Listening to fifti, I really appreciated how you flipped “Moves Like Jagger” into “Moves Like James Brown” on “Music is a World Within Itself”. I often think about the T.AM.I. Show (1964) when the Rolling Stones performed after James Brown. In his book, James wrote about that experience: “I don’t think I ever danced so hard in my life, and I don’t think they’d ever seen a man move that fast.” What does watching James Brown dance inspire in you?
Oh, man. That particular show sets me on fire. That’s one of my favorite performances because I knew immediately without even understanding the circumstances around that performance that he was proving a point. I’ve been there as an artist and as a Black artist in America. There is a point where you have to answer a call and somebody’s challenging you and you go right to work. I really felt that. It’s one of my favorite performances. He just set the stage on fire.
Did you ever get a chance to see James Brown in concert?
No. I would have wanted to have seen him then at his very best, kind of like Michael Jackson. I would have wanted to see him when the flames were blue. [laughs]
Last year, we interviewed André De Shields and he talked about seeing the Motown Revue when he was nine years old. That show sealed his destiny as a performer. Was there a performance or a concert that planted the seed in you not only to be involved with music but to actually perform onstage?
Other than James Brown and the T.A.M.I. Show, I can’t really think of one. I remember going to an August Wilson play and sitting there before the play. All of a sudden Al Green’s “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” comes on the speakers. It sounded so good and I’d heard the song maybe once or twice before. People associate me with Al Green and Curtis Mayfield, but these aren’t people that I listened to growing up. I got into them much later. That song came on and in that theater, there was just a hush over the crowd and those speakers were banging and man, I was like, Wow, I’m definitely on the right track.
I remember going to a cabaret once and before the cabaret began they played “Billie Jean”. I jumped right up. I became the cabaret. There’s a lot of those moments. “When Doves Cry”, when I heard it on the radio for the first time, I was just sitting in my mom’s boyfriend’s car while he was in the hardware store. I’m sitting there and the song comes on. That was a big moment for me too.
I read that your father was friends with James “Diamond” Williams from the Ohio Players. I actually interviewed him a few years ago and he talked about how Sugarfoot was someone who carried a thesaurus around. The thesaurus wasn’t a book that he carried in his pocket, it was in his brain. Out of all the bands that came out of Dayton, Ohio why do you think Ohio Players rose to the very top?
Well, they were the most talented. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. There was a point where Junie Morrison was a part of the Ohio Players, but even before Junie joined the band they had been the Ohio Untouchables. They were an amazing blues/jazz band. A lot of energy. That was before Jimmy even became the drummer. Greg Webster was the drummer. It was awesome. The music was awesome. Robert Ward was the lead singer and then that morphed into the Ohio Players where they really didn’t even have a singer.
Junie joined the band and Diamond became the drummer. It was really Junie and Sugarfoot who became the singers. Sugar was really a blues dude. He’d play a lot of different things like Lightnin’ Hopkins, played a little jazz and a little blues, and they incorporated it into the sounds of the ’70s, the funk sounds. It’s only ability that allows you to do that, to blend all of those convincingly.
Their music still holds up. It was so well-conceived, recorded, and engineered.
That’s the other aspect of it. In my project with Nate Smith, those are the things we talk about. We’re two uncles sitting here making music. We might as well do it right with the arrangements, not just having talent and not just having a computer, but taking the opportunity of the talent, the modern technology, and the knowledge to bring all of these together to create great songs inside of a great facility with great arrangements.
When Little Richard passed last year, you tweeted something that’s stuck with me. You wrote, “He’s the tip of every breakthrough in popular culture”. In what ways have you noticed his influence in culture, beyond his music?
Well, I see it in fashion very deeply. I see it in the ability to start a conversation. He wasn’t afraid, that’s what I see. What I see, most of all, in the youth is the willingness to live out loud. I do think that that’s bold. He did that still, I think, better than anyone.
It’s interesting to see how Lil Nas X has come along and just really taken all of what Little Richard started to another level, especially with his video for “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” …
…. which is awesome.
Yes, and you said recently how you’re happy to see him win. What is it about his success that moves you?
I just like how he loves toying with the old ideas of good versus evil. I think he’s smart enough to get that none of that really applies to him. Those are just messages that people like to play war games with. To be so young and understand that, I think, is powerful. I grab popcorn and I just sit back and watch him have fun … and I hope he is having fun. I hope it doesn’t get dangerous for him. I would like to see him continue to be the chemist that he is because he’s just playing with stuff.
What drives your creativity?
We spoke earlier about spirituality. Do not get me wrong, I am not a religious person whatsoever. I can’t remember going to church, but there’s something else. When I move through life, I feel like life is the thing that is actually moving me, so I’m just driven. That’s all I can say.
In your career as a musician, what would you say is one of the greatest challenges that you’ve overcome?
Probably my own insecurity as a singer and performer. I was an only child for about ten years. No one in my family is consistently musical. I don’t have a family that grew up singing and playing all the time. I didn’t really have anything to judge my abilities against until I got out into the professional world and met other professional musicians. All I had was my own way of arriving at a song. That was it.
Obviously, I’ve learned from being around people like we’ve already talked about, Dionne Farris and Rahsaan Patterson, but that took a long time. I think that’s part of the reason why I didn’t have a record deal until I was 31. It took a while for me to really pull all of that together, so I was really insecure about my playing ability, not my ability to have good ideas. I knew I had interesting ideas that were powerful, but how to manifest them and communicate them took a while.
I’d like to conclude with the song “Old Hat” from The Fun Rises, The Fun Sets. In reading your comments about that song, I was struck by how you described the bulldozing of your friend’s neighborhood, which represented “the ever shallowing intellect and impatience intruding upon nature”. You recorded that six years ago, and we’ve seen different kinds of destruction since then. Where do you see signs of hope?
In our culture and society? Everywhere. Now that we’re a year into COVID, all I see is hope. I feel like it’s the chance that arises from destruction or complete change. We have the opportunity to be worse, of course, but even that would only mean that society transforms into something else. You asked me about being driven and what drives us. No scientist or preacher or magician could tell you what is driving us. What is electricity? Why do things move instead of not move? No one has those answers.
Van, I know how much your music has shaped my life, but how has music shaped your life?
Oh, man. I think it’s made me appreciate living and the opportunity to live. It’s certainly given me a livelihood. It allows me to have something to measure my life against, to help me develop personal standards of integrity, honesty. Those are things that I’m able to teach to my son, so I have to say — maybe along with boxing and my mother — it’s given me everything.
Boxing is a big part of my life. It keeps me in relatively good shape, just going through the routine of what you might do, jumping rope and shadowboxing. I enjoy it. That is something that was in my family. My uncle really taught me the sport, taught me the basics and the fundamentals, and then I was able to be around experienced trainers and former professional boxers. I was able to pick up a lot without having to get in the ring … and getting my teeth knocked out!