Interview recorded on February 8, 2012
Keyboardist James Lloyd, along with band mates Curtis Harmon (drummer) and Cedric Napoleon (bassist), formed the Philadelphia-based funk/ jazz fusion outfit Pieces Of A Dream recorded their eponymous debut for Elektra Records as underclassmen in high school. Their catalog spans three decades and includes tunes that have gone on to become b-boy staples, R&B hits, and masterful fusion excursions. James Lloyd sits down to discuss the history of the group, the music, and what it means to be living the dream.
Rico a.k.a. “Superbizzee” Washington: What’s going on, y’all. This is your man Rico a.k.a. “Superbizzee.” On behalf of SoulMusic.com, I’m speaking to none other than funk/jazz extraordinaire Mr. James Lloyd, founding member of the mighty, mighty Pieces Of A Dream. How are you today, man?
James Lloyd: All right. How’s it going?
RSW: Good, good, good. So I just wanted to talk to you a little bit about, no doubt, Pieces Of A Dream, but also, how you got started in music, initially.
JL: Okay. Let’s see, which would you like to know first?
RSW: Let’s start with your music history first.
JL: All right. Well, I got started in music when I was six years old. I started taking piano lessons, just classical lessons, and I just really, I guess, fell in love since then—just took to it. And then when I was about eleven, I met the other two guys and we just formed a little band for a talent show in middle school there. And, long story short, Curtis and I have been playing together ever since.
RSW: Wow, okay. So what part of Philadelphia are you guys from?
JL: From Mt. Airy--hence the “Mt. Airy Groove.”
RSW: Absolutely. So tell me a little bit about the name change, because I heard that you guys didn’t initially go by Pieces of a Dream.
JL: Oh gosh, yeah, we had a couple of crazy, corny names, back in the day. Let’s see … Galaxy, Sound Unlimited Part II, A Touch of Class, Classic Touch, and then Pieces of a Dream.
RSW: Now tell me a little bit about how you guys actually got put on. I’m assuming that you were performing around the Philadelphia area, just gigging?
JL: Yes, yes, we were doing some things around the tri-state area, and we got, basically, discovered by Grover Washington, Jr. He’d announced that he was starting a production company, and we were his first act to be produced by him. So we were like, “Okay, I guess we’re going to do a record!” I guess I must have been fifteen at the time; I was sixteen when the album came out. So here we are--we’re, like: “Okay, now I guess we gotta go write some songs.” So we just went to our little rehearsal area and got some ideas together and just got started.
Yeah, and Grover was, I guess, so gracious that he let us do whatever came out, like, “Okay, we’ll put that on.” He just produced it and, I guess, made it sound like a record [laughs]. But that was like our drop into the deep end of the pool of writing.
RSW: So now Grover’s from Philadelphia, also. Was there an inside connection with how you guys met up with him, and how he discovered you?
JL: Yeah. well, let’s see … we were the house band for a TV show in Philly called City Lights—we would play in and out of commercials and in-between and whatnot—and each week they would have a musical guest, and sometimes they would use a track and sometimes we’d back them. So we got to back people like Clark Terry, “The Ice Man” Jerry Butler …
Dave Valentin … and one of those slots was Grover. And that was our first time actually playing with him, so we got to play two songs with him then.
And some time after that we were performing at the Bijou—I think we were opening for either Deniece Williams or Betty Carter--we opened for them a lot—and Grover was in the audience. So we asked him if he would come up and sit in with us. And being as gracious as he was, of course he did, and we did “Mr. Magic” with Grover at the Bijou.
Oh, man—talk about getting tingles. So it was soon after that that he had this big meeting and took us all out to dinner, and announced what he was going to do.
RSW: And at fifteen or sixteen years old, I’m sure that must have been the thrill of thrills. I’m thinking back around that period … the only other young guys that were in instrumental music was probably like Bernard Wright.
JL: It really was. It’s almost a shame that at that age it’s really hard to appreciate how big that is; you dig? But back then, I remember we felt like the movie The Five Heartbeats, you know when they first hear their song on the radio, and they’re running all around down the street … that kind of thing. Oh, man, it was just incredible: senior year high school with an album out.
RSW: So when you guys went into the studio to record the first album, Grover--did he take a hands-off approach and just let you guys do your own thing, in terms of bringing material? Because I know you said--writing, he was like whatever you guys wanted to bring was cool. And when you guys got into the studio, in terms of arranging …
JL: In the studio, yeah, that’s where I guess school started; you dig? And he taught us how to record, really—how to record in the studio, how to do overdubs, how to get things locked in, and how to let music breathe: “Don’t play like you’re getting paid by the note,” and all these things I still hear ringing out in my ears. And yeah, that’s just where it all started. School was on.
So he produced our first three albums, and then we also toured with him. So we went on tour, and we opened for him as Pieces, and then we were part of his rhythm section, as well. So it was like double-duty on-the-job training; you dig? We went all over the world with him for years, and just got to see some amazing places and play some amazing venues. Man, it was like living a dream.
