Justin Kantor continues his in-depth conversation with one of soul music's much-loved heroes...
JK: We left off with the album you sang on with Vanessa Bell Armstrong.
LB: That’s my relationship with Vincent Henry, and him being one of the fantastic horn players. He was assigned as the producer and he called me, was familiar with my Gospel background. I was happy to do it because Vincent is nice. He’s one of the good ones, just a fantastic brother and an amazingly talented sax player. He was the musical director for the Broadway musical, Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk. He’s a cool brother, and like I said, he’s also a member of the group Change.
JK: Back in the heyday, or the current lineup?
LB: More in the latter part I would say. Jacques Fred Petrus wanted to make the actual group out of it, and Vincent was one of the members of the group along with Timmy Allen, Michael Campbell, James Robinson and Deborah Cooper.
JK: It was a cool lineup. I asked you were there any specific life-changing events that inspired you to go into Gospel and you said you always had that underlining message in your music.
LB: I was brought up with a large spiritual background with my family, dating past my grandparents and probably before that, so that particular torch has been passed in my family quite admirably. That always empowers me, and in this case in my musical world. When I got the chance to work on a Gospel album, I was excited, not for me to become a Gospel artist, but just stepping into that world as a musician and an artist.
JK: Recently, I spoke with Rob Hardt of the Cool Million project and I didn’t get to talk to you then, but can you tell me how that connection came about, because that relates to the new album that you’re putting out as well.
LB: It does indeed. That connection started with my manager, Helen Williams of Elite Artist Management, she came in and she began trying to build relationships. I was in the middle of production of my new album, and Rob Hardt got in touch with her, and she got in touch with me, asking if there was any new material I had that I would like to get heard. I told him about the new album coming out soon, and I sent it to him. He liked it , and said in the meantime he had this project called Cool Million, and would I like to do a song on there? Actually, he said, “I have a song that would be perfect for you.”
JK: Was this a track that he gave you?
LB: It was a musical track. It had no vocals, except for some party crowd vocals. But no lyrics. I actually composed the lyrics and melody and recorded the vocals in my home studio, brought in some people to do some background and sent it back. I decided to use the name of his project Cool Million, and I named the song “Cool To Make A Million.” I thought it was a universal concept that everybody could get into, how cool it would be to make a million dollars.
JK: Who were the singers that you brought in to work with you?
LB: The same people that worked with me on Throwback Vol. 1 and Throwback Vol. 2: Dorothy Terrell, and Pearl Gates is a co-writer and Associate Producer on the album.
JK: Is Dorothy Terrell related to Dino Terrell?
LB: No, she’s not related to Dino or Jean, Ernie Terrell or Tammi Terrell. Dorothy Terrell is one of the two females in Conversion, the second being Renee JJ Burgess, my sister. It was Renee and Dorothy who were the girls in Conversion, Logg, and Universal Robot Band -- they’re all the same group.
JK: You mentioned that you made “Cool To Make A Million” in your home studio. How long have you had that, and how would you describe the set-up?
LB: The process?
JK: Is it a massive studio, a basement studio?
LB: It’s a home studio, it contains computers, tone generators, sound modules, it’s not massive at all. I try to keep things small in terms of my home studio. It’s not set up for the post-production and mixing, so I don’t have all of those toys in the room. It has what I need to compose, arrange and to actually begin the production on any level.
JK: You do the pre-production in the studio?
LB: Pre-production and mainstream production, as far as planning the entire record. I take it to another place to get it mixed and another place to get it mastered.
JK: Did you do Throwback Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 in your studio?
LB: Both Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 were done primarily in my studio. It’s called Lee B’s Tone Labs.
JK: How long have you had that going on?
LB: I’ve been building it since ‘90-something, it’s been finished since about 2002, and I’ve been working in it ever since. It’s in my home, so I work whatever hours I’d like to, and it’s real comfortable. There aren’t distractions, so I can focus and link right into the work without being sidetracked. Home studios are a lot cheaper. You invest in the upkeep and the electricity, but you’re not paying $50 or $100 an hour to use it. It’s the hourly rate and the musician costs that can add into a production and take it through the roof. These days, with record companies so frugal -- I don’t want to say cheap, but they’re certainly not doing budgets like they used to -- the advent of the home studio, both creatively and economically, is vital to the whole record process.
