Interview recorded on April 12, 2012
In 1994, Jesse Campbell made his debut with the Underworld/Capitol album NEVER LET YOU GO, and the hit “When You Cry, I Cry.” A year later, he and Trina Barnette scored a smash with their rendition of “Where Is The Love” for the “Dead Presidents” soundtrack. Record label politics, resulting in Jesse and other Capitol R&B acts being dropped from the company, along with a divorce and lack of work, led to Jesse and his daughter being homeless. After years of singing in churches, Jesse made it onto the NBC-TV competition series The Voice. With the show being a few weeks away from crowning a winner, the circle of competitors is shrinking quickly -- and Jesse keeps getting stronger by the moment. The “Soul Ninja” KEVIN GOINS talked with Jesse between rehearsals.
Kevin: This is Kevin Goins with SoulMusic.com. Our guest is enjoying a resurrection of sorts--came out of Chicago, Illinois, started in the church, has been singing Gospel, went into R&B in the 90’s, was a hit maker with Capitol Records--and he went through some hard times. The label made some changes, industry made some changes. He went back to his roots, and he’s now enjoying a comeback, thanks to his excellent performances and the stiff competition he’s been giving them on NBC TV’s The Voice. Please welcome to SoulMusic.com, Jesse Campbell.
Jesse: Hey, Kevin. Hello, everybody.
Kevin: And just wanted to say congratulations on your continued success on The Voice, Jesse. How does it feel to be, right now, pretty much … the circle seems to be shrinking and shrinking and shrinking. How does it feel to be in this circle right now, where the competition is getting more and more hectic between you and the singers?
Jesse: Well, it feels as though I am yet living a dream. I’m living my dream and it is the most gratifying, pleasing feeling that I’ve ever experienced. I don’t really look at this, ironically, as a competition, because, to me, this is what I was born to do … to sing and to inspire, and I just bring my experiences of the past to the stage with me., and I do my very best, and, hey, I just do my best to enjoy the moment of now, because I know that everything must change. So, as others, they come and go, I am just really grateful, and I perform from this place of gratitude and just love it. I’m just loving being where I am right now. It’s been a wonderful experience, thus far.
Kevin: Yes, and the audience seems to be loving it, and I know your mentor Christina Aguilera has been very supportive of you and your goals and your destiny. When you were slamming down on Alicia Keys’, “If I Ain’t Got You,” both you and your competitor were giving it all you got. But I’ve got to tell you, Jesse, you soared on that competition. Soared. It was a reminder of: it’s not how high the note, it’s how you use the note. You proved that, my friend.
Jesse: Thank you.
Kevin: You’re welcome.
Jesse: Thank you, very much. That was probably the most challenging aspect of it all, because we don’t do what we do to battle and to compete. It’s about performing from that place of love, and that’s one of those things where I had to make a reframing of a situation, because just singing from that place of love, I’m just really grateful that I was received with love to move on. So now, it’s like, hey, just keep it moving, but thank you for that though.
Kevin: You’re very welcome. It reminded me so much of the great battles that have been well spoken of and documented back in the history of Soul and Rhythm and Blues music in the sixties and early seventies, and it was just great to see that.
I want to briefly go back to your roots, Jesse. Windy City, preacher’s kid. What was it like cutting your teeth with greats such as Timothy Wright and the great Winans family? What was that like back then?
Jesse: Back then, I didn’t really have enough appreciation of being in the industry and ministry to really understand what it was that was happening. There have been expressions that youth is wasted on the young, and that’s kind of how I feel, or felt a little while before I got to this place., where I know that everything happens for a reason.
All things really do work together for good, because the song that I sang with the Winans--and I believe that was the first song; I can’t remember the order--but it was “We must work while it is day.” Then the one I sang with Timothy Wright is “Master Can You Use Me.”
So those, to me, were the prayer of my youth that brought about being answered in my adulthood. So I’m grateful for those experiences, and having known both Timothy Wright and Ron Winans, who gave me that opportunity--it makes this that much more enjoyable, because they were the first to reach out.
Business-wise, as it relates to Gospel, yeah, things could be a little better, but at the same time, had it not been for those experiences, I don’t believe I’d have the current experiences. To me, that’s what life is about; it’s about experiences.
Kevin: Right on, right on. And I want to go from that experience--you being brought up in the church, in your dad’s church in the Chicago area, and I’m sure you ruled the choir there.
I wanted to go from that to the mid-1990s, “Dead Presidents” soundtrack, you and Trina doing the duet of Roberta [Flack] and Donny [Hathaway’s] “Where Is The Love.” Now, I’ll tell you, many others have recorded that duet since Roberta and your fellow hometown legend, Mr. Hathaway cut it. Mica Paris and Will Downing come to mind.
