NOBODY CAN BE YOU - THE STEVE ARRINGTON INTERVIEW
Updated: Feb 16, 2021
First off, Steve is probably the most humble cat that I’ve ever had the honor of interviewing. I have talked to folks who have done far less than Steve, yet have the biggest egos. It is surreal conducting an over 3 hour interview with the man that I used to mimic using a brush, stick or whatever was handy as a mic - as I lip synced Watching You in the mirror at the age of 10. Whether it’s 3D (3 Times Dope) collaborating with Steve for 1989’s Weak At The Knees, Keith Sweat remaking A Touch Of Love, Snoop heavily borrowing from Steve for Gin & Juice and Let’s Get Blowed or Jay Z & Jermaine Dupri sampling Steve for Money Ain’t A Thing it’s obvious that Mr. Arrington has a style that endures. If the snippets that I have heard at his website are any indication of what’s to come – it appears that Steve has quite a few more hits in him.
JQ: It’s an honor bro. First where are you from, and who are your musical influences?
SA: Well I was born in Illinois, and I stayed there until like 2, so I really don’t remember it. But I’m from Dayton Ohio. My influences vary – Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone and the group Yes.
JQ: I see a lot of Jazz influence in that answer.
SA: Yes! I am a Jazz head. The more out there the better.
JQ: Were you originally just a vocalist, or did you play instruments as well?
SA: I was a drummer originally, and I played drums on a lot of the Slave records. Also I hit the scene professionally with the Escovedo’s. I played with Pete, Sheila & Coke out in San Francisco. So that was my introduction to the pros – playing with a 17 piece Salsa orchestra. Coke was a percussionist with Carlos Santana on his early stuff. So I really came out of that camp before I got with Slave.
JQ: What year are we talking here? – not to give your age away
SA: 1977….. I’m 54 brother – it is what it is (laughs)
JQ: So your big break was the Escovedo hook up?
SA: Yes. We toured with Carlos Santana, like a West Coast all stars band. Bill Summers , Eddie Henderson , The Escovedo’s – Pete & Sheila , Julian Prister ,Ray Obiado , Mark Soskin who played with Billy Cobham after he left our band and David Marchin. Later I went to play with Slave; Sheila went to play with George Duke. That’s when many outside of the Latin world really started connecting with Sheila – after she went to play with George Duke.
JQ: Before this all star band were you just playing in schools and just around the Dayton scene?
SA: Yes. Some of the members of Slave used to be called the Young Mystics, and I used to play with them. We used to open up for all the big groups that came to town like the 5 Stair Steps, Erma Franklin, Spider Turner , Joe Tex & acts like that. A few groups from Dayton like Lakeside & Platypus went out to L.A. to make it in the business, after high school I went out to San Francisco. There is still a strong musical community in L.A. that consists of people from Dayton. But yeah we came behind the Players (Ohio Players). A lot of us had to leave, because while Dayton had strong musical foundations, there weren’t any labels or strong studios. Even the Players recorded a lot of their stuff in Chicago.
JQ: Paint the picture for me. I know that there was a lotta Funk in Dayton – before dudes got big were there any battle of the band type jams?
SA: Awww absolutely!!! I can remember in talent shows – Lakeside who were called the Young Underground at the time, they ran things! I was with a group called the Soul Illusion and we opened for a lot of major acts. But if the Young Underground showed up they were winning the talent show! Many of us split up and went with other groups, but most of the guys who became Lakeside were the original guys from the Young Underground. By the time that Slave and some other groups became professional they were all splinters from other acts that were in the battles and talent shows. The Players were a generation before me. I was just a little homie goin’ to check them out, I never participated in any battles against those guys – Sugar foot & those guys are a lil older than me.
JQ: Ok bring me up to you actually becoming a singer & joining Slave. I didn’t start to see your name on any records until around 1977 or so….
SA: Yeah, I joined the band during the tour for the Hardness Of The World album. I played drums on Stellar Fungk from The Concept lp. My first heavy lead vocal part was on the bridge of Coming Soon from The Concept album. I was never known as a singer back in the talent show days. I sang, but I always imitated the instruments. I sing more like an instrumentalist than a singer – that’s where all the Jazz influences come in. The only vocalist that really hit me vocally back then was Stevie Wonder. That cat just has so many nuances to his voice. I also gravitated towards John Anderson – a lot of texture to his voice. I became the lead singer of Slave almost by a fluke. Slave was a lot like the Temptations in that many different people shared the task of singing lead. Like Slide had different people singing lead vocal.
