CURTIS ROBERTSON JR. CELEBRATES SYREETA WRIGHT AND TRIBUTES MUSIC’S ANCESTRAL TRANSMISSION

By Dee Dee McNeil/jazz journalist
June 28, 2019

Knowing Curtis Robertson Jr. for several years, one thing was clear to me right away. Not only is he a talented and technically astute bass player, Curtis Is also a very conscientious man. He always seems to be in search of knowledge, but with a cool, laid-back attitude. His smile can light up an auditorium, like his bass playing. But he also has a thoughtful, contemplative side. For Black Music Month, I enjoyed talking to Curtis Robertson Jr. about his life in the music business and his current project to tribute vocalist/songwriter, Syreeta Wright. In our conversation, he shares transformative steps within his music career and in his life. Curtis believes that musicians proudly wear a garment that reflects common, ancestral threads.

Curtis was born and raised in Hyde Park on the southside of Chicago, Illinois. His father’s parents were part of the migration from the South to a hopeful new future up North. His mother, a preacher’s daughter, came from West Virginia seeking the same. I asked Curtis if he came from a musical family and although no one was a formally trained musician he credited his mom for musical inspiration.

“My mother could sing. She had vocal lessons when she was young, and she sang hymns in church. She also played a little piano. She was born in 1924 and when she was in her twenties and thirties she listened to the standards.” NOTE: some call them the great American songbook.

“My mother was always singing around the house. She sang songs her mother and older sisters taught her from songs of her day and listened to songs played on the radio.

“After a few years of playing guitar, I began learning standard tunes.I’d play the chord changes and voicings I learned from Chicago guitarist and educator, Reggie Boyd and my peer mentor, great guitarist, John Thomas. My mother would be in the kitchen cooking, and I would bring my guitar into the kitchen. She could sing in-tune and she’d sing along. She knew the melodies and all the words. That’s how I learned many a tune.

“My father loved music too and he sure could whistle! He had range, good intonation and tone. He listened to a lot of West Indian and African music. He was raised by West Indians as a youth. We had a good stereo system and my father had quite a record collection. My parents would play Paul Robeson, Mahalia Jackson, Baba Olatunji’s ‘Drums of Passion’ record and opera-sounding records like ‘Oklahoma.’ I heard Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Woody Gutherie and Burl Ives. My parents were social activists in the late fifties and early sixties. They weren’t big blues people, but they had Billie Holiday records and Dave Brubeck; not a lot of jazz. I heard more island music and albums like ‘Porgy and Bess’ at the house.

“I started out playing guitar as a youngster. In my teen years, I was in a band. I was in the eighth grade, so I was thirteen. No one wanted to play the bass. I’ve always been kind of a peace-maker, so I said to my arguing bandmates, I’ll play it. The singer in our band had a bass, so that’s how I started playing that instrument. Early on, I knew music was what I wanted to do. I enjoyed the attention from the girls and we all thought having a band was cool. There was also a good camaraderie between the fellow musicians. Back then we were playing Jimi Hendrix, Cream, B.B. King and Buddy Guy. As I grew, I moved up to adding Coltrane and Miles to my repertoire.

“Lena McLin was a high school choir director at my Hyde Park high school and she really was one of my main influences in Chicago. I was in the high school jazz band and she was doing the choir and also teaching opera. Ms. McLin used to take me aside on her lunch period and tutor me. She used to drill me. She made sure I knew my music theory.

“My other early mentor was Reggie Boyd. He was a genius. You could go over to Reggie’s house and he had transcribed a solo by Coltrane or Paul Chambers. He had a great ear and he would teach us chord changes, technique and theory. Reggie Boyd is responsible for really getting me into my bass.”

NOTE: Reggie Boyd was known as THE teacher for many Chicago guitarists including blues legends Otis Rush, Howlin’ Wolf, James Wheeler, Louis Myers, Willie Johnson, Billy Boy Arnold and Dave Specter, to name just a few. His knowledge of theory and technique was formidable, according to many historians. His only recording was a 45rpm titled “Nothing But Good/ Nothing But Poison.” Reggie Boyd died in October of 2010.

