For the release of his sixth album, 99 Cent Dream, Qwest TV went to meet this improbable soul artist who delves into the roots of Mississippi. He has cleaned up in the blues clubs of Clarksdale and is now making his way internationally, delivering a message of love.
Far from the neatness of Raphael Saadiq, this is an artist weilding a rather rough timbre, claiming to follow from certain figures of the golden age of soul while defending his distance from the old times: “It’s really a voice that I have developed over the years. It comes from the singers I love, who I used to imitate when I was young. I was doing Jacky Wilson, Sam Cooke … I have quite a rough voice, a voice that is choppy by nature.” Eli’s voice does sound like a return to the roots of exalted brass instruments: the lascivious dance of “Said She Would,” the delicate vintage R&B quintessences of the eponymous title “99 Cent Dream” and the touch of gospel with the heart of The Masqueraders in “Coulda Had This” or “In the End.” Here, the ear gets lost in a charming jingle – a little further away from the rock blues of his early days as a bold, eager amateur (Eli “Paperboy” Reed sings…” Walkin’ and Talkin’ (For my baby) …
Indeed, he’s come a long way since he was blessed by the soul angels. A native of Boston, he reminds us between two laughs that he quickly cut his teeth in the midst of an effervescent pool of blues in the depths of a oft-fantasized Mississippi. One that is not as faithful to the image as one might think. ‘Paperboy’ comes from a hat I wore at the time that I got from my grandfather. I lived in Mississippi for a year after high school and I played a lot of blues in a kind of juke joint as it was called there. People gave me that name because I always wore that hat. I was waiting to play and it was always ‘Hey! Paperboy is going to do a song!’ There were a lot of musicians at the time in Clarksdale. There are still as many musicians today, there and around the delta. I used to play with guys who weren’t necessarily ‘known.’ It was just local guys playing songs inspired by an artist named Terry Williams called ‘Big T.’ I played in a band every Sunday, the Wesley Jefferson and the southern soul band. We also played a lot with a legendary drummer named Sam Carr.” Learning in the juke joints of the Mississippi Delta is a guarantee of musical integrity propped up, as it is, by the original authenticity of a pure blues strain, free from any mockery.
Moreover, Clarksdale already offered horizons wide enough for the young talent to soak his feet in more than one water: “Blues, R&B, soul … It was a great revelation for me when I first arrived in Mississippi. I didn’t really know what to expect. I was thinking it would be more like country blues or something similar. In fact, in the clubs, they played Tyrone Davis, Joe Simon, O. V. Wright, Albert King, and other similar things. It was a lot of Southern music.” This provides a great window into the melting pot of influences that led to an artist who doesn’t intend to limit himself to one type of soul: “The luxury of living in this area is that we don’t have to restrict ourselves to just one thing.”
From Clarksdale to Chicago, “Paperboy” is now on his way. The sociological studies he began led him to the shores of ethnomusicology. In his school directory, he found the phone number of a famous gospel singer who worked in the university administration and soon found himself at an old-style organ singalong, where old hats abound, in a church with the legendary Mitty Collier.
The young gun investigated, sussed-out and prepared the fertile pathways that would later catapult him into his own music: “I played in a church, hosted my radio show, and traveled to South Chicago to find recordings. I was really trying to see what I wanted to do.” What better way to enrich your musical culture than to enter Mitty Collier’s priesthood? “From Mitty, I learned time, patience … how to engage the audience, to be honest in my performance, to be dynamic, all those things that you hear in black churches, all those energies that create a strong atmosphere.” he reveals.
Nevertheless, according to the man of the hour, the music of the soul is less a question of committing to revolt, as it is to a promise of chosen virtues: “I don’t agree with the idea that soul music was born out of a revolt movement. There are, of course, songs of revolt in the genre but I wouldn’t say that it sums up soul. Personally, I feel that music is more enjoyable to listen to if you ignore certain important events and focus on the timeless qualities of the sound. It’s my general aesthetic. The message of my music is always a message of love, hope, of positive things.”
This profane oath finds all its legitimacy on his new album, which brings together hip-hop star Big Daddy Kane, vocalists from different eras and was recorded in the legendary Sam Philips studio in Memphis, where Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, B.B. King, Elvis Presley and many others have performed. “We also had incredible access to the work of musicians like the Masqueraders. It was like a revelation to me [laughs]. These guys have been singing together for over fifty years. Hearing them sing parts I had written is something I will never forget!”
In fact, soul can also be concerned with the quotidian, opening up onto a prosaic world, one that we approach with simplicity: “The songs on the album talk about things that are important but don’t cost much.” Eli can remain modest about the part he plays in a resurgence of soul music that has already gone beyond its inaugural stage. Here, it is likely that he will unintentionally bridge the gap between the old world and the contemporary world, between Sam Cooke and Big Daddy Kane …