Interview recorded on March 11, 2012
North Carolina native Geoff McBride first achieved success in 1990 with his debut LP, DO YOU STILL REMEMBER LOVE? Bearing the hits "No Sweeter Love" and "Gotta Good Thing" and legendary producers Gerald Levert and Nick Martinelli, the album was poised to establish Geoff as the next great R&B powerhouse. (SoulMusic.com founder David Nathan even worked with Geoff, early in his career, in the capacity of media coach!) But after breaking into the top-20 of the Soul charts, Geoff vanished from the scene for nearly two decades. That's all finally changing, thanks to his participation in NBC's music reality program, "The Voice." He talks with Justin Kantor about his journey to now, and where he's headed.
Hi. This is Justin Kantor of SoulMusic.com. In February of 2012, singer Geoff McBride wowed audiences of NBC’s “The Voice” with his powerful rendition of Stevie Wonder’s classic “Higher Ground." Judge Christina Aguilera, whose team Geoff is now competing on, stated that she was taken from the very first note. Well, it’s no surprise, given Geoff’s music-drenched childhood and subsequent three decades in the entertainment industry, from his early '90s soul hits with the late Gerald Levert, to jingles, and recent live work on the Atlanta and Santa Rosa Beach club scenes. He’s here today to talk with me and fill us in on where he’s coming from and what his sights are on next. So, please welcome Mr. Geoff McBride.
Geoff: Hello, Hello.
Justin: Hey, Geoff, how are you doing?
Geoff: I’m very good; how are you?
Justin: Good! It’s good to see you.
Geoff: Likewise, likewise.
Justin: So, how have your performances been this week? I know you had a lot of performances, right?
Geoff: Actually, sold out. Sold out crazy.
Justin: I was reading something about the Fishhouse Band. Is that the group you’re playing with still, or is it different?
Geoff: Only one of the members, actually two--Jimmy Ward played with us about a year, and Tim and I pretty much have been the core of it all for four or five years.
Justin: Okay, so what’s the name of the group that you’re playing with now?
Geoff: It’s just our band at First Note, First Note Entertainment Hall.
Justin: Is that in Santa Rosa Beach that you’re doing that?
Geoff: Yeah, actually Blue Mountain. All the same to me!
Justin: Cool. So, you’re originally from Lexington, North Carolina.
Geoff: Right, I say Lexington, but it’s a little town called Southmont. I just combine the two together.
Justin: What do you remember about growing up there? What stands out to you about your childhood?
Geoff: For the most part, just good friends and family, because everybody in the family--we lived within a quarter mile radius of each other—the longest distance was a mile … just having really good friends.
Justin: And you were singing Gospel from a really early age, growing up there, right?
Geoff: Yeah. I started really singing at the age of 6; when I was 18, I really started taking it serious. It started to be the foremost of what I really wanted to do in life.
Justin: Right. I remember reading that you, at some point, as a teenager, had sung for President Jimmy Carter.
Justin: How did that end up happening for you?
Geoff: Well, actually, I was in the high school chorus, and my choral instructor at the time--somehow the paths crossed, as far as the political end of things at school there, and I ended up going to Ashville, North Carolina, and singing for him at the Grove Park Inn.
Justin: Was it for a fundraiser he had, or did he request you to perform for him?
Geoff: He actually requested that I sing for him. What it was, when he came through North Carolina, he heard me sing at my high school, Central Davidson High School, and I did a tune by Minnie Riperton, “Lovin’ You." That’s how I ended up there.
Justin: Do you remember how you felt when you were doing the performance? Was that you first time doing something in that mode?
Geoff: Definitely the first time doing something of that magnitude. Looking over at the President of the United States--it was kind of bone-chilling, in a sense.
Justin: Would you say that you were groomed for a career in music and performance throughout your childhood?