But I got to say that other than Roberta and Donny’s classic, you and Trina Barnette really captured the essence of the original song from 1972, and the video, when you were dressed in that double-breasted overcoat with the tie; I’m like, “Where is your apple hat,“ because you were channeling Donny.
Jesse: That’s hilarious.
Kevin: You were channeling Donny, big time. Lets talk about that moment right there; lets talk about that because …
Jesse: That was magical.
Kevin: Yes. Now, who suggested … who brought up the idea of both of you cutting that particular song for the movie?
Jesse: That was the work of Darrell Porter, who was the president of Underworld [which was a part of] Capitol Records back then. Darrell Porter’s from Chicago, a very close and personal dear friend of mine. He had a vision, along with the Hughes brothers, and he brought that Chicago element … You can see how my hair was cut and all of that. Trina Barnette--she’s from Chicago.
We really just wanted to focus on being in the moment of the song, and really embodying the song and the lyrics so that we can convey the message. Darrell’s whole thing was--just make sure that you sell the song, Don’t just sing the song--and they got all of the clothing and everything together.
You know, it was just one of those moments where it just came together--being in the studio with Trina Barnette, who was just 16 years old … and saw such a wonderful raw talent in her. Then to have producers like Max Frank, who’s from Gary, Indiana, and Steve Guseck, who is from Chicago, as well … and we just brought that Chicago vibe and energy to the studio and to the camera. It was a blessing that it was all captured for the world to experience throughout eternity. It was just one of those magical moments.
Kevin: And it was a magical moment to see the video and to hear the song. I worked in record retail during that time, Jesse, in New York City, and other than the fact that the “Dead Presidents” soundtrack was probably one of the best selling soundtracks of that decade, next to Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn,” and other movie soundtracks that were out during that time [such as] the “New Jack City.” This was one where every song was a gem.
Of course, because it was classic soul--but that duet with you and Trina was a stand-out on that album, and I believe it really is what helped it sell. I think the soundtrack sold over a million copies. I think it did.
But I also want to get to your solo album you did for Capitol, which also had some great gems on it. Jesse, this album should have been your break-through album. It should have been a hit. I’ll let you explain to the listeners what happened. I know what happened, because I was there, but why didn’t this album become a big smash? Why wasn’t it a break-through?
Jesse: Well, I’m not one to really point fingers, but it was a situation where there were a number of things that came into play that kept it from being what it could have been. But it just really got to the point that I don’t believe that they really knew what to do with me, as an artist, and with such a wonderful album, which is the reason why, eventually. Capitol ended up dropping all of their black artists--all of their urban music. They did not know what to do with the talent they had. So, therefore, it ended up falling by the wayside.
And, at that point, I’m like, “You know what--it must not be meant for me to be in this genre, so let me just go back to church and just play it safe, and I can’t go wrong with singing hymns. Everybody loves a good hymn, and that’s kind of how and why I ended up going back to the church. But I did not understand that … I didn’t understand then what I understand now, which is, it takes some perseverance, and that God is going to allow you to have some challenges to see if this is what you really desire to do, because we know that life is full of tests and trials, and what not, but they come to make you stronger.
So, you know what, I love the album. People still love the album, and I believe that Capitol is going to re-release, I heard through the grapevine that they’re going to re-release that album because there are some timeless cuts on that album, and somebody’s going to benefit from it. I just hope that I am one of them. So that’s the best explanation that I can give.
Kevin: Absolutely. And I’ll fill in the cracks for the listeners out there. Basically, what happened was Capitol Records had a new president--he came in from Geffen Records--who basically said, ‘I have no experience in Rhythm and Blues music, and I’m not interested in even pushing it.’ This, and as a result, Jesse Campbell, as well as BeBe and CeCe Winans and many other acts, did indeed fall by the wayside during the mid-1990s.
I make no apologies for mentioning it.; it has been documented. Capitol did catch hell for this from the trades--Billboard magazine being one of them,. They’ve since learned their lesson. They got rid of this president . But I believe that a reason why Capitol and EMI are pretty much not in the best shape today is basically because of the things that happened back then. So there you go. But getting back to ….
Jesse: You said it. I’m glad you did say it.
Kevin: Like I said, Jesse, I was a retail buyer, I was a record store supervisor, I remember ordering your album, I remember selling it, I remember playing it, and you had the ladies buying it; you had the guys buying it for their ladies, and then it hit the brick wall.
Having said that, you went back to the church; you went back to Gospel music, and I’ve seen many clips of you performing on You Tube, but you also had some other things that were happening too, that kind of took your attention: one of them, raising your daughter. Could you kind of fill in our listeners as far as what happened then, and then we’ll move it forward from there.
