Interview recorded March 7, 2012
Singer/songwriter LENNY WILLIAMS is best known for his lead vocal work with Tower Of Power ("So Very Hard To Go", "What Is Hip") as well as the classic "'Cause I Love You". He has a new single available called "Still" with an album coming out in June. Recently, KEVIN GOINS talked with Lenny about his career and his music on March 7, 2012.
This is Kevin Goins with SoulMusic.com, and with me today is a music legend. And if only you folks could even be able to see this interview, because we’re doing it through Skype, and I can see him in his living room on the west coast, and what not. I tell you, it’s an honor to be with this gentleman. As many of you know, he was the lead singer of Tower of Power from 1972 until about 1975, if I’m not mistaken. He sang lead on the one album, their third album, TOWER OF POWER, which was the first of three consecutive gold and platinum recordings. The lead singer on “So Very Hard to Go,” “Don’t Change Horses in The Middle of the Stream,” “This Love is Real,” and “What is Hip?” Then in ’75 he went solo, and within two years, he had a classic called “Because I Love You.” Let’s fast forward to today; He has a brand new single out called “Still.” I got to listen to it a couple days ago, and I’ve had it on repeat on my PC since then. Won’t you please welcome to the microphone, from his home in California …
Kevin: Looking good there, my friend Lenny Williams. Lenny, welcome to SoulMusic.com.
Lenny: Thank you, Kevin. How are you today?
Kevin: I’m doing fine. Doing fine, my friend, and I gotta tell you, I see the flowers in the background, and the picture, and it’s looking very good out there on the west coast, and you’re looking pretty good there, my friend.
Lenny: I thank you; I appreciate that. I got up early and got dressed up for you.
Kevin: [Laughing] Any and all girlfriends of mine will be very, very jealous. First of all, I want to congratulate you on this brand new single called “Still,” and it will be available through Amazon.com, and I believe iTunes, if I’m not mistaken, Lenny?
Lenny: iTunes and also LennyWilliams.com.
Kevin: That’s right. Your website, LennyWilliams.com. Just to kind of give you folks a little sneak preview here, this song--the message is simply this: it’s about a woman, staying by Lenny’s side through everything. The good, the bad, the running around, and all the other stuff.
And the beauty of this song is it’s the ending, when Lenny does what he does best; he just goes off and tells his lovely lady what he’s going to do. You know, breakfast in bed, drawing her bath, taking her to the park, and then coming back home and eating popcorn and watching a movie. Things that grown folks do, and that’s the great part of this record, Lenny.
Lenny: Thank you so much; I appreciate that. We had fun making the record, and we’re enjoying watching people’s reactions to the record. So far, all of the reactions have been really positive, so we’re excited about that.
Kevin: Excellent. But, here’s what I want to do. I wanted to just pop into the time machine, and go back into time here. You were born in Little Rock, Arkansas, raised, moved to Oakland when you were very young. I gotta tell ya, Oakland, besides LA and San Francisco and Monterey, was a pretty happening town, musically, when you arrived there, Lenny, if I’m not mistaken.
Lenny: Most definitely. We had the army base here, the Oakland army base. We had the Oakland naval air station here, theNavy base. We had an Air Force base near here. So the consequence was you had all kinds of people coming in and out of Oakland. So they were bringing various music styles to the bay area, and they needed to be entertained, so you had a lot of good entertainers coming here. And the radio, basically, catered to the various music styles. So I was a recipient of all of that, and I think that’s where I get my--besides the church--get my music background from.
Kevin: Absolutely. Now, you grew up, you got yourself a solo deal with a big label out there in Berkley, Fantasy Records, known for great Jazz, great pop, and a group that was up and coming at the time called Credence Clearwater Revival. And, in fact, from what I understand, there was a song that John Fogerty wrote for you when you put out your first single there, if I’m not mistaken.
Lenny: Yes, actually, when I got started with Fantasy Records, it wasn’t the big Fantasy as we know it today. It was a very small company over in San Francisco. They hadn’t even moved to Oakland yet, to Berkley. It was over on Treat Street in San Francisco, and Saul Zaentz--he eventually became the president, and went on to produce the movies Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, was the accountant there, and I think Saul Weisz actually ran the company. But it was like a little small company, and they did--they had a catalogue of records, old Wes Montgomery records, Stan Getz, and different people like that. Then John Fogerty actually was working in the stock room, and the biggest artist they had at that time was Roger Collins, who had the song “She’s Looking Good” out.
Kevin: Mmm, right. I remember that record.
Lenny: So John Fogerty is working in the stock room. He was back about 17 or 18, and so we started hanging out together. Then, eventually, Fantasy moved to Oakland, and then over to west Oakland, and then John and Credence Clearwater had the big hits. And then they moved and built a big facility over in Berkley. Yeah, those were grand days. I got a chance to get my feet wet, and learn about recording, and get behind the microphone. I took my first airplane ride down to Los Angeles to record, and everything, so it brings back a lot of memories, and built the foundation for what’s happening today.
Kevin: Right. Now the single is called “Lisa’s Gone.” That was the A-side, and the B- side that John had written, I believe, was called, I’m sorry …
Lenny: “Feeling Blue.”
