The production discography of Edwin “Tony” Nicholas reads like a “Who’s Who of R&B” – Teddy Pendergrass, Patti LaBelle, Barry White, Regina Belle, Gerald Levert, Tamia, and Joe Thomas, along with The Backstreet Boys, L.S.G and The O’Jays. And with two decades of experience, the veteran songwriter and producer has became famous for his entrepreneurial talents as well. Since its inception, Nicholas’ Cleveland studio, The Reel Thing, has become an oasis for established singers long-neglected by the contemporary music industry.
Taking a break from a studio session, “Tony” Nicholas managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on his songwriting partnership with Gerald Levert, the enduring power of a ballad, and the future of R&B music.
Before making a name for yourself in the music world, you spent four years as a touring musician. What particular memories that shine bright from those early years?
For a fairly brief period, I was a musical director for a group called Teen Dream that was signed to Warner Bros. They had one album out in the mid-eighties; I want to say ’86, somewhere in there. And I worked with them. The lead singer couldn’t stop getting pregnant. And because the group was called Teen Dream… [laughing]
Right, right! [laughing]
…and Warner Bros. decided that, that wasn’t a good look for them and dropped the group. And also in that period, my songwriting partner at the time was a cat name Foley. And in somewhere around ’86, ’87, Foley got a call from Miles Davis. And so he left to go play with Miles Davis. But that’s what I was doing in that period. With LeVert, they had a studio and I was writing a lot of music and had really no idea what I was going to do with the music. But I just kept writing it, and a lot of that music got released when I started writing with Gerald. Even though I was writing full songs, he didn’t use the lyrics, because he wrote lyrics. So he took the tracks and wrote his own lyrics to them. And a lot of those songs became some of the songs that he and I started doing together later.
I know that you graduated from Denison with a B.A. in music. What led you to Denison? And how did college prepare you for life in the music industry?
I would say the biggest thing, and not the only thing, but the most significant thing to me is that studying music in college forced me to pick genres that I never would have paid any attention to, had I not had to. And so, I had to study opera and a lot of classical. And I thought, at the time, that, that stuff was sort of a waste of my time. But those experiences became really, really helpful when I started having to arrange string and horn parts on my own records, because I had some idea of what those things were supposed to do. And just a knowledge of world instruments and what they were; you know, like a kalimba, how they’re supposed to play. There’s a lot of different things that I understood based on having consumed that music because I was forced to. That stuff really, really made a difference. And especially just in being a musical director. I think that if you’re an artist and you know you’re going to be an artist, and that’s what you plan to do, then maybe college doesn’t necessarily have to do that. But if you’re a musician and you don’t know what avenue your career is going to take, then it becomes really useful to be versed in a lot of different things. I was a musical director for the Soul Train Awards one year, like ’95 or something like that. Stuff like that, for example, when you’ve got to write out horn charts and things of that sort, had I not gone to school, I wouldn’t have been able to do.
I know you play a variety of different instruments. Walk me through your musical journey and tell me when you picked up specific instruments. And? Is there a particular instrument that your heart really gravitates toward?