But the primary lead vocalist was Danny Webster. In ’79 Danny had some problems back in Dayton and left the group, when we had just recorded the track for Just A Touch Of Love. Different people in the group took turns trying to do the vocals – but there weren’t even any lyrics written yet. I went up and was tryin to just get a melody, and everybody liked what I was doin’. So I was hired to play drums on the track, and ended up singing lead. But also Curt & Star who were members of the travelling band but not pictured on the records became an integral part of the group and left to form Aurra (of Are You Single? fame) with one of Slave’s founding members Stevie Washington. Jimmy Douglas who produced the album was the one who suggested that I give Just A Touch Of Love a try. When we first went out I was singing from behind the drums , then came Snapshot , Watching You and all of those – and I was the lead singer of Slave!
JQ: I always thought that Slave and Aurra had a connection. When I heard Are You Single, I knew that bass was a Slave connection.
SA: Well Mark Adams was the Slave bass player, but Stevie Washington influenced Mark greatly. Stevie Washington was a trumpet player and the leader of Slave, and he played other instruments as well. He was kinda like a fore runner to Prince as far as using the studio to get that sound. Nobody had the huge bass sound like Slave, and that was due to Stevie’s studio tricks, but it was Mark Adams playing the bass on the Slave records. Aurra was able to capture that essence because part of it was Stevie Washington. Mark Adams got the credit, as he should have because he was playing it. To be honest Stevie was a part of that and Aurra was proof of what Stevie could do on his own.
JQ: Great info. While we are in that vein, I always wondered about this group Odyssey who had a record called Inside Out that was nearly identical in arrangement and instrumentation to Watching You. Was there a connection between the writers or producers?
SA: Well Jimmy Douglas produced both records. He actually called me in, and I dropped some drums on the track. How the rest came to sound so much like Watching You, I don’t have the answer to. Only Jimmy knows that. I came in and played, but I wasn’t there when they added the rest of the instruments or the other parts. In fact Odyssey wasn’t even present when I was there.
JQ: Whose song was released first?
SA: Watching You was first. Odyssey was a year or so later.
JQ: When you heard their version all finished, mixed and mastered what were your thoughts?
SA: Well there were all kinds of emotions because this was in the time when you heard Sugar Hill Gang doin’ Rappers Delight which was a direct copy of Good Times by Chic. All that was so new that you didn’t know what to think. Copying tracks to sound like someone else was totally new, because we were trying to find out how to be different.
JQ: Speaking of early rap records. What was your impression when you heard the first few rap records by the likes of Sugar Hill Gang, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious 5, Spoonie G etc. etc. Did you respect rap on an artistic level?
SA: I dug it, but it was a new perspective at the same time. Rap music had different laws and perspectives so my whole thing was – and still is to this day regarding music, to understand this phenomenon, and what created it. I took that position. Run DMC is one of my favorite acts. Big Bank Hank and all those guys would open up for us during many of the tours back then. Grandmaster Flash & all those guys – I witnessed those tours first hand when they opened for Slave & later Hall Of Fame.
JQ: The Hip Hop pioneers tell me that they had quite a hard time on the road with the older R&B cats sabotaging their set – and just a general distaste for rap music.
SA: You have to understand to that as musicians get older, younger musicians come with fresh & new ideas. That’s a part of life. We have to have room for the youth. As we know things dwindle after awhile. As people get older they don’t want a hard thumping music – they start listening to smooth jazz. The record buying public that wants a more aggressive music is the youth. When we were funkin’ hard in our 20’s our parents were tryin’ to hear some Nat King Cole! Some Blues & some Lattimore.
JQ: So Touch Of Love was the first Slave song that you really had a lead part on?
SA: Yes. Like I said before I had done the bridge on Coming Soon but Touch Of Love was the first full song that I did with Slave.
JQ: I know how that record did in the streets, but I didn’t pay attention to the charts back then. I was probably like 8 years old. How did the record do according to the charts?
SA: Oh man, it was a top ten record. That was way cool man. I played the drum track as well, so I would have been just as proud if I didn’t sing lead on it.
JQ: Did you sense any envy from your band mates. Really anyone could have been the lead singer at a point – but you got the gig.
SA: I don’t know. We were so caught up in it. We had our usual band stuff and I got the usual new guy stuff. But that was it.
JQ: I don’t usually like remakes, unless the person remaking is really adding something that was missing to a song to begin with. With that said I thought that Keith Sweat delivered a vocal that sounded a lot like you on Just A Touch. What was your opinion of the remake, and were you involved in having to approve or reject him re doing it?
