Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Last Gypsy: Bassist Billy Cox Part II

Here is Part II of our interview with bassist Billy Cox:

BBP: Now Band of Gypsys lasted only a month and a half. Why didn’t it take off? You guys had such great tracks. In college I used to listen to that album all of the time. Especially “Machine Gun;” it’s such an incredible song. How did that song come together?
Cox: Okay you asked two questions... (Both laugh)
BBP: I’m sorry, I got you on the phone and…
Cox: Okay. Management did not want that. They wanted him to go back to the same format that he had before. So we caught a lot of flak from the management. It was not wanted. A lot of times a lot of people think that groups have the power to say yes and no and this and that. That’s not true. Sometimes if you’re under contract, you have to go with the people who have you under contract. And so that band was not wanted. So we had to disband. Okay, and the other question was…
BBP: The song “Machine Gun.” That song really was something…

Cox: It probably was a jam. It all started with a jam. Jimi had this unique talent of starting things off and laying in the cut til everybody joined in, and then he’d go off from there. So it just started and I gave it my flavor, and Buddy gave it his flavor and he said, “Hey that’s pretty good.” So he went off and wrote some words to it and bang! Because we rehearsed quite a bit. Rehearsal is the key element for playing songs and playing them right. You’ve got to practice.
BBP: What was your favorite song from Band of Gypsys?
Cox: I don’t know. You’ve asked the wrong man that, because I enjoyed playing all of those songs. Every song. I had a direct input into all of those songs so I enjoyed playing all of those songs. I didn’t have any so-called favorites; you know “Machine Gun” was good, “In from the Storm” was good, “Dolly Dagger,” “Isabella,” all of those songs were good. I loved playing them. I couldn’t get stuck on one song; the most important thing I wanted to do was play the music, so I was stuck on the music, not a particular song.
BBP: That’s incredible. Let me ask you this. Hendrix in terms of—how do I phrase this question—in terms of his relationship with the black community. I was younger during that time, but I always had the impression that his music wasn’t really accepted by African-Americans during that period. I remember later reading he got booed at a street fair in Harlem. What was happening with all that?
Cox: Well you had racial divides in the media also because his music was predominately on the FM stations. So blacks did not have FM stations where they really felt comfortable and FM stations at that time did not play R&B and blues. They do now, but back then they did not. And so rock was predominately played on the FM stations. And in the black stations, somebody said “Who’s this guy?” Well a few guys knew who he was, but the vast majority of them did not know. It’s not like it is today.
BBP: Right. And who do you like now? Who’s out there now—rock, blues—who do you like to listen to?
Cox: I listen to all of them. I came up from a—my mother was a classical pianist and I came up under Mozart, Handel, Liszt, the whole bit. And then I gravitated to the bebop...and then the blues and R&B. Today, I feel like—I still love Albert King, and Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan. B.B. King and various artists. I still like to listen to artists. I don’t have any one favorite. I listen to all of them. Then I have a lot of jazz records too. I’m still into Miles, Herbie Hancock, and Jaco Pastorius and things of that nature.

BBP: Are there new performers, guys who are out these days who perhaps were not out when you were around? I’m talking about younger guys now. Does anyone have your ear at this point?
Cox: You mean bass players, groups or what?
BBP: Groups, anybody. Any musicians…
Cox: I like what Marcus Miller’s doing, and Victor Wooten, and still like Stanley (Clarke) and guys of that nature as far as the bass players go. I’m really concentrating on my group, Billy Cox’s New Band of Gypsys. I mean we’re really doing a lot of rehearsing, a lot of work and we put together this CD and—but guys live so far apart that, but we get them together, at least once a month, and we do what we have to do musically.
BBP: Are you guys going on tour anytime soon?
Cox: Hopefully I’m trying to get them on this Experience Hendrix tour.
BBP: Oh. Okay. I know you were playing on that..I remember I saw a video of you playing on that tour. A few musicians were playing on that. I just wanted to ask you a couple of more things about Hendrix. That period. Just a couple of rumors that..
Cox: I’ve just been told I have to wind it up, but go ahead.
BBP: …Yeah, I appreciate the time you’ve given me. One was this talk that Michael Jeffery had him killed…
Cox: …And I saw Elvis…You know, you can’t run around with rumors and innuendoes on people. We got the news about what happened and sometimes people are not happy with what happened. They want to make it the way they want it to happen. And there will always be rumors and innuendoes on the stars. The Michael Jacksons, the Elvis Presleys, the Janis Joplins, the Jimi Hendrixes. But I don’t believe everything I read in the funny papers.
BBP: (laughs) But his relationship with Jeffery was kind of strained at times…was that true?
Cox: Are you looking for gossip or are you looking for the truth?
BBP: I’m looking for the truth because of things I’ve read over the years.
Cox: Jeffery was a manager. And he did what managers do. You have some good managers, you have some bad managers and mediocre managers, but he was a manager. So I didn’t hear them argue. I didn’t hear them fuss. So I can’t definitely say that they…but I knew that he was thinking about changing managers. Sometimes relationships between artists and managers after five, six, seven years, they change. I’ve seen that over hundreds of artists who have signed with one manager and after their three years with a three-year option is up they go to another place hoping that they can make more money and be more creative or what have you. So nothing stays the same. Change is inevitable.
BBP: I wanted to ask this about you. About ten years ago the Cort guitar company released a signature bass guitar under your name. How’d that come about? And what’s going on with that right now?
Cox: Well that was the contract. I was under contract—there goes that contract again—I was under contract to them for about three years, three-and-a-half years, something of that nature. But I put out this Freedom Bass and it was a pretty good bass. And we had a few sales. In fact, I’ve still got a couple of them. It was a Cort, and they were the only ones that were really nice. And so I took out the time to design this bass and I guess you could probably pick up some. They’re not out like they were; I think Cort has 300 different styles of guitars they put out. They’re a humongous company. But they were very good to me. I had a lot of fun. Made a little money. And you move on.
BBP: And you were involved in the design of this bass?
Cox: Yes, I designed it.
BBP: Did you ever get any feedback on it from other bass players?
Cox: I was at (a) convention and…I was standing around. A lot of people didn’t know who I was, I had one of these funny hats I wear from time to time (laughs)…and, quite a bit of compliments. I was there and a lot of people liked it. A lot of people bought it.
BBP: Wow. That’s incredible. I just want to slip this last one in. Right now, you’re the last person from either the Jimi Hendrix Experience or the Band of Gypsys who’s still alive. When you think of that, what goes through your mind?
Cox: My last CD was called “The Last Gypsy Standing.” And in fact the main track to that is also on the Old School Blue Blues which you probably have.
BBP: I heard that, yeah.
Cox: I thank the creator for sparing me this length of time. I try to take care of my health. I didn’t go to the gym this morning because I have about four or five things to take care of on the phone…but tomorrow morning bright and early I’ll be at the gym. I try and exercise, try to eat the right things, take care of my health. I think that’s more important, especially when you get a little older. So I’m just trying to take care of what I’ve got, and what I’ve been given.
BBP: But in terms of what you did with Hendrix and that whole period, what the two of you were doing together, do you feel a responsibility to, maybe, carry on the legacy?
Cox: Well I have to do what I have to do. In fact I’ve been called to speak. I’ve spoken at the University of Indiana, University of Illinois, Fisk University, and I try to be a mentor to a lot of the young musicians coming up. I’ve been there and done that. And I try to give the best advice that I know how to them, and if they ask for it I’ll speak truthfully to the best of my ability and knowledge.
BBP: Right. And I know you were just out in California with the Wild Blue Angel?

Cox: Yeah, that was a lot of fun. The Wild Blue Angel was edited a little better and a little differently and it was very unique to be able to do that. Myself and John McDermott with the Hendrix Corporation and the fellow who produced the movie, he was there. We were on the panel.
BBP: What kind of questions do you get when you’re on panels like that?

Cox: Any kind. People ask anything off the cuff from the type of bass I use to the type of contract that I signed. The general public, you could be faced with any number of questions.
BBP: And do the questions vary as to the age of the person asking them? Do the older people ask different kinds of questions than the younger people do?
Cox: I never even tried to find out who did what, but I do know that the Jimi Hendrix legacy is continually living on. I look at the tours and anywhere from six, seven, eight and anywhere from 18, 19, and 20-year-old kids are still picking up the guitar. And guess what? The first artist they try to play like is Jimi Hendrix. They embrace his musical genius and they know most of the songs, basic songs that Jimi played. So I’m still signing autographs for them; so this is two, three generations later.
BBP: Wow. That’s incredible. That’s really incredible. Is there any guitarist out there now, who you think comes close to him in terms of ability or approach?
Cox: Umm..I mean you asked me that I think a little earlier here in the interview, but…not really. I’m not going to…I can’t give everyone…Jimi Hendrix defined the guitar. Everyone had their chance to define it, so he came about and he defined it. So anybody who is copying him is not defining the guitar. They’re copying Jimi Hendrix. There are a lot of people who imitate and try to duplicate, but there’s only one Jimi Hendrix. And every now and then the spirit slips through the portal of time into this reality and blows our mind. And Jimi Hendrix slipped through that portal of time. I’m not smart enough to tell you where that portal is located. But he did that. And he realized that fate is a card that’s dealt at birth, but destiny is what you do with those cards.
Here again is Billy's website:
http://www.bassistbillycox.html Also, if you want to communicate with Beldon's Blues Point, write us at Also, join our site! We'd love to have you!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Last Gypsy: Bassist Billy Cox Part I