Jesse: Yeah, well it still brings tears to my eyes, but I think, more so tears of gratitude for having made it through, because at one point I was going to take my life, because I felt like I had been forsaken. I tried my best to live as perfect as possibl,e and I put so much trust and faith in man, in the church, that when God allowed me to be slapped in the face by those individuals in that place of religion, then that is what began my awakening journey.
Once the economy dried up, to make a long story short, then so did the engagement. So, at that point, how can I provide for my family? And it got to the point where my rock bottom experience--which was when my daughter was sick. First of all, I moved to California to have a successful marriage and a successful career in the industry. And when the industry didn’t happen, then the wife took off, and years later, I ended up, shortly after the divorce--that’s when I ended up sleeping in my car with my daughter on my chest.
I could have come back to Chicago, but I made a choice to stay here in Los Angeles, because I know that … I knew then that I was born to inspire and to entertain. So I felt like there was a way to infuse them both, and this or New York was the place to be. I couldn’t afford to get to New York, so I felt like I need to make a choice to stay here in Los Angeles, because eventually something is going to happen.
So that’s why I stayed, and that’s how I ended up sleeping in my car for a little bit. And then, later on, years down the road when I had hit that rock bottom, and that rock bottom experience was when my daughter was sick, and I couldn’t afford to get her prescription filled, and nobody could and would help at that particular time. Be it for whatever reason, they couldn’t. I’m talking family, best friends … I am talking any and everybody that I know, uncles, nobody was in a position to assist me at that time.
And so I was so angry, so mad at God to the point where I cried, I cussed, I did everything except let my head spin around a good 360, and after I cried myself sick, and that’s when God said, in the loudest and most clearest thought, “I never told you to pass up on those opportunities. I sent a man a gift so he will use that gift.”
And at that point, Kevin, I woke up and I was like, look, evidently I have missed something because I have done my best, lived my life as best as I know how, based on the information that I had. So now I prayed that God would open my eyes and enable me to see things and people as they are and not as they appear. “And if I am to convey Your message, then I need to know truth. I don’t want to hear what no man or women has said. I’m inspired by You, the truth of the living God that I know lived in me, through me, as me, as a result of you just sticking to me and loud and clear as thought.”
It was then that I began an even greater awakening process to the point where now I am free of the oppression and the suppression of religion and those misunderstandings and teachings of various scripture to the point where I am now free to be as God created me to be. The genres of the world knowing that I am used by God in those mysterious ways that we often hear about.
So I’m not here to convert, but to convince that God is, and that is what my purpose is, to inspire the world using the talent that I have, that I may assist humanity and the Earth during this time of shift and transition. Because it is very clear that we are having a very transitional moment in time. That’s my purpose.
Kevin: Oh, wow. I hear you, Jesse. You just put it right there in a nutshell, and during this time, were you trying to get a record deal? Were you trying to perform? Were you trying to sing? Or were just things so, like you say, you were at rock bottom ,,, as George Clinton said, you felt so low you felt like you were looking right up at your feet?
Jesse: That’s low.
Jesse: I’ve never heard that one, but that’s low. That was basically it.
Kevin: That was from an early Parliament record called “(I Wanna) Testify,” But the thing is, Jesse, it sounds as if you pulled yourself up. And, as another Chicago legend, Walter Jackson said, it was “an uphill climb to the bottom,” but you made it. I’ve got to tell you--I listen to your music, I listen to the things you did on The Voice. You know what, Jesse, you probably could have done the thing with starting your own website, selling your music directly. What brought you to NBC TV and The Voice?
Jesse: Well, you asked was I trying to get a record deal. First of all, I really sought the assistance of just about everybody that I knew in the Gospel, be it the artists, as well as producers, and nobody, no one offered or lifted a finger to assist. That was a very, very challenging time in my life.
And, I must say, when I said that before in anger, to God, God brought one individual to mind, and that was early on, even before I signed the contract with Capitol Records. BeBe Winans offered to sign me, produce me, and the whole nine, so I will never forget that BeBe Winans was good enough to be the only one who offered, and who was willing to back up what it was that he had said. Other than that, no. It would be to the point where I was working with other people in the Gospel industry who had the ability, not only to sign me, but the platform from which I could have …
Man, this is amazing, I’m very grateful for this interview because it’s even allowing me to be me, because I’m really open to hearing what the One God has to say. So I can’t … I have to go back, because there were individuals who God sent to throughout that epoch of my life … who offered, but because of my state, back then, I did not see the opportunities that were there.
So, you know, to put it in a nutshell, I ended up working through a lot of inner issues, and what I came to find out was that it was primarily due to a spirit and an issue of unworthiness. I never felt worthy of the talent that God had given me. I never felt worthy, therefore, of the role that the gift and the talent brought about, which was opportunity. So, therefore I pushed them away, unknowingly, because that was basically the root of my un-success. And therefore, it took me having worked through those issues until I got to the place where I am now, at a place where I can stand before the world on this platform.
