YouKnowIGotSoul caught up with producer Edwin “Tony” Nicholas to discuss his work with legends such as Gerald Levert and Joe, how r&b will one day return to prominence, what he hopes to accomplish with his IBryton record label, and making a record “too perfect.”
YouKnowIGotSoul: Let’s start from the beginning. After completing your music degree from Denison University, pretty soon you took a job fixing copiers, but your passion for music was there. What was going through your head at this time, since you had a music degree, but you weren’t’ in music?
Edwin “Tony” Nicholas: Well, after I got the music degree, the job that I took at that time, I never ever considered for a second that I wouldn’t wind up doing music. I mean, I had my own studio that I put together so I had to have a day job to pay the bills. So I was working in the studio at night, and then working the day job during the day, so I never for a second thought that…you know it was strictly just to get money. And so, I actually was writing…my songwriter partner during the time was a guy named Foley, and he wound up leaving to go play with Miles Davis. At the time I took a music director job for a one hit wonder group called “Teen Dream” who was signed with Warner Brothers back then, I was their musical director, and so I kinda still had some things going on musically to where I had enough stuff to do to where I hadn’t really lost hope. But the copier job was strictly just for money, I never thought for a second I wasn’t going to wind up doing music.
YKIGS: You mentioned that you had a job as a musical director for the group “Teen Dream.” What was your job as musical director?
ETN: Mostly it depends a lot on what the group needs, but because they were kids, I had to basically get them up to the point where they had a live show, because they make the records and producers can do whatever they do to make the records in the studio, but then somebody has to get the act to the point where they have a live show, and they can actually go out and perform those records. So as a musical director, I had to hire and train the band, basically vocal coach the girls so they could sing their parts and basically get them up to speed. Now, being a music director for Gerald [Levert], it was a little different because he was a guy that brought a lot more to the table and had his own ideas about what he wanted and you were just kind that guy to make it happen. But with these girls, I had to pretty much do everything; come up with the arrangements, make sure the band was rehearsed, teach them their parts, just everything as it relates to taking an act that has a record and making sure that they can actually perform those songs live. The music degree did come in handy at that point, just being able to do vocal training, and vocal coaching, and being able to write out parts for band members. Because once you get to that level, rehearsals are costly, it’s not like a garage band or a basement band where guys get together for the fun of it. Once you get to that level, you can’t rehearse as long as you want to, so you gotta send out charts, and somebody has got to write those charts out, and you gotta be prepared when you are rehearsing, because you are paying for that rehearsal space and you are paying the sound company, it’s just costly at that point.
YKIGS: Eventually you got to work with Gerald Levert, whose music you grew up admiring. Tell me what it was like when this opportunity came about?
ETN: It was like Christmas everyday in a lot of ways, because that guy he had a very, very strong work ethic. So all the while we were working, you never got a chance to stop and think about it, because he was always trying to do the next thing. I mean that guy was incredible in that way. So a person coming from my background where I worked eight hours a day at a day dig, and then spent most the night at my studio, I was used to putting it in, so I was right in my element when I got with this guy. To some extent, that was part of what became a rut between him and Mark Gordon who was his songwriting partner when I first came along. You know Mark is fairly slow and deliberate and methodical and Gerald was kinda like impatient, like he wanted to move a lot faster to get things done, and I was used to working like that. So that’s kinda what caused us to be able to get along well musically. But it was like because I came from Columbus, I knew some of the guys that were in Rick James’ band, and I met Jonathan Moffett who wound up playing with the Jacksons, he actually was supposed to do Michael Jackson’s last tour as a drummer. So I knew guys like that, It was a guy named Skip Anderson that left to go play with Luther Vandross and was with him for awhile, but for the most part we didn’t really know people like Gerald, there weren’t a lot of people from Columbus at that time. So for me to have access to a guy like that, I couldn’t believe it. It was like what I would have expected if I had moved to L.A. or New York or something. I was pretty happy about it all, I mean it’s still probably the single biggest life changing thing that’s happened thus far.
YKIGS: Since you’ve had a chance to work with Gerald extensively, can you share a memory of time spent with him that stands out to you?