In 1961, while an army private stationed with the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, bassist Billy Cox and a friend were walking past a base service club when they heard someone playing unusual licks on a guitar.
It sounds like crap, Cox’s friend said. But Cox heard something different. Something he liked.
He went inside to meet the guitarist, who five years later would become famous under the name Jimi Hendrix.
Their friendship began with the two playing the so-called “Chitlin’ Circuit” in the South and Midwest during the early 1960’s. They went their separate ways for a while after Hendrix was discovered by Chas Chandler of the Animals.
But eventually Hendrix called his old buddy and the rest is music history. Cox was with the band that played with Hendrix in August, 1969 at the famous Woodstock concert. Then the two joined with drummer Buddy Miles to form the short-lived but pivotal power trio Band of Gypsys. The concerts performed by the group over New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day from 1969 to 1970 were once dubbed by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the ten greatest of all time.
Now 70 years old (he’s a year older than Hendrix), Cox lives in Nashville, where he keeps busy with both his more current projects and with representing the legacy of the music he created with Hendrix, who is still considered by many the most important and influential rock guitarist who ever lived.
Leading the New Band of Gypsys, a group featuring Byron “Showman” Bordeaux and Vincent “In the Pocket” Fults on guitars and Gary “Freight Train” Skipper on drums, Cox has released Old School Blue Blues, a collection of traditional blues songs, some with a rock edge that heralds back to his time with Hendrix.
The album includes “The Last Gypsy Standing,” a song also recorded for Cox’s 2009 album, “Last Gypsy Standing.”
“I wanted to reiterate what it was all about,” Cox reportedly said to the online magazine Hollywood Today in explanation of the duplication.

The only surviving member of either the Jimi Hendrix Experience or Band of Gypsys, Cox has played with the Experience Hendrix tribute tour and will do so again in 2012. Earlier this month, he was part of a panel that discussed Hendrix at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles after a screening of the movie Blue Wild Angel: Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight. Cox played with Hendrix at that concert, held in England about three weeks before the guitarist’s death.
Cox also keeps busy with his video production company, which produces blues and gospel shows.
Cox was born in Wheeling, WV. His father was a Baptist preacher and a mathematics teacher and his mother was a classically-trained pianist. His interest in music received a boost during his teen years after his family moved to Pittsburgh and he came into contact with a number of jazz musicians. He reportedly discovered he liked the sound of the electric bass after trying other instruments.
His early partnership with Hendrix led to them forming the King Kasuals band, which played regularly at the Del Morocco, a popular Nashville club, as well as on the road. The two musicians continued to support each other’s careers over the years, with Cox once recommending Hendrix for a recording session with famous Nashville disc jockey Bill “Hoss” Allen (Cox talks about that in the upcoming interview) and Hendrix suggesting that Little Richard hire Cox as a bassist. (Cox could not do it. He also talks about thatin the interview).
Cox also gave creative support to Hendrix, whose up-front style frequently put him at odds with the bands he played with during that early part of his career.
When Hendrix went to Europe in 1966, he asked Cox to come along. When the bassist said he had other obligations, Hendrix told him he would achieve success and contact him again. After the dissolution of the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Hendrix kept his promise, and this time Cox accepted.
Cox was with Hendrix when the guitarist played his famous rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" at Woodstock.(There's a story about that in the interview too.)
Cox has played with other noted musicians, among them Sam Cooke, Slim Harpo, Joe Simon, Charlie Daniels, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, Etta James, Gatemouth Brown, Maxine Brown, Nappy Brown, Patti Labelle, Freddie King, Earl Gaines, Wilson Pickett, Little Milton, Johnny Taylor, Earl Gaines and Betty Davis. More recently, he has played with the band Gov't Mule.
He has also worked with gospel performers such as Sister Edna Galva Cook, Brother Joe May, Shirley Ceasar, the Brooklyn All-Stars and the Consolers.
We’re presenting our interview with him in two parts. In the first, we ask him about his new album Old School Blue Blues and about a curious little trick he and Jimi Hendrix played to get more practice time while in the Army. And that’s not all:
BBP: I heard the new CD. Tell me how it came together.
Cox: It came together because my wife and I, we’re around the same age and we realize that the stuff that we grew up with, which was blues—the real authentic down-home blues—we don’t hear it anymore. We’d take our trips, we’d have a lot of CDs of early traditional blues and we listened and we liked it. So we decided to kind of come out of the area that we were known in. But you know, if you stop and really look at it, all Hendrix was playing really was loud blues. “Voodoo Child,” nothing but blues, blues changes. “Red House.” But we went back to the roots of it all and we had fun doing this and we had a lot of people on board who felt the same way we did. The title song is “Old School Blues.” Blue Blues.
BBP: One thing I’ve noticed is that, over the years, you’ve been involved with several projects, this being the latest in which you’ve utilized guitar players. Are you looking for a certain thing because you did play with Hendrix? I mean he must have very hard shoes to fill.
Cox: I know that no one can really fill Jimi Hendrix’s shoes. But I’m looking for guitar players that have the deep soul feeling and are able to project it out. That’s basically what I’m looking for when I’m looking for guitar players. I have two with the group now that are pretty good. But then sometimes I will venture out and play with other groups from time to time. But I love those kind of guitar players who feel it from inside and the only way I can define it is, I can hear it. It’s like when I first heard Jimi Hendrix at the service club at Fort Campbell. I was a young kid, he was making mistakes, he wasn’t quite there, he was in his infancy musically and I turned to the guy next to me and I said “Man, that’s pretty unique isn’t it?” He said “It sounds like a bunch of crap to me.” So I went inside and introduced myself because I knew that there was something there. And that something is what I look for in guitar players.

BBP: During that period a lot of people were hearing Hendrix and they just thought, just like your friend did, that it was basically noise. I mean, Hoss Allen….
Cox: I got a story about that. We went over to (a studio used by Hoss Allen). When they weren’t cutting their artists on the roster, then the general public could utilize the studio. So we go over and cut the stuff. We got ready to do it, and Hoss says “Billy do you know any guitar players?” I said “Yeah I know a guy who could probably do that for us.” So I called Jimi Hendrix in, along with Johnny Jones. And he started playing, and on the one track after Hoss had played it back, he came in and said “Man I don’t know if I can use this guy. He’s just too doggone loud.” Thirty-some years later Hoss said, “Billy I’ve got those 16 tracks of those sessions that we did and had Jimi Hendrix on.” He said “Dammit I believed I erased ten million dollars!”
BBP: Oh my God!
Cox: He had taken Jimi off because he had said he was a little too loud.
BBP: Wow! Wow! Hindsight is definitely 20-20…
Cox: …I tell you…
BBP: Yeah, that’s something else. But what were you hearing? Because it’s amazing that all of these other guys were kind of dismissing him as weird or freakish or whatever, and you actually heard something in him. How do you explain that?
Cox: I heard the future. I heard the genius. I heard the…it’s just going to take him a while to develop. And I saw him put 25 years in a guitar in five years, because it became a night and day affair.
BBP: Now I understand during that time, you and he kind of had this thing that you did to get more practice time in while you were in the army. Eventually they caught onto you but you kind of pulled it off for a while. Do you remember how you did that?
Cox: They never got onto me; I did it until I got discharged. What I did was (laughs) I don’t know if you have time to hear this story, but…
BBP: Sure!
Cox: We used to practice and play down at the service club and this Special Services, I don’t know if they have that division now but they were guys who kind of took care of the service clubs, made sure paperwork was done, made sure the cleaning crew got in, and then they had the people who were paid by the USO who came in later in the day to open it up. So I knew the one guy, Ron, who was fixing to get discharged, so I go to his commander and I said “Look Colonel, Ron’s fixing to get discharged, and I’d like to have his job down here that he’s got.” “Well, you’re an airborne man,” he says. “You can’t be on jump status to get this job. But if there’s some way you can terminate your jump status, I’d be glad to have you.” So I went to a sergeant in my outfit who got things done. I says, “Look, what would it cost me to get terminated out of jump status and moved over to the Special Services?” So he came back about a week later and said “It will cost you fifty dollars and two fifths of Canadian Club.” So I terminated my jump status and I wound up over in repo detachment where everybody is dispersed. So I heard the first day: “Thompson, Germany!” “Harrison, Vietnam!” etc. Next day, the same thing. The third day he said “Cox, Special Services!” I knew I had pulled it off! So my job was to get up about eight or nine o’clock—it was a different type of regiment in the detachment I was with in the USO and Special Services, so we knew we had a cleaning crew that came down at nine o’clock. So I had up to that time to get there. And I’d get there, and they’d clean up. Meanwhile I explained it to Jimi, so after he had formation—(laughs) he was just a mere peon, I think maybe he had one stripe, no one even really looked for him—well he wound up walking down to the service club and after my clean-up crews, we would rehearse all day long. We did that up until the time I got discharged.
BBP: And they never caught on to you?
Cox: No they didn’t.
BBP: Wow. That’s amazing. Now I remember reading at one point that Hendrix, when he was playing with Little Richard for a while, that he actually invited you to join the band.
Cox: Yes. Here in town, when I finally got to Nashville, I had a place on Jefferson Street. So we’re all sitting out and talking and we look up and there’s this Silver Eagle coming down the street. See, most of the time Jimi—he’d go out, call me from Chicago, “Man, I got with this group and I’m stranded.” Twenty bucks would get you from—heck, maybe 35 or 40 dollars would take you from New York to LA in that day and time in the sixties. But I’d get the money up and he’d come back and play with the King Kasual Band, then he’d go off, get stranded someplace else, and he’d come back. But this time, he had left for about three months. It was the longest he had left, and I looked up and here’s this silver Eagle coming down the street, and out jumped—pulled right up in front of my house—out jumps Little Richard. And the neighborhood just went crazy. Little Richard came up to me and said, “Uh, you must be Billy Cox. Jimi has said a lot about you. Get your stuff and let’s go. I need a bass player.” I said, “Well sir, I’m with this group, and I have to give them at least a week or two week notice. I can give them a week’s notice.” He says: “Oh I need a bass player now. You gotta come now. You know who I am?” I say: “Yes sir, I know who you are, and I respect you and your music, but, you know business is business.” So he says: “Okay, Jimi, I can’t convince him.” Jimi shook my hand, and they got back on the bus and that was the last I saw of him until he called me to go to Europe. He said: “there’s this guy who saw me in the (Greenwich) Village and he wants to take me to Europe and make me a star.” But at that time I had a publishing company and I was producing groups. And he said: “this guy’s going to take me to Europe and make me a star and I told him about you.” And I said: “Jimi, I’d like to come. I said, but uh, right now…” I just gave him some off-the-wall excuse because I knew intuitively that there’s the possibility that I could have been a hindrance. So I gave him a little off-the-wall excuse. So I didn’t go. And then later on he called me, he says “Okay, I’ll make it, and I’ll send for you.” And that’s just what he did, about two-and-a-half years later.
BBP: Do you regret not going then?
Cox: No. Not really.
BBP: What were you doing during that period he was in Europe?
Cox: I had a publishing company, and then a recording studio was in the back, so I produced a lot of R&B. And I was having fun doing it and made a little bit of money.
BBP: And I guess you were working with some pretty well-known artists at the time.
Cox: Well at that time locally, we had a lot of good local southern artists that were doing some things. And then after all I was working also on the “Night Train” show. And then one weekend out of the month we would go to Dallas, Texas to record “The Beat,” (a Dallas-based television program). I had a partner who took care of the business when I was not able to be there.
BBP: I see. Tell me a little about how you connected with him again. It happened around 1969 after Noel Redding left the band, right? And you guys were up in upstate New York with Juma Sultan and there were other musicians with you. The band I believe was called Gypsys…
Cox: “Gypsys, Sun and Rainbows” or something of that nature. Well, he finally got the telephone call to me. He said: “Man, I really need you, I need you to come up.” See, when we rehearsed, we came up with a lot of riffs. Some people call them patterns. We had fun with these patterns, hooking them together, making songs and a lot of times we’d say: “Man, if we put this on record, they’d lock us up.” Because it was ahead of its time, the stuff that we were doing at that particular time. So he knew that we had a kindred spirit musically. And then after all we played at the Del Morocco here, forty-five minutes on, fifteen off. We did that year-in and year-out. And then we did the other gig; when we went down to Printer’s Alley and the various places here in Nashville, it’s always 45 on, 15 off. So we got a chance to not only play, but a lot of times we practiced on stage.
BBP: Wow. And I understand also when Hendrix played “The Star Spangled Banner,” you were kind of playing the first five or six notes, and then you stopped.