SA: Basically the record company owns that music. He went to Atlantic Records to secure those rights. Till this day I never have met Keith Sweat. Back when Prince had slave written on his face, that is what that was all about. We don’t own any of that music. I was flattered because people said that they could tell that he was influenced by me from that song and his other stuff. That’s really cool because I was influenced by Stevie Wonder – so that’s how it works, it gets passed on. My influence is clearly Stevie Wonder. Even some Sly Stone.
JQ: Who actually wrote Just A Touch Of Love?
SA: It was co - written by myself, Danny Webster & Mark Adams. The thing with Slave that was disappointing was that because we were a self contained band, with so many guys there were writing credits that should have been arranging credits.
JQ: Stone Jam was the next lp. Was Watching You the first single from that album?
SA: Actually Sizzling Hot was the first single from Stone Jam. The reason people think that Watching You was first, was because Sizzling Hot was out for only 2 weeks, and Frankie Crocker – the biggest DJ in the world at the time wouldn’t play Sizzling Hot. He said that the hit on the album was Watching You! He had so much power that Atlantic pulled Sizzling Hot and released Watching You. If it wasn’t for Frankie Crocker, Watching You might not be what it is today!! You never know with those kinda things man.
JQ: When you were all done with Watching You, and you guys sat back and listened, did you think that it was a hit record?
SA: Yes, I thought it was amazing man. The thing with Slave is that the sound changed. Like if you listen to Slide, Slave was a party band like Brass Construction, Mass Production, Kool & The Gang. By the time that I came it changed the dynamic of the music. So Atlantic didn’t know whether to stay with the vibe that Slide created, or stay with the Touch Of Love sound. Atlantic decided to stay with the Slide thing, but Frankie Crocker correctly saw that the Slave sound was evolving. Did we think Watching You was a mighty track? Yeah!! But we thought that Sizzling Hot was too, so you never know how things will go……
JQ: As you got bigger as a lead singer, did you have less responsibility musically? Like did you play on Watching You?
SA: Oh yeah, I still played on those records! I played drums on all those songs on Stone Jam.
JQ: What did you think of Snoop’s interpolation of Watching You on Let’s Get Blowed?
SA: I liked it. Snoop was obviously paying attention to what we did, because he first used Watching You on the hook to Gin & Juice. The whole G Funk movement out of the West Coast - P Funk & Dayton Funk (Zapp, Slave) that’s their influence. It just comes back around. Like if you listen to Lakeside you can hear the influence of the Temptations. If you listen to Roger Troutman, you can hear the George Clinton influence. It’s a beautiful thing - it gets passed on, you take those influences, tweak them and add your thing – it becomes you. But to stay in this business you have to be creative and push the envelope. When I went solo people kept telling me how big I could be if I did another Watching You. But I already did that!! I’m hearing new things – I’m hearing Way Out! What made me sing Watching You and Just A Touch is the same formula that I use today, which is to follow my heart.
Fans want you to stay where they are comfortable, but creative artists don’t milk an idea. Some fans will love you for that and some will hate you for it. You make people have to revisit you all over again. But I tell people – look you’re not wearing the same shag haircut that you were back in the 80s!! People & situations change. People that you grew up with – it’s not that you don’t like each other anymore, you just went in different directions! Music does the same thing. When Miles (Davis) went electric or Coltrane (John) started doing a more avant garde style of music people were distracted because they wanted them to stay where they were. Those artists, myself included had they kept doing the same thing, would have lost because it was that adventure that got the fans attention in the first place!! The adventure has to continue – you will lose some fans and win some. I have to keep pushing to see what the next thing is. It keeps me motivated!
JQ: I understand & agree bro. Not that I’m telling you something that you don’t already know, but folks have an emotional attachment to music. It’s the soundtrack of our lives. Your song may be the one that people danced to at the prom, or their first party/club experience. For myself when I hear certain Earth Wind & Fire songs – I can see my Mother in the kitchen cooking like I’m 7 again. It’s that vivid.
That’s a powerful thing – and I think that the fans want to keep that little piece of history (as selfish as that may be). People want Prince to do another 1999 or Purple Rain because they love that period of their lives, and they feel like that small piece belongs them. When a cat branches off and does something different they feel almost abandoned. They want you in a box – which is wrong…..
SA: I agree & understand that. It actually makes sense. And a few artists are able to keep milking a sound or idea; I just have to be able to follow my heart. My body of work remains honest at that point and doesn’t get caught up in a formula that someone else decides! So I do Snap Shot, Watching You, Touch Of Love, Wait For Me & the formula is there! Then I go Way Out, Weak At The Knees & Nobody Can Be You & people say yo dog!! That’s hot. Then I do Feel So Real & Dancin’ In The Key Of Life and they say what is that? That’s dance music!! But they don’t know that I was with the Escovedo’s before Slave!! Some people even say that Slave got into a more mellow funk when I came along, and then others disagree. Like Kool & The Gang to some will always be Jungle Boogie, but when they did Celebrate they moved on!! It’s funny that in the hood I’m told that my crowning achievements are Watching You & Weak At The Knees. Around the world I’m told that it’s Feel So Real! Isn’t that something?
