By Mark Ruffin
If I was a stockbroker who looked for trends in the music business, I’d advised all my clients to take a hard long look at Shanachie Entertainment. Why? Because they’ve just released Endless Is Love, the latest album from vocalist Jon Lucien.
While the 55 year old singer from the Virgin Islands isn’t exactly a household name, for the last 25 years he has had the uncanny ability to hook up with record labels and production people who are just on the cusp of or already are immensely popular. His role as the initial artist for Dave Grusin/Larry Rosen and GRP is frequently overlooked. He gave RCA one of their few modern jazz hits with his definitive version of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Dindi. And when Polygram decided to re-focus on their Mercury label in the early 90’s, they pinned their hopes on Lucien before they scored with Vanessa Williams and Herbie Hancock. Buy Shanachie’s stock now, for the time may be right for Lucien to increase his market share.
Lucien’s songs has always been about love and an appreciation of the music that comes from the Caribbean that he loves so much. His deep, rich, instantly recognizable baritone has never betrayed all the personal tragedies the man has endured in all of his years in the music business. There’s an old adage that a writer can never be great until he’s suffered pain. If that’s the case Lucien could write an epic that would make War and Peace read like a Grimm fairy tale.
Ironically, it’s the last tragedy in his life, the death of his daughter, Dalila, on the famed TWA Flight 800 explosion on July 17th of last year, that may have pushed him onward to success. Endless Is Love is a product of a lot of emotional wood-shedding. A Hollywood screenplay can’t be far behind.
Astute jazz fans know all about Rashida, Lucien’s 1973 debut album that crossed over to pop with hits like the title track and Dindi and started a corporate empire. To this day there are those less astute who’d never associate the song with Jobim and would swear Lucien wrote it. He’s not collecting a dime from those hundreds of versions of the tune being recorded and played every week. Nor did he get a piece of the 40 million dollars that Grusin and Rosen, the producers, made from selling GRP Records a few years ago. It’s a record company that arguably wouldn’t have existed without Lucien’s album Rashida.
Lucien met Rosen after he had been in New York City for awhile. As a teen-ager, he was skilled enough as a musician to leave the British Virgin Islands and get a summer gig in the Catskills Mountain resort area with society and wedding bands. He soon became a regular jobbing musician who sang and played bass, guitar and piano.
“I sounded very American when I first started singing,” Lucien says during a promotional stop in New York. “You should’ve heard me. When I started to sing, I said, hey if I’m going to be a singer, I’m gonna sing like Nat King Cole.
“My influences began with Latin and calypso singers and a lot of guys out of Cuba like Cesar Cruz, because that was my environment. My father, being a man who grew up in the Dominican Republic and Cuba brought these influences into the house. He was a bass player who led his own band. We were constantly hearing music on short wave radio coming right out of Cuba. Then later on we began to hear music coming out of Chicago on the short wave. That’s when I began to hear the singers like Roy Hamilton, Jerry Butler, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis and those kinds of singers. But what really turned me around was when I got my first record by Miles Davis. I began to hear another kind of thing going on. Then one day I said to myself ‘why don’t you sing like you talk? Why don’t you just be you, who you are,” he says emphasizing his island tongue.
That was the approach Lucien took in the late 60’s when he first began to compose seriously. He supplemented his income playing party music at bar mitzvahs, weddings and social gatherings. It was in one of these bands where he hit it off with drummer Larry Rosen. At night they played Proud Mary together, during the day they locked themselves in separate studios. Rosen was doing commercials, and Lucien was documenting his music. Today Rosen lives on a yacht and is in business with Bill Gates, while Lucien is quite content signing with the smallest record company he’s ever been with.
Back then though, it was Lucien who struck first. At a society party, he met former CBS and Tony Bennett producer Ernie Altschulster. He was then at RCA and loved Lucien’s new direction. They made a forgotten album of standards called I Am Now. Among the songs were Cole Porter’s Love For Sale, Stevie Wonder’s My Cheri Amour and Jobim’s Dindi. As is so often the case, the first time artist soon developed a bad taste and an immediate and lingering distrust of the record business.
“I never saw any advertising for it in any trade magazine. I never knew it was out in the street. I never saw it in the stores. But I decided to pound it and pound it. I got it up to that station. I took it to Ed Williams, then RCA came looking for me.”
That station was WBLS, where d.j’s Ed Williams and Frankie Crocker ruled the New York airwaves. Williams had the record, but did nothing with it until fate stepped in. RCA had dropped Lucien by the time he heard Crocker play a version of Dindi by the husband of his wife’s sister, saxophonist Wayne Shorter. He called and told the record spinner that he too had a version. Then it was Crocker who pounded it and pounded it. RCA was embarrassed with I Am Now out of print and was forced to re-record Dindi which meant re-signing Lucien, who by this time was helping his buddy Rosen record commercials.
