National Museum of African American Music National Chair Keb’ Mo’ is a musical force to be reckoned with that has contributed to various genres of America’s soundtrack.
With 14 albums, 4 GRAMMY Awards, 11 GRAMMY Nominations, multiple Blues Foundation Awards, and BMI Awards, it’s only fitting that Keb’ Mo’ is one of the National Museum of African American Music’s Rhapsody & Rhythm Award honorees at this year’s Celebration of Legends Gala on May 31.
Keb’ Mo’s career took off in 1994 with his self-titled album released under his moniker.
Ever since then, Keb’ has cultivated a reputation as a modern master of American roots music which is displayed in his live and studio performances. He has influenced several generations of artists, including those that came before him. Artists like B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Solomon Burke, and Robert Palmer have covered his songs. His list of collaborations with artists like fellow NMAAM National Chair India Arie, Taj Mahal, Natalie Cole, Vince Gill, and Amy Grant prove that his music transcends genres from R&B to country.
His skills on the guitar have afforded him invitations to Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival and inspired Gibson Brands to issue Keb’ Mo’ signature model guitars.
Keb’ Mo’ has also ventured into the television and film arena. He played Robert Johnson in the 1998 documentary Can’t You Hear the Wind Howl? He also appeared in the film Honeydripper and on the television series “Touched by an Angel.”
Keb Mo’s claim to television fame is creating “I See Love,” which is the theme song for the television hit show “Mike & Molly.”
He also created “Martha’s Theme” for the television show “Martha Stewart Living.” Keb’ Mo’ was the music composer for the show “Memphis Beat” and in 2017, nine songs from Keb’s discography were featured in the film, Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Higher Ground. He also had his first lead acting role in the same film. He went on to appear on the CMT series “Sun Records” as blues great Howlin’ Wolf.
Keb’s version of America the Beautiful can be heard on the series finale of the show “West Wing” and he played it during the In Performance at the White House event for President Barack Obama.
In 2017, Keb’ Mo’ releasedTajMo, a collaborative album with the legendary Taj Mahal.
The multi-generational duo earned a GRAMMY Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album earlier this year.
Keb’Mo’s ability to take listeners on a journey with his guitar along with his storytelling with his witty lyrics, and raspy bluesy-soulful vocals continues to make him one of the most decorated living blues artists.
You can’t listen to music today without hearing some influence from none other than the multi-talented Nile Rodgers. The guitarist, songwriter, producer, and composer has helped to craft the sound of America’s soundtrack for over four decades. Nile’s signature sound is embedded across various genres of music from Diana Ross to Madonna, David Bowie, Daft Punk, Sam Smith, and Eric Clapton. With more than 200 production credits to his name, it’s easy to see why Nile Rodgers is one of the National Museum of African American Music’s Rhapsody & Rhythm Award honorees at this year’s Celebration of Legends Gala. The Celebration of Legends benefits NMAAM’s various educational and community programs, including its Emerging Artist Series.
As the co-founder and member of the legendary group CHIC, he wrote songs like “Le Freak,” “Everybody Dance,” and “Good Times,” “I Want Your Love,” all which are still timeless hits that can get you up out of your seat dancing no matter where you are.
The song “Good Times” helped spark the hip hop movement when Sugar Hill Gang sampled the song for “Rapper’s Delight.”
The group garnered nine Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominations. In 2017, Nile Rodgers was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist.
Rodgers and his late Chic band mate Bernard Edwards co-wrote and co-produced the 1979 Sister Sledge album, We Are Family, and the title track was recently selected for preservation in the Library of Congress.
Nile produced and co-wrote with Edwards Diana Ross’s 1980 hit solo album diana, including the breakout hits “I’m Coming Out,” and “Upside Down.”
He and Edwards worked with Debbie Harry, scored the soundtrack to Soup for One, and produced for Teddy Pendergrass, Johnny Mathis, and Carly Simon before dissolving their partnership in 1983.
Rodgers released his first solo album Adventure in the Land of the Good Groove in 1983 and his production on the late David Bowie’s bestselling album, Let’s Dance in 1983 became a worldwide hit. From that point on, Rodgers became the go-to producer for pop, dance, and rock music. HE worked with Duran Duran, INXS, and positioned Madonna for pop royalty by producing her 1984 album Like A Virgin. His second solo album B-Movie Matinee in 1985 kept him on the cutting edge of pop music as the genre evolved and he worked with artists like Michael Jackson and Grace Jones. CHIC reunited and released a new album, CHIC-ism in 1992 reintroducing the group’s music to a new crop of artists. MC Lyte and Salt-N-Pepa sampled “Upside Down,” while the Notorious B.I.G. sampled “I’m Coming Out” on his 1997 hit “Mo Money Mo Problems. Will Smith grabbed onto the hook of “He’s the Greatest Dancer” for his 1998 hit “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.”
Rodgers has also scored the soundtracks to movies like Coming to America, Beverly Hills Cop III, Rush Hour 2, and Semi-Pro to name a few. He has also put his stamp on video game soundtracks as well.
In 2013, his work with Daft Punk on the duo’s Random Access Memories won a Grammy for Album of the Year, and the lead single “Get Lucky” proved to be just that by topping the chars in 35 countries and earning Rodgers two more Grammy Awards.
Earlier this year, Rodgers confirmed a new CHIC album, It’s About Time, is on the way and will feature a host of collaborations from artists like Bruno Mars, Anderson .Paak, Craig David, and Stefflon Don to name a few. It’s About Time was originally scheduled for a 2015 release but was put on hold following news that Rodgers had been diagnosed with cancer. The cancer has since been removed. “My prognosis is 100% recovery,” he wrote on his blog in 2017.
The impact of Nile Rodgers contributions to the American Soundtrack that transcends all styles of music across a multitude of generations is one that will remain evident for years to come. His style is a dance-rock signature sound that any dance, funk-inspired, soul, electronic musicians can trace back their inspiration back to him. We’ll just continue to celebrate the “Good Times” and “Dance, Dance, Dance” every time his music is played.
For nearly six decades, The Temptations have crafted the foundation for America’s soundtrack, as well as provided the blueprint for groups that followed in their footsteps. From their choreography, to their harmonies, and stylish suits, the group has personified excellence in performance and style for years.
While the tempting Temptations haven’t stopped doing sold out shows around the world, they are releasing their first new album in eight years, All the Time on the Universal Music Enterprises label on May 4. The album features their renditions of songs like Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me,” to Maxwell’s “Pretty Wings,” and has three original songs by The Temptations. The current line up of the group consists of original founding member Otis Williams, longtime members Ron Tyson and Terry Weeks, and recent additions Larry Braggs, and Willie Greene.
“I’m 76 now,” says Otis Williams, “Looking back, I never could have imagined where my life has taken me. I’m so proud of what The Temptations have achieved, and I’m grateful for every opportunity we’ve been so fortunate to receive. The music carries me. Together, we lift our voices with love and wonder. We had a great time recording All The Time and we hope everyone enjoys it.”
The Temptations released their first Motown album, 1964’s Meet The Temptations. For nearly 60 years, the group has reigned as one of music’s most successful groups of all time. The Temptations rose to the top of the charts with 16 Number One R&B albums and 43 Top Ten R&B hit songs across four decades, including 14 Number One singles. Their hits “My Girl,” “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” and “Get Ready” are classics, while the group’s later discography dives into funk music including “Cloud Nine” and “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone.”
The Temptations have a long list of accolades. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989, into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1999, and into the Rhythm & Blues Music Hall of Fame in 2013, the same year they were honored with the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement GRAMMY Award. They have won four GRAMMY Awards, receiving their first one in 1969 for “Cloud Nine.”
