Published Feb 25, 2009To say that Leroy Burgess has made an indelible impact on soul music and disco sub-genre "boogie" is an understatement. Beginning his career in his teens as the lead singer of the New York City based Black Ivory, that trio created such sweet soul classics as "Don't Turn Around," which are still cherished by die-hard soul connoisseurs to this day. But that's only half the story. A look at Burgess' vocal and production efforts from the late 1970s to the early 1980s: Logg's "I Know You Will," Convertion's "Let's Do It," Fonda Rae's "Over Like a Fat Rat" and the Aleems' "Release Yourself" among many, many others have made him the subject of worldwide devotion from fans of streetwise dance music. He's now come full circle for a reunion with original Black Ivory members Russell Patterson and Stuart Bascombe for the soon to be released Continuum.
How did Black Ivory come about?
In the summer of 1968, at the age of 14, I was working as a youth counsellor at St. Charles School/Church in Harlem. It was there I met Larry Newkirk, who was also a counsellor. We were shooting hoops one day - listening and singing along with music on the radio - when our voices came to each other's attention. Larry invited me to his home, to try out for his vocal group [then called the Mellow Souls]. He and the others were impressed with my vocal style and asked me to join. About two weeks later, we also recruited Stuart Bascombe, a friend of Larry's and a really great vocalist to boot.
Initially, there were five members, besides Larry, the others being Vito Ramirez and Michael Harris. We came to the attention of Patrick Adams, a young producer friend of Larry's, who began to develop us as a group. We started cutting demos and working out a direction. Patrick was a close friend of Gene Redd, the manager of Kool & The Gang (three of whom I later found to be my cousins). They decided to premiere the group through allowing us to perform a couple of songs during Kool & the Gang's live performances.
Shortly after that, we went to Philadelphia's famed Sigma Sound Studios to record our first single "Don't Turn Around." By this time, Larry, Vito and Michael had left the group to pursue college and we recruited Russell Patterson (from a group Larry's brother was developing). We decided to become a three- man group and changed the name to Black Ivory. In 1969, Patrick arranged a deal with Perception/Today Records to sign the group. In January 1970, our first single, "Don't Turn Around" was released.
You went from the sweet soul of Black Ivory in the early 1970s to the sounds of boogie in the late '70s/early 1980s. What was the transition like? During the '70s, music was evolving rapidly. The "slow, smooth and cool" romantic songs were giving way to the "perky, bouncy and funky." I needed to evolve with it. Black Ivory was typecast by its' fans, who only wanted to hear us do slow jams. And so the choice was squarely before me: stay with your successful group and be "stuck" or risk it all by going into totally unfamiliar waters. I went with the "long shot."
Starting with "Weekend" by Phreek, "Fire Night Dance" by the Peter Jacques Band and "Hooked On Your Love" by the Fantastic Aleems, I began to get a real feel for creating interesting up-tempo grooves. Key to this was the involvement of my principle compositional partners, James Calloway and Sonny T. Davenport. With James on bass, Sonny on drums and myself on Fender Rhodes, we developed and created our own sound and style using our jazz and gospel training, combined with a generally slower than disco rhythm. It was the beginning of what would eventually become a genre known as boogie. It's from that vibe we continued to compose most of our further work.
Your vocal and production efforts on such landmark songs such as the Aleems' "Release Yourself," Fonda Rae's "Over Like a Fat Rat" and the Universal Robot Band's "Barely Breaking Even" to name just a few, still pack dance floors worldwide almost 30 years after their release. What do you think is the reason for their enduring appeal?
Throughout my history, I have endeavoured to create songs that were "classic." That is to say, songs that have a memorable quality about them, melodies that people might want to hum (and remember) for a long time. In all honesty, many of them are derived from the influence of songs and music that I remember and which has made a "classic" impression on me. I also make a point of trying to infuse a positive atmosphere in my music and lyrics. To create something that makes you feel good, and perhaps uplifted. In the way that "Barely Breakin' Even'," is actually the story of the financial hardships we must all endure, yet the chorus is jubilant and empowering.
That said. I am still a little stunned on the level to which my work has been accepted. It is an enormous blessing- one which I am really humbled by. And I hope that what I am blessed to create in the future will be well received as well.
A lot of those aforementioned jams were hits at the New York City nightclub Paradise Garage and the club's legendary resident DJ Larry Levan was involved in remixing some of them. Did you know him well and if so, do you have any personal recollections?
Larry was one of the top-end DJs. Brilliantly creative with an amazing ear for music and a finger on the pulse of the dancing public, and a better than working knowledge of how to burn the 'tables up. Convertion, Logg and I would always look forward to our gigs at the Garage-mostly because Larry would be running the show. Our closest encounter with Larry was during the mix of "I Know You Will," when we bugged him to death during the marathon session (it took nearly two days to finish). It is then we developed a real respect for his expertise and vision. Besides that, he was a really good brother whom I'd been blessed to meet and work with, during his time on the planet.
One of your most notable productions at least in terms of mainstream visibility was with Rick James on the 1980 track "Big Time." How did you hook up with Rick and are there any interesting stories that you'd like to share?
"Big Time" began life in Blank Tapes Studios in NYC. James, Sonny and I were taking advantage of some free studio time provided by Bob Blank, the studio's owner. We recorded three demos: "Big Time" was one of them ["Over Like A Fat Rat" was another]. After the session, we stopped at Ken Morris' apartment to meet Patrick Adams, and Rick was visiting. He asked to hear what we were working on and we played the song. He decided right there to use the song as his next single [from the forthcoming Garden Of Love album.
About seven years ago, Soul Brother records released a two volume anthology of your ouevre. One was dedicated to your vocal work and the second examined your role as a producer. Which hat are you more comfortable with or are they equally satisfying?
For me, both hats are necessary and must be done as equally well as is possible. Both are challenging. Most artists would [and should] produce their own work. if they had [or have] the means. I believe doing so brings you closest to the original vision in your own creative mind. But don't get it twisted; it's not an easy or quick objective. Doing both, require that you fully know both well. And that requires a dedicated learning process, one that I had to commit to completely, in order to achieve my goal and my dreams.
On the business side, you initially worked with a myriad of different independent labels and your catalogue continues to be re-released, sampled and re-packaged. Have you had any difficulties in regards to royalties?
Yes. It's hard to keep up with sometimes. Different versions. Different labels. This sample. That sample. Chasing folks that are less than forthcoming. You get the picture. In most instances, I ally myself with fairly large publishing administration companies, who have the resources to assist me in my efforts.
Why have you chosen to revisit Black Ivory?
Reuniting with my brothers Stuart and Russell was something I wanted to do for a very long time. From "Don't Turn Around' to "Mainline," our work and history together has always been something very special to me. They have been my friends since 1968 and it was with them, I came into the music business. Creatively, we were always a good match. It seems our time apart [during the years of my absence], has allowed each of us to mature as creative individuals, which, in turn, has strengthened our bond considerably. And, as we approach the 40th anniversary of our first commercial record, we felt like this was a great time to release some brand new material to celebrate.
How do you think the new album Continuum will fare in 2009?
It's a very different marketplace-in a very different world. We've had encouraging feedback from fans who've heard the previews on a few radio stations. It's my hope the album will do well and be enjoyed for years to come. I honestly believe it features some of the group's finest work.
Are there any plans to visit Canada?
I would love to perform in Canada... anytime they'll have me.