In the liner notes of the 1992 GRP 10th Anniversary album written by Billboard’s Geoff Mayfield, Rosen is quoted as saying “Jon said, ‘you know, I write my own tunes and I’d love to play them for you.’ He took out his guitar and started playing. I said ‘Jon, this stuff is great. We should be making records with this music.’ We did all the basic tracks in my studio and got a deal with RCA to produce the record.”
“In my opinion, Rashida wasn’t produced by those guys,” Lucien counters on his take of making that 1972 classic album. “The fact is that all that music was done by my brother and me. We added a conga player, then Dave came in and I sang a whole bunch of parts in harmony with myself and Dave took it back to L.A., and came back with the orchestration. We were supposed to be doing it together, but my name didn’t show up as producer.”
Lucien refused to elaborate any further, and to his credit, Rosen is further quoted in those liner notes as saying “the line between who’s the producer and who’s the writer became fuzzy.” Lucien also emphatically declined to comment on why he was never signed to GRP. But the friendship between the two must cut deep because Rashida is the first song on that three cd set. And Lucien just recorded a song for the Rosen/Gates label N2K that will be part of an upcoming Christmas compilation that will also include Patti Austin, Deniece Williams and Carl Anderson.
On the latest album, Endless Is Love, Lucien uses a quote from Herbie Hancock describing the singer as “the man with the golden throat.” Their paths first crossed on record on Lucien’s 1975 Song For My Lady album on Columbia. Ironically, Hancock doesn’t play on his famous song Maiden Voyage.
“We were together one night and I told Herbie that I really loved Maiden Voyage and that I would like to sing it, are there any lyrics? And Jean (Hancock, the pianist younger sister) who was there also, said ‘oh yeah Jon, I have a lyric. I said great. I got the lyrics supplied, I went home and played my bass and worked out the chord changes like I wanted them at the beginning of the song. We did that right here in New York.”
There’s more irony in that fact that Jean Hancock also died on a famous airplane crash. She was on the so called Watergate crash in the mid 70’s that killed two Republicans under investigation and CBS’ first African-American meteorologist, Janet Langheart.
By the time Lucien released his next album Premonition in 1977, he was surrounded by personal tragedies and professional politics. He lost his sight in his right eye. His two year-old daughter drowned in a swimming pool accident. That led to an ugly divorce and a substance abuse problem that became well known and out of hand. Some of that Lucien attributes to the stereotypical fast lane lifestyle of living in Southern California and some of it to the corporate pressure at the then jammed roster at CBS Jazz. Lucien, packed up and first went home to the Virgin Islands before eventually settling in Puerto Rico to play jazz and Brazilian music with a guitarist and his brother on drums.
“I was doing gigs just playing bass. Every time somebody asked me to sing, I said no because I wasn’t getting paid to sing, I was getting paid to play bass,” Lucien said of that period. “I could sing at home and keep my chops together.
“I was tired of this business and all the negative things that happened to artists,” he continues. “They get thrown in the middle of political situations within the record company with different employees and who’s in charge of what and all that kind of off the wall stuff that has nothing to do with the artist. Especially since I was different from (U.S. based artists), it was easy for me to get overlooked.”
For over a decade, Lucien enjoyed his clean island life with good health and a loving family when the ambitions of yet another music conglomerate intersected with his talent. This time it was the Dutch owned Polygram group whose Verve jazz label was bursting at the seam with success in the growing jazz-lite genre, and especially the new-bop scene fueled be a endless stream of young lions. Verve rejuvenated it’s sister label Mercury in the early 90’s and began looking for jazz artists with a pop bent. A friend of Lucien’s from the Virgin Island who lived in New York had a friend who was a direct beneficiary of Polygram’s corporate expansion.
“His name was Greg Peck, and he was in A&R,” Lucien says picking up the story. “He came down to see me in Puerto Rico. We talked and he said I should be back out there. I came to New York, we made a deal to make Listen Love..
“I remember when we were talking about who was going to produce it,” continues the vocalist, ” I said, I would like to do a production with George Duke, but when I heard the music, I said, man, this shit sounds great like it is. Why mess with it? I said who did that music, and the guy said Jeff Lorber. I said well let Jeff Lorber produce the shit.”
Lucien had every right to expect a full comeback well past the impact of Rashida. And while only time may decide if Listen Love did accomplish that, there is no doubt, he was back with a powerful record company solidly in his corner. He was healthier, and was at peace with himself and his family. There is also no doubt that all parties concerned; the record company employees, the artist, the producer, the corporation, and most importantly, the consumer were all quite pleased with Listen Love..
Of working with the man responsible for introducing to the world the delightful Karyn White and the obnoxious and ubiquitous Kenny G, Lucien says Lorber was a pleasure to work with. He praised his talent, his ablility and Lorber’s well- documented intellect. Reminded that at the time, Lorber was one of the busiest producers in L.A., Lucien abridged the totally happy picture painted by the success of their collaboration.