Living legend Otis Williams chatted with the National Museum of African American Music about the group’s new music, their next venture, and his memories of former lead singer Dennis Edwards.
Can you give a brief overview of how you came to form the original lineup of The Temptations and how it transformed into the current lineup?
Otis Williams: Growing up in Detroit, singing on the street corners, and we went through a metamorphosis of different members to get to the current Temptations lineup. We signed with a label in 1960 and that’s when we were Otis Williams and the Distants. We had a single that was out at the time. Berry Gordy was starting his own label during that time and said he loved our record and he asked us to come to his label, so we did. We left the label that we were on and signed with Berry in 1961. We went through more changes in the lineup. In 1964, David Ruffin joined us and the lineup was myself, Melvin Franklin, Paul Williams, and Eddie Kendricks.
Our first hit was “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” That started off a wonderful string of hits with “My Girl,” and others. In 1968, we had to let David Ruffin go and we brought in Dennis Edwards and that’s how the Temptations evolved and we have gone through several more personnel changes since then. We are still enjoying this wonderful ride today.
What do you think when people tell you that it’s not the holiday season until you play the Give Love at Christmas album?
Otis Williams: I hear that a lot. People love our version of “Silent Night.” I think we did a great rendition of such a fantastic song to begin with. All we did was put our imprint on it and it’s been a hugely successful record. We did that album in the 1980s and it’s still a very popular one when Christmas rolls around now.
Let’s talk about your current album, All the Time, what’s the meaning behind the title?
Otis Williams: Well you know I asked a young man, Jeff Moskow, who was our coordinator for this album that question. They [the record label] took the line from one of the songs on the album. There’s a line that says “I’ve got all the time in the world, because I’m waiting on you,” so somebody at Universal said, “All the Time, The Temptations all the time.” So, when they told me, I liked it so that’s how they came up with it. I had a title in mind for it, but that one was very appropriate and on time for what they decided to name it and that’s how it came about. I like it.
This is the first album that the group has released in eight years. What took so long?
Otis Williams: We’ve been busy on the road, but we’ve also been in between labels. After we left Motown and it became a boutique business with Capitol Records, we decided to just work. We put a few things out over the years, and I wasn’t knocked out about them, so I was just resolved that we can just work because I know that we can work forever. So, it just so happens that I went to Universal and I took my grandson’s tape up there to talk to them about him; he’s a rapper.
They said they would pass it along and then while meeting with me, they asked what The Temptations were doing and I said we’re just doing shows, and they asked if we wanted to do an LP and I said absolutely. They told me the concept they had in mind and I wasn’t too knocked out about it because we’ve done cover songs before and I didn’t want to kick off coming back with those songs. I told my manager that I wasn’t thrilled about it, and Jeff Moskow said we could do three original songs on the album so that’s how it came about. I love the songs that we picked. “Waiting on You,” “Move Them Britches,” and “Be My Wife,” are the originals on the album. It turned out to be a pretty good album.
You guys brought The Temptations heat to the songs by adding a lot of soul to them.
Otis Williams: From the reviews that I’ve been reading, they say we have added The Temptations spin to it.
How did you pick some of the songs on the album? For example, I couldn’t figure out how you would be able to take Michael Jackson’s “Remember the Time” and make it your own, but you did.
Otis Williams: I love the song. Michael invited me to [the set] when they were shooting the video for “Remember the Time.” We had known each other for a while, both of us were on Motown and we did Motown 25, so we had history. I spent time in his trailer talking about old times while they were setting up the lights and things. So, when I got the list of the songs that we could pick from for the album, I saw “Remember the Time” and I said we must do this one. It’s just a great song period.
Now, Mr. Williams, please explain how you guys picked The Weeknd’s “Earned It” since that song is from the 50 Shades of Grey movie soundtrack?
Otis Williams: At first, I was trying to see who in the hell is The Weeknd? Is that a group or whatever (laughs)? The song itself was one of those haunting kinds of songs with the melody. I said we must do that, so that’s how it came about. Naturally we tried to add The Temptations spin on it and Terry Weeks is singing lead on it and did a great job.
Talk about the current original single, “Waitin’ on You.”
Otis Williams: Well that one was a collaboration. I started off with singing “I want to be wherever you are,” and it just started from there. Once Universal heard it they said it had to go on the album. It’s just one of the many Temptations songs that we have come up with over the years.
How about the song “Move Them Britches (Heathen’s Remix)?”
Otis Williams: Larry Braggs and some young man that he knows came up with that (laughs). It’s got one of those drives to it that makes you want to get up and party when you hear it. It’s a great element to that. Ron Tyson came up with “Be My Wife,” and most women love when a guy sings that kind of message so that added another kind of freshness to the originals and the cover jobs that we were doing.
The album is a good one and it’s exciting that it will be available on vinyl!
Otis Williams: I love that too. Vinyl became so obscure so it was great to see it coming back. So now I have to go buy me a record player so I can listen to music the old-fashioned way.
It’s been over five decades since The Temptations released their debut album on Motown; looking back did you ever even imagine the impact you would have on music or that you would still be putting out new music in 2018?
Otis Williams: No, honestly, we were hoping that would be around a long time, but we’ve been around 58 years. So, we had no idea that we’d still be here. Of course, there have been trials and tribulations along the way; but it’s wonderful to do something that you really enjoy and it brings happiness and pleasure to our many fans all over the world. I’m a blessed person. God has blessed me to continue doing this, because you know show business is so damn fickle. You can be high today on the charts, then the next day and or couple of weeks later, people are asking where you are. So, it’s just wonderful to still be able to perform after all these many years all over the world.
Since you have that longevity, you have had the chance to see music’s evolution over the years. With you being a founding member and the last living original member of the group, how do you ensure the group’s legacy stays intact, while making sure you are still keeping up with the times?
Otis Williams: The one thing in life that’s constant is change. We have to work at it, we can’t take anything for granted, it’s a labor of love. There’s going to be trials and tribulations. We’ve been around for so many years, but when you love something and you’re blessed to be able to do it, like the saying goes, “I’ll ride the hair off the horse so when I get off the horse it’ll be bald.” It’s a lot of things to maintain and keep it moving. Being able to adapt to the many different personnel changes that I’ve gone through, it’s just a labor of love. I’m just happy that I’m able to be apart of something that touches so many people’s lives and brings them joy and happiness.
What is your proudest moment in your career?
Otis Williams: For me, I can’t single out one because I’ve had so many wonderful experiences. I could run down a litany of experiences. We hold records at the Apollo Theater, records at the Copacabana, we were on The Ed Sullivan Show many different times, we have a star on the Hollywood [Walk of Fame], we have multiple Grammy Awards, and have been acknowledged by many different presidents. When I walk around my house I have about 40 different Gold records, it’s just a plethora of different things. I’m thankful for them all and I never could have imagined any of it when we started out in Detroit in the 1960s.
Is there anything that you haven’t accomplished yet that you are hoping to?
Otis Williams: The next thing that we hope will do well for us is The Temptations life story. The mini-series has been widely accepted since the ’90s and here it is 2018 and they are still showing it on television. We are about to debut the musical at the Kennedy Center in June, and after that we go to Los Angeles and hopefully onto Broadway. The name of the play is “Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations.” This is the next thing I hope is equally if not more successful than what we’ve already accomplished.
With the recent passing of former Temptations lead singer Dennis Edwards earlier this year, do you have any memories of him that you would like to share?
