Lenny Kravitz: Renaissance Man

Lenny Kravitz learned to navigate the industry to become a master of his game

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Photo by Stephen E. Smith

 

Sharon Heyward knew that she and Lenny Kravitz would be on the same page. After all, his mother was a sista. Heyward leaned in close, looking directly into Lenny’s face as they shared a joint.

“We are not rolling into the urban world on this rocker shit. Listen, if we roll through on an R&B tip, you gotta change up these clothes.” Lenny just laughed good-naturedly.

Heyward was charged with promoting Lenny’s second album, 1991’s Mama Said, to the Black market for Virgin Records. When they went to Washington, D.C., to promote the record to urban radio executives, Lenny left the boas, big sleeves, and flared pants behind, emerging from the hotel room in a salmon-colored three-piece suit.

Radio executives bought the toned-down Lenny. The mid-tempo, undressed love ballad “It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over”—featuring Lenny playing all of the instruments except Earth, Wind & Fire’s Phenix Horns, who appear at the end of the song—would be the first single to hit the charts on the Black market, soaring to number two.

“He was frustrated that Black people weren’t hearing his music. It was important to him to stretch those boundaries,” says Heyward, who broke Paula Abdul and Soul II Soul to the urban market.

“I’m still not sure if Black audiences are as aware of him as they should be,” says Quincy Jones, on the phone from California. “He reminds me so much of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley because they both told me that their biggest regret is that their people didn’t know them.”

“I thought he was blessed to be able to jump around in different genres,” says good friend and funk doctor Bootsy Collins. “To be Black, that was one of the hardest things to accomplish—was to play in different genres and have radio stations play your music. It was pretty much unheard of when we were coming up.”

When Lenny signed a record deal in 1989, Virgin Records America was a fledgling boutique label spun off from its older brother, Richard Branson’s British label that rocketed to fame in the 1970s with its first release, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. Lenny would join other Americans like Paula Abdul and Warren Zevon, who played a significant part in building a solid American repertoire for Virgin. There were few boundaries creatively, and the label was able to nurture Lenny. “He broke big in France and Australia,” remembers Jordan Harris, who was co-president of the label at the time. “He did well in the States, but he did really well outside the States.”

Virgin executives thought his sartorial choices just weren’t affecting the Black market. “There were times when I was like, ‘What the fuck are you wearing on your head?’ ” recalls Jeff Ayeroff, co-president at Virgin at the time. “It would be some leather bag on his head. He was getting too Super Fly for my aesthetic. He grew up with KISS posters on his wall, and he was all over the place with his physical aesthetic.”

Flamboyant and eclectic, he sorted through his Hollywood mother Roxie Roker’s wardrobe to get ideas for a unique look and developed a penchant for fashion from family friends, like Miles Davis. There was his high school look—“Romeo Blue” was his sobriquet, and blue contacts, permed, spiked hair, and Armani suits was the fashion. Then there were his long dreads and a hippie aesthetic for the first album, Let Love Rule, but music executives worried that fans would think he was a reggae artist and decided to put his image on the back of the album. He would ride over to the office on a loud ’91 vintage Harley motorcycle with “Let Love Rule” painted in ’60s lettering on the purple fuel tank, riding with his wife Lisa Bonet and baby, Zoe, in tow.

“It was the coolest thing. It was everything we hoped America could be,” says Ayeroff. “Lisa was the famous one at the time. They were in the tabloids. He was so handsome. People were like, ‘Who is this guy?’ ”

Executives toyed with his name. “They thought, ‘What kind of a name is Lenny Kravitz for a Black guy?’ I thought it worked perfectly. They wanted to call him Lenny K. A lot of the other labels wanted him to be the next Luther Vandross,” says Ayeroff.

In the end, what worked best was everything. His music, his style, and his persona were all interchangeable, a function of his creating. His commitment was to art for art’s sake. He turned down record deals, searched for and purchased vintage equipment to get a sound that gave him feeling, learned how to play dozens of instruments, and developed a stage show that would rival self-contained funk bands from the ’70s. There are incarnations of bands, and then there’s the incarnation of Lenny Kravitz.

 

Lenny had always lived between many worlds. Before his mother, Roxie Roker, became well known as Helen Willis on the ’70s television sitcom The Jeffersons, she graduated from Howard University and became a Broadway actress who had studied at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. One of her first television appearances was as co-host of the WNEW show, Inside Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the first Black-oriented public affairs television programs in New York, where she interviewed icons like LeRoi Jones and Harry Belafonte talking about topics like Blacks’ misrepresentation in the media, poverty, and politics. Five-year-old Lenny, who was attached to his mother at the hip, would come on the set and be awed by the coolness.

