Eli “Paperboy” Reed
by Generoso Fierro
One usually associates flowers, candy, and even the odd apology or two with the normal goings on of a Valentine’s Day, but on this particular 14th of February, I was more than delighted to eschew the aforementioned trappings of this insipid greeting card holiday to speak with my old friend, soul singer Eli “Paperboy” Reed. Why we both chose Valentine’s Day to speak is still a bit unclear to me, but the day is oddly fitting in one manner in that Eli’s newest record, 99 Cent Dreams (which is due in stores on April 12th) triumphantly continues the Boston-born vocalist’s evident love affair with vintage R&B, soul, and Gospel, and it is an even more lyrically confident follow-up release to his critically lauded 2016 record, My Way Home. Put down at the legendary Sam Phillips Recording Studio in Memphis and produced with the Grammy Award winning talents of Matt Ross-Spang (Jason Isbell’s 2015 LP Something More Than Free), 99 Cent Dreams also features the vocal wisdom of the legendary soul group, The Masqueraders, whose harmonies dazzle behind Eli’s impassioned lead vocals on many of the twelve original compositions on the album. I have known Eli since his early days as a young musician in Boston, when I had him on my former radio show at WMBR 88.1, Cambridge, and throughout the years, I have seen him continue to progress and shape his sound. What you are about to read is our lively and in depth talk that afternoon about the working parts that went into Eli’s new record, but given that our chat only occurred just a few days after the great singer/songwriter, Harvey Scales, passed away, I chose to begin my conversation with Eli by asking for his thoughts on “Milwaukee’s Godfather of Soul.”
Q: Before we start talking about your new record, I just wanted to get your thoughts on Harvey Scales, who left us on Monday at the age of 76. Harvey was an amazing talent, as besides all of his own releases with The Seven Sounds, he also wrote, “Once Is Not Enough”, recorded by The O’Jays and “Disco Lady” for Johnny Taylor, as well as so many more classic songs.
A: You know, I got to work with Harvey Scales a bunch, and he was just so magnanimous and so supportive of the young soul scene. I think that he was just so tickled by the fact that there are these young kids out there trying to do this music, and he was such a good guy. He was always trying to give me pointers, and it was always so much fun to hang out with him–he had so many stories because he was not only involved with the scenes in Milwaukee and Chicago, but also in Memphis later on in his career, so he was like an encyclopedia of soul. He was just the kind of guy who you thought was going to live forever because he was so vivacious and was such a powerful personality.
Q: This is an odd coincidence, as sadly last week, the great Jamaican singer Noel “Bunny” Brown passed away, and as a young singer, one of Bunny’s first hits was a rocksteady version of Curtis Mayfield’s song for Gene Chandler, “Man’s Temptation,” which was also the very first recording of the band backing you up on vocals, The Masqueraders. They had a hit with “Ain’t Got To Love Nobody Else” in 1968. I know most folks now know them from their appearances on America’s Got Talent, and of the original group, Sammy “The Bull Rider” Hutchins, Harold “Sundance” Thomas, and Robert “Tex” Wrightsil are still together and performing. They sound amazing on the backing vocals for 99 Cent Dreams. How did they come to be on the new record?
A: So, the producer who I worked with to make the record, Matt Ross-Spang, is a Memphis boy, born and raised, and so he has all of these Memphis connections, and The Masqueraders have been working with Bobby Manuel, who you know is an old Stax session player, and the group has been working on a comeback thing with Bobby, and Matt knows Bobby, so that is the connection. When Matt and I were having pre-production conversations on the phone, Matt suggested that we should get The Masqueraders on the record to do background vocals. The Masqueraders used to perform on Beale Street, and that is where I first saw them about fifteen years ago, and I have tons of their records and am such a huge fan. I mean, they sang on, “I’m in Love” by Wilson Pickett! With all this coming together, it was a like a dream come true. Bobby Manuel made the introduction, and so we called them up, and they came into the studio. They really didn’t know what to expect, as they didn’t know me from Adam, but once they heard the first song, they quickly understood what they were doing there, and then we became such fast friends, and they sung on eight songs on the new record. It is incredible when you realize that Harold and Robert have been singing together for sixty years, and Sammy joined the band in the sixties, which means that they have all been a group for over fifty years. When you hear people who have been blending their voices together for so long, who all stand around one microphone and join arms together to sing and even fight like an old married couple, when they get down to singing, you’ve never heard anything quite like it. As I was in the room conducting their parts and listening to them while they were working, I had to pinch myself that this was all happening.
Q: Will The Masqueraders be joining you on any stops on your tour starting in May?
A: I so very much hope that they can come out to sing when we are in Memphis. That would be incredible.
Q: For 99 Cent Dreams, you got to work with the exceptionally talented engineer/producer Matt Ross-Spang, who picked up a Grammy in 2015 for engineering and mixing Jason Isbell’s Something More Than Free, and has worked with Margo Price, who was up for Best New Artist at the Grammys, and most recently, he engineered the critically acclaimed The Tree of Forgiveness LP for John Prine. He has also worked with Al Green and William Bell, who I know is a hero of yours. How was this connection made? Given that Matt generally prefers live recordings, this seems like a perfect match for you. How did you prepare each other to work on this record?
