Leroy Burgess the Humanist

Leroy Burgess’ career has a chameleonlike habit of undergoing revisions and reinventions. Because of this, his consistencies often go overlooked. Strange Sounds From Beyond takes a long-read look at one of these: his unfailing humanism.

It seems almost counterintuitive, but Leroy Burgess has many consistencies. Raised in Harlem, his mother was originally against the idea of him becoming a musician – even with legendary Philly soul producer Thom Bell for an uncle – but he persisted. In childhood he sung in church choirs, and when flexing his elasticated vocal range years later never strayed far from those early gospel techniques. Common threads run through his productions too, stitching together a patchwork of genres: A Burgess production usually sports a beefed-up groove, but never at the expense of harmonic complexity; and always contain an aura of sparkling cheer – an open invitation to celebrate life, bittersweet though it might be.

Above all though, Leroy Burgess is a humanist. His back catalog is a phone-book-sized archive of musical coalitions, favoring the kinship and redoubled creativity that collaboration brings rather than relentlessly pushing a solo career. It’s a little-worn career path in the music industry, but one fitting for his character: Burgess is a warm and gregarious soul, with a rare and unfailing ability to see the best in humankind. And besides, it works for him. Burgess seems most at ease and artistically expressive when surrounded by other people, like the chef who can cook only under furious levels of pressure.

But it wasn’t through pestering uncle Thommy that a 14-year-old Leroy got his first break. In mid-1968, Burgess was working as a youth counselor in Harlem. Playing basketball with his colleague Larry Newkirk, they cranked the radio on court and sung along. Larry was impressed with Leroy’s warm baritone and invited him to audition for his vocal group, then called the Mellow Souls. Burgess got the spot, and the group was soon discovered by a young and inexperienced manager with just a single production credit to his name. His name was Patrick Adams.

Adams took the lumpy Mellow Souls and kneaded them into the smooth dough of Black Ivory: an extant, six-LP sweet soul group sampled by Nas, Madlib and Ghostface Killah. For most of the 70s Burgess acted as lead vocalist, learning songwriting and arrangement from Adams. The outcome was the Burgess-written, Black Ivory signature hit Mainline – a decadent soul-disco hybrid with Black Ivory’s trademark choral vocals and a watertight rhythm section symptomatic of future Burgess records. As for Patrick Adams? He currently has over 1000 writing and production credits, including records for Sister Sledge, Herbie Mann and Fonda Rae.

Burgess continued absorbing Adams’ flair for songwriting and arrangement, meeting Stevie Wonder around 1973 while performing with Black Ivory. They formed an instant connection and Wonder began mentoring Burgess on piano. It was one of the most important musical connections he would make: Decades later —with credits stamped onto hundreds of records and a name inextricably attached to black dance music — Burgess is still humbled discussing the Motown artist’s impact on him: In an interview for 2ser Radio he described Wonder as a “beautiful soul”, to whose guidance he attributes “at least 45% of my power”.

Burgess stayed with Black Ivory for a decade, absorbing Adams’ shrewd production/arrangement wisdom and Wonder’s harmonic and composition knowledge. Over the decade, Burgess would increasingly channel these lessons into the group’s syrupy, Chicago-leaning soul. And the 70s were out this would spill over into blockbuster side projects, like the co-arrangement/production for Personal Touch’s It Ain’t No Big Thing – a classy and supple disco burner fetching princely sums on the second-hand market. But as the decade drew to a close, tastes were changing in the US.

Burgess amicably left Black Ivory in 1978. Typecast by fans as a crooning, slow-jam group left little room for creative experimentation – and this was an exciting period. Leroy, always listening and always socially intuitive, wanted in. Speaking to Red Bull Music Academy he said:

“Once you lock into a particular genre and you become well-known for it, if your musical creativity takes you somewhere else, often you’ll find your fans resistant to it. They’ll be like, “No, no, no, you don’t need to do nothing, dude. Just do another one of those slow jams…” Musically, all musicians, all artists, they have to expand. They have to grow.”

And so began one of the great careers of dance music. Burgess retained a close association with Patrick Adams and joined his new project, Phreek, as fellow writer and producer. Phreek was a studio group – a pseudogroup, called together by a producer in a studio context – and the first of many Burgess would be associated with. A preference for working in this format is one of the main reasons Leroy’s name is not better known today. Coming with Burgess from Black Ivory was James Calloway – an artist and friend with a hand, implicitly or explicitly, in many of Burgess’ future hits. To this day he remains one of his principal composition partners.

For Phreek though, it was Adams and not Calloway who shared the writing credits with Burgess on the group’s biggest hit. 1978’s “Weekend” was a sensation. Marrying a propulsive bassline with lush (but deceptively sparse) arrangements and the early incorporation of synthesizers, it won the patronage of Larry Levan and became a fixture at the Garage. Crucially, the track seemed to have a different texture to it: One year before Disco Demolition Night Burgess had begun a process of stripping back disco’s excessive glitz to focus on the groove and melody. It would come to be called post-disco or boogie. Burgess explained this period to Exclaim magazine:

“With James on bass, Sonny on drums and myself on Fender Rhodes, we developed and created our own sound and style using our jazz and gospel training, combined with a generally slower than disco rhythm. It was the beginning of what would eventually become a genre known as boogie. It’s from that vibe we continued to compose most of our further work.”