RSW: So we talked a little bit about the first album; let’s ease on into the second album, WE ARE ONE. I guess that’s where you guys really started to pick up a little bit of steam with folks, especially with the song that we talked about before, “Mt. Airy Groove.”
JL: “Mt. Airy Groove,” yeah, that was the one. The first album had “Warm Weather”—
JL: That was the first single. But yeah, the second was “Mt. Airy Groove;” that was the big thing off that. We had no idea, I guess, how big it was or would be; it was just one of those things we got together in our rehearsal studio and created. It was, like, “Okay … damn. Great, let’s do that!” And thirty years later we’re still playing that song.
RSW: That song has been sampled so many times. I guess maybe you guys’ age had played into it a little bit with the scratching at the beginning of it; hip-hop was really starting to become really popular at that point. Whose idea was that?
JL: You want to know something that’s funny? That was never thought that that was … like a scratching sound. That was just some crazy patch that I’d just sort of stumbled on. I had this Jupiter 8 synthesizer—back then it’s this real big deal, this like $4,500 synth—but I’m a young cat, I don’t know anything about programming these things.
Okay, you had presets and whatnot, but I’m like, turning knobs and pushing buttons and stumbled across this sound. I just started doing this crazy thing to it, just hitting the keyboard like that [makes rhythm sound], and then it turned out people are like, “Oh, that scratching thing!” I’m like, “Oh, I guess, yeah, that does kind of sound like scratching.”
RSW: So it was basically experimentation? You guys weren’t literally trying to do the hip-hop thing?
JL: Not at all; not at all. we were just having fun, just funking around, and that’s what came out. So it was never any conscious thing that that was scratching; I didn’t even actually realize that until afterwards when people were like, “Oh, man, that scratching sound.” Like, “Oh! Yeah …”
RSW: All right. So tell me a little bit about IMAGINE THIS. What was the mindset going into the studio to create this third album?
JL: I guess, basically, the second verse same as the first: just got to our little woodshed and started creating. I guess, by this time as we started to venture out, we had a bit more confidence in what we were doing and creating, so we just kept it going, and that’s what we came up with. That’s the one that had “Fo Fi Fo” on it.
RSW: Absolutely, I was about to say a little bit of something about that. That was the first time I’d actually seen you guys in a music video.
JL: Oh, right—we actually did a video; that’s right. And that was a blast … that was something. People would come up to us: “Oh, man, why’d you tear up the tickets? You won!” I’m like,“Um, you do know that was a video, right? That was make-believe.” They took it a little literally. But yeah, that was an awesome experience, doing that, and that was a really, really big song created by Grover and Cynthia Biggs and Dexter Wansel about when the Sixers won the championship in ’83.
RSW: Oh, okay—gotcha.
JL: And Moses Malone said, “We gonna take ’em in fo’, fo’, fo’.”—that was his thing: “Fo’, fo’, fo’, we gonna sweep ’em.” And it took them five games to beat Milwaukee: they swept Boston, they swept L.A., and Milwaukee was five games, so that turned into “Fo’ fi’ fo’.” And actually, Moses Malone is on the song saying “Fo’ fi’ fo’.”
RSW: Oh, really?
JL: Yes, he is. In the verse where it said, “I was watching the game just the other day/And Moses Malone said to Dr. J, what my lucky number is,” and then you hear a little voice say, “Fo’ fi’ fo’.” That’s Moses Malone.
RSW: That’s kinda cool. How did y’all convince him to come into the studio to do that?
JL: Well, Grover was really good friends with the Sixers, and he used to play a lot—you know, the anthem before the games—and hang out with the guys, so he got to meet them. And actually, one day it was Pieces of a Dream day at one of the Sixers games. We were invited to the game, and they put us on the teleprompter and played the song, and it was just awesome. So we got to meet a bunch of the cats; I got pretty close to Dr. J. Yeah, so that’s how that came about.
RSW: So now you guys are moving on, you’ve left Elektra and the next album comes out on Manhattan. So what was that transition like for you guys? Did you feel like people at the label understood who you were as a group, and were behind you a hundred and ten percent?
JL: Looking back, I think so, but back then, at the time, we were like, “Oh, wow … we don’t have a record deal anymore.” And I guess the elders got together, and next thing you know, it was like, “Oh, we got a record deal again, yay!” Once again--you dig? So I guess that was our outlook at that time, being that age and whatnot.
But then it was time to go into the studio again. This time we were going to be produced by doing half of the album with Lenny White, and the other half with Maurice White, so we did half in New York and the other half in Cali, which was really cool: we had two totally different vibes with two amazing producers. We got the New York and the funk and the go-go vibe from—
JL: From Lenny. And of course Bernard Wright wrote “Say La La.”
RSW: Oh, yeah, that’s right.
JL: You made mention of him earlier. We did a bunch of work with him in the studio, so yeah.
RSW: I was just going to ask you to explain a little bit about how the experience was in the studio with Lenny, because he actually was responsible for the label-mates that you guys were signed to at Elektra, which was his group Twennynine, and you guys were around the same time. So now, you finally get to work with him from a production standpoint. What was it like in the studio with him?
