Leroy Burgess is the crowned king of boogie
Mention the word “boogie” around Leroy Burgess and you’re bound to get a response of theatric proportions.
Mention the word “boogie” around Leroy Burgess and you’re bound to get a response of theatric proportions. “My crown, my crown,” he cries out in a faux British accent. Contrary to this jovial outburst, Burgess is a surprisingly low-key guy who feels right at home nestled away on his sleepy street in the Bronx. “I need to be able to walk around and be anonymous,” says Burgess, “so I describe myself as the anti-star.”
It’s probable that you’ve gotten your groove on to a tune composed by the incomparable Leroy Burgess in your funky travels. After spending nearly a decade as founding member and lead vocalist of the street-corner soul trio Black Ivory, Burgess transformed into an anomalous maestro of percolating dance anthems for indie acts like Fonda Rae, Logg, and Universal Robot Band, while contributing to major-label projects by Eddie Kendricks, Rick James, Herbie Mann, and T. S. Monk.
Recognized as one of the key progenitors of house music, the output of his career can be classified as (a) rare funk gems, (b) quiet-storm classics, (c) Paradise Garage staples, (d) hip- hop sample fodder, or (e) all of the above. Be it crooning to a crowd or lecturing to music-industry hopefuls at the 2004 Red Bull Music Academy in Rome, his humble demeanor has accorded him the ability to put his success in perspective. So whether you’re gettin’ over like a fat rat or barely breaking even, don’t fault Burgess. Blame it on the boogie.
While you were in high school, how did your group the Mellow Souls segue into Black Ivory?
The Mellow Souls was the original name for the group that was to become Black Ivory. In the summer of 1967, I was shooting some hoops with a friend named Larry Newkirk. He started singing on the court, and I started singing too. At that point, he invited me into his group. Eventually, Larry dropped out, and Stuart Bascombe came in. Another guy, Vito Ramirez dropped out and Russell Patterson came in. And it became Stuart, Russell, and myself as the center of Black Ivory.
With the new lineup in place, at what point did Patrick Adams come into the picture?
Patrick was dating Larry Newkirk’s sister, Gail. Because of that connection, we were able to set a date for Patrick to come over and check us out. But Patrick called and said he couldn’t make it. When he called, I was practicing in the background. He heard me and wanted to know who it was. So we wound up doing a telephone audition. After that, Patrick was sold on the group. We started doing talent shows at different high schools. At that time, Patrick became friends with Kool and the Gang’s manager. Back then, they were just an instrumental funk band with no vocals. So their manager decided to put us onstage before their sets doing a few top-forty songs while the band backed us up. This was how we got our first real stage experience. Shortly after the personnel changes happened, we went to Philly to record the song “Don’t Turn Around.”
Was that at Sigma Sound Studios?
Yes! See, Patrick had a vibe with his ballads that was competitive with my uncle, Thom Bell. And at that time, everybody was writing those Delfonics-type songs. So Patrick got the money together for us to go to Philly and record with the Philly rhythm, strings, and horns sections. So we recorded “Don’t Turn Around” and “I Keep Asking You Questions,” our first single. When we came back to New York, Patrick did his wheeling and dealing and ended up securing a deal at Perception/Today Records. On the strength of the Black Ivory project and what they knew he was capable of, Patrick also got an A&R job at Perception.
Did you return to Philly to record the remainder of your first album, 1972’s Don’t Turn Around?
We only did those two sides in Philly. The rest of the album was done in New York at a studio called Blue Rock. The album took a few months to record. But the record came out and was bigger than anybody thought it would be.
You guys did a lot of writing on the first album, but on the second album, Patrick Adams and David Jordan assumed those duties. With that said, there was a vibe on the first record that was discernibly absent on Baby, Won’t You Change Your Mind. What was the reason for the shift?