Geoff: I wouldn’t say groomed, but I think it was something, like I say, I’ve always wanted to do … sitting down and listening to different artists—and just seeing their path, as far as a career, really set strong with me. That’s my destiny, anyway. I chose to stick with it.
Justin: Were there any particular artists of those whose path you really admired, or their example of how they went about their careers?
Geoff: I think Sam Cooke really sticks out in my mind, simply because my dad really loved him—and he had the voice of Sam Cooke. If he were still around today ... his voice was the voice of an angel. Sam Cooke, James Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Ronnie Milsap. It varies; I love all different kinds of music.
Justin: Now, at some point, I think it was before you had your first record deal, you did jingle work. You were doing ads for Coca Cola and Dark 'N Lovely. How did that come about for you?
Geoff: That came about after I moved to Atlanta, Georgia, in ’89. Honestly, it was just like a whirlwind. They had a railway and bus line there—a transit system, and I ended up doing the first jingle for the MARTA rail system in Atlanta. From there, it just kind of took off, and I had to go to Chicago and do one for Oldsmobile. Then it just kind of caught on.
Justin: Was that something that you stayed with for a while? How did you find that work to be … singing as a jingle singer?
Geoff: When I first got to Atlanta, my high school friend, Donna Dansby, took me around to most of the studios and … did a demo tape. I remember going into Doppler and Crawford recording studios. I was doing demo work, and that was my first brush with doing advertising jingles.
Justin: You also, for a number of years—from what you said in your interview with Donnie Simpson—were touring with a top 40 band for a number of years. Was that kind of like your hard-knocks training as a recording artist, and learning how to be a professional, I guess, full-scale?
Geoff: Definitely. It was a great bunch of guys. I remember all of them, Barry, Billy, two Billy’s, Jimmy, Ricky, Ben Starr Everhart, Barry, like I said, and there was a couple of other guys that came in and out of the band, but they were teachers. I call them my colleagues, in a sense.
Justin: So how did you end up attaining the first record deal that you had with Arista Records?
Geoff: As I said, I went to Atlanta, Georgia. I remember having fifty-three dollars in my pocket, and I took my mom’s white Station Wagon. We used to called it "Moby Dick." I didn’t have a dime; I didn’t know where to start, and my friend Donna, once again, had moved to Atlanta. She was good friends with RuPaul. We went to Arcadia Productions, found Sammy Knox, who is a wonderful producer friend now, and we did a demo tape and took it to several different record companies, and ended up at Arista Records.
Justin: On your first album—it’s interesting to look back at it now—you worked with quite a line up of talented producers, ranging from the late Gerald Levert to Nick Martinelli, Dennis Lambert --really legendary soul producer. What was the experience like? For instance, Gerald Levert; actually, he produced all three singles you had out at that time. Was he someone that you had wanted to work with?
Geoff: Definitely. I loved the O’Jays' music with his dad Eddie Levert. So, when I had the opportunity to work with Gerald, I was all in. His voice alone--it was like, "Oh, my God, are you kidding me?" When we went into the studio at Philly Sigma Sound, lo and behold, I walk in and Teddy Pendergrass is sitting there, looking into the session.
We were sitting there doing “No Sweeter Love," realized Teddy was in the room at the time, and I got out of the booth after the first take. He looked at me and said, “Wow, man. You’re too young to sing like that.” I’m not the type to take something— I don’t mind a compliment, but I don’t know how to take compliments, sometimes. For him to sit there and talk to me was just like God had come down and said, “Okay. You can do this now.”
Justin: Yeah, like a confirmation. Those songs that you did, like “No Sweeter Love," “Gotta Good Thing"—were those songs that were written for you, specifically, or do you remember how the material was come up with as far as the album?
Geoff: They were actually written for me, specifically, and with the help of Gerald; he did a great job of bringing out of me what I really wanted to come across as an artist.
Justin: That’s awesome. I was listening back to a little bit of that today and, probably, one of my favorites from there wasn’t on the album, but it was a B-side called “Can’t Stop."That was one of my favorites.
