The platinum-selling vocalist discusses why it took 8 years to release his new CD, “A Time for Love.”
Singer-songwriter Jeffrey Osborne
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Jeffrey Osborne to this program. The R&B soul great has just released a terrific collection of standards. It’s called “A Time for Love.” As I mentioned at the top, he’s also part of an all-star tour right now called Men of Soul, a tour that features Peabo Bryson, Freddie Jackson and Howard Hewett – not a bad lineup. Jeffrey Osborne, good to have you on this program.
Jeffrey Osborne: Oh, it’s my pleasure, Tavis, man. Great to be here.
Tavis: Good to see you, man.
Tavis: How’s the tour going?
Osborne: It’s going good. It’s one of those tours that people are actually flocking out to see. It’s nice to hear an evening of just hit after hit after hit. You got Peabo with all these hits and Freddie with all these hits, and Howard –
Tavis: You got too many hits but so little time.
Osborne: That’s true, that’s true. We have to cut that show down, and it’s still long.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) So what have you decided on the tour – I’ve not seen it as yet, but I’m anxious to see it – what have you decided on the tour that you have cut your roster of hits down to?
Osborne: (Laughs) Well, the Men of Soul tour, I’ve got to dig deep and go back and do a lot of L.T.D.
Tavis: Oh, yeah.
Osborne: So I kind of have more L.T.D. songs in there than my solo songs, but I kind of mixed it up pretty good.
Osborne: But I just can’t do everything.
Tavis: Yeah, but I’m sure the people in the audience are screaming for –
Osborne: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: Can you hear them screaming for other songs that they want?
Osborne: Oh, they always do. They always singing something I know I can’t do. (Laughter) They always yelling.
Tavis: Can’t do because of time?
Osborne: Because of time, exactly.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. I was going to say, it’s not that you can’t do it because of the instrument, which is one of the things that most impresses me about you. There are some artists that fit this bill; so many don’t. As they age – it’s just life, I ain’t trying to hate on nobody.
Osborne: Yeah, exactly.
Tavis: As you get older, the pipes just aren’t what they used to be.
Osborne: That’s right.
Tavis: But every time I hear you, you sound, you are in as good a voice now to my ear as you were some years ago. To what do you attribute that?
Osborne: I think it’s taking care of myself, and taking care of my instrument. Because the voice is a wind instrument, so you’ve got to take care of it. Vocal hygiene is important. So I try to stay on top of that. I try steam, which takes the inflammation off the vocal cords; I try to gargle with some organic stuff. It tastes nasty, but it works wonders. (Laughter)
Tavis: If it works –
Osborne: Yeah, exactly. So it’s just really taking care of yourself. Then I try to stay healthy and work out four, five days a week.
Tavis: Yeah. I can see that. That’s what –
Osborne: It all helps.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. I’m going to come back to those L.T.D. days in just a moment here, but I want to talk about the new project, “A Time for Love.” Let me ask the question this way – what does your offering of a jazz album say to us about what Jeffrey Osborne thinks about the state of R&B?
Osborne: (Laughs) It says a lot.
Osborne: It says a lot. It also – I love jazz. I grew up the youngest of 12, had to wait my turn in line to listen to what I wanted to listen to. So back then, though I was listening to Motown, my sisters were listening to Ella and Sarah and my father was a trumpet player, so he was into Basie and Ellington.
So that’s really my roots. I grew up listening to that, and so I feel comfortable there. But also, getting back to the state of R&B, it’s kind of like diminished. I see every other genre of music getting stronger and R&B kind of diminishing.
It’s interesting. Hip-hop is strong, rap is strong, country is huge, gospel is bigger than R&B. So somewhere along the line R&B has kind of vanished, and it may be – you may attribute it to there’s not as many singers as there was back in the day. There were just classic singers back in the day, and distinct voices, too, unique voices.
Tavis: To what do you attribute the dearth of those artists? What’s happened in the culture, certainly in African American culture –
Tavis: That’s where so many of these R&B stars come from.
Tavis: What’s happened in our culture that’s allowed for the diminishing number of those kinds of artistic R&B voices?
