Leroy Burgess Talks Boogie Ahead of First Oz Shows
The King of Boogie talks with 2SER’s Paris Pompor
LEROY BURGESS may not be the household name he deserves to be, or a name you might immediately recognise yourself. But if you’re into boogie, chances are he’s the man behind more than a few of those favourite albums or 12 inches in your collection. From Class Action‘s ‘Weekend‘, to Fonda Rae‘s ‘Over Like A Fat Rat‘ and a whole lot more, as a vocalist, keyboardist, producer, arranger and prolific songwriter, the Harlem-born omnipresence is all over the liner notes in your snuggly packed record shelves, whether you’re rifling through the house, disco, club or funk sections. With his groups Aleem/High Frequency, Black Ivory, Logg and countless other projects and collaborations, his studio sound has influenced everyone from ’80s electro-funksters and r’n’b bumpers, to the current crop of boogie boys/gals releasing updates on labels like Chicago’s Cherries Records, Europe’s Dopeness Galore, and Australia’s own Hot Shot Sounds and Gulfpoint. Even London’s mega label, BBE named themselves after his Universal Robot Band club classic ‘Barely Breaking Even‘. Having worked with a who’s-who over the last 50 years (Mike Gee, Rick James and Stevie Wonder to name a few), and continuing to record and release his own music following esteemed outings on labels like Today/Perception, Salsoul and SAM, Leroy Burgess is finally coming to Australia in January 2018 for some live shows.
So, it was time to get on the phone and have a chat to the guy. Below are some excerpts from our conversation. While in Australia he’s promising to play tracks from the aforementioned groups as well as his solo career, which hopefully has you as excited as it has me.
PARIS: You’re the crowned King of Boogie, which you’ve previously described as slowed-down disco. Is that the appeal for you, that it’s a bit sexier when you wind down the tempo?
LEROY: [Laughs] I’m a cooled down guy. I’m born and bred in Harlem and you know there’s kind of a laid back quality to us in Harlem when it comes to music. We’re real big fans of uptempo R’n’B in the boogie genre. That’s my kinda thing, I love creating music like that. It’s very cool. Disco is very fast, starting at around 120 bpm… boogie can be anywhere from 90 to about 110. It’s just a cooled out version of dance music, not as fast or electric as house or disco.
PARIS: The more I dig into your career, the more I discover. So many of my favourite boogie tunes you’ve had a hand in one way or another, but not always necessarily overtly credited. It’s like pulling a thread on an item of clothing, more of the garment just keeps unravelling revealing more and more. Do you have a good memory for all the recording sessions you’ve been involved with?
LEROY: Surprisingly so. I remember… a LOT! [laughs].
PARIS: Have you thought of writing a book about all the experiences?
LEROY: I am currently in the middle of my autobiography. The title of it is ‘C Sharp Or B Flat’. I’ve been working on for about five years now. I’m up to around 1984 and I’ve written a lot. I maybe have another 15 chapters to go.
PARIS: Of all the amazing recording sessions you’ve been a part of, does one stick out in your mind as a favourite or particularly memorable?
LEROY: My favourite sessions – and I do have more than one – but I’ll just jump to the recording of Barely Breaking Even. That’s my favourite session. Barely Breaking Even was a great song from the time it was conceived – the initial idea came from my cousin Sonny T. Davenport – you know, kind of an anthemic everyman song that’s talking about how as hard as we work and strive to keep making ends meet, bills continue to be bothersome, troublesome and hard to meet. It’s that type of everyman story is what attracted me to the concept at first. So basically to record it, we did that in a single day. We called everyone into the studio, maybe 16 or 17 of us altogether – the musicians and all of the singers and we basically took over the studio, crowded around a microphone and piece by piece from start to finish recorded that song. It was the most fun I’ve had recording.
The Logg alum is the closest thing to a Burgess/Bell family album that I’ve ever done, because I had more family members on that album than any other. I had my sister in there singing vocals, my brother James on bass, my cousin Sonny on Drums, my cousin Willis Long on percussion… there were a LOT of family members [laughs]. So that was fun for me.