Otis Williams: The first Grammy that The Temptations received was with Dennis and it was for “Cloud Nine” is one I will always remember. That was the initiating thing of him being in the Tempts. A lot of people look at him as if he were one of the original members of The Temptations because he was on so many hits, and I think he was on more hits with us than David Ruffin. When he sang the line “It was the 3rd of September,” that was the day his real father died, so that caused a brouhaha in the studio when we got ready to record it. We have so many memories when it comes to Dennis Edwards, but I’m just sad that my friend is gone.
Why do you think it is important to have the National Museum of African American Music?
Otis Williams: It’s very important because people need to know about the history of the artists that have brought so much enjoyment to people. It’s important to introduce the new generations to history. It’s important to have it so you can historically characterize everything so people can even say they remember those girls and guys. It’s important to document it.
My music matters because (fill in the blank):
Otis Williams: My music matters because it touches the spirit, the soul, and has moved people to tears. It has even moved me to tears. A lady told me a few years ago that she loved The Temptations and as she was leaving this earth, she said she asked God not to take her until she talked to Otis Williams. I sat there and cried, I never would have thought that what I have been doing and enjoying would touch people to that extent. My music matters because it touches the spirit because people want to take our music with them to their final resting place. I never would have imagined that I would have that profoundness laid upon me by that wonderful lady. That’s it, that’s my story.
Music during the ’90s made an impressive mark on America’s soundtrack. So much of an impression, that fans of the era are craving the sounds that got them through their teenage and young adult years. Some may even now refer to 1990s R&B as ‘old school’ music. A celebration of what some refer to as true R&B is the driving force behind G Squared Event’s ’90s Block Party concert series. The show is selling out all over the country especially as the music industry has seen the return of a host of artists from the ’90s to 2000s. Chart toppers of the genre such as Ginuwine’s “Pony,” 112’s “Peaches and Cream,” Next’s “Wifey,” and Guy’s “Groove Me,” are just examples of the songs that transport music lovers to memories of the past. Those artists, along with Tank made up the bill for the ‘90s Block Party at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, North Carolina over the weekend.
For a couple of hours, music lovers were transported back into a time when R&B ruled the airwaves and kept us tuned in wanting more. One misconception is that when the old school acts take the stage, they won’t sound the same as they did over 20 years ago. That myth is absolutely wrong and the lineup proved that these acts are like a fine wine, they have gotten better with time.
I had the chance to chat with Ginuwine and 112’s Daron Jones about the tour, why music fans are yearning for the music from over 20 years ago, and their future plans.
With the resurgence of ’90s music, why do you think music lovers have been craving it so much?
Daron Jones: The ’90s era was just one of those eras in music that was just so unique and special and we can see that because of how the people are yearning for it, and at the same time the music industry is what it is, so when they get through with you, they are done with you. Basically, people are saying that they want ’90s music to be mainstream again. In our era, for us, we have the internet. Everybody can see the memes “If the love ain’t like ’90s R&B, I don’t want it” and so on. It’s clear, people want ’90s music to be back at the forefront.
Ginuwine: I think people are craving the music because they simply miss it. You know a lot of radio stations and people in general give credence to the young people and what they are doing, and I’m like why? That’s their generation, let them do what they do, our generation is still here, so why are we gravitating towards that? Why not continue to grow with the music that you came up on? Let the young ones have their time like our parents let us have our time. I think it’s kind of corny for older folks to even be listening to that kind of stuff. My generation is still here, everybody is still in their late 30’s and 40’s so they miss that kind of music, and I think radio is so fixated on what’s going on in the young word and that’s not cool. Continue to play the music that is supporting you. That’s why I like Steve Harvey and Michael Baisden because that’s my generation and that’s what I listen to. I don’t even listen to the hip hop stations.
Remember back in the day there was only one Michael Jackson, one Prince, one Patti LaBelle, one Whitney Houston, one Jackie Wilson. Now today you have 50 of everybody, it’s just not what it used to be. I came up during a time where a star was a superstar and if you were a star you were a star for a reason. Not for being a copycat or acting a fool and becoming a star, no you had to really have skill. No one to me in my opinion is different. As soon as someone does something, they color their hair like them, dress like them, that’s not being a leader to me, that’s being a follower. Even if I have taken something from somebody, and I have like from Michael Jackson, Prince or whatever, I put a little bit of my twist to it, and it’s not like that anymore. Our generation was different. I do miss it and I think that’s why a lot of people are coming to our shows, and selling them out, arenas, all that kind of stuff. I’ve been out for 21 years and still selling out arenas, that’s telling you something.
So, what can fans expect during the 90s Block Party?
Daron Jones: For 112, we study the greats. We look at the Temptations, the Four Tops, Blue Magic, New Edition, Jackson 5, and we just take it back to the basics, good old singing and dancing. We get in the studio, honing our craft and making sure that we are on stage doing our thing and not looking tired, but giving you your money’s worth. (laughs) So really from us, we are just going to give you the quality singing and dancing. Definitely going to give you them vocals and take it to church, and at the same time we’re going to give you showmanship that we’re known for just by studying the legends that came before us.
Ginuwine: This particular tour, I signed on because of who all was on it. It’s just so amazing when you come and watch the show, a lot of the songs that our generation came up, you remember exactly where you were when you first heard it. It speaks volumes. When you hear the first few chords and then (sings) “You can have a piece of my love”—from Guy, you know exactly where you were when you heard that, or when you heard “Pony,” and [songs from] all the groups that are on the tour. We rotate a little bit, but I’m on most of the shows. That’s what’s so magical about the tour, it’s all love, everyone gets along, there’s no fighting, everyone supports each other, if it’s someone’s birthday, we show love, if someone is doing an after party, we all show up, it’s just love. That’s what ’90s should be about and was about and we just try to keep that time frame going.
Speaking of that time frame, the album 100% Ginuwine is 19 years old; looking back is there anything on that album that you would have changed?
Ginuwine: I’d leave it like it is. That’s history, that’s what it’s about. It was a time where the situation was what it was. That’s how you grow and learn from the things that you learn and grow from the things you already put out. So, I wouldn’t change anything.
Ginuwine, are you working on any new music?
Ginuwine: I’m starting to work on some music with my little brother Tank. We’re probably going to drop something this summer. I was like I love what he is doing in music, I brought him in the business, he’s one of my background singers along with J Holiday, Raheem DeVaughn, all of them were my background singers, so I take pride in their success. I brought them into the game, I introduced them to the game, and I gave them their first shot.
Daron, everyone was so excited about 112 reuniting and releasing new music. What was the reaction when that album came out? What kind of feedback did you get?
Daron Jones: I think the feedback was just that folks were glad 112 was back, it wasn’t necessarily the music as it relates to us. I think people were just really happy to see us as a group and singing together again. Even before the album, we had reunited and had kind of been touring and singing, just being around each other, doing what we do, it was only a matter of time before we got back in the studio again. People call us veterans and legends, but we are still young at heart so if we hang around each other long enough, we are going to get that studio bug and get back in there. It’s definitely an exciting time and we are happy to be a part of the resurgence.
What else is 112 working on?
Daron Jones: Right now, we have the current album Q, Mike, Slim, Daron and we’re promoting that. We have a new single “Both of Us” with 112 and Jagged Edge, which is being received very well. We’re testing out this thing we call “The Experience.” It’s 112 and Jagged Edge on the same stage at the same time. So, some of the ’90s Block Party Tour dates, we’ve just been putting it out there and letting the people see it. That’s the biggest thing we are working on right now. It’s going to be big, be on the look-out.
My music matters because (fill in the blank):
Daron Jones: My music matters because it’s my purpose in life.
Ginuwine: My music matters because it came at a time when music changed and it’s a historical moment when it comes to “Pony,” Aaliyah, and Missy [Elliot] because music changed once we entered the industry.
