Interview recorded April 21, 2012
Bob Baldwin has been a fixture in the contemporary jazz world for over 20 years. With the release of his latest CD, BETCHA BY GOLLY WOW - BOB BALDWIN PRESENTS THE MUSIC OF THOM BELL, he speaks with Soulmusic.com's Michael Lewis about his love for the music of that musical giant, and the incredible collection of musicians he works with.
Michael: Good day, Soul Music community. I’m pleased today to share the mic with one of the most influential figures on the contemporary jazz scene. This multi-talented pianist and producer is a master of mixing jazz, funk, R&B and world rhythms, and he has just released his 17th CD, entitled BOB BALDWIN PRESENTS BETCHA BY GOLLY WOW: THE SONGS OF THOM BELL. Please help me welcome Bob Baldwin. How are you today, Bob?
Bob: Alright, man. How’s it going today?
Michael: Going pretty good. Thanks for spending a little time with us today, with the release of this CD. Is this your 17th or 18th CD?
Bob: You know what? I was trying to count that the other day. You’re close enough.
Michael: Yeah. In any event, it’s been quite an amazing run, the last just over 20 years, consistently putting out great music, man. Thank you so much for that. The CD was released on April 10th, and I know it’s had a pretty good reception, so far. So I know you must be pretty busy.
Bob: Yeah, I’ve been very happy. We just found out last night we debuted at number 11 on the Billboard jazz charts. So that was some good news, and iTunes and Amazon have definitely been moving some pieces, so we’re happy with the first week out. Hopefully, we’ll keep that run going, because there’s so many great hits on that record, none of which I had anything to do with, but it’s just nice to be able to take some great covers and …
Michael: Put your spin on it. Absolutely.
Bob: Yes, sir.
Michael: If we could start off with a little bit of your history, for those who may not be as familiar with you, some of our listeners. Can you tell me a little bit about your musical background, growing up in Mount Vernon, NY, and how your recording career began?
Bob: Sure. Growing up--my father was a piano player. He passed away a couple of years ago at the age of 82. His name was Bob Baldwin Senior. So when I was 4 and 5 years old, he spotted that I had what they call perfect pitch. I was able to pick notes out of the sky and not know anything about music, and so he immediately got me into taking classical piano lessons, which I did for about seven years, privately. Him being a Jazz musician, he always had these great records lying around, so, at the age of 5 and 6, I was learning a lot about Miles Davis and Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock and all those guys. So I learned Jazz at a very young age.
So, after doing the classical, I found myself going back into listening to jazz and funk and R&B, because my older sister had a lot of great records, a lot of great 45s--Motown music and Aretha Franklin and Chicago and things like that. So that kind of became my sound, my signature. So, after going to college--I went to college for Business Administration and Broadcast Communications, which I’m using a lot of, these days--I landed an internship in New York working with Frankie Crocker and Pat Prescott and all these great New York radio voices, and was inspired, actually by Pat Prescott, to pursue music as a full time thing, which I did.
And fast forward to 1989, I submitted my first record to the Sony Innovators award project, and was selected out of about 300 people, the top 3. One of the other participants was the group Straight Ahead, out of Detroit, which at that time had Regina Carter, and Roberta Flack selected me as the finalist. So that’s kind of how the recording career started.
Michael: Okay. Now, I know you play quite a few instruments, but you’re primarily a pianist, keyboardist. What pianists have influenced you?
Bob: Actually, I play keyboards, but I play instruments by way of the piano. In other words, the computer allows me to play a bass like a bass player. But my early influences were Herbie, Patrice Rushen, George Duke, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum--those are kind of the top ones. Later on, George Duke, Joe Sample. Yeah, so those are my top 5 to 10. Also, Eliane Elias, absolutely adore her. She’s an incredible pianist.
Michael: Very familiar with her. Actually, I was listening to your stream earlier on your urban jazz station and I heard Jobim and Eliane come in there among Maysa and Bobby Lyle and a lot of other people. It was really great. Thanks a lot for that.
Bob: Yeah, nice little mix, right? No boundaries.
