Weldon Irvine: Morning Sunrise
From The Sisters (Saucerman, 1999)

Weldon Irvine: Here’s Where I Came In
From Sinbad (RCA 1976)

I’m always a month late in remembering but April 2005 marked the third anniversary of Weldon Irvine’s suicide. I often think about Irvine, his music and his legacy…as I noted the last time I posted up a memorial piece, I only interviewed him a few times but there was something about his personality that I felt genuinely touched by. Moreover, he surely was someone who died long, long before his time and so I often remember his legacy with a bitter sweetness.

I posted up two songs by Irvine. The latter is one of the few songs I keep up on Soul Sides all the time, Irvine’s haunting piano solo “Here’s Where I Came In,” from his Sinbad album. It’s a simple, plaintive solo, played acoustically, that I find sublime, beautiful and haunting – all apts ways of describing my memories of the late, great man himself. The other is new this time around: “Morning Sunrise,” a previouly unreleased song that appears on the Sisters anthology. Longtime friend and colleague Don Blackman plays the electric piano and is also singing on the song while Irvine is on acoustic paino, with Bobby Broom on Guitar and Marcus Miller on background vocals. It’s a gorgeous slow jam that plays as an elegant elegy to the man who made it.

I also went back into my archives and pulled out a 2000 interview I did with Irvine – the full transcript has never been published (until now). Enjoy.

Oliver: My introduction to you was through sampling…how was it for you for the first time to be discovered and sampled by hip hop artists?

Weldon: KRS-One, Blastmaster, I hope you’re listening. I had Criminal Minded and I was waiting for By All Means Necessary to hit the stores. I was first in line, bought the tape, put it in my tapedeck and I heard “duh, duh, duh…you’re a philosopher, yes! I think very deeply” and I stopped the tape. I said, that’s my keyboard in there. I played the whole thing and Kris and Scott La Rock had sampled “Sister Sanctified”, which is a joint I wrote for Stanley Turrentine. It rocked my world, I loved it. Kris was the first one to sample me and I’m a big hip hop fan, a big KRS One fan, so I wasn’t mad at all. Took a while to get the check, but it’s all good now.

What about other artists?

Q-Tip, he definitely came correct. I met him in Queens at a workshop basement I was doing with a bunch of guys, a Music Theory Workshop. We had an instant rapport and when he wanted to do “Award Tour,” he actually called me up and cleared the sample. He said, I want to use “We Getting Down,” that was one of my jams that I did on RCA Records, the album was called Spirit Man, so again, I’m not mad at hip hop for using things from the past. I’m glad when they acknowlege the originators and it’s all good. Who was that? 3rd Bass, on the Cactus album, they sampled “Sister Sanctified,” that song was called “Soul in the Hole.” Ice Cube sampled the same joint, the song was called “What They Hittin For”, Leaders of the New School, their song was called “Too Much on My Mind” and my song was called “Fat Back.” So in all, about 20 diff crews have sampled me over the last 5-8 years.

Do you scrutinize how they sample you?

Only in recent years were they clearing the sample, so many times, it was done. I didn’t have the chance to scrutinize or evaluate. In some cases, I may have taken exception to a lyric or a direction, but by in large, those who have sampled me, I thought their rhymes were in good taste and their utilization was on point.

A lot of folks composers/song writers/ folks don’t validate hip hop….

In college, I went to school at Hampton, and guess what my major was, English Literature, I was a poet before I was a piano player, singer or composer, so I always loved poetry and on one of my earlier albums, Time Capsule, 1973, this is a footnote for all you hip hop aficionados, yes, “King Tim III” was the first hip hop single before “Rapper’s Delight,” but in 1973, if you dig in your crates and pull out Time Capsule, you will hear Weldon Irvine rhyming over tracks. I would also do limericks, on, I think it was Cosmic Vortex, “what did the chicken say to the duck/you ain’t good looking/but you sure can dance” it doesn’t rhyme, but you know what i’m saying. I listened to hip hop, I knew about Cash and of course King Tim III and Roxanne Shante and Treacherous Three. So I was a hip hop fan before I was even sampled. And I recognized the art form as valid because the lyrics were poetic and a lot of the original bands were bands, Stetsasonic, they were bands, they weren’t sampling. So for me, I thought it was a continuum of what had gone on before and I’m glad to be a part of it then and glad to be a part of it now.

What was it like working with Nina Simone?

Hey, again, another high point in my life. I saw Nina Simone when I was second year at Hampton. She was such a perfectionist, I said, I’d give anything to just play one gig with Nina Simone. But I didn’t think it would come to pass because she was a pianist and I was a pianist. In 1968, she decided that she wanted to be liberated from the piano. She wanted to hire an organist. She auditioned for two weeks, hadn’t come up with anyone. On the last day of the second week, I was maybe the last person that she saw, I came in, she said, “look, turn that thing up, I don’t want to hear any lip, turn that thing up so I can hear.”

