David Nathan: I am delighted to welcome to Soulmusic.com, a gentleman I have known for so many years, going back to the late 70’s when we met in Portland, Oregon. At the time, he was one of the founding members of the group Pleasure, a pioneering Funk, R&B and Jazz-flavoured group, and we’ve stayed in touch over the years. The occasion for which we’re doing this interview is Marlon’s new solo album, which is actually not his first – even though I thought it was! It is entitled “T.B.D.” and is available at the Soul Music Store. It’s a pleasure to welcome Marlon McClain.
Marlon McClain: Thank you, David. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.
DN: Let’s start out with the concept and your thinking behind doing this album.
MM: “ T.B.D.” is a record that I really started putting together two-an-a-half years ago after being on the road with “Guitars & Saxes” which is a touring group that tours around every year, and the version I played in had Gerald Albright, Kirk Whalum, Jeff Golub, and a guitarist from Detroit named Tim Bowman and me. Some other people like Nate Phillips from Pleasure were the backing band, and playing with those guys around the country, it really inspired me to write some of my own instrumental music that was really coming from my heart, so I started writing songs when I was on the road with those guys.
DN: How was that experience of being on the road with them, and how long were you on the road?
MM: We were on the road for about four months, touring around the country. We had a lot of great fans and a lot of great performances. Those guys are just really great players and we had a lot of fun.
DN: When did you consider [the album] finished?
MM: When I finished the last song on the record which is a song called ‘This Is’, and that was about nine months ago.
DN: The title, “TBD” comes from…?
MM: “To Be Determined.” It really was a title I picked in order for me to finish the project. That was the first title I came up with when I started writing the songs, even though there’s no song on there called ‘TBD’. It really stuck in my head and I’ve used that title to work really hard to finish the record.
DN: How would you describe “TBD”?
MM: It’s a combination of R&B, Funk, Jazz and Blues. It’s like the combination of how I looked at things with the group Pleasure. We had a bunch of different styles and we melded those styles into one. “TBD” is a reflection of that, because I’m a lover of music in general, but my base comes from R&B, and this is a reflection of that.
DN: Why don’t we talk about a couple of the tracks, because we want people to go check them out. One of the ones that I played on my radio show was ‘Keep It Movin’. Tell us, what inspired ‘Keep It Movin’?
MM: It’s a song that I co-wrote with an up-and-coming saxophonist out of Portland, named Patrick Lamb, and when we got together, the song came out naturally, with me coming up with the groove and him coming up with some melody ideas, so the title came from just stating something positive, just keep things moving forward, keep your life moving, and that’s where the title came from.
DN: I believe there’s a song on there called ‘Get What You Want’?
MM: That song is a song that I wrote with a good friend of mine named Mark Lomax, he’s down in LA, and that title really is about just getting out there doing things that you want to do, another positive statement.
DN: When instrumentalists make albums, how do you come up with the [song] titles?
MM: A lot of times, for most instrumentalists, they are thinking about things that affect them. If you write lyrics, I think instrumentalists look at it the same way, you’re just not hearing lyrics, you’re just hearing melody. I try to focus on the things that are affecting me spiritually and with life in general, so you make titles that affect you in that way.
DN: I’d like you to pick a couple of other tracks on the album and talk about them; why they’re important to you.
MM: I would say one that I like a lot is called ‘Come On’; it’s the second track on the record. Even though the whole concept for “TBD” came two-and-a-half years ago, I started writing the song ‘Come On’ six years ago. I always had it sitting around in my recorder, but once I started the “TBD” album, I decided to finish it. I just really like the vibe of the song because when I hear it, it reminds me of The Crusaders. With Pleasure, we were really big fans of The Crusaders, and Wayne Henderson was the one that really brought us into the business, so I’ve always had a strong affection for that group. When I hear ‘Come On’, it’s doesn’t have trumpeters and keyboard players, it’s not that kind of vibe, but it reminds me of them a bit.
DN: Is there another track that you’d like to bring to people’s attention?
MM: The other song I really like, because I just like the feel of it, is a song called ‘Sorry To Say’, and that’s another song that I wrote with Patrick Lamb, and it’s different because it’s more of a stripped-down song with guitar and sax, and I just really like the melody of that song a lot. Whenever I hear it, it makes me feel good.
DN: You mentioned a couple of people that you worked with on the project. Are you playing most of the instruments?