His mother’s day job was working as a secretary at NBC, where she met Sy Kravitz, a jazz enthusiast and promoter and a page for NBC who would eventually become a producer. He was a strict disciplinarian, a former military sergeant, and he and Lenny bumped heads often. Lenny spent weekdays with his parents in Manhattan and weekends with his Bahamian grandparents in Bed-Stuy. When his mother got the job with The Jeffersons, they moved to Los Angeles; Lenny was eleven years old.

He would stand in the line that would stretch down Sunset Boulevard to Tower Records, surrounded by people in sleeping bags and tents, whenever a new album by Stevie Wonder or Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin came out. He would get home, open it, smell the new album smell, read the liner notes, and the special thank-yous. To him, it was an experience, a piece of art.

He had learned basic chords on the guitar at the Harlem School for the Arts and learned everything else by ear. In L.A., he joined the school orchestra, playing drums in the marching and jazz bands. His mother wanted to keep him off the streets, so she signed him up for an audition to join the California Boys’ Choir. He ended up singing with the Metropolitan Opera and the L.A. Philharmonic, performed in classical operas like Carmen, The Magic Flute, Mefistofele, and La Bohème, and recorded with Zubin Mehta for Columbia Records. Lenny’s first professional concert was in 1981 at the Hollywood Bowl with Mehta conducting Mahler’s Third Symphony.

He balanced the discipline he learned as a classical singer with a working-class work ethic handed down from his Bahamian-born grandfather, Albert Roker, who taught him to always start the day at 6:00 AM, no matter what happened the night before.

But if Lenny adhered to a physical and mental discipline, his spirit was carefree and whimsical. Like Holden Caulfield, the main character from his favorite book, The Catcher in the Rye, he was most comfortable rebelling against any sort of convention, holding a mirror up to phony people, living a bohemian lifestyle, doing what he wanted to do. In one moment, he belongs to everyone. In another, he belongs only to himself. Like Holden, he yearned to be the world’s most celebrated outsider.

While still in high school, Lenny left home after a fight with his dad about whether or not he could go to a Buddy Rich concert. He slept anywhere he could, on friend’s couches and floors, in recording studios, or in his $4.99-per-day rented pea-green Ford Pinto. He roamed around for years, coming home for a few weeks here and there when he got in a jam. “My grandmother was like, ‘Chile, you need to get a job and take your butt to the post office,’ ” Lenny says with a chuckle. But one day, a woman named “Lady T.” took him in. Teena Marie, a self-contained multi-instrumentalist, cooked for him, gave him instruments, and took him to studio sessions. “A big reason why I am here is because of this sister,” Lenny says. He still went every day to Beverly Hills High School, mostly for his mother who was the first college graduate in her family.

Daniel “Zoro” Donnelly, a recent graduate of Beverly Hills High School, wanted to pursue music and thought he could find like-minded musicians at his old school. He decided he would go hang out on the lawn, blast his boom box with Earth, Wind & Fire tunes and see who came over to him. A sixteen-year-old Lenny Kravitz was the first person to come over and start talking to him.

By the time Lenny was seventeen, he and Zoro were going to jam sessions all over town and had started a rock and funk group they named Wave, with Zoro as the drummer, Lenny as the lead singer, and a fourteen-piece band. During the day, they were inspired by listening to Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Jacksons, Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, Jeff Lorber Fusion’s Wizard Island and Water Sign, and funk bands like Con Funk Shun and the Gap Band. They hired a horn section and held their first concert on December 3, 1982, at Beverly Hills High, complete with dry ice. “It was like Earth, Wind & Fire on steroids,” remembers Zoro.

Lenny talked his father into giving him the money he had put away for college so the band could record a full album at A&M Studios in Hollywood, the label of the Police and Janet Jackson.

On the day they planned to record, in 1983, Karen Carpenter died from heart failure. The studio she was using became available for the band. Next door, Frank Sinatra was recording “L.A. Is My Lady” with Quincy Jones. The demo garnered them a lucrative offer, but record executives wanted to turn the group into another Shalamar. Broke, but undeterred, Lenny turned them down and the group disbanded. “It went against all logic,” remembers Zoro. “It was God talking. He had that conviction. It showed him that what he really wanted to do was music.”

“I remember everybody hating me, because we didn’t have a deal because I wouldn’t sign,” Lenny says. “If I would have said yes, I would be done. I would be working at the grocery store. I wouldn’t be here. To this day, I don’t know what made me say no; I guess it was a spirit thing. My friends were like, ‘What the fuck is wrong with you? You’re living in a car and you won’t sign?’ ”

It would be another seven years—a few of them couch surfing and sleeping in his car and homeless, working as a shoe salesman and at a fish store—before he would get another chance.

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  1. GREAT article!!!

    – Thomas

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