JQ: Indeed. All depends on who you ask bro .And even before Jungle Boogie Kool & The Gang were doin’ heavy instrumental Jazz stuff like Summer Madness. They changed up when they got J.T.!!!
SA: That’s right! People have to realize that music changes, and artists have to keep up. Earth, Wind & Fire were killin ‘em until Donna Summer came with some 4 to the floor that was so cold man!! Everybody had to back up and say uh oh. Same with Prince – people had to say uh oh. George Clinton called Prince a necessary nuisance!! Same with rock – the hair bands were kickin’ it until Nirvana & Kurt Cobain and them came with that Teen Spirit !! Everybody was like uh oh!! Those bands had to figure out what to do….and a lot of ‘em didn’t figure it out!! Funk had to deal with Hip Hop and older Hip Hop had to deal with them Crunk boys and the South! I had to deal with it. I remember when Hip Hop began to take over and I was doin’ shows with Eric B. & Rakim & I was like uh oh! Then them New Jack Swing boys came. They stopped a lot of careers! Teddy Riley ended some careers over night!! So people can say that EWF sold out with Groove Tonight, but they had to deal with Donna Summer, and that’s how they dealt with it!
JQ: I remember when you did Weak In The Knees with 3 Times Dope. How did that come about?
SA: We had the same management – Lavaba Mallison who was Kool Moe Dee’s manager. I was one of the first cats embracing Hip Hop back then even before Roger Troutman.
JQ: How about when Brand Nubian used Nobody Can Be You (for the song Grand Puba, Positive & L.G.)? Did you like that one?
SA: I was down with it man. I was glad that people were feelin’ that funk,and the Nubians were droppin’ that knowledge!
JQ: What prompted you to leave Slave and form Hall Of Fame, and how did your band mates feel about you leaving?
SA: I can’t say that they were happy about me leaving, but the problem was that I was never signed as a member of the group, so we had all these big hits and money is coming in, but I’m not seeing what I should have been.
JQ: Were you pleased with the overall success of the Hall of Fame I lp?
SA: I loved that album because I was able to get some of those other influences off, like Beddie Biey that was my quirky Jazz thing. I was also able to get my Thelonious Monk off too. I steered away from the radio friendly funk of Watching You and Touch Of Love, and went more for the social Funk on jams like Nobody Can Be You. That wasn’t on purpose, I just wasn’t there anymore – I was on some other stuff. When I went Way Out I was excited!
JQ: On the next lp - Positive Power I noticed that you had the same band, except for Victor Godsey.
SA: Yeah he had some personal issues, and had to leave which was unfortunate. That was 1984 and the whole Prince/Minneapolis sound had taken over. I was a Prince fan, and a fan of that electric chord sound, and that album reflected that. I really liked that album. A lot of people get that album now. The funk sound has been accepted, and the electro stage of Funk with drum machines. There was a big backlash against Electro Funk as you know – people like Midnight Star. Now people come up to me saying how crazy those joints were, and they can appreciate them now.
JQ: It appeared that you were going through a spiritual phase around the time of the Dancin’ In The Key Of Life lp.
SA: I’ve always been that way, but it just moved more into the forefront and became the focal point of my life. I went from a funk artist to a world-wide artist with that lp.
JQ: You pretty much walked away from the industry after your Jam Packed lp in ‘87 right?
SA: Yes I did. I did a video for Stone Love that was big in Europe, but I was conflicted about music and where I fit in by that time. Hip Hop was running the streets, where at one time I ran the streets. I was on my 4th wave by then – the first being with the Escovedo’s as a drummer, then Slave, the Weak In The Knees era then the Key of Life era. Everybody has their time for only a season and I felt that it was time to stop, so I walked away.
JQ: What are you doing today brother?
SA: I released an independent project last year called Pure Thang. It was like my bridge record to let people know that I’m back. It has some funk and some spiritual messages as well. On the strength of that release I signed to Stones Throw records and I am releasing a project produced by Dam Funk. In the tradition of Cornell West, Al Sharpton, Dick Gregory and Eric Dyson I am taking my message to the young people in the streets. My generation dropped this mess that they currently have in their laps, so I feel the need to get out there and talk to the young people.
JQ: I have heard some of the new material, and I am very impressed bro, and I love the new direction. Hopefully more brothers will do the same. Thanks for your time and it was an honor!