In the summer of 2013, a rather unusual concert took place on the corner of 125th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem. If you knew your music history, you might have recognized some of the songs—classic tunes from the quartet gospel era—but you certainly wouldn't have recognized any of the singers. That's because the group, overseen by powerhouse soul man Eli Paperboy Reed, consisted exclusively of at-risk youths who had spent the summer studying and rehearsing with him as part of the non-profit Gospel For Teens program. The performance might not have seemed like much at the time (they'd only learned three songs, so they cycled through them five times in a row for the ever-changing crowd of passers-by), but the street-corner show signaled much more than any lucky listener could have known that afternoon. It not only achieved Reed’s goal of reconnecting the young African-American males with this timeless music, it also laid the groundwork for his exhilarating new album and Yep Roc debut, My Way Home. He hadn't planned it that way, but Reed's work teaching in Harlem brought him back to the sound that laid the foundation for Soul music and which had always moved him deeply: Gospel.
"My love of Gospel began with the sounds of the small groups and quartets, which is very different from the choir-based music that Gospel For Teens was focused on when I was first introduced to them," explains Reed. "It's more guitar-driven, more bluesy, more raw, less refined, and more of a male-dominated sound. They were really interested when I proposed a program that focused on quartet music because they didn't have anything that particularly served the teenage black men in the community the way the choirs served its mostly-female membership."
Combining history lessons with music classes, Reed introduced the kids to Gospel quartet pioneers like The Soul Stirrers and The Dixie Hummingbirds, teaching them about the arrangements and harmonies of the classics and encouraging them to write their own modern interpretations.
"It was incredibly rewarding, not only musically, but also just being able to work with these kids on a personal level," explains Reed. "They're so smart and talented and interested in the music. There were a lot of things about quartet music I knew and could teach them, but there were also a lot of things about gospel music that they grew up with their whole lives that they could teach me. From every aspect, I always left feeling really invigorated."
That sense of invigoration came in handy in 2014, when Reed was unceremoniously dropped from a major-label record deal that had come with a slew of unfulfilled promises. At the time he signed it, the contract seemed like one of the final steps to stardom in a career that was chock full of critical acclaim. MOJO called the Boston-via-Mississippi singer the "king of rhythm & soul," while Rolling Stone hailed his "classic soul and horn-heavy R&B soaked with the blues," and NPR raved that "he conveys the heart-wrenching emotion of Southern predecessors such as Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding." Instead of breaking into the mainstream, though, Reed found himself living in Brooklyn and starting over from scratch. He had to find his way home.
"I kind of reverted to the things that I understood the most," says Reed. "When I wrote these new songs, I wasn't planning on writing a record. I wrote these songs just because I wanted to write music that I liked and that moved me. There was no premeditation, no thought of what a label or anyone else might want.” “My intention was never to make a Gospel album, just to make a collection of songs that were maybe more serious than the things I’d done before.”
Encouraged by his bandmates who heard the promising new demos he was recording at home—inspired in part by his work with Gospel For Teens and in part by his stint as a young man playing organ and guitar in the Chicago church established by Soul legend-turned preacher Mitty Collier, who recorded a string of classics for Chess Records including “Sharing You” and "I Had A Talk With My Man"—Reed put together an exuberant collection of high-octane, old-school music, full of manic energy and frenzied fervor. Around the same time, Reed was introduced to drummer Loren Humphrey (Guards, Cults), who was assembling a remarkable collection of vintage analog gear in his Brooklyn loft-turned-recording studio. The two hit it off immediately.
"He's not like most engineers in that he wasn’t necessarily so concerned about fidelity or what's technically considered the 'right' way of doing things," explains Reed. "He was just like, 'Let's do it! You want to set up the whole band in one room and record live? Great!'"
Over the course of four days, they tracked the entire album in Humphrey's apartment. That breakneck pace is reflected in the energy of the songs, which crackle with excitement and dare you to guess the decade in which they were actually recorded. Raw guitar, righteous organ, and funky backbeats underpin Reed's possessed-preacher vocals, which he delivers at such a fever pitch you fear the vintage tape machine they recorded on could go up in smoke at any moment.
"The spontaneity and excitement in the record really stems from the performances," explains Reed. "The guys who played on the record [J.B. Flatt on organ, Michael Isvara Montgomery on bass, and Noah James Rubin on drums], they all just started coming over to play these songs with me while I was writing them because they really liked the music. It was so organic."
Album opener "Hold Out" kicks things off at full-volume, embodying the classic gospel ethos that everything's going to work out fine if you just keep the faith. It's a notion that turns up throughout the record, from the title track My Way Home to "Tomorrow's Not Promised" to "Movin'," and it reflects Reed's resilient spirit in the face of disappointment. Elsewhere on the album, he nods to the music's church roots, singing of fear of the devil on "The Strangest Thing" and damnation on "Cut Ya Down" (the only non-original on the record and a song he learned performing with Boston’s Silver Leaf Gospel Singers, founded in 1945). "What Have We Done" is something of a secular hymn for the environment, and "I'd Rather Be Alone" serves as a meditation on following your own path to salvation.
"The idea of salvation doesn't have to mean salvation in terms of finding God," explains Reed, who doesn't necessarily view the album through the lens of any particular religion or creed. "My goal is just to make good music that moves people and meets them wherever they are. So for me, salvation in this case is about getting out of a bad situation, about finding yourself in a tough spot and trying to find your way through it. It's about not letting yourself be pulled down by negative influences."
It's a particularly resonant song for Reed, who stepped into this new phase of his career without any traditional safety net. But by surrendering himself to the music, he discovered he had more artistic and emotional support than ever before: from his longtime bandmates, from his new recording engineer and studio, and from the teens that helped him rediscover the joy of singing purely for the love of it. So if you're out on 125th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard any time soon, don't be surprised to find Reed on the corner, belting out these songs in his inimitable, soulful shout. He's finally found his way home.