Ryan Shaw – A contender with hits that should’ve been
“My old manager and I used to argue, because I wouldn’t listen to the radio,” recalls Ryan Shaw. But the 26-year-old soul singer didn’t like what he heard on the FM dial. In fact, chart fare seemed the very antithesis of what he thought songs should communicate.
“Most music today births self-hatred,” he says of contemporary R&B fare. “They make you believe if you don’t have the cars, the girls, and the bling, then you’re nothing. But nobody is talking about what to do when you’re hurting, or you find somebody who really loves you for you.”
Enter Ryan Shaw. His debut album, This Is Ryan Shaw (released April 17 on Sony-affiliated One Haven Records), bubbles over with unfettered emotion and inspires ecstatic dancing. Although its twelve selections include a trio of originals, long-lost soul gems compose its core. A few are titles that casual music fans might recognize — Bobby Womack’s “Lookin’ For A Love”, for instance — but the majority are numbers long buried in the dustbin of history.
“We chose what we call the Should-Have-Been-Hits,” says Shaw. “The songs that never got to #1, great ones that surfaced but then went away.” Backed by instrumental performances that are fiercely faithful to the spirit — if not the note-for-note arrangements — of the source material, Shaw blazes his way through sides known primarily to northern soul fetishists: “Do The 45” (originally recorded by the Sharpees), “Mish Mash Soul” (Combo Kings), “Working On A Building Of Love” (Chairmen of the Board). At times, his delivery recalls the raw, fiery spirit of Wilson Pickett, but he can also summon up the sweetness of a young Michael Jackson or Stevie Wonder.
Raised in Decatur, Georgia, Shaw got his initial break via the legitimate stage, appearing in the gospel musical A Good Man Is Hard To Find (Part II) and Tyler Perry’s I Know I’ve Been Changed. The latter brought him to New York City, where he subsequently found work at the Motown Cafe and gigging with wedding bands. In 2004, he hooked up with a soul and doo-wop revival act, the Fabulous Soul Shakers. Here, he met guitarist Johnny Gale, one of two key players in his emerging career.
The singer was intimidated by Gale, a veteran with credits ranging from Hank Ballard to Aaron Neville to Cyndi Lauper. “Johnny is a very ominous person,” says Shaw. “A real rock star-type dude. Long hair, always wearing skintight black jeans and boots. We never spoke. He’s cool, a great guitar player, but I did what I did and he did what he did.”
But after the shows, Gale was going back and telling his production partner, drummer Jimmy Bralower, about the young southern firebrand who had caught his ear. Today, Shaw chuckles at the notion. “Later I found out, Johnny told Jimmy, ‘Sometimes he’ll be onstage, singing, and I just want to drop my guitar and hug the guy.’ That is totally out of character.”
The duo convinced Shaw to record a four-song demo of some of his showstoppers at their Long Island studio. Colleagues at Sony liked what they heard, and after an afternoon of marching Shaw from office to office to audition for assorted executives, a deal was drawn up.
Selecting material for This Is Ryan Shaw, however, posed an interesting challenge. Raised in a deeply religious household, Shaw grew up with minimal exposure to popular music; his limited knowledge about pop classics made him something of a blank slate.
The singer sees that as an asset. “The people who surround me,” he notes, “they can tell you who originally recorded a song, what year, who played guitar on it, everything. That’s their job. Mine is to interpret it.”
Shaw might not always know his Al Green from his Sam Cooke, but he has circumnavigated one of their professional bugbears — he managed to dodge negative feedback after crossing over from a gospel upbringing to the world of secular music. “The songs in my set are songs that any child of God shouldn’t have a problem with listening to or singing,” he says. “There are no lap-dance songs, no booty-shakin’, no bitches or whores.”
What you do get at a Ryan Shaw gig is an energetic performance. Even at soundcheck, it’s easy to spot the charisma that drew Gale and Bralower to the young unknown. While some artists feed off the crowd’s energy, Shaw says he tries to feed into it. “It starts from the inside,” he says. “And I’m able to go into the music, and let it lift me, lift all of us, to a special place, as opposed to me trying to throw the music at the audience.
“When I really get to be onstage, that is the best part for me. Because then I can see the emotion I’m feeling transferred to the audience. If I’m about to cry, then they’re crying already.”
Nine months were spent choosing tracks for the album. Well-known oldies were consciously avoided. “We went through hundreds and hundreds of songs,” Shaw recalls. “Every time I would go over to record, they would sit me down and play me anywhere from between twenty to thirty songs. And I only recorded the ones that made me smile.”
How fresh are Shaw’s interpretations? After signing his record deal, he called up a couple of his industry mentors, Motown songwriting legends Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Shaw had previously sung at open mike nights and showcased some of his original compositions at the duo’s Upper West Side venue, the Sugar Bar, and won their admiration. But when they heard his take on “I Am Your Man”, a minor 1968 hit for Bobby Tyler & the Vancouvers, they were caught completely off guard.
“They’re sitting there, and the song comes on,” Shaw remembers. “Valerie looks at Nick and says, ‘Oh, don’t you love this song, honey? I love this song.’ And they start singing along…and it gets to the chorus. Suddenly, Val goes, ‘Wait a minute! We wrote this song!’ They’ve written so many great, amazing songs, and they didn’t recognize one of their own.”
By avoiding the easy rewards of reworking nostalgic favorites, Shaw and his cohorts also ensured that even seasoned crate-diggers may have trouble picking out which of the three tracks (“Nobody”, “We Got Love”, and “Over & Done”) were composed for the album. The singer, who plans to feature more of his own material on his next album, takes that as a compliment.
In fact, some new fans, who have discovered Shaw via slots supporting U.K. soul shouter Joss Stone and sacred steel guitar whiz Robert Randolph, actually assume the bulk of his vintage material is new, not vice-versa. He smiles and shakes his head. “Nothing can make me prouder than when someone asks, ‘Is that an original or a cover?'”