The soulful sax player is in much demand as an accompanist (for Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones, Lee Fields and James Hunter, among others) but he’s equally at home fronting his own quartet. He rolled through New Haven recently, where PKM’s Brendan Toller caught up with him over world famous pizza.
My friend John Perrin recently celebrated his third year drumming in NRBQ, concluding that “it’s either being able to get up close and personal with some of the most beautiful art you’ve ever seen, or being let in on the funniest inside joke you’ve ever heard.” So much of rock ‘n’ roll is a secret syntax, a hidden code swept in the cracks of hanging out, boredom, shared knowledge of tracks, books, movies. The art is found in the lived experience more than in an end product.
And so, on a brisk Thursday I found myself sitting next to saxophonist Freddy DeBoe, who has ridden the touring whirlwind for the past ten years trekking the globe with the modern soul/Daptone Elite (i.e. Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones, Lee Fields and James Hunter). We were joined by drummer Rudy Petschauer, and organist Judd Nielsen for the pre-gig meal – marveling at the soulful décor and otherworldly pizza pies at Sally’s Apizza in New Haven, Connecticut. Augmented by guitarist Joey Crispiano, these four have come together to form the Freddy DeBoe Band. The quartet plays in the mode of Jr. Walker, letting their instrumental pedigree set sail in a sound and technique that is true to soul records of the 60s and 70s.
This marked their third show at Café Nine within a year, with additional gigs in their home turf of Brooklyn and Manhattan. The band plays in between touring and recording projects – recently committing four tracks to reel-to-reel tape in the aptly named and newly baptized Daylight Factory Studios (a basement space in DUMBO).
The following is a conversation I had with Freddy DeBoe:
Freddy DeBoe: That’s the guitar part from William Bell “I Forgot to Be Your Lover”.
PKM: Oh really? Damn. Did you grow up with all these records? Or was it like you kind of came into it?
Freddy DeBoe: A lot of it, I did grow up with from my parents’ record collection like Sly and the Family Stone Greatest Hits. The one where there’s like the moving cover – you know what I mean? The look of it. That was the first record I remember really loving, and both my parents had Beatles records – solo Beatle records, like Paul McCartney Ram and George Harrison All Things Must Pass. So, I loved a lot of that era of classic rock from the 60s and 70s too, as well as classic soul. But I didn’t really get super deep into the soul thing until after college when I was touring a lot with the singer Eli Paperboy Reed.
PKM: Oh right.
Freddy DeBoe: I left Berklee [College of Music] from Boston. Eli Paperboy Reed is from Boston and I was just getting exposed to all this music – these soul rarities and found out there’s all these people who had their own story.
PKM: It’s crazy because there’s an endless trove…
Freddy DeBoe: Uh huh, yeah, oh yeah – definitely.
PKM: I mean that’s just from – I guess I’m a “collector” or a “DJ” or whatever, but…
Freddy DeBoe: Yeah, same.
PKM: Yeah, but you’re on the road too and with other musicians who are in this constantly…
Freddy DeBoe: And going to these other towns that have these little records stores, some of them, they don’t know what they have, or haven’t been picked through and you just gotta know. At first I didn’t really know; and anything that was Motown, anything that was Stax – I’d give it a play. You start to recognize certain labels, or certain names, you know, your favorite singers, or the ones that translate to you, or the ones that had a career more than more than a one hit wonder. Some of those artists that were one hit wonders at the time, they actually did have a lot more songs in their catalog. Like Brenton Wood “Give Me A Little Sign”.
PKM: Ooh “Psychotic Reaction” man, yeah, hahaha…
Freddy DeBoe: Yeah, I think that was a cover.
PKM: Haha, yeah-yeah, it is, it is! But “Oogum Boogum” or yeah “Give Me A Little Sign” is one of my favorite songs ever.
Freddy DeBoe: Yeah, those couple of Brenton Wood albums – there’s a sound to those albums- the recorded band. And there’s a bunch of songs on them that have a certain feel, but they’re not exactly “Sign…” so, you start to discover the complete artist and I’m always drawn to that. I think what really helped me was being on the road with Charles too, because he loved a lot of those singers. Like I just mentioned that William Bell tune that was one of his favorite songs.
PKM: What song was it?
Freddy DeBoe: The song “I Forgot to Be Your Lover.” And, you know, he loved Sam & Dave – they really inhabited the sound of his voice. Charles loved Eli Stubbs, Four Tops – a really strong low tenor range. But there’s a guy from Detroit area that was recorded during the Motown era, but he wasn’t on Motown, his name was Darrell Banks. And he’s got a bunch of records that at the time – they didn’t come out, they weren’t really popular, but later they kind of resurfaced and he wasn’t even a one hit wonder kinda thing, you know so.
