Eli Paperboy Reed is the voice of soul. His is an interesting journey, from a Reform Jewish upbringing in Brookline, Mass, ranked number one by Money magazine as the best places in America to be rich and single, to the juke joints of Clarksdale, Mississippi, where he relocated to immerse himself in blues. After a year of soaking up that atmosphere, he went to Chicago to study sociology at the University of Chicago. Hosting a radio show for the campus station, he met and befriended gospel legend Mitty Collier and began playing with her in her South side Chicago church.
Despite the gospel and blues immersion, Reed’s main output was soul. “05’s Walkin’ and Talkin’ for My Baby and Other Smash Hits! debuted in ’05, followed by ’08’s Roll with You and 2010’s excellent soul-drenched Come and Get It!
But then things fell apart. Signed to Warner Brothers, Reed was set to have music from a 2014 release featured on TV and in movies as well as in commercials for Nike and Toyota. But personnel reshuffling at the label caused them to drop the project, leaving Reed without an outlet for his work.
In the meantime, Reed had accepted an offer from his father, Howard Husock, a vice-president at the Manhattan Institute For Policy Research think tank, to investigate a free after-school program in Harlem called Gospel For Teens that his dad was interested in. Reed came up the concept of a class in gospel singing, instructing a small group of young black teens in the art of street corner serenading in the tradition of ’50s doo-wop groups, but doing gospel instead of secular music, putting on their first performance at the corner of 125th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard in Harlem in the summer of 2013.
That resulted in his Yep Roc debut, My Way Home. On previous outings, Reed revitalized old school soul with a ladle full of church drizzled over the top. But for his latest, he dives headfirst into the baptismal basin, splashing gospel waters all over the tracks.
“Hold Out” sounds like Eric Burdon and the Animals stumbling into a revival meeting and getting religion, shouting lustily in the spirit over a burbling B-3 transported from “House Of The Rising Sun.”
Reed’s got Wilson Pickett’s Panther scream down, and when he unleashes it, it creates big old goosebumps and you start looking place to hide form the teeth and claws you sense coming at ya. “Your Sins Will Find You Out” is rattly and raw, Reed’s Pickett panther stalking you throughout the frenetic gospel throwdown.
This stuff sounds like it was recorded in a church basement in the ’70s, and that’s no accident. Reed enlisted the help of indy rock drummer Loren Humphrey (Guards, Willowz, Cults), who was building an analogue recording studio his Brooklyn loft. The band recorded the songs as Reed was writing them, and that spontaneity shines through, sounding like a live recording from an old time camp meeting revival.
“Cut Ya Down” is the only cover. Reed says he learned it from Boston’s Silver Leaf Gospel Singers, but if you’re into black gospel, you’ll recognize it as a staple on most of of the old time gospel quartet’s set lists, most notably the Blind Boys of Alabama, who recorded it on 2001’s Spirit Of the Century album as “Run On For A Long Time.”
Just as gospel singers Pickett and Sam Cooke did when they turned some of their former celestial offerings into secular soul,“What Have We Done” is a perfect crossover tune. But Reed’s original doesn’t need any manipulation to fit comfortably in both worlds. The lyrics combine an appeal to the Lord with an ecological plea for humans to stop their stupidity, to quit “destroying the place we all come from.” Reed has the Pickett panther screaming falsetto warnings while a mellow, soulful choir fluffs up heavenly support for us poor, self-destructive sinners.
The only thing missing on the record is the congregation’s response, but that’s no problem. As soon as this stuff hits your ears, you’ll be filling in that part, whoopin’ and hollerin’ and wallowing in the spirit. Whether on a street corner or in a club, whenever Eli Paperboy Reed is testifyin, you need to get up close and get some on you.