Photo by Clarence Klingebiel; photo illustration by Johansen Peralta
Mar 6, 2023
Ladies and gentlemen: Mr. Binky Griptite!
The former guitarist and emcee for Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings has two albums in the pipeline and a big SXSW gig this month
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How do you introduce a man who is more or less the best hype man in the business? For two decades, Binky Griptite was not only the guitarist for the Dap-Kings. He was their emcee. And the Dap-Kings, if you have to ask, was the incredibly tight, incredibly funky eight piece band behind the 100 pounds of soul dynamite known as Sharon Jones. As such he’d introduce her to the stage in a bombastic voice, night in and night out, a ringmaster of a three-ring funk circus.
These days Griptite is leading his own band, The Binky Griptite Orchestra, an old-school rhythm and blues band in the vein of T-Bone Walker and Louis Jordan. It’s a different sound from what Sharon Jones fans might be used to, but he tackles it with as much authenticity and class as he did with the Dap-Kings. The Binky Griptite Orchestra is set to release its first album, a mix of covers and originals called “Got Up And Walked.”
Griptite has also produced a forthcoming as yet untitled album by singer-songwriter Brendan O’Hara, which is evocative of 1970s FM radio — think yacht rock, Billy Joel, a little sleaze, a little pop rock. Later this month he’ll be at SXSW, performing on the 19th as part of a tribute concert to the late, great gospel singer and guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
This week, Binky Griptite — guitarist, singer, bandleader, songwriter, producer, emcee and DJ — is our guest on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast.” And, no, that’s not his government name. He’ll tell us the story behind that. He’ll share the story behind the Dap-Kings, working with Sharon Jones and singer Lee Fields, recording with Janet Jackson, growing up in Milwaukee, deejaying and … his approach to the perfect introduction. (Hint, what you just read isn’t one.)
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity. You can listen to it in its entirety in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts.
One of the albums you’ve got coming out is “Got Up and Walked.” It’s sort of straight ahead blues record from an older era. I actually saw an iteration of this band at Threes Brewery, pre-pandemic.
I like that room. They had a piano. That’s what made me want to do it. ‘Cause I grew up listening to blues. Well, started off with funk and then blues rock when I was a teenager and whatnot. Discovered all the British bands, and so that’s where I come from as a guitar player, but I didn’t want it to be guitar-based.
You’ve got horns, you got piano.
Yeah, I’m a fan of the blues and I’m a fan of good guitar playing, but unfortunately a lot of the blues that’s been coming out for the past 20 or 30 years, honestly, has always been really guitar focused. It’s just all about guitar virtuosity, and I just really wanted to take it away from that. So there’s not a whole lot of fire breathing guitar on my record.
Which is refreshing in its own way.
Really is. There’s a lot of people that play like that, and a lot of people that are really brilliant at it. We don’t need another person doing that.
Well, it’s also about the songs and tthe craftsmanship of the songs, and there’s jazz in there. It’s not just pentatonic shredding.
Every blues band wants to be Led Zeppelin. I love Led Zeppelin, but let’s just let Led Zeppelin be Led Zeppelin. And if you’re going to call yourself a blues band, then just play some blues.
Talk about the songs. There are some classics, “Dead Presidents.” Are these all covers or are there originals in there?
I think it turned out to be about half. About four originals of mine, including a couple of instrumentals. I wanted to use those covers as a starting point, as a jumping off point of the era of blues that I wanted to touch on, because it is coming from more of a rhythm and blues place. That’s what the music was called back during those days in the ‘30s and ‘40s.
This is like Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker? Who are some of the people that you are trying to evoke?
Definitely those two. T-Bone Walker has always been a huge influence on me, and yeah, Louis Jordan, classic. Just so influential. I mean, anybody that’s not familiar with Louis Jordan can do a quick search and then you might find out that you know more of his songs than you think you do because so many of the blues classics that have been covered by dozens of other artists originated as Louie Jordan songs.