Cox: Yeah. Intuitively I knew that something was wrong with this picture because he just all of a sudden just went there and then I had to stop and say “Wait a minute.” Something told me “Just stop playing and let him have it.” No one else was playing but me and him. And I stopped and what an incredible solo!
BBP: Yeah, yeah, you see it in the movie Woodstock. I mean it’s just amazing. Well, tell me how Band of Gypsys came together. You were trying to help him out of a lawsuit.
Cox: …A contractual obligation that he had signed—I don’t know if you read that part of the history—he signed this—this guy says: “Well look man, all I need you is just sign this little piece of paper saying we can do this.” Because really Jimi did not do a lot of homework on contracts etc., and the guy caught him off guard, and he signed this contract for a dollar. And it meant a lot of things were written in this contract. So here he is famous, and the next thing you know, he’s going to be sued for $15 million dollars.
BBP: Wow…
Cox: .... So he told me about it and I says: “Well look, let’s give them something. I don’t know what we can give them. We’re musicians, and you got a name.” He says: “Well, I don’t have the money.” And I said: “Well, you might not have the money, but like I say, we’ll give him something.” And so finally he came up with (the idea to) give them this album, and that was me and him on board, and then finally Buddy Miles—Mitch (Mitchell) was in England—so Buddy told him: “Look, we’re friends, and our friendship’s not about money, so let’s do it. Let’s give them this thing we discussed.” So we rehearsed for a couple of weeks, and lo and behold, we did two gigs New Year’s Eve and two gigs New Year’s Day. That was the Band of Gypsys.

BBP: Was it hard, that format? What was it like playing bass for him?
Cox: I played bass with him most of my musical life at that time. I mean we were in the service, we went to Clarksville and lived there. We were playing in the clubs. We went to Indianapolis and lived there, played in the clubs, came back to Clarksville, played in the clubs, came to Nashville—so my association with Jimi Hendrix had been a very musical brotherhood for a long time. I didn’t look at him like everybody else looked at him. He was my partner, and a cool guy. So we were musically hooked at the hip, if you might say that.
BBP: Yeah, I got that impression. And did he play bass himself?
Cox: Yeah he played bass. In fact, one reason why he called me, he’s the bass player on (thinks for a minute) “All Along the Watchtower.” Jimi played bass on “All Along the Watchtower.”
BBP: Did you show him things?
Cox: Yeah. He showed me things and I showed him things. I mean he was very good at the bass.

Anyone seeking more information on Cox should check out his website at:
http://www.bassistbillycox.html Anything for Beldon's Blues Point, contact us at Also, join our site! Represent!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Warm Winds over Woodbridge: Saxophonist Tony Craddock, Jr. Part II

When we left off with Tony Craddock yesterday, we were talking about whether he would prefer a career in music to one in science. We start off part two of our interview by asking him about the tools of his trade:

BBP: Now tell me a little about your approach to the saxophone. I mean of all of the saxophone players out there, who are your influences? Who are your favorite saxophone players out there?
Craddock: My biggest influence, definitely Boney James. As I said, my taste in jazz moves more towards the smooth jazz side, so growing up I listened to a lot of Boney James. I listened to a lot of Kirk Whalum as well. Because Kirk Whalum had a similar style, but he also got into the gospel genre, which I appreciate, which is also where I’m looking to take my career, kind of cater to the inspirational and gospel side of jazz as well. As far as classical jazz, I listen to a lot of Stan Getz, because I like his sound. He’s known as having quote-unquote “The Sound.” Very sweet, silky kind of sound. I also listen to a lot of musicians who are not saxophonists because of the way I view saxophone. I kind of view it more as a voice, more so than an instrument. So when I play the saxophone I try to almost create an effect where it’s singing rather than playing. So I feel like the kind of musicians I listen to, I try of listen to musicians who melodically also have a quality where they make their instruments sing. For instance, I listen to a lot of Pat Metheny, the guitarist, because I think he makes the guitar somehow have this singing quality that I think is rare.
BBP: Okay. In an article I read about you, it mentioned that you like Anita Baker. You try to model your style of playing after her style of singing…
Craddock: I do. What I particularly aim to do is, you know Anita Baker has a very rich, deep voice that nobody can mimic. I’ve never heard anybody say, “Oh my gosh, that person sounds like Anita Baker.” It’s almost like comparing somebody to Michael Jackson: it just doesn’t happen. But that kind of uniqueness she has in her sound is the same kind of approach I take to the saxophone.
BBP: Tell me a little bit about this album that you have out now. What made you decide to make your first album a Christmas album? Those are notoriously hard to market because Christmas only comes once a year. Every article I ever read about somebody doing a Christmas album, they always raised the concern that Christmas only comes once a year and people are not inclined to buy a Christmas album at any other time but Christmas.
Craddock: Okay. Well I did this album with the understanding that there definitely had to be a follow-up sophomore project that wasn’t based on Christmas. So I knew about, like you said, there’s a lot of concerns that you can’t sell Christmas music outside the months of November and December. So I came into this knowing that. But my approach, it was a bit of a no-brainer to me to do a Christmas album, just because I feel as a new musician, you need something to reel your listeners in. And for me, I know I have a creative approach to the saxophone, creative approach to production, and I felt I could take Christmas songs and throw my own creative twist on them in a way that creates a unique listening experience for listeners, you know. Give them a different perspective on the songs that they’re used to hearing in a traditional way. So I felt if I did a Christmas album and took a new approach to it, and captured a certain audience, then when I did my follow-up projects, I would gain sort of a following of supporters and fans, because they’d know what I could do musically. So I approached it from the perspective of Christmas music: everybody likes it. So it almost gives people an excuse to listen to your music. People are usually pretty receptive to Christmas music, so I felt that same receptiveness would translate over to my project and people would be willing to try something new.
BBP: How did you go about producing this album? Tell me how you conceived it, and executed it.
Craddock: The production for the album actually began probably around June. It was a pretty quick process because I knew I had to get it done before the start of the academic year. First I worked very closely with my assistant producer on the album, his name is Ricardo Cordero…a lot of the work on the album was collaborative with him. We took a lot of the arrangements, sat down; I was at the keyboard, on the saxophone. He was at the keyboard and we kind of figured out how we would twist the songs and rearrange them to our musical liking. So between the month of June and August we were in the studio day and night, just grinding out the album, making sure it was ready for this fall.
BBP: Was it difficult…I mean at Christmas time people do cover songs, and I guess you could classify Christmas carols or Christmas tunes as cover songs. Was it hard to find a way to breathe new life into these songs? I guess it was a challenge to kind of make these songs unique, I guess it was kind of a challenge to your skills, I suppose, right? Was that another reason why you did it?
Craddock: I really didn’t see it as much of a challenge because again, I try to take that creative approach to music, just in general. So whenever I hear a song, or whenever I hear a vocalist sing a song or something like that, the first thing that comes to mind is: how would this sound on the saxophone? And then how could I change it to make it my own? So I actually—believe it or not, in the production process, I actually found myself having to hold back from changing the songs even more. Because if I had it my way, I would have been a bit more radical with the arrangement. But I realized I had to, I guess, have what I called “controlled creativity.” Be creative with the songs and make it unique and whatnot, but still leave enough of the originality in it so that people recognize it. So I actually wanted to change the songs more. So the creative aspect of it, making the covers my own was the least of my problems.

