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LEROY BURGESS 2010 SOULMUSIC.COM INTERVIEW
HARLEM’S HOUSE OF BURGESS, PT. 1
Question: What do Black Ivory’s “Mainline,” Rick James’s “Big Time,” Fonda Rae’s “Over Like a Fat Rat,” Phreek’s “Weekend,” and Convertion’s “Let’s Do It” all have in common?

Answer: All were graced by the vocal pipes, songwriting craft, and/or production prowess of Leroy Burgess.

The Harlem-born funk maestro got musical cues as a preteen from no less than Stevie Wonder and Thom Bell. Now, after four decades of hits under a list of names as long as a country mile, he’s staking claim to his legacy with the release of Throwback Vol. 2 (Sugar Hill 83-86) on SedSoul Records.



Justin Kantor: Hi Leroy, this is Justin Kantor from SoulMusic.com.

Leroy Burgess: Hi Justin, how are you?

JK: I’m good, how about yourself?

LB: I’m okay, kind of scrambling, but I’m good.

JK: Let’s start from the beginning. Tell me about your childhood, where you grew up and how you spent your days.

LB: I grew up in Harlem with my Mom, my Stepdad, and my four sisters. My brother Morgan came when I was 11 years old, and my sister Melanie when I was 13. I spent my days going to school as you might expect, and every moment I could get, I would try to get to a piano and work on music. There was a lot of music in my life, my Mom always played music and sang. She’s classically trained, and music also runs in my family.

JK: So you have a lot of people in your family who are musicians.

JB: Yes. The bug had really bit me, so I went along chasing it. While most other kids were out doing kids’ stuff, my thing was to find a piano and start banging away at it. That’s how I spent most of my childhood.

JK: Was there a particular instance of playing the piano that you remember drawing you towards it? Did you take lessons?

LB: Yes. When I was about four years old, my Mom used to have an elderly lady named Mrs. McKinney babysit me, and she had a piano in the house, so she began giving me lessons when I was four. She taught me rudiments and tolerated what I describe as my ‘banging’ on the piano, but gradually showing me little scales and melodies like “Mary Had a Little Lamb” -- teaching me chords and how to play with two hands. That was my earliest experience with piano, and part of the bug catching me.

JK: Did you consciously think to yourself in your childhood, “I want to be a professional pianist,” or what was the scope of the music? Was it something that happened naturally and you weren’t really thinking about it?

LB: I love music. My Mom said that I started singing and talking simultaneously. As much as I was learning to talk, I was learning to sing, and I was singing my answers to my mother. Also in the church, as my grandparents went around the country, building small churches. So, we had a big, religious background and I went to church every Sunday and sang in the choir and so forth. Maybe it’s as early on as four or five that I started to dream and develop the idea that I might actually be able to do this.

JK: I heard that you have some relation to Robert “Kool” Bell and some of his bandmates.

LB: Yes, Robert, Ronald and Kevin, now they’ve changed their name, but they’re my cousins, and my Mom’s second cousin is Thom Bell.

JK: Ah yes, the famous producer from Philadelphia.

LB: My Mom and her people come partially from Philadelphia and Georgia.

JK: So that’s a coincidence that they’re both Bell’s, or are they all related as well.

LB: We’re all actually related.

JK: Were they presences in your childhood that you were influenced by?

LB: Thom Bell used to come to the family picnics that we had. We have an annual family reunion picnic. In the early years, from about zero to eight or nine, he would attend and I used to follow him around and pick his brain.

JK: Was it because you had seen him play at your house, or your Mom would play his records and say, “That’s Thom Bell”?

LB: I began to hear his work on the radio, and was aware of some of the things that he was doing, his early work with Jerry Butler, the Delfonics before they were the Delfonics and stuff like that. Those things intrigued me, so I started chasing him all around the picnic grounds until my parents made me stop.

JK: What was his response to that?

LB: He used to impart many things that I didn’t know that I would retain, but I actually did. He would tell me about songwriting and singing and give me advice; and these things stayed in my head. I don’t know if you could actually call it tutelage, because it was informal. Over the years that I was exposed to him, I managed to retain a lot of the information that he imparted.