Michael: Yeah, I have a particular affinity for the piano and some of those people you just mentioned. Oscar Peterson’s definitely one of my favorites, as well.
Bob: Great musician. I mean, I had a chance to see him play live; it was just amazing. This is going back probably 40 years, but it was amazing.
Michael: Yeah, I managed, actually, to see him once at the Blue Note in New York, and I actually got a seat right behind--like sitting behind him, watching his hands on the keyboard, and it was just mind blowing.
Bob: That must have been incredible.
Michael: Witnessed that, yeah; I’ll never forget that.
Michael: One thing that I’ve noticed, on the beginning of looking at your recordings over the years: you’ve always assembled an incredible array of musicians on your records. I would compare you to Quincy Jones, actually. I mean, I see people like Gerald Albright, Marion Meadows, Will Downing, both of whom, those actually appear on the new CD, as well. But, also, people like Najee, Jimmy Sommerville, and a lot of great vocalists. Vaneese Thomas, Sharon Bryant, Frank McComb, Jocelyn Brown, over the years … Talk a little bit about how you pull those people together.
Bob: Well, it’s funny you mention Quincy. He’s definitely one of my heroes and one of my favorites. I call myself a poor man’s Quincy Jones, because he always had the mega budgets. I never had the budgets he had. Good Lord. If I ever got a budget that he got, I would make an incredible record, strings, the whole thing. But in terms of working with singers, I love, I grew up listening to Gospel music, and played in the church, and used to direct choirs. So I’ve always had an affinity for working with singers. People like Vaneese Thomas, who's from Memphis, TN, who’s got this soulful Gospel thing--she’s always had it. She’s related to Kirk Whalum, and her father was Rufus Thomas, the great blues R&B singer from back in the day.
Michael: You know, a very interesting thing, I just did a Voice Your Choice, a feature that we do on SoulMusic.com, with Melba Moore, and she selected some songs from her career to talk about, and one of the songs that she selected was a song that was written by Vaneese Thomas.
Bob: “Lets Talk it Over”?
Michael: No, it was called, oh, hold on one second.
Bob: Because I played on that album. She produced that record back in mid- ‘80s, I think it was.
Michael: “I’ll Never Find Another You.”
Bob: Oh, yeah, yeah, same album. Because, yeah, that was actually my first session ever. To be introduced by Vaneese and doing it for Melba Moore … That was the first record I ever did a session on.
Michael: Well, there’s an amazing thing, and here it is a week later and I’m interviewing you.
Bob: Small world.
Michael: And also, Sharon Bryant--I know I’ve loved her since the Atlantic Starr days, of course, and I see her showing up on your recordings, as well.
Bob: Oh, yeah, we all kind of grew up in the same area, of course. She was-- her and Porter Carroll from the original group Atlantic Starr, which suddenly has been getting a lot of buzz now, due to the TV program Unsung. But Sharon was in her late teens when she started singing in that group, but I’ve known Sharon a good 30 years, and we’ve done gigs together up in New York.
There used to be a studio in White Plains, NY, where everybody would go to, and it was an amazing studio; it was called Minot Sounds. It was open for about 12 years, but during that time they had Atlantic Starr, they had Lenny White; Marcus Miller used to come through there, early Marcus Miller with the big fro, used to do a lot of work on GRP Records.
Luther Vandross used to sing his jingles; he used to do his Kentucky Fried Chicken jingles up in the studio before he did his first record, and he actually recorded his first couple records at the studio. Ray Bardani, the great engineer, who now engineers Kem … it’s just an amazing array of talent coming out of that place.
Michael: He stuck with Luther the whole time, didn’t he? I remember that name.
Bob: Sure did. Ray Bardani was an amazing engineer. Then you had Kirk Whalum, recorded his first demo with Bob James in that studio, because Bob James also lived in that area. So this little studio had like, man, David Sanborn all the time, all day long, Sanborn and Marcus Miller just killing it.
Michael: So that was a hot bed right there. No wonder.
Bob: Historical hot bed now as you look back at it.
Michael: Wow, that’s amazing.
Bob: So that’s kind of where I got. That was the same studio where I recorded that track with Vaneese. It’s got a lot of history.