Kevin: “Feeling Blue,” that’s right, “Feeling Blue.” So he wrote the B-side. Mighty big company there, Lenny.
Lenny: Oh, yeah, most definitely. I guess it was the genesis of everybody, the life and music and Saul Zaentz just kind of getting started, John Fogerty getting started, me getting started, and so when you get a chance to watch, you start out with people, and you see people basically attain the American dream, go from just an everyday average person to great notoriety and great wealth and success. Then you know that it’s possible. It’s possible because you’ve seen it happen. I was a recipient of getting a chance to watch a lot of people.
I was kind of a late bloomer, but I got a chance to watch a lot of people become successful. I watched Walter Hawkins and Edwin Hawkins, be successful. We went to church together with the Stewart family; that was Sly Stone’s family. I watched Sly become successful. So it was a no brainer for me. I still had to put in the work to make it happen, and have the faith and make the sacrifices, but I definitely knew that it was possible, because I’d seen all these other everyday people make it.
Kevin: Absolutely. I mean, like I said, you were in great company. You had, like you said, you had the Stewart family, which was like Sylvester, Rose, and Freddie, and then you had the Hawkins with Edwin, and Walter, and Tramaine, my goodness. If only I was a fly on the wall watching all of this myself.
Now, you had a pretty decent solo thing going on; then at the same time, there was a group that was gigging around called the Motowns, or the Motown Blue Eyed Soul Band, and they later became known as Tower of Power. Now, how did you connect with Emilio and Mr. Kupka, and all those guys at Tower of Power? How did you connect with them?
Lenny: Well, I did my record on Fantasy, and then I had a neighbor, and she kept bugging me, “When are you going to do a show?” And I said, “You know, I’ve never had a band before; I’ve never--I don’t have a band.” That was before the advent of people doing things, track shows and things like that. So I was like, I think I’ve got a band, I wouldn’t even know how to get hooked up with a band. So she introduced me to the mailman, who was a part time promoter, and he had a band down in Freemont, California, which is about 35--40 miles from Oakland, a suburb. And he hooked me up with the Motown Blue Eyed Soul Band, and we kind of rehearsed a few times, but we never did do anything together.
And then fast forward a couple years--Larry Graham and I were writing songs, and I was living--I had moved in with Larry, and we were--Larry was with Sly and the Family Stone at that time, so I would kind of take care of the house while he’s gone and things, and so we had written these songs, and he said, “We need to put some horns on this.” So he invited the band Tower of Power to come over, and when they walked in the door, I’m like, “Oh wow, these are the kids from the Motown Blue Eyed Soul Band.”
So we kind of reestablished out relationship, and I started writing for the band and then, eventually, I took over as the lead singer. They had a singer by the name of Rick Stevens, who is actually in prison now; he was a heroin addict, and he--I guess he had a beef with some drug dealers, and one night three people wound up dead, and him and another guy got convicted of that. But this was after I had joined the band, but they were having problems with Rick, so I joined the band as the singer, and I think that was in December of ’72, and January 31st of ’73 we had the smash hit “So Very Hard To Go.”
Kevin: Right on. You joined right after the BUMP CITY album was released, and I know Rick sang lead on “You’re Still a Young Man,” and then, like you said, in the spring of ’73 “So Very Hard to Go,” number 17 on the Pop charts here in the United States, top 5 on the R&B--big hit record. That particular album, self titled TOWER OF POWER, which I still have in my collection, among the great albums that you’ve done, was their first gold and platinum album, too, if I’m not mistaken.
Lenny: Actually, though, it took a while for that record to go gold, because I left the band, and it hadn’t gone gold. Then, I guess maybe a couple years after I left the band, maybe two or three years, then it got certified gold, and I got a gold record for that record, yes.
Kevin: Absolutely, and so many other great songs came from that album: “What Is Hip?”; “This Love is Real.” Then, of course, you had the BACK TO OAKLAND album, which had the picture of the freeway with, “Don’t Change Horses in the Middle of the Stream.”
Lenny: … which I wrote with Johnny “Guitar” Watson.
Kevin: Really? So tell me about writing that particular song, because that was a decent hit for Tower of Power back then.
Lenny: Well, I was working before I got into Tower of Power--I was working at Ford Motor Company, and it was a great job, great pay. Actually, during that time period, if you worked for a steel plant, or if you worked at long shore man, if you worked for one of the automobile manufacturers, there was great, great work, great pay, everything.
And I should have been extremely happy, but I was sad, because I knew that I should be singing. And I’d go to work everyday, just kind of a sad sack, and what I would do to kind of make--get through the day--I would get hypnotized by the lines of the assembly lines, and I would write songs, or start on songs.
So I had been reading something about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and I know that there was a campaign slogan once, with “don’t change horses in the middle of the stream.” So I thought, “Well, that would be a great love song.” So, I started kind of like writing some words, and then I would go down to Los Angeles on the weekends and try to bum around and see who I could run into, and get something happening.
