Now and Then: Justin Kantor catches up with Lenny Williams
In 1973 and ’74, Oakland-based Lenny Willams served as the frontman for trailblazing funk’n’soul outfit Tower of Power. Bringing the group to international acclaim as the voice of a steady string of hits including “So Very Hard to Go,” “Time Will Tell,” “This Time It’s Real,” and “Don’t Change Horses (in the Middle of a Stream),” Williams soon thereafter began a solo career that has been going strong for more than four decades. With 16 albums recorded for nearly a dozen labels under his belt, the enterprising singer-songwriter has seen the best and worst of the music industry through his experiences as an artist and businessman. While many soul devotees revere him for classic recordings such as “Cause I Love You,” “Midnight Girl,” and “Don’t Make Me Wait for Love” (a collaboration with Kenny G.), he’s charted more than 20 singles in the U.S. alone—in addition to amassing a large international following for his deep catalog of album cuts. He recently spoke in-depth with SoulTracks’ Justin Kantor about his journey—from infancy to his “Fine” new endeavors. Here is the latest installment of Now and Then with Justin Kantor, spotlighting the remarkable work of Lenny Williams.
You’re originally from Little Rock, Arkansas. What do you remember about growing up there?
Actually, I left when I was only 13 or 14 months old! But my family would go back every year, since my grandparents were still living there. I had a magical connection with it. They lived in a rural area with animals, and there was a well.
How did your family decide to move to Oakland, California?
My dad was part of the Great Migration of African-Americans. He came out first, then my mom, brother and sister—they left me there with my grandparents. My grandmother brought me out on a train a little later. I think she wanted to keep me, but my mom wasn’t going for it!
Was music your initial area of interest as a child?
I got involved in music early on. My mom tells the story of when I was 16 months old. She’d been teaching me to say “The Lord’s Prayer.” She had all of these older women from the church over for tea. She was going to show me off. My middle name is Charles, so she’d say, “Leonard Charles knows how to say his prayers.” They gathered around. I said “our father,” then I threw my hands in the air and said, [singing] “Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop,” which was a hit song at the time. I had a fascination from an early age with music.
Where I grew up, my church was right next door. Right across the street was the boxing gym, and right down the street from the church about half a block was the radio station. Those are my great loves, other than my family. All three entities were within steps of our house.
How did you develop your vocal style?
As a kid, I grew up idolizing Sam Cooke. I must have been around 11 or 12 when he left The Soul Stirrers and went into secular music. I would listen to the radio. I would sing everything that everybody did. If you listen to the radio or records and start to sing their songs, you’ll start noticing little characteristics that you do all the time.
I tried to sing like Sam, but I also was influenced by a lot of other people. The first church I attended was a decent size; but they [eventually] built a larger one. I got lost in the shuffle there. Then, as a teenager, I went to a smaller church. They didn’t have a lot of mics. Most of the singers were women. When we would sing congregational songs, I wanted to be heard. So, I developed a style where I could sing in a higher register to hear myself. I also played trumpet starting in the fourth grade. The first thing you want to do as a trumpet player is to hit the high notes. So, I was always kind of thinking in the high range. I think that may be part of the reason that I developed the tenor and falsetto.
Before you joined Tower of Power, you released solo singles on several labels, starting with “I Couldn’t Find Nobody Else” and “Lisa’s Gone” on Fantasy Records. How did you come into that first deal?
That was my professional debut. I’d never really sang outside of the church. I was taking part in a college talent show. There was a radio station, KDIA, owned by Don Barksdale. He had a couple of clubs. Ray Shanklin at Fantasy asked me if I wanted to make a record. I’d written “Lisa’s Gone” when I was 13 or 14, and “I Couldn’t Find Nobody” a little later.
You mentioned college. Were you actively pursuing music in your studies?
I was studying sociology. I wanted to be a psychologist or probation officer. I was taking all my prerequisites and even thinking of going into radiology as an x-ray technician. I was married with two young kids. My first son was born when I was 18.
Did you end up finishing college?
I went back and forth. When I first went into Tower of Power, I was in school taking music theory and piano lessons. My buddy, Paul Smith, asked if my objective was to make records and make money. He said, “College is not going anywhere.” So, I kind of let it go and went on my journey to make it professionally.
Shortly before your run with Tower of Power, you released a version of The Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go Round” on Atco Records. What were the circumstances behind that?
I’d left Fantasy. I met this lady, Sandy Newman, who became my manager. I met her at Larry Graham’s house, and she got me the deal at Atco. I hung out with Jerry Wexler, who hooked me up with producers Brad Shapiro and Dave Crawford. They selected some songs for me to sing and took me down to Muscle Shoals to record. “People Make the World Go Round” was on The Stylistics’ album, but hadn’t become a single yet. Then they put it out, and everybody knows what happened!
