Phone interview conducted October 11, 2011
The Sounds of Blackness are celebrating their 40th anniversary with their eleventh album and their first for Malaco Music, self-titled SOUNDS OF BLACKNESS. Brimming with a great mix of tunes, this new release shows off the group’s versatility with different genres (jazz, pop, Latin, classical) while using their Gospel & message music roots as their base. The result is a dynamic album which stands out as one of their best since their debut disc from 1991, THE EVOLUTION OF GOSPEL. Our interview features the Sounds’ founder and leader/musical director Gary Hines and veteran member Jamecia Bennett...
with us today is the musical director and the founder of probably one of the greatest gospel groups I have heard in a long time—in many, many years. I remember when their debut album THE EVOLUTION OF GOSPEL dropped in 1991, twenty years ago. They have a new album available through Malaco Music and it’s self-titled, SOUNDS OF BLACKNESS. With us today is Gary Hines, the director of the Sounds of Blackness, and Jamecia Bennett, a name that I’m sure you folks will be familiar with, if you’re not familiar with her right now; she is the daughter of Ann Nesby. You remember Ann Nesby from the hit records “Optimistic” and “The Pressure Part I” and “II”. Gary, Jamecia, welcome to SoulMusic.com.
Jamecia Bennett: Hi, Kevin.
Gary Hines: Thank you. Thank you, Kevin.
KG: First of all I must congratulate both of you—all of you, I should say—on the latest album. It is the best Sounds of Blackness album I have heard since your debut twenty years ago.
GH: Wow. Well, all thanks and praise be to God, my brother. And thank you for that expression.
KG: Yes, indeed. In fact, Gary, going back to 1991, I remember when the Sounds of Blackness came to New York City as part of the Perspective Records promotional jaunt, you were touring with the group Mint Condition. And talk about your extremes: you had Mint Condition with their hit record “Pretty Brown Eyes (Breakin’ My Heart)”.
GH: “Pretty Brown Eyes”.
KG: And then all of you took to the stage at the HMV record store on East 86th and Lexington Avenue, New York City, and you-all just blew the store away. We were amazed by the Sounds of Blackness.
GH: Thank you, first of all, so much for those kind expressions. And you know what? Jamecia was there as well.
KG: I know.
JB: Yes indeed.
GH: She sure was.
JB: I was 17 years old.
KG: I know Jamecia was there, and I think your mom was there too, Jamecia?
GH: Of course.
JB: Oh, yeah.
GH: We didn’t go too many places without Ann. And speaking of her, on her behalf, I know she would want us to send you a love shout-out from her.
KG: Well thank you, thank you. First of all, let’s go back to the beginning, Gary.
KG: Let’s go back. Now from what I understand, the group just celebrated its fortieth anniversary.
GH: That’s right.
KG: But the Sounds of Blackness actually had its roots in a college in Minnesota going back to I think 1968, ’69. Could you elaborate on that?
GH: Sure. Just in a nutshell, in 1969 one of our emeritus members, brother Russell Knighton, founded a group at Macalester College called The Macalester College Black Voices, and when I was transferred to the college there in ’71 they brought me on as director. That’s how we became Sounds of Blackness. That name… like we say, our name says it all. We bring the music—really, the testimony—of the African-American experience through music to people of all backgrounds. Because a lot of times people say, “What’s the meaning of that name?”, so that’s it in a nutshell. So that’s where in 1971 it begins, my brother. And like you say, it’s been from that time to the present but only by the grace of God.
KG: Amen, absolutely. Now through the years, before you met Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, I know you folks had many record offers and I remember hearing about the Sounds of Blackness actually through my brother Jim who has lived in Middle America since the mid-seventies. Now 1971, Sounds of Blackness was formed. 1991, you’re signed to Perspective Records. Why did it take you-all so long to get signed?
GH: Well, you know what? We actually did, even in the early Macalester College days, have some interest expressed from more than one record label, actually. But the problem, my brother, at the time was that they came with some unacceptable conditions such as changing our name or only doing one style of music; just doing R&B or only doing gospel. And neither of those was acceptable, because our ministry is to tell the story of our people through music and bring it to all people with messages of encouragement and inspiration, so you can’t fully appreciate the glory, hallelujah without the pain of the blues and the spirituals and the complexity of jazz. And so that’s who we are, that’s how God fashioned us—and still has—and that’s what we would not compromise.
