May 19, 2024

Charles Earland
Hitting a new peak
By Sidney Bechet-Mandela

Organist Charles Earland recently played a lively set with his band at a high school. Afterwards there was a question and answer period and a student, who Earland had noticed showed a lot of enthusiasm during the set, praised the music, but then asked, “when are you going to play some jazz?”

“I don’t like to call names, but it’s what they hear on those stations that they call jazz,” Earland said in a JazzUSA ‘Zine exclusive interview and preview of his new projects. “They’re not really getting jazz. They’re getting r&b with improvisation. These kids, that’s all they’re being fed, so that’s all they know.

“But there’s some new blood interjected into organ music, and kids are calling it a brand new instrument because it’s something they’ve never heard before.”

The Hammond B-3 organ sound is rapidly on the rise again, and no one seems more poised to take advantage of it than Earland. He has a new album out on Hightone titled “Blowing The Blues Away,’ He has another album coming out next month tentatively titled “The DuSable Museum Organ Summit” featuring Earland, Jimmy McGriff, Dr. Lonnie Smith, and in his last public performance before his death, Johnny “Hammond” Smith. If that was not enough, Earland just signed a contract with Cannonball Records, an aggressive new company out of Minneapolis.

“I would definitely say this is a peak,” Earland said from behind the mixer in the basement of his spacious suburban Chicago home. He was looking for the tape of the new Eric Alexander album he’s just produced for Highnote. “It’s been a real long road but things are beginning to happen for me again. It’s starting to boil over from what’s happening in Europe.”

What’s happening in Europe and Asia is acid jazz. Earland says the insatiable appetite of foreigners, who sample any jazz from the seventies, and the staunch jazz lovers overseas have intersected at the organ music genre. The result has been the re-release of most of Charles Earland ample catalog. The list of labels is impressive; Prestige, Milestone, Columbia, Muse, Mercury, and High Note.

“It’s because of Europe that organ music is coming back here,” Earland claims. “Record companies are starting to recognize that they’ve got something here. They said, ‘hey man, we’ve got a whole bunch of this stuff.’ Record companies are starting to reach back into the mothballs for releases, and in all of those countries they want more.

“You see,” he continues, “they stopped playing us on the radio here in the States, but they never stopped playing us in Europe. People are raving so much about (acid jazz) and they’re claiming it, and it’s beginning to boil over. People who go abroad, they see people digging music from the 70’s. All my old albums are big records over there in Europe.

“It’s a funny thing, but when I go abroad I’m treated like a superstar. When I get off the plane in Japan, little Japanese girls meet me with flowers and the red carpet rolled out. When I’m in London, I play to standing room only audiences with lines around the block trying to get in to see me. Then when I come home to the States, I can’t even get arrested.”

Had that enthusiastic American school kid who asked Earland to play smooth jazz been around in 1969, he may have instantly recognized the sound of the man some call the Mighty Burner. Even though the first Hammond B-3 craze of the 60’s was fading by the time Earland recorded his classic “Black Talk” album, there’s no doubt he had the biggest success in the idiom. The song “More Today Than Yesterday” was responsible for landing the album on the Billboard pop charts. No other organist holds that distinction. But it’s also been kind of an albatross because Earland always record covers of pop tunes, and we all know jazz critics hate pop music.

“I like all kinds of music,” Earland excitedly exclaims. It doesn’t matter whether it’s country and western, or gospel, blues or r&b. Some of my favorite musicians of all times are George Clinton, John Coltrane and Jimi Hendrix. I’m like this, when I’m eating, give me a little bit of this, give me a little bit of that, I just can’t eat fried chicken by itself. I’ve got to have some potatoes and dessert. It’s the same thing with my music..”

If you check Earland’s discography, you will find some interesting choices of cover tunes including a version of Clinton’s P-Funk classic “(Not Just) Knee Deep” on his album “Ready And Able.” On his latest album he shows his love for Anita Baker and the Isley Brothers with covers or their respective songs “Sweet Love” and “For The Love Of You.”

“I love the Isley Brothers, Ronnie and the way he sings those melodies knocks my socks off and there’s no way I can tell you how much I love Anita Baker. I’ve always wanted to do something with that song and what I do with songs the best is swing them.”

It’s ironic that Earland has also recorded “Songbird” by Kenny G. Ironic because Kenny G, the number one instrumentalist of all time, probably could never have happened without Grover Washington Jr. And Washington got his very first chance to record because of Charles Earland.

Earland, like Washington came to musical maturation in Philadelphia. Earland was a sax player playing in organ groups when he noticed that the leaders were having all the fun while he waited between playing the head and a solo. He made the switch to the organ and was a natural. He worked on the East Coast giving young players like Washington breaks before he got his with his very first album as a leader.

“Black Talk” propelled Earland to the upper echelon of what he called the “chicken circuit” during the 70’s.

“We called it the chicken circuit because most of those clubs had an old lady in the back frying chicken and as soon as you hit the club you could smell the chicken frying in the back,” Earland says laughing at the memory. “But these clubs kept us working for a long time.”

“There were two of them in Newark. That was a town known for it’s organ loving people. On this one corner, on Halsey and Williams, they had two clubs. The Cadillac Club on one side of the street and The Key Club on the other side of the street. I would be playing at the Key Club and across the street, they would have Jack McDuff. And around the corner, not too far from away, there was a club with Jimmy McGriff. So within a four block span you could hear some great B-3 playing. And every week they would have a different organ player. You could hear them all, Larry Young, Trudy Pitts, Jimmy Smith, Shirley Scott”

Those days are gone for Earland, but today he says, the organ is definitely on the way back and he is beginning to get the kind of reception in America that he was accustomed to 20 years ago. Only his lifestyle is radically different than it was in his youth. Behind the mixing board in his big spacious suburban Chicago house is a mini-gym, and on the board rests a bible, two symbols of how much his personal life has changed since his days as a chart-topping jazz artist.

“I had a heart attack about seven years ago, ” Earland reflects. “It changed my life a lot. It made me think that no day is ever promised to you. It also brought me closer to God.” Just like he backs up his talk about his love of pop music by recording them, being ordained a Baptist minister and his continuing studies at Chicago’s prestigious Moody Bible School has legitimized his devotion.

“You’ve got to live that love walk. If you want God to bless you, you’ve got to be a blessing to somebody. It’s been a real long road, but I guess I have God to thank for everything.”

  Charles Earland Selected Discography  Blowing The Blues Away-High Note  Ready And Able-Muse  Infant Eyes-Muse  Black Talk-Prestige  Black Drops-Prestige  Leaving This Planet-Prestige  Charles III-Prestige  Live At The Lighthouse-Prestige  Intensity-Prestige  Odyssey-Mercury  

Other Charles Earland Resources

  • Music Central
  • Fantasy Jazz
  • Jazz Times