Michael: Alright, lets talk about the new record. What brought you into Thom Bell’s world, and made you decide to take on a tribute to him like this?
Bob: Well, it was a couple things that came up. Couple years ago, I did a tribute to Michael Jackson, called NEVER CAN SAY GOODBYE, and what I wanted to do was just take an artist’s music and do a whole album of their music, and I had kind of half of it done before he passed away, but after he passed, I decided, well, let me just go ahead and finish it off. I had previously recorded "Never Can Say Goodbye" in 2000, and I did "I Want To Be Where You Are"—recorded that in Rio De Janeiro.
Michael: On your Brazilian record. That was great. I loved that.
Bob: Yeah, that was great. So I recorded that one in Brazil. So I already had a footprint of Michael’s music in my catalogue. So I finished that and went out to California in 2010, and had been chatting online with Preston Glass, and Preston is a fantastic producer in his own right. He’s worked with-- worked a lot with Narada Michael Walton, did a couple pieces with Whitney Houston.
He and I had been kind of chatting back and forth, and he knew Thom Bell. So he started talking about his admiration for the Michael Jackson piece, and then we … next thing you know, two or three months later, we were talking about trying to do a nice tribute to Thom Bell, who’s still alive, still healthy … just never … always very low key. He was never trying to gain any spotlight, but his music is incredible. So that’s kind of how the whole thing kicked in.
But the funny thing is, about ten years ago, I knew the other half of the Bell and Creed writing partnership, which was Linda Creed’s husband. Linda Creed was--she was a Jewish lady, and Thom Bell was a black cat out of Seattle who moved to Philadelphia, so their combination was always unique, even back then. But I knew Linda Creed’s husband, and I was talking about doing a tribute record to Linda Creed back in like 2002--2003, just could never put all the pieces together. So it’s funny how 10 years later the whole thing just kind of came back together, because half those songs on there were written by her, as well.
Michael: Exactly. When the timing was all right, and then you met Preston, who had his connection with Thom as well.
Bob: I just found out, Thom finally heard the finished product a couple days ago and he’s really into it. So I’m very happy that everything turned out the way it did.
Michael: And it seems like it was a pretty quick transition from those initial conversations to actually the record being completed and out.
Bob: Yeah, you’re right, because he and I were chatting in September 2010, and right after that, probably about six months later, we were in the studio cutting. And we just had to find a label to embrace our project, and Peak Records was front and center.
Michael: Okay, so you finished the project, and then you went to shop it around? Is that how it worked out?
Bob: Well, we had some bits and pieces. We had some ideas that we had put together--some full thoughts. Then we submitted it to Peak, and they were like, yeah, we like this, because they had done a Luther tribute several years ago. So they kind of understood the whole concept. And so they jumped right on it, and they started adding some of their label people to it--Paul Taylor and Russ Freeman. So that’s how they got involved, and Paul Bryan and I had been doing some work together. I had done a couple pieces on his latest release. And so he offered his services on “Rubber Band Man.”
And then we have Ragan Whiteside, we have Vivian Green singing, we have Toni Red doing an incredible version of "Betcha By Golly Wow." So the project really came together really nice, and, of course, Marion, who I’ve known for eons.
Michael: Right. He’s another one of those players that’s been on your CDs from the beginning; from way back, I see Marion Nettle’s name showing up. Ragan Whiteside also on--she did the flute and vocals. I think my favorite song on there is “You’re as Right as Rain.” I’ve always loved that song from the Stylistics’ original to---Nancy Wood and Bob James had a version.
Bob: Yeah, Bob James, that’s right.
Michael: Paul Taylor on soprano sax and Ragan on the flute and vocals on that is just so romantic. It’s a great hit and that was number one most added at the top contemporary jazz on the first week.
Bob: That’s what I heard. So I am very flattered. So, hopefully, it’s a good fit for everybody.
Michael: How did you guys decide on what songs--with the massive catalogue that Thom had?
