50 YEARS OF GREATNESS
The Sounds of Blackness is a vocal and instrumental ensemble from Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota performs music from several genres including gospel, R&B, soul, and jazz. The group scored several hits on the Billboard R&B and Hot Dance Music/Club Play charts in the 1990s and has won numerous awards for their work. Gary Hines has been the musical director/producer for the last fifty years and is its longest active member. I had the great honor of sitting down with Gary to talk about his career, The Sounds of Blackness, and much more.
You have been the director and producer of the sounds of blackness for 50 years now. What drew you to that back in 1971.
That’s a great question. You and I are both products of the Minneapolis/St. Paul’s public school system. It was Minneapolis Central and then North High for me, where Terry Lewis attended. As I matriculated to a McCallister college, my Alma mater across the river in St. Paul, they embarked on a very ambitious program to recruit students of color conscientiously.
It was called EEO expanded educational opportunities. And the college was very successful in that effort. They had nearly a hundred African-American students and other students of color on campus at one time. The students themselves organized several different activities organizations.
A political group still exists called BMAC, the black liberation affairs committee, and there was a theater group called black arts. This was 1969 and predated the sounds of blackness. In 1969 it was the Macalister college black voices that our Ameritas founder Russell Knighton, who had this magnificent 50 voice choir that McAllister black voices. When I came on campus, he was preparing to graduate in 71 and approached me about assuming the directorship of the group.
And I was very honored to do that because even back then, they were very excellent, and the vision the good Lord gave me was to continue the tradition of Duke Ellington. That may surprise many people because we hear Duke Ellington’s name and think of jazz as we should. Many people don’t know that the duke wrote, recorded, and performed anthem spirituals, hymns, the gospel, and every sound of blackness. We call Duke Ellington our musical mentor. That’s the meaning and origin of the name sounds of blackness, every sound of the black experience.
That is so interesting. I did not know that. I appreciate the history lesson. Did you think you would be leading the group for 50 years?
In our naive and Idealistic student enthusiasm way back in 71, the answer would have to be yes. My friend, the great professor emeritus Mahmoud El-Kati, who happens to be the father of the great RNB of vocalists Stokely, also out of St. Paul Central High across the river from Minneapolis Central High,
Professor L Kati was a professor at McAlester College at the time. He is a world-renowned African-American history professor, and he was our cultural and historical mentor from day one, and he told us to be more than just a band to be a cultural institution. By God’s grace, the dedication and sweat of many members and former members are coming to fruition.
A number of our current members are actually offspring of original members. So, technically this is Sounds of Blackness’s second generation. We did envision being an ongoing entity. Frequently we are asked, did you guys ever, in your wildest dreams as students imagine that you would one day travel the world and win Grammys? Once again, the answer was yes. In our youthful enthusiasm, we would sit around after rehearsals and say, you know what, one day we’re going to have our own airplane, and we’re going to travel all over the world. We were students in the seventies, but we believed we would win Grammys tours all over the place. And lo and behold, you know, the Lord brought that.
If you can envision it, you can make it come true. How has music evolved, especially for the generation that may not have been around in the seventies?
The more things changed, the more they remained the same. Music has always been, and I think always will be, at its core, very organic. The nature of sound and sound creation is really a spiritual entity, no matter beyond faith traditions and all that kind of thing.
We are more than human beings having a spiritual experience. We’re spiritual beings having a human experience, and music is part of that. Music is vibration, and the vibration is life. With the digital and technological advances that have permeated the music industry, many production techniques and methods have changed. But again, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Many recordings are now digital, which is state of the art now.
Its strengths are its cleanliness, fidelity, and the recording process’s dexterity. But your strength can be your weakness. It’s so clean that it loses the warmth of analog recording. And so many of the recordings that we hear today are recorded digitally but then run through an analog program to give it the warmth of analog earlier years programming. Then finally, they are remastered; that’s why I started answering the question by saying what’s old is new and what goes around comes around just on the technical music production.
That’s very true. If you go back and listen to older LPs, you can definitely hear the difference between the way music was produced then and now. I think back to the Motown days and the wall of sound. All of that is music is unique and different from what we’re hearing today. In many cases, today’s music can be overproduced.
Your achievements personally and the achievements of The Sound of Blackness are impressive. You’ve got Grammys; you’ve traveled the world and performed on world stages. What are you personally most proud of?
Anthony, I’d say probably the resilience, perseverance, and dedication of sounds of blackness singers and band. As I mentioned earlier, while I am the only original member, much of our current crew are actually offspring of originals. But even in our band, we have some 20 and 30-year members, and they are the foundation, rock, and core.
Even though the Grammys and the world travel are amazing blessings, and we treasure them, I’d have to say; I’m most proud of the stick-to-itiveness to drop all the fancy terms. Because without that, you know, it all only happens by the grace of God. And like I said, their sweat, equity, and dedication to this day is something that I’m just immensely proud of.