For more information and to see if the show is coming to your city, check out G Squared Events.
The infectious catchy dance song “The Loco-Motion” is a part of America’s musical soundtrack. The story of Little Eva and her hit song is one of being in the right places at the right time.
Eva Narcissus Boyd was born in Belhaven, North Carolina in 1945. Named after her aunt, Little Eva first started singing in the church. She moved to New York in 1960 hoping to break into the music industry, and she soon landed a gig singing with The Cookies, and found some work doing backup vocals during studio sessions. However, Little Eva’s big break didn’t come from working in the industry; it came from a babysitting job.
The husband and wife songwriting team of Gerry Goffin and Carole King hired 17-year-old Little Eva as a babysitter. After they wrote the song “The Loco-Motion,” that may or may not have been inspired by Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” Goffin and King asked Little Eva to sing the demo so it could be pitched to Dee Dee Sharp on Cameo Parkway. It turned out so well, it was eventually released as a single.
The song reached number one on the pop and R&B charts in 1962 cementing Little Eva’s spot in music history. She appeared on popular dance shows like Shindig and American Bandstand and traveled around the world performing the song.
Her follow up single, “Keep Your Hands off My Baby” reached number twelve on the pop chart and number six on the R&B chart.
Her third single, “Let’s Turkey Trot” was a top 20 single on both charts.
In 1971, Little Eva retired from the music business to focus on her three children, but it didn’t stop the loco-motion from chugging along. In 1974, Grand Funk Railroad remade the song into another number one hit, and in 1988 Kylie Minogue had a top five hit with her remake of “The Loco-Motion.” The renewed interest in the song, led to Little Eva getting gigs on the cabaret and oldies circuit. She recorded “Back on Track” in 1989 and toured with a show that featured acts such as Little Richard.
In 2001, Little Eva was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She died on April 10, 2003 at the age of 50. In 2009, Little Eva was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.
It’s been a long time coming and as an interpreter of song, Bettye LaVette has started a new chapter of her career with her tenth album, Things Have Changed.
It’s the first album for the soul singer on a major label in nearly thirty years. On the album, she takes on the songs of Bob Dylan with a mixture of grit, soul, and blues to spin it into an interpretive masterpiece of her own. To pull off the transformation of the original songs, LaVette worked with producer Steve Jordan, and musicians such as Dylan’s long-time guitarist Larry Campbell, bass virtuoso Pino Palladino, and keyboardist Leon Pendarvis. Keith Richards and Trombone Shorty were added to the mix to create a recipe of rock ‘n’ soul. The album will be released on Verve Records on March 30.
Bettye LaVette has had a highlight worthy career that spans nearly six decades; from bringing down the house with her rendition of “Love Reign O’er Me” during the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors to President Obama’s 2009 Inauguration concert when she joined the stage with Jon Bon Jovi to sing “A Change is Gonna Come,” a song fitting for a woman whose change has finally come with recognition.
NMAAM caught up with Bettye LaVette to discuss her new album.
This is completely different for you to devote an entire album to one songwriter. What made you do that for your new album, Things Have Changed, and why Bob Dylan?
Bettye LaVette: I don’t know that I went in thinking I just wanted to do one songwriter. I certainly would not have decided this on my own. A friend of mine, and photographer Carol Friedman, who has done most of the photographs of me recently, especially the ones that make me look like I have long legs (laughs). She is a good friend and a life -long Bob Dylan fan and it’s always been her dream to hear me do Bob Dylan songs. I’m sure she knew unless that unless something big happened, it would not be forthcoming. Here again, as an artist, I would never hone in on one artist at this point. But when the biggest record company in the world says they think it’s a great idea, I said, ‘so do I!’ (laughs) So, that’s how it came about. The man just won a Nobel Peace Prize for lyrics. I recorded a few of his songs previously. One was called “Most of the Time” and it appealed to me and the way I felt at the time, then another one called “Everything is Broken,” and one called “Unbelievable” on the Worthy album. I did those because they were funny to me. They actually tickled me, because the lyrics were funny to me. I enjoyed those. I never would have chosen twelve of his songs, but with that task before me, I’m not a cover artist and I wasn’t trying to cover him and I wasn’t going to do a tribute to him.
That took a long time, longer than I have ever taken on any one piece of music. These, I had to rewrite some of them, like the verses and lines and put them in my mouth. He’s a very weird writer because he writes vignettes, not songs and they have chapters. Then it took weeks to learn however many of these songs. But I took verses out and lines out and freshened up some lines and some things that only 80 percent of the country knows who Belle Star and Clark Gable are, so I had to change those to Bruno Mars and Otis Redding. I had to find something that captured me emotionally. The song “Emotionally Yours” was one of those. I liked the words. I knew that I wasn’t going to cover them or tribute them, and that was one of the things I expressed to my producer Steve Jordan. He is now known as the ‘Bettye Whisperer,’ because I can’t play anything so I had to act out and sing out everything that I wanted. This is the first time I’ve had a Black producer in many years. It was interesting.
Once you got that part down, it only took you a few days to knock out the album in the studio.
Bettye LaVette: It only took 3 days. I don’t go in the studio with questions. I’ve already thought of what we are going to do. I have the attention span of a child, so doing things over and over I just can’t do it (laughs). Steve Jordan was on a very tight schedule so we were very fortunate to have him, and many of the others as well. Larry Campbell had been with Bob Dylan for many years. These guys work 24/7. It was going to be tight anyway, but I don’t think they knew how tight I can hang. I was like I’m from Detroit (laughs).
Why did you name the album Things Have Changed?
Bettye LaVette: So many things have changed. I have a new manager, a new booking agency, this new brilliant record company, this new producer, and I’m going to be blonde most of the time. I don’t want to call it a last- ditch effort, but I want this to work.
I had to find songs that could be turned around that could naturally fit. I chose those because Bob Dylan will occasionally lean [toward] gospel every once in a while, and those lent themselves to that. I wanted to do something that hadn’t been heard on Black radio and we could completely turn it around. That’s why I wanted to do “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” I wanted to go completely different and Steve understood that. I sung with my keyboard player and made a tape with him, and I had to show them how to make rhythm with the way that I was singing it. The keyboard player just played the changes to the song and I put the rhythm in my voice so that gave Steve the indication on where to put things. He is such an intelligent musician and producer.
The way that you sang those Bob Dylan songs on your new album, Things Have Changed, are so soulful.
Bettye LaVette: Thank you very much. I’m very interested to know what Bob Dylan fans think. His fans are like worshippers and Blacks don’t know anything about him at all. I’m interested to know what Blacks think about the album and Bob Dylan worshippers.
The lyrics of the songs really stand out because you made them your own.
Bettye LaVette: A lot of Bob Dylan fans say they absolutely love him, but they never knew what he was saying (laughs).
Let’s discuss a few of the songs on the album. Talk about “What Was It You Wanted.”
Bettye LaVette: For that one and everyone looked at me like I was crazy, but I said let’s put trombones on it. I wanted a New Orleans feel and they went right to Trombone Shorty, and I said ‘I didn’t mean New Orleans itself!’ (laughs) But, it was exactly what I wanted. Bob Dylan will lead you to the ledge, but he won’t push you, see I will. I had to push to get this sound.
How about “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight?”
Bettye LaVette: Yes! That one and “Emotionally Yours” made me say ‘wow he will cry!’ (laughs) When I drank a bottle of champagne and sang both of those, and I said listen at this song. I found out a tremendous amount about Bob Dylan and these songs. The only way I could put them in my mouth, I had to get all the way into them. I had to sing them not because I liked them, but because I wanted to say it. It had to be something I wanted to say.
