Where are you right now? Looks like you’re in between legs of the tour. Are you at home in New Jersey?
Yeah I’m at home in New Jersey. I just got back from Virginia. My wife’s mother has been a little under the weather. So as soon I got back home off the tour, we went down there to pay her a little visit. And now I’m back in Plainsfield, New Jersey. Over here visiting my brother. Sitting back. Laughing at some things that happened in the past. You know how it is when you’re with family.
I do. I have a brother myself. That’s pretty much all we do when we get together. So, I gotta start off by saying it’s great to interview you on Valentine’s Day. Back in 2012, I was dating the girl who eventually would become my wife. And it was during that year that Faithful Man came out. That was our soundtrack.
That’s what I want to hear! That’s what I want to hear right there! [laughs].
Yeah, so it’s one of our favorite and most important records. We’re married now and about to have a baby, so I gotta say thank you for putting out that record.
Well congratulations on your marriage. I hope the baby is healthy and everything goes perfect for you guys.
When I was preparing for this interview, I came across an article where you said your mother was a gospel singer. I was wondering if you were taken by church music too? Does gospel inform your approach to songwriting today?
My mother was a gospel singer. Let me tell you a story about that. When we were young kids, my mother and father were having a pretty rough time. Back in the day, a man and a woman of color living in North Carolina had very limited opportunities. So on Fridays and Saturdays, our house would turn into a little speakeasy. Daddy would sell fish sandwiches and barbecue sandwiches and some beer. And some corn liquor, you know what I mean? When I look back on it now, I can appreciate why he did that. They saved all that money and eventually bought a house.
That experience of the speakeasy was something. They took good care of us now. We were in safe hands at all times. They would put us to bed, and the party started once they thought we were asleep. But every eye that’s closed is not asleep, trust me [laughs].
When the speakeasy started and the people would come over, they’d start playing some music. And daddy was playing some good music. Jimmy Reed. Buddy Holly. Little Richard. Anything that was popular at that time. He had a nice turntable and nice speakers. They would periodically come back to check on us to make sure we were asleep. But my brothers and I would always see them coming. Peeping out through the cracks. We would see them dancing and having a good time and listening to the music. Mama and daddy would come, and we’d get back in the bed and pretend we were asleep.
That experience of the speakeasy showed me how grown folks act. I’m about seven or eight years old, and I’m watching these grown folks react to this secular music. But then on Sunday, we had to go to Sunday School. And I would see some of the same people that were doing some of these crazy dances on Friday and Saturday night. And now I’d see them in the church. They’d have their hands stuck up in the air looking at the ceiling like they were waiting for something to come down. And that used to scare me. I would wonder what they were looking at. I didn’t see nothing but a ceiling. They had their hands stuck up like somebody was going to give them something, but nobody never did.
We had a preacher named Reverend Cotton, and he would touch people. And they’d just fall out on the floor. I’d say to myself, “Please don’t be touching me.” [laughs] I was scared. I didn’t know why they were falling out.
That was my first experience with secular and gospel music. When I say secular, I’m talking about the blues of that time. The rhythms of that time. Everything at that time was closely related to gospel. It was before the time when things had gotten completely separated from gospel. That was the shaping of my musical life. Gospel and secular music have always been close to me.
Secular musicians back then – soul music I call it – they were singing about things in their lives, things that were happening at that time. But they always did it in a respectable way. So for the music, the soul music that I create, I try to keep God in mind. Regarding what I’m saying and how I say it. I hope that God would be pleased even though I’m not singing about the “when and the then.” Gospel is about the “when and the then.” And the coming. But true soul music is about the “here and the now.” A true soul singer hopes it will be pleasing to God. So I try not go beyond the borders of what God wouldn’t like. I always try to keep God in mind. The things I sing about are the “here and the now,” but I pray that God would say, “You didn’t do too bad, son. You didn’t stray too far away.”
I was kind of expecting you to say something like that, because my next question was about the parties at your house. I read that you once called it a “juke joint.”
Yeah there were juke joints back then. If you’re selling corn liquor and you’re selling beer, that’s a juke joint. I’m not making any excuses for my father. He didn’t take the money and have a good time. He bought us a house. We were some of the only blacks living in Wilson that lived in our own house. Some of the very few.
My mother was a little bit educated. She had her high school diploma. But my father didn’t. But they put values in our lives. I saw that there may be some things you have to do in life that you might not be too proud of, but you take advantage of whatever the situation is, and you make the best of that situation. That’s what my father and mother did. I take my hat off to them to this day. And believe it or not, they’re with me twenty four hours a day. Their spirits are with me. I even named an album after my mother. Emma Jean. That’s how close knit of a family we were.
