'He Can (Still) Make You Feel Good!'
According to one Rolling Stone writer, Howard Hewett is the premier vocalist in the post - Marvin Gaye era of romantic pop. Like Gaye, Hewett soars to new heights and seduces his audience. It is no wonder he's responsible for selling some ten million records; his voice is irresistible.
Hewett first burst on the scene as lead singer of Shalamar, the successful post - disco group which topped the charts in both the U.S. and U. K. "Second Time Around," featuring Howard, was a near two - million seller. "For the Lover in You," co-written by Hewett and reinterpreted in It's Time, was another major hit. "Dancing in the Sheets," "A Night to Remember" are just a few more of the Hewett - led smash hits that Shalamar enjoyed as a group.
In the mid-eighties, Howard's solo career rocketed. The first single released on his own, I'm For Real," zoomed to number one. A series of hits followed, such as "Stay," "I Commit to Love," "Strange Relationship," "Once, Twice, Three Times," and "Show Me."
What's more, his original "Say Amen" earned the status of a modern gospel classic, enjoying across the board airplay. And his recorded duets with Anita Baker, Dionne Warwick, Brenda Russell and Stacy Lattisaw won critical accolades.
Given the resurgence of romantic pop, his latest CD 'If Only ...' is certain to gain Howard Hewett new affection and appreciation from an ever-widening audience hungry for great songs from a great singer.
Taking it from the top and what were your musical influences growing up and how many still factor into your music today? "My musical influences have varied ever since I was a kid. I started out in Gospel music when I was 10- years-old. I’m not talking about singing in a choir in front of a congregation every Sunday morning. No, we had a professional Gospel group called The Hewett Singers. I was the lead singer and three of my sisters sang background. We had a drummer, bass player, guitarist player and a B3 organ player. We were tight!"
"My sisters were widely known for their perfect, angelic harmonies and I was this little kid with a high voice that could rock a church. My mom was a major Gospel promoter in the Akron and Cleveland, Ohio areas. Nepotism was alive and well in our family, so of course we would open up every major program she would bring to the city. We opened for Gospel greats like James Cleveland, Albertina Walker and the Caravans. I remember there was this little lady who had a great big voice that sang in the Caravans that would tear a church up! Her name was Shirley Caesar. We’d do shows with The Five Blind Boys of Alabama, The Soul Stirrers, Volinairs, and Pilgrim Jubillees. I could go on and on. It was a beautiful foundation for a young kid to cut his teeth."
"When school was out, we would hit the road traveling throughout the Midwest, East Coast and Canada. Those were my very early influences. By time I was 15-years-old, I had already started into the R&B field. Then my influences were Stevie Wonder, Donnie Hathaway and Marvin Gaye. But at 16, I started realizing that the thing that made all those guys unique was the fact that they were unique. You knew that it was Stevie or Marvin as soon as you heard them. Right then, I decided I wanted people to know that when you heard Howard Hewett, they knew it was Howard Hewett. That’s when I started to develop my own style and it’s something that carries on into my music even to this day."
For the Average Joe who may not have heard of you and was thinking of buying your new CD, how would you yourself describe your sound? "I would describe my music as ”spiritually romantic.” If you’re looking for something that you can put on for your woman or your man that respects the fact that we are all grown, sexy and mature individuals, and are tired of being inundated with the graphic irresponsible portrayal of relationships that have been forced upon us thru the music of the past 10 or 15 years. If you want to realize and experience the beauty, the in-depth spirituality of love, romance, physically and mentally, then buy my records (smile)."
Your album title 'If Only ...' is an interesting choice, but perhaps it originates from a more personal standpoint for you? Is there a theme to it, perhaps? "Actually, it’s for the same reason that you’re feeling: it’s interesting; it’s mysterious; it asks a question, makes a statement and poses a scenario all at once… ”If Only…”."
And just why has it taken nearly a decade to get this new R&B album out and in the stores? "It hasn’t taken 10 years for me to get this album out and into the stores. I really only started working on “If Only…” about 7 or 8 months ago. Once I decided that I was going to do this project with Mike Reynolds, Mike Naison and Ralph Johnson, who head up The Groove Records, then I started working on the project. Before then, there was really nothing that was very interesting to me as far as the recording industry was concerned."
"Major record companies didn’t and still don’t have a clue as to how to market an artist like myself and the indies hadn’t really figured out their strength and position in the business yet. After the “It’s Time” project (1996), which was an independent project, I decided I wanted to get back in front of my audience with personal appearances. I also wanted to spend more time with my family. I have an 11-year- old daughter who I love spending time with. I love the fact that she actually knows who “Dad” is because I’m home to experience time with her."
"Through the years, I’ve done things on other projects for friends of mine like George Duke, Stanley Clarke, Joe Sample, Brian Culbertson, Paul Jackson Jr., Kenny Loggins, and others. About four years ago, I did an inspirational project called “The Journey.” That’s something I wanted to do for a long time, but I had to wait for the right time to do it. Like everything in life, there’s a “right time.” For instance, I don’t believe three years ago would have been the right time for me to release a project; and definitely not five years ago. For the past 10 or 15 years, we’ve been so overwhelmed with the influence of hip hop and rap. Even my audience was caught up in it."