PARIS: Tell me about the session with Blue Note flute player Bobbi Humphrey. Here she is in 1986 releasing a club 12” co-written by you and Sonny Davenport and Stevie Wonder’s taking the main solo on harmonica rather than Humphrey herself.
LEROY: Basically Bobbi Humphrey was a good friend of mine, through my brother James Calloway [Convertion/Logg] who was her bass player for her live performances for a while. Somewhere along the line Bobbi asked us to compose a song for her – which was ‘No Way’. We did demos for her… and then she made arrangements for Ralph McDonald to produce the record. That was so fantastic… She called me: “I have a surprise for you, come down to the studio, I’m getting ready to do an overdub on my flute part.” I get to the studio and Stevie Wonder’s there! This was the first time seeing him in a long time. Stevie Wonder acted as an early mentor for me, back in 1972/’73 when he began teaching me piano… He’s been a mentor and teacher to me, pretty much all my life. To have his experitise and brilliance, his genius to grace one of my songs was an absolute dream come true, let alone the level of his performance. When he and Bobbi went into the duelling solo thing, I thought I would burst with happiness.
PARIS: Is Stevie as lovely as he seems to us who haven’t met him?
LEROY: He’s one of the most beautiful souls I’ve ever had the extreme pleasure to meet. To be as brilliant as he is, his humility is overwhelming. The first time I met him, was just around the time he released ‘Talking Book’ . He invited my group Black Ivory and I to The Apollo Theatre to see him perform. This is when you would perform at The Apollo for a week, something like two shows a day. He invited us to the matinee in the afternoon. I was so absorbed with the performance, with him, that I asked if I could stick around for further performances and ended up coming every single day for the entire week, during which he imparted so much wisdom and so much musical education that I still use to this very day, some 50 years later. His guidance is at least 45% of my power. He is so humble, so real, so genuine, so down to earth and so fun. He’s a fun guy, he cracks a lot of jokes, he’s really fun to be around.
PARIS: I read that you were planning another Black Ivory album which would feature an unreleased Stevie Wonder song.
LEROY: We had an album that we released in 2011, ‘Continuum’ and there was a song that Stevie Wonder had written and kind of forgotten about and never released, that I remembered verbatim. Basically we tried to put that together, but when I got back to Stevie about it, he didn’t even remember the song. I remember it because we were at the Hit Factory Studios on different floors. Black Ivory and I were recording our ‘Feel It’ album, he was recording the first songs for I think what became ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’. He was just writing as he went along in the studio… one of the songs… I remembered, every detail. In any case we did release ‘Continuum’ but we decided not to use the song, it’s just one of those things we tried to work up that didn’t work out.
PARIS: One of my favourite tunes of yours, which I play often, is ‘Stranger’ from 1983. It really reminds me of Stevie, especially your vocal performance in it.
LEROY: Thank you so much. That’s my homage to the work of Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson. I mean it’s so obvious that we modelled the song on… ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’ and ‘Wanna Be Starting Something’. What’s so cool about ‘Stranger’ I think is number one: On background vocals we have Meli`sa Morgan and Jocelyn Brown. They bought that extra edge… What amazes a lot of people is that the horn section is just two guys, Vincent Henry and George Ellington III. I got them in the studio and basically overdubbed them, overdubbed them, overdubbed them, overdubbed them so many times that they ended up sounding like a full horn section [laughs]. We were trying to emulate what Quincy Jones and Maurice White (EW&F) had done with the Phenix Horns, but we didn’t have that kind of budget. [Leroy mentioned here the song was to be part of Salsoul released solo album, but the label changed directions before it was completed.]
PARIS: A few years earlier than ‘Feel It’ you did a Black Ivory album credited to the amazing, righteous, Black-consciousness poet, Wanda Robinson. Is she still around?
