Star.”
Alston eventually embarked on a solo career releasing several albums before returning to his spot with The Manhattans. In 2015, Alston released his first gospel project, True Gospel. On the album, Alston is paying homage to Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers. With his rendition of some of their songs, he’s doing just that, stirring the soul and taking music lovers to church with the word. While working on a new gospel album, Alston and The Manhattans are also gearing up to celebrate the group’s 55th anniversary later this year.
I spoke with Gerald Alston about his staying power in the music industry, keeping the legacy of The Manhattans alive, and about his fond memories of L.C. Cooke and Dennis Edwards.
What has been the highlight of your career as a solo artist and as part of The Manhattans?
Gerald Alston: First of all, with The Manhattans, our first gold record, “Kiss and Say Goodbye.”
Then another highlight was when we won the Grammy [in 1980] for “Shining Star.”
Those were days that I really treasure. Another highlight was when I went to South Africa for the first time. The Manhattans were a household name all during apartheid. So, we were superstars over there. We got to the airport and there were thousands of people waiting for us. It was like that during the whole tour. We were scheduled to work for four days, but we ended up working for fifteen days and performed at sold out venues
Another highlight was in November 2005 when we were a part of a Sam Cooke tribute. Every time we were supposed to work with Aretha Franklin it got canceled but I stood right beside her during the finale. Couldn’t nobody tell me nothing because I was standing right beside Aretha Franklin. She is truly the queen and to stand beside her, wow. At the end of the show, she stopped us and asked us to come in and take pictures with us. I was beside myself! It was just an honor because all the great singers were there.
You and the group have a lot of years under your belt. What would you say has been the key to your longevity?
Gerald Alston: The key to longevity is that you put all your trust in God, that you know who you are and where you want to go. The type of songs that we write are about life that people can easily identify with. It’s important to sing what people what people can relate to. We are also very humble. We go out and shake hands, we go to radio stations, and we do interviews. Our thing today is that working with [radio] stations to do an interview and we have to be there early in the morning and the DJ at the station said “today you can’t get artists to be at the station at 6 in the morning to do an interview. They say they are tired or don’t feel like it and won’t come.”
I’ve learned over the years that we don’t do it as a favor by performing for them, they do us a favor by coming to see us. To serve and give them as much as we can to satisfy them, they are the ones that make us who we are. Back in the day DJ’s used to sell records for us, they would play it, and say this is a hit. If he or she said it, then people believed it because they were popular. It’s so different now, the humbleness is gone.
During the awards shows, there are always comments on social media about African American artists showing up for the Grammys or the American Music Awards, but they are nowhere to be found during the Soul Train Awards, BET Awards, or Trumpet Awards. Why is it important for artists to show up for the award shows that celebrate our music?
Gerald Alston: It’s important that we support each other. For our longevity, and being around as long as we have, we have been humble and even today we stay humble. It’s important because our fans are who makes us who we are. After concerts, we’re tired but who cares? We go up front and sign autographs and take pictures and enjoy ourselves with our fans. We have a good time. They see we are just like them and they will continue to support us. It’s important to do that. All artists should do that.
The Manhattans are about to celebrate 55 years in the industry. Are you doing anything to commemorate the occasion?
Gerald Alston: Yes, this August will be 55 years. We recorded a couple of things that we are going to release. I did a song called “Shades of Blue,” which is a tribute to the guys and to Blue [Lovett]. I just wrote two recent songs. I’m getting my son to write something for us. We are going to release an EP to celebrate 55 years along with some of our old stuff will probably be on there as well.
You are one of the last of The Manhattans from the group’s hey-day. Why is it important for you to carry on the legacy of the group? How do the newer members of the group feel having to fill those shoes?
Gerald Alston: It’s the love of it really. I spent all of my young adult life with The Manhattans. I started singing right out of college, well I didn’t even go a semester. I went back to school in September and in October, I met The Manhattans. From that day on I was a member of the group. It was something that became a part of my life, I fit in and it just worked. Troy May and David Tyson have been with me for over 20 years. They have had a chance to work with Blue and see all sides of Blue and the business aspect of it. We all grew up together. They are willing to take on the legacy and continue it with me and they are dedicated to it.
Your aunt is Shirley Alston Reeves who is a member of The Shirelles, and also an inductee of the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame just like yourself. Talk about her influence on your career.
Gerald Alston: She and my uncle Johnny Fields of the Five Blind Boys of Alabama were both an inspiration to me. They were in Henderson [North Carolina] and they left Henderson and made something of themselves through something that they dreamed of. My uncle was from Alabama but he married my aunt who was from Henderson. I grew up with singing in the house, my uncle was singing, my father was singing, and my mother sang. Both sides of my family, everybody was singing, I had no other place to go (laughs). It was just there. Shirley, my uncle, and my dad, and Sam Cooke paid a very important part of my life. I’m very thankful.
With Sam Cooke’s brother L.C. Cooke’s recent passing last summer, do you have any memories of him you’d like to share?
Gerald Alston: L.C. used to tell us about the stories about Sam. One of the funniest stories he told me was that he and Sam used to fight as kids. He said everyday they had a fight. It was like they looked forward to it every day. He said this particular day they got in the bed that night and said “Sam, we didn’t fight today” so they started going at it. He said their mother came in and made them stop. L.C. said he used to always get the best of Sam but he said this particular night Sam got the last lick. He said Sam hit him so hard he saw stars in color (laughs) when he said that I fell out laughing (laughs). He said he told Sam many years later that he got the best of him but he had told him earlier he never would have lived it down. But he had some wonderful stories about traveling and singing.