Ultimately I would have wanted to be a drummer, but my parents definitely weren’t trying to hear that noise, and a drum set was out of the question; so a bass guitar was sort of like a compromise for me. I got a guitar when I was in the, I want to say, fifth grade. And it took me a while before I realized that I really was playing bass on the guitar. I was basically playing the bass lines. I mean, I did know some chords, but overwhelmingly I was playing bass lines. And so, once I realized that I was playing bass lines, then it was about cutting people’s lawns and shoveling snow to get enough money together to buy a bass guitar. I wound up playing keys because mother insisted that I play in church in order for me to be able to play in a band. And back in those days there were a lot of openings for keyboard players in bands, because back in those days, you couldn’t buy one keyboard that had all the sounds in it. So if you were a keyboard player and you wanted a Rhodes, you had to have a Rhodes. If you wanted an organ sound, you had to have an organ. A string machine. A clavinet. You had to have all of those keyboards. It was so expensive that there just weren’t a lot of keyboard players around. So if you wanted to play in a band, you could always be in a band if you were a keyboard player, just because of the sheer—you know, the bar of entry was high in terms of being able to afford the gear. But I grew up in a traditional Baptist church and we had piano and organ. So if I wanted to play in church or was forced to play in church, basically one of those two instruments is going to be my only option. So I was kind of forced into playing keys for that reason. Then the drum thing, I wound up kind of doing in college, just because it was something I had always aspired to do and that was the first time I actually got a chance to do it, was in school. So those are probably the three main things that I’ve played. Like today’s drummers, I would never try to do what they do. In music, whenever something new comes along and it displaces some other thing, when that thing comes back, it comes back better than it was before. So what happened with drums is, we had a decade of drum machines, for the most part, was the ‘90s. And it started in the ‘80s, and the ‘90s, a decade of drum machines. And you know, it was like all the records were made with the Akai MPC-60, 3004; whatever, which one you had, those were what made the record. So now the drummers have come back with a vengeance, and they’re playing on a level that is way beyond what drummers were doing in the ‘80s, when I was coming up. So it’s the same thing with Antares, with Auto-Tune. Now we’ve had a decade of auto-tuned vocals. Now you’re finding vocalists that sing like that. They sound like they’ve been auto-tuned and they haven’t been, because they learned how to sing listening to people that had their vocals auto-tuned. Or in much the same way, you know, like when synthesizers came in and replaced the bass guitar in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. So when the bass came back, you know, we’ve added five strings instead of four. And the playing was at a whole other level. And so, that happens in music a lot. To be honest with you, I would never compare myself to today’s drummers. But back in the day, I was considered a drummer; like, I could do what was required. I would never try that today.
You made a lot of interesting points. Even though you are a talented musician, when did you realize that you had a knack for songwriting?
I’m not sure when I realized that I had a knack for it, but I never considered not doing it. It was always what I assumed that I would do. I mean, back in the day, before producers and writers were really well-known, we generally, mostly only knew the artists. Like in the ‘70s, I honestly believe until probably Teddy Riley and that whole ilk came along, I don’t think the average person was really aware of producers, for the most part. So, the songwriting and production thing, I didn’t know I could make any money at it. And I think it was in the bio. I actually remember hearing an old record by The Emotions—and because I was a kid, Earth, Wind and Fire was probably my favorite band back in those days—and when I heard this record, and it sounded really good to me, and it sounded like the Earth, Wind and Fire records. And I read the liner notes and all of that stuff, and I saw it was produced by Maurice White. So, like okay, obviously this guy took the flavor he has, put it on this group. I want to do what that guy does. Now, having a desire to do something is not the same thing as having a knack for it. So I don’t know, until the commercial success came, that I ever really was sure that I had a knack for it but I was always sure that I had a desire for it. I just never assumed that I would do anything other than make music for a living. Going to college was just to shut my parents up.
As you bring your parents up, and considering that fact that you were born and raised in a religious household, how did they take your transition from the gospel world into the secular world?
Well, I was always immersed in the secular world to some extent. My mom just made me play in the church a condition of me being able to play in the clubs and play in the bands and stuff. My mom, I guess, never—she hoped that I would do something in gospel music, but I never tried to make her think that, that was what I was after. I mean, she always knew. She just probably thought that I wouldn’t be able to live up to the expectations because it wasn’t just that I had to play in church; but they also expected me to keep a 3.5 GPA in school. She said if she ever smelled anything on me other than deodorant, that would be the end of the deal, and I couldn’t play in the bands anymore. So I was probably well into my twenties before I actually experienced having too much to drink or hanging out in clubs. For a while, I just would sit in the dressing room between sets. Back in the day, all the clubs had live bands, so that’s where it all started. My dad wouldn’t have cared. He was a jazz fan. He wasn’t as involved in the church. But his main concern is that I would grow up on heroin, or something; strung out, not making any money. His concerns were more of that than the religious thing.
It sounds like you were pretty grounded coming up. Is there a particular piece of advice or is there an instance in which you learned how to maneuver the business side of the music business? To a degree, it sounds like you may have had a certain amount of naiveté?