PKM: Would Charles drop little hints, or would it just come up in conversation?
Freddy DeBoe: Yeah, he would mention a song and I would go find it and play it. I would always play stuff that he loved: Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield. He loved Curtis from the Impressions era – the 60s stuff, but it was also because he had a personal relationship with it when he was growing up. Like Charles would play a song and it immediately struck a chord with him. It would bring him back to that place and time, and I thought that was like a really special thing. My record collection started growing from that.
PKM: Well, he’s one of those guys that’s probably just as much of a fan as he is an amazing performer…
Freddy DeBoe: Yeah definitely, and the James Brown influence. He had a long relationship with that music and everything, because he was a huge James Brown fan when he was a teenager – he saw him at the Apollo. And then lived this hard life and has always loved music the entire time, but Charles never really got a chance to be an artist until much later. Until he was 60.
Freddy DeBoe: Yeah, basically… I was with Eli and did maybe four or five years of touring, but the first trip I ever went to Australia, we did a couple of opening shows for the Dap-Kings. And I met some of those guys…
PKM: And that was fast…
Freddy DeBoe: That was about ten years ago and they had already been touring for a while. I’m not featured on any of the records with Charles or Sharon or anything. I was basically on the road with them whenever they needed it. With Charles it was a regular thing for like five years when I was touring with him.
PKM: And you guys went all over?
Freddy DeBoe: Yeah, we did a lot of touring – festivals and shows all around the States and Europe and Australia. We went to Singapore, Ecuador, Alaska, Brazil–a lot of different places.
PKM: What do you think, uh, I mean he was so much older and lived that – he lived during that time- do you think you learned anything specific from him per se? Or like, I mean obviously you took away – I mean please…
Freddy DeBoe: How to play from the heart literally and fully, you know? Because, I would say that Charles was educated in a different way than a by-the-book musician, very different. He couldn’t read music, or didn’t have that knowledge of it, but he knew how to sing a song. When he knew the song, he knew how to be himself through it. Not just like sing it word-for-word, note-for-note, but how to fully bring out his expressiveness in it. And when he felt like the words really hit him hard he just felt like screaming, you know, right at the right moment that just gave the song all this energy that everyone else playing behind him was forced to bring even more energy to the song to back him up, you know?
PKM: Well, it’s the ultimate performance right? Because he would cry most performances right?
Freddy DeBoe: Yeah, well I mean a lot of those songs of his original material are really heavy songs. He’s talking about a lot of these life struggles that he went through. Some of them are really personal – like you know describing the story of when his brother passed away – killed on the street in “Heartaches and Pain” and then more stories that people can relate to like “Why Is It So Hard (To Make It In America)” and “The World Is Goin’ Up In Flames.” You know, it’s pretty, uh, it’s pretty crazy when you think about it.
PKM: And then, you know, from that you’ve played with Lee Fields a bunch, Sharon Jones a bit right? James Hunter recently.
Freddy DeBoe: Yeah, Sharon and I started because I met a lot of those Dap-Kings guys and there was, just like, one of the saxophone players couldn’t make a run of shows. And that happens sometimes because everybody gets busy, certain opportunities come or go. And I was able to play baritone sax for her a lot too. So, I was subbing with Sharon, it was very beginning of 2012, and um, and I did some shows – a string of shows in Spain, and it was just a super fun time to be – they threw me in the fire. They would throw out all sorts of songs, and like two and half hour long shows, and I just had to learn stuff on the spot. It was a great learning experience and those guys would name all sorts of songs and musicians and 45s and stuff that ‘oh, you gotta know this’ and really like —
PKM: Were you digging for your phone?! Hahaha.
Freddy DeBoe: Yeah totally, but I also didn’t want to be that guy either.
PKM: Yeah I know.
Freddy DeBoe: But I caught on fast.
