Many of you may not be familiar with the name Leroy Burgess as he has never really attained the kind of recognition his unique talents deserve. But no doubt if you’ve been to a nightclub at any time during the last 30 years, you’ll have danced to a track that has been sung, written by or samples Leroy Burgess.
Leroy started his career in music in the late 60’s/early seventies alongside Stuart Bascombe, Russell Patterson (and with legendary producer Patrick Adams) as Black Ivory, a group which scored a major hits with soul ballads like “Don’t Turn Around” and later, the much sampled, Burgess penned “Mainline”, a bona fide dance classic that would surely appear in anyone’s top ten disco tracks of all time.
After leaving the group his songs took on a new direction as he embraced the disco, ‘boogie’ and then electro movements. He recorded under various aliases with a group of ferociously talented musicians particularly core players James Calloway (bass) and Sonny T. Davenport (drums) and continued to work with some of the best co songwriters and producers of the time (Greg Carmichael, Patrick Adams, Larry Levan).
His Phreek project spawned the classic “Weekend” (which went on to be a hit for both Class Action and Todd Terry), his Logg album for Salsoul produced the disco boogie classics “I Know You Will”, “Dancing Into The Stars” and “You’ve Got That Something” all of which have been plundered by house producers (Loose Joints II, Glenn Underground). As Convertion his “Let’s Do It” and “Sweet Thing” were again, standards on every floor and he continued this boogie feel with Universal Robot Band’s epic “Barely Breaking Even” (from where the rather good record label take their name) and the excellent early Aleem releases “Get Down Friday Night” and “Hooked On Your Love” before moving into electro territory for the smash hit singles “Release Yourself” and “Get Loose”.
Aside from his major album/group projects Burgess has written songs for, produced, played keyboards and sung with talents like Fonda Rae, Jocelyn Brown, Ben E King, Eddie Kendricks, Rick James and Change.
After a spell away from music in the nineties, at the time Marc Rowlands conducted this interview in the early 00’s, Leroy Burgess was back writing, playing, singing and producing music, collaborating with many previous associates and also some of the day’s best loved house and garage producers. Perhaps even more exciting for us here at Southport, Leroy was back performing live. His Saturday night set in Connosieur’s Corner couldn’t have hoped to cover all the classics he has been involved in (although many of those had recently been collected for the first time on two Soul Brother anthologies) but it was a major highlight for all soul, disco, boogie and soulful dance fans at Southport.
Leroy Burgess’ songs are enlightening, uplifting and soulful. Marc was not surprised to find the man in person to be exactly the same. Leroy Burgess talked to marc over the phone from his home in Harlem a few weeks prior to his Southport debut….
What are you doing today?
Today I’m doing some preparation for the two Black Ivory shows that are about to happen in New York and New Jersey.
What’s it like to be back performing with Black Ivory after all these years?
It’s amazing. They’ve been my partners for 34 years. We got together in 1968 but had a parting of the ways in the 70’s and it took us about 15 years to get back together. It’s so amazing to be performing with them again, the audiences are great and we’re all just having a great time.
Is it the original Black Ivory line up? What tracks from your back catalogue are you currently performing?
Yes, it’s Stuart Bascombe, Russell Patterson and myself. For these shows coming up we’re doing “You and I”, “Time Is Love”, “Don’t Turn Around” and “Mainline”.
Why did you leave Black Ivory?
When we started out in the group we were singing ballads and the public really liked them. If you want to then break out of that mould, the public can be very resistant and Black Ivory felt that pressure and succumbed to it. We were basically doing the same thing, the same kind of songs and I needed to expand. Disco, dance music was coming in and I knew I had to make a statement there and if I couldn’t do it with Black Ivory, I knew I’d have to do it somewhere else.
How did you come to be involved with Patrick Adams?