JK: Throwback Vol. 2 is subtitled Sugar Hill ‘83-‘86, and before that, Throwback Vol. 1 was subtitled Harlem ‘79-‘83. Can you tell me what the concept is behind the Throwback Series?
LB: Throwback the series is based on a lot of the compositions that I had done with James Calloway and Sonny Davenport and even stuff I’ve written on my own from ‘79 up to ‘86. We had songs that weren’t officially recorded or never saw the light of day on releases. One of my former managers named Jim McDermot suggested, “You’ve got all this great material, why don’t you put it into a collection and fix it up and see what we can do in regards of trying to make that move?” Throwback Vol. 1, I started in 2005 and it was finished and released in 2007. Immediately, I started working on Vol. 2. There are maybe 100 songs or something like that, that we wrote -- James, Sonny and myself or by myself. So, we wanted to explore this material. The majority were composed back then but never came out. They had that back-in -the-day feeling because that’s when they were composed. I have a friend with a studio who has all this great vintage gear. He has the original Fender Rhodes suitcases and all this stuff, and that gives me a lot of my analog sounds to tie it into the classic feel, at the same time, I used some of the new stuff, the Motif and Triton, and I use digital software in order to record and print the whole thing. Before, it would be on 24-track tape, and these days it’s on digital software.
JK: One song on Vol. 2 is “Once You Got Me Going.” I always enjoyed the recording by Debbie Blackwell on the Jump Street label in the ‘80s. Was there anything particular about that song that made you want to do it again?
LB: The Debbie Blackwell record got away from me, although it ended up being a great project. A lot of politics became involved in the completion of it when Debbie was working on it, and I was unhappy with that because it kept getting further away from the original. The record came out so different from my original concept, although you could still hear elements of what I was trying to do. We had the original demo that the record came from, and I said, “Let me take this demo and work it back up into a real record and see how it comes out,” and that’s what we ended up with on the Throwback Vol. 2 project.
JK: Does she still sing?
LB: I don’t really know whether or not she’s active or performing it now, but I imagine, maybe.
JK: It was nice to hear a male take on it.
LB: It was kind of an homage to Luther Vandross’ work, and this was during the time when he was alive and doing stuff with Change. I loved his melodic style, so I kind of adapted it for that song in the lead vocal, and that’s where that came from.
JK: Another standout for me was “Shining,” because it had a really positive glow about it. What is the background on that song?
LB: Again, that was originally written for a male. I write a lot of stuff in the Boogie style, which is slower than regular Disco and more laidback, funkier, and boppier than Disco is. When Warner Bros./RFC liked the song with Venus Dodson, of course that was in the disco era. They wanted it discoed up, so we sped it up, and did that kind of work that made it that record.
JK: It’s been a long time since I listened to Venus Dodson. I remember it, now that you mention your being involved on the song “Shining” on her album -- but I didn’t even realize it was the same song!
LB: We had to Disco it up for the Warner Brothers single. It was originally boogied up, so we kept it there [this time]. As far as the horn section, I always liked Tower of Power and Chicago, so I wanted to lock the horns in. I called in Vincent Henry. He and I developed the styling of the horns. As far as rhythm track, I wanted to go funky, and with that I got help from James Calloway.
JK: You mentioned with Rob Hardt and “Cool To Make A Million,” how it’s a universal theme that everyone can relate to. You also have a couple others on Throwback Vol. 2 about the never ending struggle or quest, with “Money Going Out.”
LB: “Money Going Out” is exactly that. No matter how poor you are, no matter what income bracket you are, no matter what you do, money is going out. You’re making money, but you’re always paying bills, and sometimes we go through tight moments where you’re borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. “Barely Breaking Even” was the first song in that feeling. I wanted to express it from that point of view, with working and living, we go through these difficult financial moments where ends aren’t quite meeting. It’s either on the line or under the line, where you’re a little bit behind.
JK: “Barely Breaking Even” was Universal Robot Band, correct?
