“Nobody can be you but you.”
— Steve Arrington
It’s almost inaccurate to call drummer/songwriter/producer Steve Arrington as plain a term as “singer”, as he doesn’t so much sing lyrics as much as he throws his whole being into them, disarming listeners with the pure physicality of swooping acrobatic highs, dramatic growls, and unexpected melodic turns. The former vocalist/frontman for funk legends Slave, as well as his own group, Steve Arrington’s Hall of Fame, Steve Arrington, along with fellow Ohio natives Sugarfoot and Roger Troutman, has long been considered by funkateers to be one of the most distinctive funk vocalists of all time.
With all due respect to the aforementioned vocalists, as well as Larry Blackmon and other groundbreaking funk vocalists, I would actually go one step further and say Arrington is the most unique vocalist in funk, ever. While it is fairly common for funk vocalists to function as the lead rhythm instrument within an interlocking hyper-syncopated ensemble, Arrington, in my opinion, was the only one to use his voice in the same way other funk bands of the ’70s and ’80s used squealing, gurgling synths: as an undulating, unpredictable, but still pleasing-to-hear futuristic “sound effect” of sorts. Troutman, whose work I love dearly, of course also deftly and skillfully did things in this vein, but he had the help of his talkbox. Arrington’s vocal flights of fancy are organic, and his drumming background gives each of his texturized vocal performances a rhythmic precision that is funky-to-the-core. And to this day, no one sounds like Steve Arrington but Steve Arrington — nobody can be him but him.
I wasn’t surprised at all to see the diverse list of influences on Steve Arrington’s Facebook page recently: Cole Porter, Buddy Miles, Aaron Copeland, Gentle Giant (to name a few). The sheer musicality of his approach, which is occasionally almost avant-garde in its insistent dynamism, is clearly rooted in a deep love and healthy knowledge of a wide array of styles, though his records generally stick to a funk, dance, and rock aesthetic. For newcomers to his work, I recommend copping his first solo album, Steve Arrington’s Hall of Fame Vol. I, to get a vibe on his style. From there it is easy to work backwards to the four Slave albums on which he appears, or forward to his other solo records, all of which contain gems waiting to be discovered by new listeners.
What was the first song you fell in love with, and what is your current relationship to the piece?
As a child the first song I remember loving was “Shimmy, Shimmy, Ko-Ko-Bop” by Little Anthony and the Imperials. I have the song today on mp3. It still sounds great! His lead vocal, smokin’.
Who is your favorite “unsung” artist or songwriter, someone who you feel never gets their due? Talk a little bit about him/her.
A vocalist by the name of Billy Stewart was truly one of the greats, in my opinion. Tracks like “Summertime”, “I Do Love You”, “Sitting in the Park”, dude’s vocals are killin’ it. His style is so original. He doesn’t get mentioned when you talk about great R&B vocalists. His career was not as big or as long as some others, but his vocal style is very important, I think.
Is there an artist, genre, author, filmmaker, etc. who/which has had a significant impact/influence on you, but that influence can’t be directly heard in your music?
James Taylor would be that for me. Specifically his Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon album. What moves me so much about that record is how honest it sounds. His vocals are so real and believable. My music doesn’t sound like his at all, but that honest, real vibe on that Mud Slide Slim… album is very important to me. My desire is that my music sound honest, and from the heart.
Do you view songwriting as a calling, a gig, a hobby, other…?
I view songwriting as a calling, but I could easily see how others could view it differently.
Name one contemporary song that encourages you about the future of songwriting/pop music.
I think Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” was an important record.
In the 1980s, Steve Arrington, like a number of musicians (Little Richard, Al Green) before him, felt a call towards Christian ministry. Though he has devoted the bulk of the last 20 years to his work as a minister, he continues to make music. He recently released a brand new album, Pure Thang, which features a track with the ill-est Steve Arrington song title of all time, “The Devil Can’t Sing Amazing Grace”. Check out Pure Thang at CDBaby and other online outlets. Visit stevearringtonministries.com for more information on all of Steve Arrington’s activities.