JK: What do you think was the most important thing that you got from him?

LB: The more important things happened as I began to study his work, around the age of 11 or 12. I really started looking at his work and began to analyze his arrangement style and incorporate that into my own work. That kind of happened as a result of being exposed to him and really liking his stuff.

JK: How old were you when you did your first professional gig, and what would you consider your first professional experience?

LB: My first professional experience was after the release of my first single. Before I go there, though: When Black Ivory was developing, we were a four-man group, with myself, Stuart Bascombe, Lawrence Newkirk and Vito Ramirez -- before Russell Patterson joined the group. We were being developed to enter the music business, and our producer and manager, Patrick Adams, was good friends with Gene Redd, who was Kool & The Gang’s manager and producer. This was even before I knew they were my cousins. Kool & The Gang started as an instrumental group primarily, not doing any vocals, so Patrick and Gene came up with the brilliant idea of, “Let’s use some of the shows that Kool & The Gang are doing to premier other groups.” They would bring us on and we would do two songs: “Love on a Two-Way Street” (by the Moments) and “Everybody Is A Star” (by Sly Stone). It really went over big, but all the time they were playing music behind me and premiering the group, I had no idea that they were my cousins. I didn’t learn that they were my cousins until about ’93. My mother was invited to the Bell-Akins picnic in North Jersey, and Kool and Ronald and Kevin were there, and my mother ran into their mother, and that’s how we discovered the connection.

JK: When you mentioned that Black Ivory was being groomed, were the other bandmates friends of yours that decided to start a group?

LB: I met Larry Newkirk, he’s the one that brought me into the band that would become Black Ivory, and I was about 14; this was around 1968. We were youth counselors at a summer camp in Harlem, and one day we were having lunch and the radio was playing. I think Smokey Robinson’s “Here I Go Again” came on the radio, and both Larry and I started singing along with it. Before I knew it, Larry had stopped singing and I was singing by myself. Larry was listening and a few other people came around and were listening. Larry said, “Man, you really sound nice. Would you like to come and meet my group?” So, I think the next day or that weekend, I went over to meet them and basically to audition for joining their group. We became friends immediately after that.

JK: Was it through them that you got the connection to Patrick Adams and the Today label?

LB: Exactly. This was before Patrick was with the Today label. Patrick was a romantic interest of Larry’s sister, Gail Newkirk, and Larry was aware that Patrick was a producer. I think Gail asked Patrick if he would be interested in hearing us. We set up a date for Patrick to come over and hear us; however Patrick called to say he was unable to make it. The group was already there and we were rehearsing in the background. I was singing “Can You Remember” by the Delfonics, and we were just rehearsing that. The Jackson 5 also covered that song. I was singing it in the background, singing the lead and Patrick asked, “Who is that angelic voice in the background?” and Larry said, “That’s our lead singer.” So Patrick immediately asked to speak to me, and I picked up the phone, he began asking me questions about how long I’d been singing, and then he apologized for not being able to make it, but he said he wanted to immediately see the group, so we arranged to meet with him in a few days. Patrick heard the group, and heard me and immediately we began to develop our relationship of him managing and producing us. Eventually that developed into the Kool & The Gang situation for me. We began doing demos, and ultimately one of the demos was a song called “Don’t Turn Around’, which came to the attention of Perception/Today records. So, we went to Philadelphia to produce the track, and to go and sing and create our first record. We got the deal with Today Records as a result.

JK: Were there other acts that you were familiar with, as far as the Today label, or was it more of a startup?

LB: When we got to Today, I was unfamiliar with pretty much everybody that was there. Although the Fatback Band was there, I didn’t know who they were. The Brockingtons were there, I didn’t know who they were. They had a young, fantastic organist named Lucky Peterson who was there, I didn’t know who he was; and a poet named Wanda Robinson. Again, these were all people I was unfamiliar with, but we got to know each other as time passed.

JK: What do you remember about those early recording sessions? Were those your first professional recording sessions?

