“Man, who is that on keys? He can really play.”
“I know right. Like c’mon, how cool is that dude?”
“Shit, don’t he look just like a modern day Black Moses?”
Two blokes watching Kelvin Wooten with Raphael Saadiq’s band. Jazz Café - London, 2005.
Whenever you speak to a musician that’s worked with maverick producer - & now artist - Kelvin Wooten, a familiar theme crops up.
“Yo that dude right there is special man.” Said funk heroine and former member of D’Angelo’s Vanguard band, Kendra Foster, recounting the moment she first witnessed Wooten play keys on Tom Joyner’s Fantastic Voyage cruise over a 15 years ago. “When I say special, it wasn’t just what he chose to play, but what he embodied - he looked like a young Stevie Wonder; dressed different & tasteful. He’d always have on some kinda poncho and a crazy hat. Even though I felt like ‘I’m doing my thing over here!’” Kendra laughs, “When I saw Kelvin it was like, ‘Woh, he’s one of my people. I’m not the only one here that’s weird!”
“She said whut about me?!” Kelvin responds in mock outrage, after I mention Kendra’s comment to him. Beamed direct from his Woodaworx Recording Studio in America’s Deep South, he’s looking, it has to be said, very dapper in a black trilby with a pink sweater.
“I look like a weirdo? Me? She said that?” He laughs, “Ah wow, ok! I gotta pick on her about that.”
Yeah sorry to say this Kelvin but in a separate conversation, without any prompting from yours truly, former collaborator Raphael Saadiq said pretty much the exact same thing.
“Kelvin Wooten is,” Began Saadiq matter of factly, “one of the weirdest people I’ve ever met in my life.” Saadiq would go on to wax lyrical about how talented and what a nice guy he was too, conveying his admiration for Wooten’s expert ability to play a selection of instruments, often learning to how to play them on the spot. For instance it’s Kelvin playing tuba on Still Ray from Saadiq’s solo album Instant Vintage.
“He’s from Alabama - he’s a piece of dirt, with a dirty soul.” added Raphael, his remark sincerely meant as a compliment.
Kelvin would regularly commute from Raphael’s Blakeslee Recording Studio in North Hollywood to his hometown of Huntsville. It’s where he recorded his first proper solo project, the brilliant three song debut EP Window (via his own Woodaworx label). It’s also where Wooten, or WU10 as he’s named on the record, has always laid his hats.
“My Dad works for NASA; he was an aerospace engineer so we moved from Georgia to Huntsville in 1980. He’s been at NASA ever since. If you ever heard of Space Camp that’s where we are, the movie was shot right here in Huntsville.”
An only child, Wooten spent his adolescence drawing comic book characters like Wolverine (Says Kelvin: “I wasn’t into DC Comics, I was more of a Marvel guy.”) Then music hit. Jazz at first, followed by Gospel & Hip Hop.
“I wasn’t a very athletic person, so I wasn’t winning any popularity contests. The (fashion) thing came from my Dad’s artistic side; I could connect the dots in his music taste. It was the Jazz Crusaders records he had hanging around, whereas my Mom was a minister in Pentecostal church, I was there 2 or 3 times a week. The opportunity to be exposed to music was there, on organ or drums. They used to let me play Tuba sometimes but wouldn’t mic it. No-one wanted to hear that!” Kelvin laughs, “It was an organist named Ronny Reece, god rest his soul, who told me, ‘Young man, you know how to play so all you have to do is learn the songs. Just learn the songs.’” Wooten was accepted to college majoring in Computer Science, but followed his passion taking a course in music theory. “I was very much into De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest, you know during that dispensation they were the weirdo’s. I identified with them because the jazz samples and felt like ‘Man this is really where I fit in.’”
Kelvin’s big break came when Saadiq was inviting his mentor, the deceased Huntsville guitar legend Eddie “Spanky” Alford to do session work on his Ask Of You hit.