And a friend of mine introduced me to Johnny “Guitar” Watson. So we went over to his house over on Birdlawn, and we wrote that song, and I remember giving the song to Jerry Wexler over at Atlantic, because I had had a deal with them. And Jerry Wexler--he passed on the song, and then I got in Tower of Power, and I gave it to Emilio, and he’s like, “Oh I love it!” And Greg Adams did a great arrangement on it, and it has a great guitar solo, and, “wahla,” it’s the second biggest hit that Tower of Power ever had.
Kevin: Now, wait. Lets backtrack a second here. You had a writer’s agreement with Atlantic, with Jerry Wexler? This is something that I hadn’t even seen in any research that I did on you, Lenny.
Lenny: I had a deal with--I did a record on Atlantic, and I’m not sure if it was ever released or not, but I went down to Muscle Shoals and everything, so it was kind of interesting. I went down to--I signed this deal with Jerry Wexler, and then I went down to Miami, I think at the Fontainebleau Hotel; that was kind of fun, at that time.
Jerry Wexler had me come to his house, and we had dinner--he had a dinner. He lived right on the ocean there, and he had his captain of a boat go out and get the catch of the day, and they prepared the food. And Mitch Miller was there so, him and I, Mitch Miller, his captain and his wife, we had dinner, and then we--after dinner, Mitch Miller left, and we went down into Jerry Wexler’s office, and he was giving me the pep talk because I was going to go to Muscle Shoals the next day, and so he was giving me the pep talk saying all kinds of things like, “You can do it.”
And then his wife came in, and she was kind of hesitant to talk in front of me, but she wanted to talk to Jerry, and she said, “Well, Mitch called,” and he was like, “Yeah?” And he says, “Go ahead; what did he want?” And she’s like, she didn’t know if she could say it in front of me. And he said, “Go ahead. Go ahead.”
And then she said, “Mitch said he lost the package you gave him.” He said, “He lost his weed? Tell him I’ve got some more.” I went back to my hotel and I started calling everybody on the west coast, and like, “Mitch Miller smokes weed!” And he was like Mr. Middle America, this great band leader, and you never thought that he would smoke weed, and Jerry Wexler, too, so it was kind of interesting.
Kevin: Lenny, Lenny, I got to tell you this, okay. Now, I’m--a little background here-- so SoulMusic.com listeners, kind of bear with me for another minute on this. I was born and raised in Rochester, New York, okay? That is where Mitch Miller is from. He graduated from the Eastman School of Music; he graduated from East High School … went on, of course, we all know him from Sing Along with Mitch, and he always, as everyone knows, always had this straight-laced anti-rock and roll image. so to hear that he, Mitch, God bless you, God rest your soul. We’ll leave it at that.
So, getting back to Tower of Power, you were with them for at least three albums that I’m aware of, and then you wrote a bunch of things, and of course, who could forget your classic appearance with Tower of Power on Soul Train. You were one of the first bands that appeared on Soul Train and performed live, or should I say live and in living color.
Lenny: Exactly right. Actually Don Cornelius had wanted us to be on Soul Train for quite a while. His partner Dick Griffey kind of had wanted us--Dick Griffey was from the Bay area, and he managed the Whispers, so he would have Dick call me periodically and say he wanted us to play at the Soul Train night club. And then I was like, I’m just one person; this group is kind of run by a democratic process, and I guess, a lot of the people on the outside thought that because I was the lead singer that I was the leader of the band, or, generally, if the lead singer isn’t the leader of the band, they usually have a lot of influence, because the singers are kind of like demi-gods. They can pout a little bit or whatever, and kind of get what they want.
But that wasn’t really my way of doing things, and so they wanted us to come on, but everybody was resistant to it in the band, because it’s like they didn’t want to go on and pantomime like they were playing guitar and horns and things like that. Or even me with the vocals, and so we just resisted, and, finally, they acquiesced, and we were allowed to go on to Soul Train and do it live, and it turned out great--it was fantastic.
Kevin: Right, and you performed “What Is Hip?” and a longer funkier version of “So Very Hard to Go,” and my favorite part of the song was toward the end when you all just broke it down. Go ahead Lenny, talk about it. That was my favorite part of the song.
Lenny: Now, and because I just kind of ended it the way we do the record, the way we did the record, then I kind of watched the Soul Train thing, and I was like, wow, I need to incorporate that with my band, when we break it down and kind of get that little, almost like a calypso, or kind of cha cha feel to it. It was really, really nice.
Kevin: Yeah, that whole Latin thing where you broke it down, where it was just you on the vocals, Emilio accompanying you, backing you on the vocals, the guitar, the percussion. I’m like, where was Warner Brothers when you all were doing this, because that should have been released on a record, on a B side somewhere, because it was just so funky, man.
Lenny: Warner Brothers--what was interesting about Warner Brothers--they were a very hands-off type of company.
Kevin: Yes, they were.
Lenny: It was good for the artist in a way, but then, sometimes, like you mention, had they been a little more involved, they would have thought to release that as a live thing, or whatever, but it was really interesting: when I joined Tower of Power, the record had come out and had become a smash hit before they even knew that Tower of Power had changed singers.
So, one day, I get this big envelope in the mail, and they were like, sign here--and that you adhere to all of the contracts that Tower of Power has with Warner Brothers, causing my manager--Sandy Newman was like, no way, we can. So I went in there and was able to negotiate a better contract for myself with them, because they were so hands-off.