Well Patrick was Black Ivory’s first producer, I’ve always seen him as my mentor. I met him in 67 or 68 when we did our first auditions in front of him. At the time I’d already started to compose, I played piano as well, so I guess we bonded over our similarities. We got on very well and he kind of took me under his wing. I used to stay up all night just watching everything he did in the studio. Later on after I’d left the group, it was Patrick who again introduced me to the market, through the Phreek track “Weekend” on Atlantic.
That track was a hit for Phreek but became absolutely huge when it was redone by Class Action (and later Todd Terry). One of your recent anthologies on Soul Brother features the Class Action version. Does that mean you had a similar kind of input on that version?
To be honest, I had no involvement in that version at all, although it was done by the same studio crew Bob Blank and those at Blank Tapes, and with the same vocalist Chris Wiltshire. I guess that version’s on the anthology because the Larry Levan mix of Class Action was the most popular version. There could have been licensing problems with Atlantic as well.
You went on to record an album for legendary disco label Salsoul as Logg. How did that come about?
The Logg album was meant to be the Conversion album, but Sam Weiss who owned Sam Records was one of these hardcore business men, to put it mildly. He was unwilling to continue the Conversion project, he couldn’t see us making anything bigger out of it, but he still retained the name Conversion. At the same time Salsoul Records had contacted me through Greg Carmichael, another Patrick Adams collaborator and approached me to do a 7 track LP for them using the same group. So James Calloway, Sonny Davenport, Renee, J J Burgess, Darcy Tyrell and myself went to Salsoul, Larry Levan worked with us on the mix of that album too.
Were you aware of the stature of the label at the time they approached you?
Yeah I had quite a few Salsoul Records in my collection, Vince Montana, Salsoul Orchestra.
From the work you did with the Aleems, the electro influenced “Release Yourself” and “Get Loose” were huge hits and are probably your best known tracks from that period, yet earlier work you did with them like “Hooked On Your Love” has more in common with your releases as Logg or Convertion, why is that?
Because we were using a lot of the same people. We’d come up with a studio group that worked so well together that even though the name of the groups changed, it was still essentially us lot again. When the Aleems called me in for “Hooked On Your Love” it was still the Logg/Conversion band that I took with me. That’s why you can hear the similarities in projects over such a large body of work, both in mine and in Patrick’s.
Why did the change in style take place then?
While they were happy with the full bodied Patrick Adams sound on “Hooked On Your Love”, the Aleems wanted to be involved more in the arrangement of the records, so they began developing a techno sound for “Get Down Friday Night” that became even more evident when we came round to doing “Release Yourself” and “Get Loose”.
Were you not at all resistant to the radically new direction they were going in?
I’ve always believed that music was infinite. Everything musical that you introduce to the world has a value and place, I’m particularly fond of new things, new areas of evolution within the music business. It’s always been so important for me to be able to create music that transcends the ages, so when the Aleems came up with that electronic funk approach, I was really impressed. I took to it like a fish to water, it was so fresh, new, dynamic, interesting and exciting.
Could you still see the correlation between that sound and your Philadelphia roots?
No (laughs) When we got to that ‘techno’ era the line had become too blurred.
One of my favourite tracks that were were involved in that doesn’t appear on your anthologys is Venus Dodson’s “Shining”. How did that collaboration come about and what was your involvement in the project?
At the time I was doing quite a lot of collaborating with James Calloway. Patrick was working on the Venus Dodson project and asked if we had any songs available. He really liked “Where Are We Headed” and “Shining” so they went into production there and then. I did backing vocals on “Shining” and played keyboards on both.
You returned to Salsoul to work with Inner Life. The vibe of that record is quite far removed from the feel of the Logg album, what were you trying to do differently and why?
We’d worked with Jocelyn Brown many times before, on the Dazzle album, she was also THE vocalist we would call if we needed any background vocals doing, her voice and her personality were so wonderful. Salsoul wanted us to do something with Inner life and “Moment Of My Life” (the basis for Victor Simonelli’s “Do You Feel Me”) is what we came up with. We wanted to do something quite Gospel influenced with her, something really jubilant to get as much as we could out of her amazing voice.
