Interviews

A BETTER MAN...BRIAN McKNIGHT TALKS ABOUT HOW LOVE TRANSFORMED HIS WORLD

Wednesday, 02 March 2016 10:56 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

brian_mcknight_shaded"I thought that true love was a just fairytale but I have it and it's pretty amazing," declares an elated and seemingly genuinely love-struck BRIAN McKNIGHT, the Buffalo-born R&B singer/songwriter who has just released his sixteenth album, 'Better,' via the Kobalt label ("it's a venture between my publisher and myself," explains the singer, who has previously recorded for Wng/Mercury, Motown and E1 Music).

It doesn't seem that long ago that Brian McKnight was being touted as the new R&B kid on the block. But time flies and now its twenty-five-years later. While the majority of R&B stars from 1992 have long gone, Brian McKnight is still here and making music that continues to be valid and relevant. With twenty-five years of recording history behind him, the softly-spoken and articulate singer/songwriter- who's been nominated for a Grammy sixteen times but never won - has achieved a remarkable longevity in a genre where fame is usually a fickle mistress and careers are mostly excruciatingly short.

He's had a chart-topping single and album - 'Anytime' in 1997 - and been a consistent performer in the R&B arena since 1992, when his silky smooth, gospel-reared tones were introduced via his striking debut single, 'The Way Love Goes.'  A quarter-of-a-century on, McKnight is still singing and writing songs about love and romance but this time an enriched sense of personal experience informs his material on 'Better' - and the irony is not lost on the singer. "After all the love songs that I've written, it took me till I was forty-two to actually find a real love," he laughs. "This whole album is really the story of my relationship with my girlfriend, Leilani, and 'Better' itself is really the anchor of how I feel, considering that I didn't think real love really existed. You can tell this album has a far more optimistic view of life in general than any one I've ever made."

Talking exclusively to SJF's Charles Waring, a rejuvenated McKnight sheds light on the background to his new album and reflects on his past and different aspects of his career...

 

Last Updated on Wednesday, 02 March 2016 11:30

 

TONY TALKS... THE TONY MOMRELLE INTERVIEW

Thursday, 18 February 2016 17:14 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

1toneLondoner TONY MOMRELLE is acknowledged by business insiders as one of the UK's finest soul singers. His voice will be familiar to many...he's done sessions and live BVs for people like Elton John, Terry Callier, Gloria Estefan, Celine Dion, Janet Jackson, Sade, Gary Barlow, Andrea Bocelli, Gwen Stefani, Gabrielle, and Robert Palmer. More importantly, though, is the fact that for some years he's been one of the signature voices in Incognito.

Now with the launch of an acclaimed solo album 'Keep Pushing', maybe the time's arrived when people will know not just the voice but also the name, Tony Momrelle. With solo success beckoning we met up with Tony and, as ever, began by wanting to know a little bit about his personal background....

I was born in London in the 70's. My mother is Jamaican and my father is St Lucian. I grew up in South London, loved music from a very early age from going to church with my mother and my grandparents so music was always with me.

OK, so growing up, who were your heroes and musical influences?

Heroes? Well there are way too many to mention.... Jesus, Martin Luther King, my parents. Influences? Donny Hathaway, Stevie Wonder and Fred Hammond.

When then did you start singing professionally... what made you take up the business?

I started singing professionally around the age of 23 on and off as I had a full time job in marketing and sales so I guess it was more of a hobby back then. I decided to go full time after a few key recording sessions that opened my mind to the world of music.

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 18 February 2016 17:36

 

ROBIN’S REFLECTIONS... THE ROBIN McKELLE INTERVIEW.

Sunday, 07 February 2016 18:52 Bill B E-mailPrintPDF

ROBIN_MCKELLE_12-1Blue-eyed soul sister ROBIN McKELLE won the hearts of the soul community with her last two long players. Backed by the redoubtable Flytones, both 2012's 'Soul Flower' and 'Heart Of Memphis' from two years later were both packed with classy, passionate modern soul. Songs like 'Fairytale Ending', 'Love's Work' (a duet with Gregory Porter) and 'Control Yourself' became instant classics and on the back of the albums, Robin's live shows (especially in France) became sell out affairs.

In April Robin is set to release a brand new album – 'The Looking Glass' and the ten tracker has a few surprises in store for Robin's fans. First and most obvious surprise is that there's no mention of the Flytones in the billing or on the credits! So when we met up with the Rochester singer/songwriter to talk about the 'The Looking Glass', the absence of the Flytones was the first thing we wanted to know about....

Yes, after working with the Flytones (which was a name I had given my band) I decided that it was time for me to step outside my comfort zone, once again, and to try something a bit different. I wanted to evolve my classic soul sound to more of a modern fresh sound. I wanted to really focus on my song writing and challenge myself to make an album that was more personal.

