It is 1:45AM in Eastern Europe, and 72 year-old multi-Grammy-winning singer Al Jarreau has gotten his second wind. The living legend, born Alwin Lopez Jarreau in Milwaukee, WI, followed up an exhilarating sold-out performance the night before with a 12-hour bus ride to his current location. After only a four hour nap Jarreau is wide awake and totally pumped for his conversation with SoulTrain.com. “I’m ready to do this,” he says, excitedly. “I hope you’re ready!”
Al Jarreau: Before we get started I want to thank Soul Train for giving me a chance to speak to American people when I was in my early days. It helped me reach American listeners and international listeners. I wasn’t mainstream Soul Train stuff; I did jazz and pop music. But they recognized me as a new artist on the scene and said, “Hey, check this out!” So I got to go on Soul Train and be a part of that amazing American institution.
Soul Train: I agree it was an institution. So much was learned from Soul Train. The impact is it still being felt today.
Al Jarreau: The statement Don Cornelius and his staff allowed to happen about African American culture, in the rhythm and in the language we talked about in the songs we sang, was a serious statement about American culture! It was as important as Howard University. It was a teaching institution. Don Cornelius standing there… I mean, before Barack Obama there was Don Cornelius! [Laughs] He was the most elegant, sophisticated presenter that maybe has ever been on television. [Makes his voice really deep then imitates Don Cornelius] “I would like to present to you…The Temptations.” [Cracks up laughing]
Soul Train: [Laughs]
Al Jarreau: I’m sorry… [Still laughing] I just had to jump in there with that and make that statement! Soul Train is as important as apple pie.
Soul Train: When I think of the show, for some reason I always go back to when I saw Simply Red on there.
Al Jarreau: There you go! There you go! Simply Red and…Average White Band…on Soul Train! Doors were opened, it was an amazing thing. It’s an amazing moment in American history.
Soul Train: Well, you’ve made a mark in American history yourself. I, like many others, have fond memories tied to your music. And we can’t help but notice how engrossed you become in your own performances. Your stage presence seems almost… theatric. So, Mr. Jarreau, do you have a theater background or do you just really get into the music?
Al Jarreau: Well…anyone who stands on stage after a few years develops a little bit of theater in what they do. But what I do comes from the feel. It comes from the heart. After a while you begin to know how to express your heart, and your feelings and your emotions by moving your hands in a certain kind of way…or dancing like James Brown.
Soul Train: Yeah, The God Father of Soul got pretty engrossed in his own performances, too.
Al Jarreau: James Brown came from the feeling in his heart. And the theater you saw was because he was a great dancer. That was the way he expressed what he did. Same thing is true for Herbie Hancock; the feeling in his heart gets translated into his hands. And there’s a look on his face, if you want to look at it!
Soul Train: [Laughs] Lets say I did look. What would I see?
Al Jarreau: You’d see a look on his face that is high theater! It’s in the corners of his mouth as he plays. It’s in his eyes. If you want to look…there’s theater there! But it comes from the heart and the feeling, and that’s how it ought to be. When it’s that way you get the real deal.
Soul Train: When you’re so engaged by the rhythm, what does that feel like?
Al Jarreau: Oh, boy… [Silence] It’s the heartbeat…on steroids. The heartbeat is the first rhythm. You felt that in your mom’s gut! Music came out of that. It’s the heartbeat on steroids multiplied on out to infinity. That’s what we’re doing.
Soul Train: You’re saying the nature of music comes from within?
Al Jarreau: Yes. Inside of there are melodies, and phrases, and chords that also come from our emotions that tells a story. All of that mixes together and produces…song.
Soul Train: People get wrapped up in your music, and they’ve been doing it for generations now. But after years on stage, does it still impress you the same to see audiences get as engrossed in your music as you do?
Al Jarreau: The most important thing in the world is to engross them now, to engage them now! Touch them now where they sit. Make them smile, lift them up, and tell them we are okay; we’re from a good source. It’s okay to laugh and smile, that’s what was meant to be! That’s the message in my music. It’s the message we are meant to be happy. We praise suffering too much. We walk around with war on our faces and stuff. NO! Find the moments of happiness. I’ll bring ‘em to you if you come to my concerts. You’re going to walk away feeling uplifted. That’s my little ministry!
Soul Train: You no doubt relate to the term “feel-good music”. But when do you feel it, are you more compelled to sing or just create rhythms?
Al Jarreau: It’s a combination, just as you’d imagine. To sing, to create rhythm, to create melody, to create space where there is nothing; it’s the introduction of nothingness that makes “somethingness” great. Sometimes in space less is more. Sing a simple song.
Soul Train: You hum, you scat, you do all sorts of things. And people are pulled in by it! But did you ever imagine, as a singer, you’d be able to touch someone without singing a vocal? That you’d be able to get to them simply by making sounds with your mouth?
Al Jarreau: Well, of course; so does Stevie [Wonder], so does Aretha [Franklin], so does [Luciano] Pavarotti. So does [Lady] Gaga. We’re all hoping that something in the sound of our voices makes for a moving and touching experience – whether there are words there or not. When the emotion in the voice is coming from the feeling inside, maybe there are no words. And people get it. They laugh, and last night they got up and danced.
Soul Train: I caught you on television performing with a Latin ensemble, but you weren’t singing; you were just scatting along with the instruments. You were mimicking and matching the drums and horns. How do you keep yourself strong enough vocally to keep up with those instruments?
Al Jarreau: You’re right…there is a kind of a vocal strength that you need if you’re going to try and sing as loud as a horn section with trumpets, three trombones and four baritones! [Laughs] But when you’re working as a unit, as a team, as an ensemble, what happens is that group quiets down enough so that… Do you know who Roberta Flack is?
Soul Train: Yes sir, I know who Roberta Flack is.
Al Jarreau: Yeah…a group quiets down so Roberta Flack can sing her thing after what they’ve played that’s loud and bashing. Roberta Flack’s thing becomes especially more important because it’s so quiet. She doesn’t have to try and match them.
Soul Train: It’s the impact that’s more important.
Al Jarreau: I’m not always trying to match the volume of horns and stuff around me. The idea is for all of us to coordinate and work as a unit so when it’s my moment…what I do can work.
Soul Train: What does it mean when you say your “moment”?
Al Jarreau: That’s simply about my thumb print as a singer, musician, performer, which is a unique thumb print, and me finding my way of putting my thumb print on the music. And it might sound like anything, but…it’s my thumb print!
For more on the legendary Al Jarreau visit his official website AlJarreau.com.
–Mr. Joe Walker
Mr. Joe Walker, a senior contributor for SoulTrain.com, is an acclaimed entertainment and news journalist published thousands of times regionally, nationally, internationally, and online. He loves to create, loves that you read. Follow him on Twitter @mrjoewalker. Also visit ByMrJoeWalker.blogspot.com.