I went in, played one chord. She said, “You have perfect pitch. You’re hired.” Got the gig as her organist, became her musical director, collaborated on several songs to include Revolution and a song called To Be Young Gifted and Black, 1968, to be released in 1969, Nina Simone, love, high priestess.

Why did you stop working with Nina?

After two and a half year association, she is temperamental, I’m not going to say anything bad about you Nina, not on this interview, but we had a long run. I may have been her longest musical director. Before I joined her I had a very stellar big band and in playing with it, went around the world several times, but there were things I needed to do and we just took different paths. But it’s all love.

Still talk to her?

I don’t speak to her. You know, she lives in France. I haven’t talked to her in a good 10 or 15 years. But I know she was recently here, I was in Paris with Mos Def so I missed that concert.

Mos Def talks about when you first met him and what you liked in him and what he saw in you

I heard him before I met him, I heard the singles, I heard some of the collaborations with Talib and I bought the Black Star album. I met him I was invited to attend a lyricist lounge session with Q-Tip. That was the first time I saw him on stage. When we met there was immed. Chemistry in terms of what he was doing, his rhyme style, his affinity for poetry and his love for jazz sparked several conversations.

I’m on the Black Star album. I played on the first cut, Astronomy, that’s the song that was the last song that he recorded. So even though I played on it, I hadn’t heard any of the other cuts on the album. But again, the rapport was instantaneous, and after collaborating with him on Astronomy, he invited me to join him on Black on Both Sides. Wonderful experience. I believe I played on at least five maybe six songs and we co wrote three. He’s the only emcee I know that’s actually, not one, but five instruments. He plays bass, congas, trap drums, little keyboard and vibe on the Black on Both Sides album. So the recording was a wonderful experience and since then we’ve done several gigs on the road with me as part of his road band which includes Will Calhoun on drums, myself on keys and Doug Winbish of Living Colour fame. Respect.

Do you see shades of yourself in Mos at all?

I see alot of myself in Mos only because it seems as if the path that he’s taken, in terms of his love of literature, the poetic tradition, you know when I was in college, my major was English literature, my minors were speech drama and music theory. So I’ve got that theatrical connection as well. His sense of social consciousness as well to call a group Black Star and to have knowledge of Marcus Garvey and be twenty five years old and be co-owner of Nkiru Bookstore and not to be afraid to tell it like it is in an era of fluff and frontin is extraordinary but you know, praise God, he is getting props in his own time. I was scuffling to get the message out. And I think the only props I got was people propping up my records in the next to the back end of the record store in the rare grooves category.

What about Kweli?

They are cut from the same cloth. His album hasn’t dropped yet, but I recorded at leas two cuts which I hope make the final assemblage of Reflection Eternal. Talib, Q Tip…I’ve most recently met Common and maybe, Oliver, somebody wrote somewhere that I was giving Q Tip keyboard lessons, which is true and has recently become the case with Common. So I see a very exciting trend in hip hop. I’ll name them, mos def, talib kweli, the roots, erykah badu, I may be leaving out a couple, but all these people know each other and they’re going to be highly visible in each other’s company in some photo ops you’ll see very soon. And they’re on similar courses of thought in terms of music and ideology I think it’s going to be quite exciting when these emcees really learn how to play. It’s going to write a whole new chapter in the musical lexicon.

D’angelo? Competition?

No, no. I don’t compete with other keyboard players. In fact, on my albums, I’ve been known to feature other keyboard players with myself. The first thing I want to say about D is that we are homeboys of sorts in that we both hail from the state of Virginia, I’m from Hampton, he’s from Richmond, but this guy is a guy that is definitely operating from an internal muse. And of course a lot has been written about his influences, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, but he’s coming into his own in terms of his own voice, he’s a natural player, what I want to do with D’Angelo, and with Prince, who I was hanging out with 3 days ago, I want to catch both of these brothers at a keyboard and in case they don’t know, which I suspect they don’t, just drop a couple of jazz moves on’em, throw a little Bud Powell on’em, a little Horace Silver, a little Wynton Kelly and a lot of Weldon Irvine, and if they choose not to use it, that’ll be their choice, but I’d like to see them become a little more connected

Amadou Project?

This is a project, as I stated in my own liner notes, I call it Master Wel, by the way, Master Weldon is the name I use when I rhyme, but it’s titld Master Wel presents the Price of Freedom, subtitled The Amadou Project. Such a serious set of circumstances to imagine a person could be shot at 41 times, hit 19 times but be guilty of no crime and in the end, those who took his life, be rendered no guilty of any wrongdoing. Believe it or not, I anticipated the verdict as soon as I had read of amadou’s plight. And Amadou has not been the first victim of unwarranted shooting in anyone’s view. And I felt that this needs to stop.

