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Features

New York City’s Prodigal Son Returns

Garland Jeffreys is alive, well and ready to rock

Mayor David Dinkins once referred to New York City and its various ethnicities as being a gorgeous mosaic. It’s a term that can be unerringly applied to singer-songwriter Garland Jeffreys and the modest but no less impressive canon that he’s recorded in the past four plus decades. It’s a description he readily embraces.

“I’m a rocker for sure, but I also have this other kind of jazz vocal style and it probably has something to do with my multiracial nature,” he says with a laugh. “It’s inherent in all my various styles. It’s like I want it all.”

Born in Brooklyn’s Sheepshead Bay 1944 to a biracial teen mom of Puerto Rican descent, Jeffreys was exposed to the music of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, with doo-wop, R&B and early rock and roll eventually shaping his tastes. And while most casual music fans might scratch their heads with unfamiliarity regarding his recorded work save for a flirtation with mainstream success via heavy early ’80s airplay of his riff-heavy cover of the ? and the Mysterians smash “96 Tears,”  Jeffreys is part of a class of urban singer-songwriters whose heyday fell between 1977 and 1982. During this era that spanned the CBGBs explosion and the advent of MTV, a coterie of artists that included Graham Parker, Ian Hunter, David Johansen, Elliott Murphy, Lou Reed and Rockpile’s Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds were pumping out guitar-driven gems that were embraced by both new wave and what would eventually become classic rock radio. But of all these performers, Jeffreys drew from a larger palette of influences that included heavy doses of reggae.

“I discovered reggae in the late 1960s from a guy that used to give out towels in the YMCA, which was then on 23 Street. I’d go to the gym almost every day and I heard this guy playing some music out of a small box and I asked him what it was. He said it was the Heptones,” Jeffreys recalled. “He turned me onto a couple of artists. I found it perfect for me in terms of my songwriting. It was simple enough. I realized that this was really perfect for me or at least I thought it was. So I started writing songs around it and I realized that this was music that I was beginning to love.”

It’s all part of a global outlook he adopted dating back to his time matriculating as an art history major at Syracuse University in the early 1960s, where he became friends with fellow musicians Reed and Felix Cavaliere. That academic experience, coupled with a 1963 stint living overseas in Italy as a student, broadened his appreciation for different cultures significantly.

“When I went to Italy, suddenly I’m living in Florence. I was just 19,” he explained. “It was just remarkable how I’d walk down the street and see Dentenudo Cellinni’s Perseus, facsimiles of David in different places that were identical; terra cotta sculpture in the street, the architecture and museums like the Ufizzi Gallery and those great, great places. For a guy from Brooklyn, there’s nothing remotely close to this in America.”

Fast forward to 1977, and Jeffreys had gone from being the frontman for Grinder’s Switch, a late ’60s outfit heavily influenced by The Band to cutting a one-off Atlantic Records debut co-helmed by jazz producer Michael Cuscuna. Recorded with an impressive assemblage of seasoned sidemen, (see sidebar), this would become a habit the undefinable artist embraced going forward. Starting with his 1977’s Ghost Writer, his first of three A&M Records releases, Jeffreys became known for urban narratives that often touched on issues of race in the big city. His old muse reggae was used to great effectiveness on numbers like the title track and “I May Not Be Your Kind” and would later pop up on a cover of newfound friend Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” as well as more recently on last year’s “Roller Coaster Town.”

Following 1983’s Guts for Love, Jeffreys would only return to the recording studio two more times until last year. In 1991, he tied his fortunes to RCA Records for the classically underrated Don’t Call Me Buckwheat, a collection of songs that used doo-wop, rock and reggae to address racial issues the way Marvin Gaye used What’s Going On to touch on civil rights and the environment. The import-only 1997 follow-up Wildlife Dictionary addressed relations between the sexes and preceded a hiatus where the newly minted parent embraced being a father to daughter Savannah.

“I was a [dad] late in life and knew I didn’t want to be an absentee father in the sense of being on the road or traveling,” he said shaking his head. “I just didn’t want to do that, at least in the first five or six years.”