MM: I’m playing the majority of the instruments on most of the songs. There’s one song, ‘Life Is’ that I wrote with Jeff Lorber, and he plays keyboard on the song so it’s fantastic. The bass player’s name on the album is Damian Erskine, he is the nephew of the drummer Peter Erskine, and he’s really great, and another saxophonist by the name of Phillip Martin is on it, and also, Tim Bowman is playing guitar with me on one song.
DN: The record is out on Lucky Records?
MM: Yes, it’s on Mac Man Music/Lucky Records, and that’s a label that I started with my manger, David Leiken.
DN: How long has the label been in existence?
MM: The label has been in existence, off and on for about 25 years. I’ve had my Mac Man Music production company active since 1979. We’ve always used it to bring in up-and-coming artists. We would find an act that we liked, and I would take them out in the studio and produce them and get them a record deal. Sometimes in doing that, you have to release a record locally in order to get the exposure to have a major label take you seriously, so we always used the label for then. About two years ago, both David and I were getting Oregon Hall of Fame Awards, and at that ceremony, he and I talked afterwards. There’s a lot of local artists that have put out records but still haven’t been exposed properly, so we decided to re-activate Lucky Records and release a lot of stuff that we had in the can and have been holding onto for a long time.
DN: Where can people check that out?
MM: You can check out my record “TBD”, and also another one called Franchise, we have a Dance Band record we did called Under The Street Lights, we had an artist by the name of Dan Reed Network release an EP called Breathless, the saxophonist from Pleasure, Dennis Springer has a record out called Real, and all this stuff is on iTunes and CD Baby as well.
DN: So, Lucky Records has had a few releases over the years. In other words, this isn’t the debut of the label.
DN: I made a mention earlier of this not being your first solo record. Would you like to expound on that?
MM: The very first solo record that I did was a record I did in 1981 called “Changes,” and that was on Fantasy Records. I made that record right after I left the group Pleasure, which went from 1974 up until 1980. We hade six records for Fantasy Records, and on the sixth record, the band left Fantasy and went to RCA, and I actually left the group and started producing other people. On “Changes”, I had Randy Jackson from ‘American Idol,’ Steve Smith from Journey played drums, and Paul Smith, who turned out to be a really great songwriter, he played organ on that record; it was a really good record.
DN: For those who aren’t aware of your history, you mentioned that Pleasure started in 1974, and went to about 1980. How would you describe what Pleasure did during those years?
MM: Pleasure was really a fusion of R&B, Jazz and Funk, we were a band that had horns, and we had a really different style, because some of the bands that we looked up to were The Crusaders, Grover Washington Jr. , Earth, Wind & Fire, and being from Portland, we were [also] into a lot of rock, like Jimi Hendrix and Heart, so we threw all of those influences into our music, and we were a combination of all of that. Lucky for us, even without a hit pop record, we were able to develop a strong following, especially on the East Coast.
DN: You did a lot of touring.
MM: Yeah, we did.
DN: Was that mostly on the East Coast, or throughout the US?
MM: Throughout the whole US, but I would say our initial fan base started on the East Coast. It expanded down South, and we would go down and tour, and the big groups like Kool & The Gang, and when they had all their big hits and stuff, we would go and tour with Kool & The Gang and Cameo.
DN: Which of the albums that you did for Fantasy during that period would you say was the most successful?
MM: The most successful album was the one when you and I met, the “Future Now” album. That was our biggest record, it came out in ’79, it had the song called ‘Glide’ which became like an anthem, man it was huge.
DN: Did you enjoy those years on the road?
MM: Yes, I would say that period of performing and developing the group was a lot of fun. First of all, it’s all new, you’re going to different cities and you’re meeting people, you’re watching other acts that are bigger than you, and you’re learning from them; it was a really great time period.
DN: After you left, the group stopped performing and you started producing other people. Who were some of the people that you worked with initially?
MM: When I decided to leave Pleasure, there was a lot of talent around the Northwest, so I got involved with artists like Jeff Lorber, who was just starting to come up as a Jazz keyboardist, Jeff Lorber Fusion, Kenny G was in that group, so I got to work with Kenny, and there is also a group here called Shock, and Nu Shooz, they came out of Portland. All of those artists, I was involved with in one shape or form. We had a really strong Northwest community, and I just happened to be the guy that they would call to go in the studio and produce.
DN: At what point did you become involved with the Dazz Band?
