Thursday, September 23, 2010
Wall Street Journal: A Man of Diversity, With Music to Match
A Man of Diversity, With Music to Match: Three Decades After Rising to Fame in the City, Garland Jeffreys Returns With a Downtown Show and a Record in the Works
By JIM FUSILLI
It's been a while since New York has had a chance to enjoy the music of Garland Jeffreys, a favorite son who was a regular presence here in the 1970s and '80s. The once-prolific songwriter hasn't released a record in more than a decade, and rarely performs in his home city, though he has played a number of European tours. Now, with a new album on the way, Mr. Jeffreys is set to perform Saturday at the Highline Ballroom with his band, the Coney Island Playboys. Appearances at benefit shows aside, it'll be his first New York show in three years
"The band actually has nothing to do with Coney Island," Mr. Jeffreys said of a quintet that includes a drummer from Belgium and an accordionist from South Africa. "But you're looking at a guy who grew up in Sheepshead Bay, Brighton Beach and Coney Island."
Spend an hour with Mr. Jeffreys at a restaurant a short walk from his Stuyvesant Town apartment, and you'll find a contented man. Happily married and a proud parent of 14-year-old Savannah—a promising singer in her own right—Mr. Jeffreys is working on his new album. At age 67, he looks at least a decade younger and is eager to find new fans and welcome back those who knew him when he released the album "Ghost Writer," which included his oft-covered "Wild in the Streets"; the international hit single "Matador"; and "Escape Artist," an album recorded with members of the E Street Band.
Mr. Jeffreys's star faded too soon, perhaps because radio couldn't slot him: His albums included folk ballads, reggae tunes, big rock numbers and social commentary. "They didn't know what to make of me," he said. "Everything was compartmentalized. I really didn't have any thoughts about it, but I discovered down the line it was trouble. Steve Van Zandt said to me not long ago, 'Garland, I know you all these years, but I listen to your music and I still don't know you.'"
Had he been born earlier, Mr. Jeffreys could have had a career as a jazz singer: You can find videos online of him performing with Sonny Rollins and Carmen McRae, and his voice recalls Jimmy Scott as a tenor. Had he been born later, he might have been a peer to Citizen Cope and Ben Harper, who mix up their playlists and benefit from followings not bound by the dictates of radio.
As a child, the music Mr. Jeffreys heard at home—Count Basie, Dinah Washington, Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday, among others—led to an appreciation of doo-wop, Frankie Lyman and Fats Domino. "Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke too," he added, "but they were a different breed. Martha & the Vandellas, Barbara Mason." He paused to sing a snippet of Ms. Mason's hit "Yes, I'm Ready." "I loved Motown and Bob Dylan at the same time."
Mr. Jeffreys's songs are seeded with memories of being the rare child of African-American and Puerto Rican background in his stretch of Brooklyn. His best friends were Italian-American, but his experiences with racism sting to this day. As we spoke, he recalled being the only black child at Sunday mass at his local Roman Catholic church on 15th Street in Sheepshead Bay. At the same time, he fondly remembered visiting Coney Island with his family and hanging out with an interracial crowd.
With his stepfather working two jobs to fund his education, Mr. Jeffreys went off to Syracuse University, where he met Lou Reed and the Rascals' Felix Cavaliere. (He is still friendly with both.) He spent a few semesters studying in Florence, Italy. "Imagine that," he said. "A kid from Sheepshead Bay." When he returned, now fluent in Italian, he set up in the Village and his career began, building to its early '80s height. Looking back, he finds joy in knowing his success allowed him to send his mother and stepfather on a trip to Europe.
Today, most of Mr. Jeffreys's back catalog is out of print in the U.S., though you can find import versions of some of his albums online. He has a following in Europe, where he tours every few months. He retained the publishing rights to his compositions but, he said, "I'm getting hurt. People aren't buying albums. As a songwriter, there's a limit to my earnings."
Mr. Jeffreys said he's in the final stages of completing his new album—his first in 13 years. Active on Facebook, he encourages followers to write to him; one did recently: the grandson of his only sibling, a sister he'd seen once in his life some 40 years ago. He and his sister are now in touch and growing close. "It's so strange," he said. "How can you love someone you don't know?"
Mr. Jeffreys thinks now is the time for him to score again with his music. "Maybe there's a lot more room for the kind of artist I've been with all kinds of styles," he said.
—Mr. Fusilli is the Journal's rock and pop music critic. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter: @wsjrock.
From the Wall Street Journal September 22, 2010 (article at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703556604575502062950972300.html)