Mention the name Gerald Alston and you immediately think of soul drenched with gospel undertones. The lead singer of the legendary Grammy Award-winning R&B group The Manhattans has returned to his roots and released his first gospel project, True Gospel, in July. The album features the likes of songbird Regina Belle and the soulful stylings of Will Downing. On the album, Alston pays homage to Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers with his rendition of some of their songs, taking music lovers to church with the word. For Alston, the album is about glorifying and thanking God. “God has been so good to me and I’ve always wanted to record a gospel album. It’s my way of thanking God for all his many blessings upon my life,” said Alston.
SoulTrain.com: What has been the highlight of your amazing career?
Gerald Alston: There are a couple of things. One was winning a Grammy in 1980 and recently being inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. When the Manhattans were inducted into the R&B Hall of Fame, I was there but they didn’t induct me. So being inducted into the North Carolina Hall of Fame was special because I was being recognized not only by my peers in North Carolina, but also by my home state. It was a great feeling. Another highlight was when I went to South Africa for the first time. The Manhattans were a household name all during apartheid, so we were superstars over there. We got to the airport and there were thousands of people waiting for us. It was like that during the whole tour. We were scheduled to work for four days, but we ended up working for 15 days and performed at sold out venues. We brought gang members together in South Africa. The gangs were rivals and we were in concert and they were about to get it on, and Blue mentioned that we were there to have a good time and let’s just enjoy the music, and nothing happened. When we returned in 1998, the gang members had built a park and made a place for kids by building a recreational center. It was a whole turnaround. They had literally given the parks back to the kids. It was wonderful. That was a real highlight. God has really blessed us to be able to bring about unity and people together through our music. South Africa is a country that really embraced us.
SoulTrain.com: A lot of artists have said that the reception they receive overseas is often better than what they receive here at home in the U.S. Why do you think that is?
Gerald Alston: Well, The Manhattans went over to England for Soul Weekenders in Blackpool. There were young people there who knew everything about the soul artists. They could tell you what musicians recorded on the song and they knew all of the songs. It was the same thing in Brazil. I went to Rio as a solo artist and did a show with Vesta Williams in a club. After I finished singing songs from my solo album, they started asking me to sing songs from The Manhattans. I started singing and they loved it. So just like in South Africa, families had passed the music down to their children. Kids who are 11 and 12 years old, they know about our music and know who we are. It’s just a wonderful feeling. Now, that doesn’t mean that we aren’t appreciated here; but I think folks are used to seeing The Manhattans, The Dells, or even today’s artists. In other countries they don’t get to see us perform that often, which is why they appreciate it so much.
SoulTrain.com: These days social media seems to play a big part in an artist’s career. Fans are able to get what they feel is an up close and personal look at the lives of their favorite artists, but at the same time it can damage their view of an artist they had on a pedestal. What are your thoughts on artists using social media to get their name out there and being active and engaging with fans?
Gerald Alston: Social media in the right place is wonderful. By that I mean when you are using it to promote yourself and positive things about yourself. When you do things on social media, you have to think. Artists need to be careful about posting their political views or anything that happens in the media. A regular person with a 9 to 5 can say whatever they want to say online and it mean nothing, but if an artist says it, then it means the world. That’s because you have people who believe in you and who follow you. I remember years ago I met Sammy Davis Jr., and he told me that you have to love everybody, be careful what you say around people, and you have to carry yourself in a whole different light. If you don’t want to be bothered with people then you should stay home. He said once you go out, you have to be prepared for people to be coming at you wanting autographs and what not. He always kept himself in a positive position and I do the same. I know we’re human and we make mistakes, but with social media you have to be careful because once you put it out there online, you can delete it, but once it’s out there it’s out there. It can hurt you and destroy you but sometimes social media is very helpful. It’s a wonderful tool to build an audience and your career, but just make sure you use it in a way that’s positive so people will accept you.
SoulTrain.com: You are one of the last of The Manhattans from the group’s hey-day. How is it for you to carry on the group’s legacy? How do the newer members of the group feel having to fill those shoes?
Gerald Alston: It’s been difficult because I lost guys who were a part of my whole young and adult life, who were there for me. The last guys died a couple months apart. Blue Lovett was one of the ones who passed that was still active in the group. I promised him that I would keep the legacy and I would go on. It’s difficult because I miss them, I miss talking to them and having them being a part of my life. It gives me strength to move forward and to keep going. It’s me, Troy May, David Tyson, and my cousin Edward Fields, who started singing with us when Blue’s health started declining. After Blue passed he just filled his spot. We are working on keeping the legacy alive, and it’s been difficult, but it’s getting better each day. Also, eventually we are going to audition and add a bass singer back to the group.
SoulTrain.com: Having a group seemed to be the in thing to do all the way up until the early 2000s, but it has since dwindled down. What do you think is responsible for the decline? What has contributed to your staying power in the industry as a group?
Gerald Alston: There are quite a few things that have contributed to the decline. The music industry changing in terms of radio is one thing. There are only two or three companies that own the radio stations, and they have people in place who aren’t record people to consult with these stations. They are accountants or whatever, and so all they care about is a quick dollar. Then you have the changing of music as a whole. A lot of the groups in our genre that are still able to sing and perform are being kicked to the curb because they say nobody wants to hear our music. But, really there are even young people who love our music; the problem is, they can’t hear it. It’s like a lost art. I thank God that we have fans that are dedicated to us, and we have satellite and internet radio that really helps to keep some of it alive. It’s a rough thing to deal with now. We’re still doing it.