What about the song “It Ain’t Me Babe?”
Bettye LaVette: I wanted it to be so different from what he did on the song, I wanted it to be more blues. I wanted it to be more like a drunk Jimmy Reed song. Singing it like they did is like trying copy someone’s art, but how do you feel about it? How mad are you? (laughs)
In your book A Woman Like Me, you mentioned having “buzzard’s luck,” looking back at that and your journey to now, what kind of advice would you give to someone to not give up and keep going?
Bettye LaVette: I would say people have to use logic, it’s the most important thing. If you are following some stuff that you know you can’t do, try to get some logical opinions and try to weigh it good. If people hadn’t been pouring their money into my career, I would have long since quit and not just kept going because I want to sing. People kept calling me, maybe it was the wrong people, maybe the deals fell apart, but they kept calling. If I had joined the church and they didn’t call or if I ran off with some man that beat me every day and they didn’t call, then I probably chose the wrong thing, but they kept calling. When they called, they said, “I have your last record, and wanted to know if you want to do another one.”
I have an album that was recorded in 1972 that was not released, and I talk about it in the book. I got under the dining room table and wanted to stay there. That was the most heartbreaking thing that ever happened to me, and someone else called and I came out from under that table.
It’s like if you have some kind of logical indication that the road you are on is correct, stay on that joker and don’t do nothing that will impair it. Don’t stay up all night and do all that cocaine if you want to sing, don’t go out with some dude that’s going to hit you and mess up your face if you want to be a model. Make logical conclusions. When I left Detroit and left Atlantic and got released from my contract, there was no logical reason for me to do that, and I’ve thought about that for over 50 years. No logical reason for me to do that and it cost me 20 years. All you ask for on your deathbed is more time. Don’t give your time away. That would be my only regret. Once I embraced logic, it has helped me. Plain old logic.
Why do you think having a place like the NMAAM is so important?
Bettye LaVette: It’s strange that there hasn’t been something like this already. They can use it to show the connection from this to that, from the field to this and that. I’d love to see it.
The Rock ‘n’ Roll genre was born somewhere between a church and a nightclub in the heart and soul of a woman named Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Imagine a Black woman singing gospel music accompanied by an electric guitar, growling and stomping; that’s what you hear when you listen to the songs of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
This year’s class of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees include Sister Rosetta Tharpe, also known as the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll, although she was a gospel superstar. She could shred on the electric guitar and shout praises to God one minute and secular pleasures in the next breath. She crossed color lines by touring with white artists.
Tharpe is credited with introducing the spirituality of gospel into the secular world of rock ‘n’ roll, inspiring the likes of Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, and Little Richard. Little Richard called her his greatest influence and Chuck Berry said that his entire career was just “one long Rosetta Tharpe impersonation.” It is befitting that Sister Rosetta Tharpe is finally getting the recognition she deserves for her contributions to America’s soundtrack.
Rosetta Nubin was born in 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. At the age of six, she moved to Chicago and joined the Church of God in Christ where she developed her distinctive performing style. In her teens she married a preacher named Thomas Tharpe, but divorced him a few years later, keeping the surname as her stage moniker before heading to New York.
At the age of 23, in 1938, she caused an uproar by leaving the church for show business to perform sexually laced songs in New York City, where she impressed the likes of Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington. She soon began playing alongside Ellington and other top musicians.
The idea of a woman playing a guitar was almost non-existent at the time, but Rosetta Tharpe squashed that notion by mastering the art associated with masculinity. She managed to create her own sound by fusing gospel with rock ‘n’ roll. She recorded Decca Record’s first gospel songs in 1938 including her hit song, “Rock Me.” The song showcased Tharpe’s guitar shredding skills mixed with blues and gospel music that revealed she could transcend faith-based music and push boundaries in her own musical style.
She also recorded “That’s All,” “The Man and I,” and “The Lonesome Road” for Decca Records. All of these recordings became instant hits, establishing Tharpe as one of the nation’s first commercially successful gospel singer.
After years of working up north with swing bandleader Lucky Millinder, Tharpe toured the south with gospel legends the Dixie Hummingbirds. In 1945, her single, “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” on Decca Records, featured a guitar solo and was the first gospel single to cross over to what was called the “race” (later known as R&B) Billboard charts, paving the way for rock ‘n’ roll. In 1947, Sister Rosetta was the first person to put a 14-year-old Little Richard on stage, and it changed his life and the course of music from that moment on.
She then met singer Marie Knight and the pair recorded “Up Above My Head” and toured as a team. Knight sang and played piano, and Tharpe sang and played both guitar and piano. In 1951, after an affair with Knight, Tharpe married her third husband in Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. in front of 25,000 fans.
In 1964, during one of her most iconic performances, Tharpe played a gig in an abandoned railroad station that was broadcast nationwide. It was raining, but Tharpe got out of a horse drawn carriage, picked up her electric guitar, plugged in, and played “Didn’t it Rain” and sang with such conviction and praise
People often commented that she “played like a man,” to which Tharpe often replied: “Can’t no man play like me. I play better than a man.”
Tharpe’s career didn’t get the same hype as her male counterparts did in the late 60s and 70s, and that could have been in part due to her religious material. In 1969, she was nominated for a Grammy for Best Gospel Performance for the album Precious Memories. Her last known recording was in 1970 for Danish TV singing “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” She passed away in 1973 in Philadelphia.
While Tharpe’s name has been swept under the rug despite her influence, she has received a couple of honors posthumously. She was honored by the U.S. Postal Service in 1998 with a commemorative stamp. Her version of “Down by the Riverside” in 1944 was entered into the National Recording Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress in 2004.
Through her distinctive voice and gospel blues crossover style, Tharpe’s influence can be heard in artists of the past and present. A pioneer worthy of recognition.
With a multi-platinum selling vast genre discography that spans decades, the legendary Jody Watley is still a musical force to be reckoned with today.
Jody Watley was destined for the stars the minute she stepped out on stage for the first time with her godfather, the legendary Jackie Wilson. She started setting trends as a dancer on the show Soul Train. As an original member of the group Shalamar, Watley’s distinct tones can be heard on classics like “A Night to Remember,” “(This Is) For the Lover in You,” and “Second Time Around.” In 1983, Watley left the group and a few short years later launched her solo career that further cemented her role on America’s soundtrack. Watley’s debut album skyrocketed up the charts with hits like “Real Love,” “Looking for a New Love,” “Don’t You Want Me,” and “Still a Thrill.” The album garnered her a Grammy for Best New Artist and catapulted her into style icon status.
Watley’s musical journey continues today with her new group Jody Watley featuring SRL. Watley, along with Nate Allen Smith and Rosero McCoy, are a vocal dance trio that has already made a musical mark with their newest single, “The Mood” as it is has claimed the number two spot on the U.K. Soul chart and number one in the Netherlands. Watley’s solo jazz single, “Waiting in Vain,” landed in the Top 20 Smooth Jazz Network.
I spoke with Jody Watley about her career highlights, her new music, and inspiring a new generation of artists in music and fashion.
You have a long list of accolades, but what would you say are the top three highlights of your career?
Jody Watley: The Black Music Honors of course, where I received the Crossover Music Icon award. It was just awesome, especially since I’ve been in this for a couple of months or so as an artist (laughs). To be doing it this long and to have the influence that I’ve had and to actually have it acknowledged, that actually meant a lot. Winning the Grammy for “Best New Artist” and “Looking for a New Love” was released in 1987. Obviously, the whole album changed my life in so many ways. Winning the Best New Artist that year is always going to be super special and again during that particular time in my life.
