A Conversation with Smokey Robinson
Mike Ragogna: Just the other day, I picked up your Icon sampler, the little collection that Universal released. Though I know all those songs by heart by now, it never fails, I'm always hearing something new in them whether it's in what you did in the music or lyrics. Now on Smokey & Friends, you took many of those classics and invited your friends to sing on them.
Smokey Robinson: That was the original intention, but I think we had a different twist to it. All of the artists you hear on the record picked their songs. Randy Jackson approached the artists and said, "What is your favorite Smokey Robinson song," not necessarily a song that I sang, but any song that I had written. The songs that these people are singing on this record are their picks. Not only that, but Randy let them do their take on it first before he recorded them and he got their feel for it and recorded it in that manner.
MR: Yeah, it takes on more that just songs made famous by Smokey Robinson such as "The Way You Do The Things You Do" and others that The Temptations covered. So when you heard what Randy was working on with this roster of duet artists, did anything surprise you?
SR: Oh yeah, there were surprises of course. In fact, almost every track was a surprise because he made them sound brand new. He made them sound like they had never been heard before as far as I was concerned. Those were old songs and he made them sound fresh and new, the artists' take on them was fresh and new, it was just incredible. I think the two biggest differences as far as the arrangements and the feel and the sound would have to be, "Ain't That Peculiar" with James Taylor and "My Girl."
MR: And it was really sweet to also hear Jessie J open the track with why it was important to her.
SR: She's a sweet lady. There are a few of those on there with people narrating why they did them, and those that aren't included on the record, we have them on video saying why they picked that particular song.
MR: For me the two that were the most modernized is the CeeLo Green and the Gary Barlow. The artists who performed on this album had very strong memories and very strong passions for the songs. Does it amaze you that it had such a connection with so many millions of people?
SR: No Mike, it doesn't amaze me, man, but it certainly satisfies me as a songwriter. When I sit down to write a song, every time I try to write a song, I'm trying to write a song that people would've sung fifty years ago, now, and fifty years from now. When people record my songs, for me as a songwriter, that's just a dream come true. That's why I write them. I don't write them necessarily just for me or whoever I wrote them for in the beginning to sing them. I hope everybody sings them from now on. It doesn't amaze me that they do that because my intentions for writing them was to write a song that will get reactions from people, but I am very flattered when they do it because there are millions and millions and millions of songs, Mike, and most people who have re-recorded one of my songs are songwriters themselves. So with a choice like that, for an artist to pick one of my songs is incredible to me.
MR: What do you attribute that to?
SR: I try to write a song, and if it's a song, it has that chance.
MR: How old were you when you first started writing songs and what was Berry Gordy's influence?
SR: I have been trying to write songs since I was five years old, man. I'm serious about that. The first song that I ever wrote that anybody ever heard other than my mom and me was in a school play when I was six years old. The teacher let me write some words to a melody that she had for the beginning and ending of a play and I sang them. I've been trying to do that all my life, man. However, when I met Berry Gordy, he's the one who taught me how to structure all of my songs and how to make them be one entity. He was very powerful in my learning how to write songs professionally.
MR: Right, and you also had a wonderful workshop for an artist to record your material, maybe for you to test things out first?
SR: Sure but not necessarily to test them out. We had workshops where the writers and producers had "piano rooms," where you could go and work out your material and stuff like that. After you had it to the point where you thought it was pretty complete then you could approach an artist with it and say, "Hey, do you like this song and can I record it on you?" That's how it worked.
MR: I'll bet every song on the new album has a pretty interesting story.
SR: You know, each and every one of them do. There's an anecdote to each and every one of those songs, man. That's another reason I'm so intrigued by it myself, because of the fact that I know that each one of those songs on there has a story that's unusual. I'm very proud that these people picked these songs. We recorded a couple of other songs but we ran into an unexpected deadline because we thought we had another month and we really didn't because Starbucks came in with a huge order for it. We wanted to finish it up for them and that pushed us up a month ahead of what we were doing. But the ones that are on there all have their own stories, man.
MR: Do you have a favorite?
SR: No man, come on. They're my babies!
MR: [laughs] Okay, well, I especially love "Being With You." What's the story behind that one?
SR: Do you know who Kim Carnes is?