LB: Yes, they were. It was my first time in an actual studio, watching the process. I was around 15 years old, so I’m soaking it up and loving it, and every time there was a session, I would try to be there whether I was involved or not, just to see and observe. This was my first actual experience in a recording studio.

JK: Does anything stand out in your mind from the time you were with Today Records, whether it was the recording, writing or touring?

LB: With Today Records, I enjoyed our relationship because they were such a young, hands-on company, and they really nurtured the artist and gave us time. They put time behind us in order to develop us. This was a time when companies were still into artist development. Between Patrick and Terry Phillips and Boo Frazier -- the executives at Today Records, they spent time grooming us and letting us come into their office to work on songs and so forth. There was a good relationship.

JK: Is that where you developed a lot of your songwriting style?

LB: Actually no, my songwriting style was developed between the ages of 11 and 15. My family and I moved out of one housing complex in Harlem to another, and in the second housing complex, there was an organization called the Cadet Corps of Central Harlem. They had a musician there by the name of Herbie Jones. He was the chief rhythm and brass arranger for the Duke Ellington Orchestra. He took a shine to me very early on, so I would say that my first formal training began with him. He taught me melodies and song development and how to play and experience. He taught me what music feels like, and the feelings and emotions that can be gleaned from different musical styles -- the major scale and minor scale and stuff like that. He took a lot of time with me, and I think we had lessons every day from about 11 to 14. If it wasn’t every day, it was nearly every day, and I learned a great deal. That was the beginning of my development as a pianist, keyboardist, musician and composer. As I learned to play, I started not only playing the songs on the radio, but also playing my own songs and creating my own material. All of those things served as influence: the music that I was hearing from Johnny Mathis, Nat “King” Cole, Stevie Wonder was also a great influence on vocals. I started to listen to everything and work out little songs of my own, so that’s kind of where that came from.

JK: Going from that to when you were with Black Ivory, I guess you started to learn a lot about the actual business side of it, especially being so young. What came to my mind was, after you guys had a few hits, especially with you writing, you mentioned “Don’t Turn Around”…

LB: The second single that Black Ivory released was actually the first commercial composition that I put out, a song called “You and I.” That was our second single, which did extremely well. I was very proud that it made it to be the second single, and it was co-written by myself and Stuart Bascombe. We were very proud of it, and we continued to develop the sound of our first record, “Don’t Turn Around,” together: myself, Stuart Bascombe, Russell Patterson and Patrick Adams.

JK: Did things change for you or the group when you made a transition? I know you were on another label called Kwanzaa for a little bit.

LB: We left Today records because we had done two albums with Today Records, and on the second record, the dynamic had changed. In the first album, we were very involved in the composition process and the production process; I did arranging and orchestral production and things like that. Then we started to tour, and this was 1970 or ’71. In late ’71 or ’72, we were presented with a second album, and most of the songs had been composed already without our input as composers, and that was the ‘Baby, Won’t You Change Your Mind’ album. While it was a great album, it did not really incorporate us as songwriters, which is something that we wanted to explore and stay on top of. We were unhappy about that, and since we couldn’t change it and made no headway in terms of changing that dynamic in the minds of the record company, we decided to leave. We decided not to renew our contract in 1972.

JK: It’s kind of an ironic title when you think about it, ‘Baby Can I Change Your Mind’. Was that the album with songs like “Time Is Love” and “Spinning Around” on it?

LB: Yes.

JK: Was Kwanzaa a label that Patrick had, or that you did on your own?

