During the 1980s, Philadelphia-born vocalist and songwriter Cecil Parker established a following on the strength of the soulful ballads “Really, Really Love You” and “Love Is.” A series of reality checks in the music business gave him the impetus to pursue a path as an independent artist. He’s since garnered a reputation as a first-class cruise-ship performer and a recording entrepreneur to be reckoned with. On the heels of his new single, “For You,” he talks candidly with Justin Kantor about his unsuspecting start in the arts, the humbling realities of the industry, and what keeps him going as a singer and musician.
Tell me about your musical beginnings. Growing up, did you have family involved in music?
I had an uncle whose job was playing piano in churches, but that was about it. Nobody else sang or performed. I don’t know if you believe in someplace else; but I’m pretty sure that’s where my inspiration came from. I took clarinet lessons when I was very young. By the time I got to high school, that wore off because it wasn’t cool. I taught myself to play bass, then drums—because it was cool for the talent shows.
I didn’t even remotely think about singing until I got to Penn State. I was there on a track and field scholarship, and notoriously shy. The theatre/arts majors were putting on a “Come one, come all” kind of night. My frat guys and I all went to root everyone else on. Then, like something out of a movie, they literally pushed me on stage to watch me freeze in the light. I somehow snapped out of it and started singing something—I think the B-side of a Jackson 5 record. The band, the lights, and the background singers all just kinda fell in. After I finished, everybody was applauding. I don’t know if that was because I had made it through, snapped out of it, or because it was finally over!
I could carry a tune, but I wasn’t that guy they said was gonna sing for a living. Inspirationally, I just loved the whole idea of it. For those four minutes, I just snapped out of my shell.
It seems like you’ve gotten over that shyness at this point!
I’m still basically shy; but after awhile, you learn what to say and do to overcome that. Like swimming, you’re not gonna learn unless you just dive in. So, I told everybody that I was going to be minimally partying—if I wasn’t competing or in class. I had to have headphones and books, anything I could get my hands on. Because I was thinking this was something I really wanted to do; but I felt the least qualified to do it.
Once you started singing more, did you find it came naturally? Did you employ any specific approach or technique?
I ritualistically took an approach by listening to everything. Because of the track and field, I found that I had the power and voracity to hit a note; but I didn’t have the control. I knew that there must be some sort of control mechanism. Like, early on playing basketball, I could get to wherever the ball was—but what happens once it’s in your hands?
Breathing, as quiet as it’s kept, is what it’s all about. To hold the notes, bend them, it just makes it easier if you have the proper breathing. If you do it the other way around and try to do it with just your voice, it’s an uphill climb. Because your voice eventually tires—more quickly than sooner!
How did you land your first record deal?
My very first one didn’t go very well. I went to Thom Bell, who was working with Gamble & Huff at the time. They had established a path of hits. He listened to me and said that their roster was full, but he had a friend right around the corner. That turned out to be Stan Watson at Philly Groove Records. At the time, they had First Choice and the Delfonics under their belt. I was signed, but nothing happened for a year. Eventually, I recorded two or three songs that never got released. It just bottomed out.
A few years passed, and I finally sauntered into TEC/WMOT Records. That was where I had my first full-scale, worldwide release, under Sam Peake. It was pretty scary, because I had no real experience. The session I had done with Stan Watson was at Sigma Sound with all the names you saw on the records: Earl Young on drums, Norman Harris, Bobby Eli. There they were sitting in the studio playing my music. But I had no guidance. I had a little bit more guidance at WMOT. Nick Martinelli was involved, and they did a bit more handholding with directing me. But I had no manager!
You had some success with the Chirpin’ album, via singles like “Really Really Love You” and “Love Is.”
Things were happening in Europe, and they were talking about a tour. I think much of what was to happen would’ve done so on the second album, but the company fell apart.
It seems that, shortly after that point, you began your path as an independent artist.
If you don’t pay attention, you never learn and you get consistently burnt. I started realizing, if the phone’s not ringing, then you have to do your own phone-ringing. So, I started over again. I learned how to write, produce, dot the i’s and cross the t’s independently, so that I could sustain without a label backing me.
How did you approach the transition from working with a backing label to releasing your own records?
I pretty much handled everything myself. Occasionally, if something was crazy, I might have someone assist me. But you get into problems if you don’t have something substantial and you try to pay someone. How much are they going to do to earn what you’re paying them? I dealt with a few people who were calling themselves managers, when it seemed like I had all the ideas. Then, they had their hand out. Once, I had booked myself at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, based upon my performances. During that time, if you had something really ass-kickin’ and word got out, you could work the different properties based on your reputation.
