Gary Hines: How are you doing, my brother?
Jeff Lorez: Good man, how are you?
Gary Hines: I am Kool & The Gang, by the grace of God, man.
JL: Good. Good. Long time no speak.
GH: I know, brother. How are you?
JL: I’m good. I think it was when I was last in Minneapolis with you. It was probably in the early 90’s sometime.
GH: That sounds about right.
JL: I think it was about the time of ‘Optimistic’ actually, or shortly after ‘Optimistic’ the first time around.
GH: Right, and we’ve come full circle, as they say.
JL: I saw you in New York. I saw a show at the Beacon Theatre.
GH: The Beacon, right. My goodness.
JL: What have you been up to? Let’s fill in the blanks.
GH: Okay. Let’s just try to recap since the Beacon. We have of course continued to be blessed to record, perform, be a part of several soundtracks, conduct music workshops and seminars, so all of those things that we’ve done, we’ve continued to do and expanded on some. We’ve also formed our own label, Sounds of Blackness Records, and our last 3 or 4 releases have been independently under Sounds of Blackness Records and with various distributors. We’ve done an exclusive with Best Buy for example, for our previous CD Kings and Queens, and now for the brand new one, The 3rd Gift: Story, Song and Spirit, Best Buy is the primary in-store distributor, but not the exclusive. We’re also at Sam Goody, bookstores, and we’re extensively online with Amazon.com, CDBaby, iTunes, Borders, Walmart.com, Bestbuy.com, ioda, etc.
We’ve continued both our personal and professional relationships with Jam & Lewis, and with our sister Ann Nesby. She actually, a couple of records back, I think actually two records back, on Unity, did a guest appearance with us on two songs, so we always continue that relationship. It was there before all this recording stuff started and will continue on beyond, and the same can be said about Jimmy and Terry too. We knew them from back in the early 70’s before all of this, and now since, so we continue.
JL: How has it been, releasing stuff independently? How have you gone about doing it? Musically, your music is so well put-together, and obviously the musicianship is great, the songs are great, the vocals never cease to amaze me, just where do you find these phenomenal singers from?
GH: Oh, God bless you. To answer your question in reverse order, as far as the singers and musicians, we’ve been blessed with a really stable membership since I’ve seen you, in terms of new members both in the band and the vocals, but the answer to that is something that Terry Lewis would always say, and that is, “They’re always out there” and frequently, right in your own back yard and closer than you think, both instrumentally and in the vocal end.
In terms of the first part of your question about the whole independent side of it, it’s been a blessing and at once a challenge and a struggle on the other side of the coin, and there’s been a fair amount of frustration with that, because we’ve been blessed with these independent releases with critical acclaim, some nominations etc, but not having anywhere near the juice, as they say, of a major label and distribution that we enjoyed in the 90’s with A&M and Perspective, and Polygram getting the word out and getting the numbers out to the people that do comprise our record-buying following, has been a real challenge and frustration. To go somewhere and perform, and have people say, “When are you guys going to record again?” and we’re like, “No, we’ve had three records out!”. It’s a blessing on one side. You have that option and that freedom to create artistically, which we’ve always had to a greater degree, and the flexibility that comes with being independent, but not the juice of a major.
JL: You’re based in Minneapolis, Jam & Lewis have left, Prince is there and then he goes away for a while, but how has the music business continued in the absence of those pioneers of the music scene, or the people who shone such a strong light?
GH: Well my friend, it’s an anomaly. It may be best described by the old saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same”. On the one hand, obviously and clearly, the absence of Jam & Lewis, you know they are missed sorely, Prince not being a regular here is sorely missed. How could we not? When I say we, I mean not only Sounds of Blackness, I mean the entire region and area, artistically and in terms of the ripple effect of their business and so forth. On the other hand, the Minneapolis music scene continues to thrive in all the different genres: blues, rock, jazz, gospel, world beat, you name it. It’s just an amazing situation and almost a paradox, but in a deeper sense, it makes sense that that community and chemistry that’s spawned a Prince and a Jam & Lewis would continue to thrive, while missing them at the same time.
JL: What is an average day for you, or an average week, in terms of what you do, a job, earning income, and then in terms of Sounds of Blackness and rehearsals and shows, and dealing with the other members of the group?
GH: What an average week would be, of course varies depending on what we’re doing at the time, but I hear the jist of what you’re asking. Even when we’re not preparing for a session recording or performance, we routinely will rehearse twice a week, vocals and band, so that’s probably where it begins, and also the day starts early, with my prayer and workout, and then much of the day, and this goes back to your previous question, you have the everyday realities of doing this independently. My day consists of wearing several hats of not only music director on the artistic side of the group, and one of the keyboardists and that kind of thing, but also on the administrative and business side, being or attempting to be the record label, the publicist, the radio promotions guy, so a day consists of, especially at this point in time with the new release, consists of early morning radio calls to music directors and program directors at the different format stations, the R&B stations, the adult stations, the gospel stations, the jazz stations, as you know by now we’ve got some jazz on this new record with ‘God Bless the Child’, so the radio calls, and then as publicist to print media and electronic, as far as articles, and we’ve been blessed with that and we’ve trying to do more.