Osborne: Well, I think we, as people, we’re into the hippest thing going. We’re into the next hip thing. So we sometimes forget about what happened before us, and I think technology came in and there was this age of sampling.
You’ve got these young artists now, so they’re sampling everything instead of learning how to play. So I think the artistic value has gone down because people are not really into the art as much as they used to, they’re into the technology. So it’s suffered a lot.
Tavis: What’s the worst-case scenario for what happens to the culture, to the music, if that development isn’t arrested somewhere along the way? What’s the worst-case scenario if R&B doesn’t get resuscitated and revived?
Osborne: Worst-case scenario is you should do a jazz record. (Laughter)
Osborne: Yeah. (Laughter) Oh, but I mean yeah, it’s gotten to the point where as a veteran artist myself, and there are so many great veteran artists, that we do put records out, but there’s no outlet for them anymore.
Osborne: They’ll play our old music, but they won’t play anything new that we deliver. So at this point, for me, it was like well, let’s try to broaden my audience. Let’s try to reach more people.
Tavis: Let me ask you a strange question, but when you’re driving in your car around town or wherever you may be on tour around the country and you turn on any local radio and you hear Jeffrey Osborne, you hear L.T.D., which you can do anywhere these days.
Tavis: To your point, they play it all the time.
Tavis: They play it so much now it’s like the record just dropped, they play it so much.
Osborne: (Laughs) Exactly.
Tavis: So when you’re driving around town or riding around town and you hear your old stuff but don’t hear the stuff you just put out a year ago, as an artist, how does that make you feel, when they play your old stuff and they won’t play your new stuff?
Osborne: Well, it always makes you feel good when they’re playing you, regardless.
Tavis: Okay, right.
Osborne: So you always feel good that they’re playing your old stuff.
Osborne: As an artist, it makes you feel like maybe you’re a veteran artist. You’ve gotten to the point – I know when I was growing up and when I was in L.T.D., I was still trying to listen to Sarah and Ella, and they were slowly declining, their plays, on radio.
So I think you just get to a point, you evolve to a point, you mature, and the young artists seem to get all the – because all the young people are the ones that run out and buy everything.
Osborne: So I think they get most of the airplay. Radio just seems to kind of move away from veteran artists, unless we can try to sell out now. We can try to do the hip-hop thing, but then that hurts us also. So all you can do is just live with it and be happy, for one thing, that they’re playing your old stuff.
Tavis: Yeah. What’s cool about that, though, is that as long as you are who you are, there’s an audience that appreciates that, and that’s why you’re selling out on this tour you’re on now.
Tavis: Because people want to hear that stuff. So that’s good.
Osborne: Yeah, and it’s not, like you’re saying, they’re not getting a chance to hear that anymore, so it’s kind of nice to go out on that tour and walk out and see a full house and people really into the R&B music.
Tavis: Yeah. Your real hardcore fans know that you started out as a drummer.
Tavis: Before you moved to the front to grab the microphone. How did being a drummer all those years influence your artistry as a singer when you made it from the back? I always laugh when I think about you, because the drummer is literally always in the back.
Osborne: The back, in the back, right.
Tavis: So you went from all the way in the back to all the way in the front. It ain’t like you were playing lead guitar and you were just a few steps away from the mic. You were all the way in the back and you came all the way down front. But how did being a drummer influence your artistry, your vocal gift, when you got to the front?
Osborne: Well, I think it really helped as far as being a drummer you have this rhythmic thing.
Osborne: So it helped in phrasing. It helped in just interpreting a song and making sure that the phrasing is right and you sit within the pulse of what’s going on. So from that perspective it really helps, and there’s been a lot of drummers that have been great lead singers.
So from that perspective, it was great. From going from the back to the front, it took me a little time, because I was used to sitting back there, comfortable. In L.T.D. I had four horn players standing in front of me. The record company is like, “Okay, well, you got a hit here, a love ballad, and all the ladies like this. You’re going to have to get up in front and sing.” (Laughter)
I’m like, “Really? Okay.” So it took me a minute because I was comfortable being back there, and all I wanted to do with my hands was this. Like I was the drummer, I’m not – so I worked with a couple of people and they kind of helped me reach the last person in the last seat.