[laughs] The first album came out and was a success, so we started touring as a result and were away from New York a lot. Stuart, Russell, and I were actually composing material and putting ideas together while we were out on the road. But when we came back to New York, however, Patrick told us that the whole album had been written. He had formed an alliance with a songwriter named David Jordan from down South, who we’d never seen before, and they basically decided that this was going to be the second album. We signed that contract a little too fast and essentially turned over the power; we weren’t in the position to protest too much. We didn’t have any options; we needed a second album at that time. But as a result, yes, the entire vibe changed. You don’t have the interaction that you had on the first album. One of the things that made the first album was the interaction between Stuart, Russell, Patrick, and myself. We were all sharing in the composition and arrangements.
It also sounded like you guys had more fun with Don’t Turn Around, especially on the cut, “Our Future.”
That was a track that Patrick had done for Lucky Peterson, an artist on Perception Records. Patrick had finished the Lucky Peterson session and was still trying to figure out how to fill up the last slot on our album. So he told all of us to come in. We were with our girlfriends and buddies, so a crew of us showed up at the studio. He put the track on and told us to just start talking. So we just started making jokes and general gabbing. But the point of “Our Future” was to say, “Is the future of African American inner-city people centered around being at the party and hanging out?” That’s why we were just saying all kinds of irrelevant shit.
On the first album, you’re credited as doing the vocal arrangements. Did you at least do any on the second album?
Again, not as much. They said they had all the formulas laid in. Stuart and Russell didn’t even get to do a lot of singing on that album. They would call me in to do the lead vocals. I’d be like, “Well, who’s that on the backgrounds?” And their answer was, “Don’t worry about it.” Now, on certain songs, the three of us did in fact sing. “Baby, Won’t You Change Your Mind” is an example. But on most of them, David Jordan and Patrick would be in the background. That made us unhappy with the relationship, and, for a while, that was the last thing Black Ivory did with Patrick.
Most labels usually make the lead singer the visual focus of the group. But on most of the Black Ivory album covers, Stuart was the focus. Was that a point of contention for you?
I knew Stuart was the pretty boy. And in a marketplace that’s guided by looks and imagery, sure, that’s perfect. And it was fine, because everybody knew that I was the lead vocalist. When you came to the show and saw me singing, it clicked. It didn’t bother me until much later. After a while, it became quite an issue.
After that second record, Black Ivory left Today Records in 1973, ultimately landing at Buddah Records. What instigated the departure?
We left because of how the second album went down. We didn’t want to stay at a place where we couldn’t grow creatively. We weren’t just singers; we were singer-songwriters. We were aspiring to arrange and become musicians. And the second album just took all of that away from us. It didn’t give us the opportunity to express ourselves. So we reasoned that if this was going to continue to be the case, we didn’t need to be there.
In the interim, you guys recorded a funky little one-off single, with arrangements by Vincent Montana that landed you back in Philly.
Yes, there was one single that we cut [in 1974] on Kwanza Records, a Warner Brothers label, called “What Goes Around Comes Around.” Basically, we made a deal with Norman Harris to do a single on us. But when we got to Philly, Norman Harris had pawned us off to one of his sub-production groups. And they wrote and produced “What Goes Around Comes Around.” We came in and sang it in one day, along with the flip side, and that was it. Again, we weren’t happy. We didn’t have any input. And we really didn’t even get the Philly sound, because it wasn’t Norman Harris. But also around that time, Buddah Records became interested in acquiring Black Ivory.
Was the deal with Kwanza originally an album deal or just a single?
It was supposed to be an album deal. But the single came out and Kwanza folded shortly after that. I’m not exactly sure what the problem was. But after the single came out, we performed for about six months, and then signed with Buddah.
So how well did you settle in at Buddah?
We began to have more input in terms of the production and songwriting. We were paired with two guys on [1975’s] Feel It who were good songwriters in their own right. But, again, the sound was not correct. We did a second album that got closer. But at that time, I was starting to get disenchanted on a personal level with my growth as an artist and what the group was allowing me to do. When 1976 rolls around, I’m thinking actively about leaving. So in 1977, when the Buddah contract was up for renewal, I let them know that I wasn’t going to renew with them.
Did you discuss your decision with Stuart and Russell?