MR: Oh yeah.
SR: Well, there's a guy who lives here in Los Angeles named George Tobin. George is a record producer, or he was at the time, I don't know what he's doing now. But he had produced one of my songs on Kim and had a huge record with her with "More Love." I kept hearing it over and over on the radio, it was a big hit for her. When I hear stuff like that I quickly see if I can write some other songs for that artist so maybe I can get the next record on them. So that's what happened, I wrote four songs for Kim Carnes and "Being With You" was one of those songs. I go to George Tobin's studio, I play him the songs and when I played "Being With You" he said, "Man, I really love that one and I love the way you're singing." I said, "Oh thanks man, it should be a hit for her," and he said, "No, I want to record it on you," but I said, "No George, I wrote it for Kim." We went through fifteen minutes of, "No you," "No Kim." Finally, he said to me, "Come to my studio tonight, we'll make a demo for Kim." I said, "Okay, fine." The record that went number one for me is a demo for Kim.
MR: As far as your classic "Quiet Storm"--another reimagining on the album--it actually became the name of a musical genre.
SR: Yes it did, man. I didn't expect that, but A Quiet Storm was my debut back into show business. I had retired totally, I just recorded those albums because Suzanne de Passe, who was our A&R director at the time just asked me to do it. I was retired, I wasn't thinking about being in show business at all period after I retired from The Miracles. Then after about three and a half years of doing my vice-presidential duties and going to the office every day and stuff like that, Berry came to me and to make a long story short he told me he felt like I was miserable doing what I was doing and I needed to be in show business so I should get back. He was my best friend, he feels me and I was miserable. He said, "There's no sense in you being around here, you should do what you love." So I said, "Okay, I'm going to change my whole format, I'm going to lower my keys, I'm going to prepare myself to play places like Las Vegas, I'm a quiet singer and I'm going to go back and take show business by storm. Wow, that's a good idea, A Quiet Storm."
MR: It seems like "Cruisin'" keeps coming back in movies, etc., sort of like a perennial.
SR: From your mouth to God's ears, Michael! I hope it keeps coming up and up and up forever and ever and ever, man. "Cruisin'" was a long song. It took me longer to write "Cruisin'" than probably any other song I've written because it took five years. I attribute "Cruisin'" to my guitarist, as I do so many other songs that I've written because he was an ingenious guitarist who came up with these great guitar riffs and he would put them on tape for me and see if I could come up with a song for it. I wrote two or three songs to "Cruisin'" and none of them seemed to fit because the music was so sensual and so sexy. Finally, after five years, I came up with "Cruisin'."
MR: And Steven Tyler takes on "You Really Got A Hold On Me." Many rockers over the years have gravitated toward that song.
SR: That was Steven's gravitation, that's for sure. Steven's my brother, man, he's a great dude. I love Steven. He sang that song with Aerosmith. He's been singing that song forever he said. That's his favorite song, so we recorded it and did it rock style.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
SR: My first advice is you've got to really, really, really love it because it's a very difficult, hard business, especially nowadays. It's a very difficult, hard business to cut through and get past all the other traffic that's in your way to become known or popular or whatever your desire is in this business. If you love it like that and you're willing to accept the "no"s that come along with it and get back up and keep fighting, go for it.
MR: What is the future for Smokey Robinson?
SR: The future for Smokey Robinson is basically like my present, man. I do my concerts now because I love that. That's my favorite part of my work because I get to go one on one with the people and have a great time with the fans for two and a half hours every night. I love all of it, I love being in the studio, I love writing especially and the creativity of all of it, but my favorite part is to go and see my fans, man, and visit with them so I'm still going to be doing that. I don't know when I'm going to retire from doing that again. If it comes along I'd like to do a nice role in a great movie. I don't mean necessarily starring in a movie or anything like that, but just a nice role in a great movie if it comes up.
SR: And play me some golf.
MR: [laughs] One last thing. Comparing songwriting back in the days of Motown and The Brill Building to songwriting now with existing technologies has changed the basic approach significantly for so many. What are your thoughts about that transition?