BBP: Let me ask you this. You mentioned that you want to come out with a sophomore album pretty soon after this one is running its course. Are you working on that now? And if you are, where are you with it? At what point are you at?
Craddock: Right now, I have about four songs. Four original songs composed by me that are pretty much ready to go. I have the ideas down, the melodic concepts, I just need to get into the studio and add instrumentation to it. But I’m looking to add a couple of gospel covers, and maybe a few jazz covers as well to the album. But the album would contain at least half of original content from me. So I’m pretty early in the process because I’m still promoting the Christmas album. But come January, I’ll be going full-force into production of the second album.
BBP: Do you have an ETA on this project? Estimated time of arrival?
Craddock: No sir, I don’t.
BBP: And are you now part of a band? Do you have a regular group of people you perform with?
Craddock: Right now I don’t.
BBP: Are you looking to assemble one? And is it possible that the people who play with you on the album will play out with you? Because I know that a lot of musicians, they do an album and to promote the album they go out and play live.
Craddock: Correct. I have secured a couple of gigs for next year. I will be using some of the musicians from my album—in addition to other musicians that I have a good rapport with—to tour around the D.C. area. But again, since I am in school, I kind of have to be balanced in how much energy I spend towards music versus school. So if I wasn’t in school I’d definitely throw a hundred percent towards music. But I can only expend so much of my energy towards music because I still have to sustain the educational side of my responsibilities right now.
(He graduates from graduate school in May 2013)
BBP: Your music career as a whole, where would you like to take it? Where would you like to be ten years from now?
Craddock: Ten years from now, I’d definitely like to be a well-respected, hopefully household name, a saxophonist known for having a very smooth melodic easy-going sound, but still a good amount of jazz content, and I’d also like to be known as somebody who is a Christian, and my music will hopefully reflect the inspirational and Christian side of my life.
BBP: I guess that means you want to get out of the D.C. area. What I mean is, that you want to be known outside of Washington….
Craddock: Correct. I want to be known internationally.
BBP: Would you like to get into the Christian music market?
Craddock: I would.
BBP: And that would be something you would do in addition to the smooth jazz market?
Craddock: The way I look at it, I feel like they go hand-in-hand. I think the unique thing about the saxophone, or any instrument that’s not a voice, there’s no words to it. So I feel like inspirational jazz, gospel jazz, smooth jazz, I feel like they can all go hand-in-hand. It’s all about the message behind the music, so I don’t feel like I have to necessarily separate the two. I feel like they’re actually pretty complementary.
BBP: Great! Alright! And remind me of this: which saxophones do you play? The tenor, the alto, the baritone?
Craddock: I play the soprano and alto.
BBP: Soprano and alto, okay. And which one do you like best?
Craddock: I’m actually pretty new to the soprano. I just began playing the soprano about a year ago. So I’m more comfortable on the alto right now. But I do feel like I…I feel like I am slightly favoring the soprano.
BBP: Okay. But you’re more experienced with the alto.
Craddock: I’m more experienced on the alto.
BBP: I see. Okay. And are there possibilities that you see with the soprano—things you can do with it—that you don’t see with the alto? Or is it just a question of being proficient with both expands your range?
Craddock: I think I have equal opportunities with both of them. ..I think the unique thing about the soprano is, the kind of warm romantic tone that you associate with the soprano, almost makes it seem like it’s another instrument. A lot of people don’t even know soprano saxophone is a saxophone because it doesn’t look like one. You know somebody asks me “What saxophone is that?” and I say “the saxophone that Kenny G plays.” And everybody goes “Oh! Oh!” So I feel like the soprano, there are definitely opportunities, because in jazz it’s one of the least used saxophones. Tenor sax is by far the most used and alto is pretty widely used as well. But given that the soprano is one of the more rare saxophones, it has a pretty unique sound. I definitely would like to expand upon that, make it part of my music.

Christmas in the Air is available through CD Baby, iTunes and It's also available on Craddock's Facebook page at:

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Warm Winds over Woodbridge--Saxophonist Tony Craddock, Jr.

Tony Craddock, Jr. traces his interest in meteorology and science to The Weather Channel.
Watching the 24-hour cable weather news network as a child prompted the Woodbridge, Virginia native to major in atmospheric science at Cornell University.
But The Weather Channel also sparked an interest with a less obvious connection to temperatures, precipitation and cold fronts.
As a child, Craddock’s ears perked up whenever he heard the smooth jazz songs played on “Local on the 8s,” The Weather Channel’s segment depicting local weather conditions.
He enjoyed the music so much that at about age 12 he picked up an alto saxophone and learned how to play. While growing up, he played at church and other venues and at Cornell formed a student organization of musicians dedicated to smooth jazz and rhythm and blues.
Two months ago, the now 23-year-old Craddock reached a plateau with the release of “Christmas in the Air,” a collection of Christmas-related music that marks his maiden voyage as a recording artist.
Ironically, The Weather Channel has added two songs from the album, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “The First Noel,” to the rotation of songs that accompany its programming. Pandora Radio has also picked up songs from the CD.
It’s also drawn some attention from the smooth jazz community.
“The depth of his perception and innovative nature can be clearly found in this recording of many of our beloved Christmas tunes, which he recreates in many ways to place a very impressive signature on them,” wrote Ron Jackson of The Smooth Jazz Ride, an online publication.
“….It is always refreshing to listen to music that is well-conceived, even if it consists of covers (which can be the most difficult to reproduce in a stand-out way without an abundance of creativity and imagination). Craddock puts such a nice touch of each of these and really makes you feel as though this is a production of all-original material.”
Craddock’s strides in his music career come as he continues to pursue his interest in science. He is now at George Mason University in Fairfax County, Virginia studying for his master’s in public health—training he hopes to combine with his undergraduate work in meteorology.
Still—never mind the implications of his decision to name his production company “Cold Front Music, LLC—“ he says he is sure that music is his first career choice.
“In the meantime I’m taking care of the academic portion of the equation and making sure that I have my education to fall back on,” he said. “But ideally my goal is to do music full-time and I’m trying to work towards that.”
We had a chance to talk to this possibly conflicted, definitely talented young man about his life, his music and the new album. We are presenting the interview in two parts. We will post the second part tomorrow:

BBP: My understanding is—just from what I read about you—that you actually got started in music watching The Weather Channel?
Craddock: That’s correct.
BBP: How’d that happen? Tell me the story.
Craddock: Well, around the age of eight, I realized I had a fascination with the weather, and the media source I ran to to fulfill that passion was The Weather Channel. And through watching The Weather Channel, I fell in love with “Local on the 8s,” which is the local segment of the show. And The Weather Channel was renowned for playing smooth jazz in the background, and I actually fell in love with that music. And I think that was actually the impetus for me wanting to begin the saxophone. The saxophone was an instrument that I kind of anchored to the most from the music they played on The Weather Channel. So when middle school rolled around, around the age of 12, when it came time for me to pick an instrument, the saxophone was the first one I ran to, just because of the positive experiences and influences I had from The Weather Channel.
BBP: So were you like part of a school band or something?
Craddock: You know I did the middle school band thing, then moved up to some band in high school, but the majority of my playing experience actually came from church.
BBP: Where did you get a saxophone? Did your parents buy you one?
Craddock: My parents invested in one.
BBP: Okay. And did you take lessons?
Craddock: I took lessons sparingly from about eighth to the tenth grade. I also studied briefly under—one of my musical mentors and still one of my musical mentors to this day—his name is Rob Maletick. I’m still in contact with him and he’s been a great mentor to me. After about the tenth grade, I really didn’t take any formal instruction.
BBP: And it seems like at the same time that your interest in music was born, your interest in science was born as well. I mean you developed that watching The Weather Channel too, right?
Craddock: Correct. Correct.
BBP: And did you actually develop an interest in meteorology at that point?
Craddock: I did. I think my interest in meteorology came first. And then I think, through the “Local on the 8s,” I became interested in weather. So the two fields, even though they seem pretty different, I think they actually have a weird connection, or odd connection in my case, just because I link the music with the weather.
BBP: Okay. So in other words meteorology and the weather are two different things.
Craddock: They are. But for me they’re sort of one in the same. Just because of the way I experienced them growing up.
BBP: And when you say meteorology, that’s actually the study of weather…
Craddock: The study of weather, correct….
BBP: …And when you say weather, you mean, discussing it on the media? The action of giving forecasts on the media and that sort of thing?
Craddock: Correct.
BBP: Tell me a little bit about where you took your music career after high school. Were you part of a band at Cornell?

