THE SOUL SEEN: SINGER, SONGWRITER and PRODUCER, KEM

The Soul Seen retrospective revisits the 2003 interview with Soul/R&B artist Kem from the segment WATCH CLOSELY that featured emerging artists to keep an eye on. This catches the popular artist as he moved from successful independent artist to making the decision to sign with legendary major Motown records and offers an insightful look at his reasons and the development of his sound.

KEM Putting the Right Elements Together

It’s a lucky thing that the prevalent mind set of the music industry to foster monotony and artlessness has not kept gifted souls from being heard. The recent rise of artists, “doing it for themselves” has brought forth a crop of talented folks furtively proving that a notable slice of the listening public pie still desires artistry and meaningful messages. Case in point, vocalist, songwriter, and musician, KEM.

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A little more than a year ago the “Motor City” resident born Kem Owens in Nashville, Tennessee, released the splendid CD that is KEMISTRY on his own label. The aptly titled concoction of smoothed out hipness, sensual vibes, stirring words, and Kem’s superb vocal prowess that hints to the flavor of legend, Al Jarreau, was ushered to the masses with a seemingly lofty goal – Sell 10,000 copies. Well, not only was the goal met, it was exceeded – while at the same time sparking a watchful eye and eventual offer from Motown Records to promote and distribute not only Kemistry, but 4 other future releases as well. It’s indeed ironic that the legendary label that once set up shop in Detroit would zero in on his project. It’s also fitting when you consider its iconic history of discovering and grooming stars even as recent as that of the talented, young soulstress, India.Arie. But why, you maybe wondering, after confirming his ability to sell records on his own would Kem decide to hook up with Motown? “It’s a win, win situation for me,” says Kem. “Having the machine of a major label behind me would allow me to reach a lot more people and to get the music released on a national level. It also helps me build my fan base, my market base.” He then keenly continues, “If for some reason this should not do as well [as planned], I will have expanded my base and I can always go back to selling records on my own. I think the type of music that I’m doing is such that people will continue to buy the records for as long as I choose to make them. I will have established that kind of base.”

If Kem sounds confident, well that’s because he should be. Not only for his astute business acumen, but because he is in possession of the main element which has been key to his success thus far – Genuine, innate talent. In addition to being a completely self-taught musician, his vocal range goes 4 high on the octave scale and his emotive, creative style, which soars, bends, and soothes, employs them all. As to the comparisons made to renowned, multi-award winning vocalist, Al Jarreau, Kem considers himself in great company, but counts Jarreau and vocal wizard, Bobby McFerrin, as more like confirmations than necessarily influences. “I haven’t studied either one of those artists per se, but I am a big fan of Al Jarreau.” He explains, “A lot of things that I’ve been doing or have wanted to pursue musically, I’ve been doing all of my creative life, but those two artists helped validate it. You hear them and it’s like, okay, so that is cool and I’m not crazy for wanting to do this. But they’ve paved the way for it to be done.”

And doing it he most certainly is successfully folding his brand of vocal artistry into a soul-rich collection with love as the dominant theme, boasting gems like, “I’m Missing Your Love” or the first single, “Love Calls.” The lean to love on Kemistry is however, something he admits to happening quite by chance. “I think that somewhat by default, it’s an album that’s centered on love and a lot of people get that the most. I didn’t set out to do that. I really just selected songs that were closest to me, I liked the most and,” adds with a humble chuckle, “were ready to go.” However, he admits, “I’ve been known for writing love songs for the duration of my career and I take pleasure in that. I think that’s something people need, people want, and identify most with.”

But you’ll quickly discover that although the intriguing and inventive voice that serves up the love stories is well suited for the task, there are other topics clearly close to Kem’s heart as well. Topics like spirituality and faith. Cuts like, “Brotha Man” and “Matter of Time” will bring you those with consistent hipness and stunning vocal flow. When asking Kem about his hopes for Kemistry, he goes back to why he got with Motown and what potential it creates. “I don’t want to be limited to or equated with being a “jazz” artist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I want to be able to move into other markets. And the fact that a label like Motown came and made an offer lets me know that it’s a possibility that we can move into other categories. I’m hopeful it can become mainstream.” However, he is quick to add emphatically, “But it ain’t necessary! I’m hopeful. [Basically] I’m not interested in the people who aren’t interested. I’m only interested in the ones who are digging me. Feeling me. Those are the ones I cater to.”

