Al Jarreau talks Prince, the Roots, and spending 40 years in the music business

Some might say that 34 seems a bit "past one's prime" to have started a singing career. For Al Jarreau, that's never seemed to matter. Having been the only vocalist in history to garner Grammy Awards across three different genre categories (jazz, pop and R&B), and with 21 albums, seven Grammys, and a career spanning over 30 years, Midwest's own humble Jazz singer has brought light, romance, and above all an abundance of wholesome vocal talent to every song he has touched.

Jarreau has interlaced jazz with pop in a way that has never successfully been done before. His popularity grew in the mid-'60s and didn't seem to lose steam until slowing down in the mid-'90s, at which point he received his own Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The now 71-years-old jazz singer has seen some of the greatest success an artist can obtain in their career. His familiar favorite singles such as "We're In This Love Together" and "After All and "Moonlighting" have been coined timeless classics. Very few compare to Al Jarreau, and his rich vocal tones and romantic writing style are as unique as his spirited personality.
Gimme Noise had the wonderful experience of speaking with Al prior to his performance tonight at the Pantages Theater. With a vivacious attitude and a youthful tone, Al came over the phone to get real about the jazz of the '70s.

Hey Al, How it's going? 

Going alright, so hey, how's the weather you got there?

It's kind of cold, hovering around the 40s. 

Yes, kind of cold, almost cold enough to go take a dip in Lake Minnetonka ya know? Ya know, maybe not cold enough. I'm from Milwaukee; ya know we have polar bears here. I go home every New Years and take a dip in Lake Michigan! I'm a polar bear! 

So you must be familiar with Minnesota? 

Yeah, I've spent a little time in Minneapolis, and Saint Paul. I have friend there who are still in the area. So yeah, I put a band together with some guys from Minneapolis.  Bobby Schnitzer, and Rich Dworsky, who is now a part of Prairie Home Companion (he's the music director). Rich, he was 17-18 years old high school kid who joined our band and traveled with us a bit. That was back in '68, '69.

So, oh yeah, I've got some friends from Minneapolis. This was a very important time of my life. My manager actually was a guy from Minneapolis, Shelly Jacobs.

How do you feel that the musical influences in the Midwest compare with other areas of the country? 

We've got our own thing, ya know. Midwest has, these days, has a guy named Prince ya know? But the Midwest has always had its own thing; with Chicago and the blues, and Saint Louis and the blues. We've had a really great influence, with jazz and Chicago, and Saint Louis and throughout the Midwest there. I was out there in '65, playing in a club in Cedar Rapids, Iowa called the Tender Trap. The owner was a drummer of Frank Sinatra. The Midwest has always had its own way with the jazzy bluesy important music of the day and time and has needed some more. So yeah, it's wonderful to be a part of that, and join in the middle of that. The influence of that is in my music today.

Did you ever get a chance to meet Prince? 

Yeah! I did a date at Northrup many, many years ago when Prince first came on the scene - and he came over there and we looked at each other, shook hands and hugged. There was this little smile because we were both on Warner records and Prince was coming on the scene and he came over to say hello, he stood there and said, "My name is Prince, and I'm comin' to Al!" Well, he passed me going FAST hunny! 

I was just talking to somebody who was doing a little piece on Sheila E., and I was on camera, we were talking about her days with Prince, and I guess Prince sings in conversations all the time. I just think it's so fabulous for a guy out of the Midwest, who made a huge impact, a huge mark on the music. So yeah, I raise a flag every chance I get, "I'm from Milwaukee, and don't you forget it!" 

So tell me, who are some recent hip-hop or R&B artists that you're digging on?
Oh, c'mon, don't put me on the spot like that! [laughing] There are some people today that I really enjoy, do you know of the guys from the... the Roots! They are brilliant. A lot of artists today are doing it really good. I'm not especially in on the influence of the hip-hop nation, or hip-hop galaxy, but there are some things that we do in common. Especially when they're...  
[Al proceeds to beat-box over the phone for about 20 seconds] And I didn't touch my stuff here at all, that was all me. 

So there will be those moments in our performances, and those things like "Take Five" and "Mornin'" and "We're In This Love Together" - we're going to do things from the early career like "Sweet Potato Pie" and "We Got By"; the whole territory of my life, the early beginnings, and recent stuff too. 

So it's going to be like the Al Jarreau catalogue?

Yeah, but recently we've kind of made this lean into reintroducing some the early stuff back that a lot of my audiences these days are listening for. 

Al Jarreau talks Prince, the Roots, and spending 40 years in the music business
So tell me what life was like during the early '70s and all of this was going on, and Warner Brothers just stepped in?

It was a fabulous time for me, can you imagine? I had left rehab counseling, where I was working for four years between '64 and '68. And that was the same period that I was working with George Duke at the Half-Note, this club in San Francisco. In fact there is a record that we had just released, that we recorded live at the Half-Note, Al Jarreau and George Duke Live at the Half-Note. My wife says, "Yeah, B.C.!" [Laughing]

So yeah we just released that record, and I was doing music and it was the dream. Living on stardust from the dream, and thanking God for every chance I got to get up and do music in front of five people, or 20 people, or a 100. So for me, that was a wonderful period and the scene was wild! It was everything from Fusion, which was jazz and rock 'n' roll. The scene was really fresh and wide-opened. Joni Mitchell and the Beatles and Dylan, they were doing their brand of singer-songwriter kind of thing and it touched me, it influenced me and made me write things like "We Got By." It was a beautiful day; we tend to look back with wonderful meaning in front of everything that happened in the past. Sometimes, I have to remind myself, that we were complaining then too. There was a lot of stuff happening that influenced me so deeply; the music of that time. I came from a kind of B-Boppish background; I was listening to Nat Cole and Bill Eckstine, and Ella Fitzgerald. And the jazz singers of the '50s and '60s; I was influenced more by Jon Hendricks more than anybody in my life, expect maybe Johnny Mathis. So moving into that period of the '70s where there was this other music and I was a student of Lennon-McCartney. So even if I wanted to be a hip-hop guy, I don't know if I could. 

Tell me, "We're In This Love Together" - what was that about? Was it just a pop song written about a pop song, or was their some deep meaning behind it? 

It's interesting you ask about that Cindal Lee, because I was in the studio with Jay Graydon who was one of the most important producers I had. We were in there and I can't tell you what the piece of music was we were working on at the time, but... Someone from my management office called me in the studio and said, "Hold the press, you need to hear this! I got a song here that came to the office and I think you ought to hear it!" So I listened to that song that night, and we stopped what we were doing. When, "We're In This Love Together" came over it - well, it was just a great piece of music. It was just one of those songs that crushed me over from being a "Jazzer," to finding an R&B and pop audience. There are just songs that are described as a ditty; there is nothing significant being said in that song, it's just a nice, cute little love song, with a back-beat. But, so, I didn't write it, but I easily could have. 

What's your experience with Bill Withers? 

My experience with Bill Withers, it's significant. Bill Withers is a guy who like me, didn't record his first record until he was 35 years old. I think we have some similar kinds of groove, influences, and feelings, and expressions that come out of us. Before I did my first record as Al Jarreau, I had a pseudonym, but I did some Wither's songs for some label out of K-Mart, or something... This was in the early '70s; I didn't do my first record for me until 1975. But, I love Bill Withers, and I ain't alone. [Laughing]...
AL JARREAU performs tonight, WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 16, at the PANTAGES THEATRE. All ages. $53.50-$63.50. 7:30 p.m. 

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