KG: I hear you.
GH: Right. But Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who we had known since the seventies back when they were the Flyte Tyme band, when they signed us the first thing they said—and they were already familiar with us—was, “Don’t change. We want to present you to the world just the way you are.”
KG: Well, you just answered the next question about how you came to the attention of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. It would be obvious for those who’ve followed the roots of Minneapolis music that you-all pretty much ran in the same circles.
GH: Yes, we did. We were blessed by God. The Sounds of Blackness and at the time, the Flyte Tyme band, were on some of the same stages for the annual Miss Black Minnesota Pageant or Urban League dinner, so we spent a lot of time together backstage way back then.
KG: Now I wanted to bring Jamecia into this. I don’t want you to feel left out here, dear.
JB: I’m so left out.
KG: [Laughs] Now I know your mom was one of the founding members of the group. When did you come into the Sounds of Blackness?
JB: I was actually the youngest member of the Sounds of Blackness. Back then when you were talking about in the nineties I was the youngest member, I was seventeen years old. And actually, you had to be twenty-five to be a part of the Sounds of Blackness, but thanks be to God, Gary actually allowed me to be a part of the Sounds of Blackness. And when my class graduated and I was walking across the stage that night I was on my way to Europe, starting my career at the age of seventeen. So what a blessing it was to be, first of all, a single mother and a young mother and be able to start my career so soon.
KG: I was going to say, a single mom. Now was your daughter the one who went onto “American Idol”?
JB: Yes, Miss Paris Bennett. She was Season Five, number five of the Taylor [Hicks] year.
KG: Yes, indeed. And you know what, I’ve got to sidetrack on that point: the one thing I admire about your daughter was the way she just hung in there for dear life on that show, first of all. And second of all she didn’t fall into the trap that the “American Idol” folks have set up. Nothing against Simon Cowell—more power to him—but she was probably one of the very few people, if not the only person, who did not sign the contract with Simon, if you know what I mean.
JB: Yeah. I think it was a definite blessing for myself and my mother to be a part of the music industry, because we have way more insight than some of the amateurs that were a part of the show. So it was definitely a blessing for Paris for us to have that, because we knew the ins and outs and do’s and don’t’s. And by me being signed so early at seventeen, it was a blessing to be able to have gone through already what she was about to be a part of. So it was just a blessing all the way around.
KG: Because when I saw that Paris was releasing her record independently, I’m like, “Good for her. She didn’t sign the deal.”
JB: Yeah. We got a lot of flack from it, but in the end she is a self-proprietor and that’s what it was all about for us.
KG: Right. And like I said, I’m not knocking Simon Cowell and “American Idol”… more power to him.
JB: Not at all.
KG: Great setup; great organization.
JB: I always say that if it was out when I was young I would have been kicking my shoes off and rolling all over the stage. [Laughs]
KG: [Laughs] I hear you. Well, let’s get back to the Sounds of Blackness here. Let’s start with the first album here, gang: THE EVOLUTION OF GOSPEL, 1991. I remember getting the purchase order together for when I was in retail. That record just took the world by storm, because it was very unique to hear a group rooted in gospel going into so many different genres and subgenres of American contemporary music, and particularly the singles “Optimistic”, “The Pressure Part I” and “II”. Were you all surprised by the global reaction of that debut album?
GH: You know what? Very candidly speaking, brother Kevin, we were elated and humbled by it, but not like blindside surprised, and I’ll tell you why. We are very humble people so I don’t want anyone to misread what I’m saying, but even in the college days after rehearsals we would sit around and we would say, “You know what? One day we’re going to travel the world, we’re going to record and we’re going to win Grammys.” We actually had that belief and we said that in all humbleness but in belief, and said it and spoke it in faith. So when it happened, did we know it would happen? Of course we didn’t know that. Did we believe that God would bring that through? Yes, we did. So in that way we were not blindside surprised but we were certainly elated and greatly honoured, and we still are.
KG: Absolutely. You earned Grammy Awards for that album right off the bat; the singles hit the Top Ten of the R&B charts, made inroads into the pop charts. And Jamecia, I’m sure you were proud to be a part of that success as well?
KG: Please elaborate, what were your thoughts going on during that time?