Were you doing live performance by this time?
I wasn’t doing any performing. When one of my records came out—I think it was “Feelin’ Blue”—I had a neighbor always asking me, “When are you gonna do a show?” I’d never been on stage. She said, “Did you know that the mailman manages bands?” I didn’t. She introduced me. He had a little band out in Fremont, at that time a twenty-five-minute ride from Oakland. The Motown Soul Band. I rehearsed with them. I think we did one show. Some of the guys were still in high school, and it didn’t work out. Then I started hanging out with Larry Graham and writing songs. He said, “I’m gonna call this band Tower of Power to come over and see if I can put some horns on this stuff.”
They come walking in the door, and they’re the kids from the Motown Soul Band! We reconnected. I started writing with them. Their manager, Louie Gordon, was a good friend of Larry Graham and Sly Stone. They’d always want me to come up on stage and sing. At the time, they were having issues with their lead singer, Rick Stevens. They asked me a couple times if I’d join, and it got aborted when they had some important gig come up. As fate would have it, [band founder] Emilio “Mimi” Castillo called me again. I’d taken off of work for a whole year, and I needed to go back.
I’d gone to New York with Sly and was hanging out with Larry every day trying to make it. It got down to the weekend before I was supposed to go back to work. I thought, “I wonder what’s going on with Tower of Power, if they’re still having problems with Rick.” I called Emilio, and he said, “We’re in the studio, come on over.” So, I drove to San Francisco, and I sat up with them all night just listening to this album. The finishing touches. Then I went home. I didn’t ask and he didn’t say anything. I said, “This is it. I’m going back to work. I’m letting this music stuff go. I’ve got two kids and I’ve got to raise them.”
Sure enough, that Sunday he called me: “Hey Lenny, we’re still having problems with Rick. Do you still want the gig?” I said “Man, I want the gig. But I’ve gotta go back to work Monday. And if I don’t, I’ve lost my job.” I was working at Ford Motor Company on the assembly line. My first job was putting in the fire wall pad, which was pure asbestos. It’s a wonder I’m alive!
I went and started rehearsing. The first gig was opening for Curtis Mayfield and The Bar-Kays. We rehearsed for two weeks. One day right before the gig, Rick came to the rehearsal. He didn’t say anything. He just came to the door and leaned up against the wall. I had a little Pinto; he’d drive up with his Porsche and look at us like we’re at the lake. This was my infancy in learning the songs. I didn’t know all the words. I didn’t move on the stage. I had to have some of those words written out and taped to Chester Thompson’s organ. I was like, “Oh my God, I wonder what he’s gonna do. I haven’t captured all these songs yet to where I’m comfortable. Here’s Rick over here, he knows the songs. This is a big gig — Winterland. Bill Graham’s promoting the show.” I remember Mimi saying, “It’s okay, Lenny. Everything’s good. We’re gonna press on through this.” We did the show, and everything else just clicked.
How did you connect with Sly Stone and his band?
I grew up in church with Sly. We were part of the same organization, the Church of God in Christ. We’d see each other at musicals with The Hawkins Family, Odia Coates. Billy Preston, and Andre Crouch. I was a teenage preacher at that time. I’d be preaching and singing. We’d have these competitions. We called them musicals, but it was out and out war. Everybody was going to try to out-dress and out-sing everyone. Sandra Crouch, Blinky Williams, and Gloria Jones were also part of the group of people. Everybody could play the piano! If Billy Preston didn’t get to the piano first, Andre got there. Can you imagine that—a group in which Billy was not necessary?!
You ended up singing with Tower of Power on three albums, starting with the group’s 1973 self-titled LP.
They were finishing up the album with “So Very Hard to Go and “What Is Hip.” They took Rick’s vocals off the tracks, and I sang over them. They had already taken the pictures. If you look at the cover, it’s kind of a caricature. It was done like an artist’s interpretation, lifting RIck’s picture out and pasting mine in.
One day, I stopped at a corner store to buy a Coke. I see the album I’d done with the group, go over to look at it, and I’m so proud. On the cover, it’s got Rick’s picture. I turned it over, and it’s got the copy with my name. I rushed to a pay phone and called my manager, then Warner Bros. In my haste and bewilderment, I didn’t buy one. Those things are collector’s items now, and the label changed the cover.
Tell me about the dynamics of the band.
Going from no band to being in this huge band was an experience. Being part of the various cultures: Emilio, who’s Greek and Mexican; you’ve got Italian-Americans; me and Chester had just come into the band as African-Americans; Mic Gillette, who besides being a great trumpet player, had ancestors who were part of the Donner party. He and I clashed sometimes. It was an eclectic mix of people. Greg Adams, whose dad was a Salvation Army missionary and spoke fluent Chinese, was my first roommate when I was with the group. I’d never lived with anybody who was white. I’m sure he’d never had a black roommate.