As a matter of fact, he wrote the linear notes for my tribute album to Sam Cooke. I think one of the most touching things he ever said was “I’ve seen a lot of people sing Sam’s song and they always tried to sing it better or sing like him, but you are paying a tribute to him and doing it your way and not trying to sound like him.” I was not, I was just paying tribute to a very great singer. It meant a lot coming from him to tell me that.
I sang at L.C.’s memorial. I flew up to Chicago and sang at the memorial, it was very nice. What was really hard for me was the Thursday before he died, we were on the radio together doing an interview for WMEL. He was talking and telling stories and we were laughing and the next morning I got a call saying L.C. passed away last night. I know he wasn’t well, but you couldn’t tell that he was that sick. It just blew me away when I got the call that he passed away. We did a 2-hour interview on the radio and it was kind of tough.
You also had the chance to perform with Dennis Edwards quite a bit over the years. His recent passing was a shock even though he had been sick. Do you have any memories you’d like to share about him?
Gerald Alston: I just pulled up a video of us performing at the Black Music Honors in Nashville, that was the first year they did the event.
I saw Dennis when he first got with the Temptations at North Carolina Central University. Their clothes got lost and the Temptations had to perform in their street clothes and they tore that sucker up! Then years later I was on stage with Dennis performing with The Manhattans in Detroit. As time passed we worked together many times. The best was Dennis, myself and Eddie Levert began to work together as Timeless Voices and it was amazing to see that much experience. I’ve seen young artists sing together in a finale and everybody out sings each other trying to see how many runs they can do. When I sang with Dennis and Eddie we just knew when to come in and not step on each other. It was self-explanatory, we didn’t compete, we already had our place and respected each other. I can tell you this Dennis Edwards was a singing brother. Dennis was always the same, he could fill a room if you were in his presence. He had stories, he would talk about the days of Motown. He shared them with us. He was an amazing person. I’ve always felt like that about him. I’m glad I got a chance to work with him. We went to South Africa together and we did a television show where we sang “My Girl” on the show and that was the first time I actually sang with Dennis in 1996. In the past 5 to 7 years we started doing Timeless Voices; it was originally Dennis, Eddie, myself, and Johnny Gill. Then New Edition started taking off again and Johnny couldn’t make all the dates. So, it was just me, Eddie, and Dennis.
Eddie and I performed on the 2018 Soul Train Cruise, we performed as Men of Soul. It was very nice. I will always cherish and remember it. Dennis was supposed to be there but as you know he was sick. The night that Eddie and I decided to pay tribute to Dennis and make sure we say something about him, then we got the call that he had passed away.
You worked with Wu-Tang Clan on a song called “Stick Me for My Riches.” That is definitely a departure from your usual music, how was that experience?
Gerald Alston: They were putting together this project for a movie, and we did the song together and it didn’t come together so they released it on their CD so that’s how we got to work together. It was nice, and it was different for me. In Japan and even here it got some play. The response blew me away. I didn’t even know it had been released out of the country, until someone messaged me on Facebook.
Why is it important to have a museum like NMAAM?
Gerald Alston: It’s very important for kids to know about their heritage and where they came from. Even the younger artists today need to know whose shoulders they stand on and where it all started. Let me give you an example; when MC Hammer did “Have You Seen Her?” My niece was like MC Hammer has a new record and I said no baby, the Chi-Lites did that song back in the 70s. So, I took her the CD and her mouth hit the floor. So many young people don’t know anything about the artist before them. It’s unfortunate that musicians, singers, or history buffs, or whatever, they need to know where the music started. I stand on the shoulders of my uncle Johnny Fields, my aunt Shirley and my dad, and Sam Cooke. When I first started singing, The Dells showed me so much support and we are still friends to this day. Billy Davis came to the show and told me some things that a lot of artist wouldn’t have even told me. I respect them and some of the other older artists, they weren’t the type to come in and say you did a great show if they didn’t see a great show. They would ask you “are you alright?” (laughs) Johnny Carter of the Dells chewed me out one day after a show after I did something that wasn’t appropriate for an artist. He told me to come by his room afterwards. He told me you just don’t carry yourself like that on stage, you have to be professional at all times. I just used that as an example but it’s important for kids to know our history. You’d be surprised that the kids today don’t know who Jackie Wilson was or Otis Redding, and even Sam Cooke, artists like that. Those are the artists that they are standing on their legacy. They made it possible for us. You look at Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, they were the two first artists to have their own publishing companies and record labels. They were the first to start that for black artists.
I had the chance to work with Jackie Wilson. He was an artist. He wouldn’t play on a show unless he headlined, in the 70s. We played in Washington DC and all of us had records in the top 5 or 10 and Jackie didn’t have anything new out. He would not play the show unless he headlined. If you saw Jackie on stage, you’d realize why nobody could follow him, he was one of the most exciting artists on stage that you have ever laid your eyes on and he could sing! He was a true entertainer. I respected him for that. He knew it. When he came on last, the wings would be full. He was truly just like they called him, Mr. Excitement. It’s important for people to know the history.
Keep up with Gerald Alston and The Manhattans on their website and read more about the contributions African Americans have made to the American soundtrack by visiting our website.