JL: It was really, really cool. It was a different approach, but he was also a very hands-on producer; but also, it wasn’t a very tight reigned kind of thing. It was just, “Let’s have fun and create,” and a lot of these ideas sort of happened right there in the studio. We had “Say La La” and “Joy Ride,” and just really had a ball during that whole process, and doing the whole New York thing. So then we went out to Cali and met Maurice White, and man—out of that came “Sunshine” and “Careless Whisper”… Oh, man—yeah, “Outside In.”
RSW: Some great tracks on there, man.
JL: Oh, thank you.
RSW: You guys actually went back and worked with Lenny again on the next album.
JL: MAKES YOU WANNA.
RSW: Yeah, absolutely.
JL: So, yeah, that was also a lot of fun to do. And man, we just kept it moving. And wow … looking back, it’s like, man, just album after album, and thinking like the whole journey and progression of things is just still amazing to me.
RSW: Absolutely. You guys were able to keep a deal or two or three, even though, at a certain point, the trend started to change from band-oriented music to solo acts, and you guys still continued to be a draw. People still love Pieces Of A Dream.
JL: Yeah. You know what’s funny is when we were coming up, there was no such thing as smooth jazz, first of all.
JL: Right? The term hadn’t even been coined yet. There were no smooth jazz radio stations, there were no smooth jazz festivals, there weren’t so many venues and whatnot as there are now, and outlets for what we were doing. But I think, with the help of Grover and just being blessed, and then people taking to what we were doing, it really got accepted, and it got played on whatever stations there were—like a lot of college stations, and then some of the, I guess, what we know as R&B stations back then.
JL: So we would get airplay on these, and next thing you know, it’s like, here, this is the start of a genre. Oh, and another funny thing, while we were in the studio with Lenny—I think it was during the MAKES YOU WANNA album—he was working with Marcus Miller on the School Daze soundtrack. So then we met Spike and I went over to his house and he showed me some of the footage. It was weird watching a movie with no soundtrack or anything—just watching the reel. And next thing you know, we’re in the studio recording the closing theme, “We've Already Said Goodbye (Before We Said Hello).” So we actually got to play that.
RSW: Oh, wonderful, man. So tell me a little bit about BOUT DAT TIME. Y’all went into the studio with a guy who was once Teddy Riley’s main man, Mr. Gene Griffin.
JL: Gene Griffin, right, and Preston Middleton, Dinky Bingham, and all those cats. So that was cool, because, I guess, being the age we were, yeah, we were into the jazz, but we liked to get funky, too. That was the way we came up, sort of both sides of that coin. So then, working with these cats, of course, Guy and the whole New Jack sound was hot back then. We enjoyed it as well; you dig?
So it was really fun working with those cats, and doing some of those things, and that’s how we met up with Norwood around that time. And it was like, “Man, this cat can play.” So yeah, that’s when he got with the band, and people really took to him.
I know some people--they felt that that music wasn’t us, or we strayed away from Pieces Of A Dream. And I’m sorry for anybody feeling that way, or to anyone who felt that way, but really, if music comes out of you, how can anyone say that it’s not you?
JL: So that was just another part of us; you dig? And we enjoyed it, so we got into it. And we did some writing and also writing vocals, at this point, now, singing backgrounds on things, so that was a new experience. It’s like an ever-evolving thing, and I think that’s what’s helped keep us in this business and around—and, of course, the fans--can’t do it without them—but just being able to roll with the punches, roll with the times, and ever-changing and ever-evolving.
RSW: Absolutely. All right, and I have one more question, I guess, for you, in terms of the music that you guys have created. Do you feel like you guys are known as a jazz group, or is it just like people pick apart pieces from your catalogue and identify with you that way? Like the “Mt. Airy Groove” and the “Fo Fi Fo”—some people might know you as an R&B group because of that.
JL: I think it’s both, really—I think it’s a bit of both, in that some people deem us as co-founders of smooth jazz, along with Grover Washington and Spyro Gyra and Jeff Lorber, which was more of a fusion thing, but still was instrumental and funky and jazzy. So we had that, but then, like I said, we had a funk side to us, as well.
I remember, back in the day, people would ask us, “What kind of music would you say that you play? How would you describe it?” and what we thought was, “We’re versatile … we’re versatile. We can go from straight-ahead to some blues or funk or some R&B at the drop of a hat, and just really dig into whatever it is that we’re doing. So I think, with that, we’ve pushed the envelope of the boundary of a specific type of group. We have vocals, as well, so it’s like, “Oh, is it instrumental? Is it jazz? Is it funk?” It’s music. There’s only two kinds: good and bad. You dig?
RSW: Absolutely. Well, I would like to thank you so much for taking the time out to speak with us today. We love Pieces Of A Dream--not pieces of a dream, but the whole, entire dream.
JL: [laughs] Oh, thank you so much. Really appreciate it, man.
About the Writer
Rico "Superbizzee" Washington is a Washington, D.C. native and has served as music editor for Brooklyn-based Free Magazine and was a staff writer and columnist for XLR8R Magazine. His work can be found in Wax Poetics, Art Nouveau, and Okayplayer.com. He lives and works in New York City.