BRE and Urban Buzz and Urban Network, and a lot of them have come to the party, and others are, apparently. We’ve spoken with Essence and Jet and all of them, so there’s that end of it, and then there’s the other part of your question. You referred to the coordination of everyone’s schedule, the singers and band, keeping everybody abreast of upcoming activities, performances and potential tours. It’s a full day, and it starts, like I say, very early and usually goes pretty late, up until, and sometimes after midnight, and then starts all over again and continues into the weekend. That’s not a complaint, it’s a blessing, and depending on what we’re doing, because frequently, there is simultaneous activity. Right now, for example, our primary focus is the promotion of the new record, but also in conjunction with that, our appearances and interviews, such as this one, performances in stores, submission to soundtracks, that’s a big one because we’ve really been focusing on soundtracks.
Speaking of that, we collaborated with Jimmy & Terry again just last year on a song for Ice Cube’s movie First Sunday, and Terry came. He had been in Minneapolis that time at Atomic K studio where I’m at now, where we record, and he recorded a song with us for that. There’s the soundtracks, and I go, a week from yesterday, back to Japan to conduct a music workshop over there, and of course to do promotions for the new record, and hopefully set up our next Sounds of Blackness return to Japan. We were just there this past March. I know that’s a mouthful, but that’s it.
JL: What advice does Terry, who is more on the business side of it, what advice has he given you on being independent?
GH: I’m glad you asked that, because from early on, and especially toward the latter days, as a staff producer with Jam & Terry at Flyte Tyme Productions and with Sounds being on their Perspective label, they began then kind of grooming us toward that kind of thing, so that when that day came, that we could hit the ground running as best we could. I guess what I’m saying in a sense, is that it started back then. Even with him before then, Prince, who was always with him had a whole lot to say about the whole independent reality for artists. Also, I’ve had several late night phone conversations with him about that, and what they would say, first of all of all when I say they, I mean Prince and Jam & Lewis, they always encouraged us to be independent and to be prepared to make that move when and if that day came, and of course it has.
By laying the groundwork, by learning about the industry as much as possible, by nurturing all the relationships that we have been blessed to establish while with A&M and Perspective, relationships with radio, the press, distributors, record stores, etc, we’ve been able to do that for the most part. It’s always about support and education. All three have always been about education in one sense or another, and parlaying that into the opportunity when it came, and it has.
JL: What have been the most memorable experiences that you’ve had with the group, touring-wise and just in general experiences?
GH: I’ll try to narrow that down, my brother, because that could be an all day thing. I’ll try to briefly summarize some. Surely, after years and years of singing about Africa, finally going to West Africa, to Ghana with Stevie Wonder, and it’s funny that came up, because they literally just contacted us. Isaac Hayes, as you probably know, had dual citizenship in Ghana and was considered a Chief, and it’s their custom after a year that someone has passed on, they have a major celebration, so that’s I believe in November, so they’re trying to get us back for that, but certainly our sojourn into Ghana with Stevie Wonder for the Pan-African festival called Panafest.
Certainly our first Grammy for Evolution of Gospel, not just for the reward in and of itself, but what it represented and all that had gone into that. Certainly our sojourns into the UK in general, and into London in particular. That’s become a home away from home, whether it’s Royal Albert Hall or the arenas or the jazz gigs. Just the love over there never ceases to amaze us, and the same can be said about Japan, because we’ve now been there countless times. We’ve learned that especially in the UK or in Japan or in Asia, that beyond having your record in the Top 10 at radio, their appreciation and loyalty goes to you, and the integrity of your music as an artist, period. It’s there, they’re with you, and they’re down for the count, and I’m sure I’m not telling you anything you don’t know.
You know what, I’ll close out the answer by saying this, the biggest thing has been situations frequently away from the camera, away from the lights and stage where we’ve been in an airport or just waiting somewhere as a group and a perfect stranger, male, female, white, black, it doesn’t matter, would come up to us and say something like, “your music helped save my life, or a friend’s”. The last time we were at the Jazz Café, speaking of London, a lady was rushing up to the stage and we didn’t know what it was, and she handed me a note, and it was just a scribbled, hand-written note, and I thought it was just going to say, “may I please have an autograph” or that type of thing, and I have that note sitting here on my desk at the studio. That note said, “When my mother died, Optimistic saved my life.” Grammy’s and world travel are wonderful things, but that’s the ultimate.
