Obscure, jazzy R&B band Nu Shooz took a cue from Portland’s local new-wave scene and morphed into synth-pop stars

by Bobby Smith

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Nu Shooz

It’s 1975 as John Smith thumbs a ride somewhere along the I-5 corridor. Adrift in Washington State, the nineteen-year-old hitchhiker waits as the hum of the freeway presents music to his ears. His wayward journey began in his hometown of Los Angeles, and despite a few starts and stops (including a lift by Bachmann-Turner Overdrive’s equipment van), he’s now backtracking en route to Portland, Oregon. As an aspiring guitarist with no set agenda, Smith’s story up until this point reads like the lyric sheet to “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Little does he know what Portland has in store for him.

 

Originally published as “Modern Movement” in Wax Poetics Issue 62

 

Upon arriving in the Rose City, he meets his match. Valerie Day, a fifteen-year-old ballet-dancer-cum-percussionist, makes his acquaintance at the “Cosmic Bank”—a local commune opening its doors to the penniless traveler. The couple’s romance and creative partnership would quickly blossom. They have since married, raised a family, made a gold record and—throughout a succession of musical accolades—minted a legacy that remains eminent in Portland and beyond.

In the latter half of the ’70s, Smith and Day’s musical relationship incubated through an eclectic range of activities. Their interest in what is now referred to in the West as “world music” evolved during this period. They tried their hand gigging in Latin, African, calypso, and big band ensembles. Day worked as a percussionist in modern dance classes as well as Ghanaian master drummer Obo Addy’s group, Kukrudu. According to Day, “I received an incredible world-music education in Portland.”

With a yearning to grace the national stage, Smith left for New York. “I went to New York and thought I was this hot jazz guitarist,” he claims. “But there were fifteen-year-old kids there that played better than I would ever play in my life!” Smith’s stint in the Big Apple was short-lived, but all was not lost. His discovery of a Motown songbook in an empty loft would change his approach to songwriting and arranging indefinitely.

Back in Portland during the summer of 1979, Smith was ready to start a band. His intent was to assemble a quintessentially American soul act. The band was called Nu Shooz. In the six years to follow, the group’s work ethic was insatiable. Pulling covers from the Motown book as well as composing countless originals, they worked five nights a week playing four-hour sets to crowds throughout the Northwest. Nights off were spent writing and rehearsing. At their peak, Nu Shooz gigged over three hundred nights per year.

Nu Shooz

Nu Shooz at the Neighborfair, Portland, Oregon, 1985. All photos courtesy of Nu Shooz.

 

Throughout the early part of the ’80s, Portland’s downtown was bustling with nightlife. It is often described by locals as a golden era in the city’s R&B landscape with groups such as Pleasure, Shock, Cool’r, Dan Reed, Crazy 8s, and Nu Shooz paving the way. According to Day, “We made a living playing music with a nine-piece band—a miracle by modern standards.”

Portland-based label Nebula Circle released the band’s debut LP, 1982’s Can’t Turn It Off, an R&B and disco outing polished with soulful hooks, complex changes, funky guitar vamps, and extended horn solos, like on the six-and-a-half-minute “Minor Yours.” The record never made it to radio; new wave had begun to take the city by storm. Factions arose between new-wave and funk proponents within the group, and the band underwent a sea change in its roster. A mass exodus transpired, and Smith set to work steering Nu Shooz back to the horn-based funk he loved deeply.

In 1985, a 7-inch single called “I Can’t Wait” was released on the band’s own Poolside Records imprint. “It took six months in the studio to make it work,” says Smith. “For a long time, it was this long, plodding song. I was ready to pull the plug on it. Then one day, I listened to ‘Jungle Love’ by the Time. There was this bottle part—percussion played on wine bottles. We appropriated that, and then the track started to move.”

As local reviews of the single cropped up, DJ Gary Bryan of Portland’s Z100 read on-air one critic’s assessment of the track that praised the song with the caveat that Top 40 radio would never play it. Right then, Bryan announced to the band, “If you’re out there, come on down!” The group’s manager, Rick Waritz, immediately hopped on his Vespa, tape in hand, and within an hour, “I Can’t Wait” was broadcast. The phones lit up. Before long, stations in Seattle and Boise were playing the track as well.

Suddenly, the group had a hit, albeit regionally. Nu Shooz had no luck shopping their wares to a major label. No one was interested. As the buzz surrounding them began to subside, so did the group’s hopes in breaking out of the regional beat they’d been limited to for six years.

Nu Shooz

Meanwhile in Holland, twenty-one-year-old Peter Slaghuis picked up a 12-inch version of “I Can’t Wait” in a record bin. Though unsuccessful in inking a contract with the majors, the group had managed to license the single to a record pool called Hot Trax. The Hot Trax records were mostly distributed to DJs with limited international export.

There were only a thousand copies pressed.

Slaguis was taken by the record and tried his hand at a remix. “The first time I heard the remix,” Smith recalls, “we were on the road. Rick called us and played it over the phone. I said, ‘I like this mix because I never would have thought of it in a million years.’” The “Dutch Mix” (as it would later be referred to) made its way back to the States as an import on Injection Records, lighting up the discos of New York City and initially selling ten thousand copies per week. “Larry Levan probably made our career,” Smith affirms. “He was playing the heck out of our record at the Garage.”

Atlantic Records quickly signed the band. Nu Shooz bounced between recording studios, mixed with legends such as Shep Pettibone, Mantronix, and John Morales, and performed live at iconic New York venues the Paradise Garage, the Palladium, and the Roseland. Smith had made it back to New York—this time riding high off the work he and his group accomplished back home in Portland.

As “I Can’t Wait” began its ascent up the Billboard charts, Atlantic initially chose not to expose the identity of the band via photos or press-release material. “Everyone thought we were either Dutch or Black,” recalls Valerie Day. “I remember taking the stage to an all-Black crowd in New Jersey, and these women in front just gave me the finger! “Then I took a conga solo.”

Nu Shooz embarked on a rigorous international tour schedule in 1986. Invitations to appear on Top of the Pops, American Bandstand, and Soul Train began to pour in. By the year’s end, “I Can’t Wait” was at number three on the Billboard chart, and the band was nominated for a Grammy for Best New Artist. Thirty years later, the song has been sampled by artists ranging from Spyder D and Naughty by Nature to Brian McKnight, Vanessa Williams, and 50 Cent.

“I Can’t Wait” still plays somewhere on Earth every eleven minutes.

Nu Shooz

After another record with Atlantic and enduring the forgettable pop music culture of the late ’80s, Nu Shooz called it quits in 1992. “It wasn’t fun anymore,” Smith says. “The original idea was to have a band where we learned just enough [dance music] to play gigs, but it would be a front organization for an avant-garde jazz group. It didn’t turn out that way.”

Smith and Day soon went back to the drawing board, back to the eclecticism of their early endeavors. John has since scored for film, dance, and commercials. Valerie teaches Jazz Vocal Studies at Portland State University and is an advocate for arts education locally. With their son out of the house, the pair have recently reunited with former members of Nu Shooz. The band is once again playing shows. There is even talk of a new record.

“Funk is coming back to Portland,” declares Smith. “There’s all these new young soul bands happening right now. I feel like I’m home again.”

Nu Shooz

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