Now, to bring it full circle, now, after working … while working through these things, I just wanted to let God know that I am ready, that I am willing, that I am able, so therefore I feel that the best thing for me to do would be to take these engagements, or whatever people can afford, not feeling as though it’s from a pimp’s point of view, No, I am available to God, wherever he chose me.
I feel faithful to sing at any church, I’m there if there’s only 3 people, but I feel felt the glory of God through those three people. When I was on the street, and I sang on the street in California--didn’t have any money to eat with, I’m singing this and doing this for the Glory of God with love, and it’s like that’s when things begin to happen.
I was singing on the street of Santa Monica and I began to imagine myself singing on a platform and on a stage before millions of people every time I did it. Every time I’m at a church with a small group of people, that’s what I envision, and then I started going and auditioning for these singing reality shows, and I auditioned for all of them, but I’m grateful that The Voice had an ear to hear what it is that I have to offer and gave me this platform.
So that’s what I have to work through to get to this place, so all experience we get to experience. So I’m not mad at anybody, pointed to anybody, bitter, none of that anymore, because had it not been for the matter of my past, I wouldn’t experience the matter of my present. So, therefore, I am well aware of the fact that this thing I’m experiencing right now will bring about the experiences of the future.
Kevin: Amen, Jesse! I can tell you, you really told it like it is, my friend, and, oh, my goodness, I’m floored and I’m honored to be doing this interview with you. And I’ve got to say, you have been through many trials and tribulations, but it has brought you to this place now.
Lets go to that very first episode of The Voice. When you stepped out and sang Leon Russell’s “A Song For You.” And just to see Adam Levine, Cee-Lo Green, and Christina Aguilera just turn around on a dime … and Blake Shelton, I don’t know, I wanted to reach into the TV screen to slap him upside the head, but to see them just react the way they did, and to see the crowd react the way they did, Jesse, you had them, you had them right then and there.
Jesse: That was an experience. I’m sorry, go ahead.
Kevin: No, go ahead. Please, tell us, what were you feeling once you hit that platform?
Jesse: You know what? That was a moment; it was a moment in time when I felt as though this literally is happening. My dream is coming true, and when they turned, I’m like, oh, my Lord, which one do I go with? Who turned first? And I’m like,
“Hey, hey, buddy, you need to focus on finishing the song! Concern yourself with who you’re going to pick afterwards.” Then Blake turned his chair around and I’m like, Oh, my God. I got a little emotional and my voice started shaking and stuff,. But I was like, oh, my God, I am really about to manifest, live in the manifestation of the dream that I’ve meditated on for so long. And that’s really what came to mind.
Kevin: Right, and those judges were fighting over you after you were done singing.
Jesse: And that’s when--when they did, that’s when I thought, “Heaven will pour out blessings which you will not have room to receive …” That’s what came to mind.
Kevin: What is next for Jesse Campbell? How are you preparing yourself for the next round?
Jesse: Well, Kevin, my thing is … well, first of all, we have the next live performance, and that performance I’m going to do something that I’ve never done before. It’s a contemporary, sort of current song, and something that you probably wouldn’t expect to hear a man sing. And that is what is coming up, and, to me, it’s about literally bringing my A-game every time I perform … doing my very best, and bringing to the stage my experiences of the past, and singing from that place through the present, to the freedom from where I now live, and singing it to the point where I’m selling the song.
So, for me to bring to the stage, I don’t look at it as a competition, ironically. I go and I compete with myself, but that’s the Jesse Campbell that I can be, and that’s who I am, and it may or may not be what they’re looking for, but, hopefully, it’s enough that they will move me on to the next round. And when I’m done, I will finish and walk away from that stage knowing that I have done my very best, and I leave it on the stage as just let it be what it’s going to be.
Kevin: Well, Jesse, I know that you’ve got to go back to rehearsals, get back to preparing for that next round. I just want to thank you, so very much, and also want to thank my colleague Lynn Rodriguez for recommending that I interview you for SoulMusic.com. So I want to give her a shout-out; she’s a huge fan of yours. And Jesse, as a fellow Windy City person--by the name of Curtis Mayfield--once said, “Keep on pushing.”
Jesse: I love it; thank you, Kevin, and I appreciate you giving me this opportunity, and, hey, man, sending all kind of love and light to you and SoulMusic.com, and I look forward to doing some more interviews with you in the future.
Kevin: There ya go. Well, we’ll plan on it, Jesse. Take care.
Jesse: Thanks, Kevin. You, too.
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".