Poogie Bell: A Little Suga

Having played with Marcus Miller’s band for 20 years and as side man with, among others, Tom Browne, Chaka Khan, David Sanborn, Keith Sweat, Erykah Badu, Hugh Masekela [with whom he toured South Africa alongside Miriam Makeba] and Angélique Kidjo, drummer Poogie Bell has more recently been leading his own band to considerable international acclaim. His most recent album, Suga Top, was released in the summer, and is a fine tribute to the area of Pittsburgh, officially known as Hill District, in which he grew up and has now returned to as his family home.
Poogie was born in Suga Top in 1961 and growing up in the atmosphere of this district in Pittsburgh was to have a formative influence on him. Music could be heard and experienced everywhere in the neighbourhood – a lot of gospel and soul, of course, but also funk and heaps of jazz: Bell’s father Charles was an outstanding jazz pianist.
The band on Suga Top is special, including keyboard player Bobby Sparks, saxophonists Chris Hemmingway and Keith Anderson, and the acclaimed trumpeter Michael “Patches” Stewart. Bulgaria-born vocalist Mey also contributes a fine lead performance to a cover of Erykah Badu’s Other Side Of The Game.
Here are the results of an interesting discussion with the laid-back Poogie, down the Skypeline to Pittsburgh.


The sleeve pic to the album is intriguing: is it a family shot?
“No, it’s not family. I did have some family shots but I thought I would piss too many people off if I used them!
“The idea was to show some people having a good time. I tied to find something that would be more my generation – the sixties and seventies – but the blaxploitation thing has been done a lot. So I went back a little further. It’s reminiscent of the type of parties we’d have in the back yard when I was a kid. The beer would be flowing and your aunt would be up and dancing when she never really did… happy times. I don’t know where the picture is from exactly, but it conveyed the feeling that I remember.”

What took him back home?
“Well, first thing, I’m the only son and my mom turned 80 this year: she was living in the old house, a seven bedroom place. Actually, she was living on the third floor of the house for some reason. The neighbourhood was beginning to change: it went from the middle class area it used to be back in the fifties, to where the crack thing happened and it changed and became a little strange. My sister is a truck driver, so she’s away a lot. My mom was alone in the big house, so I came home to see if she was OK.
“The other reason is I grew up in New York and I was able to make a name for myself there and play there a lot, but being in New York is a young man’s sport. And now I don’t need to live there, just so long as where I do live has an airport.
“To be honest, the quality of life in New York isn’t all that desirable after a while. From the age of six to 40-something, I was a New Yorker. But I got tired of living in Manhattan. I got married and when I went out on the road a few days afterwards I told my wife – who had just come over from Japan and didn’t really have any friends yet – ‘Why don’t you spend some time with my mom in Pittsburgh?’ She did, and when I got back off tour she told me she was pregnant. So I started looking for an apartment that would be big enough, in New York City. I was looking at places for 7500 bucks a month! I was already paying something like half of that for a one-bedroom apartment and although I could probably have afforded it, I just began to wonder what was the point of paying out all that money for somewhere that I didn’t own. Madness!
“Then 9/11 happened… and I just felt like I wanted out, y’know? My mom was ill shortly after that and I began to feel like it was time to go. Now back here, raising my son, where he has parks to play in and football teams to join, and where the house we have… well, put it this way, the amount of money I pay, I wouldn’t be able to get a parking space in Manhattan. It was time.
“Now that I’m here, it feels like one of the best moves I ever made. I was able to make my album here. In New York, you’re worried about what’s going on all the time. While I was there, I had Marcus’s gig, of course, but I had to keep up three or four others to make it work. It was hectic. Here things are laid back and people say hello to you on the street. The city has grown since I was last here too. Google has just moved its HQ here, Steven Spielberg has opened a movie studio here… it’s a growing thing. I enjoy it.”

Five albums into being a bandleader, does he still have time for the sideman stuff?
“People who I enjoy working with, I’ll do their gigs. But I’m not trying to be a sideman really. Back in New York, if I heard Keith Sweat or Erykah Badu was putting a band together, I’d go and try to get that gig. Now I’m focussed on my own thing. It’s harder, but once you get a taste for it, you can’t leave it alone. Meeting people after the gigs… I love that. I do still play the odd smooth-jazz gig here and there, but mostly I do me. I don’t miss all that other stuff. I enjoyed it when I was doing it, but I’ve done that now.”

The last one he did?
“In the last year I produced an album for Alex Bugnon and I did some gigs with him, and for Bob Baldwin sometimes, but the last big one was with Marcus back in 2008/9. I did a couple of Angelique Kidjo records too. Not too much.”