Craddock: I never became part of a formal jazz band just because my rigorous curriculum. But I did on the side play along with the gospel choir my freshman and sophomore years. Come junior year, I started a jazz ensemble called “After Six” with a couple of my friends. I leaned more towards the smooth jazz R&B side, so we wanted to develop an ensemble that catered to that music. We did some standard jazz covers, but mostly smooth jazz, R&B, neo-soul type of music. And I led that ensemble for two years—my junior and senior years—and also led the movement for it to become a registered student organization on campus, because I wanted to make sure that after I left Cornell, the group would still be sustainable.
BBP: And is it? Is it still going on?
Craddock: It’s still alive and well.
BBP: And are you in touch with the people who are members now?
Craddock: I am.
BBP: And are you advising them on different things? How to play, or how to run this organization, or whatever?
Craddock: I guess you could call my role more of a graduate or alumni consultant. You know we have a list-serve and we still communicate back and forth all of the time….
BBP: Okay. Tell me what you’re doing now academically. You’re now at George Mason?
Craddock: Correct. I’m at George Mason working on my Master’s in public health with a concentration in epidemiology, which is more or less the study of disease.
BPP: Okay. And what do you intend to do with this?
Craddock: My goal ideally is to combine the MPH with my undergraduate degree in meteorology and do some sort of environmental health consulting. Bridge the two fields to find ways to inform people about how everyday weather impacts their lives.
BBP: But at the same time you’re pursuing musical ventures as well. Do you think you have time for both?
Craddock: Well at this point I sort of have no choice but to make time for both. But my goal is to do music full-time. In the meantime I’m taking care of the academic portion of the equation and making sure that I have my education to fall back on. But ideally my goal is to do music full-time and I’m trying to work towards that.
BBP: Okay. So if you had your choice between pursuing what you’re studying in school and doing the musical career, you would do the musical career?
Craddock: No doubt. I’d definitely go for music.

Don't forget to catch Part II tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bluesy Christmas Wishes from The Godfather of Go-Go

With his reputation as the “Godfather of Go-Go,” it’s easy to forget that Chuck Brown is also a bluesman.
But the 75-year-old Brown, who last year received a Grammy nomination for “Love,” his collaboration with singer Jill Scott and bassist Marcus Miller, does get into a blue mood every once in a while.
One such time was last Saturday at the Cultural Arts Center of Maryland’s Montgomery College, when Brown and harmonica player Phil Wiggins provided part of the entertainment at a ceremony marking this year’s presentation of the Maryland Traditions 2011 Alta Awards.
Brown, credited with single-handedly creating go-go, a funk style of music based in D.C. that is known for energetic live performances, had included his version of “Every day I Have the Blues” on his 2007 CD, We’re about the Business. At the ceremony, he and Wiggins, who for several years had performed with the late guitarist John Cephas as part of the Cephas and Wiggins acoustic blues duo, delivered another standard, “Key to the Highway:”

Brown and Wiggins also acknowledged the time of year in a bluesy way by playing “Merry Christmas, Baby:

At the ceremony, three recipients received the awards “for their ongoing efforts to preserve and maintain the state’s living heritage.”
The winners were:
• Singing and Praying Bands of Maryland, a group of performers singing a style of music with origins in West African religion, Christianity and African-American ring shout tradition.
• The Patterson Bowling Center, Baltimore’s sole duckpin alley and the oldest duckpin center in the world.
• Rich Smoker, who carves hunting decoys.
Also performing at the ceremony was singer/guitar Warner Williams, who this year was recognized as a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment of the Arts. Chuck Brown received the same award from the NEA in 2005.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Finding Her Way Back Part III: Leszia Renee

This is the third and last part of our interview with Gospel singer Leszia Renee. Here she talks about her current--and first--album "What About Me?"
BBP: Tell me about your music career. I’ve got something that you’re singing in dinner theatres, apparently.
Renee: Yeah, I often perform with a theatrical production company. It’s called Stage House, musical production and they’re based out of San Bernardino as well. And I’ve been working with them over the past several years. It’s been a blast. I always—because I don’t desire to sing for the world, so the parts that I accept, I have to make sure that I know that they’re Christ-centered, they’re Christ-grounded. We also did Roger’s and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and I was quote-unquote the Fairy Godmother. We’re doing the musical production of The Wiz. I’m Dorothy. We did Oklahoma. So musical theatre, I have a good time with, you know? I have really good time with. And the songs that I’m chosen to sing I can reference them to God. I can reference them all to God because they bear witness to His goodness.
BBP: And I also understand you have a CD out?
Renee: Yes I do. It is entitled What About Me? And it’s interesting because again it comes from, when you listen to it and you hear the songs and of course the fast ones, you’re going to dance to because you’re like “Hey, that has a really good beat.” And I want you to know, as God does, that you can dance for Him. And you can shake your tail for the Lord. And when you listen to the slow ones, you know, you listen to the words and you’re like “Oh wow, oh boy, you were somewhere on that song, weren’t you?” And it was. And the title of the CD again is What About Me? And that came about from me doing that God when-why-and-howcome and when-are-you-going –to-do-what-I-want-you-to-do and Lord-I’m-tired-of-waiting, and the Holy Spirit said to me one day “Well, what about Me?” and (makes a gasping noise)….
BBP: …..Wow…..
Renee: ……You just asked me “what about you” and all of this time I’ve been saying “what about me” and it just broke my heart. It broke my heart, and then you know, Jesus,that place that I was at where I was contemplating driving off of, off of a cliff. They are all living testimony of just how good God is and what he’s brought me to. There are some crazy songs on there. It shows the side of me that he’s placed in me as far as that loving to just rock. It’s like “what if?” and it’s like “what if God wasn’t on the throne and what if we were out here alone?” So I stepped back and, as he was giving them to me, I was going “Are You sure God you want me to sing it like this? Really God?” And then, especially the really personal ones, I’m like: “God are you sure you want me to tell people this, God? Really? I thought this was between me and you. I’m not supposed to be telling everybody this. You said that I can take everything to you and you’d keep it to yourself, and now you want me to do what?” And the Father was like: “Yeah. Because you’re not the only one who’s living it. You think I brought you through it so you could hold it all to yourself?” And I said: “Well I guess that’s it. I’ll open up my mouth and sing.” It is a collection of fast songs, slow songs and medium-speed songs that anybody can appreciate. There’s a song on there that’s close to my heart, because again, the love of children that I have, it’s called “Hallelujah Yeah” I specifically wrote for children. Something that they can catch on to and it’s happy. Because children need to learn from a young age it’s okay to praise God, it’s okay to go this route. You are not uncool because you love Jesus, because you love the Lord, you want to work for Him, and as a matter of fact, you’re way cool because you do so. I’m happy with it because it is a complete dedication to the Father and to just how wonderful He is.
BBP: What’s the name of that song again?
Renee: "Hallelujah Yeah"
BBP: Hallelujah? Yeah?
Renee: Hallelujah! Yeah!
BBP: Yeah, like “Yeah?”
Renee: Yeah. Exactly. Because like a little kid, like, you know, they’ll go “yeah!” And the chorus is just (sings) “! Hall-e-lu-jah! yeah!” Something that a child can do (laughing).
BBP: And when did this album come out? Is this your first album?
Renee: It is.
BBP: Oh, okay…
Renee: Yeah!
BBP: And this is all original material?
Renee: It is all original material. Oh my Gosh, and it’s released from GVR records. I have to give through God thanks to Larry (Martin Kimpel) because he’s a good guy in and of himself and the fact that God pulled on his coat strings. When I first met him and I had the opportunity to speak to him, because we have a mutual acquaintance, that’s how I heard of him. And so I sent him a couple of songs and never got a response and (you’re thinking) maybe he didn’t like it, and so we got together coincidentally at that mutual acquaintance’s birthday party and it just so happened that I sat right next to him. And I’m all talking, and whenever given the opportunity I will talk about God, I love to talk about how amazing God is, and he said “I’ll have to revisit those songs that you sent to me!” And he did. And he loved them. And he said “okay, let’s get together. We need to get together. We have to do something.”
BBP: So he produced the album? Is he the producer?
Renee: No.No.No. No. No. I produced. I co-produced with a gentleman named R.J. I am the producer and the executive producer, but his label, GVR Records, is where it’s released from. He is the one that had been working to get me out there, you know. I just finished..had the opportunity to perform at the San Diego Gospel Fest..
BBP: Yeah. Kirk Franklin..
Renee: Yes! It was cool! It was cool as all get-out! I very much enjoyed that! And I’m always, I’m always, whenever given the opportunity to minister, I will sing. I want to sing for God. I just do. I don’t care where the venue is. If you say, can you be there to sing for this, I’m like “Sure can.” Because that’s just another opportunity to let God get the glory for that. Someone can be reached, you know that, someone can find out that, in spite of me and all I’ve done, He can give her joy..He can do the same thing for me. So you know I’m just blessed. I’m grateful to be blessed by the father.
BBP: How is it to meet Kirk Franklin and did you actually sing with him? Did you get on stage and sing with Kirk Franklin?
Renee: No, No. We shared the stage. I’m the little fish in the pond. (laughs). He’s the bighuge fish in the pond! So unfortunately I did not get the opportunity to do a one-on-one with him. I shared the venue with him.
BBP: But still that must have been..
Renee: ..It was okay because I am speaking prophetically. Praise God. And yes I will. And not only will I get the opportunity, but we’ll see what God does.
BBP: Okay. Let me ask you about some of the songs on your album. How many are on there?
Renee: There’s a total of 15.
BBP: 15.
Renee: Yes.
BBP: And of those 15, which ones..I mean they all stand out, I know, for something..
Renee:…Various reasons…..
BBP: ….Various reasons. But is there one that, if you were on an island and a radio deejay came to you and said: “This is the last song of yours that will ever be played.” Which song on that album would you want the world to hear?
Renee: “What About Me?”
BBP: Okay. And why?
Renee: Because it’s God asking us the same question that we all ask Him. What about me? What about what I need. What about what I want. What about the life that I want you to live? Again, it is a knife in the heart when God audibly speaks to you and he asks you the question: “Okay Leszia, what about me?” And “What About Me?” would be that song because it’s not about me. I know with that being the title of the CD, God chooses things for the reasons only He knows why He chooses things. I’m pretty sure, especially as a gospel singer, you’d see that as the title of your CD, “well what about me,” you’d go, “My God, how vain is she? Yeah, well what about you?”

