Garland Jeffreys’ successful second act continues at age 71
Veteran singer/songwriters stop performing and recording for all kinds of reasons — health, fatigue, lack of success, too much success or changes in music trends all sometimes figure into it.
But the reason the New York City-based musician Garland Jeffreys, who will be performing Wednesday at Southgate House Revival, didn’t issue a U.S. album of new material from 1992 until 2011’s heralded The King of In Between is more unusual. He wanted to spend time with his daughter.
Before that, he had been active since the late 1960s. His first album, Grinder’s Switch Featuring Garland Jeffreys, came out in 1970 and was followed by seven more studio albums of new material until 1992’s Don’t Call Me Buckwheat.
“I have no doubt that staying home and being with my child, walking her to school and nursery school and being with her all those early years, was very good for her and very good for me,” Jeffreys says, during a recent phone interview from his family’s Manhattan apartment. “It was a more important experience than anything in the world, as I look back on it.”
With his daughter now in college at Wellesley and his wife managing his career, Jeffreys has resumed writing and performing and is finding a devoted audience for his groundbreaking mixture of Rock, Folk, Soul, Latin, Blues, Doo-Wop and Reggae. Last year, he released another album, Truth Serum. Besides his active touring schedule, he’s guested with Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nile and Alejandro Escovedo. When The King of In Between was released, David Letterman invited him to perform on The Late Show to celebrate.
He’s become very busy and very forward-looking at age 71.
“Some people say it’s kind of late. But it’s not too late at all,” Jeffreys explains. “I’ve been so fortunate. I have my health, I’m playing and I have a wonderful family.”
Jeffreys helped create the urban wing of Americana — marked by sometimes-romantic, sometimes-gritty songs about the diverse groups of people who live in cities, especially New York. His background (his father was African-American and his mother Puerto Rican and he was raised in Brooklyn) gave him an original perspective.
His songs could be empathetic like “Ghost Writer” or “Matador,” observant about arts, news items and pop culture (“Lon Chaney” and “Wild in the Streets”) or angry at injustice (“Don’t Call Me Buckwheat”). While his influences are varied, he was especially moved by Van Morrison’s classic Astral Weeks album; his 1970 Grinder’s Switch used the same producer. And rising above everything was his love for Rock & Roll as a unifier. While he never had big U.S. hits, “Matador” proved popular in Europe.
For his U.S. comeback, The King of In Between, Jeffreys chose songs that represent who he is and where he’s from.
“Opening the album with ‘Coney Island Winter’ was perfect,” he says. “It made an identification between me and where I came from and reintroduced me to my public.
“I left Brooklyn quite a while ago, but I still go to Coney Island and visit some of the spots that I love. And a song like ‘I’m Alive’ (also on the album) makes that statement that I’m alive in terms of my vitality. If I didn’t have that vitality, I couldn’t do it. But I have all the energy I need.”
Racial identity has been a topic that Jeffreys has long explored because of his own background, but his take on it has never been rote.
“In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, you could move around very easily,” he says. “It was unusual; it was very mixed. I had Italians on the left and right and we were a mixed-race family. I was raised a Catholic, and the Baptist church in the next block was all black. So I had the experience very early of being around all kinds of people at the same time. The people in the neighborhood were very friendly. It wasn’t a conflict.”
But as he got older and ventured more often into the larger city (and country), he discovered not everyone was like that. He sometimes was the object of racial epithets.
“I would hear that and I would cringe,” he says. “I knew I never wanted to be compartmentalized. I knew very young that I wanted to be part of the world rather than part of a part of the world. And I thank my lucky stars for that unusual perception at an early age.”
After enrolling at Syracuse University in the early 1960s, Jeffreys became friends with another student from Brooklyn who loved Rock & Roll, the late Lou Reed.
“We both loved the same kind of music — Doo-Wop,” Jeffreys says. “Frankie Lymon was my idol. That music was just incredible and Lou felt the same way. That’s the thing that bonded us initially.”
After Jeffreys actively resumed his career, Reed showed up at a show at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan and guested on several songs.
“And then Lou said, ‘I got to go,’ ” Jeffreys says. “He stepped down and as he started walking, I started singing a cappella: ‘I have a girlfriend/She says I’m her only one/We wanna get married/But we’re so young/So young/Can’t marry no one.’ Lou turns around, comes near stage, gets down on his knees in front of whole crowd and bows down to me. It was fantastic.”
Told by this reporter that the song he has started singing over the phone — 1961’s ethereal ballad “I’m So Young” — is by a Cincinnati group, The Students, Jeffreys replies, “Isn’t that something? Small world, isn’t it?”