He is one of the pioneers of the jazz-funk movement that started back in the ‘70s and although it’s a decade or so since Roy Ayers named appeared on the R&B singles charts, he has not only maintained a ‘vibe-rant’ career touring the world – most especially performing in the U.K. more often than ever – but the multi-talented musician, producer and songwriter has been releasing albums on a consistent basis, all without being signed to a major label. Proof, indeed, that artists can make a more than a decent living recording and - thanks to the advent of the Internet in particular – selling CDs to a loyal and strong audience. In addition to the release of some seven albums in over the past decade, Roy’s career has been enhanced by the reissue of his much-loved work for Polydor Records (recorded from 1971 to 1981), his ‘60s recordings (for Atlantic, reissued by Warner Music Group in the U.K.) and most recently, two of his three ‘80s Columbia albums.
Just weeks away from the release of his own latest project, “Mahogany Vibe,” the British division of Universal Music Group has issued a wonderful compilation entitled “Destination: Motherland,” a 31-track 2-CD set, filled with vintage Ayers music from the ‘70s. Speaking from his home base in New York, the L.A. born-maestro notes, “The title of the project comes from a 1981 album I did called [with famed Nigerian musician Fela Kuti] called “Africa, Center Of The World.” It’s wonderful because the record company in Britain is 100% behind it. I was always taught to work real hard and promote my records so I was over there doing that: I must have done eighteen interviews in a row! I did three weeks at Ronnie Scott’s in London and I go to the U.K. at least once a year to play there or at the Jazz Café or The Royal Festival Hall. What I love is that the U.K. record company folks are very respectful – I’m very happy with most of the songs they selected for “Destination: Motherland.” There are still some early Polydor albums that haven’t come out yet on CD – from the period from 1971 to 1975 – but I’m hoping they get round to them. It’s great because I do make money from all those reissues!”
As happy as Roy is about having his previous work made available, he’s even more jazzed about his upcoming album. “Mahogany Vibe” follows 1992’s “Double Trouble,” the 1995 BMG set, “Nasté,” the 1995 release, “Lots Of Love,” 1996’s “Wake Up,” the 1997 release “Spoken Word” (featuring Bonita Brisker),” 1999’s “Smooth Jazz” and the 2000 CD “Perfection.” Notes Roy, “After working with major companies, I figured I might as well be doing this myself. It works: I was on a show with Betty Wright in Virginia a few years ago and I announced I was doing a song from my [then-]new CD and we sold 3,000 copies of it!”
Mention of Ms. Wright segues perfectly into talk about “Mahogany Vibe” since she is one of the featured artists on the new album, singing two songs, “Pretty Brown Skin” (a new recording of an old Polydor track) and “Long Time Ago.” Roy explains that Betty’s appearance on the album came about through another of the special guests on the record, Erykah Badu. “I was in the studio with Erykah in Dallas working on a new version of “Everybody Loves The Sunshine” and she mentioned that Betty was in town,” Roy recalls. “I asked where she was performing and Erykah said, ‘she’s not…she’s my buddy and she came to town to see me.’ I told Erykah I wanted Betty on my record so she called her on the cell phone and Betty told me she was leaving the next day. I asked her if she’d come in…and she did! Working with her – and with Erykah – was so smooth and everything turned out to be great.” Most of the album – due out in May – was cut in Baltimore with co-producer Eric Parham and the thirteen songs also include a new version of the Ayers classic “Searchin’” with Erykah Badu.
For Roy, the release of his latest album is a sign that “the independent people are here! If a major label showed interested, I might consider it but for doing this record myself is consistent with how I’ve always done my career.” That illustrious career just keeps on keeping on and that Roy’s music has consistently been sampled over the last few years doesn’t hurt. “Artists who’ve done my music? Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu, Gerald Levert, Whitney Houston, Vanessa Williams, Rick James, Eric Benét, the Brand Nubians. It’s a compliment when rappers use my music. It’s funny because Erykah calls me the ‘king of neo-soul’ because a lot of the R&B that’s done today comes from my sound. Of course, when I first wrote songs like “Runnin’ Away” and “Everybody Loves The Sunshine,” there was no way to know that this material would have such a long life. I had no idea it was going to happen…”
Beyond having his music sampled and releasing his own product, it’s performing that “keeps me energized,” Roy concludes. “I still work all the time and that’s what gives me my motivation. I spend about three months in the U.K. and let me tell you the Brits are kicking ass. There’s a whole new slew of British musicians and they’re enthusiasm is so strong and they play hard. All I have to do is take a drummer with me and work with British musicians when I’m there. I go to Australia every three years and Japan about very other year. I do festivals and concert halls in the U.S. because there aren’t that many clubs left here – I do shows with artists like Boney James, George Duke, Gerald Albright…and I do a good show! After a certain amount of time, you gain confidence and you know you’re just a bad mutha! I play and I make the people rock…and I just know I’m bad!”
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.