BBP: Right.
Renee: But then when you listen to it and you actually see and you actually hear that it’s God asking you “what about what I need?” We have this picture of God as—and He is—all-encompassing. He is all-powerful, He is the Alpha and the Omega, and that He needs nothing. He doesn’t need anything. But what He wants is for us to love Him. And He wants us to want Him. That’s God’s Heart. Through that song, it’s God’s Heart speaking out. It’s God saying: you know the best that I have, I gave it to you. I shed My blood, I suffered for you. And it’s like: “Wow, you’re right. Because I sent you to that cross, Jesus.” “But what about me” is what he’s saying.
BBP: Tell me a little bit about some of the other songs on the album. What they talk about and how they may have come about.
Renee: If I was given the opportunity to have two songs, it would be “I Won’t Stop.” Because while I was out in the world, I danced, I partied, I got my boogie on (laughs), you know. And just because I’ve decided to live Holy doesn’t mean I can’t dance anymore. And when you read the Bible you’ll see that David danced for the glory of God. So “I Won’t Stop” is like “hey yeah!” It’s a party tune. I’m dancing, but I’m dancing for God. I’m dancing because my soul is excited about worshipping Him and praising Him. And the dance that I’m doing, it’s not provocative, it’s nothing sexual, but it is a true joy that only God can give you, and I won’t stop until He gets enough (laughs). “Whatcha’ Gonna Do?” That was funny as well, that came from us living our lives, you know, me doing exactly what I wanted to do. I had stopped going to church. And God said “Leszia, what are you going to do? At the end of this day, meaning at the end of your life, when it’s time for you to stand before Me and you have to pay for everything that you’ve done, whatcha’ gonna do?” (She then starts singing the melody to “Bad Boys,” the theme song to the television program “Cops”) “What you going to do, when He comes for you?” Where you going to run, where are you going to hide? Where you going to run to? And I’m like “Wow. Really God? Really God?” and He’s like “Yeah, Leszia. Really.” And so “Whatcha’ Gonna Do?” came out of that. And then, another of the songs is “Didn’t You Know?” And, again, that’s an up tempo beat song, and it actually came from a sermon that I received, you know. That “Didn’t You Know” I would never leave you; “Didn’t You Know” that I would never let you fall. “Didn’t You Know” that I would never forsake you. You know He said he would never leave us, so I had to live that to know that God wouldn’t leave me. That God would not forsake me. That no matter how low I go, and how low I had gone, that He didn’t let me fall, because my life was still here. I still had the opportunity to glorify Him. And that’s where that came from. Then there is “Count Your Blessings.” “Count Your Blessings,” (laughs) “Count Your Blessings,” praise God, is not an experience in as much as a personal experience. I guess again maybe it was. “Count Your Blessings” I actually wrote for my sister. My older sister, who has four children. Who has a husband, who like myself is married but God has blessed her, but still unhappy with your life and you’re looking out, wishing and wanting for everyone. You need to count your blessings that God has given to you. One, two, three you know. And then you’re seeking and searching when Jesus is your answer. “Count Your Blessings,” that one’s dedicated to my sister. I love her (laughing). I hope she doesn’t hear this.
BBP: Well, it is an interesting part of the story, yeah…(laughs)
Renee: (Laughing); Yeah! I know! I know. I know. Oh no. Oh no. Oh My God. And then “Deliverance” was...”Deliverance” was just a question that the Holy Spirit had me to ask. You know, (quoting the song) “are you lonely, are you scared, are you tired and no one cares.” He was asking me this, you know….
BBP: …Right….
Renee: ….and I was answering Him. So that’s where “Deliverance” came from. He told me “deliverance is waiting for you,” you know, and I’m like “wow.” “Can You Hear the Spirit Call?” I was too busy doing what I wanted to do and living how I wanted to live that I couldn’t hear God speaking to me anymore; I couldn’t hear his spirit calling out to me. And it wasn’t until I shut up and I actually heard him…Oh my gosh, and then…Oh My God...I feel pretty good here, reliving all of this again. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” It’s a cry. It’s a cry. It is from a broken heart. It is from unrealized dreams. It’s from a repentive heart because at the end of “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus” I end the song with where my heart was, which was crying out, and I’m saying “I’m still Your child hoping that You still love me too.” But I didn’t know at the time. I didn’t know at the time if God could still love me, if God still wanted me. You know, here I am again, I’m jumping up and down God, I’m standing in the middle of this world that I’m screaming to the top of my voice because you don’t look like you see me. You don’t look like you hear me God. You know, I’m alone. I’m in the dark and I’m asking you to guide me through this. And so here I am. And then “This May Be Your Last Try” is just my heart compelling people to turn to Christ because it may be your last chance. Tomorrow—we’re not promised tomorrow. We’re not even promised the next five minutes. I’ve been given the opportunity to ask you, you know, I’m a messenger. God sent me to ask you “Will you choose Him” before it’s too late? And that’s where “This May Be Yours Last Try” you know, it came from. Oh my gosh, song after song is just a testimony that I love , or me being an empty vessel that God used to get his message through. I’m grateful. I’m very grateful. I’m honored that he will allow me to be used. Are you kidding? Me, of all people? “Lord, Do You Know What You’re Doing?” It’s the only thing I can say as I surrender my hands up. But…He’s amazing and there’s probably more songs that I could have put on the CD, but there wasn’t enough room.
BBP: Let me ask you, the style that you sing in, is it traditional gospel?
Renee: No, not at all. And that’s the weirdest thing to me. Because if I had to categorize myself, I couldn’t. I don’t sing traditional gospel because…to me, traditional gospel is singing “God, I don’t believe in you, or God, I don’t believe that You have given me everything that I need to stand waiting on You,” and traditional gospel comes from a standpoint of people begging God, and that’s not where I am coming from. I’m coming from a standpoint of standing victoriously because He brought me through. I’m praising God. I’m thanking God. So I would say—and it’s not inasmuch as contemporary Christians, because I got “Roll Up On There” which is a great hard rock song. (laughs). If I have to. If I were to put myself in a category, it would not be praise and worship. I’m not southern Baptist. I don’t do hymns. I just, I am, I’m just… Oh My God…. Oh my God, I’m… “Gospel Praise.” What about that?
BBP: “Gospel Praise.”
Renee: “Gospel Praise.” Yes.
BBP: Okay…
Renee: “Gospel Worship Praise.” Because again, I don’t do typical gospel because gospel is (sings) “Oh Lord Help me to…” Really? (chuckles). (sings) “and soon and very soon.” No, that’s not where I’m coming from.
BBP: Are there any secular artists that you like?
Renee: No. And again not taking anything from them because God has given us all of the ability to do what we do. It’s just, what you choose to do with what he’s given you the ability to do. I don’t listen to secular music, so I couldn’t tell you a Beyonce song, you know? I know the name Beyonce because it’s plastered everywhere, but I couldn’t name her song. However, if I reach back in the day, I like Whitney Houston’s voice. When Whitney sings “I Love the Lord,” oh my God! That melts my heart!That melts my heart! So I very much love Whitney’s voice. Whitney, the old Whitney. Oh… Who else? Rachelle Ferrell. She’s a jazz singer, and just her vocal ability sends chills. She can sing! She can sing. But that’s it.
BBP: The reason I asked you that was because you mentioned one song you described as hard rock, and I was thinking…
Renee: Yeah! It’s the “What if?” And again, I have no idea where it came from! I used to listen to, when I was younger…what was the name of that group…God…Eagles!
BBP: Yeah, Eagles.
Renee: It’s the words that I would classify as hard rock because rock words are just so in your face…it’s like “as a matter of fact.” (makes a sound like a guitar playing). Like, what are you going to do with that? And that is very much “What If.”
BBP: Where do you want to go now? You have an album out, you’ve had it out for a couple of months now. First album. First of all, what are you hearing and what feedback are you getting about the album?
Renee: All positive. And that’s very strange because I’m just in awe. I am surprisingly shocked and wonderfully in awe that people can bear witness, that people can receive it, because they’re living it, or they have lived it. So the feedback I’ve got, everything has been positive. Because you expect to have your nay-sayers. You expect to have someone to say, “Well how come you don’t sound like Mary Mary?” Or ”You’re not sounding like Kiki Shepard.” Because I’m not Mary Mary and I’m not Kiki Shepard. Can I blow? Yeah, I can do all things required through strength of me. Yes I can. Can I go behind them and we sing the same song and it will be two separate versions that are as compelling? Yes! Because I know what God can do through me. But the feedback has just blown me away. I’ve had people to come up and say to me “I have just lost my mother, and here I am, minister to me. Because you were able to sing exactly what I was feeling.” Again, my response to all of the feedback that I am getting is always “Wow God, really?” I mean I’m in awe of Him. In awe of Him.
BBP: Where do you want your career to go? What’s your next step? Are we going to see a sophomore album anytime soon?
Renee: Yes. Larry and I were just speaking the other day about going into the studio to do the sophomore album. I’ve written a lot of songs, and yeah, there’s like a sophomore album coming out within a year or going into production of a sophomore album, which I’m looking forward to, because, in and of itself, this is his gift, this is what God has given him the ability to do. And I understand now why God allowed me to go through so many other people before, you know, because before the original thing comes the Devil is going to deceive you. He will send people your way—I have other labels, other publishing houses saying “yeah, that’s great, and we want to work with you, and we want to do this, but we’re going to need 75 percent of your royalties, and given the fact that you’re giving up a finished product, we’re going to need you to do x, y and z and….” no..and God did not give me this just to give it away.
BBP: Do you want to experiment with different styles? Do you want the sophomore album to be like the freshman album, or do you want to take it in a different direction?
Renee: I am led by the spirit always. So if God wants it to reach people who like to listen to jazz, there will be songs on there for that. If God wants it to reach people who like to listen to hip-hop, there will be (hip-hop style) songs on there. I don’t really classify myself because when you hear this CD, there’s no category that you can put it in and say “Okay, it really kind of fits all in this, or it really kind of fits all in that, or it kind of fits in all of this,” because there’s something in it for everyone.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Finding Her Way Back Part II: Gospel Singer Leszia Renee