I had performed with Stevie Wonder, who is one of my childhood heroes, and I still love him today. He had a television special on MTV back in the late 80s when his song “Skeletons” came out. I performed “Superstition” with him on his special. The ironic thing is I had done that song in a talent show when I was in 7th grade with the group that I had called Black Fuzz (laughs). We were called Black Fuzz because we all had these big afros and I was so nervous. Even though by that time I had been an artist for a while, there is nothing more nerve wracking to me then performing with someone that you admired growing up. Those are the three that really stand out.
Another highlight is I remember when I got the call that I was going to be in People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People issue. It meant a lot because at that time, they weren’t covering really any black artists except Whitney Houston for something like that. I shaved all my hair off and people wondered why I did it. I didn’t want it to be about the hair, I just wanted to clean faced, with my crooked teeth, and just do it like that.
Speaking of crossing over, going into your debut album Jody Watley, did you go in with the mindset that you wanted to crossover to other genres?
Jody Watley: One thing I know for sure is that I didn’t want to be like anybody else that was out at the time. Michael and Janet [Jackson] were doing the choreography and they were very great at it and no one does it better. I wanted to be different and make the statement that you can be different. I wanted it to be funky and have my spirit come through in it. It was never about the crossover, it just came. Maybe for some it’s a goal, but I just wanted to make the statement that I’m Jody Watley, this is my debut album and I’m not trying to be like anybody else, just being me and I want to make it cool for other girls that feel like they don’t fit in, that it’s cool to be them and be different. I really just wanted to make that statement, the style that black girls could be rockers too, with the heavy metal chain belts and all that. I wanted them to see we can do whatever we want to do. That was most important to me.
It has been a little over 30 years since Jody Watley was released. If you could hop into a time machine and go back to 1987, is there anything you would have changed at that time?
Jody Watley: In thinking about it, I would have had a different manager. For my first manager, I looked to see who managed Michael Jackson and Madonna, because they were really successful and I wanted them to be my manager. Freddy DeMann managed both of them. I went to them for management and when all was said and done, Freddy was going to manage me, but Madonna said he couldn’t manage me and manage her too, so they ended up shifting me to a junior manager in the company named Bennett Freed and he was really inexperienced. He was in over his head. He also managed the group ABC from London. He said you will probably sell 50,000 and they will probably sell platinum and it ended up being the other way around. I sold double platinum and they sold 50,000 (laughs). He made a lot of mistakes. I succeeded anyway. I think anytime you have someone in your circle, and that’s me speaking to myself even now, that it’s usually a red flag if they don’t really believe in you, get rid of them. If I had to change one thing, I would have gotten a different manager since it wasn’t going to be who I really wanted to manage me anyway. That experience and really pushing your vision through, that’s really the only thing I could think of from my debut album. It succeeded despite of him, it was God and the universe and destiny. He was the weakest link.
You are a style icon and you can see your influence even in artists today. When you look at them and see what they are doing, do you see that influence as they are creating their own lanes with fashion?
Jody Watley: I think it’s awesome, in particular with Rihanna. She’s my favorite. I’m so proud, I love it. I have a lot of Fenty and I pretty much have supported everything that she’s done from Puma, to the clothing line, to Fenty. I really love that she has been able to capitalize off the fact that she’s stylish.
One of the things that I wanted to do was to have a clothing line since people wanted to dress like me, but I couldn’t get anyone to take it seriously. That again goes back to having the right manager. I did convince MCA to give away tiny Jody Watley perfume for promotion for the third album. So again, it was ahead of all the record companies and marketing companies, and they just didn’t get it. I couldn’t get the right person to see why it made so much sense, but to see it come to fruition for those artists, I think it’s wonderful and I feel a part of that.
You have been cited as an inspiration for many artists, but who inspires you these days?
Jody Watley: I’m inspired by Rihanna, I love what she’s doing. Even with everything that I’m doing, you know the consistency with branding along the way when people think of me whether it’s past or present style; there’s always an unpredictability. What’s she going to do next? Or what is she going to do now?
Like right now I have a jazz single out and I have an R&B group out and we have the number two R&B single in the U.K. and those are unexpected things. I am always inspired by people who are continuing to evolve and keep it moving. Oprah and people who are very business minded and creative. People who make other people feel inspired by the things that they do whether it’s through their social media, or out of the spotlight, and they are doing something good and it’s not stagnant. Oprah and Rihanna are up there. Richard Branson is another one. I read a lot about business people from John Johnson and how he built the whole Ebony and Jet to Berry Gordy and Motown.
My biggest inspiration coming up was my dad, because he was a very forward thinker. I am an Aquarian like him, he passed away a long time ago. He would do things like have Christmas in August and would say live in the now don’t wait to use these special dishes, if you want to dress up, do it. My dad was very influential in how I viewed life early on. Life is so precious.
Talk about your jazz single “Waiting in Vain.” People may not realize that you are such a versatile singer.
Jody Watley: My parents loved jazz when I was growing up. The many artists that came out of Motown were also very influential with me as a little girl. Jazz music was too. Nancy Wilson is one of my favorite singers of all time. I just love the genre. The first jazz single that I did was in 1990 for a project called Red, Hot, and Blue. It was the first project that created HIV and AIDS awareness and it was a charitable record. All of the proceeds went to create HIV/AIDS Awareness. We got to do Cole Porter songs any way we wanted. I chose jazz since it wasn’t a Jody Watley album, it gave me the freedom to do something different and show that side. I’m comfortable singing it and my tone suits it. So since then I’ve been wanting to do something and so I did a jazz version of Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain.” It’s so beautiful it’s got a Bossa Nova feel to it, I just love it. Even though I’m a dance girl at heart I’m a jazz girl too. It’s taken off so great.
It just shows a different side. Jazz is a big part of soul music and our culture. It’s my way of showing love to an art form that in many ways is overlooked. That was part of the inspiration also for releasing it. I’m really happy whether it is R&B, pop, electronica, dance, jazz; it’s all good.
You mentioned your new group, Jody Watley featuring SRL. The single “The Mood” has a different vibe. Is there an album in the works?
Jody Watley: Our target date for the album Bridges is June. Bridges is such a metaphor for life and is about evolving and leaving things in the past and moving onto other things. It represents so many things. I’m so glad our music is being well received. Our show is fantastic.
How would you describe the group’s sound?
Jody Watley: It’s a whole different vibe. It’s contemporary R&B and it’s got the pop flair to it. The album Bridges is pretty eclectic. There’s a mixture of hip hop, dance, and contemporary R&B. I call it a gumbo of styles but rooted in soul music. So, I think Jody Watley featuring SRL is a sonic revolution of love and it’s rooted in the love that we all have for quality music. It’s a mixture. It’s all fresh, we aren’t trying to be anything. We are the next great music trio for the now and moving forward. I’m proud of this album.
How do you stay relevant and the key to your longevity? Is the key really being able to be versatile enough to do all of it?
Jody Watley: It’s true, my fan base is so diverse. It is because I’ve never gotten stuck. I always make new goals for myself and it keeps people guessing and excited. New fans are coming on board, and people are often shocked I’m still doing it and that’s nice too to be able to surprise people. I think that’s how you do stay relevant and current; you don’t get stuck in the past and resting upon your laurels. The easiest thing is to go do a greatest hits tour and there’s nothing wrong with that, I do my greatest hits too but as an artist and just being alive, I’m always saying how can I be fabulous today? (laughs) I think that’s important and I like to remind people of that.
Why is having a place like the NMAAM so important?
