Gregory Porter has quickly become a real success story.
A Los Angeles native who was raised in Bakersfield, but now resides in Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, Porter has two CDs to his credit, his 2011 debut, Water and his latest offering, Be Good, which is Itunes.com’s 2012 Best Jazz Album.
Porter got his start singing in small jazz clubs in San Diego, where he lived while at San Diego State University (which he attended on a football scholarship, as an outside linebacker, until a sidelined by a shoulder injury.) His first studio experience resulted in his being featured on Hubert Laws’ Remembers the Unforgettable Nat King Cole (on Smile), a particularly apt start for a young man who, as a child, not only used to sing along to the Nat King Cole records his mother would play, but who would go on to impress theater audiences with a deeply personal one man show, Nat King Cole and Me. That show, which ran for two months at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, was preceded by Porter’s work in It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues. Although he'd only had minimal prior theatrical experience (in the Doo Wop musical Avenue X), Porter eventually was cast in one of eight lead roles when the play opened in San Diego, and eventually followed it to Off-Broadway and then Broadway theater, where the New York Times, in its 1999 rave review, mentioned Porter among the show's "powerhouse line up of singers.” It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues went on to earn both Tony and Drama Desk Award nominations that year.
A diverse entertainer, this Sunday Porter will vie for a Grammy for Best Traditional R&B Performance for “Real Good Hands” off of his Be Good CD.
I caught up with the sexy, brawny jazz singer recently to talk about his career.
DD: The Grammys are Sunday. You’re in the category Best Traditional R&B performance for Real Good Hands. Your category includes superstars like Beyonce and Anita Baker. What will you say if you win and what will you think if you don’t?
GP: (Porter laughs) If I don’t win, that’s a helluva list to be on. It’s an honor to be nominated for sure. People keep saying I could win. I break out in laughter. Anita Baker has been the background sound of my life. If I win, it would be sweet. I wrote the song from experience. I wrote it about two years ago. My now father-in-law called me with that kind of statement that says, ‘what is your intention with my daughter?’ He came at me hard and I couldn’t respond. We’re good now. He wanted to know are you going to marry my daughter. We’d been dating for a year.
DD: What do you think about music awards?
GP: The Grammys are a special thing. They are important and necessary. But, they aren’t an exact barometer about your work or the musical landscape. There are so many musical artists who never got looked at - at all. It’s a great honor. It’s amazing to be in that setting. I am a part of that community of people who do things and people put it in their ears. It’s an honor to do that. When I sit down to write a song, I’m not even considering an award. If it happens, great. I’m just trying to strike a heart with the music.
DD: You toured a lot last year. Where have you been and tell me what kind of feedback you’re getting about your music.
GP: I’m blown away and overwhelmed by the response in the U.K., France and Germany. I fell out. Every venue in France and U.K. was extraordinary. I have such appreciation. It’s also been great in the U.S. I did a concert at Georgia Tech. There was an outpouring of love.
DD: Lets talk about your style. Describe it for me.
GP: I’m a jazz singer, but I’m a child of the 70s and 80s. Growing up in that time I was an old soul then listening to music before my time. I listened to early jazz greats. I also listened to The Temptations, The Jacksons and Lou Rawls. A lot of great music was coming my way. I’m approaching jazz from an emotional standpoint. That’s the landscape of jazz. But it’s about emotion. This nomination kind of reaffirms that in my approach.
DD: What’s the difference between Water and Be Good? Did you grow in between projects? Was it obvious or subtle?
GP: It was subtle. Some growth happened. There is emotional growth. Our Love comes from walking around London. I was walking around the Tower of London and looking at the structure and the way the building was built. I was like, “wow.” Inside of the Tower of London they house the queen’s crown jewels. And I was thinking, ‘what if those crown jewels were replaced by love?’ Forces of hate have stormed the gates around the castles of our love (lyrics from Our Love). The gates at the Tower of London are so thick. That’s where that song came from. The core of me is still there. I like to sing about things that are organic to love and family.
DD: Your style has been described as shades of Donny Hathaway, Bill Withers and Nat King Cole. That’s high praise. Your thoughts?
GP: Be careful. Quit talking like that. Those are masters. If I do something over the next 20 years, then I’ll be able to listen to that. As a young artist, I really appreciate it. I feel we’re in the same family. Those are my idols.
DD: What are you working on?
GP: I’m writing a song for the next album about people being thirsty for something real, something to nurture the soul. I’m just adding my little, small contribution. I’m recording next month.
DD: Everyone has a moment when they know what they are meant to do and be in their lives – when was yours?
GP: You know, I felt it many times. But I felt I had to have sanctions. My mother was passing away. We were up in the middle of the night. She was laboring for breath. She told me, the best thing you do is sing. It took away pressure about having a 9 to 5 job. It freed me.
DD: What do you think about today’s music? What do you like and what don’t you like?
GP: I don’t like when people are trying to grab for a cheap reaction in a way. I can pull my pants down and the audience is going to go crazy. You can do things the hard way and say something that intrigues the heart, brain and soul. I’d like to see that. Sex is great, but is that the only thing you got? It can be empty. I’d like to hear things go deeper. I want to hear about your mother, father, nature, you know? Don’t rush just to say something outrageous.