Jazz vocalist Gregory Porter

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Described as having “the next great voice in jazz,” Porter reflects on his rise as a major talent.

In 2010, Gregory Porter's album, "Water," created strong buzz about the jazz-soul fusion singer-songwriter—and earned the rare feat for a debut CD of a Grammy nod. His follow-up, "Be Good," turned that murmur into a roar (and won a second nom from the Academy), and his fans anxiously anticipated his third LP, "Liquid Spirit." Porter was raised in California and began singing in local jazz clubs while attending San Diego State. Opting to pursue music full time, he moved to Brooklyn and was tapped for the original Broadway cast of the Tony-nominated hit, It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, in a performance that set the stage for his recording career and international stardom.


Tavis: Grammy nominee Gregory Porter had intended to be a linebacker, but a foot injury found him course-correcting to music, a decision that I think it’s fair to say is now paying some pretty nice dividends.

After three albums, he’s making his mark not only as a singer, but also as a songwriter. His latest CD is titled “Liquid Spirit.” Let’s take a look at a cut from the CD.


Tavis: So I was saying to Gregory a moment ago that it took me about two weeks to get to “Hey, Laura.” That’s track number five. It took me a couple weeks to get there because I couldn’t get off track number one. (Laughter) Which is “No Love Dying.”

Could I just tell you I had literally friends of mine who – and this doesn’t happen all the time. But there are friends of mine who called me, emailed me, text messaged me and said to me, “There is this brother named Gregory Porter who you must have on your show.”

Gregory Porter: Okay.

Tavis: So you got a bunch of fans that are friends of mine that you don’t even know (unintelligible).

Porter: Right. (Laughs)

Tavis: They called me and said, “You got to find this Negro.” (Laughter) “You got to get him on.” (Laughter) “We don’t know where he is, but you’ve got to hear this song, “No Love Dying,” and you’ve got to get him on your show.

So I went in search of it, and our staff found it and found you, and I’m just delighted to have you on the program.

But that first track, we’ll come to “Laura” in a second, but just tell me about this first track, “No Love Dying,” because it’s a powerful – I literally was stuck on it for two weeks.

Porter: Yeah. Well for me, I’m just trying to put this poetry, these life – life is poetry, in a way, and I try to grab the pieces of it that are poetry and put it into song.

Just a statement and a pushback in defiance against the pressures that come against love. There will be – it’s like an old man coming out of the house on the porch and saying, “Ain’t gonna be no trouble around here.” There will be no love that’s dying here.

These symbols and these things that are in the face of love, the violence and dishonesty, I make a statement. Just defiance, in a way, because the will, the will of love – that’s what I like to think about. The will of love is powerful. (Singing) There will be no love that’s dying here. You know? Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah. It’s a powerful thing, man. (Laughter) Love is, it’s easy to say, I don’t know how easy it is to write about, but it ain’t always easy to practice.

Porter: Well the thing for me in writing and thinking about music and putting music together is to try to be organic. Sometimes people think it’s like really clever when you’re – it’s like man, how did you make those connections between the music, the song, and a real story.

If you really just think about your life – I’ll take my last record, for instance. My now wife’s father called me, and he was like – essentially the conversation was what are your intentions with my daughter.

It shook me up, it rattled me. My intentions were to marry her, so the words that came to my head, just papa, don’t you fret, and don’t forget that one day you was in my shoes. Somehow you paid your dues. Now you’re the picture of the man that I someday want to be.

So if you just really think about the basics of what it is that you want to say, the words, the song writes itself sometimes.

Tavis: What do you make of the fact – I’ll get back to the record here in a second, but what do you make of the fact that you could put out a couple albums – you know this old adage, “overnight success.” You and I both know there is no such thing as an overnight success.

Porter: Yeah.

Tavis: What do you make of the fact, though, that there are a whole bunch of folk who are just now discovering you, but you’ve been at this for a while and even a couple albums prior to this?

But there’s something that’s clicking on this thing, got a click on all cylinders. It’s gotten, really being discovered. (Laughter)

Porter: Well, I kind of felt like there’s a pent-up energy. It’s on “Liquid Spirit.” The lyric is “Un-reroute the river, let the dammed water be.”

Tavis: Water free, exactly.

Porter: “There’s some people down the way that’s thirsty, so let the liquid spirit free.” I’m not exactly talking about myself, but I’m talking about music with a soulful expression that comes from an organic place that’s where you’re talking about.