Jody Watley: It’s so necessary and so important, rhythm and blues and soul music is the foundation for so many music genres in America. It is American music and influenced generations of people. To have that history which is often lost in our country, because it’s not just for us, it’s for the world. To have a place that is honoring the rich and profound richness of the legacy of our music, which is music for the world to me. If I’m in U.K. or Germany, American soul music is everywhere. There should be a place for all time where it is preserving African American music. It’s crazy that we haven’t had this before, but it’s better late than never and it’s very necessary and if we don’t do it then it won’t be done.
Fill in the blank: My music matters because…
Jody Watley: My music matters because it’s strong and joyful.
For more information on Jody Watley check out her website.
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.
Crafting iconic music across multiple genres has allowed Grammy award winning singer, songwriter, producer James Mtume to create his own blueprint as his contribution to America’s soundtrack. The name “Mtume” means “messenger” in Swahili, and it fits his persona since he has delivered a powerful message of not being afraid of exploring, growing, and pushing boundaries in his musical career. His discography consists of jazz, R&B, funk, and pop.
While Mtume is the biological son of saxophonist Jimmy Heath, he was raised by his mother Bertha Forman and James “Hen Gates” Forman, a pianist with Charlie Parker’s band. He went on to fill his bucket list of top three talents he wanted to work with, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, and Miles Davis.
The Philadelphia native took what he learned from working with Miles Davis and began creating avant-garde jazz compositions filled with culturally conscious themes. In 1972, the Mtume Umoja Ensemble released Alkebu-Lan – Land of The Blacks, followed by Kawaida, Alkebu-Lan, and Rebirth Cycle.
By the ’80s, Mtume took jazz and transformed it with drum machines and synthesizers. The jazz, funk, and R&B sound created Mtume’s brand of “sophistafunk” that can be heard in songs like “What Ya Gonna Do with My Lovin?” by Stephanie Mills. He also produced and wrote for artists like Phyllis Hyman, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, Teddy Pendergrass, R. Kelly, K-Ci and Jo-Jo, and Mary J. Blige. He co-wrote the Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway classic “The Closer I Get to You,” and Stephanie Mills’ hit song “Never Knew Love Like This.”
In the 1980s, he created the band Mtume that included singer, songwriter Reggie Lucas and vocalist Tawatha Agee. In 1983, Mtume released the legendary hit “Juicy Fruit” from the album Juicy Fruit, a song that broke new ground with a man writing risqué lyrics from a woman’s point of view. That song would later provide the template for sampling in hip hop especially after the Notorious B.I.G. sampled the song in 1994. The group had other hits including, “You, Me, and He” and “Give it On Up (If You Want To).” Mtume’s magical pen has scored music for movies and television shows such as “Native Son,” and “New York Undercover.”
Mtume has consistently proven time and time again that he is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to straddling the lanes of music genres. I caught up with the living legend to talk about groundbreaking moments, creating timeless music, and why the face of R&B is changing.
Shameika: What has been the highlight of your career?
James Mtume: It’s hard to say the biggest, that’s like my favorite movie, there’s more than one. One highlight was being able to score the music for the show “New York Undercover.” At that time, I was probably the only black composer for a dramatic series on television. They were hiring black people for comedies, but “New York Undercover” was a groundbreaking show and it reflected us. The challenge for me was to put our music on television in a way that it had never been heard. That was an extremely gratifying emotion for me.
Shameika:It’s still a huge part of our culture even today.
James Mtume: Absolutely. I also had the opportunity to have a special place in the series called Natalie’s. It was a place where I could bring in new artists, redo the tracks, and have them perform a classic. For example, Mary J. Blige performing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” or 112 doing “After the Love is Gone.”
I also had the opportunity to bring in classic artists and have them redo their hits like B.B. King did “The Thrill is Gone,” Ashford & Simpson, Chaka Khan, and more. So, it was very time consuming because I had to put in 17 hours a day between scoring and redoing those songs. None of those tracks were from the record, I had to redo those and that’s where my producing chops were very helpful.
Shameika: Your music has had a huge influence on R&B, Hip Hop, and Jazz over the course of several decades. Why do you think your music is timeless?
James Mtume: I always say I never lied to the music and the music never lied to me. One of the axioms and principles that I try to do music by is always be honest to the idiom that you’re writing in. If I’m writing in jazz, then it’s straight up jazz, if I’m writing funk, it’s straight up funk, if I’m writing pop, then it’s straight up pop. It’s just about honoring the music and also never being afraid to embrace change. You know if you listen to where I started in avant-garde jazz, I did a couple albums of that then that was it. Then I joined Miles [Davis] and that’s where the electronic influence came in. So, to be able to grow and be honest with how you are growing. You always have to embrace change. I always tell people if you don’t change, eventually you’ll be changed by change. I was able to move from acoustic to electronic because it was a natural evolution for me. It was not like I was fighting reality, I tried to embrace it.
Shameika:A lot of artists seem to feel they have to conform to the type of music that’s out now, whether it’s incorporating auto-tune, or completely changing their style to fit what’s hot right now. What are your thoughts on that?
James Mtume: That’s a great point. If you just change because it’s what you think is happening, that’s called adaptation, trying to fit in. If you change because you are fitting into something, that’s metamorphosis. I evolved into those things.
“Juicy Fruit” was considered vulgar. When I took that song to Epic Records they didn’t want to release it. I had to fight to get the song released because they were so afraid of that one line. It’s the line that everybody waits to sing. Now if you compare that one line to what’s out here now, it’s like a nursery rhyme (laughs). You have to write for where your heart is. If you just write to fit in, it never works because it’s just imitation. I don’t believe in imitation, I believe in innovation.
Shameika: Speaking of “Juicy Fruit” you broke ground writing sexual lyrics from a female’s point of view. How different was that switch for you?
James Mtume: No two women can make another human being, and no two men can make another human being. It’s a male and a female sensibility that creates all of us. Now I’m not talking about sexual preference, that’s a different conversation. I’ve always believed that most men have a problem embracing their femininity. You have masculinity and femininity, women have it too. My mother explained it to me. So, writing as a male from a female’s perspective, it’s very easy for me. I just write from that. “You, Me, and He” was another one I wrote where a woman was telling a man about another relationship. There are plenty of songs, especially in R&B where the man is telling the woman about something. The man had to hear it. It wasn’t really a challenge, but it was an interesting perspective to have. So that’s why when you hear “Juicy Fruit,” the lyrics are very imaginative. I think women are much more sensual and they don’t think in stark ways like men do. “Candy Rain, comin’ down, taste you in my mind, and spread you all around,” and “You’re my chocolate star” that’s just where I come from, and I address that part of myself. It has nothing to do with sexual preference, it has to do with sensibility.
Shameika: How did you find your musical voice?
James Mtume: I think it goes back to the way I grew up, and the context that I grew up in. I grew up in a musical family. My biological father is Jimmy Heath, jazz saxophonist and composer of the world-famous Heath Brothers. My uncles are Percy Heath and Tootie Heath. The father that raised me, and I don’t use words like stepfather, but the father that raised me was also a great pianist out of Philadelphia, James “Hen Gate” Forman. I grew up maybe at dinner one night there might be Dizzy Gillespie, or another night it might be Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, or Miles Davis. They would come to Philly and more often than not, they’d be over to the house. So, I grew up listening to these great jazz musicians as a kid. That was in the late 1950s. So, I’m watching the birth of R&B, here’s Motown exploding, and we had Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” so I kind of had both worlds growing up with jazz, funk, and R&B. Of course, there was James Brown, so I’m musically schizophrenic I guess (laughs). I love all of it. I think that also allowed me to be open to growth, knowing there was more than one world. Of course, as I got older I began to listen to European classical music. When people say classical music they automatically mean European, but I say no there’s also African American classical music, our classical music is jazz. I can safely say I grew up with the classics. It was all full circle.