Seems like Kem might very well have the formula for success.

BertCaldwell

Needless to say, Kem did indeed find the right formula and has been whipping it up on the regular, over the years, for those countless fans that are definitely “feeling” him and his music. He’s had #1 hit singles, Platinum and Gold selling albums (including KEMISTRY), three Grammy nominations, and is a four-time NAACP Image Award winner – not to mention, he keeps a packed out schedule of tours and sold-out shows.

For more about Kem and when you can see him in your town go to musicbykem.com and to hear his latest music including the single “Lie To Me” and album Love Always Wins go to Spotify

THE SOUL SEEN: CELLIST, ARRANGER AND PRODUCER, LARRY GOLD

The Soul Seen, I SPY SOUL retrospective revisits the 2003 interview feature with Larry Gold

The Midas Touch

The story of arranger, cellist, and composer Larry Gold is one that should serve as an example to many in the music business or for that matter, in any business. Why you ask? Because his success is a result of his sincere love for what he does, a desire to grow, the recognition of talent around him, and of course, his own outstanding ability.

Check out the whole interview with Larry Gold above

His story is also one of irony because although many of you aren’t familiar with his name, you and scores of others have experienced his “touch.” Gold’s amazing body of work is punctuated by his tenure with the legendary label, Philadelphia International, as first, part of the house band MFSB that propels the treasured classic soul and R&B hits by folks like the O’Jays, Billy Paul, Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes, the Spinners and Patti Labelle to name only a few. And later, as string and horn arranger on hits from Teddy Pendergrass, McFadden & Whitehead, and more. That experience, while concurrently siphoning the knowledge of Sound of Philadelphia architects Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and renowned producer, Thom Bell, accounts for the prowess that has since driven both, major acts and emerging artists to engage his services. The list is both impressive and diverse, boasting such artists as Musiq Soulchild, Floetry, Jill Scott, Brandy, Jay-Z, Monica, Gerald Levert, The Roots, Kindred, Common, Vivian Green, Justin Timberlake, Erykah Badu, Boys II Men, Glen Lewis, Kelly Price, and more. It’s also impressive because it shines with the glow of platinum and yes, gold selling success the records from these artists enjoy.

But there are things that stand out in the story of Larry Gold that could perhaps be seen as the basis his for longevity, success, and the respect he’s garnered- things such as his readiness to embrace new situations that ultimately unveil opportunity. Another is his love of the place he was born, bred and still calls home. You guessed it, Philadelphia. And the two go hand in hand. It’s what attracted a very young and gifted cellist with initial classical aspirations but a fondness for popular music, to the emergent label that was to become the fervent soul source, Philly International. “I always wanted to be more than just a cello player,” says Gold. “I was always involved with popular music. Even from a little child I was learning Elvis Presley tunes on the guitar. So it was both. It wasn’t just one or the other.” He continues, “I must have been anywhere from thirteen to fifteen [years old] when I met Leon Huff for the first time, playing cello.” 

Ultimately his vast experience, love of both, a broad range of quality music and the art of making records over the years is what fueled his opening of a small studio in 1985. That would become the prototype for the State of the Art recording facility now known as The Studio, used by many of Philly’s brightest young talent. When asked if the young artists who are flocking to his studio now fully know the depth of his impressive resume and ties to the legendary Philly sound, Gold responds, “It depends on who they are. Certain people do and certain people don’t. He continues, “I know enough young producers that they might say to other people, hey, he’s been making hit records since he was a baby.” And he adds, “I think that people like Timberland do. I think they’ve learned after working with me now a bunch of times that its not just random. I think Rodney Jerkins knew. I think that Amir (Questlove of The Roots) knew. A lot of these young producers are big fans of old music,” Gold asserts. “There’s a lot of respect or else I wouldn’t be working quite as hard as I am.”

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So when he was approached by the UK label, BBE, to do a record, the concept was a no-brainer – an homage to the rich and legendary Philly music scene he has been a part of for so many years. The result, Larry Gold presents Don Cello and Friends, a cornucopia of some of Philly’s finest, past, present and future, submitting lyric, voice and song to Gold’s lush and affecting arrangements.