Uplifting, and there’s people that want that music. A lot of your friends want that music. So they’re the people down the way that’s thirsty, and I may be part of that liquid spirit, but there’s a whole bunch of musicians and artists that want to flow in the most natural way to those people that are thirsty down the way. We have gifts to give, but no place for those gifts to live. So yeah.

Tavis: What happens is when people discover you, and I had to do this myself; it’s just part of what we have to do as broadcasters. When you’re trying to introduce someone, we live in a world where the comparisons are, it’s part of the process.

Porter: Yeah, I know.

Tavis: So the person that I have most said to friends of mine that you remind me of is a person who I have been blessed to be a friend of in my lifetime, and that’s Bill Withers.

I love Bill Withers in terms of the soul, the sound, the styling, the lyrical content, and so when I first heard your stuff I’m thinking man, this is like Bill Withers all over again. (Laughter)

Tell me how you feel not so much about Bill Withers per se, but how you feel about those comparisons. Because people are trying to explain, “Go get this brother’s record, he sounds like.”

Porter: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: He sounds like, he sounds like. How are you handling those comparisons?

Porter: Well, I’ve always said, even in my whole life, when they do that to a new artist or to somebody who’s just come onto the scene, I was like, ah, that’s a difficult weight, yoke, to carry.

Because these are masters – Stevie Wonder, Nat King Cole, Bill Withers, Lou Rawls – these names that sometimes come up. Then I had to think. I was like, you know what? I looked at their history and my history, and we do have some camaraderie.

We’re cousins, in a way, in that we had some church upbringing, some Southern influence, strong mothers, an understanding of gospel blues. So I welcome it, and those were masters in the music and I’m very glad that my name gets mentioned with those masters.

I have some writing to do and I have some singing to do before I really deserve it, but I’m blessed to be mentioned with those names.

Tavis: There’s a track on this project called “Free.”

Porter: Yeah.

Tavis: Once I finally did get past “No Love Dying” and started checking out the rest of it, that track titled “Free” hit me, again, so hard, because there is a profound love and expression of it that you have for your parents. Tell me about your mama (unintelligible).

Porter: Yeah. (Laughter) My mother was a minister. She’s from Shreveport, Louisiana. We grew up, I grew up in Los Angeles till I was about seven, and then Bakersfield, California.

She was a minister in the Church of God and Christ, and she couldn’t be a pastor, so she circumvented that by every church that she had was a mission, and she was the head missionary.

So essentially she was the pastor, and was a great, great, great speaker, and I was her choir. There was eight kids. I’m seven of eight.

The song on this record that is called “When Love was King” is really her, in a way, because she always talked about lifting up the people – that line that I say, (singing) “He lifted up the underneath, and all his wealth he did bequeath to those who toiled without a gain, so they could remember his reign.”

That’s my mother. The last day she was alive, the last hour she was alive, she was like, “Gregory, hand me my purse.” She wanted to get $600 from her purse so she could give to a family who couldn’t make rent that month.

Her children were around her, and we were selfish. We were like, “Mom, with your last breath, just enjoy yourself, enjoy us. Let’s just be a family and let that – and go out that way.”

But now I think about it, and how great is it with your very last breath to give somebody something? That’s what she wanted to be. That was life for her, to give.

So I’m constantly, she constantly comes – all these life messages are constantly coming out in my music, even when I don’t expect them or even want them to. One of the lyrics on the song, I sing, (singing) “I wish my mama was here. A strong, strong, steady rose. She would know what to do, what to say, how to pray to make things better.”

I didn’t write that. It just came out when I was standing at the microphone. So her spirit and her energy is constantly coming into my music, and I feel like some of the grace that I may be getting in the media, I’m on the “Tavis Smiley Show,” I feel like it may be her. This is some grace for her.

Tavis: Well, a praying mama will do that for you. I got one watching in Indiana right now, so I know something about a mama in that Pentecostal tradition who’s praying for you. That’s my experience, so I understand that.

Porter: Yup.

Tavis: By the way, hi, Mom. I know she’s watching back in Indiana. Let me take this song titled “Free” and tweak this just a bit. How difficult has it been for you to be free in your music.

Because what you’re doing here, what this is, probably is we ain’t getting this every day. So how – I know that it takes a level of courage to be free enough to be yourself. Tell me about that.

Porter: Well the interesting thing, the record company, for the first two records, Motema Records, they didn’t touch me in terms of – it’s a small, independent record label. So they said, “Write, do your thing, and when you’re done, deliver the record to us.”

