I was born in Ft. Devens, Massachusetts on June 14, 1972. I'm the youngest of five children. In 1973, my father retired from the army and the family relocated to Ceres, California. At 3 years old, after hearing my father playing Ramsey Lewis' "The In Crowd" and Stevie Wonder's "Living For The City", I became very interested in playing the piano. One year later, my mother enrolled me in piano lessons and I began learning to read and write music. As a kid, I liked sports and toys just as much as the next kid, but tape recorders and music were my passion. All I dreamed about was recording music.
When I entered the second grade there were no positions for piano in the school band, so I had to select another instrument. Drums were my first choice. I was really into Art Blakey. The only problem was that two of my brothers were already playing drums in the house, so my father suggested I select another instrument. Saxophone became my choice. Cannonball Adderly, Sonny Stitt, Gene Ammons and Eddie Harris really moved me when they played. Also, my brother had an old, bet-up alto that he didn't play anymore, so my parents didn't have to spend any money on a new one. The school band thing was cool, but in elementary school there was no jazz band and I had no private sax teacher. It was very frustrating because at an early age I already knew what I wanted to play.
1983, I entered junior high school and it was a little better. We had a jazz band. The only catch was I had to start playing baritone sax to join the band because the upper class had too many alto players. Man, I had to carry home an alto and a baritone sax. Cats thought I was crazy! I really wanted to be in the band. I also began playing sports, break dancing, rapping and DJing. I had a good band teacher then. He really kept me focused on becoming a musician. He liked my time and feel on the drums so he'd let me play a couple of tunes. He had a country and western band on the side and when his drummer couldn't make it, he'd call my parents and ask if I could do the gig. He gave me my first club gig. I was 13 years old!
I also got my first reel to reel recorder in 1983. A family friend from church gave it to me for keeping good grades in school. I was really happy with the reel to reel because I could record my own tunes. I could also record an album and then play it back at half speed. It made learning tunes much easier.
When I entered eighth grade, I had a new band teacher with a new vision. She made me a drum major. I was the first black drum major in the history of my school district. She taught me how to lead a band. This was in 1984. That was also the year I put my first trio together. I’d teach them my originals, Ramsey Lewis and Les McCann tunes and we'd give concerts at lunch time for our friends. 1984 was also the beginning of a new chapter in my life. I suffered a bad asthma attack while running the 400 yard dash during the Junior California Relays in Modesto. I decided then, sports were not for me.
During my teen years, I began traveling with my aunt and uncle (both were ministers of music and great pianists and organists) around California playing at various churches and events. I played alto sax and sometimes drums. I was also introduced to the organ at this time. I’d also play funeral gigs on piano with vocalist Rosie Brown. She was on the R&B scene in Philly and when she’d come home to visit she always had these funeral gigs. I felt bad about taking money from the bereaved families but, Rosie made it very clear that business was business and if I wanted to be a musician, I’d have to learn that musicians have to eat, too.
Between 1984 and 1988, I spent lots of time writing hip-hop and R&B tunes. I was also listening to lots of different music then. Really focusing on how songs were put together. Everything from Wes Montgomery to Led Zepplin. I didn’t realize that this would play an important role in my life as a producer or artist. I started having thoughts about starting my own production company. So I did. I called it “Joyful Noise Productions”. In 1988, I started producing for local rap, pop and r & b groups. I met a lady named Michelle Flowers and started producing and co-writing songs with her. For the time, she had a really nice studio with a synthesizer, drum machine, sequencer and four track tape recorder. She couldn’t work any of the equipment. I was in heaven. We worked together for about six months but, her vision was different from mine so I decided to do my own thing. I had to sell my car to buy a drum machine. I got my first four track from my high school and borrowed a keyboard from them too. I borrowed five dollars from my mamma to buy a double pack of blank tapes and I recorded my first Ep entitled "Living in Reality". My sister loaned me her electric typewriter to make the j-cards. The typewriter had memory on it so I didn’t have to keep typing each j-card individually. I sold the tapes for five bucks each and paid my mamma back with interest. Mamma taught me how to make money with my music. With the money from those tapes, I bought, recorded and sold more copies. With help from a few friends of friends at the local radio stations in Modesto and Turlock, my music received airplay. "Love Defensively" (co-written by Michelle Flowers) and "I Loved You" from the Ep became local radio and club hits and I became somewhat of a local celebrity.