I had a so-called agent, whom I kept asking month after month, “What’s going on?” “Nothing.” Then one night hanging out, I met the entertainment director of the Taj, who knew who I was. She told me that my agent had been pitching another artist for an opening that she had. But she felt the other artist wasn’t as strong, and if I was interested, she’d love to have me. Consequently, I started my run there. Once the agent found out, she was calling me with her hand out—as if she had gotten me the job. That was an awakening for me. If you’re going to hire someone, they should really be able to do something for you. I met Lionel Richie once, and he gave me some really good advice. He said, “Make sure you’re the best that you can be at your craft. Don’t believe your own press. And surround yourself with as powerful people as you can.” Not egotistically speaking, but meaning people that can and do something substantial for you. Otherwise, you don’t need them.
Your first independent release is one of my favorite recordings of yours: the lovely ballad “I’m So Hurt,” released on your own Spectrum label. How did that work out for you?
I did that with producer Terry Price, whom I wanted to work with because of his credits with WMOT. It was a pretty cool project, but I learned what it really takes to get a record off the ground. Once you have a project in your hand, there’s a whole ‘nother adventure after that. I incorporated and all that stuff, but then I found out about the nuts and bolts of promotion and marketing. You don’t just have it in your hand and then decide, “I’m gonna take it to this radio station and then I’ll just sit back and collect.” It doesn’t happen that way. If you’re a fledgling operation, you come to the realization of how much money is involved. You have to start counting your fingers and toes.
Shortly after “I’m So Hurt,” you recorded a couple of songs with legendary Philly producer Vince Montana, Jr. One was the Linda Creed-Thom Bell composition, “I Think I’ll Tell Her.” What are your memories of that project?
That came about as a result of Bob Pantano, a huge DJ on WOGL, who used to be on WCAU. He still has the “Saturday Night Dance Party” show that’s very big. He would always close with the Ronnie Dyson version of “I Think I’ll Tell Her.” Someone got the idea of redoing it, as Ronnie had passed on. I’d worked with Vince on my Sigma Sound stuff, and my name came up. So, it was the three of us coming together. To this day, it’s still being played on Bob’s show every Saturday night. I did his 35th anniversary show in New Jersey last February, along with acts like Billy Paul and the Stylistics. There were about 7,000 people there. According to Bob, out of all the acts on the bill, mine got the most hits on YouTube. That was pretty amazing to me. His complements don’t flow freely.
You have continued to record, but I get the sense that live performing is your most steady gig. Is that accurate?
In many cases, live performance is my bread and butter. I headline on cruise ships. They fly me around the world.
How did you get started with that?
It was a rocky road. When I was working in Atlantic City, there was a choreographer looking for performers for two ships she had contracted. I had a dancer friend, who told the lady on the spot, “Hire Cecil. You want him to be a singer in your shows.” I had never done that kind of work before. I was used to always being up front. It was a rude awakening when I first went out to Los Angeles to rehearse. I was dealing with a lot of territorial attitudes. “Oh, you’re from the East Coast?” It was very competitive, and I had no formal training. When the choreographer said, “1, 2, 3, turn…Cecil, you’re supposed to be on the other side of the stage now,” I had no concept of that. So, I made friends with the dancers. Every time we got a second, I’d ask, “What’s that called? How do you do that?” The executive producer came to a rehearsal and had everybody do their show on the spot. Some of the other singers were still reading from the book. I just performed, and that got me through. All of the people reading got fired on the spot.
Once you started working on the ships, was the experience what you expected?
A lot of the shows take snippets from Broadway—so there is acting, dancing, and singing involved. Because it was natural for me to sing, I ended up keeping my job. Once we got on the ship, all the people that gave me problems during the rehearsals had to reevaluate, because I was getting all the response. Because once I know what’s required, my performance acumen kicks in. I’m not a dancer. If it takes a dancer five minutes to learn something, it takes me five hours. But once I get it, I will look just as good as any dancer, if not better. I can perform it and stylize it.
Which cruise lines have you worked on?
I started with Costa. They mostly did the Caribbean. Then, I went on to Carnival, who gave me a chance at being a headliner on all of their ships after a few years. Then, I went on to Celebrity,
What are some of the things you’ve learned from your performing experiences on the various cruise lines?