Did you find that your vocal experiences prior to the band served you well when you first joined?
In the studio, you can always say, “Turn it up, turn it down, take out the horns, the backgrounds.” Onstage, you can’t do that. We had excellent engineers who made sure that my voice stood out with what was going on with the monitors. My vocal style just fit perfectly; it just cut through. It’s amazing that I had developed a perfect vocal style for the vehicle that was gonna launch me into the music business on a worldwide level.
You were also involved in writing songs for the albums you did with the group, such as on the hit, “Don’t Change Horses (in the Middle of a Stream),” as well as deeper cuts like “Come Back, Baby,” “Both Sorry Over Nothin’,” and “Just When We Start Makin’ It.” Can you talk a little bit about collaborating with Mimi and Stephen Kupka?
“Don’t Change Horses” I wrote with Johnny “Guitar” Watson before I was with the band. When I was on Atco, I submitted that song to Jerry Wexler. He didn’t like it. Then, when I joined Tower of Power, I submitted it to Mimi. He thought it was great. I started writing with Stephen (“The Doctor”) and him even before I got in the band. It was an extension of that. Now, we were on the road together all the time; after the gig, we’d go to each other’s rooms and start writing. Maybe I’d have something in my head and go to Mimi. We were up in Canada when “Man from the Past” came into my head.
Once you had success with “So Very Hard to Go,” how did things change for you professionally and personally?
When I started going places, people would say, “Hey, there’s Lenny Williams from Tower of Power!” People start to put you on a pedestal. Musicians I’d been hanging around with in Oakland viewed me differently. Because of the success, everybody’s trying to get it. Someone asked me about President Trump. I know one thing about him: he did something only 45 people in the world ever did. People gravitate toward a winner, whether you like or dislike them. When a winner walks into the room, it kind of changes the dynamic. People’s perspective of me changed, that I’d known and grown up with. I had to learn how to deal with that; to maintain my humility was very important, but to also respect their vantage point. It was difficult to do, but I think I managed pretty well.
I remember getting a phone call from Dick Allen, who was over at William Morris Agency, to inform me that Aretha Franklin was having a private party and wanted me to perform. Later, another call that she wanted me to open up for her on the road. Those were great honors for me.
Which elements of Tower of Power’s musical style and make-up resonated with you as a vocalist?
For me, coming from the church—well, now it’s different; but then, gospel didn’t have a lot of changes in it. Some songs had no changes in them, or no bridge—just a vamp. I remember we’d be sitting around. Doc would call me: “Hey, LW, I wrote this song, it’s got a hundred changes in it.” “I don’t wanna hear that!” I come from a background of no changes at all. Two, maybe three. That’s my limit. For one song, “Below Us, All the City Lights,” we were in Hawaii. The promoter and manager got together and said the show was so great, they were gonna pay for the hotel for an extra two days. “You guys can have a ball. Send for your wives and your girlfriends.” Mimi says to me, “Everybody can do that except us. We’ve got to go back to Seattle and finish ‘Below Us.’ With all the changes, you’re a little flat, sometimes a little sharp.” I managed, and I’m a better musician for it.
What prompted your decision to leave the group after the Urban Renewal LP?
Warner Bros.had a big tour with The Doobie Brothers, Little Feat, Ronnie Montrose, and Graham Central Station. They’d tell us the do’s and don’t’s over in Germany. Frankfurt was a place where we should be aware of what was going on, especially with African Americans. The army base there had some friction between black soldiers and the populus. I think with the black guys dating the fräuleins. So, we go through customs, and one of the guys in the band says, “Shoo! We made it.” He’d snuck in some heroin. That’s when I made up my mind: I was screwed. I went to Mimi and told him that when we got back, I was gonna be leaving. Not cold turkey. But after enough time to give him a chance to find somebody to replace me.
Tower of Power was a big drug band. Someone said that Rick Stevens was fired because of drug use. I don’t think that’s the case. When he was in the band, others were using drugs and continued to do so after. It was about the way the drugs affected him. Like that uncle who’s a drunk, comes over, tells jokes, falls asleep and pees on himself. Then, the other uncle who gets drunk and wants to fight and tear up the house. You’ve gotta call the cops to come get him.
How did your first solo album on Warner Bros. come to fruition? I believe it was released during the same year as Urban Renewal.
