Bobby Harden is a gifted entertainer with a glorious voice. He gives his all in high-octane performances that feature his considerable skill as a dancer. Harden is one of the lead singers for the Original Blues Brothers Band. That group has taken him to far-off lands. And as an artist in his own right, Harden has even gone to Siberia (for entertainment purposes, of course).
Terry Stoller spoke with Bobby Harden in October 2013 about his early church-singing days, his adventures in the music business in Texas, his move to New York and the wedding-band gigs there, his emergence as a soul singer, his recording work—and, finally, his high regard for the other artists at Westbeth.
Terry Stoller: You began singing in church in Youngstown, Ohio, your hometown. Was that professionally?
Bobby Harden: I started singing at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. I didn’t join the choir because I thought I could sing. I was 13, and I had befriended some kids that lived in my neighborhood, and they were in the choir. I thought maybe I should join the choir, too. So it was the first day of choir rehearsal, and Sue Hill, the musical director, started going over a song. She was singing “The Harvest Is Plentiful” and teaching the altos and sopranos their part. Then she said, “OK, I want all the guys to stand up.” There were about six of us. She started going over the part. [He sings]: “The harvest is plentiful/ But the laborers are few.” Then she stopped and said, “Whose voice is that I hear?” They pointed to me: “That’s Bobby.” She said, “Come down here. Sit next to me.” I sat next to her, and I was shaking like a leaf because I had a feeling—I knew what she was going to ask. She finished teaching the guys their part, and she said, “I want you to lead this song.” And I thought, Oh, my god. All my fears were confirmed. She started to teach me the part, and I was singing it really low, and she stopped and said, “Boy, open up your mouth and sing.” I sang, and all the choir went, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” That gave me a little confidence, and I became one of the choir’s lead singers. I was singing lead on a lot of songs, and the church people would shout, and they used to request the song “A Good Day” by James Cleveland—which I used to sing. Someone would pass a note to an usher, saying, “Wanna hear ‘A Good Day.’ ” I became one of the popular singers in church. That’s when I realized I like this.
But you left Ohio. Did you come right to New York?
No, I moved to Houston, Texas. After I graduated from high school and went to Youngstown State University for one year, I realized Youngstown wasn’t for me. The steel mills were closing. I knew it was time to leave. I contacted some friends that had moved to Houston. That city was booming in the late seventies. There was a big article in Ebony magazine saying Houston was the place to go. So I moved there. My goal was to get right back into school, but that didn’t work out because I was too late for registration. I was 19, and I went to work as a busboy.
You didn’t have it in your head that you were going to become a singer?
I’m not saying I wasn’t going to have music in my life, but I don’t remember that as a desire. I was going to go to school. I wanted to be an accountant. I went to business college for one year, and I learned to keypunch. That would give me something where I could find a decent job and be able to survive. I was working as a busboy at Macy’s, and when I graduated from business school, they transferred me to their keypunch department. I stayed there for a year. Eventually, I got a job at Occidental Petroleum and became a computer operator, and then a data storage technician. I kept getting promotions, and I did that for about four years. Then I realized that I was missing music.
I want to back up a little bit. I could never really find a church home in Houston that I was happy in. I wanted to continue gospel music, and I would visit these churches, but they weren’t right for me. I even joined a choir in one of the churches, but it didn’t feel right. So I stopped singing in church. I just worked and went to school. I was going to the University of Houston. I shared an apartment with a roommate, and she had a cousin who would come over and hang out with us sometimes. And I’ll never forget—I was in the shower, and I was singing, and when I came out of the shower, she was sitting outside the door. She said, “Oh, my god, I never knew you had a voice like that. It’s beautiful.” So then I was inspired to get back into music. I started singing secular music. I didn’t get back into gospel because I hadn’t found an outlet for it.
Here’s what happened. At Occidental Petroleum there was a girl named Jennifer. She was a singer, and she had a sister, Kim, who was a professional singer. Kim was out there performing in clubs. Jennifer said, “You should come out when Kim is performing. She’ll let you sing.” I went to hear Kim sing, and I sat in with her. She suggested that I go around with her and sit in with other musicians. She took me to this one club—keep in mind I was nervous, and I didn’t know too many secular songs. The club had a band, and they let me sit in with them, but I messed up on the song. It was embarrassing, but she took me back there again. I said, I’m going to bring my lyrics this time. I still screwed up the song, and they told Kim not to bring me again.