Fast forward to 2012 and the only child of Garland and Claire Jefferies is a well-adjusted student thriving at one of New York City’s specialty schools. With her old enough to be popping up on stage with dad in recent years, last year found her pop releasing The King of In Between. The work of a man who was obviously stopping to take stock of his life, it was a triumphant return for Garland Jeffreys that’s led to a whirlwind of touring that will take him to the West Coast, the South, Europe and a first-ever jaunt over to Australia. For Jeffreys, it’s good to be back.

“[Recording my latest album] was a dream experience,” he admitted with a broad grin. “It ranks up there with the Ghost Writer experience, because it was so easy in the end because everything had been prepared. It’s been a while since I made a real record for worldwide release and now I’m working on songs for another one.”

Garland Jeffreys will be appearing on November 16 at the YMCA Boulton Center for the Performing Arts. For more information, please call 631-969-1101 or visit boultoncenter.org

A Guide To Garland Jeffreys

New York City-born and bred, Garland Jeffreys and his music have always represented the gorgeous mosaic of culture that’s always reverberated through his hometown. Save making his first recording appearance fronting Grinder’s Switch, a Band-influenced outfit that only yielded a 1970 self-titled collection before breaking up, Jeffreys has been a solo artist with a penchant for working with top-flight collaborators. A one-off deal with Atlantic Records resulted in 1973’s Garland Jeffreys, a ten-pack of songs featuring back-up by the likes of Dr. John and David Bromberg along with jazz artists Bernard Purdie and David “Fathead” Newman. It would not be until he signed with A&M Records that the Brooklyn native would crack the mainstream and make his name at a time when New York City was the playground for a number of urban singer-songwriters.

Ghost Writer (A&M) – Jeffreys’ first album out of the gate with A&M set the tone for what he’d become known for—semi-autobiographical tales shaped by life growing up as a multiracial kid in New York City. The reggae-soaked “I May Not Be Your Kind” was the first of many songs he’d later pen addressing race. Other standouts include the Big Apple mash note “New York City Skyline,” the rock steady title cut and “Wild in the Street,” a paean to youthful rebellion.

American Boy & Girl (A&M) – Jettisoning the pricey session musicians who played on his 1978 Ghost Writer follow-up One-Eyed Jack, Jeffreys took his touring band into the studio in 1979 to record these tales of despair faced by urban youth struggling to survive. Along with stories about the desperate (the stark “City Kids”) and the hopeful (a sunny “Ship of Fools”) is his breakthrough European hit (the loping “Matador”).

Escape Artist (Epic) – This 1981 outing was the first the ex-A&M artist did for his new label. On it, he recruited members of Graham Parker’s Rumor (Steve Goulding) and buddy Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band (Roy Bittan, Danny Federici) as well as fellow Syracuse alum Lou Reed, reggae legend Big Youth and New York Doll David Johansen. The resulting collection had a very Elvis Costello-flavored vibe to it and included gems like the New Wave-kissed “Modern Lovers,” the anthemic “R.O.C.K.” and a riff-heavy reading of “96 Tears” that was the closest Jeffreys came to having a radio hit.

Don’t Call Me Buckwheat (RCA) – After a nine-year hiatus, Jeffreys hopped to his fourth major label and emerged in 1991 with his most socially conscious work. Race is front and center as the biracial singer-songwriter addresses his Puerto Rican roots (a synth-soaked “Spanish Blood”), the racial complexities wrapped around the roots of rock (“Hail Hail Rock’n’Roll”) and a gospel-flavored workout that’s all about racial pride in the face of bigotry (the ridiculously catchy title cut). 

The King of In Between (Luna Park) – Last year found Jeffreys putting out his first domestically released project in two decades. Co-produced by Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell, these dozen songs find the prodigal son fiercely embracing his hometown throughout starting with the thumping opener “Coney Island” later reinforcing that love affair on the ska-flavored “Roller Coaster Town” only stopping long to name-check his heroes (“’Til John Lee Hooker Calls Me”) and emerge reinvigorated with a song that just my apply to the aftermath of this area’s round of catastrophic weather (“I’m Alive”).