Leroy Burgess: Sweet expectations
Revered by connoisseurs worldwide for his indelible impact on both soul music and the disco subgenre “boogie”, legendary and prolific New York singer/songwriter/keyboardist/producer Leroy Burgess has interestingly reworked some of his previously unreleased (and, in some cases, previously unfinished) compositions from the early-to-mid-Eighties for his latest album ‘Throwback (Vol II): Sugar Hill 83 - 86’.
Which - released through German soul producer Rob Hardt’s credible SedSoul label – this month sees its consistently-uplifting, good-time vibe being pioneered by the solidly stomping single ‘It’s The Weekend’… All of which a slow-and-clearly-spoken Mr. Burgess discusses with Pete Lewis from his Harlem home.
“What happened was, when I moved into my latest apartment, I came upon two boxes that had a bunch of cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes in them”, he begins: “And on those cassettes and reel-to-reels was a lotta the songs we’d done from around ’79 through to about ‘87 that had actually never been released. So my manager at the time - Jim McDermot - and I pulled them out, started listening to them song-song, tape-by-tape... And, because we thought they were really good compositions, he was like ‘What would you think about actually recreating and rebuilding these songs into a project that you could release?’... So we started the business of digitising the demos. And then from there I went about the arduous task of reconstructing them, so they could be a viable product for today’s marketplace. So the concept behind these ‘Throwback’ albums is basically to allow me to finally present to the public these songs that we composed back then but have never previously seen the light of day as commercial releases.”
Musically meanwhile, one of Leroy’s main intentions was to combine the original live verve of the old song demos with contemporary studio production techniques: “Yeah, I tried to get as many vintage instruments from that period as I could - like the Moog synthesizer, and just generally all the keyboards I’d have used back then - and incorporate them into this album AS WELL AS using all that modern technology has to offer in the way of digital music production”, he explains: “So it really is a mixing of the two periods. Plus I also asked many of the musicians who worked on the original demos to come in and play on THIS project. And I think the fact that many of them did come in and donate their time and expertise to it has given it a classic feel alongside a more contemporary feel. Which is exactly what I was trying to achieve.”
So what of his new album’s somewhat confusing title?(!): “Well, the ‘Throwback Vol II’ part obviously signifies it being a follow-up to my album ‘Throwback Vol I’ - which I additionally titled ‘Harlem 79 - 83’, simply because that was where and when we did the composition of most of the songs contained on THAT one”, explains Leroy patiently: “But then, from 1983 to through to ’86, we - that is, me, James Calloway and Sonny Davenport, who were my primary composition and production partners - were doing a lotta hanging out in the Sugar Hill area of North Manhattan just ABOVE Harlem, and getting our inspiration from THAT neighbourhood. So, because this album contains our compositions from that period, that’s why I decided to call it ‘Throwback (Vol II): Sugar Hill 83 - 86’!”
A cousin of Seventies Philly-soul super-producer Thom Bell (plus Kool & The Gang members Robert ‘Kool’ Bell and Ronald Bell), Leroy grew up in Central Harlem, surrounded by music - and actually started out playing the piano at the tender age of four! Meanwhile, it was during his mid-teens that he got his first taste of fame - as lead singer of New York-based male soul harmony trio Black Ivory. Whose string of US R&B hits in the early-Seventies included ‘Don’t Turn Around’, ‘You And I’ and ‘What Goes Around (Comes Around)’.
“Yeah, I first got to join Black Ivory in 1968, when I was 14”, he recalls clearly: “What happened was, I’d got a summer job at a day-camp that was sponsored by St. Charles Church in Harlem - which was situated right across the street from where I lived. And one day, when the kids were at lunch and we - the counsellors - were playing basketball, the song ‘Here I Go Again’ by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles came on the radio. So my good friend Larry Newkirk started singing along during the game; I joined in... And before very long I noticed I was singing ALONE, and that a little crowd had gathered to listen to me! So shortly after that, Larry asked me to come and check out his group - which I did… And, when he then asked me if I’d be interested in joining, I said yes!”
“At the time the group was called The Mellow Souls and included myself, Larry Newkirk, Michael Harris and Vito Ramirez”, adds an ever-forthcoming Mr. Burgess: “Then, shortly after that, we added Stuart Bascombe and became a quintet. But then, further down the line, Larry, Michael and Vito all decided to pursue college rather than music. Which in turn left Stuart and myself alone - until we found Russell Patterson from Larry Newkirk’s BROTHER’s group, who were about to disband. So when - in 1969 - Russell agreed to join us, we changed our name to become the trio everybody came to know as Black Ivory!”