Curtis Robertson Jr. also credits Louis Satterfield (before he was an Earth Wind & Fire member) for teaching him how to play the blues in the early 1970s by listening to him play on BB King’s ‘Live at the Regal’ album.

“I would listen to those bass lines over and over again.”

“Satterfield is the one who played that amazing bass-line on the Fontella Bass hit R&B record, ‘Rescue Me.’

“My mother used to take me to the Regal Theater where I saw B. B. King and James Brown. I started listening to Jack Bruce, Cream’s bass player and Noel Redding, (bass player with Hendrix). I was also listening to Motown music and they had James Jamerson in the Funk Brothers. The older I got, I began listening to Paul Chambers, Sam Jones, Mingus and a lot of Ron Carter on Miles Davis records. I also listened to Wes Montgomery. Of course, I was influenced by Cleveland Eaton, who was playing with Ramsey Lewis. We used to listen to that album over and over again. It was produced by Charles Stephney.”

Note: Maurice White (Earth Wind & Fire founder) and famed arranger, Charles Stephney, produced Ramsey’s “Salongo” album in 1972 incorporating members of Earth Wind & Fire into the production and White produced the 1974 Ramsey Lewis album titled, “Sun Goddess”, experimenting with electronic sounds. Personnel included: Ramsey Lewis (syn, g, p, e-p, string machine, arr) Cleveland Eaton (bass) Maurice Jennings (dr, perc) Richard Evans (Horn & String arr) Byron Gregory (g) Maurice White (voc, dr, perc) Verdine White (bass, voc) Johnny Graham (guitar) Philip Bailey (perc, voc) Don Myrick (ts) Charles Stepney (g, key) Derf Rehlee Raheem (perc, voc)

“Well, some of the richest experiences I’ve had was playing right here in Los Angeles. at the clubs and with some of these local players. I loved so much playing at Marla’s Memory Lane, working with Milton Bland, aka: Monk Higgins. It was wonderful to play with Cal Green and pianist, Billy Mitchell. Billy Mitchell and Reggie Andrews played keyboards in Syreeta’s first band. Reggie Andrews was teaching at Locke High School and he couldn’t go on the road, so the great Lanny Hartley took his place. By meeting Lanny, I met a lot of other cats. Some of those were Washington Rucker, Randy Randolph, Harold Acey and Terry Evans. This is how I met Jake Porter. That was one of the greatest experiences I ever had. I say that because Jake Porter would play different tunes, not just standards. He would play things like, “Alexander’s Rag Time Band” and “Hello Dolly.” He pulled tunes from further back. Jake would count off the tune and give us the key. I would say hey, what is it? I wanted to know the title of the tune. Jake would answer, ‘You’ll hear it, youngster.’ Then he’d hold one finger down for key of F; two fingers down for B flat; three fingers for E flat. It was an on-stage training! Jackie Kelso was playing clarinet and Lanny Hartley would be on piano. Washington Rucker played drums and Terry Evans was on guitar. Coming up playing with those cats was really a great experience for me. Jake worked a lot and kept a lot of cats working. I look at my music experiences as a bridge. Jake was a bridge to a whole other time. I call that ancestral transmission.”

NOTE: Jake Porter was a trumpet and cornet player who cut his musical teeth playing in Lionel Hampton’s big band. After serving in the U.S. Military, he played with such jazz masters as Benny Carter, Fats Waller, Noble Sissle, Fletcher Henderson and Benny Goodman’s band. He was born in Oakland, California, but eventually settled in Los Angeles. Porter died in L.A. at age 76, on March 25, 1993.

As Curtis Robertson Jr.’s career expanded and blossomed, he found that many people opened unexpected doors for the young bass player to walk through.

He met and fell in love with Syreeta Wright in the early seventies, shortly after her divorce from Stevie Wonder. They were soon writing songs together and he became part of her touring band.

“I had worked with Syreeta touring in 1974. But my first big gig was in 1975, when I got the call to work with Gary Bartz. Back in the day, I went to high school with Chaka Khan in Chicago. A lot of the musicians used to hang out at Chaka’s parent’s house. I knew her husband, Hassan Khan. He used to play bass with the Staple Singers and the Five Stairsteps.”