JB: To be able to be a part of the industry when the industry actually wanted you; to be my age; to have that experience and to walk on a Grammy stage and to be able to tell my children now I’ve had that experience. And now it’s so sad, in this industry day the young artists, they want the industry, so they have to do whatever they can do to get there. So it was a blessing just to be in the realm of that area when the industry respected the artists. So it was a blessing for me at that time to be a part of that whole experience.
KG: And after that you folks did a great Christmas album which I played to death every year… I still do.
GH: Thank you.
KG: You got it. And what I love about the Sounds of Blackness is not just the music but the message—the message in the music, as Gamble and Huff would say—dealing with everyday issues: paying the bills, getting up and going to work…
KG: Nothing against the gospel music I grew up with—fantastic and classic stuff—but you folks took it up to another level where the lyrics and the message… you were basically talking about things that people go through every day. Do you feel that’s what helped make the Sounds of Blackness stand out?
GH: Oh, no question, my brother. Like I say, we feel like that’s our unique ministry, the Sounds of Blackness, and our niche, if you will. Jam and Lewis were certainly about that, and they still are. And now that’s really the essence of “Fly Again”, with the new record and the new single, which by the way Jamecia co-wrote and co-produced; as well, of course, she’s the featured vocal on it. “Fly Again” is telling people that yeah, we know that there’s wars and there’s layoffs and bankruptcy foreclosure; you may have lost your home and going through hell, but we have the faith and we want to instill in them the faith that they are going to fly again.
KG: Absolutely. Go ahead, Jamecia, please—go ahead.
JB: You know, I have so many different things to say about that. I know for sure that what Sounds of Blackness does for a lot of our generation, especially if they’re not a part of a church home, so what our music has done is it’s able to go into the ‘hoods where a lot of people don’t know that Jesus, God’s only son died on the cross and rose again on the third day… they really don’t know about that. All they care about is, “I’m living on a day-to-day basis. My brother got AIDS and my aunt who’s sick, and I got to help them. Where was God at that point?” And our music is able to seep into that generation and get into their cars and get into their ears where a lot of the other music is not able to go. So it’s such a blessing to be able to be a part of a generational project that’s able to know people. Because church people are already saved. Our purpose is to get the ones that are not.
KG: I hear you, right on. And let’s dive into the new album. I know we’re skipping ahead to the present day. You folks have released… what was it, ten albums in the past twenty years? Is that true?
GH: Yes. By the grace of God, yes.
KG: And now the first four were through Perspective, and the others were through… I think you went the independent route. And you’re now with a great label, Malaco Music.
GH: Yes, we are, and we’re honoured to be.
KG: And how did that deal come about with Malaco? Because to me, they’re the final frontier when it comes to what I call “real” soul music.
GH: Again my former barber, rest his soul, he’d say that’s the Big Man working, because that’s just God-inspired. Because as we embarked on this record, brother Kevin, we did not have a label or distributor, so we were truly stepping out on faith once again. But as we continued to record and explore possibilities, the name Malaco just kept coming up. We went for consultation and whatever research we did, Malaco, Malaco. It’s like, “You know what? Looks like we’re being directed to reach out to them,” and so we did. We only had a few songs done at the time and they were not even mixed and all that, and they said, “You know what? We like even the prospect of Sounds of Blackness and Malaco. Send us the rough mixes.” I said, “You guys sure?” and they said, “Yeah, we’ll hear it.” So we did that and they liked the rough mixes. And then we sent them “Fly Again”. Jamecia contacted me & said “I got this song,” and we sent it to them. Just even the rough mix—the demo, really—and that sealed the deal. So we’re thankful to God for them.
KG: Great, that’s great to hear. Now let’s dive right into this album. “Fly Again”: I saw the video just a couple of hours ago, thanks to your wonderful woman on the east coast, Gwendolyn Quinn—thank you Gwendolyn for emailing that to me. And I was blown away by the song when I heard it last week, but the video… oh my goodness. Oh my goodness.
GH: Bless you.
KG: Just the visuals: you-all switching from the all-whites to the jeans and T-shirts… it’s like you’re bringing everybody together on this video. That’s what I love. And Jamecia, you co-wrote the song, right?
JB: Yes, sir. Yes sir, those are anointed lyrics, God is definitely speaking to this generation for sure.
KG: Right. And I love the whole majestic sound of the record, especially with the timpani and the orchestra. It’s just like, “Okay, you’ve got our attention. You’ve got us.” It’s a great way to open the album. I just want to touch base on a few songs, here. I know you’ve got fifteen songs on the album: you have “Fly Again” and you have the remix version with a Christian rap artist, I believe.