LB: We had changed hands as far as our management. Patrick made a deal with a gentleman named Lenny Adams, no relation, and the group’s management moved to that. When that happened, Patrick was part of the problem, because we couldn’t get into his head and get him to allow us to have the same input that we needed. Lenny had connection with some people at Warner Brothers Records who were opening a new label called Kwanzaa, so they flew us out to California and we did a deal for a single, and that single was “What Goes Around Comes Around.” Again, the deal was made on the premise that some of the top producers in Philadelphia, who at that time were Norman Harris, Ron Baker and Earl Young, were to produce the record. When we got to Philly, however, they kind of pulled the okey-doke on us and put us onto some of their writers. It turned out that Norman Harris and Baker and Young would not be involved with the process. They turned it over to Vince Montana to produce, and these other writers to oversee, so we were unhappy with that. That’s why that was the one and only record that we did for Warner Brothers/Kwanzaa. Now we’re working our way towards 1973, and Larry Adams had a connection to Buddah Records, which had Gladys Knight, Norman Connors, The Stairsteps, Melba Moore and so on. We did a deal with them to work on our third album, which is the ‘Feel It’ album. This is when we were really trying to come into our own as composers and as producers, but we were young and we didn’t really know what we were doing, to be frank and honest, we were just testing the waters. Lenny paired us up with Robert John and Michael Gately. Robert John you might remember from his record “Sad Eyes” and they wrote the song “Will We Ever Come Together” which was our next big hit. In addition, Lenny paired us up with Charles Calello, who is a famous arranger who did the “Swear To God” record for Frankie Valli and also did “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” He arranged that album. So we did the lion’s share of the composition of that album and we had a hand in the rhythm arrangement, and that’s where I really came into my own as a rhythm arranger. We used the Black Ivory Band in order to realize the record, the rhythm part of the records. In our live band, we used those musicians in order to realize those records. Most noteworthy of that was my relationship with James Calloway. He started playing bass in the group in 1972, and we became really fast friends and started doing teamwork as far as arranging for Black Ivory, etc. So, we became fast friends and continued that friendship after I left the group in 1977.

JK: When you left the group, did you have a definite plan of what you were going to focus on, or were you like, “I can’t take it anymore. I need to get into a different situation?”

LB: To be more specific about that, I was unhappy with Black Ivory. Two things: Black Ivory was being stereotyped and typecast as a slow jam group, and this was at a time when music was evolving into faster forms, like Disco. I was of a mind that we really need to work in these new genres to keep ourselves current; however they did not share that opinion with me, and they were of a mindset to not rock the boat.

JK: Do you mean the record company or the other members of the group?

LB: The other members of the group. We had to part company.

JK: You left in the middle of recording the second album for Buddah, right?

LB: No, by then we were up to the fourth album.

JK: The one with “Mainline” is what I was referring to.

LB: That was the fifth album. The fourth album was just entitled ‘Black Ivory’, and that’s when the dynamics really changed between the group and I, and I found myself very unhappy with the way it was going. I tried to talk with them about it for many years, but they weren’t really hearing me.

JK: When “Mainline” was included, was that with your blessing?

LB: We’ll get to “Mainline” in a minute. In ’77, the Buddah contract was up for renewal, and during ’76, I explained to Black Ivory that I was extremely unhappy and if things weren’t going to change, I didn’t know if I could renew the contract with them. Things didn’t change, and so I didn’t renew. I left the group in 1977. In 1978, I went back to Patrick Adams, and Patrick and I had a kinship in composition and arranging, so James and I had been continuing to compose songs, and we had a song called “Weekend.” We brought that song to Patrick when he was in the middle of producing an album for Atlantic Records for Phreek, and he said, “I would love to use your song for this album.” We started producing that, and the song came out and was an amazing hit from the album and did very well. That started the ball rolling with the Leroy Burgess composition/production thing. As ’78 and ’79 continued to progress, Black Ivory -- Stuart and Russell were the remaining members -- were producing their new album for Buddah Records; however they did not have anything that Buddah would consider a hit, so they contacted me. Actually, Lenny Adams contacted me, asking me if I had any songs that I thought I’d like to submit for the album, and I had two: a song called “Hustlin” and a song called “Mainline.” In 1978, I actually returned to the group temporarily, to co-produce, arrange and sing with the group on this song called “Mainline” and “Hustlin.” Subsequently the songs were released, and “Mainline” became the biggest song that Black Ivory ever had.

JK: Did that change your feelings about the group?

