It’s early April, and the talented young worker bees at Lindenwood University’s J. Scheidegger Center for the Arts are busily prepping the stage for Vanessa Williams and her band. As the musicians shuffle in, one of the techs lets me in on a few backstage tidbits from past artists while he hooks up drum mics.
“Debbie Reynolds could not have been nicer,” he confides. “But when Jim Belushi was here with The Blues Brothers, he was tough to deal with.” Asking what I was doing at sound check, I told him I was waiting for someone in Vanessa Williams’ band who was sure to be infinitely easier to deal with.
Even though he’s hopscotched around the globe countless times, playing with artists ranging from Johnny “Just Got Paid” Kemp and Jonathan Butler, to his current longtime gig as Ms. Williams’ go-to bassist, Caldwell spent years being one of St. Louis’ best-kept musical secrets. A multi-tiered renaissance man, producing gospel records one minute, slinging his own music while banjo-banging the next, he’s planning world domination; and with a multi-tiered series of releases due to drop online over the next several weeks, that “secret” status is about to go the way of the Tecopa Pupfish.
Long before world tours and album releases though, Al Caldwell was a kid growing up in the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects, where he first fell in love with music via television. Left to his own devices many nights, Al stayed up late watching any and all variety shows available that featured music. “I’d watch The Tonight Show and see guys like Louis Armstrong, comedians, you name it. I got to see so much talent because of that show. It made me want to be the guy in the stereo.”
Like so many musicians, it was the allure of the opposite sex that made him truly anxious to pick up an instrument, and that particular fire was lit by five charismatic kids from Gary, Indiana who were already riding high on the ‘70s fame train via Motown. “It was the Jackson 5 for me,” he says, smiling at the memory. For me, being a young African-American boy, that was the first-time seeing young kids like me who were black who had a cartoon, and a TV show, and girls were screaming,” he recalls. ”I mean when you look back, you see all kinds of stars like James Brown, but you didn’t have a young black kid group. And all the black girls would say ‘My boyfriend is Michael Jackson or Tito Jackson,’ and I wanted a girl, too!”
“I could just never figure out how to come out and play music, and be stuck in just one style.”
Rewinding to his time playing clubs around town, he reminisces about playing with fellow musicians like Ralph Butler, and drummer Mor Thiam (also known as Akon’s dad), and legendary venues like Mississippi Nights. “I got to learn new rhythms and stuff, and all of it just stayed in my brain. When you’re in a wedding band in the city, you get to play Metallica, then follow that up with Kool and the Gang, and then a Deborah Harry song, play a little Santana, and then go into a Neil Sedaka medley,” he says. “So I could just never figure out how to come out and play music, and be stuck in just one style.”
Another important factor in Caldwell’s musical education was the late, great Oliver Sain. “Oliver was like a dad to me,” he remembers. He was 16 years old when a friend brought him over to Sain’s house, because he heard about the up-and-coming bassist. “I kind of got to sit in over there on Natural Bridge, and it was,” he pauses for a full-throated laugh, “the scariest studio I had ever seen in my life. There were bugs, and wine bottles on the floor. It was highly authentic, a little deeper than what I had been used to seeing.” Nevertheless, the experience reinforced a philosophy that had already been brewing in the young musician’s mind: that music should be a multi-faceted experience, never tied down to genre, color, or creed. “They were cutting blues, gospel, and it was real. That was a real place, man, where history went down.” Because of his gig at the time, he wasn’t able to pursue the opportunity like he had wanted to. That would change.
Several years later, he got another shot at working with the legendary St. Louisan. “In 1991, I was 31, and just quit Jonathan Butler’s group, and that’s when I wanted to be a producer. Oliver saw me at a club, and he said ‘What have you been up to?’ I told him that I had just quit Jonathan’s band and wanted to be a producer and learn how to run a studio. He says ‘Well, you got any money in your pocket, son?’ I said ‘No,’ and he says ‘Here’s a hundred dollars. You want to be a producer?’ I said ‘Yes, sir.’ He says ‘Here’s the keys to my studio. Can you be there first thing in the morning?’ I said ‘Yes, sir!’”