Because if you can reach the last person in the last seat, you’ve reached everybody. So you just learn how to bring people in and it took a minute, but I’m kind of glad I made that transition. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, I guess you are. I think the lead singer makes a little bit more than the drummer does. (Laughter) Just a little bit more. I’m going to put you on the spot here. I know you can handle this. I wouldn’t embarrass you on national TV if I didn’t think you couldn’t. I know you can handle this.
You said a moment ago that a lot of drummers have become singers. A lot of great ones. I thought of two or three that hit my mind right quick, and I’m wondering if you would run off a few of them whose work you respect who, like you, started in the back and went to the front. So the first thing I thought of other than you, Phil Collins.
Osborne: Phil Collins, exactly.
Osborne: Then you have Teddy Pendergrass.
Tavis: That’s right, Teddy Bear was a drummer.
Tavis: He sure was.
Osborne: Marvin Gaye.
Tavis: Yeah, that’s right, Marvin. That’s right.
Osborne: Marvin Gaye was a drummer.
Tavis: That’s enough, you can stop. (Laughter) You got Phil Collins, Marvin Gaye, Teddy Bear.
Osborne: There you go.
Tavis: Yeah, you can’t do much better than that.
Osborne: And you got, like, Maurice White from Earth, Wind and Fire.
Tavis: Yeah, that’s right.
Osborne: Maurice was a great drummer.
Osborne: There’s been a lot.
Tavis: And Maurice wasn’t just singing. He was writing songs too.
Osborne: Yeah, he was writing.
Tavis: Yeah, always writing, playing, and singing.
Tavis: I ain’t mad at you, Maurice White. So back to this project, “A Time for Love.” You connected with your long-time – I was going to say your old friend. I don’t want to call George Duke old. Your old, your longtime –
Osborne: You can call him old. (Laughter)
Tavis: I love George.
Osborne: We old together.
Tavis: I love George. I don’t want to call him old.
Osborne: No, that’s my boy, that’s my boy.
Tavis: But your longtime friend, your boy, George Duke, you guys got back together for this one, so tell me about “A Time for Love.”
Osborne: Well, it was great to finally get back with George. He produced my first three solo records, and then as record companies do, they’re like, “Well, maybe we should move on and try this and that song.” We got away from one another and it’s been a while since we’ve worked together. It probably was like ’88 or ’87 was the last time we actually did a record together.
So it was great to get back with him, and doing this kind of project, I wouldn’t want anyone else but George, because I know that George is just an incredible producer, musician. He’s kind of scary, because he’s got, like, perfect pitch, so he’s kind of like scary to be around. (Laughter)
But musically, I knew this record would just be sound. I knew that if I had George there, all I had to do was just walk in and sing, and he would surround my voice with just incredible music. So it was wonderful to get back together with George, and this is a record I’ve always wanted to do.
I’ve been talking about doing this record for years. I’ve been talking to George about doing it for years. It’s like, “George, we got to do this standard record.” “Yeah.” But when you’re signed with companies, most of them say, “Well, we want original material. We don’t want you to do a standard record.”
So now I’m at the point in my career where it’s kind of winding down a little bit, so I can kind of maybe do what I want to do now, take some chances.
Tavis: There are a number of artists, I’ve talked to a bunch of them on this program, there are a number of artists, though, who’ve had great success doing these standards. Rod Stewart –
Osborne: Rod Stewart (crosstalk).
Tavis: – Glenn Frye –
Tavis: Michael McDonald.
Tavis: There are a lot of folk who have revisited some of that old stuff and they’re selling records like crazy.
Osborne: Yeah. The only problem I had was trying to figure out what songs to do because there’s so many great classic jazz standard songs.
Tavis: Which leads me to my next question – so how did you figure out these 12?