Bob: Exactly. We had to find stuff that worked instrumentally correct. Some things work good instrumentally; some of them don’t. I don’t have the list in front of me, but there was about 2 or 3 that I could have easily added, like "Stop, Look, Listen." Another great classic. "Stone In Love With You," another great one. But these tunes worked instrumentally really nice and they all kind of worked well together. They kind of covered that era between The Delphonics, Spinners, and The Stylistics. And I wanted to recapture the "Betcha By Golly Wow" version that Phyllis Hyman did for Norman Connors, because I know the arranger that put that together, Onaje Allan Gumbs, really great musician and great arranger.
Michael: You guys have done some work before together?
Bob: Yeah, we did a little work together on the PIECES OF A DREAM album, on the IN FLIGHT record--I think it was called "Quiet Passion"--was the tune that I did. Yeah, so all these relationships all kind of came together on this one project, and then you pull in some of the Peak artists, and so it became a nice little package. I’m really happy with the way everything came out.
Michael: Sounds really good. And "The Rubberband Man"--it’s really interesting the way that you twisted that.
Bob: I did twist it.
Michael: A little bit. When I first saw it on there, I was like, okay.
Bob: How’s he going to do that?
Michael: On the track listing, but when I heard it, I was like, okay, that worked out. You guys did a great job of making that into a contemporary jazz song.
Bob: That song gave me the most fits out of all the tunes. Everything else fell into place perfectly, but that tune melodically was just a really different kind of record, because Phillipe Wynne from the Spinners sang that--he just had a different kind of thing on his vocals. I was saying how am I going to try … how am I going to get this to sound like the melody that he sang, because his melody was real; it was kind of loose. It was almost like a jam session. So finally found the right groove, and then Paul Bryan added a nice wah-wah peddle to it, to kind of give it that real loose kind of thing, and then I had him and Ragan Whiteside going back and forth trading; yeah it came out really nice. I was really happy with the way that came out.
Michael: Now, there’s a couple of original songs on there. There’s one that was written by you, Thom Bell, Preston Glass, and Alan Glass, called “Gonna Be Sweeter.”
Michael: How did you guys put that together?
Bob: That one was--that was kind of half done by Thom a while back, and he never put it out, never really did anything with it. It was kind of unfinished. So when I got a chance to hear the original demo, I was like, wow, this is really sweet, and it really added to the project perfectly, because it kind of broke up the album a little bit. So they gave me permission to go ahead and add my 2 cents and to put a different arrangement on it, and something that worked in concourse with the rest of the album. So it was a good fit. I really liked the way that came out, a lot.
Michael: And the other original is the one called “Bell & Creed,” which is a song written by you, which is a tribute to Thom Bell and Linda Creed, and I just wanted to commend you, because it’s simply beautiful and touching, and I think you really captured the essence of what they did in your song.
Bob: Yeah, I wanted to kind of write something that sounded like they wrote it, melodically. You could probably, I’m sure--if someone gets a hold of it and puts some words to it--I’m sure there’s a vocal track there somewhere. But melodically, I wanted to have it nice and easy flowing, and to tie the relationship in between Thom and Linda, because they worked together for years and their chemistry was incredible. No one … you just don’t get writing like that anymore. Those guys together just wrote some incredible music. So I wanted to tribute that song to the both of them, and God bless Linda Creed, who died at a very early age from breast cancer.
Michael: But she left an amazing legacy.
Bob: She sure did. She wrote "The Greatest Love Of All."
Michael: "The Greatest Love Of All." Absolutely.
Bob: So her catalogue is still just, still on point. So kudos to the both of them, and the world is in a better place by hearing great music by the songs they wrote.
Michael: Why don’t you tell us a little bit, quickly, about your other ventures, because you are a busy man. You have the New Urban Jazz Lounge?
Bob: Yes. When CD 101.9 of New York flipped their format, I was on the--I’ll never forget, I was driving up the Jersey Turnpike and somebody sent me a text that said CD 101 is going to flip from smooth jazz to rock and roll in 90 minutes. He sent the text privately; I don’t even know who sent it, even today--obviously someone that works there. I was like, you’ve got to be kidding me. So I sat there by the radio for an hour and a half, waiting to see what was going to happen. I’m listening to all the tunes go down, and at 4:00, I think it was, like, February 9th, somewhere around there, 2008--boom, it went straight for the rock. I was, like, this is crazy. Now, the sad part about it was because CD 101 was such a big player in that genre.
