CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Gregory Porter and Don Was: Before & After

The acclaimed vocalist sits down for a listening session with the producer, bassist, and Blue Note Records president

Don Was and Gregory Porter
Don Was (left) and Gregory Porter on the 2020 Blue Note at Sea cruise (photo: Lee Mergner)

During the Blue Note at Sea cruise in late January, Don Was, famed record producer and president of Blue Note Records, sat down with one of the artists on his label, the Grammy-winning vocalist Gregory Porter, for a listening session in front of a live audience. Was played only vocalists with whom he felt Porter had some affinity or direct connection. Not surprisingly, Porter recognized every artist without being told and was impassioned in explaining their importance in his life. Porter’s latest album, All Rise, is due out August 28 on Blue Note.

Hear a Spotify playlist including most of the songs in this Before & After listening session:

 

1. Marvin Gaye
“You’re All I Need to Get By/Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” (Live at the London Palladium, Tamla). Gaye and Florence Lyles, vocals; Nolan Smith, trumpet; Fernando Harkness, saxophones and flute; Charles Bynum and Terry Evans, guitars; Michael Stanton, electric piano; Odell Brown, synthesizer and organ; Gerald “Get Down” Brown, bass; Melvin Webb, congas; Elmira Amos and Frankie Beverly, percussion; Bugsy Wilcox, drums; Bobby Gant, Gwanda Hambrick, and Wally Cox, backing vocals; band directed by Leslie Drayton. Recorded in 1977.

BEFORE: Well, maybe [sarcastically] that’s Marvin Gaye. [Laughs] I’ve always said you could put Marvin in a whole bunch of categories. Obviously knowing his story and even hearing his voice, you can tell that there was some gospel-rearing, but I mean that’s R&B and soul. But on top of that, his phrasing and the guitar and the bass, it’s jazz, and the keyboards—it’s jazz.

I was in my college apartment, sitting on a mattress because I didn’t have money for a whole bed. I had already injured my shoulder [an injury that ended Porter’s plan to be a football player], and I was trying to figure out where I was going to go. I had thought maybe, aside from my studies, music could be an avenue for me, but I didn’t think I was cool enough for R&B. At the time, there were groups like Color Me Badd and Silk. It’s cool music, but I didn’t feel that cool. Because pretty much you had to have, like, eight-pack abs and I had that, because I played football. But their top hits were “I Wanna Sex You Up” and … listen, I understand. We all love that. But it just wasn’t my vibe. And I was like, “Where could I be?”

And I got this record, and it was Marvin Gaye singing jazz songs in the way that Marvin Gaye sings jazz songs. He would be like [singing], “I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter.” I was like [gasps], “There’s a way to do this!” In the liner notes he was talking about the love that he had for Nat King Cole and the desire to be a jazz singer. I was like, “Bam! I could do that! This could be my niche!” It’s interesting to hear, you pulled a song kind of from that vibe. It’s not Marvin screaming, being perfect Marvin. It’s just him laying out the tunes with his beautiful sound. He was very important in figuring out my direction because he was, in a way, genre-less. And kind of an idol—very much so.

DON WAS: Speaking of Marvin, here’s a song that he wrote. This is a softball.

2. Aretha Franklin
“Wholy Holy” (Amazing Grace, Atlantic). Franklin, vocal and piano; Cornell Dupree, guitar; Ken Lupper, organ; Chuck Rainey, bass; Pancho Morales, percussion; Bernard Purdie, drums; Rev. James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir, backing vocals. Recorded in 1972.

BEFORE: [Laughs] Y’all remember this vinyl, right? You see what’s happening there? My dear mother could probably listen to that and think, “Oh, isn’t that a wonderful gospel song?” But he’s talking about the reality of a romantic love being spiritual, which is something that I was scared of for a long time, probably because I hadn’t experienced it yet. There’s probably some church mothers in the audience today, but sometimes those old school mothers would come up to you and say, “If you play with it, he’ll take it away from you!” And in my little eight-year-old mind, I was like, “So am I going to be spitting up blood? Are my lungs going to come out? What’s going to happen?”