LB: Correct. “Barely Breaking Even” was a concept from Sonny Davenport about the same thing. “That was actually the seventh song on the Logg album, but the co-producer Greg Carmichael was unhappy with Salsoul, so he slipped into the studio and spirited away the master to that song and released it on Moonglow Records without our knowledge. Salsoul just released the album with six tunes on it and left it at that. We found out about “Barely Breaking Even” being released some years later.
JK: Does that happen a lot?
LB: We work with co-producers who have relationships with companies as we do. You never really know the state of something until it bites you in the butt. It was very much like that, and we actually went to the studio to mix it and were informed that the master was missing. We found out where it went, and chasing Greg around was not fun. That stuff happens all the time.
JK: You like working with the independent labels, and both of the Throwback albums are released on indies. The first one was on Soul Brother Records, which is an outgrowth of the shop they have in the UK.
LB: Correct, and they were responsible for the two anthologies put out on me, Leroy Burgess the Voice and Leroy Burgess the Producer. I had a real good relationship with them. The only thing I really hated about it was the album cover and I wanted to change it to another cover, but they paid a lot for the painting.
JK: What about the new one? Are you happy with it?
LB: Yes, I was hands-on with the artwork, the sound design and everything, from point A to the finished product, so I’m happy with it.
JK: Is Throwback Vol. 2 strictly a digital release at this point?
LB: No, it’s a physical release, too. We just did the digital release first. The physical product has come in, it’s with SedSoul in Europe, and we’re set to release next week.
JK: With Vol. 1, it was mostly distributed overseas, and so much has changed with the growth of iTunes…
LB: And the absence of distributors of physical product. Huge companies like Tower Records have folded their distribution outlets, so we’re hard pressed to find distributors because of the advent of digital. It’s a double-edged sword.
JK: Do you think it’s more good than bad?
LB: Music, like any business evolves. There used to be 45 RPM records and cassettes, all of which have gone the way of the dinosaur. Things are now digital, they can capture the analog work through digital means, and instead of having a portable cassette player or portable CD player, the majority of the world has an MP3 player and is buying digital product, so you have to conform to the marketplace that exists. I just look at it like that.
JK: Do you think it changes how the listener perceives the music?
JB: A listener who hasn’t had the experience of records or vinyl won’t miss it. They have it in their iPods and on their computer, and they know how to mix it and DJ it and stuff with the means that they have, so the absence of actual records doesn’t affect them at all. A person who is aware of vinyl and CDs, they look at it as an absence of that medium in favor of the new medium being undertaken. It’s a 50/50 thing: about half of them like it, and it’s because half of us like the real record and scratching and so on. The digital guy doesn’t miss it at all, because he doesn’t even care that it existed. He has the digital beatboxes and record players that duplicate the effects of real records. They can scratch it and everything.
JK: For me as a consumer, I bought records all my life and CDs as that became more of the thing. Still, when it’s possible to get the record or CD, I will. It’s not that digital is always bad quality, but it’s much quicker for me -- and doesn’t leave as much of an impression.
LB: That could be a psychological thing, like you miss the analog. I actually miss watching the record go around. When I was a little kid in the ‘50s, one of the fascinations was twirling my head and watching the record go around. I don’t have that anymore. I had to convince myself that I didn’t necessarily miss it. The important thing is that the sound is heard and the album is heard. Medium aside, that’s the most important thing to me.
JK: You’re performing again with Black Ivory?
LB: I’m performing with Black Ivory and with myself. I reentered the performing world. I re-joined Black Ivory in 1995 after the death of their manager, Leonard Adams. We started doing little local things around town, then we began to think on developing an album, which I’m happy to say is close to completion. We wanted to release it this year, which is actually our 40th anniversary, and my 40th anniversary in the business. I wanted to get both my album and the Black Ivory album out this year, but there are some things that delayed the Black Ivory project.
JK: Where are you performing now when you do the Black Ivory gigs?
LB: Wherever we can get a show that pays and people would like to hear us. We recently performed in Atlantic City and were honored by them making June 5th, 2010 Black Ivory Day there. That was very cool.
JK: Is it still the original guys?
LB: The three original members of Black Ivory are still intact: myself, Stuart Bascombe, Russell Patterson.
JK: You mentioned getting back into performing in the ‘90s and one thing that came to my mind that seemed to spearhead a lot of things for you. There was a concert in France that you did with Change, and it was released on a DVD.