Like I said, the record was a smash, and everything was like, that’s a new singer there. It was kind of interesting, but it was good for the artist in terms of being creative--that you didn’t have somebody there breathing down your neck and telling you to do this or do that. Because the band was creative at that time, and so it was a good thing.
Kevin: Absolutely. Now, you were with them, like I said, for three albums; then in 1975, you surprised a bunch of people. You left Tower of Power. Now, what made you go solo from the group?
Lenny: Well, there were a lot of things. My standard answer all the time was that I felt that we were a little incestuous from the point of view that the only people who really wrote for the band was Mimi and Doctor, and I was second in terms of the amount of songs that I wrote. And so I felt that a lot of things were beginning to kind of sound alike. Up until about maybe 7 or 8 years ago, that was my standard answer, which was true … it was part of it.
But the other part of it was that Tower of Power was like a huge drug thing. We had, I think, three or four guys mainlining heroin, and so everybody else was doing something, including me. I wasn’t messing with heroin, nothing heavy, but I was smoking weed at that time, and I wasn’t a drinker.
But we had people that were drinking, smoking weed, that were doing heroin--highly abusive stuff going on in the band. And I remember, and I can always tell when the heroin boys were powerful-- when they would find a connection in a city, because we would be doing “What is Hip” [singing], and then [singing slower] they would be back there just struggling to keep the band--keep the tempo.
And so, as a consequence, we were in--I had to leave the band, because we were in Europe and one of the guys snuck in some heroin, snuck his heroin kit in, snuck his heroin in, and I was like, well I’ve got two sons. I’ve got a mom and dad that, you know, that would just be devastated if I got caught up in some kind of drug scandal, or whatever. And so I just made the decision to leave, and I told Emilio, “When we get back to the states, I’m out. I’ll definitely give you a chance to find somebody else. I will continue until you find the right person.” So, I left and started out back on the solo career.
Kevin: Right, and to let folks know, because I remember listening to an interview with a gentleman who transplanted to the west coast, Jeffery Osborne, who said that the main reason he joined the band LTD was because of the fact that their drummer was busted on a marijuana charge back in 1970. And back then, if you were even busted for weed, you were done. As far as the law enforcement was concerned. You were done; you were in jail. Period, end of story.
Lenny: I had a friend that played for the Globetrotters, and was in Arizona going through security and busted for weed, and bam that was--the Globetrotters was like American as apple pie, and he was like, out. So he just lost his whole career. So I had to kind of, for the sake of my family and then my reputation, just to move on.
Kevin: Absolutely. You moved on to ABC - to Motown Records, I should say.
Lenny: Yeah, I moved to Motown. While I was there, when I had negotiated this separate deal for myself--when I was with Tower of Power, I had an album deal. So I was working on a record, and then they just said, “Well, you can take that record with you,” and so I took that record with me and I went to Motown, and took the record over there and I recorded a bunch of songs on there. And I recorded “Cause I Love You” on that album, but it didn’t have the talking in it--and it was actually a little faster than the “Cause I Love You” that people have grown to love. But I did that record there. That record didn’t really happen.
I remember calling Suzanne de Passe; she was up in Vegas with Diana Ross. I was telling her I was just trying to find my way, but I felt that as long as I was under a contract, it kind of hindered me from finding my way, musically. So she was nice and gracious enough to let me out of my contract, and then I went over to ABC---and Otis Smith was there, and signed with him.
He hooked me up with Frank Wilson, who had also just left Motown--who had done all those great records with Eddie Kendricks. He did “Boogie Down Baby” with Barry Gordy, “You Make Me So…”, the great Patrice..
Kevin: You’re talking about the Holloways. Brenda Holloway, “You Make Me So Very Happy.” He co-wrote that with Brenda, and with Berry Gordy and with her sister Patrice, and, in fact, there was another person, for information sake--never got credited, because he was tied up with another record company, and that was the late Barry White.
Lenny: Oh, okay, well, wow, I didn’t know that. Yeah, so Frank Wilson--he came in and he was just what the doctor ordered for me--just came in and we did some great music, and I think I sold, because I had done two records: I had done a record while I was with Tower, my solo record, and I’d done the record that I took with me from Warner Brothers; and both of them didn’t happen, in terms of financial success or commercial success, so people were saying to me, “Oh you shouldn’t have left Tower of Power.” And then I was starting to think it myself.
If you’re a person that is going by calculations and taking the ruler out and measuring success, I was like, “Oh, boy.” so I went over there, and did that record and we sold, I think, like four hundred thousand records on the first record, the new album.
Then we came back, and during that time period, I was kind of perfecting “Cause I Love You.” I put the talking in there and everything, because Larry Graham had left Sly and he had gotten his band, Grand Central Station. And Willy Sparks was his drummer, and Larry and Willy fell out, and he fired Willy. So, Willy came over and played with me for a while.