Man, I’m still learning that part of it. I mean, I’ve had a really unique experience because for seventeen years, I was songwriting and production partners with Gerald. It was one of those kind of situations where most—most songwriting and production partners are more evenly yoked in that; if you think about Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, you think of them as sort of the same. Think of Gamble and Huff, kind of like you think of them the same. Or L.A. and Babyface. Obviously, Face kind of took off in a different way after the fact. But I was in a situation where my partner was famous and I wasn’t. And so, therefore, a lot of the times, he was the person that made the relationships and went out and did the business, and I was in the back making the music. And so, I did a lot of work for a lot of people that I never met. It was just different. In all honesty, I’ve probably—since Gerald’s death—I’ve met more people that I did work for and never met than I ever knew when he was around; because when he was around, they all gravitated to him. Which was fine with me, and that's the reason why our relationship worked, because I was perfectly happy to be the guy in the back getting the work done. As long as my check came, I didn’t really care that much. I understood that Gerald Levert was a brand. That if I built the brand, and he built the brand, we both would eat better, if we concentrated on building up that brand. So it didn’t matter to me if he was the person that people gravitated to because I knew that, in much the same way; you know, if you work for Sean Combs, his name on a record is going to command more money from the record label than one of the people that works for him. I understood that at a very early age and maybe that’s just because I minored in economics, I don’t know; but I understood that and so, it didn’t bother me to play in the back. And I think our relationship worked because of that. But what it left me as, when he got out of here, it left me not necessarily knowing a whole bunch of people in the industry that I had done work for.
It is really interesting that you said that. When I actually went through your production discography and look at all of the work that you have done, I was surprised to see one of my childhood favorites: “Practice What You Preach,” which was recorded by Barry White in 1994. I am also a big fan of Conya Doss’ “So Fly,” which is one of the most-played songs on my iPod! [laughing] As you travel down memory lane, is there a particular song or album that stands out as a personal and professional success?
Wow, that’s a tough one, and you’re going to be surprised. I would say that I felt a great deal of pride with Conya Doss’ first record, [A Poem About Ms. Doss]. And it’s just funny that you would say that. With that record, it was one of the few things that was probably more my concept than anything else. When I got with Conya, she didn’t even want to sing. She wanted to be a schoolteacher. I had a little label, for like fifteen minutes, and she was my first act on that label; well, actually, my only act because the distributor that I was signed to lost their deal, six weeks after that record was released. But that record, I guess, validated to me that my ideas had some musical worth, because a lot of things that I had done, up to that point—especially a lot of what I did with Gerald—people I think just assumed that it was all Gerald. And whether it was or wasn’t, people just assumed that, because they gravitate to the name they know. And I think with Conya, that was probably one of the few—and the fact that it didn’t get a chance to achieve the commercial success that I think it could have, I know what happened there; that the distributor lost their deal, and all of that. So the record was only out for six weeks. But to this day, that’s the thing that people talk to me a lot about.
And I’m sure they mention the Joe [Thomas] records, too! [laughing] All That I Am is an R&B classic. Until I looked at your discography, I didn’t know that your fingerprints were on: “Good Girls,” “No One Else Comes Close,” and several other tracks! Do I even need to mention “I Wanna Know” [from My Name is Joe]? [laughing continues] As I think about all these songs that I know and love, it makes me think about a quote Will Downing shared with me a year or so ago. He said that “a ballad lives forever.” And when I look at your catalogue, there are several songs that I think will be recognized and loved ten, twenty, thirty years from now.
Well, I’ve been lucky. I’ve had a chance to work with artists that will be around for a long time. And that makes a tremendous difference. When you’ve been blessed enough to work with artists that are going to be around; if you give them a decent song, then that song’s going to be around. And that has a lot to do with it. From a production standpoint, you know, when some of your first records wind up being ballads or whatever, then people call on you for that. In this business, the music business, you can’t underestimate the business part. So, a lot of times, if you have success with one thing, that’s what people want you to keep doing. I think the first couple of songs I had were ballads and then that’s what people want you to continuously do. They want to get that money; so, they want you to do what’s commercially successful for you. And they don’t want you to stray away from that too much. I had a #1 hit with Gerald and Eddie Levert, “Baby Hold On to Me,” as well as a #1 hit with the Rude Boys around the same time: [“Are You Lonely For Me”]. So with two back-to-back ballads, people came to me for just that – ballads! [laughing] I guess there were some times when I was like: “Man, I really am getting tired of playing ballads.” By the same token, I have been blessed, because I was able to make some music that will probably have enormous longevity. But I attribute just as much of that success with the artists who recorded my work.
Having worked with Gerald Levert for so long, I know one thing that I have always respected about his “brand,” as you put it, is that even though his music tended to revolve around love and relationships, he was never really explicit sexually and he let his voice convey how sexual he wanted to be. Did you and Gerald have a certain philosophy about the type of music you would create or the images you would present to the public?