A prolific period followed. Although racking up label credits as a sole trader (notably the arrangement of The Aleems’ buttery disco hit “Hooked On Your Love”) Burgess found great satisfaction working in this triumvirate with James Calloway and his cousin Sonny Davenport. An early fruit of this format was Convertion – a group whose crux was this trio but featured a host of other musicians. It was the first group to exhibit symptoms of his chronic habit of making projects family affairs: Convertion featured adopted and extended family members on vocals, bass and percussion.

This was a time when he had begun to nail down his style, and Convertion features traits which would come to define the Burgess sound. His love of decelerated rhythms and affecting melodies are in full view on “Let’s Do It”, and his frictionless voice and tense jazz chord vamps puncture the project throughout. This tendency to weave together the familial and musical reached an apogee on his next major project – considered by many his magnum opus.

1981’s Logg was the outcome of another studio project by Calloway, Davenport and Burgess. Their concept LP is regarded as a masterpiece of the post-disco era, and three songs from it – “Dancing Into the Stars”, “Sweet to Me” and “Something Else” – became instant classics, incinerating dancefloors with inventive melodics and the trio’s deft command of the rhythm section. Similar themes played out; Burgess roped in sisters for vocals and cousins for percussion duties,- but now his creative net was cast even further: With assistance, Burgess wrote, produced, arranged, conducted and performed on the Logg album.

By now recounting Burgess’ abilities felt like a rundown of the entire recording process in paint-by-numbers style. He became one of the most in-demand studio musicians of the 80s, often outstripping the groups he was called in to work with by dint of sheer work ethic and musical multilingualism. A joke used to fly around record labels in the 80s about a miserly record exec who wanted to produce a 12″ on the cheap – he would call Burgess. He could do practically everything short of the mixdown, master and delivery to stores.

Armed with this versatility and a love of collaboration, Burgess spent most of the 80s penning countless hits for other artists. From Blue Note flautist Bobbi Humphrey’s No Way to the Universal Robot Band’s “Barely Breaking Even” (which London mega-label BBE named itself after), Burgess helped shape the direction of dance music at a critical juncture and inadvertently laid some tarmac on the road towards proto-house. “100%” by Caprice was a clear example: Gone are the snake-hipped rhythms of Davenport’s drum kit, replaced by clap-heavy drum sequencing and the propulsive synth work Burgess had begun to incorporate into an overflowing repertoire. Even with such changes though, a Burgess production is almost instantly recognizable.

Rarely is music written with such strong conceptions of the listener in mind. This is no savvy business decision either: Throughout the production process Burgess is constantly envisaging how the end user would emotionally respond to certain chord arrangements, or tinkering with a groove for affective impact. A Burgess track is always empathetic, and always ready to temper misanthropy with an irrepressible glee. It’s most obvious in his lyricism. Tracks like “Barely Breaking Even” and “Get Down Friday Night” by Aleem were wrote by Burgess for the everyman – upbeat, relatable jams for the folks who just need a little lift.

But while at the height of his influence, another musical revolution was burbling under the surface which would rattle and ultimately depose the King of Boogie. In 1982 Afrika Bambaataa released the groundbreaking Planet Rock, helping to define a new generation’s identity. It would be some time before hip hop became the dominant subcultural vehicle for young black Americans, but the seeds were sown and disco and boogie were on their way out. When the 90s rolled around, hip hop had coalesced into a cultural lodestar and gangster rap was in ascendancy. Abandoning the inclusivity of disco and the groove of boogie for the abrasive individualism of N.W.A perplexed Burgess. He wrote on his blog:

 “I thought I’d explain where I been for the last 8 years. To put it simply… I’ve been studying. Figuring out the changes and evolution in today’s music. The addition of Rap/Hip Hop to the typical African American music equation… was something I needed to understand, and, if possible, assimilate into my own music. Although all the forms are essentially Black music, it took me a minute to get all the formulas to work together in a way that they could compliment each other without one form overwhelming the other. I arrived at a successful mixture sometime in 1996.”

After the self-imposed hiatus, Burgess got back to what he does best: collaborating. In 2002 Burgess lent his creamy vocals to French house duo Cassius, and four years later came a deep house record with Chicago’s Glenn Underground. More recently Burgess has been associated with Prescription Records legends Ron Trent and Chez Damier – their balmy, aquatic and sometimes raw ecosystem of house an ideal destination for Burgess’ soul- and gospel-trained vocal cords. Speaking to SSFB, Burgess said of his collaborative efforts: “Throughout my artistic history I have relied on the skills, input, talent and integrity of my many partners … my musical work (and successes thereof) benefits largely from their friendships and contributions.”

Through these changes, it has always been Burgess’ love of people that takes center stage in his music – in the production process, the final output, and the career decisions. Ask him about the missed opportunity to become a household name up there with the Diana Ross’ or Earth Wind & Fires, and for less than a minute he laments bad business decisions or a disinterest in pushing publicity. Burgess says that if people are listening to the music, if its affecting them, and if he has the opportunity to keep sharing it with people, that’s the most important thing.

Now though, Burgess’ career has almost come full circle: denied the acclaim he earned in the 80s, because of his style of format of working, by his own admission he’s gigging more than ever these days as the public plays catch-up to his talents and maze-like back catalogue. When asked by SSFB why Burgess chose such a career path, he said: “the use of a group name (above my own personal name) … puts the shine upon the team effort as opposed to my own. That’s the honest answer. Peace and blessings. Leroy Jackson Burgess.”