SR: I think it's just the way of the world. We're evolving. The technological part of our lives is evolving at a pace that is unfathomable. That's in every area of our lives, so of course it's going to filter down to music. A kid can do a complete track on his telephone now. That's just where it's going. I think perhaps there's an advantage to it because back in the day in the piano rooms, you as a pianist were playing the piano and visualizing the rest of the stuff going on in your mind as you were writing your song if you were doing that--that's the only complete thing you'd get until you got into the studio and started to record it. Nowadays a kid can have a piano riff in mind and put that down on the telephone and then do the bass and the drums and all that. Before he even gets to the studio he can record a record on his phone. There's a huge difference in that.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Israel Nash
Mike Ragogna: Your new album Rain Plans already has received international acclaim. What do you think of the reaction so far?
Israel Nash: The reaction overseas has been really rewarding. The album made a number of year-end lists in Europe in publications like Uncut, Rolling Stone Germany, and Rolling Stone France. But more importantly, I feel the album has really connected with fans whom have given me overwhelming compliments as to how much this album has meant to them. That's an incredible reward to me. These songs are bigger than me and are made to be shared emotionally with others. So I'm eager to release the album here at home and moreover, to really present the album through our live performances.
MR: Ted Young worked with you on the album. How do you think his involvement affected the album's evolution?
IN: Ted Young engineered and mixed Rain Plans. Ted is my guy. That was something I always thought was cool about old school records. Artists really had engineers who were more like a part of the band than just some hired gun. I don't like adding strangers to the mix. Ted is a rock and one of the best, and I'm told if I can come up with a nice Neve console, he might move down here to TX. Anyone have a really cheap Neve console for sale?
MR: [laughs] The title track, "Rain Plans," comes off like a simple slice of Americana. What's the story behind that album and a few of the album's other tracks?
IN: From a songwriting perspective, the songs are all deeply personal vignettes focused on my own life and the transition I had when I moved to the Texas Hill Country. Rain Plans, the song is really about the beauty of looking forward. A rain plan means the day is not ruined. While slightly different, the celebration continues. It's very easy to see the bad side of things, but there's so much beauty in the good side of things. This album is about love, clarity, direction, vision, relationships and the evolving power of change.
MR: What's your creative process like?
IN: I feel that the process is always changing for me and that there is never just a true form or some universal idea of creation. Ultimately, I believe in being honest. Having something to say and a need to say it. But beyond lyrics, I also firmly believe the music should represent those elements as well. With Rain Plans, the band and I really got into using the studio as an instrument and applying a focused lens on the sonic side of things. I really wanted to make a record that sounded and felt like my home and the land around me. I also purchased a 16-track Studer tape machine which we tracked the whole album too. That is definitely part of the process at least in the studio. It's about a group of trusted friends, and the only people who should be in the room, coming together and unifying as one. For me, it's about being a real musician, a real band. But at the end, I think if you just do what you are supposed to do in this life, it will be alright.
MR: Which song best represents Israel Nash and why?
IN: I honestly don't look at individual songs as much anymore. I have a great obsession right now with the idea that songs are like chapters of a book and an album is like a book itself. Take a chapter or two out, and the whole meaning changes. So for me, it's about albums right now. Rain Plans definitely represents me best at this time. Until the next one...
MR: You recently moved to Texas. Do you think this will affect your musical and lyrical approaches?
IN: I moved to Dripping Springs, a small town in the Hill Country of Texas, just about 3 years ago. I have a 15 acre ranch out here in the country now, which was obviously a big transition from living in NYC, where I had previously lived for almost 6 years. It was really that move that elicited such a change in almost every aspect of my life. When you go through change in your own life, your art should be affected. I firmly believe the place in which I write from has forever been changed. Change is good.
MR: What is your advice for new artists?
IN: I think it's very easy to become jaded in the music business. Many expectations may not be met, but then expectation change. I'd say the biggest piece of advice for a young artist is to realize they will need to lean on people, people need people and artists definitely need them. Ultimately though, trust yourself and your vision and make your own critical decisions about your art. It is your path
MR: What was the best advice given to you?