I believe at some point, somewhere down the line we’ll get the real break that we need to open the door for artists that are still performing. These days you also have everybody that wants to be solo; but even for them it still takes time to get them there. It also has to do with people saying they can just go on YouTube to see an entire show without going to the venue. That hurts a lot in some ways. It’s a combination of things, so we have to figure out balance. It does hurt to see that groups are dwindling. The Manhattans as a group will be celebrating 54 years in existence and it’s the type of songs we sing that people love to hear. The songs that we recorded 30 years ago sound just as good today as they did yesterday. I had honestly stopped listening to the radio because all the music was just something someone put together on a computer and called it a song. I’m beginning to hear songs again and hearing artists sing again; I’ve started listening to the radio again and that’s very important. I think if given the chance to be heard on the radio, we can impact the country with our music like we did years ago, we just need that outlet.
SoulTrain.com: After the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, you made it a point to go get on a bus full of fans and sign autographs and take pictures. Most artists today probably would not have taken the time to stay on that bus until the last fan had their picture and CD signed. What made you do that?
Gerald Alston: Those people were from my hometown of Henderson, North Carolina. You have to be humble. You have to realize that you are where you are as an artist today because of those people on that bus. Because of those people that were in the audience or because of those people that came to see your last concert, or buy your music, you have to be humble to them. You are nothing without them. You are not doing them a favor by going into the studio recording and making music; they are doing you a favor by buying it and coming to see you. When I got on that bus, there were people on there that were so proud of me being from Henderson and the fact that I made it to where I am in my life. It was an honor to get on the bus and thank them for coming down to Kannapolis to see me get inducted. Those people played a great role in the success of my career. They stood up for me, they vouched for me, and they supported me by buying my music. Not just Henderson, but all over the world. That’s why it’s important that I, and The Manhattans, and artists of our caliber, take the time to take pictures, sign autographs, and take time to say thank you. We take time to do interviews and go to radio stations. It’s important that our fans, journalists, and radio know that we appreciate what you are doing for us. Without your help, we couldn’t exist. If nobody can hear the music or talk about it, and give their comments, then there would be no way we would be where we are today. It takes everybody to make it happen so that’s why it’s so important to stay humble. I had to say thank you. That’s the reason The Manhattans have been around for going on 54 years in August, because we were and are humble.
SoulTrain.com: During your performance at the Induction ceremony, you mentioned that Sam Cooke was your mentor and you even have a tribute album in his honor. What is it about Sam Cooke that inspires you?
Gerald Alston: I was a teenager listening to Sam Cooke. He always sang songs that everybody could identify with. He sang songs about life and you could understand every single thing that he was saying. He made you feel as though he were singing to you. Sam Cooke was one of those people that my father taught me to be like as a singer. When my father sang, he sang with his heart and he always said sing songs that are the truth, that people can identify with and that you believe in. Sam Cooke was the next person other than my father that I heard sing like that. When I heard his songs, I instantly gravitated to him.
SoulTrain.com: What is your favorite Sam Cooke song?
Gerald Alston: Wow. “A Change is Gonna Come.” I recorded that song three times, actually. I recorded in the early ‘70s with I first joined The Manhattans, and then I did it twice for my Sam Cooke album—a live version and a studio version. There was another one, “Nothing Can Change This Love,” and “I’ll Come Running Back to You,” and his gospel stuff with the Soul Stirrers, “I’m So Glad (Trouble Don’t Last Always)” and “(He’s So) Wonderful.” I love that song. I can go with anything that he sings! His brother L.C. Cooke is an awesome singer. He’s got a great voice. He really inspired me when he did the liner notes for my tribute album, and he said, “I’ve heard a lot of people sing Sam’s songs and they tried to sound like him. You didn’t try to sound like him, you paid tribute to him and that’s more important than trying to sound like him.” That’s what I did. I paid tribute to a great singer and he will always have a place in my heart.
Gerald Alston: You are absolutely right. I did, “I’m So Glad,“ “(He’s So) Wonderful,” and “Jesus Gave Me Water.” I also did a version of “Last Mile of the Way.” People can pick up the album on my website or on CD Baby. Both Regina Belle and Will Downing are on the album and they both did a wonderful job.
SoulTrain.com: You have a single on the album with Regina Belle called “Irreplaceable.” Talk about that song.
Gerald Alston: When I first heard this song, I was going through some things. My father always told me to sing songs that are true that people can identify with. This song came straight from the Bible. It took me back to when Sam Cooke did “Hem of His Garment.” It was recorded in 1953 and they needed a song and he opened up the Bible and was reading about the lady with the blood issues, he wrote the song and he went back in and they recorded it. It’s the same thing with this song. The song is about the things that God did in creating the world and how nobody else could have done it. He’s irreplaceable. We decided it would make a nice duet, so I called Regina up and the rest is history. It’s a beautiful song. She did a wonderful job. We just brought it to life because we both felt this song in our hearts and we knew where it was coming from. We know that God and His son are irreplaceable, that’s what the song is about.
SoulTrain.com: What else are you working on?
Gerald Alston: Promoting True Gospel and performing with The Manhattans are my main focus right now. We did a record that’s a tribute to Blue Lovette called “Shades of Blue,” and we’re putting it together and will release it soon. It’s all about the impressions he made upon me from the time I first met him, and the things that he taught me. It’s a very beautiful song. It should be coming out very soon.
Shameika Rene’ is a journalist of all trades. She can usually be found producing television news and writing for various websites such as Charlotte Five, Creative Loafing, Carolina Style Magazine, Uptown Magazine, Sheen Magazine, WEtv.com, or her own websites, www.themofochronicles.com and www.conversationswithmeik.blogspot.com. Follow her on Twitter & Instagram @mofochronicles.