A: We were fielding producer offers for this new record, as the last one that I did for Yep Roc, I did on my own, so for this one I wanted to work with a producer and be a little more methodical about the way this record was going to sound, and it was fortuitous that Matt kind of immediately reached out through his management team, and he stated that he had liked my work since Roll With You, which was really heartening. The first time we talked on the phone he told me that he wanted to treat the songs the way that they should be treated and that he wasn’t going to spend time messing around, not letting, “the best” be the enemy of “the good,” and so if we put a mic up, and it sounds good, let’s go and try and capture the feel as we were going. We actually ended up getting delayed by a massive snowstorm in NYC, so we missed a whole day of recording because I was supposed to get into Memphis on a Monday morning, but I ended up getting in on a Tuesday afternoon at 2PM, but by 4PM, we were already tracking. He’s a great producer, in that when he says something, it is something that needs to be said; otherwise, he will just stay out of the way and let the band and I do our thing. For example, during one song, Matt suggested that I sing and play guitar at the same time because he thought that my feel when I was singing and playing guitar was what was making the track. So, there are a lot of songs on the record where I am singing live and playing guitar also, but then if we had to fix something, we could just go back in and change the guitar or the vocal to get the feel together with everybody playing, which was the overall goal.
Q: That’s excellent, Eli. Matt’s track record is really interesting, in that he’s already done such notable work with these young artists, but he has also produced work for William Bell and Al Green, and he even remixed those Elvis recordings a few years ago to much acclaim. For a man his age, he must possess this amazing mental catalog, and he has such sharp intuitions that he clearly recognized that the feel of your recordings were aided by you simultaneously singing and playing. It’s quite a gift for a fairly young producer.
A: It’s funny, because in a way for Matt, doing this record was a way for him to break out of the Americana box that he had been put into a little bit. Since he is from Memphis, he told me that he really wanted to make R&B records, with horns and backing singers, a real electric record away from the acoustic music that he is more known for now, which is great music, but I think that he wanted to show what he could really do in this style of music.
Q: Your 2016 LP, My Way Home drew heavily on your love of Gospel, and clearly that love is there with 99 Cent Dreams, but what inspirations, musical or experiential, went into the concept behind this record?
A: Well, I made this record for Warner Brothers that came out in 2014, which was a pop record that I was proud of, but it wasn’t well received. So, after things fell apart with Warner, I felt like I had to go in the opposite direction for myself and do the My Way Home record, which just kind of fell out of me, as it was something that I instinctively knew how to do, so I wrote all of the songs in about six weeks, and we recorded the album in four days, and it was done! But when it came time to do the 99 Cent Dreams album, I wanted to kind of move the needle back towards the center and make the kind of record that I have always loved: a happy, exciting, and soulful R&B record, and those are the songs that I set out to write. Obviously, I feel like I am at a place in my life where I can write with more lyrical maturity and come up with more tightly constructed songs, and that’s what I set out to do.
Q: The song, “Bank Robber,” from the new record was co-written with Aaron Frazer, who is a member of Durand Jones & The Indications and who also worked with you on The Flying Stars single, “Live On.” Is “Bank Robber” the only song that you co-wrote together on 99 Cent Dreams?
A: Yes, Aaron co-wrote “Bank Robber” and the last song on the record, “Couldn’t Find a Way.”
Q: Given Aaron’s similar loves for Gospel and soul, what perspective did he give to the songwriting process? Do you plan on writing together on the regular?
A: Aaron is just an all-around talented guy, and as are all of the folks here in Brooklyn that I did co-writes with on the new record. Aaron is young and smart, and he has a great lyric and melodic sense. He has a lot of fire, and he will often come up with ideas and then kind of go off on a tangent, but then I’ll come in and say, “Well, let’s finish this,” and this is why we work well together, as during this time of my life, I myself don’t like writing songs, I like finishing songs. Once the song is done, I am happy, but the actual writing process can be, not annoying, but arduous. When I know how the song is supposed to go, I just have to get it down on paper, and once I do, that’s when I’m happy.
Q: The last time I saw you perform, Eli, was at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles, and there you had a small ensemble that allowed you to be very raw and energetic, but as you are going out on tour at the end of March to support the release 99 Cent Dreams, an album which has lavish harmonies from The Masqueraders and horn arrangements, what do you see as your band setup for this tour?
A: I am going to bring horns on the road for this tour, as I decided that it was important to have them, especially for this record. Thankfully, the guys in the band can still do the harmony, which really helps so that we have four-part harmony live, but yes, I am going to bring a couple of horn players, so it will probably be a six piece band including myself, and with that lineup, I think that we can make a lot of noise. What is also exciting about this tour is that now, with 99 Cent Dreams, I have six records full of material to choose from, so it’s kind of crazy to think about how to build a setlist with all of that music, since I want to put together a show that features the new cuts plus old favorites.