Just like the work that the Dap-Kings did at Daptone Records, there’s an attention to detail in the music. There’s an attention to the production, there’s an intentionality, there’s an authenticity. Do you think about authenticity or does it just sort of come naturally?
I think about it, but I think about it so much that it comes naturally. In some ways, I’m kind of an all-or-nothing person, so I’m just like, if you’re going to do it, then do it. Do it right. And, even with the artist that I just produced, his name is Brendan O’Hara, and his music is very different from mine. Some of it strikes me as late ‘70s radio rock. Either you can run away from it or you can just run into it and just, okay, if we’re going to go for that sound, let’s just do it all the way and do it the way it’s supposed to be done. It just all happened really quickly, and organically, and nicely, and it really does sound like the radio in 1978.
When you click play, the first thing you hear is this sleazy ‘70s electric piano. It’s so good.
I love how you equate phase shifters with sleazy.
Is that inaccurate?
It’s electric piano with a phase shifter on it. So it sounds like the ’70s. But yeah, sleazy.
The third thing on your dance card right now is this March 19th tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
I’m so glad after leaving the Dap-Kings, to answer a question that you haven’t asked me, but I’m sure you want to know: When I started playing, I started as a blues rock guitar player, but then soul has always been in me. Soul has always been the backdrop. Just growing up as a Black person in the ‘70s, it was just there, and I love Funkadelic. But after 20 years in the Dap-Kings, we basically hit the top of our field as far as, not necessarily in sales — we didn’t sell a billion records — but we influenced a lot of people.
You were the gold standard of that sound.
It’s even strange for me to admit that, but I mean, it’s just a fact. But then after leaving the Dap-Kings, it’s like, “well, why would I just start another soul band and just be not as good as the Dap-Kings? So there’s no point in me doing that. Nobody wants to see that. So that’s why I did a blues record. And also, I just felt, it just seemed like the blues needs a record like this, that’s not all about guitar pyrotechnics.
Let’s talk about Sister Rosetta. She’s a gospel singer, guitarist from the ‘30s and ’40s, really the founding mother of rock and roll. What do you think about when you think about Sister Rosetta Tharpe?
The show is called “Strange Things Happening.” It’s taking place at Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion Ranch on March 19th. That’s a Sunday afternoon show. It’s going to be a early show, and it’s a tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe and sponsored by Gibson, and Antons, and all these other people. But yeah, Valerie June is going to be there. Amythyst Kiah, Abraham Alexander, Ruthie Foster, the Sacred Souls are going to come, and basically we’re just going to pay tribute to her music. And for my awareness of Sister Rosetta Tharpe came from the guitar that she’s identified with, which in my youth, I was a guitar shop dude.
Did you ever play “Stairway” in a guitar shop?
Are you kidding me? It’s an obvious yes. So, in the ‘70s, ‘80s, pre-internet days, you couldn’t just Google pictures. And so all the books of guitar collectors, they had to use the pictures that were available. And so for this one particular guitar, the 1961 Gibson SG with a sideways vibrola, the only famous person that ever took a picture with it was Sister Rosetta Tharpe. So her picture was in all of the guitar books, at least any guitar book that spoke about that guitar. So I always knew her name even though I didn’t know her music.
I’m ashamed to confess that I really didn’t get familiar with her music until studying for this gig. In the past year, a couple years, it’s like there’s been these clips floating around TikTok or social media, archival clips of her playing. And that’s great because it’s helping to get her name back out more people are knowing about her and her place in rock and roll history. But in studying for the show, I’m really digging into her music and then listening to it.
You’ve actually worked with a lot of strong front women over your career.
Yeah, I’ve been very fortunate.
I mean, Sharon Jones, Amy Winehouse, Janet Jackson. You did a session with Beyoncé.
I did do a short session with Beyoncé. I don’t think the recordings ever got released or anything, but I mean, I honestly wouldn’t know cause I don’t listen to her music. I’ve just been very fortunate. The first professional session I did was Janet Jackson.
What was that session?