"But fortunately we always have a tendency to come back to center. I believe now people are looking for something a little more solid, more substantial, something with more of a foundation. Don’t get me wrong…I’m not hating on hip hop or rap. There’s a place for everything and something for everyone. I read an article in Billboard a couple of years ago that said that there’s an audience of 80 million plus out there that is being totally ignored by radio and record companies. I believe that audience is starting to step up now and they want to be acknowledged. Just give me a piece of that and I’m cool."
As there were a lot of noted musicians associated with this new recording in one way or another, was there perhaps one whose contribution was a little more satisfying to you above all others? "Everyone’s contribution and participation in the project was essential and necessary for the result to be what it is. Of course there were special situations…like working with Ralph Johnson. Ralph was actually the first person to take me into a professional studio when I was 19 years-old. We’ve remained friends all these years and now he’s responsible for bringing me to The Groove Records and executive producing this project with me."
"That’s a huge circle that has covered almost thirty years! I love it! There’s George Duke, who has also been a long-time friend and someone I’ve looked up to and learned so much from through the years. Monty Seward and I go back 21 years. The first song we ever wrote together was “Say Amen.” That’s huge! That song has lasted for as long as we’ve known each other and like our friendship, it gets stronger as the years go on. The fact that I have the honor of having the legendary Billy Preston on my rendition of “Imagine” is priceless. So like I said, there are some special situations, but everyone was essential."
How easy (or hard) is it to constantly create a new, vibrant, wanted-by-the-public sound that both builds on and surpasses the musical wonderment's/accomplishments that preceded it within the industry? "I’ve always believed that as an artist, it’s very important to stay true and honest to yourself. You have to be willing to wear your emotions and feelings on you sleeve for everyone to see. And believe me: everyone will have their opinions about what you write or sing about, whether you want them to or not."
"That’s when you have to be a little “thick-skinned.” As far as trying to surpass what you did before, that’s the kiss of death. What’s important is that every time you walk into the studio, you do your best. That’s the only important thing."
Please tell us more (in a quick fashion!) about what was going on in your life when these songs were being written and recorded: 'To Please U,' 'Make Me Say Ooohhh,' and 'I'll Be Right There.' "I didn’t write “To Please U” or “ I’ll Be Right Here,” but I choose them for the project because of what they were saying lyrically and how it was being said. The simplicity of “To Please U” - lyrics like “I’ll love you 25 hours everyday, eight days a week, I’ll find a way” - those kind of lyrics are priceless."
"Monty Seward and I did write “Make Me Say Oooohhhh.” My concept for the song was that I thought about how many times we, meaning guys, miss out on great love and relationships because of our “macho thing.” “Make Me Say Ooohhh” deals with putting that macho thing aside and showing our vulnerable side and not being afraid to do so. Don’t be afraid to let her know you need her."
Back into your Shalamar days and from all the great hit songs that you guys brought to the fore, which today is one you can sit back and listen to at any time - and which one is the one that you simply cannot listen to ... and why? "There’s an old Shalamar song called “Sweeter As The Days Go By” from the “Go For It” album. That album was actually what we called the “commitment project” because it was last album that we owed RCA before we could move onto our new distribution company Elektra. Leon Sylvers came up with this tune called “Sweeter As The Days Go By” and it was tight! The production, the syncopation of the bass, the way the vocals weaved in and out of music…the background vocals took forever to put down, but once they were done…man…it was crazy! I could listen to that track all day long today."
"My least favorite Shalamar tune…hmm…let’s see…I think that would have to be “Amnesia.” Do you remember that one? No? See what I mean (smile)."
Back then just where did the name Shalamar originate ... and what else could the band have so easily been called if not Shalamar? "From what I understand, there’s a beautiful botanical garden in Asia called Shalimar, but they spell it with an “I” and not an “a”. Dick Griffey and Don Cornelius owned Soul Train Records at the time and they, along with this guy named Simone Sousoon, produced the first release on Shalamar, which was called “Uptown Festival".”
"At that time, the group consisted of Jeffery Daniels, Jody Wately and the lead singer was Gary Mumford. Gary quit the group and they picked up Gerald Brown, who sang “Take That To The Bank.” They had some good success with that single and album, but Gerald quit the group when they were in the middle of a promotional tour promoting their single. That’s when they approached me with an offer to join the group. I got the offer on a Friday, did an audition on Saturday for Dick Griffey, who was the sole owner of Solar Records at that time."
"He liked the audition. That night, I was put on a plane flying to New Jersey to hook up with Jeffery and Jody. We had to rehearse the choreography and lip-synch to “Take That To The Bank” all day Sunday because Monday there was a TV show scheduled for us to do. That’s how it all went down. I was actually the third lead singer Shalamar had. That’s a little Shalamar trivia for you."
Indeed, what '80s (and possibly cheesy!) pop/rock song would you love to cover today for a charity record if asked ... and why that one?! "“Ain’t Nothin Gonna Breaka My Stride” [Matthew Wilder] because it’s indicative of my whole career. I just keep on movin’!!"
Lastly, Exclusive Magazine love Penguins ... do you?! "I love penguins. They’re so formal (smile)."
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
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