ETN: There’s so many. I’ll tell you one that was really funny because I learned a valuable lesson from that musically. Because me coming from a guy that started out in the 80’s and the music thing, that’s when sequences and drum machines and all that became prevalent and popular and sorta like what auto tune is now. When something is first introduced into music, people take it too far. With that stuff, you have the possibility of making things perfect, because you can sequence it and do it over and over again until you make it right. It wasn’t like the 70’s where you just played the tracks down. You could make it correct, the drum machines, you could make it perfect. So we were working on some songs for like Keith Washington I believe, and put the ideas down, and we got the ideas down, he left for the day, I stayed up all night perfecting those tracks, correcting all of the little mistakes he made, I was happy to play it for him the next day. And he said “Yea that sounds great, put that motherf***er back how it was!” *Laughs* So luckily I had saved the tracks I started with, so I had to put it back, and he said “Yea you made it perfect but you took all of the feeling out of it because you made it perfect.” And so I learned a lesson from that, that sometimes when something feels good, that’s more important than being technically correct. So I started to pay a lot more attention to that in records I made from that point on, because I probably used to go too far in making things perfect, and sometimes you can perfect the feeling out of something. That one thing there probably had a profound effect on the way I approached producing records from that point on.
YKIGS: Can you also share with me the process when you are making a record, producing a record, the thought process and the work you put in from start to finish, basically just an overview of it?
ETN: Well because all records don’t start in the same place, these things don’t start in order. But basically, I’m looking to say something that everybody can identify with, but may not necessarily have been said that way, which is a tricky thing because there is not a whole lot…there are certain things we sing about all the time, there are certain things we say all the time, but we don’t necessarily sing about them. So that when a person hears you sing that thing, it may be something very familiar to them, because it’s something they’ve said all the time, but maybe no one thought to make a song of it. There has to be the balance between something that’s familiar, but with a twist, which is I guess everything in life. Then there’s the thought that musically the song has to be accessible to people, I think that people are willing to take a great song from an ok singer, than they are willing to take an ok song from a great singer. They want the song to be great, they want to be able to sing along, the song has to be accessible to point where they can sing along and get it. I think about those things, and I also think about the artist, what is it that this artist can do to differentiate themselves from all the other people that are out there, so I have to try to give them their own thing. So I think that’s a thing producers sometimes nowadays don’t necessarily think as much about. I think it’s sort of unfortunate because they think about making the record, and if they need to auto tune you or do whatever they gotta to do to you to make your sound like the vision that’s in their head, then so be it, but sometimes I don’t think they necessarily concentrate enough on giving the artist their own thing so that they have no, per say, identifiable sound. So you become an artist that’s…you’re subject to whatever hit you may have at any given point, but nobody can figure out what you stand for, because you are more a reflection of the producer more so than of yourself. I see that happening in a lot of music nowadays and I don’t think people are doing it maliciously or selfishly, I just don’t think they are thinking about it that way. I’m here to advance the career of this artist, this musician, I need to make sure first and foremost the record I’m making is giving the artist some voice. From that point, everything else after that is up for grabs in terms of how it’s approached, but those are the things that matter the most to me when making a record.
YKIGS: When you think of the music scene, you don’t immediately think of Cleveland. Can you tell me what it was like coming out of Cleveland and if you’ve run into a lot of talent around you along the way?
ETN: Well, it might not be fair for me to totally answer that because I didn’t grow up in Cleveland, I moved to Cleveland to work with Gerald, I was actually living in Columbus. When I got to Cleveland, there was a whole bunch of music happening in Cleveland, and there was a lot of people from Cleveland, they just didn’t stay because felt they couldn’t make their careers happen in Cleveland. But there was a lot of folks from there, I was surrounded by…at that time The Rude Boys were just getting started, Men At Large were just getting started, I worked on their albums initially, Levert was around, the O’Jays were around, The Dazz Band was still doing their thing, not too long after that Avant got going, Howard Hewitt was a song writer up the street. There were folks around, and when I was down Columbus, I used to run down to Dayton all the time, and Roger Troutman and those guys were down there. There was a lady from my church choir believe it or not who started singing with Roger and those guys named Shirley Murdock. There were folks around, so it was always a desire on my part to make the music scene on the professional side step up because the talent was here, but people didn’t stay because they felt they couldn’t make the career happen from where they were. But there were people around, there still is a crazy amount of talent in this town, it’s just the great ones just don’t stay.
YKIGS: I read in your bio that you produced six songs on one of Joe’s albums, as well as “I Wanna Know” later on. He’s a personal favorite artist of mine, what was it like working with him?