First, I discussed it with my mom and dad. I got support from them, and then I went to Stuart and Russell. At first, they didn’t believe it. Then when they realized that I was serious, they tried to convince me to stay. But I was adamant about leaving. I didn’t think I could progress with them.
Did you have any immediate plans after you left from the group?
After I left in 1977, it took me about a year, but I started writing again and got a chance to write my first hit song away from Black Ivory. And it just so happens that I ended up back with Patrick Adams. He was starting to do a lot of music on the disco scene with groups like Musique. He also had a project called Phreek on Atlantic Records. He had basically finished the project, but he had a few slots for a couple of songs. I had this song called “Weekend,” and he wanted to cut it [for Phreek]. Atlantic heard it and said, “This is the single!” As it turned out, it was the only single off that album.
So “Weekend” was the springboard for your songwriting career?
Exactly. I started working with the Aleem Brothers, and we released some independent records that did well on the radio. Around this time, Black Ivory is starting work on their third album for Buddah, and they need songs. I had a song called “Mainline” that I wasn’t really doing anything with. I’d originally written it for myself and did a demo of it. It was nice enough, but nobody was really feeling it. So I went back and cut it with Black Ivory. This was the reunion of Patrick Adams with the original lineup of Black Ivory. I wasn’t back in the group, per se, but I was there writing, singing backgrounds, and playing keyboards on that single. Patrick was doing the string and horn arrangements. So it was just like the old days. Consequently, “Mainline” was the biggest chart hit that Black Ivory had and the song that we’re most well known for. That album, Hangin’ Heavy, was the last album Black Ivory did. Stuart and Russell released another album called Then and Now that had some old joints and a few new joints on it. It was kind of like a compilation. At any rate, I kept writing, and the songs that I wrote were getting me back in. And as I got back in, I was able to sing, and people heard me. This is when I came into my own as a songwriter and a producer. I started developing groups. Aleem, Convertion, Logg, Universal Robot Band, Change, Fonda Rae, Jocelyn Brown, and all kinds of other side stuff.
On the few Black Ivory compilations that have been released on CD, the original version of “You And I” is often replaced by a synth-and-drum-machine version with an early ’80s feel. Is there any reason for that?
I know there were a couple of different mixes of it. The original album cut was a seven-minute-long epic with strings. But on various compilations over the years, I’ve heard mixes that were thrown out that somebody got a hold of and put out. When Perception Records went on the block, our former manager Lenny Adams purchased it. He then, in turn, sold it to Sugar Hill Records. So when ownership changes hands, anything can happen.
The evolution of the Logg project is an interesting story. How did it come to expand over a few different labels and take on three different names?
James Calloway and my cousin Sonny Davenport were my two songwriting and production partners. We were approached by Greg Carmichael to put together a song for Sam Records. We came up with the name Convertion, and the song was called “Let’s Do It.” It turned out to be a big club record. So we approached Sam Records about doing an album, but they said they didn’t have any money to do a full album and quoted us some extremely low price per song. We were like, “No! You gotta come with a real budget!” [laughs] But little did we know that he had gone out and copyrighted the name Convertion. The label thought they had us cornered. But Greg took the project to the Cayre brothers at Salsoul. They were ecstatic about a Convertion album, but we knew we couldn’t use the name. So Greg called me up and asked me what to call the group. I told him I was busy writing the songs for the album, so I left it up to them. Then somebody called me back and said they came up with Logg. And I really didn’t care. To this day, I don’t know the origin of the name. And I asked them. It doesn’t stand for anything. [laughs] The album sold fair in the States, but it was huge in Europe. At that time, the nucleus of James, Sonny, and myself were working like a finely tuned machine. We were reading each other’s thoughts; we just locked. And we had the right supportive cast around us. That’s why Logg is considered to be one of my best albums.
The song “Barely Breaking Even” was recorded for the Logg album. But why was it released well over a year later on a different label for the Adams and Carmichael project, Universal Robot Band?