PKM: I write shit down the same way, if someone tells me I’ll just —
Freddy DeBoe: You know, it’s like ‘oh, I love this song,’ but what would really help me a lot — it was 2010, I was just moving to Brooklyn, there was an ongoing concert series going on called Dig Deeper where a couple of these really, really talented DJs were producing shows bringing soul singers out of obscurity. Guys that had a very short career, like I was talking about in the 60s and 70s, and now they’re in their 60s or 70s, and they’re bringing them to New York and they’d hire a backing band. Some of the singers were Syl Johnson and Howard Tate before he passed away and Marva Whitney before she passed away – one the last shows with her. Barbara Lynn, Harvey Scales, uh, Renaldo Domino – he’s still around still doing it in Chicago. That was a huge learning experience for me because I got a lot of those gigs in the horn section and I would learn a whole set of their music, so that would expose me immediately to it, and I would go and learn even more, or just check out the rest of their records if I could find them. There’s a certain thing as a musician you have to learn a lot of music quickly and have a system that works for you. Some people gotta write it down, some people gotta listen to it a hundred times, some people just catch on really quick and they know how to wing it — but um I think I had enough experience doing that since I was a teenager and then had enough exposure to the style where it just sort of worked for me.
PKM: Well, and I mean you’re so in the thick of it – is it like a mafia or an extended family? Obviously there’s a Daptone —
Freddy DeBoe: Hahaha, it’s definitely NOT a mafia dude!
PKM: Well, I mean – the soul mafia?
Freddy DeBoe: No man! No. There’s definitely a family feel to the sense of community of friends playing. You know, we like to have people that we know personally at some point – like, they’re a good player to hang out with.
PKM: Yeah, I mean, you’re gonna eat pizza with them.
Freddy DeBoe: Hahaha. Or we know personally that they’re into the style of music, you know, they’re not just some hired gun that can play their instrument well. They get the style and they play to the song well. Because it’s very easy for a lot of players to overplay in this style, you know? Especially when you’re backing up a singer and you’re supposed to play like what the record sounds and not overdo it.
PKM: For many years it was completely the wrong tone, the wrong players, wrong…
Freddy DeBoe: For decades I would think, yeah, in between the hey-day of it and when things happened with technology in the later 70s, 80s, 90s, you know? I think a lot of that focus was lost and I think with Gabe and Neil at Daptone the focus was taking it back – stripping down everything technology-wise, stripping down everything music-technique-wise. Technique in a sense of – this doesn’t need to be a crazy horn line – this just needs to be a straight heavy great sounding horn line – you know? Something that’s appropriate for the arrangement of the song. This style that I’m playing tonight there are arrangements of these songs, but there’s just enough looseness that these musicians can do their thing. We’re basically playing the blues you know? Before I met all of these guys in the band and the scene I used to hang out with Joey Crispiano and his friends on Staten Island. He’s a member of the Dap-Kings, plays guitar along with Binky Griptite. And we would record songs together, any way we could and mostly to an old reel-to-reel machine and anybody who was around, and some of those guys were Dap-Kings or the backing band for Charles – The Extraordinaires.
And then things happened with Sharon passing away, sadly, a couple years ago. And then a lot of things were happening with Charles when he was diagnosed. And when Charles passed away about a year ago – and really like those events happening with Joey and my best friend – we both really wanted to keep playing together and working together as well as recording together. And not only that, Charles himself really pushed me to do my own thing, because we shared a love for Jr. Walker and the All-stars. There were some times on the road where we’d be driving, or just waiting for the show to start and I’d play music off my phone, or a record and I was playing the whole catalog of Jr. Walker on shuffle and this one song came up that no one really knew and he LOVED it ‘ Fred, play that song again!’ Made me repeat it and repeat it over and over.
PKM: What song was it?
Freddy DeBoe: It was a four-minute jam instrumental its called “Ame Cherie” and its like, wow, I’ve never heard him burning like this – this is crazy. And Charles loved it and he kind of knew that I would love it and it became a thing like the last couple years where he would just like ask me to play this song on repeat for 20 to 30 minutes while he was getting ready for the show.
PKM: Getting primped?
Freddy DeBoe: Ironing and putting on his suits, doing hair and makeup and all that. He would do all his own thing and he would say ‘ Fred, play my song!’ And I was like man I gotta- what I really wanted to do was put a show together and play it for him, but sadly things happened the way they happened. So, I kind of dedicated my time, the six months after, to start booking gigs wherever I could in the area and play all these shows in this style these Jr. Walker blues tunes. And there’s a bunch of them that I’ve found on some of their records, not like “Roadrunner” or “Shotgun,” not the classic hits, but there’s a bunch of instrumentals that are well-arranged and they sound amazing and they feature his playing as a frontman. It’s a similar set up too – it’s organ, drums, guitar and sax. For the four of us it’s easy to travel, easy to coordinate.
PKM: And you guys are doing the old thing, you know, Ramones, Blondie – all those bands from CBGBs – this was their first place out of town to play. Obviously it’s a totally different style, but that’s how it used to be for New Haven, and it’s nice to see that coming back a little bit.