I love that story. And I love that record too. My next question is kind of related to the first one. Our record store and music blog is focused on North Carolina music, both the history of it and the contemporary scene today. Can you talk about the local and regional music you remember? Who were the bands from the 1960s and 1970s that you were listening to?
Right off the top my head, the one who was important to me, was Porter Wagoner. I think I watched just about every Porter Wagoner show. All those shiny outfits he used to wear. Dolly Parton was on his show. There was a lot of country music in the region of North Carolina where we lived. You heard soul music late at night, maybe out of Nashville where you could barely get the signal on the radio. And then you heard it for two hours on Saturday on the local radio stations.
Country and western played a very important role in making me the artist I became. I still have a great appreciation for country music.
What about David Lee? Were you familiar with him and the stuff he was doing in Shelby?
Yeah, David Lee. I knew of him. Shelby, North Carolina. Another band was The Occasions. They were from North Carolina. They had a record out called Girl Watcher. That name David Lee rings a bell though. No doubt about it.
There was so much good music coming out of North Carolina at that time. I also listened to a lot of pop. People like Leslie Gore and Connie Francis. The Four Seasons. You either listened to pop or country music. And you’d only get to hear soul music for a couple of hours on Saturdays. Or you could get it out of Nashville late at night.
The Beatles knocked the socks off of me, man. When they played the Ed Sullivan Show. That’s what really made me want to become a musician. When I saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. And then I saw James Brown on the T.A.M.I. Show. That sealed the deal.
Speaking of James Brown, he came out of Georgia. Was there a difference between the North Carolina/South Carolina sound and the Georgia sound? Or was it all drinking from the same well?
It was all drinking from the same well. James Brown had a lot of North Carolina musicians. You know, Maceo [Parker] is from North Carolina. His brother Melvin is from there too. They’re from Kinston. James had lot of guys from Ohio too. James had everybody. They were from all over the place.
I saw Fred Wesley about a month ago. We were on the same show. Fred is from Mobile. So James had a universal band. Across the United States. If he found a good musician, he kept him.
You see, the radio allowed the merger of musicians from all over. With radio, an artist might use a musician from California or Georgia or Cincinatti or New York. It’s always been about a merger.
James was one of the first artists that had group members from all over the place. He was one of the only black artists at the time traveling with a band. Most artists would have fill-in bands when they came to town. Like Lee Dorsey used to do. He’d come to town, and find musicians and rehearse with them before a show. But James always had his own band. His music to me was futuristic, because that’s the way people are doing it today. People travel with their own band.
Speaking of being a traveling band, I know you’ve been to Charlotte before. You’ve played here a couple of times, including at Tremont Music Hall two or three times over the past couple of years. When was the first time you played here and what memories of the city do you have?
The first time I ever actually played Charlotte was with Kip Anderson some years ago. I don’t remember the name of the place. I had just cut “Bewildered” and “Tell Her That I Love Her” in Arthur Smith’s studio in Charlotte. We had performed there after the recording session, but I don’t recall the venue. I guess I was about seventeen years old at the time. But I do remember that we had a good time. Kip was a great inspiration to me. He was from Fayetteville.
You cut those two records there. Did you ever come back to that studio?
No. But I did cut my first records there.
The first time you ever put anything on wax was in Charlotte? That’s pretty cool. People I know are going to love to hear that.
I feel very attached to Charlotte. Very attached. Because that’s where it all started for me as far as my recording career is concerned.
Switching gears, I’m curious to learn more about the Big Crown Records story. I know it came about during the final days of Truth & Soul Records, but I’m wondering how you’re involved. Are you solely a recording artist or are you in on the production too?
I help with the production of the stuff that I’m cutting. Leon [Michels] is the producer, but I help and we are usually in agreement.
As far as Big Crown and Truth & Soul, the only thing I know of that situation is that it was a business move. Everybody on Big Crown is the same as they were at Truth & Soul. It’s still the same team. There was a business move, and that’ the only thing I know of that.
It seems like everything’s going great. I thought your new record turned out great, and I’m loving that Lady Wray record. It’s really powerful.
I’ll tell her that.
My next question is kind of a sad one. I watched that Sharon Jones documentary on Netflix recently, and I’m telling you – I’ve never cried that much watching a movie ever. It reminded me of how inspiring she was and how sad it is that she left this world just as she was hitting her stride. Can you talk about your relationship with Sharon, and did you have a chance to say goodbye?