LB: We were always friends, and we parted amicably, but there was the underlying thing of how unhappy I was and feeling that I had to leave them because we couldn’t come to terms. Once I started out on my own, beginning with Patrick Adams’ Phreek, and then going on to do work with the Peter Jacques Band, and then with Jocelyn Brown, these records started coming out and doing very well nationally and in international markets. Then we did Convertion, “Let’s Do It,” and that was an enormous hit. After that, Patrick ran into Rick James, and we had a song called “Big Time”-- so I had already built up this momentum on my own, and there was no reason to return to Black Ivory. I had it within me to develop and create exactly the sound that I needed to create to keep me aesthetically happy.

JK: You had a unique path that you took with the labels that you worked with, from Salsoul to Vanguard to Sam and so on. Did you consciously set out to approach each label with a different project, or did they come to you?

LB: Basically, they would come to me through various connections, Greg Carmichael, Patrick Adams, and the type of songs I was composing. We were trying to make great songs, and people were now in touch with my compositional prowess, and more calls were coming in for compositions from our camp. Secondly, I like dealing with independent labels because they tend to give you more attention. With a major label, you have to make a ton of money before they’ll give you the time of day. With an independent label, their lifeblood is the support of their artists and producers, and because I felt supported, I would go to the smaller labels like Salsoul. I did a lot of work with Salsoul, and with Vanguard, simply because I felt the love from them. I felt the hands-on involvement and I felt I was treated fairly.

JK: Would you consider Panoramic an independent label? I was just thinking about “Hooked On Your Love”.

LB: “Hooked On Your Love” came out on NIA Records initially, when NIA Records was just starting out, and then The Aleems made a deal with Panoramic Records and put that song out. After it had been released, Panoramic took it over, and that was just one of the deals that happened in the course of that happening, and I took it as such.

JK: The first record that you did with The Aleems, was that “Movin To The Beat”?

LB: The Corky Hodges record. No, the first one that they came to me for was “Hooked on Your Love.” “Hooked On Your Love” and “Summertime,” that was the project. When I worked on “Hooked on Your Love” and “Summertime”, they liked my arrangement and composition work so much that they put me on other projects, such as the Corky Hodges project. Whenever they needed me I would step in and help out.

JK: Was that you singing on the “Corky Hodges” record?

LB: Corky lived across the street from me, and the Aleems lived upstairs in the building I lived in, so from the time I did the work on “Hooked On Your Love”, Corky and I became fast friends and he started to emulate my style a bit.

JK: The ones that you sang on with the Aleems are?

LB: “Hooked On Your Love”, “High Frequency”, “Get Down Friday Night” was the third, and then came “Release Yourself”, “Get Loose” right after that and then “Confusion.”

JK: In between those, you did the “Heartbreaker” record under your own name. Was that something that you consciously decided, to pursue a project under your own name? I remember you said if the labels didn’t seem that committed to a project that you might not put your name to a project.

LB: The Convertion record got my new group to the attention of the public, but then Sam Records, and Sam White specifically went behind our back and copyrighted the name so that we couldn’t use it anymore. When we went to Sam to talk about it to try to make a deal with Sam, the deal he brought to the table was ridiculous. We went with Greg Carmichael to Salsoul, and Salsoul said, “Yes, we will commission an album. We love the sound, but you can’t use the name Convertion,” so at that point, we didn’t really care. It doesn’t matter as long as the group is the same. Salsoul came up with the name Logg, and Logg is the same group as Convertion, all the same members. That album solidified my relationship with Salsoul Records. Once I had my relationship there, Logg came out and was successful, so Salsoul approached me with a different project, under my own name. I was tired of the aliases, so I said, “Let’s do it.” We did a four-song project, and “Heartbreaker” was one of the songs.

JK: If I’m correct, Conversion was spelled differently on Vanguard.

LB: Yes.

JK: Because of the legal troubles with that name?

LB: The actual word Conversion is spelled C-o-n-v-e-r-s-i-o-n, but we spelled it C-o-n-v-e-r-t-i-o-n. I’m not sure how Vanguard worked it out with Sam to use that name.