Busy with arranging gigs seemingly around the clock and running a popular recording studio, Gold hadn’t given much thought to doing a record of his own and really had to ponder the offer from BBE. But as he explains his decision to go forward with the project, he says with a chuckle, “I think at the time, a whole group of people were recording at the studio and I thought to myself, ‘well I can get the young kids to help me make it.” Indeed the assiduous 55-year old Gold called upon a range of talents from young and little known to legendary with the criteria for selection being pretty simple. “First of all I wanted everyone to at least have some roots to Philly. The whole concept was to keep it local if I could,” says Gold. “I wanted [the project] to be a touch of the old, but also with some new people. Some [artists] that people never heard of.” He explains, “My intention was to make a nice blend of old and new and not just famous, but also introducing some younger artists.” Don Cello and Friends is the mission accomplished starring a cast which includes Floetry, Kindred, Gerald Levert, Black Thought of The Roots, Jaguar Wright and Philly music royalty McFadden & Whitehead and Bunny Sigler sharing the stage with lesser known, but solid talent like Carol Riddick and Eric (ERRO)Roberson to name a few. The musical goal is achieved as well with infectious dance and up-tempo grooves flowing there way through to warm, sensual and tender moments all providing a hearty glimpse at Gold’s masterful, mood setting, string arrangements. On Don Cello and Friends he successfully whips up the spirit of the classic Philly sound while displaying vibe of the current Philly music scene.

The making of the CD could be seen as one in a multitude of things validating what Gold had a hunch would eventually happen – And that is Philly’s return to prominence as a major music town. When asked about the renaissance Gold says, “I had a sense. I had a very strong sense. I kind of smelled it at the beginning of the 90’s.” But he is also quick to give cudos to the revered Philly unit, The Roots for being a huge catalyst. “The Roots had a lot to do with the city coming back,” says Gold. “Because The Roots really kept playing. They were a band. And when there weren’t other bands playing, they were playing. In a way, they folded into the into the neo-soul movement.” In the end, what he believes is, “No matter what the other markets do, we do our own sort of style and at this point we’re having success with it.”

It’s clear Larry Gold has had a hand in that success both times around. Or you might say, he’s still shining bright on the Philly music scene.

BertCaldwell

Larry Gold continues to do his thing!

A LOOK BACK @ THE LEGENDARY CRUSADERS

One of the great joys of writing for I SPY SOUL throughout the years has been the opportunity to meet and interview some very talented musicians and artists — all of which, I have great respect and admiration for, but there are some I hold in even higher regard because they were major influences on me as a young, aspiring musician and artist. One of those artists was the legendary pianist, composer and producer, Joe Sample, who sadly passed in 2014 at the age of 75. Another was also the renowned saxophonist and bassist Wilton Felder who passed almost exactly a year later at the same age of 75. As founding members, along with drummer, “Stix” Hooper, and trombonist, Wayne Henderson of famed jazz/soul group first known as The Jazz Crusaders and then just The Crusaders, their music was part of a soundtrack for me as a kid that included the likes of Herbie Hancock, Al Jarreau, Weather Report, David Sanborn, Miles Davis, George Benson and others that I listened to over and over again and that undoubtedly shaped my musical palette. I had the great opportunity to interview Sample, Felder and “Stix “ Hooper upon the release of their then new reunion project, Rural Renewal.

They were engaging – Humble yet proud of what they had accomplished in their long and illustrious careers. They were also seemingly hurt and moved with the frustration of an aspiring artist less than half their age or accomplishment at what the music industry had become. But still they were excited about making their brand of music and confident others were too. The profile that appears below was the result and was one of the most viewed and acknowledged pieces the site had enjoyed. At the end are also audio snippets from that interview with Joe Sample and Wilton Felder.

From the original ISPYSOUL monthly feature IN FOCUS 2003

“We all had agreed, in previous conversations”, says Sample, “that what had been missing in music was a sense of spirituality, soulfulness and rhythm & groove.”