So will the old Flytones still be working live with you?

No, the Flytones won't be touring with me this time around as I have a new band. This keeps things fresh and there are new chances for musical spontaneity and creating new moments without preconceived notions and limits.

 

Last Updated on Sunday, 07 February 2016 19:11

 

MAURICE WHITE, PHILOSOPHER AND TRUTH SEEKER - AN APPRECIATION

Friday, 05 February 2016 11:16 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

MW_suit"I started out as a kid being very religious. I wanted answers to a lot of questions that I had and I took the mystical route and did research on a metaphysical level to find the truth." So said Maurice White, a musical visionary whose group Earth, Wind & Fire was a groundbreaking aggregation that fused soul, big band funk, pop and Latin music with metaphysics, mysticism and a cosmic consciousness. It was a unique combination of elements and although there were, certainly, esoteric components to EW&F's unique aesthetic values, the positivity of their central message that espoused  love, peace and understanding was never too obscure for the masses and they managed to make music that was attractive and infectious enough to appeal to a global audience. "We were trying to bring together all different types of music," Maurice White told me in 2004 when I interviewed him for Blues & Soul magazine. "We were definitely trying to make the band appeal to a universal audience. People loved our sound. It was very important to us."

Though Earth, Wind & Fire experienced phenomenal success from the mid-1970s right through to the early '80s, it took several tough years of graft and toil to get to that point. If we rewind to the mid-1960s, Maurice White - born in Memphis, Tennessee, but then living in Chicago - was a session drummer at the Windy City's fabled Chess Records. "I played the drums on Fontella Bass's 'Rescue Me'  and also Billy Stewart's 'Summertime,' Little Milton's  'We're Gonna Make It,' and Betty Everett's 'You're No Good.' Also, Jackie Wilson's '(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher.' There's a lot of tunes I played on. I was soaking up playing with everybody." Another musician had his eye on White as he worked in the studio - keyboard maven Ramsey Lewis. "He used to come down to the studio all the time," recalled White, "and I would be playing for some act on the label. He'd kind of sit in and listen. I didn't know he had me in mind until he formed the group (the Ramsey Lewis Trio) and he called me. It felt great. It was an exciting time."

But after three years on the road with Ramsey Lewis, Maurice White wanted to form his own band. That was in 1969. He formed a group called The Salty Peppers. "We made commercials together and signed to Capitol. It didn't work out with Capitol and then we changed our name to Earth, Wind, & Fire and signed to Warner Bros," White said in 2004.

After two patchy and largely unfocused albums for Warner - "there was a lot of experimentation," confessed White - he completely revamped the band. "I changed them for a younger group of guys; guys who were a little more innovative. We wanted a younger sound, a more contemporary sound." That was when singer Philip Bailey, White's younger brother, bassist Verdine, and drummer/percussionist Ralph Johnson joined. The group signed to Columbia and released 'Last Days & Time,' which fused soul and rhythm and blues with funk and jazz as well as adding a piquant soupcon of African and Latin sounds. It was a heady, polyglot brew - and they even had a female singer at that point, Jessica Cleaves - but Maurice White's all-encompassing vision to make music with a universal appeal eventually smoothed out the rough edges and unified the disparate elements so that they would soon coalesce into the band's unique sonic imprint. A major part of their sound was the group's vocals. After Cleaves left, White - who would rather have stayed behind the drum kit - was drafted in to do vocals opposite Philip Bailey. "I never wanted to be a singer," the drummer disclosed in 2004. "I sang while I was a kid in a gospel group when I was six but I stopped singing when I was twelve and changed to a musical instrument.  It just so happened that some of the songs that we were writing and playing were not high enough for Philip so I had to step in and sing the songs. Then we got a hit record so then I had to come out front. I found it difficult."

Another crucial element of the band's sound was their use of the African thumb piano, otherwise known as a kalimba. Its percussive, metallic tones were featured in several of the band's tracks (and it also inspired  the name of White's Kalimba production company). Said White in 2004: "The kalimba has great significance and contributed to our original sound and will always be something that I use as a trademark with the group. Now it's a sound that you can only think of us. I started to play around with it and couldn't put it down."

Despite White's initial reluctance to lead the group from the front of the stage, he became a charismatic and assured front man and his smooth baritone combined with Bailey's soaring high tenor was a key feature of the group's appeal. As the '70s progressed, the band honed their sound with each successive LP. As a consequence, their songs became more direct  and tightly structured, the choruses more memorable, the grooves ever so danceable and the vocal harmonies lush yet crisper. By the time that 1975 arrived, Earth, Wind & Fire had upped their game and were on the cusp of greatness. That was the year they released the catalytic 'That's The Way Of The World,' a record that yielded several hits (including the anthemic title track) and brought them to a wider public consciousness (it was also originally the soundtrack to a forgettable movie).