Osborne: Well, we kind of weeded out a lot of other ones. Me and George, we sat together, and I went through those songs that I’ve always liked, songs from some of my favorite artists (unintelligible) like Nat King Cole. I loved everything Nat did, so I wanted to do, like, “When I Fall in Love” and “Nature Boy.”
So we just kind of, like, threw all these songs out, sat down at the piano, sang it with George. Whatever felt real comfortable, we decided let’s go with that. It’s a pretty simple process.
Tavis: Is there anything in your voice that you felt was compromised by doing this now as opposed to 20 years ago?
Osborne: Actually, I think –
Tavis: Or better, maybe?
Osborne: – I think it was better to do it now.
Tavis: Okay, I’ll take that.
Osborne: Because I’ve kind of matured, and I think if I had done this 15 years ago I would have over-sang every song, because I’m coming right out of the R&B thing. I would have tried to do every lick I possibly could have done on each track.
So at this point I sat in the music, I just sang the melody, and I go back to what my father used to always tell me. He said, “Boy, if you can’t touch me with a whole note, you can’t touch me. I don’t want to hear all them licks and all that stuff.” (Laughter) “If you can’t touch me with a whole note, you can’t sing.”
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
Osborne: So I always reflect back to that, and when I’m getting ready to do one of them runs, I’m like, “Oh, let me just sing this whole note and try to touch it.” (Laughter)
Tavis: Your daddy’s still in your head after all these years.
Osborne: My daddy’s still in my head, yeah.
Tavis: I’m glad you went there too. This is great, talking to you, because you keep directing me where I want to go in this conversation. I’m just following you. I want to talk about your dad. Your dad was a trumpet player, and he wasn’t just a trumpet player. We’ve got to give your dad his props, who he played trumpet with and for.
Osborne: Yeah, he used to play trumpet.
Tavis: But talk about your, tell me about your dad and about the influence that your dad had on you.
Osborne: Well, he was pretty special. He was an incredible trumpet player. I’m the youngest of 12, so no one else played trumpet, so it was like, “You’re going to play the trumpet.” (Laughter) So in elementary school I’m playing trumpet, man. I hated it, man.
It’s a beautiful instrument, but that armature that you have on your lip, little girls would be like, “Oh, we’ve got to talk to somebody else right now.” (Laughter) So I said, “I’m going to get my little singing group together on the corner,” I wanted to do-wop, so I kind of wasn’t seriously into it.
My father passed when I was 13, and that’s when I kind of pushed it off to the side. But he was an incredible trumpet player. I used to fall asleep outside his room just listening to him play. Unbelievable. Then when Ellington and Basie and them came to town, he would always run in and play with Basie, Ellington.
Said he couldn’t afford to take care of 12 kids and be a member of a 40-piece orchestra. Because people look at Ellington and Basie and they say, “Wow, those were big.” But these side men are side men. They’re getting paid a salary to be part of that 40-piece orchestra.
So he never really went after his dream, so he sat around Providence, played, worked a couple of jobs. When all the guys came through he would go hang out and play with them, and so that’s why my mother actually encouraged me.
She said, “Don’t sit around here like your dad and not go after your dreams.”
Tavis: I was about to ask.
Osborne: “You can always come back,” she said, yeah.
Tavis: I was about to ask you what impact that had on you. You’re 13 and your dad dies. He’s a great enough player to play with the greats when they come through town –
Tavis: – through Providence, but never stepped out to do it on his own. How did that – how did your mom use that to motivate you?
Osborne: Well, my mom waited until I was probably about 17 or 18 to really tell me that she felt I had the gift, to go after it. She tried to keep me grounded. I had a lot of other brothers and sisters that were great musicians. I had a brother Billy that was in L.T.D.
Tavis: Oh, absolutely.
Osborne: I had a brother, my brother Clay Osborne was an incredible jazz singer in Providence, Rhode Island, but again, he never ventured out. So my mother just kept me grounded. She would chaperone me. I started singing in nightclubs at 13. She would chaperone me. I’d go out, sing in these little clubs. She would always kind of keep me grounded.
I got my first big job when I was 15. I went to this nightclub in Providence to see the O’Jays.