Shameika: You grew up listening to Miles Davis and then went on to work with him. What was the biggest lesson you learned from working with him?
James Mtume: The biggest lesson I learned working with him was once you cross a musical bridge, burn that bridge so you can never go back. That’s been my mantra. Once I feel that I’ve crossed, or accomplished a goal in one dynamic in music, I burn it, I can’t go back. If you don’t have a rearview mirror, you can only go forward. You can’t even see what you just did. People, especially artists get stuck in the quick sand and think they need to do the same thing and do the same music. But if you don’t grow then you are stagnant. If you burn a bridge you can’t repeat yourself. That’s what I learned from Miles. He also said once you begin to hear a new sound in your head, you have to change your band. When you change your music, you have to change your band. Who better to learn that from than a man who changed the direction of all music 3 or 4 times? Miles constantly evolved and succeeded. It also evolved with music.
Shameika: If you can’t go back then what do you think of people that say they miss the music from the earlier decades? Do you miss any music at all?
James Mtume: I always say this, music is the only art form that touches you, but you can’t touch it. What I mean by that is I can touch a book a poetry, a sculpture, or a painting, but I can’t touch a B Flat. You can’t touch sound, and yet sound touches you. That’s what makes music different from every other art form. Where were you the first time you heard a certain song? Was that with your first boyfriend? We have emotional and mental memory banks that takes us back to a period. I understand when people say they miss the music. I don’t miss any music period. I just acknowledge what was good during that period and what wasn’t. There’s only two types of music, good and bad, everything else is personal preference.
The thing that I do miss is the absence of young black bands. If you were to ask me to name you three black bands right now, I couldn’t. You can say The Roots and that’s where you get stuck. I love The Roots, but take them out then who do you have? Why are there no black bands? When I came up there was Earth, Wind, & Fire, Kool and the Gang, Parliament Funkadelic, Ohio Players, and the list goes on and on. You don’t have any black bands now and bands have a different emotional connection with people. That’s a sign, they don’t sign young black R&B singers if we really want to be honest about this. Usher has been around 20 something years, Chris Brown and who else? It drops off. Now videos are being made to replace the original sound of the art form.
They are out there but they’re not black. Justin Timberlake is doing it and he’s not black. It’s becoming more and more true. I say the goal of this business was to control black music without using black people. Some of these young artists are really talented but none of them are black, they won’t sign them. If you think about it, most of the young R&B singers are young white singers and some of them can really sing. What I’m saying is young people coming up don’t have a reference. We created an art form that we’re not even claiming anymore or that has been taken and removed from us. I don’t care what male R&B singer you had, we still had Al Green, I don’t care what young white band you had, we still had Sly Stone. We don’t even have the references anymore. That’s happening to rap music. Whoever controls the image of the music, controls the definition of the music. So, the image of R&B and soul music is not our face.
Shameika: What do you think of many artists just going the independent route since they aren’t being signed?
James Mtume: I think that’s the good part about social media; the technology. You can do your music, press send, and it’s all over the world. It’s like that’s the last refuge, because going the regular route doesn’t exist for us anymore. You are being redefined, and this is the music that you created and you are no longer the face of that. It started happening with the videos. I have a daughter that’s chocolate, that’s my chocolate star, and she was watching a video, she was probably around 6 years old, and she looked at me and said, “I guess I can’t be in the video.” I think she was watching a Prince video or something like that and she realized that there were no dark-skinned girls in it. I think about when we shot the video for “Juicy Fruit”, and we came off the road, shot it in one day. There’s an Asian girl in it and I’m not racist or anything, I didn’t think anything about it, but I looked back at it and thought all the videos are being watered down. I didn’t see the Rolling Stones having to have 80% black women in their videos. Why do we always have to crossover to them and they don’t have to crossover to us? That’s a very important point. They have also destroyed the honesty of our music, it became more about who you look like and how you look. It was crazy, I saw a lot. Rick James and I even talked about it. They watered down the music, you couldn’t even be honest to who your audience was.
Shameika: To your point about video, or at least T.V. shows; over the years there were shows that gave African American artists a platform like “Soul Train” or even “106 & Park,” and none of those exist anymore. What are your thoughts about that?
James Mtume: That’s a good point. Yes, we had those and we had Arsenio Hall. He got taken off the air, and the reason why that’s important for me to bring up 1995 was the first season for “New York Undercover.” In 1994, earlier that year, “The Arsenio Hall Show” was taken off the air. That’s one of the things that made me think about Natalie’s. In the script it was just a place where the cops went to meet and talk. I said you know what, Arsenio is off the air and there’s nowhere for people to see black artists. “Soul Train” was still on the air but that was a staple, but on a regular television series, there was no where to see black artists so that’s why I came up with the idea to bring in young artists and redo a classic and bring in classic artists to redo their hits. We started getting mail saying a lot of people were tuning in just to see who was going to perform at Natalie’s in the next episode. There was no place else for us to be seen.
We’d be foolish to not acknowledge that there’s been a design put in place. There’s not even black music departments anymore. There’s a phrase in one of our songs that says “there would be no R&B if not for me” and that’s what has happened.
Shameika: Your work has also been sampled a lot. Are there any particular songs that stand out to you that you love that sampled your music?
James Mtume: First of all, “Juicy Fruit.” I say we are the grandparents of hip hop sampling. That’s a result of Biggie and Puffy embracing it. I remember when Puffy asked me about wanting to sample “Juicy Fruit.” My only thing was anybody that wants to sample my music has to pay me. Back then a lot of artists were being sampled and not being paid. We cut our deal and that was great.
But to your question, I really loved Keyshia Cole and Missy Elliot’s interpretation on “Let it Go.” I’ve been sampled by Eve, Common, DMX, Nas, there’s so many names. Tamar Braxton, Jay-Z did on his first album Reasonable Doubt. I’ve had a major connection with major hip hop artists and I’m grateful for that because it’s important to feel that your music was able to expand beyond your own generation. I’ve been very fortunate with that. It goes back to being timeless. I always wanted to have the feeling that if you put on my music 30 or 40 years later, it would still have the feeling that it was recorded yesterday. That’s how I feel about a lot of great jazz, like Miles Davis. It taps into purity and it taps into that essence and a high musical standard. We can put on Motown records and when I hear “My Girl” it’s still great. Same with music by Curtis Mayfield, and he’s one of my inspirations. The fact is those are great songs. I put on one of my favorite things, jazz, and think oh my goodness it sounds like these cats recorded it this morning. That’s what you want to strive for; to make music that doesn’t get locked into a time reference.
Shameika: What else are you working on?
James Mtume: I pretty much retired in 1997 after “New York Undercover,” the only thing I did was co-wrote a song for a great singer named Bilal called “Soul Sista.” Right now, I’m working with Tawatha Agee, Mtume’s lead singer. We are back in the studio working on a new project for her. After 8 years of turning them down, I’m finally doing “Unsung.” It will air in June.
Shameika: In Kashif’s last interview with Mass Appeal. He mentioned you were one of his musical heroes. How did you feel about being hailed as a musical hero?
James Mtume: My man! Oh wow! Maybe I can give you a little background. Kashif got with Stephanie Mills and had all the charts from all those records we were doing. I remember him telling me that he would sit there and watch and study the chord changes we were doing. He said “it really opened up a door to me.” Needless to say, Kashif went on to create his own genre and his own set of accomplishments. I’m really flattered. I didn’t know that.
Shameika: Fill in the blank: My music matters because….
James Mtume: My music matters because I am just part of an endless link of black music.
For more information on James Mtume, check out his website.
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