LEROY: I have no idea if she is still with us and around now. Basically that happened as a result of Patrick Adams being the A&R Director of Perception and Today Records which was the label Black Ivory first came out on (Today) and Wanda Robinson was on Perception. They were looking for awesome music as backdrops for Wanda Robinson’s wonderful poetry. So when we started producing our ‘Don’t Turn Around’ album, some of those tracks really seemed to fit her poetry very well and Patrick decided to pair them together… It went over very well, but that was the first and last time we had interactions with her.
PARIS: When are you happiest? When recording, playing keys, singing, producing, writing…?
LEROY: All of it. Sometimes [I like playing] with full orchestration – with as many people or elements involved – and sometimes it’s as simple as just me and my piano, just playing and vibing out. I love music. I always have since I was very little. My mum tells me I almost started singing and talking at the same time. When I used to talk, I used to speak melodically… she couldn’t tell the difference. My mother was a classically trained contralto, so she was always singing and I kinda caught the bug from her. There’s a lot of musical talent in my family, not the least of which is Thom Bell [his Jamaican-born uncle, the Philly Soul writer, arranger and producer.] I used to follow him around [as a young boy] just to listen to him talking about music and regaling his various stories until my mother and father would tell me to leave uncle Thommy alone. [Then there’s] The Bells [from] Kool & The Gang – Ronald, Robert and Kevin. Archie Bell of Archie Bell and The Drells. Jerry Bell of the Dazz band. And recently I found out that Miss Betty Wright is one of my cousins.
PARIS: Very sorry to hear about the sudden death during the past week of Mike Gee who you worked with on the 1984 Streetwise 12” ‘Rappers Revenge’.
LEROY: It was a complete shock to everybody from my Harlem neighbourhood. All of us who were friends with and had the blessing of knowing Mike Gee. Mike Gee lived in the building just down the block from me… We were all very very close… Freddie Jackson, Larry Blackman, The Aleems, all of the people that came up in that particular housing complex along with Mike Gee. Mike Gee’s [passing] was completely out of the blue, he was as healthy as a horse, when my friends saw him last week. For the neighbourhood he was a good man, because he kept everybody together. He was responsible for the annual… old timer’s day get-together where all the folks from my era, earlier eras, and subsequent eras get together in the park and just play some music… and just enjoy each other’s company. His passing is a very stark reminder of just how quick and how fragile life is.
PARIS: What do you remember of the ‘Rappers Revenge’ session with Mike?
LEROY: Mike was a very serious, very committed person. He… put the money together to create the record… before we knew it we were in the studio. Again, on brass are the two guys I used on ‘Stranger’: Vincent Henry on saxophone and George Ellington III on trumpet. Mike was very professional.
PARIS: So what’s coming up for you besides this first Australian tour?
LEROY: Just more of the same. Quite honestly I want to continue to do music until I can’t do it no more. Now I’m performing more than I ever have and I’m really getting a lot of love and a lot of encouragement out of just being with the fans, and performing, partying with them. Over this coming year, you’re going to see a lot of releases… starting with a release coming out in January which is a cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Jesus Children Of America’ [from 1973’s ‘Innervisions’] and that will lead us into the Logg 2 album.
PARIS: We can’t wait to see you in Australia in January. It’s quite unbelievable this is your first visit here.
LEROY: I’m looking forward to it too. I’m a little nervous because it’s a completely new audience half way across the world [laughs]. I’m a little bit like a little kid – a 64 year-old little kid. I’m excited about my very first time interacting with a whole culture that has been kind enough to appreciate my work. It’s my first chance to share it with you directly.
LEROY BURGESS plays the FREEDOM TIME FESTIVAL around Australia in January 2018, including Sydney on JANUARY 7TH at the MANNING BAR. Tickets and details about other cities available HERE
Leroy Burgess will be performing with the All Star Freaks in Australia featuring, on Synthesizers: Harvey Sutherland, Drums: Graeme Pogson, Percussion: Neda Rahmani, Bass: Luke Hodgson, Guitar: Danny Dharumasena, Piano/BV: Aaron Mendoza, Strings: Tamil Rogeon and Jade MaCrae, Susie Goritchan and Gary Pinto on backing vocals.
Visit Leroy Burgess at www.leroyburgess.com