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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the September 15, 2004 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Trenton Bound: Earl Klugh

While he carved a reputation for putting the “smooth” into his guitar playing long before there was a “smooth jazz” radio format, the reality is that Earl Klugh draws upon a range of stylistic influences in his playing. For a jazz guitarist, Klugh has some interesting influences: Burt Bacharach, the Beatles, country stylists Chet Atkins and Floyd Kramer, and even Brazilian pop composer Sergio Mendes.

Klugh is one of the headliners at the Trenton Jazz Festival, Saturday, September 18, at the Sovereign Bank Arena. Other jazz greats slated to perform include Erykah Badu, Roy Ayers, and Down to the Bone.

Klugh, now 50, was born and raised in Detroit. He moved to Atlanta four years ago. Although his parents weren’t musicians — his dad was an electrician and his mom a registered nurse — “my parents really loved music,” he says in a phone interview from his Atlanta home. Despite the fact that his mom came north to Detroit from Natchez, Mississippi, she was more into country music than blues, he recalls.

“My mom was a country music fan,” he says, “so I was aware of Chet Atkins and Floyd Kramer, but we also listened to Duke Ellington and Harry Belafonte.”

“Growing up, we had a piano in the home and they made sure my younger brother and I were exposed to it,” he says. “I took piano lessons for about five years, and took up guitar at age 10.”

Klugh, who has a discography of more than 30 albums for a variety of major labels, began teaching guitar in a Detroit music store when he was 16. One day, Yusef Lateef, the jazz composer and multi-instrumentalist, overheard him playing in a back room. Lateef asked Klugh to join his band at Bakers Keyboard Lounge, and through regular gigs with Lateef’s bands, Klugh met and befriended guitarist George Benson, keyboardist Chick Corea, and pianist George Shearing.

Pressed for a “first big break,” Klugh, who never attended college, says it was the chance to join George Benson’s band on the road. But he says there were things that led up to his stint on the road with Benson, who lives in Alpine. “When I was very young, 16 and 17, I met a lot of people who I later worked with through those gigs at Baker’s,” he says, “but before joining Benson’s band, I met everybody from Chet Baker to Dexter Gordon at the club.”

Interestingly, Klugh, who grew up in the 1960s in Detroit, says that Motown had little effect on him. Later, as he matured as a musician and composer, he came to appreciate the brilliance of people like Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, and others signed to Berry Gordy’s then-booming record company.

“The only real influences from Motown for me were Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, and Smokey Robinson,” he says. “There wasn’t all that much there I was all that interested in. Besides, it was everywhere in Detroit. As a kid, I listened to the Beatles, a lot of Brazilian music, and I was a big fan of Chet Atkins’ music.”

Klugh’s recent albums for major record companies include “Peculiar Situation,” for Windham Hill/BMG, “Move,” for Warner Brothers, and “Heart String,” for Blue Note/Capitol Records.

He has recorded much of his forthcoming album at his home studio, and he says after all he’s been through with major record companies, it’s easier these days for him to finish a recording and then do a licensing or a “P&D” —promotion and distribution deal — with a record company to get his music out to his core audience.

A composer as well as a performer, Klugh says that “my favorite composer all of my young adult life was Burt Bacharach. But I also liked a lot of Leonard Bernstein and Oscar Hammerstein. As I got more into it, I liked Duke Ellington, but I honestly can’t explain how that would translate into how I write. I really am a fan of melodic music, and that can be anybody from Smokey Robinson to whomever the writer is. I just like really good compositions.”

Not a singer, or a lyricist either, Klugh says that he nevertheless tries to write songs that are “kind of songful, without the lyrics.” Klugh, who has been nominated for 13 Grammy awards, also maps out many of his compositions using the latest ProTools computer technology. Like South Jersey Hammond B-3 organist Jimmy McGriff, he saves his ideas and song snippets on to digital discs.

“I do quite a bit of my songwriting on keyboards, especially if I’m working on tunes that involve saxophone and keyboards,” he says. That’s when he’s thankful to his mother for making him take those piano lessons as a five-year-old.

In August Klugh and his band made their first tour of South Africa. He and his band have toured Japan annually for the last nine or ten years, he says, and recently, they made tours of Korea and Russia. “Japan has a beautiful club system set up,” he says, “but these days I’m keeping as active as I want. We’re doing probably 60 or 70 dates a year, which is quite a bit for me now. In the mid-1980s we were doing as many as 150 shows. But back then, so much of that was just trying to expose the records and establish a career.”

At about that time, in 1983, Klugh signed with to Warner Brothers, and that proved to be a boost for his performing career, especially because the smooth jazz radio format began to emerge at stations around the country at that time. Locally, that means 101.9 FM in New York.

Asked about the need to establish a career through near-constant touring while he was signed to a distribution and marketing powerhouse like Warner Brothers Records, Klugh says, “if you’re an instrumentalist, that’s your plight no matter what label you’re on. Big record companies, as long as you sell a certain volume of records, they’re happy to have you. But it’s a double-edged sword. I’ve spent my whole life on one major label or the other and it’s just hard to keep their attention, because no matter how many records you sell, there’s still some guy that can play three chords and sing who can outsell you 10 to one.

“The good thing about it,” he continues, “is I’m 50 years old now and looking back on a 30-year career, and it’s still going. The plus side of having those big record companies behind me is I’m able to sustain a career in music. I’d rather still be making my music and enjoying it at 50 and 60, rather than sitting around twiddling my thumbs for 10 years.”

At the Trenton Jazz Festival on Saturday, Klugh says an audience unfamiliar with his substantial body of work can expect “a real wide variety of music — from ballads to much more up tempo songs. I like to showcase the players in my band,” he says, “so there’s always a lot of interplay and improvisation.”

— Richard J. Skelly

Trenton Jazz Festival, Saturday, September 18th, at 4 p.m.; Sovereign Bank Arena, 609-656-3299. $29 to $54.

Klugh will be accompanied by Al Turner on bass, Ron Otis, drums, Lenny Price, saxophones, Al Duncan, keyboards, and David Lee, piano.

For the complete calendar events in central New Jersey, go to www.princetoninfo.com/us1evts.htm


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