So the Amadou Project was an attempt on my part to speak about the whole subject of police brutality in general and Amadou in particular. I was very fortunate many spoken word artists including Mums the Schemer, Rah Goddess, Rich Medina, Tree, so many people, Sister Nzingah. From hip hop we had Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Q-Tip, Don Blackman, Carla Cook, even Amadou’s mother herself. I sampled her. But all of us collectively had so much to say about this tragedy, this unjust act and under the title the Amadou Project, which I hope people will avail themselves of we spoke very passionately about not only the fact that he was killed, but things that we feel as a society we should do to stop this from every happening again.

Creatively speaking, what are some of the similarities and differences between the way you think as a musician/playwright?

Oliver, you come with these complicated questions, brother. Similarities between the playwright Weldon and the musician Weldon, first similarity is that I believe that in order to be a good playwright, your story has to have a beg, middle and end and in terms of the entirety of your theme as how you develop it, in my composition, even if it’s instrumental, I like to have a beginning, middle and end. I like for the beg to be enthralling, I certainly want to hook you from the jump and then reel you in. so in the storytelling process itself, I certainly realized that in the theater of course not only do you have a story line and plot development, but you have the characterizations themselves. I liken that to the musicians that I may choose to be a part of my ensemble. The musicians are comparable to actors on the stage and the parts that you write for them are comparable to the lines you would write for actors to speak. So this is a question that I’ve never been asked before, but as I attempt to answer it, I do stand by my answers.

Let’s turn back to your music. How many songs have you written for other people?

I have approx. between 100-130 songs have been recorded. In terms of songs for other people, of that entire number, I would think about 30 or 40 for other people and the rest on my own albums.

What covers are your favorites?

Freddie Hubbard’s version of Mr. Clean on the Straight Life album. I like his version better than mine. I also like the version of that song Mr. Clean that was done by Peter Herbolzheimer that was a big band and I like the version I rearranged for Bernard Wright, Mr. Clean. I think it was an album he did for Manhattan Records, I can’t think of the title. Now, Sister Sanctified, I recorded it but I prefer Stanley Turrentine’s version to mine. Young Gifted and Black has been recorded by so many people, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone recorded it first, Dionne Warwick but my favorite would be Donny Hathaway’s. Those are some examples.

What happened in the ‘80s? You didn’t record at all.

In 1972 I put out my first album and it was independently released in terms of ideology and concept I was certainly doing what Prince has spoken about in terms of ownership of my masters and the belief that artists should take the initiatives in terms of doing it themselves. However, I had submitted demo after demo to record companies and was being rejected. I was the person who at that time, my greatest claim to fame was association with Nina Simone, who was political, and having written Young Gifted and Black, was not something that was making all the major labels beat down my door to give me a recording contract.

So I did three albums under my own label and then I did have a short stint with RCA, I did three albums for RCA. When I was dropped from RCA, no one would touch me with a 25 million foot pole. I think I was blacklisted. Or whitelisted. Again, the things I was doing, not only in terms of what I was saying, but also taking the initiative in ownership, was things that the industry at large was not embracing.

I take it you didn’t get into disco much.

When you think in terms of what happened after the ‘70s and in the ‘80s, when disco began to proliferate and you saw a waning of the social consciousness that you had had in the ‘60s, with Disco Fever, and Love to Love You Baby and Shake Shake Shake Your Booty, I wasn’t trying to hear that. And I think not to be disparaging about disco artists as such, but in terms of content, I don’t think we’re going to be talking about the content of any disco artist in the year 2030. by the same token, there was a certain repetitive nature to disco that, as far as I’m concerned, was setting back musical progress.

When I was dropped from RCA, being one circumstance, and then the music changing, it was hard not only to sustain a recording career, but many of my protégés were also dropped, and the music kind of fell into a cave. I think hip hop at least reignited a spark and a zeal in the music industry and people like myself, Roy Ayers, who were quite active in the ‘70s, we all somewhat fell off the scene in the ‘80s, and some of us have come back into favor through acid jazz and or hip hop.

Your reputation in the ‘70s was as an ensemble player….what do you see the similarities and differences between who you worked with in the past and the younger cats you’re working with now?

In the ‘70s, and I was and am an ensemble player, when I came to NY from VA, I wanted people like Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, to be in my band. I wanted them in my band because they were the best players among the best players in NY, but I knew it was very unrealistic for me to think I could ever get those guys to play with me, a veritable unknown. But I moved to Jamaica, queens, and although I couldn’t get Elvin Jones or Tony Williams, I did get Billy Cobble. Clint Houston and George Cables and I played saxophone for awhile. Later on I got Marcus Miller and Bernard Wright and Tom Brown. So what I discovered was, okay, if you can’t get Tony Williams and Elvin Jones, but you can get Lenny White, you’ve got Tony Williams and Elvin Jones, at least the embodiment of their styles in one drummer. So all props to the cats in Jamaica, Queens, you all know who you are.