You can hear a Gospel influence in a lot of your work, the vocals are delivered sometimes in such earnest and with a real spiritual feel yet you’ve never really produced any music where the religious theme totally dominates the song lyrics, why is that?
I would always describe myself as a spiritual person and not a religious person. Organised religion has always been a little bit sour, a little bit iffy for me, but the idea of the spirit, of divine existence has always been very clear to me. Personally, I’ve never liked being preached to, I believed that everything I needed to learn, I could learn without it coming from out of a pulpit, the pointed finger type of thing. For that reason, I wanted to make some important points in some of the songs I’d put together, but I didn’t want to beat it into peoples heads. You have to find a way to get the message across, without over diluting the lyrics and yet still say something positive or uplifting, even with a record like “Barely Breaking Even”. That was all about how broke we were, the struggles we all face making ends meet in that most of us are just paying the bills. So, it starts off “I just got my pay check, I just got paid and I’m on my way home, but between the rent and phone bills it’s nearly already gone and still I try to make ends meet that just don’t want to meet.” The “I’ve got to get some for myself” is the relief line, like he knows it’s a bad situation but, he’s actively going to do something to improve that, so it still has an uplifting sense to it.
I would say the vast majority of your work is uplifting, you never seem to have trodden that mournful side of soul music?
Well I’m a happy guy, I have a lot of blessings in my life. Part of why I’m in music is so’s I can share some of the happiness. I certainly try to translate some of that happiness from my life and into my music. It’s not always easy and I’m not always successful, but I do my best to try and convey some joy. You look outside on any given day and you can see the joy there is plainly in mere existence.
Can you tell me a bit about why you wrote Mainline and why you presented the themes you wanted to discuss in that track, in the way in which you did?
Well Mainline was written at a time when my home community, Harlem was going through a very bad heroin problem, it was catching up with a lot of people. I saw this and it touched me and I wanted to write something about it that would just pop into everybody’s head, again without preaching or being too heavy handed with it. So I decided to use ‘love’ instead of dope, drugs in the lyric “Higher and high flying…deep inside my veins.” Giving it a dynamic relationship between love and drugs, I was able to get that message to reach so many more people. The thing about “Mainline” is that it can indeed be a song totally about how you feel for someone, the way someone’s presence in your life is intoxicating, you’re hooked on them.
French house duo Cassius have just released their “Au Reve” album which holds two tracks on which you sing. Were you happy with the results of that collabaration?
I think they’re great, the work Cassius did with those songs is very, very different from what we started off with. I was in Paris in 2000, so they’ve been working on those tracks for two years. When I heard the final result of “Under Influence” and “Until We Got You And Me” it knocked me out.
I heard you were meant to be doing a track with Blaze, is that happening?
Well I was going to do a track called “So Thankful” with Blaze, but unfortunately the backing fell out and the project fell to the wayside. That happens sometimes.
I also heard you’d done a track called “Best Of Me” with the singer Belita Woods and producers the Basement Boys.
That’s completed but I’m still waiting to hear about a release date. It’s a great track, it’s got a feel of Chaka Khan’s “I Know You, I Live You” to it and the work between Belita and myself was terrific. I’ve been a big fan of hers ever since Brainstorm onwards.
Have any firm plans been made towards your proposed collaboration with Colonel Abrahams and James Williams?
I haven’t spoken to James in a while, but I’ve spoken to Colonel Abrahams. They were trying to get some producers together for that, so far I haven’t heard back, but it would be a wonderful collaboration, I hope it happens.
You were meant to be working with Louie Vega on a track called “Show Tonight”. Where are things up to with that?
Well, one of my people was talking to Louie and although he did like what I’d done, it wasn’t exactly what he was looking for and again, that happens. He gave me a track, I presented some lyrics for “Show Tonight” and unfortunately I didn’t find out till much later that he wasn’t entirely happy with it.
Another very exciting sounding track that you have forthcoming is “Let Me Know You’re Feeling Me” on which you return to working with Patrick Adams and also Glenn Underground. Do you have a release date for that?