I was like, my mom said, “You can go see them.” I’m like, “Oh, great, I’ll go see the O’Jays.” They had this drummer, man, he was horrible, man. He was falling asleep in between songs. But that’s a whole nother discussion. (Laughter) But (crosstalk) –
Tavis: No, let’s talk about that. (Laughter) Let’s talk about that. How did the drummer, who’s responsible for keeping time, fall asleep, Jeffrey?
Osborne: It’s that old drug back in the day, man. It was (crosstalk).
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Osborne: Back then, in jazz, the prevalent drug was heroin.
Osborne: So he was lit up and he was falling asleep in between songs. So the club owner let me meet the O’Jays, so I met Eddie, and I was like, “Man, I play drums.” He said, “Yeah? You can’t play, man. You’re a kid. You can’t.” I said, “No, I can play.”
“Well, give us some other people’s numbers, and then you can come up and audition too.” So I went up and auditioned and I got the job. I was 15 years old, and that was like the highlight for me. That was, like, it. My mother said, “Don’t get happy, now, you ain’t going nowhere.” (Laughter)
Tavis: “You got school tomorrow morning.”
Osborne: Exactly. (Laughter) But it was those kind of moments. That’s why my mother always encouraged me to go after things, go after it, go after it. She said after 12 kids, she said, “I think you’ve got the talent to succeed, so just go.” When L.T.D. came through town it was the same scenario.
Osborne: Except this was when marijuana was, like, a forbidden thing in 1970. Their drummer got taken to jail for smoking some weed outside the club. Never heard from him again. (Laughter)
Tavis: You got on those drums.
Tavis: So there’s another one.
Osborne: Exactly. (Laughter)
Tavis: The moral of the story is –
Osborne: That’s right.
Tavis: The moral of the story, you owe your career to a bunch of drug addicts. Is that it? (Laughter) Crackheads and what have you?
Osborne: Crackheads (unintelligible).
Tavis: Weedheads. (Laughter) We want to thank you all for the career of Jeffrey Osborne.
Tavis: That’s a strange – that’s a funny story.
Osborne: But it’s funny how really, the vehicle for me getting out of Rhode Island was really drums, more so than singing. I always sang, but that was the vehicle that got me out of there.
Tavis: Drums and drugs.
Osborne: Drums and drugs. (Laughter)
Tavis: Drums by you, drugs by the other guy.
Osborne: There you go.
Tavis: I love the O’Jays. To this day, these guys are still getting down.
Osborne: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: What did you do for your confidence at 15 to play for, with, the O’Jays?
Osborne: Oh, it was –
Tavis: And this is back in the day when – the O’Jays are still doing it, but they were selling records.
Osborne: When they had five O’Jays. There was five of them back then.
Tavis: Yeah, there was – yeah, exactly. (Laughter)
Osborne: Yeah. It was incredible, man. It made me feel that it was like you leave that dream. You always have that dream about wanting to be out on stage with this one and always wanting to sing with the Temps and sing with Smokey, and then the O’Jays come through and I’ve listened to everything they’ve ever done.
To get the opportunity to play with them, be accepted, and for them to tell me, “Man, well, we wish we could take you with us, but you’re young.” That’s the greatest feeling in the world. I had still so much to learn, but still, at 15, that gives you a lot of confidence.
Tavis: So you mentioned your brother Billy.
Tavis: And the L.T.D. days.
Tavis: I don’t even want to ask this, I don’t even know what question to ask about that. I just want to ask you, tell me about the L.T.D. days.
Osborne: The L.T.D. days –
Tavis: That’s some of the best music ever made, Jeffrey.
Osborne: Yeah, that was incredible for me. That was really what made me who I am. It gave me the opportunity to learn and grow as a songwriter, learn how to put music together. You’re sitting there, you’ve got songs you’re writing, and then you’ve got four horn players to orchestrate it.
So you learn so much. I learned so much with that group, and they were a great live group. We were great live. We kicked a lot of butt out there live. A lot of groups didn’t want us in front of them. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, I’m sure.