By 1989, I began writing more hip-hop and getting interested in smooth jazz music. Hip-hop was very controversial at the time and traditional jazz was not popular anymore. I loved traditional jazz very much but, like most kids, I wanted to do what my peers were doing as well. At the time I had no idea that smooth jazz was becoming very popular and would later be the gateway to my musical career in the years to come. I had a vision of combining the two in one recording. During the 80s the east coast hip-hop artists were more into the jazz flavor. The west coast hip-hop was more funk-driven. So, I recorded a second Ep entitled "Beginning of a Dream". This recording is the first released under the "$olid Rock Record$" label and the last of “Joyful Noise Productions”. This Ep also produced the local hits "Groove Thang", "We Can Work It Out" and my first so-called "smooth jazz" production "Quiet Storm". This Ep also attracted the attention of the young record company "Profile Records". I was offered a recording contract but refused the offer because of political reasons. That meeting with Profile took a lot out of me. I decided then that I wanted to go to college for music but I couldn’t afford to go. My only options at the time were McDonald's or the army. So, in August of 1989, I enlisted.
While stationed in Germany from 1990 until 1992, I bought my first synthesizer and computer and turned my barracks room into a studio. Every free moment I’d get I’d practice and study my reels of music. I took interest in computers and how they were related to music as well. It blew my mind to see someone sequencing on an Atari computer. Because of Gulf War 1, there was no time for anything else. Trying to start a band or become a part of one was out of the question. I did play in the local community church choir. I also recorded an album with The Mannheim Community Mass Choir during this time. I’d have to wait until I was re-assigned to Texas before getting into the live music scene. I left Germany, Texas bound in November of 1992.
In 1993, while stationed at Ft. Hood, Texas, I was introduced to Houston, Texas tenor saxophonist Kyle Turner and was offered the keyboardist chair in his band, "Standing Room Only". The band later changed the name to "Tunisia". This was a GREAT band. Kyle was a hell of an entertainer. This cat could move the crowd. We had a great musical director, too. Kerry Wilkins. Kerry taught me to read chord charts. I also learned to comp by listening to him. Our bass player Terry “T.J.” Jenkins was one of the most solid and most disciplined players I’ve ever worked with. While playing in Tunisia, I also shared the stage with Ronnie Laws, Kirk Whalum, Paul Jackson, Jr. and a host of other popular recording artists. We were often called upon to back other recording artists that were touring. I held that position until 1996 when the drummer suffered an injury in an automobile accident that left him unable to play for long periods of time. That's when I offered to fill the drum seat until a replacement was found. I was thrilled at the chance to play drums in this band but, felt bad for Will McGowan, Jr. (our former drummer) because he was hurt really bad in the accident. I also missed playing keys in the band because we had a unique sound. I would also have to prove myself all over again to people that were accustomed to seeing me on keys instead of drums. I had only been playing seriously for about a year so I made it a point to focus on keeping steady time and groove as hard as possible. During these times, I listened to James Brown, Motown, Stax, Steve Ferone, John Robinson, Steve Gadd, Will Kennedy and David Garibaldi religiously. Some time during 1996, one of the best drummers I’ve ever heard in my life joined the band and I returned to keyboards. Arthur “Bam Bam” Latin, Jr.. He was very young but a pure, natural all-around musician. He taught me so much on drums. Later that year he was asked by Harry Connick, Jr. to join his band. Bam Bam asked me what should he do? I asked him why was he still standing there talking to me. He’s been with Harry ever since and again, I was back on drums. I would hold these seats (sharing the keyboardist seat with Jarvis Hawkins and drum seat with Arthur "Bam Bam" Latin) until leaving the band in 1997.
In 1997, I was offered the keyboardist chair in Brannen Temple's Austin, Texas based band "Hot Buttered Rhythm". This band consisted of 2 drummers (Brannen Temple, J.J. Johnson), 2 bassists (Yoggie on electric and Edwin Livingston on acoustic) and Fred Sanders (later replaced by Tomar Williams) and myself on keyboards. This unique ensemble allowed me to grow as a musician by allowing me to experiment with the many textures that can be generated by synthesizers. In this band, I learned what and what not to play when I shared the stage with another keyboardist. Also, being that I too was a drummer, I had the chance to see these two, amazing drummers become one every night. This was clearly a drummer's band and with the grooves and energy they had night after night, you felt it! I learned something from J.J. and Brannen every night. In the summer of 1998 I toured with the band to New York, Vermont and Canada. The band released the CD, "Blacksoundsploitation", in 2000.