Then I started going to La Porte, Texas, out on the outskirts of Houston. My sister lived in La Porte, and I found people to sing with out there. There were these musicians who played one instrument, like the piano or the guitar, along with prerecorded tracks. This was the early eighties, and it was really popular at the time. So I hooked up with them, and that was more inviting. They made me feel comfortable. I began to build up my repertoire, singing with these guys.
What were you singing?
I would sing mostly Lionel Richie songs. He was pretty popular at the time. Everybody was enjoying my performance, and I became a regular, sitting in with people. My friend Jim Moody had a gig at a place called Henry Wayne’s. Jim told me he wasn’t able to do an upcoming gig—and he recommended to the owner that I fill in for him. After I got the gig, I realized that I didn’t play an instrument or have a big enough repertoire for the show. But I had about a month to prepare. I went and invested in a sound system, and I bought all the music-minus-one tapes that I could muster up. I found a company that made them. So that’s when I had to learn to sing Neil Diamond. I was singing Barbra Streisand. I was singing country. I was able to pull together four sets for a four-hour show. And then the owner offered me my own night there. That’s when my singing career began. I put together a one-man show, and I would do all these different clubs with soundtracks.
In Texas you were singing a pop repertoire primarily with prerecorded music.
I performed with one live band in Houston, and it was great. But that was it. There were bands in Houston, but I was not connected to people that way. I had this group of people that I followed around, and that became comfortable for me. That was all I knew.
How long did you stay in Texas?
I stayed for ten years.
You were doing this kind of singing all that time?
Around ’84, I realized that if I was going to succeed as a singer, I really needed to put out a record. I had met some people with a recording studio. I tried to produce an album, but I ran out of money. So I decided, Well, I’ll just come out with a twelve-inch record, which was popular at the time. The A side was “I Found Love When I Found You.”
Is that a song you wrote?
I didn’t write that song. I wrote the B side of the record, “Tell Me You Want My Lovin’.”
Who wrote the other song?
Charles Burton. I was so green in so many ways. A friend of mine said, “Why don’t you just buy that song from this guy?” I said, “OK, great.” So I gave Charles Burton $300 and bought the song from him, thinking that I owned the song. I later found out that because the song had already been published by the writer, I was only entitled to the publishing rights.
When I recorded “I Found Love,” it didn’t really do anything. You need the resources (which I didn’t have) to promote a record. I did get some write-ups in local papers, but they weren’t major papers. I decided it was time to move to New York.
When you moved to New York, did you have an identity as a singer, or were you still trying to find yourself?
I came here knowing I needed to be in New York. At that point I was singing more Lionel Richie–type pop music. I met people who told me to go here, go there—and go to the Village Gate. So I went to the Village Gate, and I started to sing there once or twice a week. From there, I met more people. I did a showcase there, and this guy said, “Man, you’re a diamond in the rough. What are you doing after the show?” I said, “Well, nothing.” And he said, “I’m going to check out another singer. Come with me, and hear her sing.” So I did, and one the background singers was Carol Sylvan. She told me about wedding gigs and gave me some contact numbers, so I started doing weddings. And that’s when I met a lot more people and started to work with live bands. That’s when it all kicked in. I had to learn a lot of Motown music. I went from one wedding office to another.
The wedding band Carol Sylvan was working for called me for a gig, too. That girl worked the crowd, so I kind of learned the ropes from her. (We still work together to this day.) I started getting out there and doing my own thing. It just kind of evolved, and what was already in me came out.
But you were not really a soul singer yet, right?
I was evolving into it. When I was told to learn “Soul Man” and began to sing that song at weddings, it just kind of happened. I created this circle. I said, “OK, everybody give me some room here.” And I started dancing with one person, and everybody else would back up and watch us. So I would dance with that one person, and when that person would stop dancing, somebody else would get in dancing. And that was the creation of the soul circle, which I am the originator of—to my knowledge. It became this thing, my big number, and it kept getting better. You learn more tricks. So I perfected this circle. And that’s when everybody started calling me the soul man.
Can you explain to me what soul music is?