I found that your interpretation of the material is of such creative importance. I would befriend other singers in the cast and realize, if you just hit this note or move this or that to the other, you get so much more of a response. That eventually took me to signing on as a vocal captain. The shows were set with costuming, lighting, and choreography, but I was in charge of what things sounded like vocally. I’ve seen so many shows where the vocal attack is incorrect for the piece. I’ve seen some performers do R&B material where clearly, no one ever sat them down to say, “I hear you trying to do an Aretha song, but you should study the actual R&B.” It’s not just how you start the phrase; it’s also how you end it. The timing of it. If you end the phrase wrong, it’s not R&B. So many performers would just hold the note too long, because they thought it gave the song a soul element—when really, the best thing is to just nip it in the bud. That makes it more rhythmic.
I also have learned how very fragile the voice is. When I look back at my early years on the ships, I was constantly clearing my throat. I was playing the Phantom. It was a really clear vocal piece. I would struggle through it night after night, and I couldn’t understand why. Come to find out years later, I had polyps on both sides of my vocal chords. I had the surgery, and it was like night and day.
Were the polyps caused by overuse of your voice?
I actually trace it back to when I was headlining in Atlantic City, doing a six-week stint at Caesar’s. Even with all the lights on the stage, both the performers and the guests used to complain about how cold it was in there. They had the air conditioning in overkill. You’re up there dancing around, and every time you inhale, you’re freezing your throat. Multiply that by night after night!
Speaking of dancing, although you’re known largely for more romantic types of songs, you’ve put out a couple of funky dance records over the years. One of my favorites is “All My Love,” which you did with producer Major Healy in 1994. How did that come about?
I always pay attention as best I can to what’s going on. I always had this energy, and I love clubs. So, I wanted to give dance music a try and see what happened. I’ll always be a ballad/midtempo guy; but I asked myself, “Would I want to hear a whole night of just that?” There really wasn’t a lot of backing behind that record. But I’m having a remix done of one of my new songs, “Another Level.” In Europe and the rest of the world, dance music has always been more mainstream. It’s more so now here, with David Guetta having won at the American Music Awards, and Pitbull’s half-time performance at the NBA all-star game. Because I still have that energy, it’s very enticing to me to have a dance song that I can go to different clubs and perform. Plus, I love choreography.
The first full-length CD you recorded independently was 1999’s Essensual. How did you get that project together?
I approached it like a new frontier. With the digital age, it was my first major foray into programming. I delved into studying that. It has its advantages and disadvantages. It’s not as warm as analog, but you can’t argue with the numbers. I didn’t have to hire a piano player, or worry about the legistics of where to record it and whether the person would be on time. One thing led to another, I finished the CD, and then ended up packaging it and dealing with The Orchard, which is not a lightweight. Esperanza Spalding was with them, and you saw what she did—beating out Justin Bieber for Best New Artist, very quietly!
Were you still based in California when you did that CD?
Yes, I was working on a ship based out there. I figured, “I’m here every Saturday. Why not find a studio?” So, I worked it out with the car rental company to leave the car at the ship’s docking base, and they would pick it up during the course of the week, knowing that the next Saturday I would be renting again. It was pretty hectic. It doesn’t matter how much time you leave to get from point A to B out there. Once traffic starts, you’re stuck. All too many times, I would leave the studio with more than an hour to get back to the ship. The traffic would screw me up, and I’d be barreling down the highway at 90 miles per hour, then running through the cruise terminal—literally throwing the keys to the cruise center and continuing on. Otherwise, they would’ve left me. But it was worth it, because had I waited to record until my contract was over, I would’ve missed six months of recording time.
You’ve just released a new single, “For You.” Tell me about that.
The song was originally done by L.T.D., after Jeffrey Osborne had left the group. I always loved it. The guy who sang lead on it did a really nice job; I just smoothed it out a little bit. The additional song on the single is “Love Don’t Love You,” written by Luther Vandross. Gregory Hines recorded it on his one album. It was minimally promoted, so a lot of people didn’t hear it. I’d always use the song to warm up before shows and really wanted to record it. It’s just beautiful.
Your last full-length CD release was 2004’s For Now. Since then, you’ve put out a number of singles. How do you decide which song to release and when?
In a nutshell, I weigh timeless versus trendy. I tend to lean toward the timeless side. A lot of the things that are hot and poppin’ now, no one really remembers in three months. The very nature of that side of it is to perpetuate itself: in with the new, out with the old. I still get requests from overseas for “Really, Really Love You,” and possibly doing a remake of it. I’m hedging, because I’m not feeling that a remake would be better. Some things are best left alone without changing the whole mood of the song. Sure, I could add more percussion, speed it up, or slow it down; but then it’s no longer “Really, Really Love You.”
Is recording your main focus now, more so than live performance?