IN: I think most artists have a point early on in their careers where they realize that this endeavor isn't going to be an easy one. Sometimes that can definitely be frustrating. There's a lot of material out now. More people than ever want to be in a band or like the idea of it at least. That reality becomes disappointing when all you want is to put your music forth. When I was going through that, I had a producer friend tell me not to worry and that the cream always rises. That's always stuck with me. Maybe it's about being the last man standing. I don't know. Once again, confidence in yourself and your art and the knowledge that, if you are doing something that you know is right, then it can't be wrong. Maybe no one knows it's right, but time will indeed tell.
MR: How do you see yourself and your musical path going in the next five to ten years?
IN: I had a fan ask me once if my next album would be just like my last album. I replied, "I really hope not." I believe the charge that any artist should have is not to so much please fans, but instead taking people somewhere new. I feel that we have that duty to the craft, to the art. So, I hope that I always search, grow, and move forward in my music. When you do those things with truth and passion, the next five, ten, even fifty years, will be something you're proud of.
A Conversation with Darryl Tookes
Mike Ragogna: Darryl, you and Joe Beck collaborated on this children's album, Precious Child--Love Songs & Lullabies. How did this project come together?
Darryl Tookes: In 1995, Joe Beck and I found ourselves becoming fathers again when our youngest children were born. Joe and Marsi have twin boys who were born around the same time as my youngest daughter. In his playful insightful manner Joe would point out the differences in the developmental stages of girls and boys - poking fun at the guys, while praising the way nature accelerates how the girls learn and grow. Joe adored his children, each in their own special way. I got to know his daughter and the boys as Joe got to know my four children. I believe the pull from each of these profound loves created vulnerability in my friend that he had never known. Our personalities lend themselves to fully getting to know the real person, not just an idea of who we think our children are or should be. God gives us the little baby, and there is a personality to get to know. That's what the Lamaze baby nurse told Donna--my wife--and me when we were expecting our first. I think Joe's relationship with his family was the birth of the desire for him to express music in this way, and he saw in me a person whose day-to-day experience in family life inspired him. We really had fun with our kids.
MR: In your opinion, what is it about you Joe's talents that mesh the best on Precious Child?
DT: It might be better for an outside expert opinion to answer this, but I'll give it an honest try. More than anything else I have worked very hard to bring new and unexpected harmony in my music. Hopefully when I succeed and the gods are with me, the audience will be moved if only for a moment in a way that actually creates a beautiful feeling that they might not have felt before, or perhaps inspire a memory of a sweet or meaningful experience. The words, the melody and meter, the rhythmic figures underpinning these elements are all a part, but I believe Joe and I are unique in our attention to harmonic detail and fresh harmonic discovery. This can easily become a philosophical answer, as we ponder more closely the word "harmony' itself. Imagine a world where people are living in harmony. The idea makes us smile, yes? So, there are many important elements that define me as an artist. One distinction that I share with Joe, is that we are both seekers of the harmony that will touch a listener, and move the heart. Another aspect of our partnership is that although both of us admire virtuosity, and believe me, Joe had great chops, it's only a part of the picture for us. He was a motivic player. I'd like to think I am, too. So many musicians just want to shred. When Cannonball Adderley blows, he's trying to speak to our heart. John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Jimi Hendricks are all examples of musicians with tremendous facility who are clearly trying to communicate, not just impress with notes. I strive to emphasize this in my teaching. Listen to the masters. Joe Beck was a master.
MR: How long have you been Joe's fan and how far back do you go back
DT: Fortune found me working full-time in the recording studios of New York City during what was still the Golden Age of doing session work. I met Joe in a recording studio in New York in 1979 where we were doing a date for our mutual friend David Horowitz. From 1977 when I moved back to New York through the 80s to as late as the start of the new millennium there was a ton of work. If your talent got noticed by the producers, and you practiced hard enough to keep your skills in top form, there was enough work to go around. I was one of the singers. I also got to write and arrange. Joe was not just another guitar player. He respected his peers, and enjoyed collaborating. I'm certain that I am not alone in my opinion that Joe was peerless. Among our colleagues he stands alone. In the era of the Rock Star he really was a Rocket Scientist. As an artist with a voice, studio work can become an obstruction. Some of us are gifted with the ability to play the part well, and then go on to the next session and go home. Joe was not that guy. Rather, his heart is in every note he played. Whimsy turned on the dime to achingly beatific expression. He was a man's man in the studio, with a heart of gold, a heart of love. He knew his people. He knew me. Though children loved the rough guy--I suspect they see the soul--Joe Beck called me a "Hip Mr. Rogers." Best compliment ever! To which I replied that it was a redundant description. Mr. Rogers IS hip! But Joe even knew Johnny Costa, and we could identify with his playing, like Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum. Yes, Mr. Rogers' musical director Johnny Costa. Joe's vibe, though very appealing to the cats, has a gentle spirit. I got to know this about him. Joe's gentle spirit ... he really was a gentleman. My wife Donna loved him as I did. All of us in our family did.