Note: The FIVE STAIRSTEPS recorded a popular song called “Oo – oo Child” that Rolling Stone magazine dubbed one of the 500 Greatest Songs of all time.

“So, when I went over to the house where the band was staying, that’s where I met Nate Morgan. Nate was playing piano with Gary Bartz. Gary hired me, sight unseen, thanks to the recommendation of Nate Morgan and we played our very first gig in Dayton, Ohio at a club called ‘Gillys.’ That was my first gig with Gary Bartz. He had just left Miles Davis, so he was playing that Bitches Brew kind of stuff. That fit right into my background, from playing Hendrix stuff and Motown stuff. But, if he called ‘Impressions’ up-tempo, I could play that too. Afterwards, Gary called and said, we’re getting ready to go to Europe. You wanna go? I said, well hey man, Syreeta is pregnant. She’s getting ready to have a baby. I don’t know. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go on tour with Syreeta, about to have our baby. However, as time went on, we already had a back-up plan with moms and Syreeta’s younger sister, Kim. So, when he offered me the contract, I said to myself, you know what? You’ve got to go on and do this gig. So, we ended up travelling all over Europe.

“Gary Bartz is one of my heroes. We did a lot of gigs. Our first gig together was the George Wein Newport Jazz Festival tour. I got to hang out on the side of the stage with all these famous musicians like Charles Mingus. The band knew how much I admired Charles Mingus and I wanted to go over there and get Mingus to sign my program and just talk to him. Everybody was saying, Naw man – don’t go over there and bother Charlie Mingus. uh-huh – don’t go over there! Especially Bartz and Jackie McClean. Those two were like, don’t go bothering Charlie Mingus. But Mingus was my hero. So, I went walking backstage in Yugoslavia. I walked over to him and said, hey Mr. Mingus, I’m a big fan of yours. All the musicians were just watching the scene from a distance and they acted like he was going to cold-cock me or something. I handed him my program, not sure what his response was going to be. Lo and behold, he signed it for me. He kept mumbling, ‘These god damn Communists. I hate these Communists.’ I just nodded, said, yes sir, took my program and eased on away. When I got over to where the cats were standing, we were all relieved that it went so well.”

Curtis Robertson Jr.’s career changed direction again in 1980 when he was hired to work with groove master, Les McCann. Eddie Harris joined McCann on-tour in 1987 and Curtis worked another three years with both of those master musicians. Listen to Curtis Robertson Jr.’s powerful bass line and solo on the Eddie Harris “Live At the Moonwalker” LP recorded in Switzerland, October, 1989. The tune is titled, “Walking the Walk.” The trio is Eddie Harris on saxophone, paino and vocals, Curtis on bass and Norman Fearrington on drums.


https://www.discogs.com/Eddie-Harris-Live-At-The-Moonwalker/release/4362217

The 1989 Mr. Fuji Jazz Festival in Japan, with a BlueNote Record line-up, features Curtis on stage performing with Les McCann, Stanley Turrentine and Lou Rawls. You can fast forward 48 minutes into the video below to see them rocking the audience on “Stormy Monday Blues.”

“Tony St. James was playing drums and Bobby Bryant Jr. was on tenor and alto saxophone. His dad is Bobby Bryant Sr., the trumpet player and educator. Les called me one day and said, ‘Hey Curtis, this is Les McCann. Come to this audition to be in my band.’ So, I went and two weeks later I was working with his band in Australia. I liked that band because Les kept the band fired up.”

Before touring with Les McCann, Curtis worked with a number of diverse artists. One memorable position was working in Maxine Weldon’s band.

“Maxine Weldon was one of my favorite singers. I worked a lot of gigs with Maxine in the late 1970s and 1980s. I went to Europe with Maxine and worked all over town with her in L.A. I still hear her in my mind. I love the variety of covers she did. She sang that old Ink Spots song, The Gypsy.”