Geoff: Yeah, that was produced by Sammy Knox, if I’m correct.
Justin: Yeah, now you mention he helped you get your deal, and I’m not familiar with him outside of his work with you. So was he someone that was from your band days, or is he known for something else outside of that, in particular?
Geoff: Actually, I think Sammy used to be road manager, or some part of Luther Vandross’ management … Bette Midler, and a couple other people.
Justin: Okay. When you were at Arista, did you work much directly with Clive Davis, with him being the head of Arista at that time?
Geoff: Yes, I did, and it was a pleasure. Clive doesn’t really come to a lot of auditions, but he came to mine and I was shocked. I remember doing an old remake of Meli'sa Morgan's “Do You Still Love Me?” … first song I did, and Sammy and I hadn’t even finished mixing the track that I was going to sing to.
So, we drove in and I had on a tank top and some leather pants. We got in there--I still had a 2-track tape around my neck and—this is no lie— Clive stopped me halfway through the song. I thought he was going to say, “No, it’s not what we’re looking for." He said, “Is that the kind of music you want to do for Arista Records?” That’s all he said. He said, “I’ll see you back at the record company.” In six weeks, we solidified the deal.
Justin: That’s awesome. I just talked to Meli'sa recently. I wrote the liner notes for SoulMusic.com Records' reissue of her DO ME BABY album. She said that “Do You Still Love Me?” is her personal favorite, as far as the impact it had. So, that’s pretty cool … you did that song. I’ll have to tell her. She’ll get a thrill out of that.
Geoff: I would love to remake it one day. That’s one of my favorite songs.
Justin: Yeah, it’s amazing. So, you had a real success with that album. You had songs on the top 20 R&B, and the album itself charted pretty well for you. Then you just kind of disappeared. Can you say anything about the circumstances that led you to just kind of drop out of the limelight after that?
Geoff: Well, I think that people turn over at record companies like changing clothes. I think what happened with me, with starting on the second record, there was a lot of frustration simply because Whitney Houston’s album I'M YOUR BABY TONIGHT—I think it leaked out in London.
So it pushed “Doesn’t That Mean Something," my record at the time, that was climbing the charts at number 24 … Everything just kind of subsided with me simply because … and I understood the politics of it all, because if you have an artist of that magnitude, Whitney Houston, you have to stop things and kind of get busy on that. Now I understood that, so, it was just time for me to move on with my career.
Justin: So you just decided to part ways instead of be kind of be there and not get the attention that you felt that you needed. So you ended up moving to Atlanta after that, or you were already in Atlanta, I guess. You became involved in the scene there for awhile?
Geoff: Yeah, I started singing at this church, North Point Community Church. I was there for seven years. My main thing that I really wanted at the time was a family, and I met my wife and we now have three beautiful kids, and we live in Santa Rosa Beach.
Justin: I read that there was a guy you started collaborating with on songs. I’m not sure if it was for other artists: Holst & McBride?
Geoff: Ben Holst. Yeah, super guy. Great prolific songwriter, great entertainer. We opened for Aaron Neville at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, and I think that’s when my career kind of took off again. It opened a whole new world, as far as the writing aspect of my career.
Justin: Just the connections from people that came to see you and so forth?
Justin: And when would that be about, that you did that?
Geoff: Around ’99 or so.
Justin: So it seems like you’ve been doing a lot of local work since you moved to the Florida area. I was reading about a guy, Tim Jackson, that you worked with. So what made you then decide to audition for “The Voice”? How did that come into the picture for you?
Geoff: My manager had mentioned to me about “The Voice” and “X Factor." I really wasn’t into the reality TV shows, even when it comes down to music, because I don’t think that music is a competition. It’s a universal language and we should speak it fluently wherever we go—not compete with what’s going on with the actual music.