Freddy DeBoe: I think a lot of it is – it’s an early 60s R&B rhythm and blues rock ‘n’ roll type of thing. Some of it feels like surf or we just play out our common influences. But just because I’m a saxophone player doesn’t mean it’s jazz. I think I’m much more loud rock ‘n’ roll shit than anything else, you know?
PKM: And you guys have recorded a couple of tracks?
Freddy DeBoe: I’ve been unexpectedly pretty busy with my time with Lee Fields and James Hunter so I’ve been able to record with a band four original songs and then they all have been different processes, you know? Sometimes we get together two or three of us and work on a songs together and then like aren’t able to cut it, track it, as a full band, but another three or four months later or something. There’s a song I wrote that I was sitting on for a year that I wrote after Charles passed away. I did it all by myself – I played drums, organ, all these things on just a little cassette machine. And then I wasn’t really able to share it with anyone for awhile. And I finally got the four people in a room together that I wanted on it and they’re close friends of mine in a studio that I helped put together – it really felt like something that I worked for. And then it only took a few hours, everyone had a good time, it was easy to learn the song.
PKM: Who are some of your heavy influences?
Freddy DeBoe: King Curtis is a huge inspiration. He’s a giant of the saxophone and played on a shit-ton of recordings. I noticed that there was one song that I kept hearing and it was like four or five times that he recorded this song in a bunch of different ways with a bunch of different crews – even like the Oliver Nelson Big Bands, it’s called “Jaywalk.” There’s a version with the cats from Booker T and the MGs, which isn’t that common to find, but there’s recordings of him playing with those guys. King Curtis was known for playing with the backing bands of Aretha Franklin and all those guys like Bernard Purdie, and Jerry Jermont. King Curtis was one of the most-recorded players in rock ‘n’ roll history, you know? From the 50s, 60s, 70s until his untimely death. He was killed on a front stoop by a drug dealer and he was in his 30s, but he recorded and played on all this crazy shit. He’s got a crazy story and there’s some other guys like, like two saxophone players that played on a ton of Motown records who didn’t get credited as the Funk Bros, and those guys were Choker Campbell, a tenor player who played on a ton of the Temptations and early 60s hits and he also lead the Motown Revue big bands. You can find records of Choker Campbell Big Band and there’s a few 45s I found of him playing with the organ player Earl Van Dyke, James Jamerson, and Benny Benjamin all those cats and he’s there rippin’ solos and he had this tone that sounded like he was choking that had that kind of that real grit to it, so they called him Choker. And then there was a guy who played baritone saxophone that was hugely important on a lot of the early hits. Especially on the Supremes anytime you hear a baritone solo
PKM: “Love Is Like An Itchin’ In Me Heart” that’s one of my favorite tracks ever…
Freddy DeBoe: A lot of solos, yeah, and his name was Mike Terry. He eventually ended up branching out and doing a lot of other Detroit soul stuff that came out independently and he still had that signature sound playing along with the rhythm section, but he arranged a lot of songs and co-wrote a lot of songs. And you can find all these 45s. He left Motown and Berry Gordy on kind of a bad note because he wasn’t given any fame, notoriety, credit, or pay for his extra work that he was putting in arranging the solos. The solo on this (song playing overhead at Café 9) is Choker Campbell on the Marvelettes “Don’t Mess With Bill.” They’re on all these hits, but those two cats were signature to the sound of the record and of saxophone players. And when I was a really young kid little kid before I even started playing the saxophone my grandfather on my Italian side used to get together for holidays and he loved Sinatra he loved rat-pack stuff and he loved Louis Prima, and the saxophone player Sam Butera was a beast of a player. And he had a lot of fun, he had a big sound and would play perfect solos and if you really dig for it there are some solo Sam Butera records – especially those jump blues records where he’s wailing over it. I appreciate those kind of musicians because they were apart of something for a long time, they dedicated their life to it, and they really worked hard at it to progress the form throughout their entire life.
PKM: Well you need a model for what you’re doing…
Freddy DeBoe: And they totally have been for me, because its been a lot of work as much as a lot of great opportunities that have come my way over the years that I’ve been able to sustain touring for ten years after going to college for it, and growing up in music. You know, I started playing at the age of 8 at Elm Creative Arts in Milwaukee, WI, continued at Nicolet High School, and was mentored by local legend Berkeley Fudge at the Wisconsin Conservatory. I gigged locally as a teen in gospel churches with Direct Flow, and now I’m 31 and still doing it…
PKM: Yeah, I mean…
Freddy DeBoe: You have to find inspiration in the same way. Art is kinda that way, it will take a long time…