I understand what they were saying, but for a singer who grew up singing in the church, it’s always a thing. Like, don’t take your pearls and throw them to the swine. But I remember being in my mother’s Cadillac and I couldn’t quite see over the dash. I said, “Maybe I want to be a singer, Mom.” She said, “Yeah, you want to sing gospel music?” And I was like, “Well, maybe. But I think I want to sing about love too.” Because at this time, I won a family talent show—there were eight of us—singing about love. I remember being very nervous because my mother had it together in terms of the Bible and everything. She said, “Baby, God made love and it’s okay to sing about it.” That kind of released my shoulders a little bit, but I still had these church mothers saying, “If you play with it, he’s going to rip it out of your throat!”

The funny thing is, Marvin had another song [“My Love Is Waiting,” from 1982’s Midnight Love] that essentially starts off, “Jesus! I’m coming straight for your love!” And I was like, “Huh! He’s doing that thing again.” This stark separation that your spirituality and your relationship had to have in music slowly goes away when you have a child, when you see the beauty of that, get married and the beauty of that, and you go through life and there’s sicknesses, there’s ups and downs, and you pray to God that he keeps your family whole. You start to realize this thing is not separated. My love life and my spirituality have got to be together.

I wrote a song on the new record, where it’s just doing that thing I was scared to do for a long time [singing]: “Your eyes, they tell the truth of your affection, your songs are all the ones I long to hear. I believe in Jesus, and all that he can do. Now I want to have a little faith in you.” Now that sounds like a very simple thing—there’s rappers doing it, there’s a bunch of people doing it. But I was so scared to even connect my faith and my relationships.

3. Frank Sinatra
“Didn’t We?” (My Way, Reprise). Sinatra, vocals; orchestra arranged and conducted by Don Costa. Recorded in 1968.

BEFORE: Frank Sinatra, of course.

That’s an unusual vocal for him, isn’t it?

Very unusual. But this is one of those Sinatra songs, probably in the second half of his career where he’s like, “I’m a wise man, I’ve been through some things.” This is the kind of song I feel may be good for me now. In the record before last [2016’s Take Me to the Alley], I had a song [called] “Insanity,” and it is probably not a song that [I’d put] on a record if I was 25 because you’ve got to go through a thing or two, you know what I mean? [Laughs] To sell a lyric like that and deliver it in the proper way. This is a similar type of song. [Singing] “How did we ever lose our minds and fall apart? Knowing we’re the only ones to heal each other’s hearts.” You have to have some issue and come to some healing in order to write the lyric I feel, and to deliver it believably. So there’s a ton of songs that I have on a list—if they’re not songs that I’ve written, they’re songs on a list, not [for] when I get to a certain age, but when I get to a certain maturity where I understand. You know what I mean? Otherwise I’m lying.

Do you know the song? It’s a Jimmy Webb song from the late ’60s.

I don’t know the song, but his use of his tone and his wisdom is awesome.

4. Shirley Horn
“Here’s to Life” (Here’s to Life, Verve). Horn, vocals and piano; Charles Ables, bass; Steve Williams, drums; orchestra arranged and conducted by Johnny Mandel. Recorded in 1991.

BEFORE: Shirley Horn! You remember how I was talking about that list of songs that I’ll get to when I get some wisdom? That’s one of those songs. You guys [in the audience] have to pay to get on the boat and cruise around the Caribbean and I get paid to be here, but let me tell you: I get something [else] too. In the faces of a lot of the people on the boat is this song. I see you celebrating life and your friends and your loved ones and your relationships, and sometimes there’s a partner who’s infirm and you’ve got her arm or his arm, and it’s just beautifully powerful. I’m watching it and some of that is in this song, and that stays with me. Now, whether it be this song or another song that I create in the future, you’ll be there. You’ll be there because I’ve experienced it. There’s wisdom in a song like this, and there’s somebody who’s lived a life. It’s not sad, it’s “Here’s to life, here’s to love. Here’s to you.” It’s killing!

5. Michael McDonald
“Stop, Look, Listen (to Your Heart)” (Motown Two, Motown/Universal). McDonald, vocal and piano; Toni Braxton, vocal; Toby Baker, synthesizers and programming; Simon Climie, guitar; Nathan East, bass; Nicky Shaw, drums and percussion; the London Session Orchestra conducted by Gavyn Wright. Recorded in 2004.