MR: How did you make the song choices?
DT: Would you believe we recorded "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" first? We did! Here's the classic traditional Mozart melody that can be heard in "Baa Baa Black Sheep," "ABCDEFG (The Alphabet Song)" and others. Believe it or not, Joe and I had not a word of disagreement on the first selection. In fact, we didn't struggle at all with any of the choices we made. It was as though we were being led my some invisible force to songs that we both wanted to do. Immediately upon our first look at Twinkle, we discovered an almost supernatural musical bond. If you check it out, you'll notice key changes, mood changes, all kinds of fun vocal stylings and cool rhythms. We had a blast!
Out of that one song choice we both felt a need to try more of the songs that are familiar in children's repertoire. This led to lullabies like "Rock-a-Bye Baby." But wait, have you ever listened to the words? OMG for crying out loud, the poor baby falls out of the tree? Give me a break over here. LOL. So what did we do? We decided that the song needed a bridge, an extension, a new section, SOMETHING to save that little rascal from hitting the ground. We applied ourselves to the task of catching the little baby in our arms and then keeping it safe "forever safe in my arms." This became the template for arranging the lullabies.
One of our colleagues in the advertising industry became a father for the first time while Joe and I were busy at work on our project. Although we did not let many folks hear our works in progress, ad executive Paul Greco's new blessing fostered a fatherhood conversation among us that led to him hearing what we were up to. And he and his brother Peter who is also an ad executive are our friends. Joe and I teased them by referring to them as the apostles. If I remember correctly it was Paul's elation with his daughter's daily discoveries that led Joe and me to write Little One. Yes, and yes! This was license to compose! Now we had turned the corner, and there was no looking back. We would have to let ourselves answer the call of our muses. Lullabies. Love Songs.
Then we wrote what became the title song, Precious Child. This is the only song on the project where I am not ever heard to sing a single voice melody line. All of the parts are choral. The motif is like an African chant in that it features the tribal percussion instrument known as Kalimba. Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White played the instrument on many of their recordings. Maurice introduced me to it through their music. A drummer, he famously went on to be one of the most accomplished singers, composers, and producers of our time. I have very special respect for EWF. They greatly influenced me. When Joe started that Kalimba riff, I knew we were soul brothers! It was so creative!
The final song on Precious Child is the Brahms'. Beck left it up to me to choose the key. We wrote "Bye Bye Lullaby" together, and laid the two songs side by side in a dreamy interplay back and forth between the keys of D and G. The relaxed way Joe and I were able to stretch our simple altered chords and let special notes linger just long enough to pull your attention away from the meter, and then the sweetest sensation of tension and release. Listening now gives me the feeling that we were able to suspend time. I chose to sing in the airy falsetto range, just in that alto-tenor register, a deliberate decision where only the gentlest tones would be appropriate. After a long busy day, Moms and Dads need the little ones to turn in.
MR: What were the creative and recording processes like?
DT: Joe would amaze me with his ideas. I respected his talent so much, but even more, he was just so genuine. So Joe Beck. When I complimented him he always said that the only difference between us was that he was more experienced. He assured me that I was the guy who would grow into the cat.
As I mentioned in the previous question, the recording process evolved naturally. I teach, and as a teacher I'm often asked by my students about the process of composing and arranging. Wanting only to help them understand my process, first I breathe, then smile, then tell the truth. Every time we are to begin a new arrangement or write a new piece of music, we have to allow the blank page in front of us to have its time. An artist must respect the blank canvas. Now I'm sure competent musicians can sufficiently arrange on task. We've heard stories of Big Band arrangers who could summon up charts on command riding in the taxi on the way to the gig. Though I imagine there's a lot of hyperbole in the stories, the point is made that gifted arrangers are prolific and can deliver. That being said, I cannot imagine anything farther from being true when it comes to how Joe and I worked on Precious Child. Neither can I imagine Joe Beck or Darryl Tookes ever working on autopilot.