What was the first point he wanted to get over with the album Suga Top?
“I guess a lot of people, when they think about urban black American communities, they think it’s the worst of everything. What I was trying to convey was that the community I grew up in was wonderful. People worked, they took pride in where they lived, their homes… they were business owners and went to college, became doctors, lawyers, policemen and so on. I wanted to get that across. There were neighbourhood bands that played top 40 and R&B and soul. I grew up across the street from a beautiful park and there were summer concerts and cook-outs. It was a positive thing and I wanted to get that feeling across.”

Lots of music pouring out of open windows?
“Oh, hell yeah; especially Saturday morning or Sunday morning. You would hear funky organ trios, gospel music, whatever was current on the radio… us black folks, we like to entertain the entire neighbourhood, so we’d set up a speaker in the back yard. Whether you wanted to hear Frankie Beverly or not, you were gonna hear it.
“My uncle was a union man and he would go around making sure that all the musicians had paid their dues so that they could play in the clubs. Every corner place had an organ trio in it, some bands playing straight ahead, maybe. Then at the Trocadero, Coltrane, Art Blakey, Ahmad Jamal – who’s from Pittsburgh, incidentally – all these guys would be playing. On a Saturday, my uncle would take me with him and visit all these places and I’d be exposed to all these different types of music.
“I had an aunt who lived not too far away from me – well, she probably wasn’t a real aunt, just my uncle’s girlfriend – and she played B3 organ. She had one, this massive instrument, sitting in her living room, ‘cause she was a jazz player. One of my greatest joys as a child was to go over to my aunt Ruby’s house and play her organ loud! I wasn’t playing anything really, but she didn’t care. My father was a musician too, of course, and he would rehearse with bands.
“A lot of great musicians came from Pittsburgh. My father used to tell about seeing George Benson playing on the street when he was young, doing Nat King Cole songs.”

And these days how is it?
“A lot has changed. The older people who remember what it was, they still have a sense of community, but of course they’re dying off now. We have some young people who are aware and know, but there’s another group of young people who were raised on hip-hop and hip-hop videos, and who just don’t have any clue, quite frankly. There are pockets of young people who do know, but those pockets are getting smaller.
“When I was growing up and listening to hip-hop, it seemed you had to have rhyming skills. Now, it seems like if you can recite a nursery rhyme you can make a gazillion bucks!”

Are there any kids asking, ‘Mr Bell, can you help me with this?’
“Well, people aren’t as trusting as they used to be. So, no… but I do volunteer my services. About a month ago, some kids were walking down the street, trying to sell their CD. They were rappers. I started talking to them. I asked if they had their music copyrighted. They said they had mailed it to themselves. That shit doesn’t work any more. Don’t know if it ever really did. I explained how to copyright their music properly, what a publishing company does. I gave ‘em a card and said they could call me if they needed any advice on contracts or whatever. You need to pass things along like that.
“One of the worst things about the music business is that people don’t help each other like they should. I guess they take the view that, ‘Shit, I had to find out on my own, why don’t you do the same?’ In reality it wouldn’t be any sweat off your balls to offer a little guidance. It doesn’t hurt at all to do that.”

Why did you include the Erykah Badu cover on the album?
“When I worked with her, it was my favourite song in her show. I always dug it. I remember telling her at rehearsal that I was gonna cover that song one day. And this was before her record was released, so she said, ‘Well, could you at least wait until my record has come out?’
“I think it’s a great song; very reminiscent of something that someone like Minnie Riperton might do, or Phoebe Snow. It’s real simple, straight to the point. And it never hurts to put something on a record that people are familiar with.”

D’Angelo fans will love Greasy Chicken Scratch…
“I hope so! I got a call to play with him on his first record. I was in London and couldn’t make the gig. I was so bugged out! I love D’Angelo.”

How did he find Mey?
“I played in Bulgaria in 2010 with my band and apparently she came to the show. I didn’t remember this, but later on, when I was working on the album, I decided that I needed vocals for some of the tracks. So I went on Facebook and did a search for singers, and for whatever reason, Mey and her picture was the first thing that came up in the search engine. No idea how it happened. I sent an email. She wrote me back, ‘You already know me! You met me in Bulgaria… ’
“I sent her a track and she sent it back – that was Without You, the first song we did together. Then she came out on the road with me in Europe and she was nervous, but she was really good.
“I’m working on a couple of tracks for her album too – songs called Smile and Break My Heart. They are on youtube. She has over 100,000 hits already.
“Music is international, universal. She doesn’t know what the hell I’m saying to her most of the time, and I have no clue what she’s saying to me, but when we work together, somehow it makes sense!”

The album definitely sounds like fun.
“I’m always trying to have a good time. Making music is always fun. I think I’m more in focus now than I have ever been before. For years and years I was a massive marijuana abuser, but for close to six years I have been clear of all that stuff. I never smoked cigarettes or drank either. My mind was clear and focused when we did this record, which is why it feels like a complete package. I don’t think my others hang together in the same way. I have found a path to walk on and I’m gonna stay on that path.”