GH: That’s right, XROSS.
KG: XROSS. Now XROSS has been around for a while, hasn’t he?
GH: Yes, he has. He’s a veteran in the industry, and we’ve collaborated with him before and will continue to do so in the future. He’s also a writer and producer as well as an artist himself, so we give props to him as well.
KG: Props, there you go. And he’s based out of Minneapolis too, right?
GH: Yes, he is.
KG: “Call To Healing”: I love the whole world-beat vibe going through that record and the introduction where… forgive my ignorance, but that’s speaking in tongues, isn’t it?
GH: Well, you know what? The answer is “Sort of,” and I’ll explain that quickly. First of all, the artist is Indian-born, she’s a native and now she, of course, is a U.S. citizen. She’s a master vocalist in the south-Asian style and a veena player. And what she’s doing—the reason I said “sort of” on the tongue—what she did is really almost a scat. It’s a shout, but through the Asian and Indian scales that she’s singing, expressing the mood and the spirit of the song. So it’s the same spirit as though it were a tongue. That’s what I meant when I said “sort of”.
KG: Right. That was “Call To Healing”. “Keep On Keeping On”: when I heard that I was like, “Okay, this is like the millennium version of ‘Optimistic’.” The message was just keep on keeping on; just be open-minded, be optimistic, be positive. Mr. Hines, I know you must have listened to some Sly and the Family Stone records back in the day.
GH: Oh, one of my favourite artists, along with the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. But yes; love Sly, absolutely.
KG: Right. Which I will jump ahead to “Hey Jude”. Now I remember when you guys did your version of “Stand” on THE EVOLUTION OF GOSPEL, and now here it is, “Hey Jude”. What inspired you-all to cover Lennon and McCartney’s classic hit from 1968?
GH: Well, two things, quickly, my brother. One is that we were approached by a wonderful organization called Minnesota Sings the Beatles, and what it is in a nutshell is every year a CD by multiple artists where all of the proceeds go to Minnesota music programs—because you know that when budgets get cut in education the first thing to go is physical education and music. So this goes to buy instruments, to help support and restore and to reinstitute music programs. So we recorded an arrangement with that project and everybody liked it so much it was like, you know what? This should really go on our next CD, especially because what a lot of people miss about “Hey Jude” is that it’s also about making the world a better place. Now the scenario is a romantic one: Hey Jude, if you’re attracted to this woman, let her know—I’m paraphrasing the lyrics---but what it says beyond that is when you open up yourself you make the world better, and when you turn away from her, as Paul McCartney says, it makes the world a little bit colder. So it was a different take on the whole notion of the family of humanity.
KG: Right. Well, Paul had written the song actually to help Julian Lennon get through a real rough time because his father John was divorcing his mom Cynthia, he was going off with Yoko Ono, and the poor kid was like, “What the heck?” So Uncle Paul wrote this kind of as a way of saying, “Hey, you’re going to be okay.”
KG: And I can see where the Sounds of Blackness picked that up. I’m going to try to go through this as quickly as possible because I know you folks are on a timetable here. “Testify”: I love that stepper tempo.
GH: Wow. Kerry Harrington, our choreographer and one of the co-leads on “Optimistic” would be elated… we’re going to tell her that at rehearsal tonight. Kerry and Jamecia are really close, so maybe Mecie wants to say something about “Testify”.
KG: Go right ahead.
JB: Kerry is such a wonderful… she’s a very intricate writer, I’d say. She is so talented and I think vocally she did a wonderful job. She definitely wanted to hit upon the same things that I just said; we need some songs that are going to go and reach our young generations that are not formally in church right now. so I think that’s one of those songs that is going to be able to reach them as well as the ones that are in church, so we’re excited about that and I know she is too.
KG: And I love the way that you folks use Auto-Tune in a very proper way.
JB: We don’t over-Auto-Tune you up…. Auto-Tune to death.
KG: When I heard it I went, “Oh my God, they have Auto-Tune.” I’m like, “Oh, this sounds good!”
GH: Thank you.
Now I want to talk about “Every Time I Feel The Spirit”. I’m hearing this tune, it’s nice and mellow, and all of a sudden we’re in big band territory. And I understand your mom was on that record, Mr. Hines?