But, she brought that to the forefront in my mind, along with my wife, who had spoke to me about it, and we kind of watched a couple of the shows once or twice. To reiterate things, my brother had said something to me about it, so we decided to send a tape, my wife and I, to “The Voice." They got back with me immediately, and that’s how I ended up with an audition.
Justin: I’m someone who’s generally more skeptical of the reality shows, as well, so I don’t keep up with it a lot. It’s actually because I knew your work that I wanted to do this interview. With “The Voice," do you have to submit a tape before they will consider you for an audition? Is that the typical way it works, or how did you do it?
Geoff: You can go about it two ways, I believe. You can send a tape, or you can go down for the audition, and I actually did both.
Justin: Was there anything about that show that appealed to you, versus some of the other ones that are out there, like “X Factor” or “American Idol”?
Geoff: Well, I think that what appealed to me most was the fact that the judges’ chairs were turned. You know how this industry is: it can be very fickle, because if somebody looks a certain way, or if the demographics are not correct, you’re not going to get the notoriety you should. The chairs were turned and all that they heard was the voice. It gives you a better opportunity and a shot at where you want to go.
Justin: When you mentioned that--it’s interesting, because I was reading a little write-up talking about the fact that you were wearing shades. People were asking, was it because you wanted to be cool? But I guess … was it before you were with Arista, that you were a boxer for a while?
Justin: I didn’t even notice an injury when I saw that older interview that you did with Donnie. But as you said, that does make a big difference as far as them not being able to judge by your appearance right away. Was the song, “If You Feel Like Stopping By,” the song you submitted to them?
Geoff: I actually did Marvin Gaye's “What’s Going On."
Justin: I heard “If You Feel Like Stopping By,” I guess, when NBC had posted that before you started up. Was that something that you recorded once you got accepted into the auditions?
Geoff: No, Tim Jackson and I—he’s become one of my best friends--we wrote that song four years ago. We’ve written tons of songs and we actually decided to put them on a couple of albums and sell them, just off the stage, actually eight albums of songs. We ended up writing a blues album; it was nominated for a Grammy three years ago.
Justin: Oh, wow. Eight albums ... that’s impressive. I had read about an album called BARE BONES.
Geoff: That was the first, that was Tim and my first work together.
Justin: How did you end up choosing Stevie’s “Higher Ground” from INNERVISIONS to do as your blind audition?
Geoff: I think that that song itself speaks to me, and lends to where I want to go with my life. It’s to a lot of people; everybody’s trying for that higher ground. So, it kind of hit home with me, that song.
Justin: What made you decide to go with Christina Aguilera’s team when, in the heat of the moment, you had to make a choice like that?
Geoff: Because she turned around, probably, in the first couple lines of the song. She was with me through the whole song. I thought that was very admirable of her. When you walk on that stage, I think the main thing is to have an open mind, and pick the person best suited for you, and that’s why I stuck with her.
Justin: So, if I’m correct, I don’t know if it’s the same as last year, but I think the prize for the ultimate winner of “The Voice” is a contract with Universal Republic, and a hundred thousand dollars. For you, going into this as someone who initially was kind of skeptical about even a music reality show, do you go in specifically with that goal, or do you have other expectations, or things you want to get out of it?
Geoff: For me, when I got into it, it wasn’t about the money. It’s never been about the money to me. That comes with the territory. For me to get my feet planted back with my career was the main thing. I’ve pretty much done that now, and like I said, “The Voice” has been a great, great pedestal, and it’s going to do that for a lot of artists, if these reality shows continue.
Justin: Yeah, because it’s interesting … even another guy in the auditions along with you, Jesse Campbell, another singer who had a record out a little after your first one, another great singer. You mentioned about the competition aspect being something that was a little different from your own philosophy of what music is about, and that was actually something that I was going to ask you about.
Clearly, when you go on a show like this, after this blind audition, the next phase is called the battle phase, and you’re singing with someone and being judged against each other right in the same moment. Given how you feel about that, is this something where you learn from the other artist that you’re kind of competing with? Or does it come down to where you really feel like, "I have to do this or do that in order to go to the next phase"? How do you approach it now that it is kind of a competition?