“Barely Breaking Even” was stolen from the Logg project. The master tape was at the studio where the rest of the album was and Greg Carmichael went in and grabbed that tape. He was unhappy with Salsoul and was like, “Well, they ain’t gettin’ all these good songs; I gotta get one!” So he went and got it and sold it to someone else who released it. That’s the song we had the most fun with. We kind of went nuts on that one! That’s when we had the whole crew, girls and guys. Everybody was there that day. We had one day to cut it. We had a ball with that! Nobody got tired, and it was a fourteen- to sixteen-hour session.
That energy definitely resonated, being that Peter Adarkwah of BBE Records named his record label after that very song.
[laughs] He’s told me that. I met him once in London when I was doing a tour to support my anthologies. He told me that he was naming his company Barely Breaking Even after the song I wrote and performed as Universal Robot Band.
So with all these hits that you, Sonny, and James were creating, a trademark sound developed that people dubbed “boogie.” So, by default, you are called the king of boogie. What exactly is boogie?
[laughs] They call me the king of boogie. But boogie is nothing but disco, slowed down a little bit. “Let’s Do It” was a boogie-flavored joint. “Over Like a Fat Rat” was also, again the same nucleus, boogie. “I Know You Will,” definitely boogie. It’s not fast enough for disco. Sonny and James were not only my songwriting and production partners, but we were also the central rhythm section on all of our songs. I was on keyboards, Sonny was on drums, and James was on bass. And it was that nucleus that developed that specific sound. We did commercial music, but we always put something complicated in it. A good example of this is the piano passage in “Over Like a Fat Rat” that accompanies the lyric “snug as a bug / in your arms.” Those are deep chords that you wouldn’t normally hear in mainstream music. That’s something we tried to incorporate into our sound. But it all began with musicianship.
“Over Like a Fat Rat” by Fonda Rae is one of your most widely known and sampled compositions that still receives a lot of club and airplay. How did that song evolve?
Bob Blank, who was an engineer, was a good friend of ours. He had a nice little studio called Blank Tapes where we had previously worked on the Phreek, Herbie Mann, and Ben E. King albums. One day, he invited us to come down and hear some of the stuff he’d been working on and lay down some material. So we went down and cut three demos. One of them was “Over Like a Fat Rat.” Somehow, Bob got in touch with Fonda and called me back to see if it was okay if he tried her on lead vocals. I was like, “No.” [laughs] But I went to the studio, met her, and walked her through the vocals.
After some Aleem records and independent singles in the late ’80s, it seems you went on a hiatus. What was the impetus for your disappearance from the music scene in the ’90s?
Well, I continued to work and do music until about 1992, when the market started to change. Hip-hop started to become more prevalent. There was a dark period where everybody was shaking, particularly the industry people downtown. So I took a little time off from music to study the market and rethink things. Then around 1999, a friend of mine named Roy Parham pushed me to get started in the music business again. This began with a Chicago house music project tentatively titled Timeless, featuring production from producers like Glenn Underground, Maurice Joshua, and E-Smoove. That should be coming out soon. There was another project called Slippery People in Sweden. I’ve worked on a project with Cassius and released two anthologies of my music on Soul Brother Records in the U.K. I did a duet with Belita Woods, the lead singer from Brainstorm, which was released on Basement Boys Records in 2003. Then there’s a project that I’ve been working on called Throwback. It’s essentially culled from unreleased material dating from 1979 to 1985 that we went back and listened to, digitally remastered, and restructured. Lastly, there’s the Black Ivory reunion album that we’re shopping now. We have a lot of people slated to guest on the album, like George Benson and Stevie Wonder. There’s actually an unreleased Stevie Wonder song on the album.
With all these projects on the table, it seems like you’re finally ready to shed the pseudonyms and tell the world your name.
A question I’m often asked is why there is so little with my actual name on it, and why there isn’t a Leroy Burgess album. That’s only because I like being anonymous. To me, the music should always be the most important thing in the equation. And the more you focus on the rest of the crap, the more you get distracted from the music. I got into this industry to put music out that makes people feel good. When you leave it at that, it’s actually best for me, because it helps me focus on the music. And that’s what my life has been, a study of working on music hard enough to make it right.
Responses from Facebook
Leave a Response