I was only in the band for two years and a few months. After only nine months, I get this package in the mail with a contract for me to adhere to all of the commitments that Tower of Power had with the label. My manager said, “Absolutely not. We’ve got to talk about this.” She went in and negotiated a deal where the label would give me a solo album with an advance, and I’d get some extra money from the band. She was pretty shrewd. So, I signed the contract and recorded that album, as well as my second one—which they gave to me when I left, with a parting advance.
Did you have creative say-so in the making of the LP?
I did what I wanted to do as an artist. David Stallings and I had been in a band before Tower of Power with Rusty Allen, who took Larry Graham’s place in Sly and The Family Stone; as well as Ted Sparks, who ended up playing drums for Natalie Cole. We did a lot of writing. He was teaching me guitar chords. Producer Eugene McDaniels had recently had a big hit with Roberta Flack on “Feel Like Makin’ Love.” My manager wanted me to work with him, thinking that I could do a crossover kind of thing. So, we had a few of my songs, and then some songs that Gene wrote.
I especially like the song, “There’s Always Mystery (When You’re Making History)”!
It’s funny you mention that one. The first time I met Quincy Jones, before even saying hello, he said to me, “There’s always mystery when you’re making history!” I could’ve just died. The fact that Q was listening to my music, and he picked this song that wasn’t a hit. I’ll remember it till the day I die.
How did you end up moving over to Motown for your second solo album, Rise Sleeping Beauty?
When I left the band, Warner was kind of ticked off, because that first album didn’t sell. They weren’t looking to keep me on and develop me. I think that they figured that maybe my success was just tied to Tower of Power. But they were cool about it. They’d already given me an advance on the second album, and I had money left over from that. Sandy negotiated another $25,000. When I went to Motown, they gave me $60,000. So, I had money. I walked away free and clear. That album didn’t sell either. But I did the first version of “Cause I Love You” on there. I didn’t have the talking in it, and it was a little more uptempo than the later version that everybody knows.
That reminds me. Another song that many fans love, “Problem Solver,” first appeared on your solo Warner Bros. album.
Yes, Frank Wilson dialed it up a little over there later on at ABC. I’d gotten that idea from Motown. They would recycle songs. Going back to when I did “Don’t Change Horses (in the Middle of a Stream)” and I took it to Jerry Wexler, who was probably one of the most brilliant record executives that ever lived. He turned it down, and then I did it and it became a top-10 hit with Tower of Power. It just let me know that if you believe in a song, even if it doesn’t happen, try again. When the album with Motown didn’t happen, I was on the road performing “Cause I Love You.” I had slowed it down and put the talking in it. I talked to Frank Wilson about it. We called Motown about it, because I hadn’t been gone that long from the label. We asked if it was okay to re-do the song, and they said yes. Usually they want you to wait a few years. We went in and redid it, and bam!
Notably, on the Rise Sleeping Beauty LP, you took on the role of producer—along with Chester Thompson from Tower of Power. How was that experience for you?
It went pretty good as far as the mechanics of it. I was more or less operating in the position of an executive producer. It’s all about hiring the right person. At that time, being located in Oakland and being a little sheltered with my personality, I felt I’d get somebody who knew me and my voice; someone whom I trusted musically to do the things I wasn’t able to do. Chester is an arranger who reads music very well. He could make sound musical decisions. He did a fantastic job. When I look back, there are things that I think I could’ve done on the Warner album. I don’t know why I didn’t go to Gamble & Huff to do a couple of songs. You live and learn.
The album cover, featuring your wife at the time, is also very striking!
I caught a lot of flack from that. People said, “Who does he think he is?” They looked at it like I was over a woman. This was at the height of the women’s liberation movement. I was primarily trying to say something about the black movement. We’re sleeping beauties; let’s rise and get rid of the violence. Let’s go toward education and building families. But some women were just tearing me up. I was three-hundred sixty degrees opposite of what they were thinking my thoughts were. That was a tough time for me. Besides the record not selling, people were looking at me like I thought I was God’s gift to women!
A couple of years passed before your first album for ABC Records. How did the move from Motown transpire?
Motown didn’t kick me out. But there’s something about me, when I’m unencumbered, it really helps me. When I left Fantasy, I didn’t have anything promised to me, but I was with Larry and we were writing. I went to Saul Zaentz, the owner of the company, and asked him to let me go. He asked, “Do you have another deal?” I said, “No, I just feel like it’s going to help me if I’m unencumbered.” I remember Suzanne de Passe and Berry Gordy were in Vegas when Diana Ross was performing. Somehow, my manager had tracked down Suzanne and told her that I wanted to leave Motown and do my thing. Suzanne worked it out for me.