GH: Yes she is, along with the Grammy Award-winner, great guitarist and vocalist Norman Brown. And Doris Hines, as you mentioned, is a contemporary. She has worked with and appeared with Sarah Vaughan, Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington… so we had to bring those elements together for that.
KG: I would love to interview your mom.
GH: And believe me, you would love to interview her. We can make that happen, but she is something else.
JB: Oh yeah, I love her.
KG: Okay. And just the overall album was just wonderful.
GH: Thank you.
KG: Like “Have Fun” with that Latin dance groove… oh my goodness.
GH: Thank you.
KG: And you hit upon a song that I performed in my high school chorale twice: “Soon I Will Be Done With The Troubles Of The World”; old Negro spiritual. And I love the way you-all again just took it up that next level.
GH: God bless you, thank you. Like I say, that’s what we try to do.
KG: Now the one track, “Ubuntu”, could you elaborate on that one? I love the whole vibe of that tune, it’s like a message of peace and reconciliation. Where did the idea up come for that song?
GH: Ubuntu is a South African word and philosophy meaning humaneness and agape love put together. It says, “I exist because we are,” so it’s really a reaffirmation. It’s very scriptural and spiritual in nature, acknowledging the family of humanity. And so Bishop Tutu and of course the great Nelson Mandela talk about ubuntu all the time. We were like, “You know what? That needs a song and we think Sounds of Blackness should do it.” So that’s how “Ubuntu” was born.
KG: Amen. And last but not least, “Togetherness”. That rock guitar at the beginning is like Jimi Hendrix decided to pay a visit. Who was that on the guitar on that one?
GH: Oh my God… Mecie, remind me at rehearsal, I gotta tell him. That’s our guitarist who we share with another group I’m sure you’re familiar with—The Commodores.
KG: [amazed] What?
GH: That’s right. His name is Deevo, that’s right. In fact, just quickly, a few musicians we share: one of our drummers, Brandon Commodore, is also the drummer from Mint Condition—like you mentioned, our former label mates—and of course again, as we said, Deevo also plays for The Commodores. But that’s Deevo on that intro.
JB: And Johannes.
GH: Oh, and Johannes as well. So we’re blessed with world-class musicians who are members of Sounds of Blackness—there’s not just hired help or sidemen.
KG: No, I hear you. Now how many members are in the Sounds of Blackness today?
GH: We have thirty total: twenty singers and ten musicians. When most people see us it’s usually our tour group, which is roughly half of that, with eight singers and eight musicians—our touring group.
KG: This has just been a pleasure and an honour to speak with both of you, Gary and Jamecia. And again this album, self-titled SOUNDS OF BLACKNESS, available on October 18th.
KG: Tuesday, October 18th on Malaco Music. I highly recommend this album. This is probably, like I said, the best Sounds of Blackness album I have heard in a long time. Gary Hines, Jamecia Bennett, thank you for joining us on SoulMusic.com.
GH: Thank you, brother Kevin.
JB: Thank you very much. Be blessed.
KG: And you folks are going to be touring pretty soon to promote this album, correct?
GH: Yes, we are. In fact, we were just in New York a couple of weeks ago and please keep up with us because we’ll post all of our dates and appearances on www.soundsofblackness.com.
KG: There you go.
JB: We’re also having a [CD release] party at the Mall of America.
KG: Okay, Mall of America, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Twin Cities. When are you going to be there?
GH: A week from tonight, October 18th, for our CD release. It’s free and open to the public, we’re inviting everybody to come. Six o’clock.
KG: There you go, okay. Gary Hines, Jamecia Bennett of the Sounds of Blackness, thank you for joining us at SoulMusic.com.
JB: Thank you.
KG: You two—all of you—have a very blessed, blessed tour with this upcoming album.
GH: Thank you.
KG: And I’m sure the fans are looking forward to it.
GH: God bless you. Thank you, Kevin.
KG: All right. You two have a great afternoon, okay?
GH: You too, now.
KG: Thank you.
About the Writer
Kevin Goins aka “The Soul Ninja” is a veteran of the radio and recording industries, has authored liner notes for CD collections by Earth Wind & Fire, Melba Moore and Stacy Lattisaw. He's also the producer/host of the Internet radio interview series "Soulful Conversations" as well as a classic R&B show "The Kevin Goins Soul Experience".