Michael: In that region.
Bob: In that region, it was probably one of the most listened to in the country. Right after that, everybody followed right along with them. You had DC, you had Baltimore, you had about 24 stations in a year and a half flip completely. First two weeks, about 5 or 6 flipped. So I think everybody was kind of waiting for one station to make the move, and then, once that happened, everybody jumped out of the game.
So what I wanted to do was create a sound that was similar to CD 101 and some of the older stations in New York that played Jazz, and not put so many boundaries and restrictions on it, because there’s so much music out there that a lot of the stations weren’t playing in the first place, which I think was part of the demise of the flip. I felt that a lot of stations did not play a lot of the independent artists that deserve to be heard.
Michael: Everything got too same-y.
Bob: Yeah. Too predictable.
Michael: Safe, yes.
Bob: Then you had--then they weren’t playing a lot of the original music that created this genre in the first place--the early Grover stuff, the early George Benson. And they just weren’t playing enough of these great artists. They weren’t playing enough George Duke. Never heard, very rarely heard Phil Perry or Will Downing … Maysa, who kind of fell in between the contemporary jazz and the R&B. And it was like this big hole in the middle.
I became that catch-all net that combined the contemporary with a little bit of urban, and then I threw in some Brazilian jazz, some of my favorites, the Eliane Elias and the Ivan Lins and the Djavans, and all the great artists down there, because, melodically, those guys have a whole different vibe. The Djavan stuff is amazing, and the Ivan Lins stuff.
Michael: Djavan’s my favorite Brazilian artist.
Bob: Oh, yeah, he’s amazing. He’s like the male Sade of Brazil.
Michael: When he came out, I used to say he was like the Al Jarreau of Brazil.
Bob: Yeah. Exactly. And when I saw him, I saw him live in DC, I think it was the Warner Theater, on a Monday, sold out. Everybody there was singing all of his tunes. That’s when I knew the guy was amazing. Anytime you can sell out a show on a Monday, and you’re from Brazil, and you’re singing Portuguese all night, you’s a bad boy. You get all my props.
So, yeah, I tried to do that. Then, as I traveled to different countries, I hear about contemporary jazz in those countries--I try to bring that back to the show. The format is a combination of all that stuff. And we’re still playing some of the current tracks that are out now, but I think what we play outside of that is totally unique and different, and we just started live-streaming about a month ago, and so far, it’s going really well.
Michael: It’s live-streaming, but it’s also on stations?
Bob: Yeah, our original imprint, and we’re still there, 22 stations in 10 states; we have a 2-hour program that goes out weekly. And that’s been embraced by mostly college radio station that play jazz, but we’re in some very important markets, like we’re in Houston; we have a lot of stations down south in the Carolinas, in Tennessee and Alabama … going to be doing WCLK in Atlanta pretty soon. So the reception, so far, has been great. So that’s been the original impression. We’ve got about 150,000 listeners, give-or-take, a week. So now we’re just adding the stream on top of what we’re doing, just to give it just a little extra push.
Michael: Good. Now, you have something called City Sketches. Is this like a events ...?
Bob: Yes, an event planning company, but it’s also--it’s my original company where I house all of my productions, all the stuff that I’ve produced in-house for my albums, and stuff I’ve done with Marion Meadows and some other guys. But we’ve kind of shifted, because I felt that there was a need for us to help build venues that do jazz.
So one of our projects we’re doing now is a thing in New York at an arts council called the Arts Westchester. And what happens is that they were trying to showcase music, so we kind of came in, kind of helped them program the set. What we did, we pulled some local artists in the area that were incredible artists, guys like John Pattitucci, who tours the world with Chick Corea and Wayne Shortrer, lives right there in town--came down and did a night’s piano trio--he was playing bass.