I was just kind of passing through. I really didn’t get the whole Motown feel. I think had I stayed there and let Suzanne guide me, I would’ve probably gotten the whole experience. Ironically, I got re-introduced to Motown through the HAL (Heroes and Legends) Awards. They gave me an award, and I became an active participant. Now I see Berry and Smokey all the time. Janie Bradford, who runs it, just pulled me in.
Before I signed with Motown, my manager and lawyer had negotiated with ABC. A personality clash came up between my attorney and the vice president at the label—and I ended up at Motown. A year later, when I left Motown, Otis Smith—what a hell of a guy he was. He was still at ABC and just took me on without any attitude about what happened before. I think we had a different lawyer. He introduced me to Frank Wilson as my producer, which I really needed. Ironically, Frank had also left Motown, where he had so much success working with Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and The Jackson 5.
It was like I had Motown there again with me, because Frank was trained there in producing and songwriting. But shortly after I signed with ABC, Otis Smith left. He’d been promised the presidency when it became open, but they didn’t give it to him. Then he went to Motown! [laughs] But I finally got success with my first album on ABC, Choosing You.
What can you tell me about teaming up with Frank and the recording of Choosing You, from which you had your first top-40 solo hit, “Shoo Doo Fu Fu Ooh”?
I did my history on Frank. The first song he sent me was “Look up with Your Mind.” It was so melodic and had a nice beat to it. It was what I was trying to do. It was soulful like Tower of Power and had a nice message to it. Then he sent me “Riding the High Wire.” I started sending in songs. “Choosing You,” he loved that. We met. We were in the studio when “Shoo Doo Fu Fu Ooh” came up. Bernard Thompson, whom I had met when I was in Tower of Power, called me and asked, “What are you doing?” I told him I was in L.A. recording. He brought his guitar with him from San Diego and asked what I wanted to write. Natalie Cole had a shuffle out: “This Will Be.” Lou Rawls had a shuffle out. “This Time It’s Real” was also a shuffle. We decided to write a shuffle. He started playing and was picking out a good key, and the words just started coming. It was kinda autobiographical. The next day, I took it to Frank. Two days later, Bruce Miller wrote up a chart. It was real music. You write a song on Tuesday, and Friday you’re in the studio with Ray Parker, Jr.! Frank was just beautiful.
During this period, you enjoyed a steady stream of hits like “Midnight Girl” and “You Got Me Running,” which were penned by outside writers. Did you have an integral role in the selection of material and direction? What memories do you have of recording and promoting the albums from this time?
Since I finally had a hit on my own with Choosing You, I tried to be consistent with the mold. There were some songs Frank introduced to me that I really didn’t like; but I didn’t want to say no to him. This was the guy who gave me a hit record. I’d had two albums that didn’t hit. This might have been the third strike. He had an open ear when it came to my material. I don’t think he ever turned down anything I brought to him. For the most part, the path he was leading me on was solid.
Notably, your signature song, “Cause I Love You” on the Spark of Love LP, wasn’t released as a single. How did that one come to be so revered? Can you also talk a little bit about the creation of the song?
Everybody just loved it, and radio stations started playing it. You had to the buy the album to get it. My co-writer Michael Bennett’s dad was a carpenter who worked on my house. He kept telling me his son could write songs. I eventually relented, and Michael was everything his dad said: a dancer, a singer, a piano player, guitar player, drummer, and songwriter. We started writing songs. He was a lot younger than me and always would say he had to be inspired to write. I said, “You know the guys at Motown? It’s like a job. They punch in at 9, punch out at 5, sit there and write all day. It’s self-inspired.” One day he came by to write and I said, “I don’t feel like it.” He asked why. I said, “Me and my girl got into it; I’m just not into it.” He replied, “Well, what if you worked at Motown?” I had to say, “You’re right about that. Come on in.” We sat down at the piano, and that was that!
We had kind of a difficult relationship after awhile. I think if we’d stuck together, we probably could’ve done some great stuff. We did write “Let’s Talk It Over” for my next album. I felt like that could be my sequel to “Cause I Love you.” But I don’t think that I conveyed that one to Frank in the studio the way I wanted to. By that point, he had started thinking about being a minister, and he’d stop in the middle of sessions when someone would call about church business or needed prayer. The music business became secondary to him.
You went gold with the Spark of Love album. Not too long after the success of “Midnight Girl” and “Cause I Love You,” however, ABC folded.
MCA bought everything. I was getting pretty good money. Sandy Newman was real astute at negotiating contracts and getting advances. But GRT Tapes [the cassette division of ABC] went bankrupt, so I probably lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I just saw the money from the vinyl sales. I didn’t see it coming with them folding like that. It seemed like they were doing good. They had Steely Dan, Tom Petty, The Floaters. There was no word of warning. So, then I was on MCA, and they really didn’t know what to do with black music at the time. The person who was hired for national R&B promotion had only done regional stuff and didn’t really know her way around. That was a tough time.