It’s almost finalised I hope, we’re having some negotiatory (sic) problems though. The track’s been done since 1999, I’ve even performed it in Stockholm recently. It went down really well, so I wish we could iron out the problems and let people hear it. It’s from a Chicago album project, it’s working title is “Leroy Burgess Timeless” and it should contain the Glenn Underground track. After I’d recorded “Let Me Know You’re Feeling Me”, the record company Dust Traxx gave me the offer of trying for a full album. So I’ve been working with people like Jerry McAllister, Chez Damier with whom I’ve done a kind of neo gospel track “Liftin’ Me”, E Smoove who I did a track “Still Believe” with and with Ron Carroll on a track called “Arrogant”.
After devoting so much time writing and recording something, if it then goes on to be delayed or not released at all as happened with your abandoned 1987 album “At Last”, is it not then frustrating or disappointing to think “well actually, there’s some great work there, people should hear it.”
It is frustrating, but I rely on my spiritual side, try and move on as best I can and am even more determined to write or record something better that will get put out. With “At Last” I was in a deep transitionary period at that time, I’d come away from my recordings with the Aleems and “At Last” was an attempt at a solo album straight afterwards. I’ve written, recorded and put together so much music over the years that has never seen the light of day, that’s just part of the business.
Which artists would you most like to work with in the future?
My dream is to one day work with Quincy Jones. Some of the new artists also like Joe and Deborah Cox. I’d love to work with Stevie again we’ve been friends since the “Music Of My Mind” album, that was around the same time as Black Ivory. I kind of followed him round like a shadow for a while and we became friends. Later on we collaborated on a couple of tracks that I’d written for Bobby Humphrey, he came down and did the Harmonica parts.
You were away from the music scene for most of the nineties. Why was that and what were you doing?
I was studying. By the 90’s the hip hop and R n’ B sound was so prevelant, I felt like I needed to study it before i could incorporate it into my productions. Like I said, I do try to be current, move things forward and get as many people as possible to hear my music. I’m just about to release the “Back At The Drew” album, from a very talented R n’ B/hip hop group from Harlem called Da Drew Crew. It’s my priority project at the moment and it’ll be the first release on my own Burgess Entertainment label. It’ll also be my first R n’ B record proper since Black Ivory, everything since has more or less, been dance.
You’ve worked with Russell Patterson on a new track called “Get Down”, does this mean there will be some new Black Ivory material?
Well me and Russell have been working on a bit of new material, either for him or there’s talk of doing a new Black Ivory album, but “Get Down” is mainly his project with another producer.
What are most looking forward to in the future?
I’m really looking forward to Da Crew Crew album coming out and I’m looking forward to continuing, with the grace of God, to work with as many new producers, singers and writers as possible.
What is it that’s kept you in music all these?
Just a love for it. I love music, I love singing, I love sharing this music with people, to see the smiles on people’s faces when they hear the music. That makes it all worthwhile. There’s a vibe in music, there’s a way of speaking to people in music that you can’t do otherwise. Sometimes you could talk yourself blue in the face trying unsuccessfully to express something that, in music you could say easily.
Do you regret missing the opportunity to work on a record with your uncle? (Leroy’s uncle is legendary Philadelphia producer Thom Bell)
Yeah, I do. He was so influential to me, such an influence on how I listen to music. I used to listen to the way he orchestrated his songs, particularly his string arrangements and chord structures and I was and still am, captivated by it. So yes, I really wish we’d done some stuff together. Unfortunately, he was always the busiest member of the family. When he moved out to Seattle, the opportunity dwindled down to nothing.
Of all the tracks you’ve worked on throughout your career, which are your favourites?
My favourite ballad by far is “Think” by The Aleems on the “Casually Formal” album. Of the more uptempo stuff “Let’s Do It” (by Convertion) would certainly be at the top, “Over Like A Fat Rat” (by Fonda Rae), “Weekend” (by Phreek), “You Got That Something” (by Logg) and “Barely Breaking Even” (by Universal Robot Band) would be there as well.