Early 1998 was also the year I met blues guitar legend, John Ussery. John re-introduced me to the organ. John called me for a recording session and needed organ on the tracks. I told him I'd do it if he'd get a real organ. So, he rented a B-3 and let me play around with it until I got used to is. It’s no surprise that the organ would become a big part of my life from then on. I grew up listening to it. My dad ALWAYS had Bill Doggett, Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff, Booker T. You know, all the cats. He had reels full of it. Also, my uncle and aunt tried to get me to play the organ. They had a B-3 but, I never though that I would own one. Not knowing that in the 80s people were paying people to get these things out of their houses. So I passed on the idea until I met John. John’s 1998 album, "Gettin' Lucky", was my first recording session on organ. I also played piano, Wurlitzer and did all of the horns on that record. That’s when I fell in love with the organ. John suggested I take it up as my main instrument. I told him if I owned one, I would. So, he calls this cat, Lee Spencer, and in a couple of days I have a 1958 Hammond C-3 and a Leslie 147. I told John he didn’t have to pay me for the rest of the recording sessions. Paid in full! So from that point on, I started sheddin' day and night. For a month, I tried to get the bass going with the pedals and I couldn't do anything with them. So, I slammed the lid on the C-3 and the next day I headed to New York with Hot Buttered Rhythm. While we were there, Fred, Brannen and I go to "The Birdland" to check out "The Soul Survivors" (Cornel Dupree, Idris Muhammad, Jerry Jermont, Ernie Watts and Jack McDuff). Jack laid down serious grits that night and as soon as he walks off the stage, he sits down at the bar. I introduce myself. He was such a wonderful person. I told him my problem with the bass pedals. He turns slowly, looks at me, smiles and says, "Don't look down. Move your feet in the direction that your left hand goes and find your reference point on the pedals with your toe. You should get it in a couple of years but, don't give up."
I really can't explain to you how that conversation affected me. It gave me the strength I really needed to learn the instrument.
Dr. James Polk helped me a lot, too. He featured me on one of his tunes as a guest with his band at Southwest Texas University in San Marcos. It was like heaven with that big band blowin’ and Dr. Polk conducting. Dr. Polk is like an uncle to me. He's the one that explained what the drawbars and their function are to me.
Jimmy Smith helped me out a lot, too. I met him in Austin through a great friend and former owner of the old “The Mercury” club, Mark Collins. I’d met Jimmy a couple of times before being formally introduced. The first time I met him he cursed me out up and down. The second time we met, he started to curse me out and I stopped him and gave him a piece of my mind. After that incident it was all gravy. He showed me things about creating lines, who to listen to (horn players and vocalists) and thinking ahead of what I play. I'd call him up and we'd talk. He’d tell me to listen to more “Wild” Bill Davis and Fats Waller. I didn't know that Mr. Smith lived less than an hour away from me when I was growing up in California. I kick myself for that now but, it is what it is. You get it when you can. I’m honored he took time out for me. He didn’t have to.
My friend and great tenor sax player, Mike Malone, was playing with Mr. Smith at a B3 summit at Antone's in Austin, Texas, when the organ Mr. Smith was playing kept cutting off. He was ticked and I really don't blame him for it. It worked fine when Jack McDuff and Jimmy McGriff played it before him. After cutting off a second time, Mr. Smith walks off the stage and didn't play the rest of the show. Well, the band kept playing and a couple of other local organists came up and played. Then, Mike tells me to come up and play. I was scared to death. I'm thinking how am I going to play after McGriff, McDuff and Smith? Well, I built the nerve and walked up on stage. I tell Frank Wilson, who's the drummer, to kick off "Fungi Mama". The crowd loved it and we all had a ball. That was my first public appearance on organ. After a couple of tunes I leave the stage and run into Mr. Smith. I thought he'd be angry but, he wasn't. He put his arm around me and smiled.