“I guess (Lorber) had a style of having who ever he produces, making them sing the song a whole bunch of times and then pull out the best part. I said ‘look, that makes me tired. I don’t function like that. You roll the tape, we’re going to do a take. I’m a take person. I don’t stop and chop and stop and chop. So let’s do a few takes and if there’s a word that I missed, and we need to correct it, I already know that anyway. I go for the performance, I don’t go for mechanical results.’ When he saw that I went down from top to bottom almost perfect, we didn’t go through that emotion again. He was a joy and expensive too.”
Lucien quickly followed Listen Love with 1993’s Mother Nature’s Son when a recognize-able pattern emerged. First he got sick during a London tour and was hospitalized for four weeks culminating in a operation in New York to remove several stones. “I don’t know how the hell they got there, but they were there,” muses Lucien.
Almost as bad was the record company getting flaky.
“(Mercury) really worked on Listen Love, but then that whole crew that worked it got fired,” says Lucien, now laughing at the memory. ” It was almost comical what was going on there. When Mother Nature’s Son was out, they were all a bunch of strangers, but the same company. When I got my statement, it said they spent $2,720 to promote. Well if you spent $2,720 to promote it, it’s not going anywhere. People didn’t even know it existed.”
Typically, Lucien was recently in a Tower Record store in London where he saw a copy of Mother Nature’s Son. He turned it over and it was actually a compilation of both of the Mercury albums, and it was on the mothership jazz label, Verve. That’s when Lucien figured out that the European release that he prepared for Listen Love never happened. All of his friends had there pink slips before European version made it to the market.
Lucien retreated once more from the scene, probably for good, until that fateful day in July of last year when Dalilia Lucien boarded New York based TWA Flight 800 to Paris with her aunt and Wayne Shorter’s wife Anna Maria Shorter.
“It’s been hard. For years, after the death of my first daughter, it felt like I had a great big hole in my chest. When this one happened, it was like, well now, what’s next. You know you’re not used to having your children die before you. But I knew more now than I did the first time.
“This time I knew that I had to deal with it and help her to pass through whatever that journey is when you pass away. I knew now that I had to put her picture up and create a special shrine for her and fill it with flowers, perfumes and candles to light her way, which brings her closer to me. I can feel her presence many times. I was very depressed and I talked to the picture and got answers. Between my wife and the presence of her spirit telling me I can’t be sad, that I had to smile and make happy music.
That kind of put it together.
Plus I read the book called The Secret Power Of Music. And I knew that music could heal and make people mad and make people happy. I knew that when Hitler when to talk to the people, he played a certain kind of music on the radio, so when he got up to talk, he had everybody under control. I had totally forgot about that book, because I was drowning in my own self pity.
Then this vibe started to hit me and I realized it. And I related to this new music where people jump from the stage into the crowd, throwing their fist and kicking. Ever since that music came around, there’s a lot more danger. There’s a lot more strange negative things going on because they keep pumping that stuff on the radio. The same with Gangsta rap. And I realized that yeah, there’s a certain effect that’s coming out of this music that people don’t realize. The music has a lot to do with the behavior of these kids these days. I don’t think they’re aware of the power of music.”
The death of his second daughter did indeed make Lucien stronger. He began recording again. This time he had no interest in a big record company, or any company at all. Lucien was targeting the internet for his product..
“I didn’t want to be involved with another large company again. All my experiences with them were almost all exactly the same. ” To para-phase Sun Ra, Lucien was sure cyber-space would be the place until yet again another friend of a friend called.
“He says, there’s a record company, that will remain nameless right now, that is looking for you, and I would like to hook it up with you and do a managerial thing at the same time. I told him that I didn’t want any more wild stuff because I had my life to think about.”
But the guy was right, Shanachie was looking for him. The scenario looked suspiciously the same to Lucien at first, until he peered under the shell. This was a company that was changing it focus to enter the ever expanding contemporary jazz market. They had even signed other ex-Polygram artists such as Tom Grant and Walter Beasley. But, the major difference was this wasn’t a multi-national corporation.
Lucien also seems like a natural fit. Here is a company that built it’s business on the strength of Caribbean music, and now that they’re entering jazz, here is one of the very few island artists who is accepted by the American jazz community.
“So far, so good,” Lucien says of his new business partners. “Everybody’s very respectful and everybody’s going out of their way to make this record happen. When I walk into that office, I see everybody. I know who everyone is and what they do, and there’s no corridor where one side is black and the other side is white.
|I Am Now||RCA Victor|
|Song For My Lady||Columbia|
|Mother Nature’s Son||Mercury/Verve|
|Endless Is Love||Shabachie|