Linda Tillery







creative vocal genius of the twentieth century, as far as I'm concerned,

Photo by Joseph Beam


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An interview with Linda Tillery

“I would not want to go out on the road and become the female version of Prince, or the Black equivalent of Pat Benatar, or start wearing spandex pedal-pushers and ‘come fuck me’ pumps. That's not really what it's all about.”

By Joseph Beam

Whose records do you listen to?

I listen to Bobby McFerrin a lot. He's only released one album. Bobby is "the" creative vocal genius of the twentieth century, as far as I'm concerned, yet very few people know that this man exists, and that's so bizarre.

I have, I think, every album Aretha Franklin has ever made. I still listen to Johnny Mathis, Nancy Wilson, Ella, Dinah Washington, Donny Hathaway, and James Taylor.

What I'm about is the preservation of the real tradition of Rhythm and Blues. Although the concept of commercial Black music has changed in the last fifteen years, there was a lot of spontaneity going on in the music those days.

Now, it's more "Pavlovian" because its programmed. You know exactly what part the singer is going to break the song down and work the crowd into a frenzy, instead of allowing it to happen naturally.

The older R&B is very passionate, gut level stuff. The lyrics were written a lot about pain, suffering, and struggle. I get my political values from that music. I heard a lot of political messages in songs from those days, from people like Ray Charles.

Will there be political songs on your new album?

Yes. I think nowadays people think that if you don't write a song that is blatantly political, with a sledgehammer lyric, then it's somehow not political. But there's a lot of political content in many songs written throughout the forties, fifties and sixties.

A song like "Strange Fruit," for example, that's a political song. "Jesus Children of America" is a political song and, by combining it with "The World is a Ghetto," I'm making a strong political statement. I don't think there's any way a person could miss the point of what I'm trying to say.

Are you going to produce your new record?

No, I don't think I'm going to that again. I'm going to have my longtime friend Ray Orbiedo produce the new album.

What are the responsibilities of a producer?

The producer's role changes from project to project. A producer decides what the tempo in the grooves is going to be like and what inversion you play on a certain chord. If it's too hip, you don't want to put it on a dance tune.

A producer decides if the music should be more accessible or if it should be more complicated in a certain spot, and arranges that sort of stuff. Chooses musicians, length of tunes. It's like being a football coach. Get everybody together, map out the plays, tell 'em where to go, and blow the whistle.

Why would you not produce this time?

Because it's too hard to be objective. I can do it for someone else's project, but I think the producer needs to stay on the other side of the glass. Objectivity is the most important role of the producer and once you get totally involved in a project—playing on it, trying to decide—it's too hard to separate yourself from the thing.

There are a few people who can do it, but they have worked at it and worked at it. Stevie [Wonder] does it. Todd Rundgren does it. But they're in the studio all the time.

What would you do if you had the number one song on the Billboard charts?

I ask myself that question many times and I don't know what I would do. I just hope I stay the same person. I'd like to keep the same goals.

I would not want to go out on the road, for example, and become the female version of Prince, or the Black equivalent of Pat Benatar, or start wearing spandex pedal-pushers and "come fuck me" pumps. That's not really what it's all about.

There was one point during your show when you said, "I've worked my nerves."

I really like when that happens to me on stage. I really like it when I actually enjoy what has taken place as much as the audience seems to. Then I have to sit still for just a moment because I don't know what to do. It feels real good to be moved that way, but it's not really me moving myself.

I was talking to a friend yesterday about how I go off stage after a gig and, if I feel like we've done a good show and the audience liked it, and everybody is pretty much happy, then I go to the mirror and say "it's not you."

I've done that every night since I've been on tour. "It's not you; you are the vehicle for the music." I consider myself real fortunate to be chosen to be a messenger but it's not me doing it. That keeps me in my place.

As we've talked about all these things my mind starts working overtime. I think all the time, everyday, what it is that I'm about as a person. And I've shared with you some of the things that I believe I'm about.

But one of the things that I really hope will happen, as I progress and continue on, I would like to be able to see a night when I go on stage and see the audience filled with Black Lesbian and Gay faces. That would be the ultimate "get-off" in my life: to see a crowd of Black Lesbians and Black Gay men supporting me. Supporting ourselves! Because we do sometimes live between two countries.”

Fame and fortune have rarely chased Black women vocalists.All too often, they have been the unwary victims of an industry that ingests and regurgitates performers in a whimsical, sometimes fatal fashion. Linda Tillery, however, in the mold of Alberta Hunter and Betty Carter, refuses to submit.