MM: I became involved with the Dazz Band in 1985, and there was a friend of mine named Reggie Andrews, who was one of the producers of the Dazz Band, so he called me up and said, “Eric Fearman is going to leave the group, so would you be interested in being a part of the Dazz Band?” I said, “That would be cool,” so he put me on the phone with the leader of the group, Bobby Harris, and Bobby and I became really good friends over the phone, I went out to Cleveland and hung out with the band, and they asked me to join the band.
DN: At that point, had they been very successful?
MM: They were just coming off the success of ‘Let It Whip’ and ‘Joystick’ and ‘Keep It Live’ and all those songs. They were doing very well.
DN: You also recorded with them, correct?
MM: Correct. Right after I joined the band, we went into the studio and I think the first record I recorded with them was called “Hot Spot,” and that was on Motown.
DN: How many albums did you do with them? Do you remember?
MM: We did “Hot Spot,” and after that, the group went to Geffen and we did a record called “Wild & Free,” and after that we went to RCA and did a record called “Rock The Room,” and then after that, we did two independent records before I did the record with them that I was talking about earlier, “Under The Street Lights,” which we put out on Lucky Records.
DN: It sounds like you did half-a-dozen albums with the Dazz Band.
MM: Yeah, I did.
DN: Did you tour with them much, during that time period?
MM: Yeah, the band toured a lot, and in fact that’s the first time I went to Europe, and we played at Hammersmith, which is a great venue there in London. We went to France and toured with Kool & The Gang throughout Germany and Amsterdam, it was a really great time.
DN: At some point, you started working with other Funk groups under a particular banner, I think it was called United We Funk.
MM: Correct. What happened was, Bobby and I, the leader of the Dazz Band - and this was in the late 90’s - that there were a lot of R&B groups that were still sounding good, but weren’t getting a lot of attention or promotion, so we started a label called Major Hits, and from doing that, we put together this group called the United We Funk All-Stars, and the original group included Rick James, Roger Troutman, Charlie Wilson from the Gap Band, SOS Band, Confunkshun, and we made this record called “United We Funk All-Stars.”
DN: And then you did some live performing, correct?
MM: Correct. The [US] radio host Tom Joyner heard about us putting this group together and wanted to get involved, so he became like our presenter for about 30 shows. We also put out a live record that he was a part of as well, it was a live double-set.
DN: I have to ask you this question: with so many great pioneers involved and a lot of strong personalities I imagine, were there any ego issues?
MM: I would say that what made this really cool is that all of these artists really admired each other, so that even if they have egos - because that’s a natural part of the business - they really enjoy working together as one big, huge unit. That was our whole concept behind it in the first place in that everybody brought a different strength to the table, so to speak. We were able to work out our show where it was one big team effort. It was almost like listening to funk radio at the height of when it was big. You would start off with a Confunkshun song and then go into a Gap Band song, come back with a big hit by SOS, and maybe slow it down with a Dazz Band song, so it was like listening to the radio, except you got to see these performers onstage at the same time. It was really a lot of fun.
DN: Was Rick James part of that touring unit?
MM: No, unfortunately. We put together this special performance in Hollywood that we were doing for the press and that kind of stuff, and he came out to perform, but he got really sick. That was probably the last time he was going to perform, unfortunately he passed away two months after that.
DN: How about Roger Troutman?
MM: He was going to be a part of it, and unfortunately he was killed by his brother. The recording that we have of him on United We Funk, that was actually the last recording that he did.
DN: When you think about the touring that you did under that banner, is there any show that stands out to you as particularly memorable?
MM: I would say there were two shows that stand out to me, even though we did about 30 performances: one was in Atlanta, and the other one was in Chicago at the Chicago Theatre. For some reason, those performances were very impactful. The audiences were feeling it, and it was just working on all cylinders.
DN: When did that tour close, and when did United We Funk cease to exist as an entity?
MM: It came to a close around 2002, and before that, before it came to a close, the first person to come out of that as a solo artist was Charlie Wilson. We did a record for Charlie in 2000, and that record had a song called ‘Without You’ that went #1 Urban AC [radio].
DN: So it was definitely a successful venture to have put everybody together and have that spinoff too.
DN: What was your next move after that was over?