In what seems like a studio pitch for a soul-music reboot of a certain coming-of-age ‘80s-era classic, “I came over his house, and I swear to God, it turned into The Karate Kid. Man, I was putting his bathroom together, doing drywall, fixing the air conditioner.” He laughs again. With Caldwell, there is always a lot of laughter. “He had me outside cutting weeds. For two weeks! I never got another penny. When you break it down, I was making about a dollar and twenty-three cents an hour for all the work I had to do.” After a reasonable amount of grunt work was completed, Sain started sharing some of his hard-earned wisdom about the recording process. “He had an old Tascam board model one, that just had bass and treble on it; that’s it. No midrange. But man, he cut so many famous records on that console.” Mentally flipping through the record bins of his mind, Caldwell fires off a litany of blues and gospel deep-cuts recorded at the famed studio. “David Dee made ‘Going Fishing’ there, which was a famous blues cut. Oliver did a lot of James Cleveland, and The O’Neil Twins, who were really big for gospel. The Mon-Claires recorded “Love on a Two Way Street” there. A Local group called The 13th Floor recorded with Oliver, and they had a song called “Leaning.” Man, I couldn’t even name all of them. It was amazing how many tunes came out of that place.”
Flash-forward years later, Caldwell is writing, producing, and marketing a series of upcoming releases that traverse the entire spectrum of the music that he grew up obsessing over. “Music, to me, isn’t just about one style,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s because of all the bands I’ve played in, like cover bands, or St. Louis artists like Ralph Butler, so many blues and jazz players, but I just loved being immersed in so many styles of music.”
The releases, around 31 in total and due out over the next few months, reflect Caldwell’s devotion to a myriad of musical interests; but how does he keep them all separate? Certainly the mindset is one way when he records jazz pieces, and another when fronting his self-described ‘hootenanny soul’ outfit, The Travelling Black Hillbillies, right? The answer, somewhat surprisingly, involves the ancient art of haberdashery.
“I separate everything, believe it or not, with hats,” he says matter-of-factly. “The only way my mind could put everything together was to perceive each style as a different character. Every genre I did, I went and picked out hats. It’s almost like creating a character.” The way he sees it, he approaches the various projects like an actor approaches an acting gig. “The cool thing about music and movies and anything pertaining to art, is the need for characters. I remember when I got my first bass, and I painted Gene Simmons’ face on it, I loved the power in KISS, but I also loved the characters. And it wouldn’t have been the same if KISS were not presented to me like that, with that image. Same with Queen, Elton John, David Bowie, and Parliament-Funkadelic. You always associated the character with the music.”
After falling in love with the banjo and immediately making it a sort of personal mission to master it (he’s currently endorsed by Deering, so that worked out pretty good), it was a photoshoot for his Travelling Black Hillbilly project with photographer Dave Probst that solidified the process that brought a little method to his madness moving forward. “He came over, I had my banjo, and we did some shots, but I knew that wasn’t my look. So I went to Levin’s, downtown, and I got my first hat. Everybody in St. Louis gets their first hat at Levin’s. I know what I’m looking for and I find this hat that’s perfectly my size, by a company that just went out of business. They only had one left, and that ended up being the hat for The Travelling Black Hillbillies.”
Of course, the hats are just used as a focal point to smooth the transition when switching between whatever genre he’s working in at the time. This isn’t a deep-dive into Stanislavski territory. According to Caldwell though, it certainly does the trick. “When I do the blues, I transform, and don’t even sound like myself; I sound like a 95-year old black man from the Delta. And I don’t even drink, but between growing up around people who drink my whole life, and watching the blues players so intently, I was able to pick up on it. To me I feel like it’s not blues if you can’t see the brown liquor.”
Caldwell makes it a point to tell young musicians starting out that it’s of vital importance to not put yourself into one category, and to be open-minded. Sometimes, it can save your career.