I’m not after a gazillion material things. I’m after a positive image. It’s about quality more than quantity. To be an independent artist gives you a little bit more freedom. Because all too often you hear the stories of, “Great, you’re wonderful. Here’s a check; now change! We now own you.” There’s this machinery in place [with the major labels]. There used to be a time when being unique, special, and creative got you a record deal. Now, it’s the other way around. You get a deal by being a clone of somebody that they already have. The corporations control so much, and they have this little box that you have to fit into. If you don’t, you’re not gonna get signed. They’re not trying to sell anything outside of that box. That way, everybody keeps their jobs. It makes everybody look like they’re being competitive with the record company next door. That’s why all the records sound the same.
I’ve also noticed a trend in recent years of artists sounding much different live than they do on record.
So few artists can stand on their own, without the production. Once the producer or marketing team is the star, the artist becomes secondary and has to follow them—as opposed to a marketing campaign that’s tailored to who the artist really is, or a producer who can bring out the best of their talent. A lot of producers seem to have the mentality of, “This is what’s happening now. Find a way to do it.”
We live in a visual age. As long as it looks great, it doesn’t matter that it’s the same thing as last week. We’ll only sell it to kids, and we’ll all get rich forever and ever. People don’t question that it’s new. That’s why it’s really hard for a legitimate singer to put out something and expect it to do as well as they’d like. There are so many things to sing and write about other than a booty call or bashing. They’re being done, but the people that do it don’t have the wherewithal to get the exposure. You have corporations buying half of the radio stations. Heaven forbid you have a beef with Radio One or Clear Channel, your career in America is destroyed.
I read on your website that you are in the process of recording a new album, If I Sing. When can listeners expect to hear that?
I have all of the rough drafts done, musically and vocally. I’m in the “living with it” stage right now. Every time I think I’m finished, I end up not being. So, I’m just seeing how it flows—if I want to delete, or possibly replace, anything. As I go down the list, I try to see how I feel listening to it, as objectively as possible. When you’re the artist and producer, it’s hard to enjoy your own stuff. You’re too busy being critical. The first four measures, you’ve already stopped the tape.
Sounds like you’re a perfectionist.
I try to be. I figure if you fall short of that, you’re still in a good place.
Do you have people that can give you feedback during that process?
I constantly have different people listen to the music. Oftentimes, the less familiar they are with me, the better. That can prompt a more honest decision. It’s possible that people who know you better might blow smoke up your butt because they’re your friend. Or some might think there might be something in it for them down the road if they tell you good things.
Are there any artists out now whose work you especially dig?
There’s a world out there, musically, but it can be very discouraging. I look at the industry now and wonder, “What is the impetus for a young kid to pick up an instrument?” The encouraging thing, though, is that there are millions of people. I hear all the time from so many people who are unhappy with the so-called musical landscape. They’re not being catered to, but they don’t feel empowered. That’s probably why it stays the way that it does. A lot of the labels know that if they try to push this crap on certain people, they’re not gonna buy it. They’re too aware to fall for it. That’s why a lot of acts just go after the kids.
It seems that in some parts of the world, artists can have longevity in the mainstream without having to sacrifice as much, artistically.
Yes, in some parts of the world, they don’t care how long it’s been, or what age or color you are. We have a lot of “ism’s” going on in the U.S. A lot of those prohibit people from being more successful. Michael Jackson understood that perfectly. He knew that he was only going to go so far on the R&B side. Whether you agree with it or not, it is what he did. It was brilliant and it worked. He knew because of the psychological issues, if he lightened his skin he would be more appealing. He also knew that there’s a psychological issue with hair. A lot of the artists on the R&B tip are doing it now. As far as marketing is concerned, there are billions of people who are entranced by skin color and hair—how it’s used or not used.
How do you stay true to your musical vision as an artist in this “visual age”?
It’s about the feel. I tell the young performers, “Be prepared to hear ‘no’ 25 hours a day, but don’t let it discourage you.” Because no one on this planet knows what a hit is until after it becomes a hit. If anybody knew what a hit was before it became a hit, don’t you think they would be doing it? Why would they be working for someone else if they were able to know? You have to treat each song individually. I remember Toni Braxton saying that when they first pitched “Unbreak My Heart” to her, she didn’t want to do it; she felt it was too Disney. But then, the song took her to the moon. In my case, with “Love Is” from the Chirpin’ album, that was the last song we did. I just interpreted it as needing one more song to finish—the filler. I didn’t like it. But it ended up being the first and biggest single from the album. What did I know? You can only go by your gut and how you’re going to feel about it after it’s done.