That’s a great answer. I love that. Your work in music and the music of The Sound of Blackness has influenced and left an indelible mark on more than one generation; as you pointed out, the group comprises second-generation members. How has it changed you as a person?
The group has made me kick it up a notch. It is everything that I do as a musical director, musician, pianist, conductor, and producer. Their productivity and performance have commanded me to continually increase what I do.
The level of excellence that they’ve established commands and demands that I up my game when I think I couldn’t be any more intense, dedicated, or have a greater level of work ethic in terms of my daily preparation, practice, rehearsal, and performance;
That makes sense. You’ve worked with some of the biggest talents in the entertainment industry. We’ve also seen a lot of loss of talent over the years. Some of the most talented performers I can think of have fallen victim to the pitfalls of being an entertainer. How have you avoided the pitfalls that come with the entertainment industry?
First and foremost, only by the grace of God. Second, knock on wood; I hope that I continue to avoid them, hopefully. You know, it’s no sooner than you say how you did something when something else comes up. But seriously, I think the main thing is again, by the grace of God., Having an active daily and steady prayer life, a spiritual center, but you know, being way far from perfect.
On April 21, 2016 singer/songwriter Prince died from an accidental overdose of the opioid fentanyl at the age of 57. Prince and Gary had been friends for decades and both attended the same Minneapolis high school.
One of the most unique and talented artists that we lost was a good friend of yours, Prince. The two of you were friends for decades; what’s one of your fondest memories of him.
That’s tough but a great question Anthony. There’s the professional in the studio and performance, Prince. And, you know, the party Prince out at Paisley, First Avenue, Sheiks, and so many other places. For all of his undeniable musical genius and accomplishments, Prince was a prankster. He had a great sense of humor in many ways.
He knew that many people didn’t know about his exceptional athletic prowess, especially as a basketball player. Despite his height, he was an all-city basketball player. And you probably were aware that you had to really be good at a basketball school even to make the team. But he made it, and he was all city. But as he became Prince international icon, his talent as a basketball player got lost in the shuffle.
Artists, athletes, and movie stars would all come out to Paisley. Prince always kept a basketball hoop out on the soundstage floor. Some of these jocks would come out there, all pros, and he’d say, how about a little one-on-one? And they laughed because they thought he was joking. What are you kidding me? And he would get them out there and take them to the hole, as they say because they didn’t know he was such a talented basketball player. So that was probably one of the fondest, fun memories of him doing that.
It is definitely a unique fact, and of course, being from the Twin Cities, I know that about him, but your right; many do not.
Is there anybody you still want to work with that you haven’t had the chance to?
There are several, in no particular order, some that we know and have met and others we are familiar with. Certainly, the incredible Jennifer Hudson, who’s a force of nature vocally and as an actress.
The great Earth, Wind, and Fire; were longtime friends with Verdine and Phillip. We appeared on some of the same stages but have not worked together yet. So those are two that, and there are several others, but those two just immediately come to mind.
That’s cool. Is there somebody you admire coming up in the business, somebody where you say, wow, that is today’s talent?
The first one that comes to my mind is Alicia keys. She reminds me of the late great Nat King Cole.
Most people think of Nat King Cole as the consummate vocalist as they should because he was, but many people don’t know he was a virtuoso pianist. When he would go on tour overseas, particularly in Europe, the promoters would often gently say, ” Mr. Cole, we love you singing, but we really want to hear you play (piano). They weren’t telling him not to sing but asking him to please make his piano playing more prominent.
That’s how I am with Alicia keys. I love her voice and songwriting, but she is a beast on piano.
Interesting that you say that because I think another Great artist who’s no longer with us that falls into that category was Nina Simone. People probably know this; it’s not a secret, but her original aspiration was to be a concert pianist when she came up. The times being what they were, that didn’t happen for her, but she was still an amazing piano player.
On May 25, 2020, George Perry Floyd Jr. was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer setting up a racial and social justice movement around the world.
I can’t speak to you here without asking you about the tragedy in our hometown with the murder of George Floyd. I’m very interested in your reaction to it and the events that followed that.
There were and still are some personal connections to brother George Floyd with sounds of blackness and myself in several ways. I couldn’t say that he was a friend of mine. We worked out at the same gym, and he worked security for one of our lead singers. There were those personal connections.
George was murdered five blocks away from where we rehearse at Sebastian Community Center, right in the heart of the black community in south Minneapolis. The physical proximity added salt to the wound, or whatever phrase you want to use. It was impossible for me not to feel and think of and see this from a historical perspective because it was a lynching. Lynching has happened to African-Americans for centuries in one form or another. George’s murder was a modern-day lynching in real-time, caught on camera for the world to see. And thank God the world reacted to it on the most visceral level. In many different ways, the murder of George Floyd was and still is devastating.