LB: The big show wasn’t so much with Change, but with the Delfonics, Ray, Goodman and Brown, Stylistics, Blue Magic and so on, and that was all recorded and released on public television, and a DVD release came out. This realigned Black Ivory and myself with all of our old friends. In addition, as we began to progress in performing, we began to bump into more people from the ‘80s: Meli’sa Morgan, Colonel Abrams -- so it’s all tying in and working together now.
JK: For Throwback Vol. 2, are you going to be performing those songs live?
LB: Yes, I’ve already worked it into my performances. I did the Southport Music Weekender, and after that I did a show in Lyon, France. The plan is to do a release party in London that involves a full live performance with all of the musicians and so forth.
JK: I have two more questions: What do you have to say about writing “Big Time” for Rick James? Did you actually work with him; or just submit it?
LB: How “Big Time” happened was like this: James Calloway , Sonny Davenport and myself went into the studio, Blank Tapes. We had some songs in our head, and my good friend Bob Blank let us go into the studio for free to record some stuff. We took advantage of that and made three songs. We made “Once You Got Me Going,” “Over Like A Fat Rat,” and “Big Time.” On our way home from that demo session, we stopped at the home of Kenny Morris, who was Patrick Adams’ partner in a lot of productions such as Musique and Phreek. We stopped at his house to meet up with Patrick and Kenny, and Rick James was there visiting. We sat down and just kicked it with a couple glasses of wine. So Rick asked us, “What are you guys working on?” We said, “We just came out of the studio doing some music work,” and he said, “Let me hear it.” The first thing that we played was “Big Time”; he took to the song right away. He began talking to Patrick and everybody at that moment about how he wanted to put that song on his Garden of Love album, and we said, “Sure! We would be honored for you to work on our material.” So we worked out the details, and Patrick was a co-producer on that particular track, and we were happy with it when it came back.
JK: You mentioned that one of the songs was “Over Like A Fat Rat,” which was one that you recorded at Blank Tape Studios at that time. That’s been an important record in your career as well. What was the process like with that?
LB: At Al Zanholm’s studio in Harlem where Sonny and I, and the Aleems lived in the same building, and James would come by and jam, we actually composed these songs. We’d make little cassettes of it for our pleasure, but we got the offer for some free studio time, so we went downtown to put them together as actual songs or records and begin that process. But it starts with an idea in my head or one of the heads of my partners. We get together, we play on it and try to get it happening.
JK: Are you familiar with the singer Carol Williams?
LB: Yes, I’m very familiar with Carol’s work.
JK: She said that she was offered that song for consideration to record it over at Vanguard.
LB: She turned it down.
JK: Yeah, she did. She didn’t know what the lyrics meant, or the concept I guess.
LB: She turned it down and Fonda (Rae) liked it and it was the career-making record of her career.
JK: In that time period, she had done things with Patrick under the name Rainbow Brown as well, which was big for her.
LB: One more thing about “Big Time” now that you mention Carol. “Big Time” was presented for Stacy Lattisaw at Atlantic Records and she turned it down. As a result, it went to Rick James and it was a big hit for him. I remember hearing about the executives at Atlantic/Cotillion records really freaking out because they had that record and they let it go.
JK: We talked about the record “No Way,” which you originally did with Inner Life. You did it with Bobbi Humphrey and it was such a musically relevant thing for you. I know Ralph McDonald produced it. Was it a different experience doing it?
LB: I talked about the lessons I got at the Apollo Theatre from Stevie, and then we linked up with Stevie again on the third album. Stevie was working on his Songs in the Key of Life album, and we were both in the Hit Factory. We were on the fifth floor and Stevie was on the third. We both went upstairs and downstairs to each other’s sessions at that time and nurturing the mutual admiration we had for each other. James Calloway actually became Bobbi Humphrey’s bass player, and Bobby was looking for songs, and we had “No Way.” It was really for Inner Life, but Bobbi wanted to do it. Bobbi is really good friends with Stevie as well, and she gave me a call that Stevie was coming in to record harmonica on it. I was like, “Wow!” Talk about full-circle. This is one of my primary mentors coming in to play on a composition of my own, and I was in heaven.