I can't thank those cats enough. It was a dream come true. I was so inspired to keep playing after that, a week later I called Ephraim Owens, Zac Colwell, Kerry Wilkins and Brannen Temple up to play in a band together. Everyone was cool with the idea so we started playing gigs at the old Mercury in Austin.
Brannen called me up with the idea to call the band "Collard Green Swing". We used that name for a few gigs but, I really didn’t like it. Then I ran into my friend, Bob Meyer. He's a GREAT musician (piano, trumpet, sax, who knows what else). He told me I should drop the name and use my own name. I really respect him for that. He was right. It was my vision. At some time in your life, you have to step out as an artist and do what you have to do. I thought about it, called a meeting with everyone to let them know about the change. Everyone was cool with it. We played together for 3 years.
In November of 2001, I moved back to Mannheim, Germany. I had been stationed there at Spinelli Barracks from 1990 to 1992. Right away, I started looking for places to play. I met this great tenor sax player, Steve Carrington. Steve was in the army band but, he also knew the local club scene. He took me to a club called “Cave 54” in Heidelberg. There I met alto player, Peter Klinger. He’s the host of the Sunday night jazz jam session there. I sat in on drums for a couple of tunes and we had a great time. Peter invited me to play the gig the following Sunday and from then on I started getting calls for drum gigs.
The following week, Steve took me to a club in Mannheim called “The Bum Tschuk Bar”. There was an organ at the session that night. There I met Christian Eckert. He’s the host of the Monday night jam sessions there. I told him I played organ and he invited me to sit in. I sat in on drums, too. We had a great time there as well and once again the calls came in for organ gigs as well as drums.
2003 would be another major turning point in my career. In January 2003, I went back to Austin to record my first organ album, "Soul Revival". This album is my baby. It’s my tribute to “True Soul Jazz Music”. It features Kerry Wilkins, on guitar, Brannen Temple, on drums, Ephraim Owens, on trumpet and a new friend and EXCELLENT tenor saxophonist, Phillipe Vieux. The album was released on the Solid Rock Records label in February 2004. I asked Brannen to book the studio for us for one day. I actually made the arrangements on the plane trip to Texas! I wrote NO charts. I just told everyone what I wanted them to play. They all have “grits galore” so almost every song was recorded on the first take. I was amazed. I think that we all were. It seemed as though I never left. We had so much fun in the studio and I think it shows on the recording. They made my dream come true.
Later that year, I began recording my DVD, “From The Heart”, under the direction of Sean Schiavolin, a film producer out of Austin and one of my best friends. Sean produced a TV show back in Austin that I played on a couple of times. It was that show that drew the attention of blues guitar legend, Jimmy Vaughn. Jimmy called after seeing my band on TV and asked me to play at his 50th birthday party. What an honor! Sean came up with the idea to come to Germany and make a film about me. We set a date and the rest is history. It took one and a half years to make. Seeing is believing! Sean’s truly a professional and a wonderful person.
In October of 2003, jazz trumpet legend, Roy Hargrove, hired me to play organ and keyboards on his European tour. I’d played with Roy in the 90s back in Austin and ran into him at the North Sea Jazz festival earlier that year. So, one day my telephone rang and it was Keith Anderson. Keith and I were good friends from the “smooth jazz” scene back in Texas. We’d played together on several occasions. He’d been in Roy’s new band, “The RH Factor”, ever since the beginning. At the festival, I ran into him and gave him a pre-released copy of my “Soul Revival” CD. He didn’t know until then that I’d been playing organ for the past few years. So, when Roy’s organist and keyboard player couldn’t make the tour, my telephone rang. I was thrilled at the opportunity to be a part of this group. This was one of the best bands that I’d ever played with in my entire career. They too had two drummers. Willie Jones, III and Jason “J.T.” Thomas. These cats were “AIR TIGHT”. Simply amazing! They also had Reggie Washington on bass. Reggie is one of the funkiest and most versatile bass players in the WORLD. Electric or acoustic. He put it down every night! Roy and Keith are two of the most SOULFUL cats in the history of recorded music. Roy is one of the most talented and innovative musicians in the world and I can’t thank him enough for giving me the opportunity to learn so much from him and be a part of his vision.
Since that tour, I’ve been playing all over the world with many great musicians. Glory be to God. I've been truly blessed!