But then he was like, “Lenny, I’m really more of a funk drummer, and you kind of do a lot of ballads and stuff, so I don’t think … this gig is not that exciting for me. But, if I were you, that song ‘Cause I Love You,’ I think I’d break that song down and do some talking in it.” So, I started thinking about that. And in the interim, I did do that, and on the second ABC album, the SPARK OF LOVE album, we did “Cause I Love You,” and I had been breaking it down for about a year or so, and putting the talking in it, and we did that, and bam, the rest is history, as they say.
Kevin: Absolutely. It became a classic, and from what I understand--correct me if I’m wrong--it was never released as a single.
Lenny: … never ever released as a single, which makes it that much more astounding that a record could be that popular and could be my signature song, and never was a single--never was afforded the opportunity to be out there on the radio on regular rotation. So it just distinguished itself like the little engine that could, so to speak.
Kevin: Absolutely. The little engine that did, we should say.
Lenny: Yes, that’s exactly right.
Kevin: Now I’m going to jump ahead. You did two albums for ABC. Then ABC got bought up by MCA; they shut their doors. I want to jump ahead to a record that, when we were talking about this earlier, it was a song that, when I mention it to folks, they’re like, “Really? He was on the record, as well?” Yeah, he was co-credited as far as I was concerned, because I have the demo of the record, and I’m talking about “Don’t Make Me Wait For Love,” which you recorded with Kenny G for his DUOTONES album.
I know we’re jumping ahead to 1987; we’re jumping like ten years, but how did you become involved with that project? I remember at that time, it was a do-or-die thing for Kenny G, because Arista was about ready to drop him from the label.
Lenny: Right, he had been a producer. I guess his two prior albums had been produced by Kashif, and they were good records, but they just never happened with the commercial success. And so Clive Davis had Narada Michael Walden, who was like the premiere producer of R&B music at that time, to produce Aretha Franklin, and they were doing the PINK CADILLAC and stuff …
Kevin: “Freeway Of Love,” yeah.
Lenny: Right. And so he threw Kenny G in, and, “Say, hey Narada, can you do this,” so Narada gave the project to Preston Glass, and Preston was producing a record. So Preston had the idea that because--and Randy Jackson was around then too, that’s on American Idol, and Randy and I have been writing songs, and so the Narada camp was kind of thinking … because Lenny had been with Tower of Power, and with the horns, he might be a perfect fit for Kenny G, being a horn player.
So they called me and then I went over, and we did the song. I think I did it like in one take, one day, did the song … Kenny was there and everything. It was all good, and then Narada called me back in, and he said, “I want to make some changes,” so he had me sing it over again, and then I sang it over and we got toward the end and, you know, he was like, “I want Kenny to kind of do some of your licks,” so I was like [singing] “I need you,” and Kenny would go, “Do do do.” So he would kind of copy my licks, and so, then the next thing that I know, the record came out and then, I think, the first record they did was the first single--was a remake of one of Junior Walker’s records.
Kevin: “What does it take?” Yeah, “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love).”
Lenny: Yeah, and then they released “Don’t Make Me Wait For Love,” and somebody sent me a copy of the record, and they had a picture of … they didn’t have Kenny’s picture on it; they had a picture of a beautiful black girl on there, but they didn’t have my name on it.
So then it’s like, oh, boy. So then I go over to Melvin Belli’s office, a very famous lawyer--so he contacts them, and so they take care of that. I never did get a chance to enjoy that record, because there was so much stuff going on in the background to try to get what was rightfully mine.
As a consequence, I never--when it would come on the radio, I didn’t really enjoy it. Eventually, I started doing the record in my show, but I don’t do it that much now. Every now and then, I’ll do it, and people are always--a lot of times people are surprised that I did the record. And I say yeah, my name wasn’t on the record at first, and then I wasn’t in the video, and whatever. That’s why they call it show business, and you need good lawyers and good representation, and things like that. It’s all good.
Kevin: Well, you know, Lenny, I remember when the record was serviced twice to radio, right after “What Does it Take” was released and then, after “Song Bird” took off like a rocket, it was rereleased. And it was rereleased and I remember getting the promo single that said, “Kenny G featuring Lenny Williams,” right underneath. And when I saw it I went, “Oh snap! Lenny from Tower of Power!” I was like, a 20 year old college kid, and I was spinning records for a town in New York State. I was going to college at the time, and getting this record and seeing your name on it, I went nuts. I was like, “Yo, I’m playing this,” and I used to play it, like, every two hours. It drove my program director crazy.
Lenny: The funny thing, if you look at Kenny G’s greatest hits, and that record is on there, you’ll notice that he did songs with--I think he did songs with Smokey Robinson, and I think he may have done a song with James Ingram or somebody, or even Michael Bolton. But, if you look, all of the songs that he’s done with somebody else--they say, “Kenny G and Smokey Robinson,” and I’m the only one that says “featuring” because of some type of legal ramification about the money. So it’s really kind of an interesting conundrum there.
Kevin: Yeah, and that, you know, the thing is, Lenny, when Kenny G came to my home town--to Rochester, NY in 1989, the bigger, the biggest bummer for me and my girlfriend--she just, she was, like, “Oh Kevin, get over it.” The biggest bummer for me was that you weren’t there to sing, “Don’t Make Me Wait For Love.” Kenny had one of his boys singing it. He was alright, but it should have been you, man. It should have been you.