ETN: Well that’s funny, it was actually his sophomore album called “All That I Am.” Working with Joe was really, really cool because the kid is crazy talented, but the funny part is, I actually started working with him as a favor to a girl I was dating at the time. She was managing Joe, and I guess Joe had got an advance from Jive and hadn’t turned in any music. So she asked me to help him finish one song, just because she was going to these creative meetings, and they kept asking “Where is Joe, do you have anything, do you have anything?” And she never had anything to turn in, no updates or whatever, so just to kinda keep him from looking bad, she just asked me to help him get one song done, and it actually ended up being the title song “All That I Am.” The president of Jive at the time Clive Calder heard the song and asked me to help Joe finish the album, and that’s how I wound up finishing the record and out of the six songs, one of them is actually one I did with Gerald called “How Soon.” Joe was a talented guy, but what’s funny is “I Wanna Know” was actually supposed to be on that album. I was asked to play live bass on that record, but I think Joe resented the fact that [others] were involved on the music side of things and he felt that it should be his call, and they couldn’t agree, so he took the song off the album. It wound up being used four years later when he needed a song for a soundtrack and didn’t have anything to send and that was lying around and he sent it, and it did well. But at that time, working with Joe, I was actually working with Gerald during the day maybe from 11 o’clock in the morning until seven at night, I would rush to the air port, catch the 8:40 flight to New York, I would work with Joe from about 10 o’clock at night until 5 o’clock in the morning, and catch the 6:30 flight back to Cleveland, get about an hour or hour and a half of sleep, and be back at the studio to work with Gerald at 11. And I was doing that a couple of days a week until we got that record done, because Gerald was the kind of person who said I’m never going to stop you from doing other things with other people, but when I want you to be here, you better to be here. So that was the only way I could get the time to do the record with Joe, which was crazy because I was worn out, but I felt like just as much as I enjoyed working with Gerald, I felt like it was important to me to have a few things in my discography that maybe reflected some other styles musically. Because what I did with Gerald was a very specific kind of thing, it was a reflection of what he wanted to do musically, but it wasn’t necessarily a reflection totally of everything I was capable of. So it was kind of important to me from a career standpoint. And I liked working with Gerald, he’s a talented kid.
YKIGS: Tell me a little about your company iBryton and how you started it and what plans you have for it in the future?
ETN: IBryton is a company that was started two years ago, and it’s basically something that I planned to have as a vehicle to concentrate on artists like Vesta, artists like Eddie Levert who I plan to be making a record on, various friends of mine who are in situations where maybe a major [label] looks at them and says well maybe your sales wouldn’t be enough for me to be interested me in you. First of all, it’s enough to interest me simply because I like the music that they make, I personally believe that there is still market out there for good grown up r&b music, I just believe that there is. I think that majors have to concentrate on their bottom line, and if they have to spend $500,000 to make a record on person A who is 18, and maybe is not a seasoned artists but they could sell more records, versus person B who may sell less records but it may be a better record, they have to do option A because their mandate is to make money, that’s what they are there to do. So I’m at a place career wise where I feel like I could take those projects simply because of the love of the music and because I feel there is a demand out there for it. So, this company is going to concentrate solely on stuff like that, and just people I’ve always wanted to record…like Vesta is just a person I’ve always wanted to make a record on. Actually, I was supposed to make a record on her in the ‘90s, Andre Fisher had hired me, but he had got fired before we got a chance to make the record…that was in ’95 I want to say. She and I have talked about it for years, she’s the first artist I’m going to put out. When I first came to Cleveland, I initially first started writing with Eddie, and he was the one that suggested to Gerald that Gerald give me a shot to write with him. These are the folks, the music I’ve grown up on, I’ve always wanted to do records with them, and I’m just having a ball. To work with someone you’ve idolized when you were a kid, there is no better feeling than that. And I just believe there is a market for the music. It might not necessarily be the same market that Lil’ Wayne may enjoy or Lady Gaga, but that’s ok. There are people that do that, and I want to do this.
YKIGS: And that’s something I read in your bio, that you feel labels are focusing more on younger artists and pre-fabricated pop stars, and I fully agree. Do you think real r&b music will ever have its place prominently again in the mainstream?
ETN: Absolutely. Everything that is new becomes old, and everything that is old becomes new again. There is going to come a point when…because here’s the thing. Whenever a trend starts in music, everybody jumps on the bandwagon until they run it into the ground and then they look for something new. So what’s going on in music now, people are going to inevitably get tired of it. I hear young cats saying to me now that they want to get a band together and go into the studio and just cut their tracks live and all of that stuff and they think it’s a phenomenal new thing, and I’m like “Dude, that’s the way it used to be!” It’s inevitable that it comes back, because the other thing can only go so far before it ceases to be interesting. Live music, stuff that’s played live…it’s definitely…the churches are producing all of these musicians. Because for awhile, that was the only place you could play, there were no club gigs, if you were black there were on club gigs per say. The pro gigs, there are not that many of them, and plus the music in the church is so unrestricted, I’ll use that word, that the church is producing a lot of young musicians who want outlets to do what they do, and they don’t want to play that stuff you hear on the radio, with just a clap going and some auto tune vocals, that’s not interesting to them. So they are going to look for outlets to do their thing, and they are the ones that’s going to bring the new music, what the old music was, but it’s going to be a younger voice singing it, so it will suddenly be new. We will know it’s not new, but we will keep our mouths shut and let them think that they’ve done something. *Laughs* That’s what’s going to happen, it’s inevitable.