I was still writing songs with David Stallings. But with Frank morphing into being a minister, a song like “Doing the Loop De Loop” didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to. The L.A. musicians would come in for three hours to do the session, and bam! It had worked before, but for some reason I wasn’t able to [get it right].
Your next two LP’s for MCA, 1980’s Let’s Do It Today and 1981’s Taking Chances,are two of my favorite albums of yours. With the exception of your remake of “Ooh Child,” though, they weren’t as successful commercially. Notably, you returned to a more active role in production on these (with Steve Duboff and Sandy Newman), as well as writing a handful of tunes with Bernard Thompson. What do you remember about the making of those albums?
The remake of “Ooh Child” on Let’s Do It Today was producer Steve Duboff’s idea. I thought that “Suspicions” should have been the first single. By the time we got to Taking Chances, we were kind of floundering. I don’t know what the budget was like, but it wasn’t the greatest. We just kind of did things ourselves.
A few years passed before you returned to recording with several albums on independent labels during the mid-‘80s. How did you regroup, and was the experience significantly different from your time with major labels?
I had some money in the bank, I had faith—and some kind of dogged determination that, even though MCA had let me go, it was gonna happen again. I believed in myself. I didn’t want to be like some old boxer going in to win the championship again, then getting my brain rattled. I got divorced and I remarried. I knew it was gonna happen. A year went by, living off my savings; another year went by, then my savings were depleted. Yet another year went by…”Oh boy, what am I gonna do? I better go get a job.” I owned some property, but to borrow money against houses, take out a loan and mortgage them, I’d have to pay it back or lose them. The phone wasn’t ringing at all. So, I went and got a job.
I signed with Rocshire Records for the Changing album. But I found out subsequently that the wife of the owner of the label was working for a huge aircraft company—she was controlling the money, and would trickle a million dollars a month for herself. The company was started with this money. I’d just bought a new condo and was a month away from my advance; then the FBI came in and raided them, so that was over! She and her husband went to jail. Everything got lost.
In 1987, your collaboration with Kenny G, “Don’t Make Me Wait for Love,” written by Narada Michael Walden, Preston Glass, and Walter Afanasieff, became one of your biggest hits to date, making the top-20 on both the R&B and pop charts. How were you selected to sing the song? Did the success of the single affect the course of your career in memorable ways—and why weren’t you featured in the music video?
I was riding down the freeway when I got a beep from friend of mine telling me Narada wanted to talk to me. I pulled over to a telephone booth, and he told me that they were producing Aretha Franklin—and that Clive Davis had mentioned that they were giving Kenny G. one more shot. Kashif had been producing him. He thought because I’d sang with Tower of Power, it’d be a good pairing.
Kenny was there in the studio. The song was basically an R&B record—the grooves aren’t too different from what Tower of Power was doing with horn solos. It’s sort of like with Prince’s “I Wanna Be Your Lover”—that was his entrée into success; after that, he could do what he wanted. That’s the path they were taking with Kenny G.—to get him in the mainstream, then [let him] do his thing.
It really didn’t do anything for me personally, because when the record came out, my name wasn’t even on it. His album came out, as well as the first single from it, then “Don’t Make Me Wait for Love.” I was over in Sausalito, where a shop owner I knew told me to come over and pick up a couple copies of the single. It had this black girl on the cover. I’m looking and noticing that it didn’t have my name on the record. I found out that because they were breaking it on black radio, they didn’t want to promote that he was not black—so they had her picture on there. Naturally, I wanted to know what was going on, so I called Arista. I put up a fuss about my name not being on the record. Then, there was an issue about money. When I raised that concern, all of a sudden, nobody picked up the phone for me.
I had to go with a lawyer. After that, there was basically no communication between me, Arista, and Kenny, I’m not allowed to talk about the settlement. It is what it is.
Did you ever get to perform the song with Kenny?
A company that was interested in me happened to have tickets to his show at the Greek Theater the same day I was meeting with them. We went to the show, and while we were backstage, Kenny asked if I wanted to sing. So, I did sing “Don’t Make Me Wait for Love“ with him that one time. But I never derived any kind of momentum from that as an artist. When the song was close to the top 10, I got a call from Casey Kasem that if the song went to #10, he wanted to do an interview with me on his radio program. But we just missed that.
Shortly after that, you joined the Crush Music label, via which you returned to the R&B charts with “Givin’ up on Love,” “Here’s a Ticket” and “Gotta Lotta Luv.”