JL: What is the game plan for the next few months with this particular record, and how would you like it to differ from previous independent releases?
GH: Excellent questions my friend, and I’m remembering that about you. The game plan is this: first of all, the record has been very well received, and we’re thankful for that, and that people are hearing a lot of soundtrack prospects for several of the tracks on this. The approach that we’re taking as far as the next few months is, and I’m sure you’re familiar with this catch phrase, and I’m increasingly finding that it’s true, that film and TV are the new radio. To that effect, FOX is using one of our songs for the promotion of Dancing with the Stars or So You Think You Can Dance, one of the big dance shows. That just came through a couple of weeks ago, and so we’re utilizing it. We’ve been pitching also, to a few major releases that are forthcoming this year, in the next couple of months, and are still in consideration for that. What’s different about this one, to try to consolidate both pieces of the question that you asked, is the focus for using the soundtrack for both TV and film is a major part, not a peripheral or ancillary, but as a major focal point for promotion of the record.
In addition to the soundtrack focus, we are doing a lot more with press and promotion and a lot more online, so we’re stretching out to more radio promotion and events, so for example, we’re looking to go to Los Angeles in just a couple of weeks now for Taste of Los Angeles by KGLH, and it’s not only a radio promotion. They had over 100,000 people there last year and they donate food to different shelters and that kind of thing. That brings me to the final piece about what’s different about this one.
One of the things we’ve been doing, starting with the last record and more so with this one, is to actually put the music physically and tangibly to work in people’s lives, so we’ve partnered with domestic violence agencies. You saw the two songs about healing and the path of healing. Those were written primarily about domestic violence and actually have been already incorporated and are being used and utilized by domestic violence agencies in their work and treatment, with not only victims of domestic violence and abuse, but perpetrators and former perpetrators as well. Those are just a few ways of how we want this one to be different. Stepping it up on the soundtrack and exposure end, and putting the music tangibly to work in people’s lives.
JL: You say you’re going to LA and Japan. Travelling must be difficult. A question you get lots of times with the size of your group is, how do you keep the same sound but minimize the travel expenses with the amount of people you have to take on the road?
GH: Well you know, the ironic thing is, and you’re correct in your assessment that we get asked that a lot, but the irony of it is, that we’ve learned, and travel professionals have told us that the travel industry is actually geared towards group travel more so than individuals, so we’ve been able to avail ourselves of that as far as all the amenities and conveniences that come with smaller group travel. Our tour group is 15, with 8 singers and 7 musicians, so everything from group rates, to hotel rates to ground transportation and all of that, we’ve been able to get a good handle on and avail ourselves of. That makes things infinitely easier and infinitely less expensive than they would have been.
JL: Gary, if I were to come to Minneapolis and I wanted to hear some incredible singers, young undiscovered singers, what would I do? Where would I go?
GH: Oh, my goodness. Probably any number of venues, my friend: The Fine Line Music Café in downtown Minneapolis, First Avenue still has a lot of “unsigned artists”, and then there’s a club here called Bunker’s, which is right down several blocks from First Avenue. All of those that I mentioned are right in downtown Minneapolis, but beyond that, there are the coffeehouses, there are churches, there are festivals, and it never ceases to amaze you where they are.
JL: If someone said, “My daughter or my son is a great singer. I want them to be in the Sounds of Blackness”, what is the criteria for joining? Is it like the mafia where you have to be invited, you can’t join?
GH: What we used to do back in the day, I used to conduct annual auditions both for singers and band, but our membership has been so stable and so loyal that we ended up with waiting lists, and we didn’t want to be unfair to people, so what we’ve done now is when people approach us, or if we hear of someone, then we’ll contact them or have them contact us and just set up an audition so people aren’t just waiting and waiting. We don’t want to be unfair to people. We get that, we occasionally do. “Oh, you gotta hear my son or my cousin or my co-worker”. We just tell them to give us a call and have us set up an audition, usually sooner than later, within a week or so, and conduct it and see what they’ve got.
JL: Have you had any of those cold calls end up with something incredible?
GH: We wound up with some really good ones, in fact one or two that we have brought on board as current members, and another two or three that we put on a very short waiting list, so we always try to keep the available pool fresh.
JL: You should have a Sounds of Blackness B Team. It would be like the Temptations. There were tours around the country.
GH: How about that? (laughs) We’re doing our best, by the grace of God, to keep the tradition alive. Another interesting piece along that line is, for a number of years, we would tease ourselves with an inside joke about Sounds of Blackness Next Generation. That’s no longer a joke. Our current drummer is Brandon Commodore, who also plays for Mint Condition, and he is the son of our original drummer, Bobby Commodore, so Sounds of Blackness Next Generation is no longer an inside joke, it’s a reality. One of our newest auditionees, we have a brief probationary period, and she passed that, and she is the daughter of one of our original members. It’s the same way as we had with Ann and Jamecia. All of those elements and components are in the mix.