Here's an example: Joe would usually pick me up at my home, and we would drive from Connecticut to the city together. Talk sports, politics, etc. The atmosphere was one of trust and total honesty. Donna would give us fresh warm bagels for the ride. One day for some reason Joe took the MetroNorth train in, and I drove separately. So when he arrived, I was there at the studio. Ready and waiting. Now imagine this, during that hour-long train ride he picks up his pad and pencil and writes "Daddy's Always Here." He hears the entire arrangement in his head. He is accessing the strongest, most positive feelings he has ever known. We track the song, I sing one take. Boom.
When I signed with my manager Brian McKenna, we decided I needed to take on the same challenge and let my life lead me to finish the project. I said yes, allowed myself to feel, and wrote a dozen or so pages of a memoir. Then I went to Martha's Vineyard for a time, and there in those familiar surroundings, amidst the vacationers of whom I was oblivious, sitting on park benches and rocky beaches, and while breathing in the ocean I rediscovered the thread. It was there. I saw myself riding bikes with my four kids, now adults. Saw us swimming in the Inkwell. I remembered the feeling of the boys skimboarding, boogieboarding, and surfing out too far at South Beach. I remembered Lambert's Cove. I remembered when windsurfing was my only solitude on those summer days. And I wrote. Joe and I had six songs, I wrote three more. "Daddy's Girl," "The Nursery Rhyme Song," and "I Love You Too Much." This was the final song for the project. It is for my sons, and like Joe's final composition for Precious Child, it is this writer at his most vulnerable.
Brian wanted to include my song "Only A Matter of Time" that I recorded with Bjørn Nessjo, who is a Norwegian producer and my dear friend. Again, this is a project powered by fathers. Brian had no way of knowing that I wrote Only A Matter of Time in tribute to my father. Written at the time of his passing, it was my way of dealing with the loss. Thousands of miles from home in the States, I recorded with Bjørn in Trondheim, Norway. When he heard me play it for the first time he was immediately taken - very unusual reaction from my stoic Scandinavian friend! I guess he felt something about his late father, or maybe his two sons. Anyway, I miss my dad daily, I miss him terribly, and I'm very happy that this song made the CD. Joe's spirit. My father's.
MR: Back in 1989, you had a hit with "Lifeguard." What are your thoughts about that recording and your early recordings now when compared to what went into creating a project like this? What contrasts the most for you?
DT: Thank you for asking about "Lifeguard." In early interviews in 1989, I recall a younger version of myself explaining the origins. I had lived with my maternal grandfather in the Bronx. In fact, I chose to live in New York to be with him because he was alone. Gramps outlived his immediate family, including his wife and children. They were a musical family. My grandmother was a star of The Green Pastures on Broadway, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1930. My mother was the youngest in the family. She was my inspiration and confidante. I saw her on her knees praying for her father, and decided that when I could, I would move to New York. There's a song on that first Darryl Tookes album called Mama which pretty much tells the story. I wrote "Lifeguard" in the spirit of Gramps and in dedication to the birth of my first child. Becoming a father is what it was all about. Being a father is what it's all about. Unconditional love. Love unconditional. I am happy that it charted well, and that people like it.
Since becoming a professional musician, I have consistently lived here on the east coast. Interestingly we recorded Lifeguard in Chicago at Universal Recording Studio. Danny Leake engineered and co-produced. I was very lucky to fall into the right scene at the right time, the best possible time for me on several levels. I met Danny through Robert Hebert, Esq. with whom I was working at the time. We were not as young as we looked or might have seemed, but we were still quite young. We were brash, I was immersed with brilliantly talented musicians in our collective space, and we were brave. Maybe the protective naiveté of our youth, the soulfulness of these brothers from the Windy City, and the ease of cultural artistic exchange among ethnic groups in Chicago in 1988 added to this.