Yes, I worked with producer Larry White on the Layin’ in Wait album. He’d written for Bobby Brown and New Edition. I liked it, and we did a couple of videos, but it didn’t really happen. I thought that the first single they put out, “Givin’ up on Love,” was the wrong choice. They spent an adequate amount of money promoting it. “Here’s a Ticket” was happening, but they’d spent most of their money on “Givin’ up on Love.”
In the ‘90s, you didn’t release as much music. Chill on the Bellmark subsidiary Marathon was your primary release. This had a lot of good tunes on it, ranging from your remake of “Sara Smile” to the title cut and “There’s No Hiding Place.” Did you get much traction from the release?
Al Bell had a lot of success on his label with Tag Team (“Whoomp! There It Is”) and even Johnny “Guitar” Watson. But it seemed as soon as we went over there, they folded. I did a lease-purchase deal with Chill. I had recorded it on my own label and licensed the masters to them. But the whole label just fell apart when the ink was still wet on the contracts.
Since the dawning of the new millennium, you’ve returned to more prolific recording, starting with 2000’s Love Therapy on the Fantasy-owned Volt, and on to My Way for Thump Records…finally beginning to release albums on your own label, such as Unfinished Business and Still in the Game. How would you describe changes in recording and touring over these last two decades compared to the earlier chapters of your career?
It’s easier to make records now, because it’s cheaper. And you make records, but radio is harder. It’s very difficult to get on radio, and if you do, to progress on the charts. But you can sell your CD’s at your live shows. It’s a good way to get your music out there. Now, with the advent of all these streaming services, having radios in the cars without CD players makes it more difficult. Some fans like to have the CD’s even if they don’t have a method by which to play them in their cars. But if you’re out there in the lobby after the show, and they can get a signed CD and a photo, it’s a good way to sell records. You have to try to figure out all the streaming services and what you can do to bring people’s attention to your records.
I know people in my age group that go out and buy cars now and will take a 2015 model instead of the 2018, because the newer one doesn’t have a CD player. There’s always a way; you just have to deal with the present, the technology of today—the different ways that music is delivered to the public. Try to figure out a way to make it happen. Musicians and songwriters are the bastards of the copyright industry. People can just take your music. I’d be interested to see if someone would go and make a duplicate Rolls Royce what would happen. If big industries wanted to duplicate a Cadillac, General Motors would be on you full force. Yet, people can take music, just sell it and not give you anything.
As far as live performance goes, I do a lot of southern soul stuff. I can work in so many different types of venues and genres of music, including the same kinda places I played when I was with Tower of Power. I think it’s broadened a little bit. You just have to be willing to make changes: to play smaller venues, or mid-sized ones, when opportunity presents itself. With the larger ones, even if you have to be the supporting act as opposed to the headliner. I try to put out different styles of music. I even do plays now, many that are more gospel-oriented. “Cause I Love You” is the kind of song that’s been accepted across many genres of music. I could go to a jazz festival and sing it—or a blues festival. Even in some gospel venues. The type of music that you do and knowing how to matriculate between the different genres and various venues is important.
In the touring plays, sometimes I have a lot of lines; other times, just a few. At times, me singing “Cause I Love You” will be incorporated into the play. Getting a chance to go to all these cities is great. I always make sure that I run into the local radio stations and say hello to the program directors and DJ’s there. In some cities, you can do an after party at a club and pick up some extra money.
You recently released your sixteenth solo studio album, Fine. Tell me about the material on this album and what it represents for you at this juncture in your career.
I had decided that I was just going to be a performing artist at this point. Why make another record? I could work every weekend if I wanted to. It all depends on if I accept the gigs, if the price is right. I didn’t feel like I needed the expense of making another record. It costs about $25,000 to make; then to try to go to radio costs a fortune. Promoting the record, you’re spending another $50,000. And you can’t really get the sales, so why do it?
I sang on a record for Khorey the Poet. From doing that I met Levi Seacer. We started talking. I liked his style and got enticed to write a song with him. The next thing I knew, I had enough songs to do an album. I hooked back up with Derek “DOA” Allen. He’s producing the new record on Kem. A couple of guys in my band were writing songs, too; so we had 13 or 14 songs. I figured we might as well go ahead and make a record. So here we are!
The first song we did was “Fine.” Levi interviewed me for about an hour at his studio; a couple of days later he called me and said, “It seems like you’re doing fine. Your kids are grown, they’re all working. Your daughter’s a principal, another one’s in law enforcement, and another is a software engineer. You have a son who’s a minister, and another one who’s an entrepreneur. You own property and you’re getting your royalties.” We started going to the studio and writing together.
How did the duet with Jeanie Tracy, a suggestive ballad entitled “All Night,” come to fruition?