Osborne: So it was great. It was a great ground to grow up with. But the problem with a lot of large groups is that they tend to stifle you. That’s where the problem came, because I had so many people trying to – I had the record company wanting me to do a solo album, I had all these things coming at me, and they weren’t real receptive to it.
They were like, “No, we don’t want that to happen.” So after a while, you get to a point where if you want to grow and evolve you’ve got to get out of that situation, or else you kind of get stifled. That happened to a lot of guys in those big groups back then.
Tavis: When did you know it was time to make the break?
Osborne: I think in, like, 1978, around 1978 I knew it was time, because I was getting offers of people who wanted me to write songs for them, and that was kind of like, well, off-limits.
So it was kind of crazy, so I knew then. I stayed on like two years longer than I wanted to, just to try to make the transition smooth for everybody. It was like, “Well, can you do the next record?” “Okay, I’ll do the next record.” “Can you do the next tour?” “Oh, okay, I’ll do the next tour.” (Laughter) It went on and on, and I finally decided to make the move in 1980 (unintelligible).
Tavis: Were there ever days after you leave – and I hear the challenges – but after you leave the safety and the security of being in a group and not being responsible for everything, were there ever days where you thought did I make the right decision here, or were you always good with it?
Osborne: I was very skeptical at first, because you leave something that is successful and you’re venturing off into the unknown, so you really don’t know what’s going to work, what’s not going to work.
I think what helped me tremendously was that I was a songwriter, so I didn’t have to really look to anybody else for my identity. I think that’s what happened to a lot of people that left those groups. They had to – they were in the hands of other songwriters.
So that helped tremendously, but it took a minute to feel secure, because I was used to being one of 10 people, and I was never – my name was never up front, so I was never, like, the leader of the group. It was always Abraham Miller. Everybody called him Onion. It was always Onion and my brother Billy, and they basically, they were the ones that were kind of running the group.
So it took a minute. It took a minute to associate the name with the voice.
Tavis: The voice, yeah.
Osborne: Because people knew the voice.
Tavis: The voice. They just didn’t know the name, yeah.
Osborne: They didn’t know the name. So it took a bit. But with the first record, it happened, so, and that’s again having somebody like George Duke around.
Tavis: George Duke, yeah.
Osborne: Yeah. He was so instrumental in my whole career.
Tavis: This question comes out of nowhere, but is there anybody who’s sung the national anthem more times than you have at the Laker games? (Laughter)
Osborne: I don’t think so.
Tavis: I think – that’s just a random question, I admit. It’s a random question.
Osborne: I don’t think there’s anyone that sang the national anthem as much as me, period. (Laughter) Because I’ve sung them for other teams and other professional teams. I did it for the 49ers quite a bit. Did it for the Raiders, I did it for –
Tavis: You’ve done it, yeah.
Osborne: I’ve done it for so many, and I used to – I did every Mike Tyson fight.
Osborne: I think I sang the anthem for every one of his fights, so. I’ve sung it a lot of times, and it’s interesting. It’s interesting how superstitious people can be.
Tavis: About that song, yeah.
Osborne: Athletes are very superstitious, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, they want somebody to come back and do it.
Osborne: Yeah, I looked – before I knew it, I started with the Lakers in ’79 (unintelligible).
Tavis: And Magic’s like, “Get Jeffrey back.”
Osborne: Exactly. It was like I had done it 30 times, they hadn’t lost. (Laughter) They’re like, “Oh, no, you got to come back. You got to come back.” So I started doing a lot of playoffs and a lot of championships.
Tavis: Yeah. Well, you are a championship artist. The new project from Jeffrey Osborne is called “A Time for Love.” He’s been promising this for years – finally, a jazz record from Jeffrey Osborne. So if you’re a fan, as I am, you’ll want to add this to your collection – “A Time for Love.” Jeffrey, honored to have you on this program.
Osborne: Oh, it’s my pleasure, my pleasure.
Tavis: Thanks for these stories and for sharing with us tonight. (Laughter) I appreciate it, man. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching.
Osborne: All right.
Tavis: Until next time, keep the faith.
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