Geoff: To me, I walk on that stage every chance I get and do my best. I’m really not even paying attention to what the other artist is doing. If it comes down to where I’m in a--I call it duet, regardless--if it’s with a female, of course, my thing is to compliment her as well as do what I’m supposed to do. That’s appease the audience and that’s my goal. So, I don’t look at it as a battle at all. My battles in the ring are over.
Justin. So, for you doing this now, it’s such a different time in the industry now, from when you first debuted. Back then, it was very much an industry that was controlled strictly by the major labels, largely. It seemed the goal always was for everybody to want to get a major label deal, and go about things that way. Clearly that’s still part of the picture—with “The Voice,” people are looking for a major label deal.
But there’s a lot of other factors with social networking. So, I guess when you’re doing a thing like this, you maybe do a lot of self promotion to try to get people aware of when you’re on a show like this. Do you rely on the producers of the show and the powers that be to kind of take care of things, or do you do things on the promotion/business side to compliment what you’re doing?
Geoff: I think, most of all, it’s important to keep in touch with your fans. My wife and I both try to Tweet back and e-mail back as much as we can. The show itself is going to put you in that limelight, so you take advantage of those opportunities. They do a lot of the legwork and they do have your best interests at heart. So you have to respect that, and do what you’re supposed to as an artist.
Justin: So, what’s the next step at this point? Do you go out to Los Angeles, at a certain point, to start the competitions? What’s the status at this point?
Geoff: For me, it’s actually Monday, this coming Monday.
Justin: Tomorrow? Okay. You look pretty relaxed considering, so that’s cool.
Geoff: This is it today. I've got a show tonight, and then I've got to get out of here.
Justin: Do you know what you’ll be singing? How does that work?
Geoff: I don’t.
Justin: Do they give you songs that you have to sing with the people you’re singing with?
Geoff: You’ll actually get to pick when you’re there.
Justin: Do you know who you’ll be singing with, or is it all a big mystery?
Geoff: That’s a mystery until we get there.
Justin: So, now that you’re going into this phase, do you have to put a hold on everything else you’re doing, as far as your gigs in Florida and so forth?
Geoff: Right. Everything’s on hold. I’m ready to get my new album out, though; I’ll tell you that.
Justin: If this goes all the way for you—I know you said you’ve been really concentrated on family for a long time—this could be something, potentially, that could change a lot of the dynamics of your life. Is that something that you feel, at this stage, you’re ready to make that sacrifice, or would it be difficult to kind of make that change?
Geoff: My whole family is pretty much laid back. My wife and the kids just roll with the flow, because we stay pretty busy anyway. The kids have their little modeling thing going on; and hats off to my wife, because she keeps us all in check and keeps everything organized. It helps me, because it gives me the leeway to do what I do as an entertainer. Ultimately, the goal would be them traveling with me to some of the places, especially if I’m going to be gone for a while.
Justin: Well, I wish you lots of … I don’t even have to say good luck because you’ve got the talent to do it. I hope it’s a real positive experience for you, and that you enjoy it all the way, no matter what the results are. I think it’s great that you’re doing it, and I’m sure a lot of people, like myself, who wondered whatever happened to Geoff McBride, will be glad to see you doing your thing in this new medium.
Geoff: Thank you so much. It’s people like yourself that are so humble and gracious to lend your time, as well, to respect the arts and what’s going on with them. So I thank you very, very much for your time and effort.
Justin: You’re very welcome. Same here. I really appreciate the opportunity. I always learn a lot from talking with artists such as yourself. And thanks for keeping it real.
Geoff: I’m looking forward to talk to you soon.
Justin: Awesome Geoff. I really appreciate it, and have a great trip and get some rest.
Geoff: I'll try to. Take care.
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.