“And I can honestly say being in the group was a truly great experience”, he remembers fondly: “Because everywhere we went, people were liking our music and were impressed with our vocal skills and live performances... Plus in Patrick Adams (who also ran the small East Coast independent label Today/Perspective, to which the threesome were signed) we had one of the most creative producers I’ve ever KNOWN!.. So yeah, for the first eight/nine years of Black Ivory’s existence we were all very, very happy!”
With Black Ivory primarily being known for their sweet harmony ballads (which are still cherished by die-hard soul connoisseurs to this day), the rapidly-increasing dominance of disco music in the late-Seventies meant the group began finding it hard to compete in the new, more uptempo marketplace. Which in turn eventually resulted in Leroy leaving the trio and moving into the soulful end of dance music as both a singer/songwriter and producer - and in turn helping to create a style that has since become known as “boogie”.
“Well, by the mid-Seventies Black Ivory had become typecast as a slow ballad group”, he admits openly: “Which meant the uptempo tunes we were trying to create and release at the time were not being well received by the public - because everybody liked us for the SLOW stuff we did! But at the same time, on a personal level I could feel myself creatively growing and starting to vibe into the faster music that was starting to come in. So, because I felt my desire to encompass that type of music couldn’t be accomplished as member of Black Ivory, in 1977 I decided not to renew my contract with the record-label and go it alone.”
“So I left the group and - along with James Calloway, who had become my close friend and music collaborator - I began to try and create UPTEMPO songs”, continues a warm-mannered Mr. Burgess: “And the first of those I did was ‘Weekend’ by Freek, which was released as a single on Atlantic Records and did very well. You know, before we knew it, it was being played all over the radio all over the WORLD! So shortly after that, I next got approached by Fred Petrus of The Peter Jacques Band to do two songs on HIS album… And then right after that, I got approached by the Aleems - who were two twin brothers - to do the ‘Hooked On Your Love’ single... So yeah, looking back I guess all that did start the ball rolling, in terms of the development of the type of disco music that I DO. Which has become known as ‘boogie’, and is essentially slower than REGULAR disco. You know, while disco is generally around 120 bpm (beats per minute) and up, boogie starts from like 105/106 and goes up to about 116. It’s basically a dance vibe that’s just a little cooler and groovier.”
Continuing to develop his streetwise’n’soulful take on dance music, after joining the aforementioned band Aleem (with whom he recorded the classic ‘Release Yourself’), Leroy also enjoyed numerous other late-Seventies/early-Eighties club hits as featured vocalist (and frequently writer/producer) with various New York groups like Convertion (‘Let’s Do It’); Logg (‘I Know You Well’, released on the legendary Salsoul label); and The Universal Robot Band (the enduringly anthemic ‘Barely Breakin’ Even’). Meanwhile - in addition to attaining notoriety in his own right with solo singles like 1983’s ‘Heartbreaker’ - as a writer and producer Burgess enjoyed a major US R&B hit in 1980 with then-Motown superstar Rick James’ ‘Big Time’; while significantly also writing and performing on the Bob Blank production of Fonda Rae’s 1982 dancefloor classic ‘Over Like A Fat Rat’.
Meanwhile, with Burgess’ status as an originating pioneer within the field of danceable soul remaining undisputed, the last decade or so has seen him enjoying well-received forays into the deep house scene by working with such credible Chicago producers as Chez Demier, Maurice Joshua and E-Smoove. Whilst his recent vocal and songwriting contribution to aforementioned German soul producer Rob Hardt’s Cool Million project (on the critically-acclaimed LP ‘Back For More’) has found him returning closer artistically to his Eighties boogie roots... Though arguably the most interesting project he’s working on right now is the highly-anticipated, soon-come Black Ivory reunion album ‘Continuum’.
“Well, reuniting with my brothers Stuart and Russell was something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time”, confirms Leroy, as our revealing chat gradually draws to a close: “You know, they’ve been my friends since 1968, and it was with them I first came into the music business. I mean, from ‘Don’t Turn Around’ - our first single together - in 1970 to ‘Mainline’ in 1977, we were always a good match. And it seems our time apart has allowed each of us to mature creatively. Which has, in turn, strengthened our bond considerably. So, with this being the 40th anniversary of our first commercial record, we felt this was a great time to release some brand-new material to celebrate. And, though we have actually been working on this reunion album for eight years now(!), I’m happy to say we are approaching completion!.. You know, though there have been a lot of setbacks that have delayed the project, we are at last now doing the final mixes and getting ready to send it all off to the mastering lab. So right now we’re definitely hoping for an early-to-mid 2010 release!”
Leroy’s album ‘Throwback (Vol II): Sugar Hill 83 - 86’ and single ‘It’s The Weekend’ are both out now through SedSoul/Burgess Entertainment Recordings
Words PETE LEWIS