In the following portion of our interview, gospel singer Leszia Renee talks in depth about a ten-year period in her life in which she said she was alienated from the Lord.
Giving herself to Jesus Christ at age seven, she let the influences of the world turn her away from Him at age 24. Shopping was more important to her than spirituality then, she said, and any singing she did was more for an American-Idol style pursuit of fame than any celebration of God. All of this eventually brought on a despair that intensified after she married (she has been married to Adolphus Holcomb, an electrical engineer, for seven years) and found she could not conceive a child.
The despair was pushing her to thoughts of suicide, she said. But gently, she said, God was pushing her back to Him:
BBP: You’ve been exposed to music all of your life. But tell me when you first thought “Well, maybe I can make this music, maybe I can sing.” You said you used to listen to your mother when you were in the cradle.
Renee: I was listening to my mom, but again. I remember being a small child in the bathtub making up songs…I can remember as far back as four or five years old doing that, you know, just singing songs. And of course there were always talent shows at schools that (as if reminiscing of the time) “of course I’ll sing! I don’t mind getting up there and singing!” I’m a little bit frightened to stand in front of people to sing because again, it’s my gift; it’s what God has anointed me to do. It wasn’t again until I had decided that I want that whole American Idol dream and I want to be this superstar and let me have at it this way, there’s just so many different turns and twists that will lead you down a road of destruction and I’m not knocking anyone as far as where they have so chosen to walk. But as far as the path that God has placed me on, it’s never been that. And we can either do what the will of God says for our lives or we can do what our own will says. Okay, well I tried it my way…and I was so empty inside. There was nothing, and you get so confident and you say “Oh my Gosh, you can just sing so good and girl you know you can really kill that song,” and you’re like ”yeah.” It’s empty. It’s empty praise coming from people that are looking to be filled with whatever light you have…And I remember the very first song that I wrote, the very first song that I wrote furiously for real was “Can You Hear the Spirit Call?” And that’s one of the songs on my CD and it came from the standpoint of me doing and trying what I wanted to do and not what God wanted me to do and just feeling empty, or feeling like I’m in a roomful of people but I just want to be in the background, just quiet somewhere because no one actually really hears me. And I’m talking to God and I’mangry and I’m saying: “God where were You when I needed You and how come You didn’t answer me when I called you?” And it was through me writing to God and—isn’t God wonderful enough to allow us to always be truthful? Because He always knows what’s always going on in our hearts anyway? But it wasn’t until He allowed me and I allowed myself to get out of the way to where I was able to write up the pain in my life. Write out the experiences that I should not have taken and offer them up and literally to sing for forgiveness to my Heavenly Father, because those were the first songs. I mean I’ve got notebooks full of songs that are “Oh let’s shake it” and “Let’s Do This” but no, it’s not what He wanted for me. And I desired what He desired for me which was righteousness.
BBP: Right. I did read that you found God at the age of seven but that you kind of turned away from Him at 24 and that you were kind of on a different course for ten years…
Renee: Yes.
BBP: Tell me a little about that.
Renee: (Sighs) The loneliness. You know, the loneliness brought me back. The impatience took me away. It wasn’t moving fast enough. I’m a microwave society type of person. I can push a button, I can get my meal in 30 seconds or less. “Ok God I’m expecting you to do the exact same thing for me.” “No God, I don’t want to wait. I want this now. If you’re not going to give this to me now, I’m going to go out and I’m going to make this happen.” And it was that thought pattern that got me to the place where “Oh, My God” this is empty. I’m not satisfied, you know. There’s something in me, there’s a hole, there’s a longing, God that—I’m singing, I think this is what I want to do, you know. But I’m not being filled, I’m empty as I’m singing. So again, it’s wasn’t until God allowed to hit me what I considered in my life rock-bottom, which is I could no longer hear God. I didn’t hear him talk to me anymore. I didn’t hear him guiding me anymore. I don’t ever want to ever be where I can’t hear that small voice going “Leszia, I want you to go this way. Leszia, no I don’t want you to do that. Leszia, I need you to stop. Leszia, I need you to go over here and do this.” I donot want to be where I cannot hear God’s voice speaking to me, and I had gotten myself that way. He never moved away from me. He of course was always standing there. Always waiting for this, His Prodigal Daughter, to return. But yet His Prodigal Daughter was just out there doing her own thing, thinking I was having fun. But like I said, it was empty, I really could be at a family gathering or in a room full of people, and I feel like crying, and would often sit back and cry. And there was nothing wrong with me physically, there was nothing wrong with me mentally, but it was my soul that was crying out, my empty spirit that was crying and it was crying out for God. And it wasn’t until I literally—I stepped back, and I stopped singing for a while. Everything was just iffy, it was just all plain, it was all dull, and I shut off.
BBP: You shut off?
Renee: I shut up. I shut down. I let not a vowel come out of my mouth! It wasn’t until I stopped singing that I reached that point and then of course when you stop doing what God has given you to do, oh that’s when the enemy comes. That’s when the devil comes. And there’s the devil trying to tell me “Nobody’s going to miss you if you’re gone. You’re really not doing anything with your life. Why don’t you just go ahead and drive off of that cliff? Who’s going to care?” At that point in my life I was so empty, I was so lonely, I was so lost, and I thank God for His spirit. Because even when I held up my hand and let go, God did not allow me to be loose from his hand. And it was his love for me that brought me out of that depression. I have journals and I found one of my journals a couple of months ago, and I was in a dark place when I wrote it…and me again, having thoughts of suicide and nobody in my family knew, because, having seen me you would just think that my world was fine.
BBP: I read something in here, Song Vault, it’s a little biography of you that says (reading): Gospel Recording artist Leszia was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. She gave her life to Jesus Christ at the tender age of seven. But the influences of the world got the best of her, and by the time Leszia had reached the tender age of 24 she turned away from the teachings of God. For ten long years Leszia walked in the temporary pleasures of the flesh doing whatever she felt right to her. And when I saw that I thought I’d better ask you about that, just so I can get a read on where you are now.
Renee: Oh, no, it doesn’t necessarily mean contaminating your body. My body is a temple. But selfish. Self-centered? Are you kidding? Shopaholic? Okay. Buying whatever I want. Not caring if my brother was okay. I didn’t care that you had a bill that was due. My bills were paid but yet I’m sitting up here and I’m going to Nordstrom and I’m getting ready to spend $500 on some shoes. You know? But yet you’re ready to get evicted, but I’d rather have those shoes than help you out with your bills. Seeing people on the side of the road who truly look and need to be helped and turn my face away! Are you kidding? Everybody can be there for their family, because they love their family, but you know I’m going to go ahead and cast the bigger net. Let’s cast the net beyond your family. Let’s cast the net beyond your friends. Let’s go ahead and cast that net beyond your community and let’s cast the net that encompasses your whole world. That wasn’t me. I was selfish. I was very selfish. Oh I went to clubs. I danced. Are you kidding? Come on now! God no, I did not sleep around, but I had a bunch of boyfriends. I had them doing whatever I wanted them to do under the pretense that you’re going to get what you think you’re going to get. But you’re not going to get it. By no stretch of the imagination am I an ugly person!
BBP: Right. I saw your picture. You’re very attractive.
Renee: And with that being said…you know but my father told me something a long time ago that I treasured as a child. That a man will do anything that you want him to do, so long as he thinks he’s going to get your body. The minute you give him your body, then he’ll stop doing for you, if he decides to do so. If he loves you, he’ll continue to do it. Okay, I took all of that to heart. “I know what you want from me. Yeah, you got to do this for me. I have that.” Again, it was just wrong! I knew what I was doing! I chose to do it. Again, I chose not to go to church on Sunday. I chose to completely turn away from God. Are you kidding? I’m out on Friday. I’m having a good time. Me and my girlfriends, we’re at the club. We’re just out doing our thing. We’re having a good time. But it wasn’t a good time. You know that life…being in the limelight with men really throwing money at you…it’s so empty. It is empty. Because it’s not (hesitates) love. It’s lust, it’s not love from God. It’s love from the world. And the world…it will abandon you. So I wasn’t out there on the corner selling my body. I wasn’t out there doing drugs, sniffing cocaine, smoking it.. but what I was doing was just as bad because no one sin is really greater than another, they’re all the same. So yeah sure, go ahead! I might as well have been doing it. Because in the eyes of God, what I was doing was just as bad. It was equal.
BBP: What was happening to you musically? I mean what kinds of songs were you singing? Were you singing secular songs, more or less?
Renee: Oh, yeah! (laughs heartily). Oh definitely I was! Are you kidding? Yes I was! “I can show you a real good time?” I’m like wow, “Is this what you’re doing with what God has given you?” Wow! How is that glorifying God? And again, it wasn’t until the enemy started talking to me and telling me “Leszia just go drive off the cliff. Go ‘head. Nobody’s going to miss you. You’re not doing anything really with your life. It’s not working out.” But it wasn’t supposed to work out. Not like that. Because that was not what God had planned for me.
BBP: And you really were at the point of suicide?
Renee: Yeah, I was. Yeah I was. Yeah I was. Yeah I was.
BBP: Wow. Tell me about what happened, just..
Renee: (Sighs) Just a very, very dark place. Feelings, lonely. Lonely. Lonely, lonely as all get-out. Again, not feeling my self-worth, okay? You know here I am, and I want children. The biggest desire for a woman beyond—in our flesh—beyond wanting to get married, you know is you want to have that child. You want to see a “mini-me” you know. You want to see your mirror image, your reflection, running around because then, everything that you’ve done or not done in life, you do vicariously through your child. And so when that did not happen, it just, I mean it put me into such a state of depression…it consumed my every thought. My every thought was to achieve this child. Went through everything possibly within my flesh. Went through the fertility treatments, spent thousands of dollars, you know, for it to not work. You know the first time you have this hope and it doesn’t work…in my actions, in my anger I will not sin, and I didn’t sin against the Father. But then the second time it didn’t work, it broke me down so and the pain was so intense that out of my mouth that no, I didn’t sin, but I also didn’t cry out. And it was in that silence that the devil got really loud. (laughs). And I mean really, really, really loud! And that’s when the thoughts of suicide, the feeling of worthlessness, set in. And that’s why I said, Mother’s Day is one of the hardest days for me, if not the hardest day of the year for me, every year.