YKIGS: Hypothetically speaking, and this may be a bit tough to answer, if you could add any five artists to your iBryton roster, who would they be?
ETN: Oh that is tough because there are people that are already signed, but I will tell you there people who I’ve always wanted to work with. I’ve always wanted to work with Aretha Franklin, believe it or not. I like Glenn Jones’ voice, I love Chaka Khan. There are some younger folks that I really like, like Dave Hollister, I love his voice. Stokley from Mint Condition who is actually a very good friend of mine, I love his voice. And these are not necessarily older people, but I like what they do, and I think given the right opportunity to make something happen, I would love to do records for them. Whether that will or will not happen, that remains to be seen. There’s probably so many, and I will hear somebody on the radio, and I will say “You know what, you are on the radio, but I would love to make better record for you than the one I hear, because you are better than that.” I think Peabo Bryson is somebody that would be great for him to have a great record right now. Will Downing, I mean Will probably has a thing going on right now. I mean Eddie…I’m itching to make this Eddie Levert record right now because I feel like I know what kind of record he needs to make. It’s just so many out there it aint even funny. Hopefully, that’s a few.
YKIGS: Do you have a favorite song that you’ve produced or worked on?
ETN: That one I probably feel like I haven’t made it yet. I feel like the things that I’ve done thus far, most of them to me were almost like works for hire, in the sense that the particular artist was looking for a specific thing, and I tried my best to provide that they were wanting. But I feel like the best work that’s in me hasn’t been released yet. But that’s hard to say, a lot of what I’ve done with Gerald I’m very proud of, but I feel like I haven’t done my best work yet. So it’s to be announced!
YKIGS: As a songwriter and a producer who does most of their work behind the scenes, when you make a song for an artist, do you ever wish you got more credit for the work you’ve done when you help create a hit record for an artist and they turn that song into a hit record?
ETN: No because that’s the whole point. I mean I never really actually…see, when I originally decided I wanted to be a producer, I didn’t know that producers could be famous anyway. It was only in the era when Teddy Riley came along and I guess Prince to some extent right before that, and then Teddy Riley came along, he ushered in the era of the producer. But before that when I was making the decision to be a producer, I wasn’t ever aware that those folks ever really got any notoriety anyway. So the music was all that ever mattered to me, that’s the reason why my relationship with Gerald worked so well. I had no interest in the limelight, I just wanted to make music, I was never interested in being famous. To some extent that was to my detriment because a lot of people didn’t know who I was even though I did records they knew, but I never made any effort to bring attention to myself. I love music, I don’t necessarily love the assumed stereotypical lifestyle that would come along with what people think of when they think of a record producer, I never even think about that, I just love making the music. If you are able to take that and move on and make something with it, that was the whole point. I never aspired to be an artist, so I never cared.
YKIGS: Yea, because from my point of view, I’m the type of person to buy an album and immediately open up the liner notes and read who wrote each song, who produced each song, because to me that is talent that deserves to be recognized as well.
ETN: To me, I would say that getting the nod from my peers means a lot to me, but if I can produce a song that takes the artist to the next level, then to me that’s like mission accomplished, I did what I was supposed to do. I think in the same way, many of the times engineers don’t get the notoriety that perhaps they deserve, because they take something that doesn’t sound stellar when they get it and turn it into something that sounds great. But I’m ok with that, I’ve actually thought about doing a producer series of records, where I take producer friends of mine, like the Chucky Bookers of the world and friends that I know would make great records, but just haven’t been doing it, and I would do something on them and they would make records that are theirs. Sort of like the Norman Connors used to do in the 70’s where it was his record but he would have people sing the songs and all of that kind of stuff. I just never came into the game for that reason.
YKIGS: That’s all I had, is there anything you’d like to add?
ETN: Thanks for caring, thanks for giving me a chance to say what’s on my mind because stuff like this makes all the difference in the world that somebody out there even cares, it’s cool, it’s a great thing, and I’m having a ball man, that’s the best way I can put it.