Soul music really comes from gospel singers. All the soul singers come from the church, and it’s basically the way they sing. When you come from the church, that church singing comes out of you. So when those singers were singing secular songs, they were influenced by that gospel style. You can tell a church singer from a non-church singer. It’s the spirit. It’s something else that comes from you. Soul music has that same invitation. It invites you to sing that way. Soul singers were produced on the Stax label. Their music was different from the Motown sound. Motown wanted more polish, more tailored type of soul singers, so they could grab on to the white audience. Soul music was more for the black listeners, and it wouldn’t catch on at certain radio stations until later.
When did you begin to go deeper into soul music?
After I started singing with the wedding bands, I began singing with other rhythm and blues bands. The first nightclub band I worked with was Heart and Soul, and they introduced me to groups like the Neville Brothers, the Meters, Tower of Power. I thought, Oh, my god, this is great music. I started becoming who I really was. The church, everything started coming out. When you’re in a club, and you’ve got a great band, you just let loose. You can break it down, and the band will follow you. I was learning that you could do whatever you wanted to. My best tricks came from mistakes. If I couldn’t figure out where I was, I just broke the band down, and I started thinking fast on my feet. I have a gift for that. And being introduced to the blues—B.B. King, Johnny Adams, Z.Z. Hill—and all of those songs and learning their styles, that became a melting pot for me. And, of course, James Brown was in the mix. And when you’re singing James Brown’s “Sex Machine,” “I Got the Feelin’ ”—that’s true gospel for me. That allowed me to find myself.
How far into your career did this happen?
They say you become a professional when you get paid. I started getting paid in ’84. In ’89—that’s when I moved to New York and began to find my way with bands. In the early nineties, I started defining who I was.
How did your album Soul Purpose come about?
Soul Purpose was in the early 2000s. I was still going to jam sessions, and I realized there were so many great singers in New York. I said to myself, I bet those singers don’t have a record. And I thought, I’ve got to distinguish myself from them. I need to come up with my own record, to put myself out there and do my own thing. It wasn’t like I had a record company knocking down my door. I was never in the right place at the right time, and I had never met the right people to help orchestrate that for me. It was more like, here I go again. I’ve got to do it on my own. I had just started singing with the All Angels’ Church choir. That’s where I met Jon Werking, who became my producer for Soul Purpose.
What gave you the confidence to write your own songs for that album?
I didn’t have any songs coming my way. Remember, I also wrote my songs in Houston. So I’ve always been a writer. I did use two songs from other writers.
Judging from the title of the album, I’m guessing that your identity was pretty
solid by then.
When I did Soul Purpose, I knew I wanted to do rhythm-and-blues soul music. But I don’t think I captured the essence of who I really am on Soul Purpose. Jon did a great job as the producer, but I would call it more pop soul. It was a great CD at the time, but that was one chapter in my life. This CD that I’m doing now, I am taking to a different place. It has more of a rhythm-and-blues soul vibe on it.
Did you also write the songs for this new one?
I wrote them or cowrote them.
Who are your cowriters?
Brian Knox wrote several songs with me, and Gene Torres and Ron Thompson each wrote one song with me. The very first song I ever wrote, “You Make My Heart Sing,” is on this record. Remember back in Texas when I was trying to do an album? I recorded that song. When I started working on my new record, my nephew said, “Uncle Bobby, what ever happened to that song I liked so much?” I said, “Which one?” He started singing it, and I said, “You remember that song?” He said, “I loved that song.” So I said, “I’m getting ready to do another record. I think I should just pull that one out and redo it.” It’s a beautiful song.
When we met on the street last week, you were talking about working on social media, and it sounded as though that’s a bit of a burden.
It’s not a burden. I’ve made friends with the fact that this is part of what I have to do, and I enjoy it. It becomes a little overwhelming at times. When you’re a father and a husband, and then you’ve got the social media, it’s a lot to handle sometimes. And you’ve also got to create monies, and, if you’ve got a gig that weekend, you’ve got to learn certain songs. So everything becomes a little overwhelming. I’m working on the social media. Where it’s going to lead, I can’t say, but this is what I’m supposed to do as an independent artist. You want it to lead to recognition and to CD sales or single sales, but it really doesn’t do that all the time. It just keeps putting you out there amongst your fans or your friends.
I know the record business is different now. Once you get an album produced, you have to distribute it. Do you then try to get a record company?
No. The best thing about today’s market is that I can put it on iTunes and Amazon.com myself, and I can find other Internet outlets for it. But to get a physical distribution for it is a different challenge. That’s when you have to pick up the phone, call people and see if you can create that relationship with somebody who believes in your record. If they really like your record, you can probably find a distribution deal, but you want to find a deal that’s going to do some promotion with it, too. There aren’t very many record stores anymore.