“It wasn’t long after Raphael changed his name to Saadiq. He doesn’t know this, but in my mind I always thought like I was the 4th Tony! Way before I knew him I just drew a connection to the music because it was R&B of the time but I heard guitar, bass and drums and all these musicians - it wasn’t all sequenced and sometimes I would skip class and go shed with Spanky, we went to the same church, and on one of those days Raphael called and I happened to be there trying to make my keyboard sound like a Wurlitzer and Raphael says to Spanky ‘Who’s that playing in the background?’”
And that was it, with his parents approval, Kelvin was on the next flight out west to Raphael’s home studio in Sacramento. One of Wooten’s tunes Top Notch even made it onto Tony Toni Toné’s final studio album House Of Music. The association would see Wooten, over the next decade, play with the likes of Mary J Blige, The Bee Gees, Jill Scott, The Isley Brothers & Erykah Badu to name but a few.
“That time of life it was just awesome man, non-stop. Music was oozing out of us. It just seemed like we couldn’t lose. You know, I remember Maurice White sitting on the couch at Blakeslee, talking to me and Raphael about his whole philosophy on creating music and us being just glued to his every word. I came up with some horn lines on that session (on the Grammy nominated Show Me The Way) and Maurice asked me ‘What do you think we should do here?’ After that I snuck out of the back door and I went back to the hotel because, you know, I just didn’t want to ruin whatever notion I might have had about him. I had done another song called Love Together playing the bass and next thing I know Raphael calls and says ‘Hey man get your ass down here at the studio, Verdine wants to talk to you about this bass part.’ They were like “Gods” to me. It was an Earth Wind & Fire session man.”
At Woodaworx Kelvin is now in demand as the main man. He has a label, working with alternative pop act Deqn Sue and is a Grammy nominated producer in his own right, working with Anthony Hamilton (Wooten co-produced the wonderful I Know What Love’s All About from Ain’t Nobody Worryin’), backing group The Hamiltones, Al Green & Chrisette Michelle. Also producing Kendra Foster’s self-titled solo album, including the nasty funk Rufus homage Promise To Stay Here. Aside from an experimental producer/performer side project entitled Sonoluminesence: Sound Into Light – he now feels the time is right for his first official solo project.
“I’ve been in this realm since I was 17 years old, but I feel there has still been something left unsaid. I don’t want to leave here with all these songs that I never gave the chance to get out, so the songs you can hear on this EP are all fresh. I didn’t have any pre-conceived notions. I love collaborating with the artist. Record companies want to hear hits first but what I love about the era with Raphael and Anthony Hamilton is we got the chance to sit and write the songs specifically (for them).”
The opener on Window (so named says Wooten, because his mate & rapper Dokk Savage, '“Wrote a dope intro with that title which worked well with the artwork”) entitled Give Me Love begins with what sounds suspiciously like Maurice White’s Kalimba.
“I heard the melody first and the sound came later, which was about me thinking about the sound palettes Earth Wind & Fire use. That’s where the Kalimba comes from, and the bass slapping. I was picturing Earth Wind & Fire as one person.”
Wooten is a wiz on innovative use of new tech. There’s a Ted Talk he took part in on Youtube where he comes off like a modern day incarnation of ‘70s Stevie, using futuristic sounds without diminishing the emotional impact or feeling.
The Bobby Caldwell influenced Take Time, itself with futuristic sound effects, leads into the gentle ballad Enough, perhaps the most vulnerable song on the EP Lyrics derived directly from personal experience.
“I don’t think I’d have enough time to come up with a story - something outside of what’s real in my life. I’ve been married twice going through two divorces. Obviously in order to go through a divorce you gotta throw some shade but looking back, having gone through something more than once, you have to ask yourself - being the common denominator - where did it go wrong? It might take a lifetime to understand but Enough is me acknowledging that I was wrong.”
He’s human after all, and there’s nothing weird about that.