JK: I knew her briefly in New York from Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar. Do you know it?
LB: I haven’t been.
JK: It was one of my favorite records that she recorded. I mentioned “Inner Life,” and she didn’t know it had been recorded before. It’s a very different feel with those two records. Was the overall “Inner Life” experience something that you had involvement in?
LB: It was Patrick Adams’ project. We used Jocelyn Brown on the Dazzle album, and working with her was just a good experience all around; she was a kindred spirit. That’s how we came up with “Moment Of My Life” She met us at the apartment studio, and she put us in mind of the song’s storyline and concept, and we were all just kickin’ it and talking about life experiences, and she was telling us about where she was at the time, and we said, “Let’s formulate that into a song.” Working with Jocelyn has been one of my two joys and something I’m thankful to the Most High for, as well as many other things that I’ve taken part in. Jocelyn is pure muscle.
JK: There was another record that you did some mixing on that was very different: Clurel Henderson I believe? It was a record called “Hurtown.”
LB : I was working with Teddy Riley. I was already producing and Teddy was beginning to step into the music business, and through our mutual friend, Gusto, he pulled us together and asked if I would work with Teddy and show him the ropes. One of the projects was the Clurel project, so I worked on that with Ted to implore some of the processes that I use in song construction and so on. I actually gave him a few lessons on playing keyboards, and he excelled in it.
JK: I’m sure you’ve been told a lot of times, but your depth of your work in the different genres speaks a lot about your abilities. It’s been a real pleasure to speak with you.
LB: The pleasure has been mine as well. If I was to leave some parting words: I’m enormously grateful of the support of people around the world who have appreciated my music, and they have taken such a shine to it, and I’m really grateful on a deeply spiritual level and grateful to everyone who gives my music the time of day. I’m extremely gratified by the fact that some of my music makes a difference in some people’s lives, and makes an impression, so that has been an enormous blessing for me. I can’t express how much gratitude I have for the supporters around the world. I try not to describe them as fans because of the association with the word fanatic, so I try to describe them as supporters, and I have a lot of respect for them.
JK: Thank you for taking the time to answer the questions with insightfulness about the process.
LB: I appreciate you taking the time to ask the insightful questions. I thank you for your research. It’s been a very enjoyable interview, and I look forward to seeing it.
JK: I’ll email you when it’s ready, because I have to do all the transcribing and editing. Should be up next week.
LB: Oh, you have to transcribe it and edit it; that’s the fun stuff. If it’s coming out in two weeks, then it will coincide with the physical release of Throwback Vol. 2.
JK: Was it the 25th that you were looking at for that?
LB: Initially we were looking at the 18th, and now we’re looking at the 16th through the 25th, and I’m really excited about it.
JK: I’m looking forward to it, too.
LB: They’re doing a vinyl printing of the whole album, so there will be limited availability for vinyl and CDs and the digital release is ongoing.
JK: Good luck with it. Helen said you’re doing something with Black Ivory tomorrow.
LB: We’re receiving the Heroes of Harlem Award because we’re a Harlem group and we have been contacted and asked if we would attend the awards presentation, and of course we will. I’m looking forward to that.
JK: It’s a nice title to have.
LB: It’s a pretty cool thing. With the release of Throwback Vol. 2, I’m continuing to do more performances and expose the album and do promotional things to inform the public of the fact that it’s out and I’d like for them to give it a listen and see if they like it, and I hope they will.
JK: I imagine the supporters will be happy to hear that you’re doing a little bit of the old and the new... Well, man, I hope you have a great weekend.
LB: Thank you again for taking the time and presenting each question.
JK: That means a lot to me. Thank you.
LB: Peace & Blessings, my brother.
JK: Same to you. Thanks Leroy.
Justin Kantor is a freelance journalist based in Virginia Beach, Virginia. He has published his own magazine, The Hip Key, as well as contributing prolifically to the All-Music Guide and Berklee College of Music’s The Groove. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Transcription by Nathan Stafford - You can e-mail Nathan here for transcription service info
About the Writer
Justin Kantor is a freelance music journalist with published works in Wax Poetics and the All-Music Guide. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Business and Management program, he regularly writes liner notes for reissue labels.