“I also worked with guitarist, Robben Ford. He’s a bad man in a very good way! He used to play with Jimmy Witherspoon, Tom Scott, Miles Davis, Larry Carlton and Joni Mitchell. He was one of the founding members of the Yellowjackets group. Someone heard me play and referred me to his management team. They put my name in the hat to tour with Robben Ford’s group. The bass player, at that time, was Jimmy Haslip. So, at one point, I took Jimmy’s place on tour. I think they liked my blues handle, you know, my being from Chicago and all.”

In 1976 and 1977, Curtis joined a group of all-star jazz players and they called themselves ‘Karma.’ They were signed to A&M’s Horizon records and released two extraordinary albums. One was titled “Celebration” and the other was called, “For Everybody.”

“That was the first label I was signed to as a band. The band was called ‘Karma’ and we made two albums. At that time, George Bohanon was dating Deniece Williams. He was in the group and when he and Niecy came down to the studio, I said to her, why don’t you sing on this song? So, she and Syreeta sang on the Celebration record.”

NOTE; COMPLETE LINE-UP: Reggie Andrews (Heshimu) (Keyboards), George Bohanon (Saeed) (Trombones, Baritone Horn), Ernie Watts (Tenor & Soprano Sax), Oscar Brashear (Chache) (Trumpet), Curtis Robertson, Jr. (Bass), Josef Blocker (Drums, Vocals), Vander “Stars” Lockett (Percussion, Vocals), Syreeta Wright, Deniece Williams (Vocals).

Recorded in 1976; together they had an Earth Wind & Fire sound and energy steeped in electronic funk or soul jazz, and played by some of the top players in the Los Angeles area
.

“So, that was an opportunity to rehearse a lot, you know. It was great to rehearse with that amazing horn section we had. I had time on my hands because I had just finished the tour with Gary Bartz. I got Syreeta on that Gary Bartz record too.”

“Gary put her on two of his records. I played on his CDs “Love Affair” and “It’s My Sanctuary.” I was also on “Ju Ju Man” on the Prestige label in 1976. We played some good tunes on there. Syreeta sang “My Funny Valentine” and it was beautiful. Howard King was on drums, Charles Mims Jr. on piano and me on bass. Pat Britt produced the session.”

From 1990 to 2005, the bass work you hear on all those hit records by Lou Rawls is the mastery of Curtis Robertson Jr. He was a part of the Rawls touring ensemble. Curtis Robertson Jr. also worked with Randy Crawford, (the vocalist who had the big hit record, “Street Life” with The Jazz Crusaders). His stellar bass sound was embraced by Gladys Knight, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Freddie Hubbard, David T. Walker, Richard Thompson and Steve Hillage. These are just a few of the people he’s worked with over his career. But for many years his energy was directed in songwriting and producing music with Syreeta. Their union produced two albums and two sons. The albums were titled, “One to One” and “SYREETA”, both released on Tamla Records, a Motown subsidiary.

“It was 1976 and I met with Suzanne de Passe at Motown to discuss Syreeta’s upcoming project. I had been singing Charles Stephney’s praises. I let Syreeta hear Minnie Ripperton’s “Come to My Garden” record. We both wanted Charles Stephney to come in and do the arranging. So, Ms. de Passe met with Charles Stephney and it was a go. Unfortunately for us, on May 17, 1976 Charles Stephney died. We wound up doing the record with Leon Ware and David Bromberg. They did a fantastic job. Leon was a genius. He knew how to get the most out of an artist. There’s a song Syreeta and I wrote titled, Rest Yourself” on that album that I really love.”

“The way this current project to tribute Syreeta came about was in 2003, Syreeta came to my studio to continue our musical collaborations. She knew she was ill and asked me to promise to finish the songs we’d record and share them with her fans. Before she passed, she put vocals on four songs we were recording. This single that I released this month titled, “If It Is Love,” is the first part of A Promise Kept. That will be the name of the EP. There are two versions of ‘If It Is Love,’ the single version for radio play, and the extended-play version that features solos by veteran guitarist David T. Walker, Grégoire Maret on harmonica and pianist/organist, Deron Johnson. I have to thank Arthur Walton of Samurai Records, who resurrected this project with his heart, soul and skills when I had all but given up.

