Raphael Saadiq preaches the blues
In case you were wondering about the cool bandleader wielding the golden Stratocaster when Mick Jagger wowed ’em at this year’s Grammys, well, this wasn’t the first taste of the big time for Raphael Saadiq. As one of the founders of Tony! Toni! Toné!, the singer-songwriter—born Charles Ray Wiggins in Oakland, California, and still known as Ray Ray to his friends—was a leader of the neo-soul movement of the ’90s, favouring non-digital instruments and gospel-derived, bluesy vocals.
He took that old-school approach to records he produced for Macy Gray, TLC, and the Roots, and scored especially well with D’Angelo and the short-lived Lucy Pearl, which put him together with members of En Vogue and A Tribe Called Quest. He’s still riding high on his late-2008 album, The Way I See It, and his decidedly non-gangsta role in modern hip-hop is well established. But Saadiq’s inner rocker started emerging this decade—something that has become more pronounced since he produced the breakthrough CD for Anglo-soulster Joss Stone.
This leads us back to Sir Mick, and the chance to see a lamé-suited Saadiq share prancing duties during their incendiary tribute to Solomon Burke. (There’s a great rehearsal clip for that gig on the Raphael Saadiq website.) Ray Ray’s own backing band is called Stone Rollin’, which also happens to be the name of his preternaturally funky new album, and of its first single. That one prolonged moment on a program devoted to pyrotechnics and costume changes reminded millions about the essence of rock ’n’ roll.
“Yeah, the music is still the show,” says the 44-year-old Californian, calling from Los Angeles, where he has lived for more than a dozen years. At the same time, he does have a strong visual vibe going on with all those early-’60s band jackets, right down to narrow ties and velvet lapels, plus vintage guitars.
“I’ve been dressin’ like that for a really long time,” Saadiq explains. “I guess people say, ”˜He’s so ’60s’, but that’s always been the look I like, and it’s part of who I am. Comin’ from Oakland, my dad never went anywhere without his Dobbs hats—that’s a brand from New York—and Stacy Adams suits. It’s like a gentleman’s thing, you know?”
Saadiq and his seven-piece band may dress like jazz dandies, but they throw down like stone bluesmen. He attributes part of that attitude to an early thing for Howlin’ Wolf and his earthy style.
“He grew up in Mississippi, and his biggest following was in Chicago, Detroit, and Oakland—because all the black folks there were from the South. When I got into that, my dad looked at me kinda strange, like, “What you know about Howlin’ Wolf?’ ”
The generation that came after that of the Chess Records bluesmen didn’t want to be reminded of its plantation past, and the San Francisco area, in particular, became home to an amazing multi-ethnic mix of popular music, along the lines of Santana and Sly and the Family Stone. The guitar, however, retained its connection to the down-South days, and that’s what still anchors Saadiq’s sound.
He also drew from another element prominent in East Bay music. The gospel roots, as heard in the guitar-driven style of the Staple Singers, the Mighty Clouds of Joy, and the Soul Stirrers—the quartet that gave Sam Cooke his start—were crucial too. And as he grew more successful, Saadiq championed off-the-track, sanctified players like the late guitarist Chalmers “Spanky” Alford, whom he enlisted for Tony! Toni! Toné! during the group’s latter days.
“Spanky lived with me for a while, and I brought him to the secular music scene. He never really had his own records, unfortunately, but you can hear him all over the Voodoo record I did with D’Angelo. He was a big influence, and I miss him.”
Church issues aside, Saadiq already knew which instrument had the most sex appeal.
“Comin’ up in music, one thing was always true: whoever played guitar ruled! In Oakland, the main thing was to have a good guitar player and a good keyboard player; everything else sort of took a back seat. Actually, I started out as a bass player, but that was so I could hang around with guitar players. Eventually, I knew enough to tell the guitar players what chords to play. But you know what happens next? They don’t like it and they think they wrote the song!”
So Ray Ray moved over one musical chair. His spanky-clean playing is all over the new album, full of catchy tunes that move from grinding funk to Motown uplift and introspective, country-soul strumming, dressed up with artful horns and indie-rock quirks.
“I just don’t want people to think it’s some kinda ’60s-soul throwback,” the stone roller concludes. “I love that Marvin Gaye swing, and I’ve done that. Now I was ready to let the guitars loose. They do get loud, like I like ’em.”
Sounds almost, you know, like satisfaction.