Lenny: We weren’t married together, and that happens all the time when people do great records. Bobby Womack and Patty LaBelle--I think they did a record together, but you can’t travel together all the time, so that wasn’t a problem for me. I guess, my main issue was my name being on there and getting my money, so we got those resolved.
Kevin: I’m just saying because you put your …
Lenny: … the meat and potatoes right there.
Kevin: Right. The thing is, Lenny, you had such … your voice is so distinct. Whenever you put out a record, whether with Tower of Power, Kenny G, or solo, it’s your stamp, and it’s so identifiable.
Lenny: Well, thank God for that. Somebody was asking, the other day, “Well how did you get your sound out there?” Number one, I was a trumpet player when I was a kid, and so trumpet players think high, and so I thought high. So I went to--I grew up in a big church, but then I went to a small church when I was a teenager. Probably maybe forty or fifty members, at best, and most of the churches at that time--they had more women and, even now, than men.
And I would be singing, and I couldn’t hear myself because these women … I’ve got a kind of distinct … I want to be able to hear myself when I’m singing these songs, these congregational songs at church. So, I kind of developed a little style where I could kind of pierce through and hear myself, and so, maybe, that’s how I caused this distinction in my voice that makes it so recognizable.
Kevin: And Lenny, okay, and so Lenny, I want to jump ahead, right now, to something completely different here. We know you for your hits. We know you for the legacy you created with Tower of Power. We know you for the great classic “Cause I Love You,” among the great songs you recorded for both ABC and Motown. But here’s something that I was surprised to read--you’ve got an acting career! You’ve been doing some stage work! Talk more about that, if you could please.
Lenny: Well, I guess somewhere, I think, a guy by the name of Shelly Garrett, somewhere maybe Twenty years ago, maybe twenty-five years ago, did a play called The Beauty Shop. And that was the first time since the Harlem renaissance, which was back in the ‘20s or ‘30s … that blacks, African Americans, had been seen doing these plays, and it was very, very successful. And, you know, I think there was millions of dollars made off of that, so the consequence for that … when people who see something great, everybody started doing the plays and trying to cash in on that success.
So, since there was so many people doing it, people had to kind of make their play stand out. So then, what they would do--they would call musical artists like Howard Hewitt, or myself, or Christopher Williams, and get them in plays, and they would kind of use us to put the butts in the seats, so to speak, and then they would surround you with actors., basically local actors.
And then they upped the game a little bit later, and then they started getting a lot of the actors in between sets, and things like that, in between their movies to come out and do it, and so that’s kind of how I got started. And they wouldn’t give you a lot of lines.
Then, I get a play with David Talbert, a great playwright, and I started looking at my lines, and it was, like, this page, that page, it’s, like, this is, like, five pages. I was so frightened; I started to just quit on the spot, and he encouraged me and taught me a lot of things about acting, and so then, once I did that play, I thought, “Oh, boy, I can do this.” And so I gained confidence. So now I read scripts and I turn them down and I’ll accept them. It’s something different that I get a chance to do, and I enjoy it a lot.
Kevin: We’re going to have to send Tyler Perry one of your reels.
Lenny: Yeah, well, actually, Tyler Perry has used “Cause I Love You” in a couple of his plays. So I said, wow, I know I’m on his radar, so that’s very rewarding and gratifying to know that a guy such as Tyler Perry, who is a preeminent African American TV/Movie guy, is aware of me, and aware of my music. He’s even called my name in a couple of his plays. The Madea character is like so--it’s grabbing for sure.
Kevin: Right. Well, we’re glad that you’re in his radar, and now the next step is to get you into one of his movies or one of his plays. The fact that he even--I know he has name dropped your classic hit, and has even had one of his actors sing it in one of the plays, or what not. There’s only one word that I can say to that, Lenny - Ka-ching!
Lenny: Yes, right. That’s getting back to music business. By being the writer of the song, and protecting my writer’s rights, and also being the publisher of the song, I can say ka-ching. That’s a lesson for young artists out there. Try to take care of the business aspect of your writing and your publishing, and even like now, the young rappers like Kanye West, Twista … I think, right now, Jay Z and Young Jeezy and Andre 3000 have a song out that is one of my songs … Trey Songz, Scarface, different people …
It’s just been a blessing that I was able to learn about publishing, which I learned by a lady by the name of Sandy Newman. I met her at Larry Graham’s house one night, and she just started talking to me about music and about publishing, and told me that I could go down and file a fictitious business license for twenty dollars, and I would be my own publisher. And I was, like, wow. I need to call her up and give her a kiss or something, because it’s just been tremendous to be able to, like you said, to say Ka-ching when people do my music.
Kevin: Well, you know, Lenny, the late Curtis Mayfield said this past--he said that musicians, song writers, producers, should really do their best to own as much of themselves as humanly possible in the music and recording industry, and he, of course, was the best example of that, with his entities. And it seems as though you have definitely gone down that path.
And I’m glad you brought something up here because I know it’s been a bone of contention with some people, especially your older fans, who are, like, “Man, you’re letting these rappers sample your music. Isn’t that kind of lowering the standards and stuff.”--and what’s your take on that?