BEFORE: Michael McDonald, the one and only. I had the opportunity in the last few years to befriend him. It’s awesome to listen to his music when you were this small and then you become a man, and to have him address you by first name—it’s one of those moments. I was in the Netherlands, just walking down a hallway and “Hey, Gregory!” You know that tone. And there’s this completely white, white man: hair white, eyes white, everything is white! And he embraced me and we’re brothers in music. He was like, “I love you, brother,” and I was like, “Wow.” Just amazing.

That’s the thing that music can do. I always talk about music tearing down walls of genre, but it tears down walls of race and socioeconomics and all that other goofy stuff that we do. He does something that sounds like it’s a bit of my culture, and I do a whole bunch of things that sound like they would be a part of his culture. So it’s like, what is so different about us? First of all, it’s great music, and he’s been in some of the most important bands that have been in music. But at the same time, this guy is like a case study in culture, of the things we hold onto that we say are just “ours,” but it really belongs to everybody. It really does. Because that’s just a straight-up soulful voice.

6. Sammy Davis, Jr.
“This Guy’s in Love With You” (from YouTube clip of live performance on the BBC television show Dee Time). Davis, vocal; others unknown. Recorded in 1968. 

BEFORE: Sammy Davis, Jr. Absolutely. Sometimes in “Musical Genocide” I reference Sammy Davis and one of his tunes. Some people said, “Oh, you got ‘Be Good’ from ‘Mr. Bojangles.’” Maybe subconsciously, but I wasn’t thinking of that—I was thinking of my own broken heart at the time. But Sammy Davis, Jr. is important to me; the clarity and the crispness of his delivery is so sharp. Maybe if I sung a hundred hours, I’ll have a moment where I achieve that kind of clarity and cut-through-ness of sound. What is there to say about Sammy Davis, Jr. other than being awesome?

I think he’s the greatest of that whole genre of singers. I’ve been on a real Sammy kick lately—he’s just brilliant, man! And he, like you, can move in a number of different genres and is comfortable in all of them.

There’s some singers that you listen to and they can push you over the line in terms of making you say to yourself, “Okay, this is what I want to do.” And at that time, when I was coming to that decision [to sing professionally]—it was a very difficult time, my mother was in the house in her last days of life, and she had said to me, “Gregory, don’t forget about your music.”

For the last few days I had been telling her, “Mom, don’t worry. I’m going to finish this college degree. I’m going to wear brown shoes and I’m going to walk the straight and narrow and just be a regular guy.” You know, it was her thing: “I don’t want none of my boys to end up in prison or in trouble.” And it was like, “It’s not going to happen, Mom. I’m going to be cool.” So I’m telling her this stuff and she said, “Well, wait a minute. Don’t forget about music. It’s one of the best things you do, Gregory.” And here I was, trying to give her some safety and she’s like, “Go out there and be risky!” And be hungry for about 20 years, which is what happened.

Anyway, I had a collection of records and obviously Nat was there, and Leon Thomas, and Sammy Davis, Jr. There was a record that he had that was so positive and so “You can do it!” I was like, “Yeah. Don’t forget about my music.” He was one of the artists that pushed me over the top to say, “Do this. Do this. Do this.”

Well, check out the video of this. It’s “This Guy’s in Love With You,” the one where he’s wearing a leather jacket with a fur collar and he’s taking puffs of a cigarette between lines.

Of course he is!

7. Stevie Wonder
“You and I” (Talking Book, Tamla). Wonder, vocal, piano, and synthesizers. Recorded in 1972.

BEFORE: Yes, wonderful Stevie Wonder. If you say, “If I want to start a career in music, I’ll just copy a person—I’ll copy Stevie Wonder and then I’ll rocket to success.” But he’s such an original that it just can’t work.

I love these songs that are just unadorned, his humanity and his manhood. There’s no rocket ships taking off, it’s just him and what sounds to be an upright piano in the corner of some church. The voice sounds like it’s studio-fied, but that piano sounds like it’s going way back, which is what’s awesome about this recording. It shows the power of his genius.