Let's face it, there was no Oprah on national television. If that is not enough of a point of reference, let's put this in a broader context. Michael Jordan and I share the same birthday, February 17. He led the NBA in scoring 1988-1989 season. He was also named Defensive Player of the Year that year. But his Bulls did not get past the Detroit Pistons in the playoffs. In fact, the Pistons blocked the Bulls from 1987-1990. So while we were recording my music our way without interference from any outside forces, Michael Jordan had not won his first NBA Championship, nor had anyone ever seen Oprah Winfrey on her national television show. This to me is a staggering perspective. And it's 100% true.
The musicians on that recording include Pianist Robert Irving III, who was Musical Director for Miles Davis; harmonica player and founding member of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones' Howard Levy; arrangers Paul David Wilson and Joseph Joubert; bassists Tony Brown and Anthony Jackson; drummer Wayne Stewart; saxophonist James Perkins; guitarist Billy Panda; percussionist Dede Sampaio, to name only a few. It was a church filled with the best talent, all of whom were happy to be there. Truly eclectic. Warm.
Danny was innovative in designing a very complex method for me to play the piano and trigger other beautiful sounds that we were able to generate throughout different rooms. This kind of synthesis became more common as studios purchased Synclaviers. Predictably the price of owning and maintaining these powerful tools became prohibitive. The SSL consoles were also mandatory. Danny did most of my record on a Neve console. It's the same room where Bruce Swedien, and prior to Bruce, George Massenburg had been Chief Engineers. So there I was. What an honor to work with Danny, and to have been so warmly welcomed into their musical family. You see, it's always about the music. Finding the right people to play with. And finding the right environment to bring out the best. It was how we worked in 1989, and it's how I record my music now. With all the technological advancements, this is a great time to be alive. Knowing this, progress must bring us closer, not create isolation.
MR: Darryl, over the years, you've been the singer's singer, your having appeared on projects by artists as diverse as Michael Jackson and Paul Simon to Aretha Franklin and Leonard Bernstein. What's the secret to your chops and success?
DT: That's very kind of you--"the singer's singer," thank you. I practice. I practice. I practice. We've heard it said that, "If I don't practice every day, I notice. If I miss practice for three days, other musicians will notice. And if I don't practice for a week, fans will notice." There are days when it's all about practicing new repertoire for concerts. Some days it's about arranging music for projects that I am working on. On days when I'm not working on an assignment, I focus on my writing and arranging for Darryl Tookes projects that we are developing. Every day the singer must sing. The voice must be technically prepared for the day, so a regimen of vocalise is imperative. Singing is physically very demanding. I swim regularly. If I can't get to the pool I'll workout at home. Stretches, yoga, etc. But the voice must be cared for with daily vocal warm-ups. This is most important. After all, our bodies are our instruments. In order to accept work and do well when we get the opportunity, we have to train. It's sad to think of how today's technology can mask so many weaknesses that our young musicians and singers might not realize the hard work that needs to go into becoming proficient. As an educator I try to encourage students to take the road less traveled. Do the work, and enjoy music. We teach what we know. And this is what I know.
Another matter is expression. All of my training gets me a jersey to sit on the bench. When I get up to bat, I cannot possibly know what the pitcher will show me, so I must not have my mind made up on how or whether to swing. The same is true in music. We have to be ready, and we have to listen. So, ear training. Yes, being a competent sight reader had a lot to do with how I got my breaks in session singing, and I feel it's imperative. But ears are really where it's at. Listening.
MR: What's your advice to new artists?
DT: If you are an artist, you are doing something new. Something individual. It's like a teaching physician who is a friend recently told me that he tells his students. If you don't show up, the rest of us miss what you might have brought to class that day. This is how I feel about true artistry. We are forever children. Growing, learning, each day looking around us in awe. Listening to the sounds that nature sings. Feelings running deeply. Unafraid to share our truth. Someone said to me the other day that this world is in pretty bad shape. People are suffering. At a time like no other before in history, we are able to instantly witness the world on our smart phones. We see global disasters while they are happening. People are overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness. We see the effects of greed in the ever-widening gap between socioeconomic strata.
Artists must not give up. We must never quit. Governments waging war on every kind of domestic problem while waging wars on each other will not work. In the heart of an artist is the seed. We are trying to shine a little sunshine while we can. Look at the great message of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" or Paul Simon's "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Look at the positive impact of James Brown's "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud." Listen to Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim when they promise us, "Somewhere, There's a Place For Us." Or Burt Bacharach and Hal David who in "Alfie" bare their souls about "something even nonbelievers can believe in."