Lenny: I’ve kind of thought about that a lot, and I’ve tried to … I’ve kind of developed my own theory about it . And I have some great friends of mine who have gone to the Berkley school of music, that have gone to Julliard, you know, two of the greatest music schools in the United States, probably the world. And I notice that when they get out, they’ll go back and get a Miles Davis or a Freddie Hubbard song or Maynard Ferguson song, and they’ll redo it their way, and do their interpretation of it, or do some cold quarter, or what have you, and that’s a big phenomenon now.
Rod Stewart, everybody--they’re doing standards; they go back and do these standards and they kind of put their little touch on it. Some of the guys that I know that like the score--they’ll go back and get some Bach or Beethoven, or Brahms, or whatever, and so I kind of look at it as one and the same.
The rappers will go back and they’ll get a Sam Cooke song, or a Lenny Williams song, and then they’ll update it and do their version of it, or their interpretation of it. So I think it’s one and the same, and what it does is make that music classic. I’ve heard young people, my son … I think somebody went back and did the Ben E. King song “Stand By Me.” My son was, like, “ That’s cool. This guy wrote this song.” And I say, “No he didn’t write that song. It was written in the ‘60s or the ‘50s.”
I had to go back and prove it to him. I think what that does is it makes the music classic, because people keep on doing it, and new generations are discovering it, and then the added bonus for the writers and the publishers is that it’s a financial windfall for you.
When Kanye West and Twista did “Overnight Celebrity,” and they sampled “Cause I Love You,” I happened to have three daughters that were going to college at the same time, so the money came in right on time. They made sure my girls were graduated from college … no student loans and everything like that, and so I said, “Keep on sampling, as far as I’m concerned.”
Kevin: Yeah, well, you know what, Lenny, Daryl Hall of Hall and Oates said this on his internet series “Live from Daryl’s House” when he had Smokey Robinson as a guest … and he said the same thing; he said, “Look, I have people sampling my stuff; rappers sample my stuff.” And the fact that he and John Oates wrote the songs and owned the publishing of the songs, he said, “Hey. look, I wouldn’t have been able to build this house if it weren’t for some of that money.”
So, as far as he was concerned, sample away. Johnny Pate, who was the producer for many of the great songs for Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, and is an arranger and a composer in his right-- he said this to me last year, as well. He said that he made more money when rappers sampled the music from the Shaft in Africa soundtrack that he composed--he made more money through sampling than he did when the soundtrack was released in 1973.
Lenny: That’s the same thing with me. The money that I made off of the samples that these youngsters are doing on me … I mean, I made more money off of the samples than I did off the original recordings, because there’s so many different revenue streams now. They have the ringtones, and just so many different revenue streams, and so it’s just … and I guess music is so worldwide now.
The rap music and American music is … I look at some of the statements, and where the royalties are coming from, and it’s like Iceland and Finland and South Africa, and it’s just amazing that you think that you sit in your little den or you’re riding around in your car and you’ve got an idea for a song, and that somebody over in some foreign country that you … that they don’t even speak the same language--would love your music enough to go out and purchase it. So it’s humbling, and I really don’t take it for granted for sure.
Kevin: Right, and I also wanted to just add on--then we’ll move on--the fact that what this also does is, when a song like “Cause I Love You” or “So Very Hard To Go,”-- now I know YouTube has been a bone of contention with the industry, but this is where I see it’s a blessing, because when a young person goes on the internet and these young people--they rule the computers--lets just say it. Lets just say it right here and right now. When young people go on YouTube, and they see “Cause I Love You,” and they’re, like, “Hey, wait a minute; I heard this sampled on this record and that record. Oh, this is the original. Wow, this is great.” You’re reintroducing the classic stuff to the younger generation via the sampling, so I see it as a win pretty much.
Lenny: Yes, and that’s what happened with Tyler Perry. Tyler Perry used to be so against--I would go to watch his play, and he would have a video of Madea going down in the hood and beating up people, and taking their bootleg DVDs, because they were just bootlegging, but bootlegging is what made him so popular. He became just this huge cult figure, this huge star in the hood.
So, what happened was that, even though they were bootlegging his DVDs, when he would come to town, everybody would go see him. He literally walks into a town and leaves, stays three or four days and leaves with a million dollars cash. So, I guess it’s something that you can’t, basically, you can’t fight it. It’s out there. So much technology that people are going to sample you, bootleg you, whatever, download you illegally. It’s just a fact of life, and you just have to deal with it, you know.
Kevin: Now, lets move on to your brand new single, “Still,” and I had to listen to it again this morning because you talk about--listening to this record in the morning, Lenny, I don’t need to drink no coffee. I don’t need no energy booster. This record-- what I love about it, is this is what we older folks call “grown folk’s music.” I’m going to call it a new genre, okay, bear with me, folks, grown folks’ soul. That’s what this is to me. Grown folks’ soul, because you’re singing about what grown folks do, you know? Staying together through thick and thin, through hell and high water, through whatever changes people go through.
And then, at the end of the record, you just lay out what I call the agenda: Breakfast in bed, drawing the bath water, going for walks in the park, coming back home, watching movies, making popcorn, and, of course, making love, too, but it puts all that into a nice package. Tell people more about how that song came about.