But you would probably want your music played on radio stations.
There’s a promoter in Alaska that I’m supposed to try to hook up with. He’s affordable, and he’s supposed to be pretty good. So I’m going to try to use him. It’s kind of crazy for independent artists right now, but crazy in a good way. At least we can put music out on our own now. The only thing that worries me is radio stations that do streaming. We get something like point zero zero seven cents for each time they play a song. By the time you get a check, it could be a dollar or two. I know the stations are making money, though. So I’m trying to figure out how I can market my music where I know it’s being played, and, if it’s downloaded, I really get my money. What’s most important is to get my music out there, to get a break so that I can start performing on the festival circuit. I want to find an agent to book me on festival circuits. On those circuits, an independent artist can sell CDs, make better money, and start to get recognized as an artist.
I saw a clip online from a gig in Morocco. You were singing and jumping around, and I was so worried because there were area rugs on the stage.
I did fall. That was a festival with the Original Blues Brothers Band. I’m one of their two lead singers. For me, that’s the credit I needed on my résumé. It’s something that gave me status, that pushed my credibility up. The one thing I love about the Original Blues Brothers Band is the music. They do Stax music and the songs that were in the Blues Brothers movies, like “Soul Man.” That fits perfectly for me.
You’ve been performing in Russia.
That’s when I tour under my own name. I was the first soul singer to perform in Siberia, according to this promoter. They received me very well, and they weren’t used to seeing that type of performance. When I started working with the musicians, I said, OK, guys, the charts that you’re reading are one thing, but you’ve got to play from a different place when you’re playing R&B soul music. You see your chords—now you’ve got to blend that in with what you feel. But you’ve got to remember, guys, in soul music, this chart can change depending on what I do. You’ve got to know the form of the songs. But if I want to stop this song and start doing something else, talking, you’ve got to be able to follow me. I don’t know what I’m going to do on that stage. I don’t know when I’m going to stop. I don’t know when I’m going to throw a solo at you, but you’ve got to be ready. They did it, and they did it well. And this past September was my fourth year on that tour.
In your band, you do some covers in addition to your own music. Are they mostly covers of soul songs?
If I sing a pop song, I make it a soul version. I can sing any kind of song. I would just make it fit my style. In my show today, what I try to do is sing a core of my music and then sing cover songs that inspire me. I sing “The Thrill Is Gone” and “Black Cat Bone.”
Those are blues songs, and you’ve recently been inducted into the New York Blues Hall of Fame. Are the blues and soul on a continuum?
For me, blues and soul go hand in hand. I put the soul in the blues, and I put the blues in the soul music.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about your music?
Well, it’s that I’m still a work in progress. I think this record I’m coming out with is going to be a beautiful record, but I look forward to the next one. I’m going to go deeper into soul music. I’m going to continue to write and put out music that I feel is right at the time. I try to write lyrics that my whole family can sit down and listen to. I want my kids to be able to listen to my songs. And I so look forward to recording a gospel CD. I know it’s there, but I don’t want to force it.
You and your wife, Pia, and your daughters, Camilla and Olivia, haven’t been living in Westbeth that long, yet you’re prominent residents. How did that happen?
I think it’s our personalities. You meet people, and you say hi. I’m used to saying hi to people. I was in several Westbeth music festivals. Pia started doing the bake sale, and it was like a breath of fresh air. Her sweet-potato pies were well received. And she started doing the Christmas parties. I feel so blessed that Pia is my wife, and that we have two beautiful daughters. And we feel blessed to be in Westbeth. We feel blessed to be around so many wonderful people. I still don’t know what everybody else does, but I know there’s amazing talent in the building. I respect the people that have been here for a while, because they’re the pioneers. Westbeth wouldn’t be what it is if it weren’t for a lot of incredible people.
(To see video clips and hear Harden sing, go to bobbyharden.com.)
Photo credits—Harden headshot: Dmitry Eliseev; Grand Central Partnership Concert: Lee Henderson; New York Blues Hall of Fame: Jens Haulund. Courtesy Bobby Harden.
Terry Stoller is a Westbeth resident and author of Tales of the Tricycle Theatre.
Profiles in Art, Copyright 2013 Terry Stoller and Westbeth Artists Residents Council