“I’ve kept in touch with Charles Mims, the pianist/arranger who I met through Reggie Andrews. I met Reggie through Syreeta. Charles Mims and Patrice were high school sweethearts. Charles did a lot of co-writing with Patrice Rushen, who’s a dynamic pianist/recording artist and arranger herself. Mims is a very prolific writer and arranger too.

“When Syreeta and I decided to do a reunion session, I got Gary Bartz and Charles Mims on it. In fact, we did a song Syreeta and I wrote that Maria Muldaur covered titled, ‘There is a Love.’ I’m almost done with mixing that song. I just have to do a few more little things to it.”

“There’s a bunch of great talents and dear friends on this project. Land Richards plays drums and Munyungo Jackson is on percussion. Harold Barney (aka Jasper Stone) plays Fender Rhodes keyboard. Tracy Wannomae brings in the woodwinds and Rocio Marron did string arrangements for me. I played a little acoustic piano on it and bass. Deron Johnson did most of the piano work, played the Hammond B3 and the mellotron.

“I’m just full of gratitude. I’m grateful that I’m still here and able to make this happen. I’m thankful to the musicians and engineers who nurtured and supported this project and made it possible. It’s been a long time coming, but I’ve learned that everything happens in God’s time. Thank you Syreeta for sharing your beauty, your heart, your love, your belief in me and your profound gift of song. Now we can share it with your friends and fans.”

BLACK MUSIC MONTH AND REMEMBERING THE AMAZING SYREETA WRIGHT

This journalist has always been a huge ‘Syreeta’ fan. Her original album, produced by Stevie Wonder, was one of my favorite collector items. Stevie first discovered the amazing voice of Syreeta Wright and signed her to his production company. I played that album over and over again back in the 1970’s

Born August 3, 1946, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Syreeta was raised by her mother and her grandmother. Her dad was off fighting in the Korean War. She and two sisters were bounced between South Carolina and Detroit until she became high school age. Once settling down in the Motor City, she secured a job as a receptionist for the then, fledgling Motown Record company. The former ballerina and music lover soon became a secretary for producer Mickey Stevenson. Of course, what her real dream was to become a singer/songwriter at the company. She knew she had an outstanding voice and was secure in her songwriting abilities. Once some of the Motown producers heard her lovely voice, she became their ‘go-to’ for studio demo sessions. That’s how she met Stevie Wonder in 1968. A year later, they began dating and writing music together. In 1970, they were married. Their first collaboration was in 1969 and became a hit record on the Spinners group titled, “It’s A Shame.” That was certainly one of my favorite Spinner songs. Then, in 1971, the Wonder/Wright song “If You Really Love Me” soared up the Pop and R&B charts and featured Syreeta’s outstanding vocals singing background behind Stevie Wonder’s lead. It was obvious that her voice was special and one to be reckoned with. It stood out.

I’m a collector of Stevie Wonder’s music and some of my favorite music was written by Syreeta and Stevie on his “Music of My Mind” album and the “Talking Book” master piece. Her debut solo album was exquisite, but didn’t get the company support in promotion and marketing that I thought it should have received. That same year, her marriage to Stevie Wonder ended, but their close friendship continued. Stevie produced her second album titled, “Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta” in 1974.

After her marriage dissolved with Stevie Wonder she met bassist, Curtis Robertson Jr. and they fell in love. She and Curtis recorded a couple of albums together.

Her 1979 hit record with Billy Preston singing “With You I’m Born Again” is probably familiar to a lot of readers and music lovers. It was written and produced for a movie called “Fast Break” and raced up the charts worldwide, becoming #2 on the UK charts and #4 on the United States Billboard chart.

In 1992, she decided to retire from the business of recording and began a new musical challenge performing in the national touring cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in the role of Mary Magdalene. Her star-studded cast included the original film stars Ted Neeley and the wonderful actor/vocalist, Carl Anderson. She stayed in that cast until 1995.

Now, after her untimely death in July of 2004, new music is being released to celebrate this great singer/songwriter by producer, songwriter and bassist, Curtis Robertson Jr. Since Syreeta was an activist and was very active in her community, it seems perfect that her music is being released during Black Music Month.
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