I’m fortunate that all of those guys played in my bands over various periods of time. They comprised what we call the Weldon School, I being older than them was mentoring them as a leader and a teacher. The main difference between those guys and the guys in hiphop that I’m teaching now is those guys were players from the jump. It wasn’t a question of me teaching them what a locrean mode was or what a scale was, but it was a question of me fine tuning which aspects of the music they found themselves deficient in. with these new guys, I’m giving them a grounding in music theory and basic technique and after they get that, then we’ll explore, spending a lot of time in the blues in particular, it’ll be up to them how deep in the swimming pool called jazz do they want to go. But they’ll at least have the working tools to express their musical ideas as they see fit.

Who were your musical influences?

My earliest musical influences were singers, as I said, I was a singer, I was a poet first, then I was a singer. When I had my tonsils and atenoids removed, it left me with this nasal speaking quality and I didn’t like the way I sounded. But at the same time, the rock and roll piano players were coming out, Little Richard, Fats Domino, a guy named Huey (?), well, I was fooling around with the piano, but believe it or not, but the first money I made in music was as an arranger. Because I found out I have a gift for writing music, though I wasn’t trained to write music. But the more I wrote, the more fascinated I became with the piano. So I began with doo wop piano, then rock n roll, r&B piano and Ray Charles was a tremendous influence but Horace Silver, if I have to name one, perhaps was my most formidable influence in terms of those people who are known by your audience. There is a gentleman, now deceased, we called him Virginia Joe Jones, I actually featured him on my record In Harmony, but it’s a large list of pantheon of pianists who have inspired me.

Regarding, the Fender Rhodes, that is an electric piano, but the first electric piano I played was a Wurlitzer piano. Ray Charles played that on “What I Say”, Joe Zawinul played it on “Mercy Mercy Mercy”. The Fender Rhodes, I recall Herbie Hancock telling the story about seeing one in the studio, when Miles was doing “In a Silent Way”, that was about the time I saw it. Because it was being used and I had played the Wurlitzer and Hammond B 3, it was in fashion and its sound is inimitable and i’ve used it quite extensively. I still use it. I have a passion for fender roads, clavalets, ray modulators and wah wah pedals, and phase shifters, just like Primo has, just like Ahmir has, just like your preeminent hip hop producers today like that ‘70s sound that I was a part of, I still like.

You played the Rhodes throughout your career and have been a big fan of its sound. What is it about that sound?

Funky and soulful. If I’m playing in a straight ahead context, I don’t want to see a fender roads nor a fender bass. I want a Steinway acoustic grand, I want you know, Tony Williams snare drum or a Elvin Jones. You know, music comes in different eras and the sound is reflective of those eras. But in my view, I don’t discrim. Between the eras and i don’t pit one against the other. It’s an overworked phrase, but as they say, it’s all good. It just depends whether or not you like it all or your view is narrow. My view is inclusive, not exclusive.

Where do you see your sound moving now?

I hope that I’m evolving, it has been said about me that I’ve always been ahead of my time and there may be some truth to that. Because when I’m sampled some 15 or 20 years after the original composition, and I listen to the way my music is couched with in the confines of hip hop, but I must admit that it sounds fresh to my ears now. It doesn’t sound dated. So the question deals with evolution. I think I have a very sound grasp of the cultural lineage, particularly of the black musical experience, from African chants, to field songs, to gospels, to big bands, to swing, to be bop, to r&b to hip hop to whatever the next flavor is going to be.

So being grounded in the past and wanting to be innovative myself, I came by a style that we now call it the Weldon School. But this school extrapolates from things that came before and there are so many different influences, you know I’ve written over a thousand songs, so I think I evolved maybe around the time I was 19 or twenty. Some of the best songs I’ve written I wrote in 1963 and I’m just now getting around to recording them.

Anything else you want your audience to know?

Definitely support all of the Amadou projects. The Hip Hop for Respect project on Rawkus, Mr. Bruce Springsteen has caused controversy. I want folks to know I don’t have major label support and my record the Price of Freedom, you can get it, Tower, Border, HMV, and also there’s a website, www.cdflip.com but I’m hopeful that some major record label if Amadou is going to become topical all of a sudden and you’re looking for something more than a single, there is only one entire 72 minute CD dedicated to police brutality and Amadou Diallo and I’m not the only person on it as I said, so I’m hoping that that one particular project can receive wider exposure.

Property of Oliver Wang – Copyright 2000 – May not be republished without permission.