I couldn’t agree with you more. I was shocked, disgusted, and saddened that something like that happened in Our hometown. I’m not blind or ignorant to the fact that there was, and still is, a racial divide, but I so expected and thought more of our community as a whole.
Do you think we’ve learned anything from this? Do you think we’ve made any advances?
In terms of the first part of your question? I think we have learned things, and not all of them are good. You already alluded to one of them. Despite the banner of Minnesota nice, right under that veneer is Minnesota not nice. And the reality is, you know, vestiges of white supremacy and racism and injustice and inequality. Donald Trump and then Derek Chauvin helped pull that veneer off and expose it for where it is now.
Thank God. It wasn’t everywhere and not nearly with everyone, but it does exist, as you alluded to. So, we learned that. I’ll never forget the tens of thousands who came together. Not just here in Minneapolis. White, black, men, women, young, old, every faith tradition, no faith tradition. Not only in Minneapolis but around the world.
Our regular rehearsal night is Tuesday, and George was killed on a Monday. And the first rally was that next day, Tuesday, right on 38th in Chicago. The media downplayed how many people were there; thousands and thousands of people were there. And this young lady, a Caucasian teenager, came up to me, and she was proudly holding a black lives matter. Apparently, she recognized me from the group, and she said, Hey, Mr. Sounds of blackness, you guys are one of my favorite groups. And she said I bet you guys are going to do a song about this. I said yes, and the next thing she said really stuck with me, Anthony. She said, please don’t make it a happy. And I said you know what, young lady, I promise you that will not happen.
And no sooner than I spoke those words, I could hear the voice and words of the late great Fannie Lou Hamer, who originated the phrase I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. And that phrase would not be me alone. I was up a couple of days and nights writing that song.
It was a worldwide phenomenon and showed us, showed some of the worst of us, and showed the best of us.
As I was thinking about our interview, I couldn’t help but think about how the social changes in this country have influenced music. Music has also influenced that social change. And we’ve seen that yet again. Have you drawn that comparison?
Yes, Anthony, and proudly, much of the phenomena you just described have happened here in Minnesota. We were blessed to be on a tribute album of Bob Dylan; the times they are changing. And, of course, Prince. When the brother was killed in Baltimore, he wrote the song and recorded Baltimore.
I tell people all the time, believe me, had he still been alive, do you think he would have done that in Baltimore and not in Minneapolis? I guarantee you; he would have been there for that. It brings to mind Anthony, the quote of the great Paul Robeson, who once said all true artists have a responsibility to their people. And sounds of blackness take that very seriously. But thankfully, we’re not the only artists who take that seriously as well.
We were blessed to connect with our brother from Chicago Common, who you know is an actor, rapper, and artist. But he likes to be called an activist. He was here.
You said something that I think is very important. Activism takes many forms; we all have a role to play in changing the world and our society. Even if it’s just one small thing that can make a difference, we can all be an activist by doing something.
I commend those who were not silent when that was happening to him. It’s unfortunate that it happened, but I don’t think that his death or life will be in vain. And I think that already some positive things have come of that.
What advice would you give to new artists coming up in the business today? Because it’s so different from what it was and has changed and evolved so much.
Remember some words that start with P. The first is prayer or meditation. If you’re not a person of faith, that’s fine. But, again, we are spiritual beings having a human experience. What comes from the heart reaches the heart. So having that spiritual center aside from any faith tradition and being in touch with that will help you be true to who you are, to what your music is, and what it is saying.
The next P is practice. Practice your craft daily, no matter what else is going on. Find time to improve, upgrade, to hone your craft daily.
The other P is persistence. This industry, and I think life in general in terms of pursuing our goals, is about persevering. Things generally don’t happen overnight. And we don’t want them to, I mean, it’s a process and to attain and obtain the benefits of that persistence and perseverance.
That brings me to another P. Perspiration. This business is not for the faint of heart. I tell my vocalists all the time singing is a sport. Exercise the apparatus. The voice is a muscle, and exercise not only the voice but your chops, whatever your instrument is.
One of the first things that the industry frequently tries to do is turn you into something you’re not if they express interest in you in terms of a contract or a production deal. They try to make you the flavor of the month instead of bringing out who and what you are. One of my professors once told me that your passion should be your profession. And so, is this your passion? And if it is, then you do what it takes to make it your profession.
Very well said because it’s a journey. It’s not a destination. Again, Gary, I can’t thank you enough for sitting down and doing this interview with me. It has been an absolute pleasure.
And on behalf of sounds of blackness, we genuinely thank you.
“FROM JAZZ AND BLUES TO ROCK & ROLL, R&B, GOSPEL, SPIRITUALS, HIPHOP, REGGAE, AND SOUL, WE COLOR EACH AND EVERY “SOUND OF BLACKNESS” WITH UPLIFTING MESSAGES OF HOPE, UNITY, LOVE, AND PEACE FOR ALL HUMANKIND – AND WE WORK PASSIONATELY TO ACHIEVE IT.”