The movie might have been a turkey ("Don't see the film, it's horrible," laughed White) but from that point, Earth, Wind & Fire - spearheaded by the captivating twin vocal attack of Maurice White and Philip Bailey - produced a succession of bestselling singles ('Shining Star,' 'Sing A Song,' 'Getaway,' 'Saturday Nite,' 'Serpentine Fire,' 'Fantasy,' 'Boogie Wonderland,' 'September,') and albums ('Gratitude,' 'Spirit,' 'All 'N All,' 'I Am'), dominating the latter half of the '70s.

The band found the '80s harder to conquer, though there were still big hits along the way ('Let's Groove' and 'System Of Survival') and Maurice White even found time to make a solo album ("it was something that I needed to say," he told me). As the '80s became the '90s, the group's recordings began to dry up and though they continued to tour regularly, Maurice no longer went on the road with them. His absence was initially attributed to him wanting to spend more time in the studio with production projects and given that his CV as a producer featured sessions with Deniece Williams, The Emotions, Jennifer Holiday, Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond, no one doubted his motives. It later emerged, however, that White was suffering from Parkinson's Disease. Even so, he continued to have a strong degree of creative input on some of the group's later studio recordings though sadly he wasn't able to contribute to the group's most recent efforts, 'Now, Then & Forever' and 'Holiday.'

Looking back over his and the band's career in 2004, Maurice White clearly stated that his proudest moment was "being inducted into the rock-and-roll Hall Of Fame. That's been the highlight."  But awards and record sales while impressive don't tell the whole truth about how important Earth, Wind & Fire have been - they were sonic trailblazers who dissolved musical barriers with their transcendent messages of love, harmony and togetherness and that's why their hopeful, optimistic songs still resonate in the hearts and minds of millions of people around the world.

Following White's passing, Earth, Wind & Fire will receive a special award at the Grammies on February 15th. His autobiography, Keep Your Head To The Sky: My Life With Earth, Wind & Fire will be published later this year by Amistad.

Maurice White was the Yin to Philip Bailey's Yang and his rich, earthy baritone voice was the perfect counter to Bailey's celestial falsetto. If Bailey represented the soul of the band then Maurice White was its undoubted heartbeat. Sadly, that heartbeat is now silent but Earth, Wind & Fire's - and Maurice White's - musical legacy will live on.

We'll leave the final words to the great man himself, who, contemplating his contribution to the world, told this writer twelve years ago: "It's really been a joy to create the music and inspire other people. That's the whole intent of it: to inspire and to celebrate life."

Last Updated on Saturday, 06 February 2016 09:06

 

Coming Here To Tempt You - Temptations main man OTIS WILLIAMS speaks to SJF ahead of the group's October UK tour

Friday, 29 January 2016 13:59 Charles Waring E-mailPrintPDF

Otis-Williams"We were always competitive," laughs OTIS WILLIAMS, contemplating the healthy sense of rivalry that has existed for over fifty years between his group, The Temptations, and fellow Motown legends, the Four Tops. "That was the spirit of Motown, to have that competitive desire and to outdo one another," Williams explains, reflecting on the strong sense of ambition that burned brightly in Berry Gordy's acts. But, as the singer is at pains to point out, there was never any jealousy or raging animosity between them. "It was a friendly rivalry," he states, adding that both groups still strive to upstage each other. "We're like that even today," he laughs. Indeed, both groups will have an opportunity to flex their respective vocal muscles against each other in October of this year when they join forces to tour the UK together later, when they will also be joined by another golden oldie soul act, family group, Tavares.

Williams, who's 74 now, confesses that  England - which they've been visiting since the mid-1960s and where they racked up 31 chart hits between 1965 and 1992  - has always been a special place for both the Tempts and the Tops. Saluting the devotion of the groups' fans in the UK, he says: "The British people are just so loyal and they have great knowledge of what good music is. They have shown us that they love the great melodies, the great stories, and how we try and present ourselves. So it's a combination of reasons why our British fans are so loyal and dedicated and appreciative because they love that Motown sound even fifty-plus years later. They are just very knowledgeable about great music and you've got to remember that they've had some great artists anyway, like, naturally, the Beatles, Adele, and ...Sam Smith."

Talking ahead of the group's upcoming UK tour to SJF's Charles Waring, Otis Williams talks in more detail about his affinity with the UK, the group's glory years at Motown and the their future plans...

 

Last Updated on Friday, 29 January 2016 15:35

 

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