“I used to suffer from nodes from singing improperly. All the tunes we grew up with had all the guys hitting the high notes, and I didn’t know I was a baritone. I thought I was a tenor. So you strain to hit these notes, the highest notes you could hit. It seemed like those were the guys that got the girls, so I was forcibly hurting myself without knowing it.” After several visits to the ear-nose-throat doctor, and getting cortisone shots, he decided to take professional lessons from opera singer Judith Hanson Swab in New York. “The lessons were pretty expensive, like around a hundred bucks an hour, which was a lot for me in the early ‘80s. But man, she changed my life. I found out I was a baritone, she gave me great exercises, I started learning from the Vaccai classical music book, so I had to learn how to speak Italian, read Italian, and read the notes at the same time. As a musician, I was already playing at places like Carnegie Hall, so once she found out about the caliber of my musicianship, she really didn’t let me cheat. She was like ‘No baby, you are a different level, you’re not allowed to cheat. I don’t care if this is hard, you need to learn it,’ and that’s what I did.” Indeed, the discipline paid off and he’s been singing the right way ever since. “I have never had a sore throat from singing improperly, and I’m singing from the diaphragm correctly.”
“They always point to some super-rich musicians like Mick Jagger or some other people, and say to us ‘Well, they’re rich, why aren’t you rich?’ Baby, they were rich before the game got rigged.”
As a DIY guy when it comes to putting his art out into the world, I ask him if the current state of the music industry, with downloading, streaming, and file-sharing, helps or hurts the independent artist. “I think the whole thing really comes down to our personal definition of help and hurt,” he responds. Having served as a governor of the DC chapter of The Grammys, he was advocate for fellow musicians and songwriters, talking to congressmen about rights and royalty increases. “Back in the day, Oliver Sain would tell me about royalty checks that Ike (Turner) would get every three months; $80,000, $90,000, $100,000. You know, those were crazy checks to get in the ‘60s and ‘70s. It’s not that way anymore. I don’t understand how Congress sets our rate for what the value of our music is supposed to be. And I don’t see that in any other industry. I mean, they can pick a minimum wage for employers, I can understand that, but how can you come up with 24,000th of a percent of a penny so that my tune has to be played 24,000 times before I get a penny? How does that make sense? They can’t do that. One of the biggest exports from America has always been our music. So why would you belittle the thing that none of them can do, and this is a gift from God, but we’re denied an opportunity to pay our bills because Congress has set these wages so low.” According to Caldwell, much of the frustration in the debate stems from unrealistic examples in what is essentially an outdated paradigm. “They always point to some super-rich musicians like Mick Jagger or some other people, and say to us ‘Well, they’re rich, why aren’t you rich?’ Baby, they were rich before the game got rigged. So, now we really need some more advocacy on getting the royalty rates together, because people are not getting enough.”
Before he heads back to sound check with the Vanessa Williams band, containing such industry pros as Leo Colon, J.T.Lewis, Keith Robinson, Henry Hey, Shelly Thomas Harts, and Carmen Ruby Floyd, the fresh enthusiasm for his art shows no sign of fading, as his schedule seems to be indicating. Besides Ms. Williams and her band planning a new record (“Vanessa is incredibly loyal to her people,” he says), Al’s daughter, the talented and beautiful Raquel Caldwell, is releasing an album, as well. “She’s also playing on my jazz album, and she’s on a tracks that I’m really excited about. I’m playing Chopin’s Opus 28 in E minor, and she’s accompanying me on that. I added some Marvin Gaye backgrounds and drums, and mixed it with Chopin. She’s playing classical piano, and I’m playing bass.”
Sitting back in his chair, at peace, but never content, Al still seems like the artist who’s discovering the joy of creating for the first time, all the time. “I think I finally found a voice, and a story. It hasn’t been easy, and that probably the best part about it. Even losing my mom earlier this year, everything happens for a reason. So, I feel her in my music, in my soul, in my hands, and I just want to speak. I think we’re lucky, dude, to be blessed enough to be musicians. | Jim Ousley