“DOA” called me and said he had an idea. He asked me if I was familiar with Tank’s song, “When We”? He said, “I wanna go there.” I said, “Really?” He thought it would be a good move for me. He brought up the fact that Brian McKnight had done a record like that. He thought it was the wrong move for him, but a perfect move for Tank. He had some music and a melody to the chorus, but that was all. He sent it to me, and I had it for a few weeks. I couldn’t think of anything. One night I was watching TV. I just started writing and got the melody…”Let’s do it all night/In the dark, or do you want light?” I sent it to him, and he said it was perfect. “What about the verse?” I was goofing around on guitar trying to come up with a melody for that. I finally did. I went to his studio and we put it down on a small recorder. We kind of got a structure together. He suggested we have a girl do the chorus and asked whom I had in mind.
I had talked to Jeanie Tracy a couple of months before at a New Year’s Eve gig. She told me if I had anything, she’d love to do something together. So she immediately popped into my mind. I called her up and asked her, but didn’t tell her what it was about right then. She drove down to the studio and was amenable to it. Those songs go over really well down in southern markets. People get away with anything and everything! I was coming out with my little “So Very Hard to Go,” and they’re loving my voice—but I’m not getting a reaction. I thought, “Let me see what Tyrone Davis, Johnny Taylor, Betty Wright, Sir Charles Jones, Mel Waiters, and Denise LaSalle are singing about.” I started getting that beat they do down there, and the lyric content. Next thing you know, I’m a southern soul artist. Sometimes you’ve gotta take chances.
On YouTube, I see that’s the most listened to song of all the songs on the album. Sometimes, controversy and standing out a little isn’t such a bad thing.
Tell me about “Take It from Here,” featuring your sons, Leonard, Jr., and Lonnell.
One son is a minister. He was the music director at his church. My other son sings on the worship team at his church. They’ve grown up singing, and their mother sings. My minister son was about to join Tower of Power at one point, but changed his mind about it. Levi Seacer, Khorey the Poet, and I wrote the song. Since they were kids, my sons and I would ride around in the car singing. We’ve sung together on stage, and we’ve been wanting to do this for a long time.
I really like “Lines in the Sand.”
My keyboard player, Luca Frederickson, wrote that song. I thought it was very timely with what’s going on in the country: either you’re red or you’re blue, liberal or conservative. There are so many different issues that divide people: immigration, sexuality, race. It’s saying, “I know we’re different, but can you tell me what we have alike? You’re a Democrat; I’m a Republican. But we both like soccer or have daughters who play on softball teams. Let’s talk about that.”
“Shine” is another standout. The lyrics are not what one would expect from the title.
That one sat around for awhile after “DOA” sent me the music. I couldn’t come up with anything and was embarrassed to tell him. But my son and grandkids kept telling me that my granddaughter is this fantastic writer. I called her and said, “I have this song I need you to help me with. Would you like to write with me?” I sent it to her, and she came up with the melody and first verse. She sent it back to me, and I was like, “Oh, my God, I just can’t believe it!” Her name is Lexus Williams. Then I wrote the second verse, and took the song over to “DOA.” He loved it. I’m so excited about Lexus’s capabilities. A lot of people can write lyrics but can’t come up with melodies like that. She really helped me out of a jam.
Which current artists do you enjoy? What stands out to you about their music?
I like Kanye West, the way he addresses topics; as well as Taylor Swift and Anthony Hamilton. A lot of times people say music is dead; but there are a lot of young people coming with some very good songs. Naturally, I like a lot of people who’ve been around for a long time—some of whom aren’t making records today, because there’s no outlet for them.
When you observe the careers of up-and-coming artists, are there any patterns you see that you feel might hinder their success?
You’ve got these kids that go out as young people, get a contract, have big hits, and go out and play these big arenas. They start there. Then, as life and music would have it, things drop down. Even Frank Sinatra had a period when his records didn’t sell. Well, they’re not used to playing at smaller venues. I think it would be a good idea for people to build that base. I noticed that Prince, even at the height of his popularity—when he’d come through New York, he’d find a little club that seated 300 people and play that after the show. You just don’t know the value of playing at a small club; people are able to look down your throat, just right there. It’s invaluable. I think that young artists should try to incorporate that into their process and maturation. Even if they start out on top, to get that experience, it’s going to be beneficial one day when you’re not selling millions. Instead of being afraid or embarrassed, just be able to do it.
What are your present priorities in terms of performance and getting your music out there?
I’d like to be consistent with putting out records. And figuring out a way that an artist my age can thrive selling records in this age of streaming. To make it work so that musicians who have a lot to give can find a landscape where they fit in and can make a sustainable income while sharing their art. To be one of the trailblazers in that would make me happy. I have so many friends who are tremendous artists with a lot to give, who are kind of locked in.