JK: I have the 45 of it, and I thought they spelled it with an “S” on there.

LB: I have both records on my wall, I’m actually looking at them now, and the Sam Record is C-o-n-v-e-r-t-i-o-n, as is the Vanguard record. The companies get to talking and they throw some money under the table and boom! You got it.

JK: Was it interesting for you when Aleem got signed to Atlantic and started making music videos, and you started to explore a different sound, not strictly the boogie sound?

LB: ‘Casually Formal’ was the first Aleem album on Atlantic, which was my first return back to Atlantic, because prior to that, I had done the Phreek album, and the ‘Mister Flute’ album by Art Webb, and the Herbie Mann album, so I had a relationship with Atlantic Records already. With the Aleems, it was the record “Confusion” that came to the attention of Atlantic records and they really wanted to put stuff on that. At the time, our manager was the late Dick Scott, and he worked out the deal to go from NIA records to Atlantic and Atlantic did an album deal behind it. That album became ‘Casually Formal’.

JK: You did two albums with them, correct?

LB: Yes, ‘Casually Formal’ and ‘Shock’.

JK: Simultaneously, you were doing some songwriting for other artists, like Bobbi Humphrey, Inner Life.

LB: Fonda Rae did “Over Like a Fat Rat”.

JK: You worked with Kashif, also.

LB: Again, that was something that we worked with The Aleems on. The Kashif record, “Coming Home.”

JK: Were there any of those artists that you worked with at that time that you particularly enjoyed, or you feel you gained a lot out of?

LB: The record “No Way” that Bobbi Humphrey did really solidified my relationship with my friend and mentor, Stevie Wonder. I told you I was gonna get back to that, right? In ‘71/’72, Stevie Wonder had released his ‘Music of My Mind’ album and his ‘Talking Book’ album and he played the Apollo Theatre, and this is when you played the Apollo for a week. He arranged for us to come, and we came to see him because he really liked us, but I took a shine to Stevie and started following him around. He invited me to come back whenever I liked, so I came every single day. Stevie started teaching me piano; he gave me my first perfect pitch lessons; he taught me how to play without looking at the piano. I asked him how he does that, and he said, “I’m not really sure, I just try to feel my way around with the keys.” He helped me develop that.

JK: An enviable opportunity.

LB: My two teachers were Herbie Jones from the Duke Ellington orchestra and Stevie Wonder. Those are my two teachers.

JK: Two of the best you can have.

LB: The third would be Thom Bell.

JK: You ventured into Gospel music when you recorded something with Vanessa Bell Armstrong.

LB: That evolved specifically through my friend, Vincent Henry, who is a sax player and a longtime friend and associate, and he had been playing with my group on various dates, and he also played solo sax on a number of projects. He had a project with Vanessa Bell Armstrong, and he said, “I have the perfect guy to come in and do background arrangements and sing background,” and that was me. He called me in, and I was like, “Great!” I had no idea who Vanessa Bell Armstrong was, but I have Gospel training, a Gospel background from my family, and so I went into the project with that in mind. That’s how it happened.

JK: Were there any personal circumstances that inspired you to go into Gospel Music or was it expanding your repertoire?

LB: The best way to put that is, I credit God as the entity that empowers my entire life. I always loved Gospel Music, and have an affection for inspirational compositions, from my family history, so I was always close to that. Even in my secular, non-Gospel music, I try to put inspirational messages in it, and I still try to instill that in my music today.

CLICK HERE FOR PT. 2 OF JUSTIN KANGTOR'S IN DEPTH INTERVIEW WITH LEROY BURGESS

Justin Kantor is a freelance journalist based in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He has published his own magazine, The Hip Key, as well as contributing prolifically to the All-Music Guide and Berklee College of Music’s The Groove. He can be reached by e-mail at justvox@aol.com

Transcription by Nathan Stafford - You can e-mail Nathan here for transcription service info

About the Writer
Justin Kantor is a freelance music journalist with published works in Wax Poetics and the All-Music Guide. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Business and Management program, he regularly writes liner notes for reissue labels.
  
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