Perhaps not surprising for a singer who came of age with soul/R&B band L.T.D. in the 1970s, Jeffrey Osborne is unabashedly old-school in his musical tastes.
Back in the day, L.T.D. notched three No. 1 R&B singles: “Love Ballad,” “(Every Time I Turn Around) Back in Love Again” and “Holding On (When Love Is Gone).”
In the ‘80s, Osborne embarked on a solo career that yielded the massive hit “On the Wings of Love.” His new “Worth It All” is his first R&B album in more than a decade.
One of the most fun shows I’ve ever experienced at an Essence Festival super-lounge was you back in 1998.
Osborne: I haven’t been to Essence in a really long time. After doing it for years and years, I asked them why I was never on the main stage. I’d watch the talent on the main stage and try to figure out how come I couldn’t get on the main stage. They always wanted to put me in the lounge.
That’s probably why I haven’t been there in years. But I do enjoy Essence Fest. It’s one of the best festivals in the country.
I assume you still include plenty of L.T.D. songs in your set.
Osborne: I do probably more now than I did then. It seems to be what people want to hear. They love the old ‘70s and ‘80s stuff.
I’ve got a new record out now, so I have to do the new single. But I don’t go deep into the new album. When you throw stuff in there that people aren’t familiar with, it puts a lull in your show. I try to keep the new stuff down to a bare minimum.
Your new “Worth It All” has old-school R&B, but also some rock guitar and club beats.
Osborne: It was really all about what I was feeling as a writer. I signed with Mack Avenue Records; they’re a smooth jazz label. My new album started out as a smooth jazz project. As I started writing, I went back to them and said: “I don’t think this is going to be smooth jazz. It’s kind of like an old-school R&B record.” They were all for it.
I wanted it to be an adult record. I wanted it to be for grown folks. I didn’t want to try to sound like the youth of today.
You didn’t want to make a Kendrick Lamar record.
Osborne: Exactly. That’s not going to work for me.
I used all-natural stuff. It was my guys in my band (playing on “Worth It All”), so I have a natural bass guitar. But when you listen to today’s music, you’re hearing synthesizer bass saturating the bottom of every song.
To fit in today’s music, you almost have to have that sound. Which is kind of sad, that you have to sacrifice musicality for a sound.
Even when they remix something, they take all the beautiful chords out and simplify it to three chords. To me, it’s dumbed up. They don’t stretch out like we did back in the day.
In L.T.D.’s heyday, there were many more self-contained R&B bands.
Osborne: Now it’s a producer’s market. They’ll be one guy in the studio with a synthesizer and drum machine playing everything.
Back in the day with L.T.D., you had all these live musicians playing off of one another, and it was magical. If the bass player would play something, the guitar player would complement him.
You don’t get that now. You get one guy’s thought, as opposed to the universal beauty of people in the studio making that magic happen. There’s not as much character in today’s music.
Are you nostalgic for the early days of L.T.D., when the band drove across the country to relocate from New York to Los Angeles?
Osborne: Looking back at it, it was a great adventure. But living through it, it was tough. We came out here with a U-Haul on the back of a car, pulling all our instruments. In Flagstaff, Arizona, the U-Haul flipped and broke the bumper and went down the side of a mountain. So we’re sitting there, with no money, trying to figure out how we’re going to repair this car and get the U-Haul trailer back up the hill. It was challenging.
We got to L.A. finally, and 10 of us lived in a one-bedroom place. We made the trip in 1970, got our record deal in 1972, but didn’t have a hit record until 1975. It was a sacrifice, a struggle, but it made you strong. It gave you the confidence to go out in front of people and learn how to work an audience.
We grew up playing four shows a night, seven nights a week. You don’t see it that often today. A lot of these kids don’t get that nightclub experience. They go out there in front of people, they don’t know what to do.
When you go see somebody live, it kind of tells it all. I’d say 80 percent of these young artists are not good live.
I’ve had similar conversations with Charlie Wilson about his years with the Gap Band.
Osborne: The Gap Band may have been one of the wildest groups out there. Charlie really came through a lot.
I have so much respect for him, to see him shining like he is now. There’s a lot of guys from that era still doing it, but there’s not a lot of them that still sound good. I pay homage to people like Charlie.
Are you tired of singing “On the Wings of Love” yet?
Osborne: I don’t think I’ll get tired of singing that song. That was a career song for me. I feel blessed that I’ve had two career songs. The first was “Love Ballad” with L.T.D. That broke our career wide open. The second one, as a solo artist, was “On the Wings of Love.”
It’s hard for me to not do those two songs live, although they’re definitely two different types of songs. Sometimes I have to read my audience. If I go into a corporate (show) where it’s 95 percent white, I’m doing “On the Wings of Love.” (laughs)
But if the audience is anywhere near 50-50 (black and white), “Love Ballad” is my all-time favorite song to sing live. It’s one of those great songs that everybody loves.
Who wrote it?
Osborne: That was written by (Baton Rouge-born songwriter) Skip Scarborough. It was originally given to Earth, Wind & Fire – Skip wrote a lot for Earth Wind & Fire. Earth, Wind & Fire passed on it, so he gave it to us.
The whole circumstances around me recording that song was weird. I sang it at like 4:30 or 5 in the morning, upset, didn’t want to sing it, sang it in one take, walked out. That was it – that was the song.
You never know when that magic is going to hit and attach itself to something. That’s the beauty of creating.
Did you sense that “On the Wings of Love” would be a hit?
Osborne: I did. I fought with George Duke (the late keyboardist and producer) over that. Probably my all-time favorite person in life was George Duke. I absolutely loved that guy. He produced most of my solo records. I brought the demo of “On the Wings of Love” to him; it was just a piano player. He’s like, “I don’t know, man. It’s too fast. I don’t know what you’re going to say.”
Then I came in with the lyrics, and we slowed it down, and he was like, “OK, I hear what you’re hearing now.”