Mick Jagger’s tribute to soul great Solomon Burke during the Grammys in February was arresting for two reasons. First, wow, all pouty lips and cock-o’-the-walk strutting, the elderly Jagger was on fire. But second, who was leading that fiery band — that stylish, fierce guitarist Jagger chased around the stage?
That’s Raphael Saadiq, and you might have heard him before.
A torchbearer for much of the old-school soul that was contemporary to the Stones, Saadiq first came around in the early ’90s as a member of R&B chart-toppers Tony! Toni! Ton! (“Little Walter,” “Feels Good,” “Whatever You Want”). At the end of that decade, he formed his own supergroup of sorts, called Lucy Pearl with Dawn Robinson (En Vogue) and Al Shaheed Muhammad (A Tribe Called Quest). By that time, he was also an in-demand producer for artists — like D’Angelo and Joss Stone, and various collaborations with everyone from Whitney Houston to Ludacris — seeking to add a bit of authentic grit to their own R&B.
Now Saadiq, 45, is enjoying raves for his fourth solo album, “Stone Rollin’,” which debuted last month at No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart and No. 14 overall, the highest opening of his career.
“I guess if you keep knocking, somebody’s gonna let you in,” Saadiq told the Sun-Times.
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“It’s a good thing I’ve been having fun this whole time. I’ve been building and learning on all my records. The record industry at its best was still difficult for me to crack. Now it’s not at its best, and I’m doing pretty good. People are just ready for what I’m doing.”
What he’s doing on “Stone Rollin'” is rocking up a kind of soul music classicism. Instead of launching squarely from 2011, Saadiq goes back to around 1966, the year he was born, and tries to move music ahead from that starting point. The theory: Maybe it’ll turn out differently than it actually did.
Saadiq’s time-space continuum sways with Motown grooves and bleats with Stax horns. He cranks up his guitar, pulling from Bo Diddley and reaching for Detroit punk. He flings sweat from the racing “Heart Attack” and grinds with sexual abandon through “Radio.” He’s current only in his ability to employ hindsight, selecting all the good parts from his influences and ignoring the bad.
“People say ‘homage’ a lot around this,” Saadiq said. “That’s not it. This is who I am. It’s in this day and time, but it comes from a different starting point to make it. It’s not me going backward. My guitar’s sitting next to me, and I just pick it up and play it. This is what comes out. If I get on the drums, it comes from the point I’ve always started from. The more stripped-down I play, the older it sounds to people.”
Saadiq shies from the term “old-school” and is quick with an aphorism that Isaac Hayes once said to him: “There is no old school. You either went to school, or you didn’t.” He attributes his energy to the garage rock he heard growing up in 1970s Oakland. The stylish retro sound being hailed on “Stone Rollin'” has always been a thread in his work, citing “The Blues” for Tony! Toni! Ton! or “Charlie Ray” from his 2002 solo debut.
He looks at his work like an athlete, claiming to watch films of his musical heroes like a player watching game films in order to learn the fundamentals.
“You have to use the fundamentals or you can’t play in the league,” Saadiq said. “You have to throw the football in the pocket, use your pivot, know how to dribble, do things accordingly. You have to study the great ones and then sell those same fundamentals a different way.”
When asked which “great ones” he’s studied and learned the most from, here’s his list:
- Howlin’ Wolf — “I learned from him to, like, stick with what you do. Get in the groove and stay there, no matter what.”
- The Rolling Stones — “They love the blues, all those greats, and made it work totally differently. Whatever they did, they stuck with it. And it’s all about their great rhythm section.”
- Bob Marley & the Wailers — “Again, always a good bass player and drummer. That bottom end has to be there at all times.”
- Great frontmen — “James Brown, Otis Redding, Sly Stone — they had fun. Make sure you enjoy what you do. Look at Earth, Wind & Fire, you know.”
- Sam Cooke — “The greatest. He had a way of thinking onstage that was pretty incredible. His poise, the way he carried himself on and off stage. He paid attention to detail. He was a prolific songwriter who knew what he wanted to do from the second he got onstage.”
The live jam with Jagger afforded him the opportunity to watch one of his heroes up close. Saadiq enjoyed the rehearsal prep far more than the televised performance.
“That happened — I just got a phone call,” Saadiq said. “[Jagger] just called, said, ‘Are you gonna be in town? Let’s hook up.’ We sat and talked about music for a while, about some of the early shows I watched him do in the ’60s, about experiences with people I never got to meet, like Howlin’ Wolf, guys he actually got to perform with. He’s the holy grail of rock and blues. He’s why I refer to what I’m doing as global soul rock ‘n’ roll.”