(Tomorrow, we will present the third and last part of our interview with Leszia Renee. Then, she will talk extensively about her music career and particularly about "What About Me," her current CD.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Finding Her Way Back: Gospel singer Leszia Renee

At 24, gospel singer Leszia Renee turned herself—and her voice—away from the Lord she had been serving since the age of seven.
“Selfish? Self-centered? Are you kidding? Shopaholic?” said Renee, who is based out of Moreno Valley area of Southern California. “Okay. Buying whatever I want. Not caring if my brother was okay. I didn’t care that you had a bill that was due. My bills were paid but yet I’m sitting up here and I’m going to Nordstrom and I’m getting ready to spend $500 on some shoes. You know? But yet you’re ready to get evicted, but I’d rather have those shoes than help you out with your bills.”
But feeling empty about the decisions she was making—and driven almost to the point of suicide--Renee returned to the Lord at age 33.
Now, ten years later—instead of shopping at Nordstrom—she occupies her time with San Bernardino’s “Crossing Over Ministries,” where she teaches Sunday School, directs the choir and runs “Everyone Eats,” the ministry's food pantry.
And instead of pursuing American Idol-style dreams with her singing, she is now using her voice for the Lord. To that end, she recorded “What About Me?” her 16-song debut album as a professional gospel singer. The album’s release last June was designed to coincide with a San Diego performance in which Renee opened for gospel star Kirk Franklin.
Renee says the songs reflect what God wants her to sing, including the title song, the name of which refers not to a self-centered question from her, but a query from God asking her about His place in her life.
She released the CD with GVR Records & Entertainment, a company founded by Larry Martin Kimpel, a Christian recording artist and a bassist (if you want to know more about him check out our interview posted July 26 and July 30 of 2011) who has worked with George Duke and Anita Baker and who now plays with Frankie Beverly and Maze.
“He’s the perfect shepherd that God has placed me under. God placed him in my life so that I would not be taken advantage of,” she said of Kimpel, adding jokingly that the bassist “..has to give an account to God on how he treats me.”
A phlebotomist by trade, Renee has music in her roots. Her mother, Rosie Lee, sang in church and was a member of a couple of gospel groups. A vacuum repair and sales company owner, her father Carl was less involved in music but had a good voice when he sang Sam Cooke songs during weekend trips taken by the family, Renee recalls.
Our interview of Renee will be presented over the next three days. In the first part, she talks about what she learned about singing from her mother and about life from her father. She also talks about some of her favorite gospel singers:
BBP: Let me ask you about singing. I know that some of your influences were at least—you like Yolanda Adams and B.B. and C.C. Winans? You listed Karen Clark. I thought that was very interesting because I spoke to her about three or four days ago and you also listen to Aretha Franklin and I found that interesting because Karen Clark is apparently playing Aretha Franklin in a movie. But that’s just stuff I’ve heard. Tell me a little bit how each of these singers have influenced you.
Renee: Well, with regards to Yolanda Adams, the way that God just uses her and how you can feel the spirit move as she’s exalting God, that is just something to behold and the ability that the Holy Spirit has to touch you so that you bear witness to what she’s saying, you know…it’s just as you hear the spirit of God in someone as they sing, it’s like you are sitting at the feet of God and you’re in awe of what he can do. So again, the first voice that I heard happened to be my mom…Yes I love all of those other great vocalists, but that first voice I heard from my crib, that first voice that I heard singing in the choir, the voice that God has placed inside of me, it comes from the voice that he put inside of her. So I take nothing away from all of the Aretha Franklins, and I love Yolanda Adams…but I just break down and I cry at the glory of God when I hear my mother sing because again, it’s just an awesome thing to behold.
BBP: Tell me your mother’s name?
Renee: My mother’s name is Rosie Lee.
BBP: Okay. And was she a professional singer? Was she singing at a church?
Renee: She always sang at her church. She sang with a couple of groups. ..
BBP: Gospel style?
Renee: Gospel. (laughs) She’s always exalted God for the gift he’s given her.
BBP: And did she record?
Renee: She sang with the Heavenly Voices, yeah. They recorded. The Sounds of Grace, they also recorded. Several different groups that I can’t remember off the top of my head….
BBP: Has she helped you with your singing? Has she helped you with your career?
Renee: (laughing) I have tried to get my mother to sing with me and I just cannot get her in the studio with me…but will we in the future do something together? Definitely. I’ve written several songs specifically in mind that she and I can do a duet. But right now, as of today: not at all! I can’t get the woman to commit!
BBP: Okay. Has she though given you advice? I’m sure she pays attention to what you do…
Renee: Right..
BBP: She has. What has she told you? What has she said to you?
Renee: To sing for Him and Him alone. My testimony is I sing for an audience of one, it really doesn’t matter who’s standing before me. That comes from my mom. That comes because you’re offering up, again, praises to the Father! You’re offering up the sacrifice of praise to God and so the biggest influence that she has placed upon my life is when I stand up and I sing, I’m not trying to impress men. You know, I’m not trying to impress the critics of what I’m doing because I’m singing my heart out to the one who loves me first—that I love more than anybody—and that’s the Father.
BBP: Tell me a bit about your father.
Renee: My dad (laughs) My dad, very strong-willed. I would say that my persistence, I definitely got from him as far as being determined to not let anything get in my way or stop me. My dad is stubborn as all get-out. I love the man. He has his own walk with God, as does everyone. But his influence in my life was the introduction to our Heavenly Father as a father who provides for you. Because my father is very much a provider himself. This is the foundation that I learned about my spiritual, my Heavenly Father that God always takes care of us, because my father always takes care of us…You know so I would say by him just being a diligent provider, an excellent provider that he in his acts showed me the love of God.
BBP: Let me ask you something else about your father. Outside of music, you said he’s a self-made man, that he owned a vacuum company and everything, what lessons did he impart to you…well, musical and otherwise?
Renee: Hard work. Hard work pays off. Never second guess yourself. Trust in the God-given ability that He has placed inside of you..

(Tomorrow: Leszia talks about what took her from God, and what brought her back.)