JL: The interesting thing is, you probably have such a wealth of talent at your fingertips, you know so many great singers and great musicians, it could almost be an industry in its own way. People always need great singers for projects, people always need great musicians for projects. You must get a lot of phone calls saying, “I need someone to do this, I need someone to do that soundtrack” and it’s almost like a great referral service.
GH: You’re absolutely right my friend, on both instrumentals and vocals. Members of our horn section and rhythm section, sometimes collectively, sometimes individually, and certainly as you say, singers for different projects, or corporate gigs. It’s not always just Sounds of Blackness work. Sometimes it’s a recording project or live session, and we do get those calls, and we’re thankful for them.
JL: What are some of the side projects you get called for with artists and things like that?
GH: We just got a call for example, and in the next few weeks will be doing some vocal recording for sampling for Roland, for one of their new programs. So, everything from that, to additional artists from outside, even in more recent years on the jazz side, Brother Joe Sample, Michael Light on the instrumental side, who re-did an instrumental ‘Crazy Love’ and we did some vocals on that, to corporate types of events and recordings like for General Mills, Best Buy and Target, and into private whether it’s a wedding reception or birthday. We were at Senator Norm Coleman’s birthday just a few weeks ago. It’s a wide range, Jeff.
JL: Did Jimmy & Terry ever say, “I need some great new singers. Who have you got?”
GH: They have not yet, but we continue the working relationship and I wouldn’t be surprised if they did. They always nickname me Doctor. It’s like, “Doctor, who’s got this going on” kind of thing. It’s funny you say that, because when Terry was here just over a year ago recording in this very room or just across the room I’m speaking to you in, recording the track for Ice Cube, that conversation came up. Of course we told him about Brandon Commodore and he had just started his double duty as drummer with Mint Condition and with us. They have always kept an eye and ear on the street, on the industry, and on the pulse of what’s going on.
JL: Are you still working out as avidly as ever?
GH: I am, my friend.
JL: What’s the secret? Is there a special diet that you follow, keeping that agility for so many years?
GH: Thank you. The secret is to not think about it. I don’t say that glibly, it’s just that a lot of the time, and I consider it a great compliment, even friends say, “Where do you get the discipline? You must be disciplined.” You know what, I don’t give myself that much credit. To me, much more so than any discipline, it’s about habit. The same way you get up I the morning and you shower and brush your teeth without thinking about it. If I thought about it, I’d probably think myself out of it.
JL: Have you modified it much over the years to keep it interesting?
GH: It’s weird that you say that. I have somewhat. I’ve always been a musclehead, but definitely in recent years, I metamorphosed from a weightlifter who does cardio, to more of a cardio guy who also does weights. I don’t lift as heavy as I used to, I still enjoy it and love it, but now everyday is at least 30 to 45 minutes of cardio and then some light weights. It used to be the other way around, like the lifting was essential.
JL: I work out and everything but the problem is, I don’t like going on the running machine or the treadmill. I like to run outside if I’m going to run and I find the cardio indoors is so poor. You’re just looking at the seconds go by. It’s not really a workout. It’s not like you’re in San Diego or something, where the culture is to run on the beach or hike or something.
JL: Is there anything you want to tell me that I haven’t asked you?
GH: We’ve covered a lot of ground. There’s just the fact that we’re out now with this, and like I say the online availability of the record and what we’re trying to do with it. I think it’s so complete brother, between you and brother David. These brothers do their homework! I love it!
JL: It’s always fun to talk to someone like you.
GH: The feeling is mutual, my friend.
JL: It’s not really a job, it’s a labour of love. I wish you all the best with this. Hopefully, I will see you in New York sometime.
GH: It’s been way too long since we’ve done an east coast and specifically New York swing, so I will be sure that you know in advance, and hopefully that will be sooner than later, my friend.
JL: Sounds good, Gary. Take care and stay warm. I know it’s getting chilly here.
GH: Yeah, we’re trying to hang tight.
JL: Hopefully I’ll speak to you soon.
GH: Alright, thanks so much, Jeff.
JL: No problem. Take care.
GH: Bye, now.
JL: See you. Bye.
About the Writer
Jeff Lorez has enjoyed a long and varied career in the music business. As a journalist he has written for a slew of publications and web sites including, Blues & Soul, Billboard, Yahoo.com and the Daily Telegraph and as a music publisher he has been involved in recent chart topping hits by Alexis Jordan and Cher Lloyd.