MM: After that, I pretty much have always been a songwriter/producer, so I just started writing songs with other people, with guys like Jeff Lorber and then Jeff Lorber and I, with Nate Phillips, we decided to put out a “Shades of Soul” record, and that came out, I want to say in 2004 or 2005. That was a record that we did when we would get together at Jeff Lorber’s house when none of us were touring and we would sit up in the studio for this recording, and that took maybe about two years, but once we had enough songs, Jeff talked to the people over at Narada [Records] and they just loved it. We put that out and that was a lot of fun, because the spirit was just based on us going to Jeff’s house and throwing out some ideas. It was a lot of fun.
DN: Did you tour with it? Did you do any performances together?
MM: Yes, we did about three dates, but we never did a huge tour.
DN: Was it after that that you did the shows with ‘Guitars & Saxes’?
MM: Yes, right before that Jeff had something that he put together called ‘Groove for Grover’ which was a touring unit that he put together that was a tribute to Grover Washington, and in fact with some of the same people, like Gerald Albright, Kirk Whalum, he was a part of it, and Jeff Lorber, and we played all Grover Washington’s songs, and he has some great songs.
DN: I bet that was an amazing project.
MM: It was, and I don’t know why they didn’t do a record, but it was just incredible. I remember doing a show in Atlantic City and Grover’s wife came to the show, and it was so cool. The band sounded amazing, and you can’t get any better than Grover Washington.
DN: It sounds like you’ve had a very full musical life, Mr. McClain.
MM: I have been very fortunate, that’s for sure.
DN: I know the record is out now, “TBD,” so what’s next for you? What’s the next thing that you’re looking forward to doing?
MM: Well obviously I’m going to promote this record for a little bit, we also have this unit called Masters of Funk, which is kind of a throw-off from United We Funk, and this series includes Sugar Flip and the Ohio Players, the Bar-Kays, Dazz Band, and we’re out doing a bunch of dates. So, I’ll go out and do those dates with those guys as well as promote my record, and I’m in a space where I’m always looking to do something cool, so I’m always looking for new artists to work with, and I’ll always be writing songs, so I’ll still be doing that kind of stuff.
DN: How long has Masters of Funk been together, of how long has it been touring?
MM: It really started up last year, so it’s a little over a year.
DN: How has that been going?
MM: It’s been great. We just off the Tom Joyner Fantastic Voyage Cruise that he does every year, and that was incredible, We had a great tie doing that with Tom.
DN: How does it feel to have your second solo album out?
MM: I feel great about it! I’m really proud of “TBD,” I think it has a lot of soulful and reflective songs on it, and it’s all coming from my heart, so I feel good about it, and to me the one thing that’s great about music is that it enables you to express yourself, so however you’re feeling, that’s what you get to express, and I love that part about making music. You hope that the feelings that are coming out of you touch people in the same way, where they can feel what you’re feeling.
DN: Will you be doing any shows as Marlon McClain?
MM: I sure hope to, once the record gets out there a little bit and we see what areas are taking hold, I’ll put a band together and do some dates.
DN: Good! I think we’ve covered all the bases for now. Do you have any parting thoughts?
MM: Once again, I’d like to thank the fans out there, the people who really make it possible for people like me to be in the business, because without true fans, we can’t exist. It’s those people that love what you do and are always there for you, I always want to give a shout to them and say thanks. One thing that I’ve really grown to love is this whole new network of people that you meet of Facebook and Myspace and places like that. I’ve come across so many people that I would have never met, that are in different locations around the world, or in the US for that matter, who will say positive things to you that maybe relate to when you was in Pleasure, or maybe they liked the Dazz Band song or a song that you wrote for somebody, man that part has been incredible! The new technology, I’m really embracing it, and I have to say it’s a great thing for artists and writers, and people communicating with each other in general.
DN: Is there a Marlon McClain Facebook page?
MM: There’s a Marlon McClain Facebook page, for sure. Put my name in there and you’ll see it.
DN: Good! So folks can check you out there, and of course if they go to the Soul Music store, they can hear clips from “TBD” and put their money down and buy it.
MM: Correct. I would really appreciate that.
DN: Alright, Marlon. It’s been really great talking to you today, and all I can say is, we met many years ago and we have stayed in touch, and I’m really excited about what you’re doing, and personally I’m really enjoying TBD. I’ve been playing tracks from it on my radio show, so the only thing I can say in conclusion, to anyone who is listening to this interview is Go Check It Out.
MM: Thank you, David. Once again, I think the Soulmusic.com website is incredible, and you guys are doing a really good thing by promoting all types of Soul Music, so I really appreciate you being a part of what I’m trying to do.
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.