I loved Sharon just like a sister. It’s sad sometimes the way things work out. But God knows what needs to be done in order to fulfill what he has in mind. Sharon and I spoke very often prior to her demise. As I said, she was just like a sister. Her true dream was music. It was her whole life. She lived and breathed music. It’s sad for me to think that at the pinnacle of her musical career, she was taken. But the things that God does are impossible for humans to understand. What he does is so profound and deep, it’s impossible for us to understand why. I can only be grateful that we had her for the time that we had her. That’s the way I look at it. I’m grateful for the moments we shared together, and I’m grateful for the people that she touched and enjoyed what she did. I’m appreciative of the opportunity I had to work with her. The time that I had. She will always be loved. That’s about all I can say about Sharon, man. She was just a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful person.
I pray that when I go, that someone will be able to say that about me. That my life was worthwhile. If someone can say something good about you when you expire, when you leave this earth, you’ve done your job. I don’t know what else to say about Sharon.
So you’re back in New Jersey, but you were over in Europe for a little while. What was the vibe like over there?
Man they gave us so much love over there. It’s impossible to explain how much love was given. I think people really can see how sincere we are when we speak about love. It’s the adhesive bond that bounds all humans together. And I think people see it. When they come to the show, they see. They can feel. When I talk about love is the answer, love is the panacea, I’m not joking. Love still reigns.
There’s a lot of people who make materials the most important things in their lives. And they forget about who they are. They lose themselves in the materials. But those things fade. The soul lasts forever. A person has to put it in perspective. The materials are not us. All the components that make up my body are going back to the soil. But the Spirit is going to thrive. As long as I keep that in mind, at my time of expiration, I’m going to swim straight toward the light. Just like I did when I came into this Earth. I swam straight toward the egg. And I got here. I beat millions and millions of them. I won. Each and every human is a winner when they get here.
So we’re not going to be confused. We’re going straight toward the light. You ain’t got time to think then. You gotta think now and make your preparations now. At my moment of expiration, I’m planning on doing some hard swimming, bro [laughs].
I hear you man. Me too. I hope I can get to the light!
You will. You will. You won’t be hesitating trying to figure it out [laughs]. Should I go this way? Should I go that way? There’s not gonna be enough room. There’s gonna be room for just a few. Just a few. You better believe I’m gonna be back stroking! [laughs]
You’re gonna be swimming.
I’m gonna be doing all kinds of strokes [laughs].
So when you were over there in Europe, you were traveling with The Expressions. Is the band always the same, or is there a rotating cast?
We have to rotate because all the guys have families and obligations. We have about fourteen or fifteen Expressions. It could be more than that. Most of the time it’s the same group, but if someone has to this or do that, someone else comes in with the same feel. We don’t skip a beat.
We realize that the road is very demanding. Very demanding. And people have lives. They have to be with their families at certain times. Anyone that plays with me is a true member of The Expressions.
The composition of the band is mainly Leon [Michels], Nick [Movshon], Toby [Pazner], myself, Homer [Steinweiss], Tommy [Brenneck]. That’s who gets in the studio, the true Expressions. We come up with the ideas. On the road, they come in from time to time and go out. It’s like a family, man. Whoever steps in on the guitar or on the sax, like Max Shrager or Michael Buckely, they play on quite a few of the records. And Jason [Colby]. It’s like a big family. We want people to have time with their families.
My wife and I have been together for like forty-seven years. I’ve had my kids. They have kids, so I’ve got grandkids. I fly my wife in from time to time. We take it as a vacation. In other words, we make it work. We don’t just get out on the road with no consideration for anything. I believe in unity. Family first. That’s what this whole Expressions model is built on.
So we got it set up where people are making music and raising their kids and being with family. We’re having the time of our lives.
I can’t wait to see it. I caught your show at The Independent in San Francisco on the Faithful Man tour, and I’m ready to do it again.
Every gig is like walking into a candy store. We go out there and experiment with the vibes of each other. We know the list we’re going to play. But nobody knows. We don’t anticipate how the crowd’s going to respond. We don’t anticipate anything. We just go out there and play these songs like our life is depending on it. Every song is like our life is hanging by the thread of that song. It feels sometimes like we’re on a tightrope. The audience being happy is that important to me. I feel like I’m on a tightrope, walking. Hoping that I reach the other side so I can bring the joy and the love. It’s like putting my life on the line. But it’s good! It’s all good! [laughs]