I ask myself if I'm still this guy, a guy who feels the way they did when they wrote those songs. When I wrote "Lifeguard." Yes, I am. I would be most happy if I am able to inspire young artists to find themselves, and share with the rest of us. To work at becoming the best versions of themselves. We need to hear them.
MR: Do you miss singing jingles?
DT: Yes, and I'll try to explain. What I miss most about singing on jingles is seeing my colleagues. We were a happy bunch who got to see each other often. Although the musicians and singers were not booked at the same time, we still would run into each other in the flux and flurry and flow of the day. First would be the rhythm sections, so there would be friends like Will Lee, Chris Parker, Leon Pendarvis, Rob Mounsey, Chuck Loeb and many others. I got to know folks like George Benson and Grady Tate and quite a few other well-known musicians through working on jingles. In his early days Wynton Marsalis played on one of my compositions that I also arranged. I'm sorry to say some of the singers who were my regular pals have passed on. Frank and Babi Babi Floyd were two of my good buddies. It was a vibrant community. I even got to work with Ray Charles when Billy Davis put us together on some spots for McCann Erickson.
Regarding the singers, we had to be quick, technically accurate and efficient. We had to be prepared to give the clients whatever they required to make the music for the commercial work to their satisfaction. Sometimes this was with a proper score, and other times with arrangements done in the moment. Studio time was expensive, and there was no time to waste. I greatly enjoyed the career, and learned a lot about recording by doing it. I valued the time with experienced singers like Patti Austin, Lesley Miller, Vivan Cherry, Arlene Martel, Ken Williams and Luther Vandross as a vital part of my learning. We would also see horn players and string players as well, more than a few whom I got to know. Jon Faddis, Lou Soloff, Lou Marini among them. In recent years I have toured with Soloff and Marini, and consider them good friends. It was a very exciting time. Some of my enduring professional relationships are from those days. Arranger David Horowitz is one of the most cherished. It was wonderful.
MR: What's next for you creatively?
DT: At this time several projects are dear to me. I just recorded a project called New Duke with the Jazz Professors, new arrangements of Duke Ellington songs by Brian Torff.
I am also extremely humbled that NYU Tisch School of Arts students came to me in a time of crisis when one of our own was seriously injured in a subway accident. They asked me to perform my song "Love to the Rescue" with them in concert to benefit their friend. They did good and did well, successfully raising money for his medical care. I felt compelled to record LTTR, and got in touch with a few friends of mine to help. Bassist Will Lee, Drummer Omar Hakim, Pianist Joseph Joubert, Michael McElroy and members of the Broadway Inspirational Voices contributed their time and talents. Frank DeMaio added guitars, and Bashiri Johnson on percussion. NYU Professor Nick Sansano hosted us at the studios in the Clive Davis Institute at Tisch, with Grammy winner Roy Hendrickson engineering. What could be better? My students sang on the sessions and yes, the young man who was at the center of it all joined us in his wheelchair and sang too. Nothing could have made us happier. I am looking forward to sweetening, mixing, and sharing the completion of this deeply personal song. I saw our student last week in the Park, a singer, dance, actor he is learning to use his prosthetic leg, returning to school this fall term, and eager to dance again.
I will be on tour in Norway and Sweden in December performing with Norwegian soprano Sissel Kyrkjebø, who is known as Sissel. We recorded a duet of one of my songs "I'll Sing of Love" here at Avatar studios in New York. Rob Mounsey arranged and conducted. We used a full orchestra. Nothing compares. It sounds divine. A signature piece that I am honored to perform with Sissel again this year for her Holiday Tour.
My plan is to follow up Precious Child with a new Darryl Tookes recording using my band: Rodolfo Zuñigá on drums, Mike Bordelon on bass, Rolando Grooscors on guitar, Jean Caze on Trumpet and David Fernandez on Saxophone. Happy to say all the guys are busy working, which makes scheduling a challenge. But we keep the faith. I've written the songs, and the arrangements are coming along as far as I dare to take them on my own. It's really about the collaboration.