So I had a lot of freedom, and I got used to that. So when I came to Blue Note Records, the very first thing – I assumed somebody was going to drive up in front of my house in a white van and say, “This is the van to change you.”

They said, “Be yourself. Write the songs, do what you do, look up in the sky and consider what’s around you, and write and sing.” I thought that was amazing. They said, “What you come up with, we’ll put our label on.” That’s dope, because Blue Note Records is –

Tavis: Historic.

Porter: Historic. That’s the history of American culture, Black culture, jazz, photography, the style and image and sound of jazz is at Blue Note Records. Yeah, so it was an amazing thing for them to come and say, “Be you.”

Tavis: Give me some sense of the kind of work you have been doing musically prior to us now just figuring out that Gregory Porter’s got something to tell the rest of us that we need to be listening to. (Laughter) Where you been and what you been doing all this time?

Porter: Well I tell you, I grew up – in the better part of my understanding was learned in Bakersfield, California, in small, storefront churches. My mother, when we would visit churches, she enjoyed visiting older congregations, older ministers who had just deep, deep, vast knowledge.

So these Southern preachers with big hands, thick necks, raspy voices – nobody knows them, (laughter) but they came in a time where they preserved that Southern tradition and that music.

So gospel blues is what I grew up – (singing) bless that wonderful name of –

Tavis: (Singing together) – Jesus.

Porter: Hey now.

Tavis and Porter: (Singing) Bless that wonderful name of Jesus.

Porter: So, right.

Tavis: I’m with you, man.

Porter: So we sitting up here singing the blues.

Tavis: Yeah.

Porter: When I heard Coltrane, when I heard jazz, I was like, I heard the prayers of my grandmother, who walked around (humming).

Tavis: Was her name Daisy? That’s my grandmother.

Porter: Ruth.

Tavis: She was doing the same thing. (Laughter) (Unintelligible) my grandma was doing the same thing, yeah, yeah.

Porter: Yeah. So I heard the similarities of great jazz saxophone players and my grandmother, and that’s how I came to jazz, in a way. I was like there’s a connection there. What’s that connection?

So singing these gospel blues, learning all different types of music, watching “Soul Train,” come to the point where it’s time to maybe be, take this thing professional. I’ve played, had a football scholarship to San Diego State, injured my shoulder.

I had time. So then I said well, I have a deep love for music and I’ve been looking at it, studying it. Let me dive into it. Started going to the jam sessions, and in a way, one thing leads to another.

Somebody sees you and you get an opportunity, and I had an opportunity to be in a play called “It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues” that wound its way around the country and made its way to Broadway.

That reaffirmed the value of what I had had from those little, small, storefront churches, from those Southern preachers, that gospel blues was like okay, wait a minute.

Somebody told me in doing research for the play, she’s like, “Gospel blues, that’s the foundation. Along with the blues, that’s the foundation for much of American music.”

So I was like, “Oh.” So I had this – when I was singing with these 70-year-old men when I was a kid, I wasn’t crazy about it. I wanted to be outside playing. Regular service, 3:00 service, midnight. It went on and on, and I was a young man praying on my knees for an hour with these old men and women.

At the time, it was – I didn’t value it. But now I was getting this unique education in really American music. All of it’s there.

Tavis: How did you navigate, Gregory, because every one of us who comes out of that tradition and comes out of that experience has a point in his or her life where they have to try to figure out how they’re going to navigate this journey of the spiritual and the secular? Tell me about your battle.

Porter: Well my mother simplified it for me when I was very young. Because I loved music, I didn’t know that it could be a career. It seemed like such a big dream.

But I remember we had a Cadillac Eldorado, and I remember not being able to see over the dashboard, asking her, “I want to be a singer, but I think I might want to sing about love.”

She said, “Baby, God made love. It’s okay to sing about it.” I think I kind of just took that advice my entire life. So when I sing a song about love, it can be about romantic love, but there’s still an element of spirituality to it.

Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, even Ray Charles, masters of that in-between spirit coming along with this message of love.

I also love – from my understanding of listening to Nat King Cole, I think of a song like “Nature Boy.” The love for mankind, the love for community, which was in a lot of that ’70s soul and R&B music; that has a great appeal to me.

So when you think of love, yes, there’s the romantic love, but there’s a whole bunch of ways to look at love, and that’s the way I approach it when I go (unintelligible).