Lenny: Well, I’m working with a guy by the name of Tim Wilson, who has been with Clive Davis--he was the vice president over at [Arista Records with label president] Clive Davis, and over at Motown and Universal and Warner Brothers. He’s been around--and a young guy--but he’s been around some places. So, right now, he’s doing his own thing; he has his own business of promotions, and he was out looking for songs for me.
He said he was going to go by Andre Crouch’s and talk to Andre about some business. I said, “Be sure to tell Andre I said hello, because we know each other from being kids.” So he called and said Andre said that his nephew Keith and a guy by the name Kipper Jones, who had done a lot of stuff for Brandy, are writing together. And said that “He heard this song that he thought would just be wonderful for you.” And so I said, “Well, send it to me, if the good reverend thinks that it’s good for me, I want to check it out.”
He sent it over, and I just fell in love with the song--and my producer--I gave it to him. And I went down to San Francisco--we recorded it, and just nothing but the good vibes have come from that song. So I’ve just got my fingers crossed here, and we’re just really, really excited about it. Like you said, it is about being--people who have been in a relationship for a while, you know, like my grandfather was 104 when he died.
Kevin: Oh, God bless him.
Lenny: Him and my grandmother had been married for 60, 70, 75 years, and it really was behind just basically making a commitment. That’s what being together that long is--just making a commitment, and everybody says, “Oh, that’s wonderful; they were together so long … but there was some anger and some tears and some disappointment in 75 years … but still in love. We still love each other, and that’s what this song is about. Even through the trials and tribulations, the ups and downs of the relationship, that you can maintain, and you can still be in love.
And a lot of times I see an older couple walking down the street, and they’re holding hands. I was on a plane the other day, and I was telling my wife --I saw this couple and they had to be in their mid ‘80s. And they were sitting on the plane and, basically, all they needed was one seat, because they were just hugging and embracing. I mean like almost to the point, if they were kids, you would say, “Hey, you guys, cut that out. You guys need a hotel room,” or something like that. I was, like … 86, or 87, and they were just hugging and kissing and caressing, and it’s like, that’s beautiful. But I’m sure that ,during all those years that they were together, there must have been some ups and downs, some disappointments, but they’re still in love, and so that’s what this song is about.
Kevin: Yeah, well, I have great respect for Kipper Jones. Kipper has written many many great hits for Brandy, for Usher. I had a colleague who actually worked with Kipper, and he is a great song writer … and going back into the early-mid 1990’s, so he and Keith created a gem for you, Lenny. I understand it is available through iTunes and Amazon and through your own record label, my friend.
Lenny: Yes, right, my own record label. They can go to LennyWilliams.com, iTunes, Amazon, and you can purchase the CD, well, purchase the single “Still,”--the full CD is going to be coming out, probably, sometime in June, Black Music Month, I believe it is. We’re just excited; we’re moving forward, and the sky’s the limit, really.
Kevin: I hear you, and, like you said, album’s in the works, I understand, correct?
Lenny: Yeah, well, actually, we’re finished with it; we just got to--we’re doing all the copy and stuff, and getting it all together, and we’re going to get it manufactured, and pressed up, and have them ready for some time in late May or June. Trying to focus on the record, “Still.”
Kevin: And I understand you’re shooting a video, correct?
Lenny: I am doing a video, yes. So, we’re getting ready to do that and, we’re just trying to be relevant. We’re tweeting, we’re on Facebook, we’re just doing the whole gambit ,and just getting into the modern mode of making records happen. It’s a new day and, like I said, I’m trying to get acclimated to it, be relevant, and I think the main thing is to have great music.
Song writing is still the key. A great song is going to make it; it’s going to find its way. Song writing--it begins with that. We’re just trying to do all the other things to just enhance the project, to let people know that we’re out here; we’re doing great music, entertaining, coming to your town and we’ll see you when we get there. Come around and check us out!
Kevin: Absolutely. So a tour is in the works. You’re planning on that. I can’t wait to see you, my friend--see you and hear, not only, this great song be performed live, but other tracks from the album, as well as your classics, too.
Lenny: Some “So Very Hard To Go,” some “What is Hip?”, and some “Cause I Love You.”-- all that good stuff, for sure.
Kevin: I want to also thank Mary Moore on the East Coast for arranging this interview.
Lenny: The person over there for Double-Xposure, for sure, yeah.
Kevin: Right, Double-Xposure. Lenny Williams, singer, song writer, record producer, music publisher, record label owner. LennyWilliams.com. He’s got a website, brand new single called “Still.” It is available through iTunes, Amazon.com, and LennyWilliams.com. Album--prospective release date: June of this year, 2012, in time for Black Music Month. Touring information: I’m sure Lenny will have that available on his website as it develops. Lenny Williams, thank you so very much for being with us on SoulMusic.com. Best of luck, best of success going to you, my friend.
Lenny: Thank you, Kevin. I appreciate it, alright?
Kevin: Alright, sir. We will talk soon, okay?
Lenny: Most definitely.
Kevin: Alright, take care.
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".