Nothing is created in a vacuum. I mean, I didn’t fall down from Wakanda and land here on planet Earth. [Laughs] I walk on streets that have been paved before—Stevie, Sammy Davis—that’s what I’m doing. So to listen to this is really—these are the building blocks, they should be the building blocks of every modern singer, but they definitely are the building blocks of me. I didn’t curate this list, you did. And you hear it in my voice.

So here’s one. This next artist is a buddy of mine; our kids went to school together, that’s how I know him. He got wind that I was producing a Garth Brooks record about 20 years ago [1999’s The Life of Chris Gaines] and he wanted to get a song on there, so he said, “Come over to the house.” I knew him from the playground. Sometimes you forget who these guys are. He said, “Sit down here, I’m going to make a little demo for you,” and he turned on a drum machine and he played some synthesizer and it sounds just like a guitar—he figured out exactly how to voice like a guitar—and he just sang this live and then he overdubbed the harmony and he says, “Here, take this to Garth.” And I was like, “Oh my god.” I was just in awe because it took 10 minutes and he’s so great. No one’s ever really heard this except us, but he won’t mind me playing it. I found it the other night.

8. Lionel Richie
“Still in Love” (home demo recording made by Richie for Don Was). Richie, vocals, synthesizer, drum machine. Recorded in 1999. [Ed. note: Our Spotify playlist contains Richie’s official studio recording of the song, on his 1996 album Louder than Words.]

BEFORE: Wow. If that’s not Lionel Richie—

Yeah, that’s Lionel.

AFTER: Wow. And that’s never been heard?

That recording’s never been heard.

Y’all are lucky on this boat, I’m telling you! This is craziness!

Isn’t that wild? And he just did it, that’s what blew my mind. He was sitting there at his piano, and I was sitting right next to him because I had to turn the tape recorder on.

These are just cats you hang with at the playground, you know? “Yeah, I was just hanging out with Lionel Richie.” That’s cool. Me being from Bakersfield, California, country music is really a sound there and it’s a thing that can infect your bones and get into your music. Lionel Richie, going to that place, trying to get on a Garth Brooks record? Garth should have picked that song up. Who was producing that record? I’m just saying. [Laughs]

Well, there was no telling him [Brooks] anything. He was selling 10 million records every time.

I just saw him the other day.

Lionel?

Yeah. So the idea you’re talking about of him laying down the harmonies and just [being] a natural musician—after all the genius songs that he’s written with the complexity and the inner-outer weavings and the double choruses and all these fantastic things, he told Quincy Jones, “I know nothing about music.” They put a sheet of music in front of him and he’s like, “I can’t deal with that. Now, just give me the piano and I can show you what to do.” That’s how my songs come to me, in a very natural way. I’m not thinking about, “Oh, I want to go to the third of—” Nah. I mean, we can talk about all that, but really it’s coming from a place of “Where does my heart take me, musically?”

9. Bobby McFerrin
“I Shall Be Released” (spirityouall, Masterworks). McFerrin, vocals; Larry Campbell, guitars; Gil Goldstein, keyboards; Larry Grenadier, bass; Ali Jackson, drums. Recorded in 2013.

BEFORE: Well, I recognize it because of a buoyancy in the voice—Bobby McFerrin.

That’s right.

But that is a hard one, because he’s singing very different.

It’s from his most recent record from about five or six years ago. Do you know the song? It’s a Bob Dylan song.

Yes, a Bob Dylan song but I know it from Nina Simone. Funny thing, Nina Simone will do Bob Dylan tunes and you’ll swear they’re Nina Simone songs and it messes with your mind. And you’re like, “That’s got to be from an angry black woman!” You understand what I’m saying? No! No, that’s coming from the human experience. Man, I’m telling you. This is what I love.

I’ll be singing something and it’ll be soulful and it’s just for my grandmama, my black grandmama who’s collard greens and cornbread—so I think! And then [actress] Sally Struthers comes to me and says, “Thank you for singing about my grandma!” And does that make me shudder? No, it makes me say, “Yes! That’s what I’m talking about.” So I’m optimistic about what music can do and how it can affect our lives and make us better people. I hope to be on the side of positivity and music.