So we just wanted to pull talent from the area, and showcase them locally. We try to do that kind of thing in different cities, and starting to develop some festival imprints, as well. Got something that will go down probably in Atlanta at the end of August. We’ve got some things possibly happening over the next couple of years in south Florida. So just kind of pulling all of the things that I know, and all of the people that I know, as far as artists, and then tying them into different cities and different causes.
Michael: Sounds good man, keeping yourself busy.
Bob: Yeah, you gotta keep the humanitarian thing going all the time.
Michael: And the last thing I wanted to ask you about is your digital book, "You Better Ask Somebody."
Bob: That’s right.
Michael: Your take on the “Everything You Should Know About The Record Industry” in today’s terms.
Bob: Yeah, and today’s terms are changing by the minute, and it probably changed again since this conversation we’re having. The whole digital thing has really had an incredible impact on the business, and one of the things that I felt that the music industry never did was that they never found a way to protect the piracy segment of music. The mp3s, they just get passed around free.
You’ve got companies like Napster, you pay $5.00 a month and you download 2,000 dollars worth of merchandise. It’s the only business in this industry--it’s the only industry in this world that you can just get away with murder like that. You can’t go to McDonalds, give them a dollar and eat all week. At some point, you’ve got to give them some more money. So just that alone just crushed everybody. Then you had iTunes came and pulled everybody out.
Michael: So this book is just your take on--based on your experiences in the industry, and as an independent artist that you are.
Bob: It’s kind of that plus it gives people an understanding of how publishing works, how contracts work, if you’re a promoter, what to look for when you’re doing promotions. It’s kind of a handbook for a little bit of everybody, and even for the established artists that are out here; a lot of them don’t own their own material, so it’s for them, too. At the end of the day, they’re walking away with nothing, the label’s owning everything. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve got my foot in the independent world, because part of being independent is that you have some ownership, some equity in the music that you record.
Michael: Very crucial.
Bob: A lot of guys don’t do that, and it’s kind of sad. I could name some names, which I won’t, but they’re, unfortunately, when these artists--they take a dollar, they give up ownership and, unfortunately, when they’re 50, 60, when they’re retired, they just don’t have enough to fall back on. So, it’s very unfortunate because you can’t gig forever. You can’t be onstage forever. At some point, you’ve got to sit it down. So what’s your B plan when that happens?
Michael: So you have some good information to impart. Thank you for that.
Bob: Yes, thank you. You can get that at Amazon, or you go to the website, you can see the chains which carry it, but it’s definitely available in the digital format.
Michael: Your website, the New Urban Jazz. I think I started at the New Urban Jazz website.
Bob: Yeah, you can go to BobBaldwin.com
Michael: BobBaldwin.com. Okay. Also, we’ll link that up on this interview. Is there any touring that you have set up specifically around this release?
Bob: I got some spot dates coming up, doing a fundraiser for the YWCA in Yonkers, NY, coming up on May 18th. I’m doing Richmond, VA, on the 25th of this month. And there’s some things, other things that are trickling in. Nothing that’s confirmed yet, but if you go to the BobBaldwin.com site, and click tour page, you’re going to get the latest dates.
Michael: Okay, so that’s the best place to keep up with what’s going on in your world?
Michael: And I know you’re on Twitter and Facebook, as well?
Bob: Absolutely. I don’t see how I can get any sleep. Too many things to press.
Michael: You’ve got a lot to do. You’ve got a lot going on.
Bob: And still got to practice, you know?
Michael: And it’s all important. Well, I just want to thank you, man, for spending a little time with us today. Glad we were able to get together and make this happen. I’m wishing you the best on this project; it’s getting off to quite an amazing start. So all the best to you, man.
Bob: Hey, man. I appreciate you having me here. And thank you for spreading the word about my music, and I really appreciate what you’re doing. Continued success to you, as well.
Michael: Thank you, sir. We’ll continue to spread the word.
Bob: Yes, brother.
Michael: Alright, have a good one. Bye.
About the Writer
Michael Lewis is a long-time associate at SoulMusic.com. His industry experience includes Sony Music, Motown and La Face Records, and a tenure at HEAR Music. He is grateful to contribute to sustaining the legacy of R&B and soul music.