We had sort of an unspoken thing, but to be honest with you, I think some of that is also just generational. We studied songwriters that were of a generation before us, and that’s the way they did it. They tended to want to leave a little something to the imagination. The younger writers don’t necessarily think that way. I think that that’s just, in addition to us having some sort of—I mean, we never really had to say it. We just kind of understood that we weren’t going to go there. But also because the majority of what I did was for Gerald, and he wasn’t trying to go there, it also wound up being that the folks that we wound up producing were folks that weren’t necessarily trying to go there, either. And it was more so the younger kids that wanted to do that. And no, there’s no history in just coming out and saying it. I mean, if you’re going to figure out a clever way to say something, it just gives you a greater chance to display your cleverness;. But if you just come out and say it, then what do you do for the next song? [laughing]
I see. [laughing] Well, that gives me a little bit of insight. Over this past decade, there have been a lot of untimely deaths, especially on the male side of the R&B fence. From Barry White to Gerald Levert, and Luther Vandross to Teddy Pendergrass, what do you see in terms of the future of the male R&B balladeer? Do you think those days are gone or do you think we are simply in a dry period right now?
I would have to say dry period, because I think that most of the time when things go away, they come back with a vengeance. There may be a moment in time when certain styles fall out of vogue, but it will be back. Everybody’s always looking for something new, and sometimes something new just winds up being something that’s been off the scene for a minute, but it’s not really, necessarily new. So, there are going to be voices like that, again. And they’re going to swear up and down it’s a new thing. And it won’t be new. We’ll know that it’s not new. But that’s okay. The untimely deaths scare me. Frankly that’s why my wife won’t let me produce her right now. “You ain’t making a record of me.” Because she was actually in that group that I was a musical director for back in the day that was signed to Warner Bros. We only got married three years ago, but she was actually in that group when she was nineteen and I was twenty-three. Just how you have to go all the way back home to find what you were searching around for. In fact, the last place Gerald sang was at my wedding.
It’ll be back. Those voices, that music is out there. If you go back in the day, and you may have said, “Man, there will never be another Frank Sinatra.” But there are young dudes out there, right now, like Michael Bublé coming out of the same kind of vibe; or the cats like Harry Connick, Jr. that sing like that. I mean, you may think something’s gone. But it’s not gone. It may rest for a minute. Because it’s real and people can feel that. And I mean everybody wants music they can feel. So I don’t think that stuff will ever just be gone, forever. It might be a dry season, but gone for good? No. Absolutely not.
When you look over your career, which is close to the three decade mark, what do you consider to be your biggest contribution to the musical landscape? In my opinion, the relationship between you and Gerald Levert rivals that of Babyface and L.A. Reid; Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and several other songwriting teams.
I’m honored to hear you say that, because I believe, in all honesty, that that’s yet to be determined. And I guess the reason why is because a lot of what I’ve done is all over the place. The things that weren’t with Gerald are all over the place. Like I did some Latin records for Universal Latino and I’ve done some jazz things. And my discography, in its current state, does not list of my work, especially my jazz stuff. The phase that I’m going into now, I honestly believe, will probably wind up determining what my legacy is going to be. I still feel like I have a lot of work to do.
When you look into the future, what short-term and long-term goals have you established for yourself?
Right now my primary focus is on finding artists who have done their thing before and maybe have fallen out of favor for whatever reason; and to give them another bite of the apple. Because all of the success that I’ve had, what moves me the most is working with those legends. Right now I just finished a record on Vesta Williams and I’m hoping that in the next sixty days, I’m going to commence a project with Eddie Levert. Because that’s where I started. He was actually my original songwriting partner before Gerald. But that’s really what I want to do. I want to work with veteran artists. I find that I know how to do what they need. And they want to do what I’m doing. We want to do real music. We’re not looking for trendy stuff. They don’t care if they don’t have green Skittles in the dressing room or a certain type of bottled water in their dressing room or whatever. They’re not tripping on all of that. They just want another chance to do what they do. And it’s a pleasure and honor for me to work with them. And it’s just a win-win situation for all. By me being in Cleveland, I can make a record for an amount of money that makes sense. I love New York, I love L.A, but it is expensive, and for reasons that make sense; but it does cost what it costs. So when you look at that, that’s really where I want my focus to be. And in the immediate future, that’s what I’m looking forward to doing.
For more information on Edwin “Tony” Nicholas, visit his official website.