CRUSADERS
REUNITED AND IT FEELS SO GOOD

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As we all get older, reminiscing on our younger years and times past becomes a common practice. The catalyst – varying from person to person – could be seeing an old friend or perhaps rummaging through old pictures. Something also that’s real good for triggering a nostalgic noggin ride is music. The combination of melody or lyric, beat and arrangement infused with a spectrum of emotions are perfect for whipping up thoughts of good times. Simpler times. First, last, and perhaps, even better times. That is, in essence, what happened for legendary musicians and artists Joe Sample, Wilton Felder and Stix Hooper. It was the fondness of the terrific sounds they started creating in Houston, Texas over 50 years ago as the Swingsters, the Modern Jazz Sextet, the Night Hawks, the Jazz Crusaders and finally, as many have come to know and love them as, The Crusaders, that halted a 20 year pause and reunited them to release the down-home, soulful hipness that is their latest, Rural Renewal. But fondness for their musical history, a history that boasts such notable albums as Southern Comfort, Scratch, Those Southern Knights or their huge hit, Street Life, was not the only reason for the coming together again.

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After a stalled attempt at a reunion tour back in 1991, a common strand of urgency fueled talks with keyboardist Joe Sample and drummer, Stix Hooper. “As the 90s went on I had numerous conversations with Stix,” says Sample, “I began to realize that of course, he was very proud of what [the Crusaders] had done, but we also noticed that there was a lack of wonderful music that was being recorded anymore. Wonderful jazz, wonderful soul music, wonderful R&B. Things that would get me or Stix excited. Eventually, I found out that Wilton [Felder, saxophonist/bassist] was feeling the same way. So we then started planning. I guess that the real catalyst was that we really missed involving ourselves in the music we had previously made.” Talking with Sample and Felder, both of whom still continued to record during the group’s long hiatus, it was clear, once the decision had been made to embark upon a new “crusade”, that it would indeed become the focus for them all. “I had been working on a solo project,” says Felder. “I’d actually finished it and had it in the can, but I hadn’t placed it yet. But when news came about that we would actually do this album, it took priority because I really wanted to do it.”

The commitment to reviving the trademark Crusader magic shows all through Rural Renewal, an instant classic that places “scions”, “blues”, “jazz”, “soul” and “R&B,” in the rightful company of their Spiritual forefather. It’s the sound that even twenty years of dormancy couldn’t diminish. It’s what they themselves had been thirsting to hear for so many years. When asked if picking up where they let off was as effortless as it sounds, Sample begins this way: “As soon as we hit the studio there was no doubt. As soon as we kicked off the first song we knew right away that, boy, nothing had vanished.” “In fact, it may be better than ever!” Felder adds, “All of us just longed for the music that only we can make.”

Hearing them speak so passionately about this project makes one wonder why they ever stopped recording as a crew to begin with. As Sample explains, “There were a number of reasons and a lot of personal things that were going on in everyone’s life.” But he lays the greatest fault perhaps, on the evolution of the music industry – An industry that had become more concerned with the business than with the music itself. Sample tells of a time in the early eighties, that now still ignites exasperation in his voice, when he was told by record label honchos that, “This was a brand new world” and that the Crusaders brand of groove-laden, eclectic smoothness, “had no importance anymore.” Hard to believe. Especially when you consider the many R&B, hip-hop and rap artists who, years later, continue to employ slices of their classic gems for the full-flavored bounce The Crusaders are known for or the scores of worldwide fans elated at their return. A return, in the form of Rural Renewal, which represents what Felder, Sample and Hooper felt, was missing in music. “We all had agreed, in previous conversations”, says Sample, “that what had been missing in music was a sense of spirituality, soulfulness and rhythm & groove.” The Crusaders have indeed done as the saying goes, lead by example, bringing in gospel luminaries, Donnie McClurkin and Sounds of Blackness for the ultimate righteous boost on, “A Healing Coming On” and “Sing The Song.” Brilliant and renowned guitarist Eric Clapton does his thing for the cause with his blues flavored wizardry on the ultra -cool, “Creepin.” And Joe, Wilton, and Stix? Well, with a stellar cast of side-cats, they bring their tried and true artistry to the new millennium with timeless results on tracks like “Heartland”, “Shotgun House Groove”, and the title cut, Rural Renewal. The Crusaders are indeed back again, doing it just like you remembered. Like music used to be. Just like it ought to be. And ah yes, it feels so good.

Bert Caldwell 
Photo Credit:William Claxton

Below are audio snippets from that interview with Joe Sample and Wilton Felder:

This has been a look back @ the soul seen