Tavis: Yeah. I was a bit surprised I guess is the right word, I was a bit surprised when I came to learn, reading about you – because once I discovered you I wanted to know everything about you, so I started reading, reading, reading, and calling people who knew you.

I’m trying to get to Diana Reeves, “I heard you know this cat, tell me about him.” Everybody I know who knows you, I’m trying to find out more about you, all right, for this conversation.

So when I discovered that you listen to a lot of Nat King Cole, whose name you referenced two or three times here, first I didn’t get it. Because you were so – and I say this respectfully to Nat – you’re so much more soulful in your delivery than Nat was.

I’m trying to figure out what is the Nat King Cole influence, and the more I listened, the more I got it. Your phraseology, your diction, your articulation. I see how Nat ends up having this profound influence on you as a kid.

Somehow, you were able to marry that with this soul thing and create your own song styling. Tell me how you went about the process of making sure that when we hear Gregory Porter, we know.

I’m pretty convinced now that for the rest of my life, when I hear you, I’ll know it’s you. (Laughter)

Porter: Yeah.

Tavis: But there’s something about your sound that you obviously have crafted in such a way that you want it to be uniquely you.

Porter: Yeah. Well, Nat King Cole was the music that I listened to from early on, when I was a child. We talked about mother and father earlier, but actually, my father didn’t raise me.

So the songs I write in praise of my father now, are in a way healing and giving forgiveness, because I imagine I probably have his singing voice, and I probably have his – he didn’t raise me.

My point is Nat King Cole, he probably should have – when you sing in a way of Nat King Cole, he should probably have his own school, the school of Nat King Cole. Not in a Nat King Cole style.

Because his diction, just all of the things that you said, is so, so unique that I borrow some of those things.

Based on my – when I was getting my understanding of music, it was Nat King Cole’s records that I was listening to. So listening to that, being my first entry into jazz vocals, and my gospel singing that I was doing in church, in a way you marry those two and you have –

Tavis: Kind of blended it, yeah. (Laughter) Yeah.

Porter: You have this gentle-rough sound. All these things that you take in in your musical understanding, they have to go through your filter. I have to listen to Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, Arthur Prysock, Lou Rawls.

They come through me, and they come out as Gregory Porter.

Tavis: Not Arthur Prysock. You (unintelligible) Arthur Prysock (unintelligible). (Laughter)

Porter: When I hit that low note.

Tavis: Yeah. You went down and got that.

Porter: Yeah. I used to sing that commercial – (singing) “Here’s to good friends – tonight is kind of special.” That was Arthur Prysock (unintelligible).

Tavis: Yeah, (unintelligible). (Laughter) Now that Blue Note has discovered you, and thanks to Blue Note, now that all the rest of us have discovered you, all the TV shows and “The New York Times.”

All the magazines are now celebrating one Gregory Porter. What’s the end game here? What do you want to do with all this newfound fame and all these new fans, yours truly included, that you now have? What kind of journey are you going to take us on with you?

Porter: Well, this is a thing that I’ve learned about myself, because this conversation and these records that I’ve made of “Liquid Spirit,” my first “Water” record, my second album, “Be Good,” they’re a statement of who I am.

I’m realizing when I watch this interview, I realize who I am. When I look at my lyrics, I realize who I am. That’s a statement of who I am. I’ve been consistent with these three records, and things that I’ve written before that haven’t heard the light of day.

This is who I am as a man on vinyl, on CD. These are the things I want to say. “He lifted up the underneath, and all of his wealth he did bequeath to those who toiled without a gain so they can remember his reign, when love was king.”

That’s what I want to say to the world. I have my opportunity to say something. I want to say something that’s going to elevate people.

Tavis: There’s a whole lot of that, a whole lot of elevation on this project. I promise you, send me an email, tweet me, something, when you get this project, and tell me if I ain’t right, that you’re going to get stuck on “No Love Dying,” the very first track, for a couple of days. (Laughter)

The new project from Gregory Porter is called “Liquid Spirit.” That’s track number two, so you’ll eventually get to it. But I promise you, all the other stuff on here is amazing stuff, and I think while this may be the first time you’ve heard the name Gregory Porter, it certainly will not be the last. I claim that right now. Gregory, good to have you here, man.

Porter: Thank you so much, man. A real pleasure.

Tavis: I’m honored. Yeah, the pleasure’s all mine, brother.

Porter: Yeah, I’m in a dream.

Tavis: Oh, I’m glad to be in it with you. (Laughter) That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, thanks for watching, and keep the faith.

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: October 28, 2013 at 12:38 pm