It was a song called, “What’ll I Do.” I think on the Janet Record, that sepia toned Janet record. It was produced by my friend Jellybean Johnson. There’s a much longer story that goes with that. I don’t know how much time you have.
Can you give a CliffsNotes version?
It was just a culmination of a long plan for me to be in the same room with Janet Jackson, and I’m just proud of myself for making it happen.
What did you take away from that? Did you learn anything or was it just a thrill to be in the room?
Oh, I learned a lot. I mean, it was my first professional session. I was just dumb. I brought too much stuff for the session. I didn’t know. That was sort of the fashion in the ’80s. I’d read these articles and the magazines of what the big name guitar players would go take to a recording studio to do a record, and it’s like they’d bring all of their shit. That was completely unnecessary.
Better to be over prepared than under prepared. Right?
Exactly. But I made the record. Did I get a platinum plaque for that? I don’t think I got a plaque for it. Maybe I did. I don’t know.
What are your earliest music memories? The first time you remember hearing something that moved you in a certain way?
Well, I liked really sappy stuff when I was a kid. I remember “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies. And there’s another, there’s the band is called Lobo, “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo.” I grew up with Funkadelic from a very early age. I think from at least since the “Cosmic Slop” record came out. I think I was probably 7, 1974, or ’75 or some shit. But yeah, Funkadelic has been my favorite band since I was 7 years old. James Brown was like pop music at that time, and Johnny Taylor and all these things that people listen to. It’s like all retro [now], and I remember that shit when it was pop music. So I have a different perspective also on some of that music just because I lived through it. As I got older into the late ‘70s, Funkadelic started to suck.
They went from “Nappy Dugout” to cheesy disco. Right?
Well, yeah, it’s about going from weed and acid to cocaine and heroin. It’s just like the cocaine music is just not nearly as good as the weed music.
When it comes to the guitar, is [Funkadelic guitarist] Eddie Hazel hero of yours? When do you pick up the guitar?
Oh yeah, definitely. Eddie Hazel, Michael Hampton, and even all the rhythm guitar players as well. I mean, when I was a kid, my ear wasn’t tuned well enough to necessarily hear rhythm guitar. But also, actually, I was really a huge Bootsy [Collins] fan. Still am. I would love to meet him. I tried once. I met his brother a couple of times, but never Bootsy. My first love or goal was to be a bass player, so I wanted to meet Bootsy. I saw Funkadelic a bunch of times. I guess I was a bit on the fence. I switched back and forth a few times when I started playing.
Well, how old are you at this point? You’re growing up in Milwaukee. Do you remember your first instrument, or was it just sort of always around?
My older sister had a nylon string, classical guitar that was always in the house. But those things are huge. The necks are really super wide, so it’s not kid friendly, but I would just use it as a drum, a box of the guitar sounds really good, so I would just tap on it and I would still play along to the music and just beat on the guitar.
So I didn’t really get an instrument of my own to experience until I was like 12 or 13. My brother bought me a bass, but I didn’t have any lessons and without any guidance I just didn’t know what to do with it. So I just also treated that more like a toy, and had that for a little while, and I switched to guitar, and then I switched back to bass, and I switched back to guitar. But then, yeah, I finally started actually playing guitar around 13.
As I got into my pre-teen years and teen years, the music changed and it wasn’t band oriented anymore, cause that was the beginning of hip hop, at least on the Black side. Black music was getting more and more mechanical. And that’s when I started listening to rock much more, and that’s when I was got much more interested in guitars.
You didn’t really necessarily follow the radio trends? You went with where the musicianship was.
I just didn’t follow the Black radio trends. It was like, I resented they were like, “oh, you’re Black. You’re supposed to like this.” I was just like, “I don’t like that.”
That’s always interesting. People tend to make assumptions about what you listen to and based on the way you look. It’s funny that you say that too, because you had a show on WFUV for a while. “The Boogie Down,” which I loved. You once played the song “Empty Pages” by Traffic. It made me so happy because I love that song. I love Traffic, and I love that you played them in the middle of a show about funk.
That’s a funky song. And when I made my transition from Funkadelic to rock bands, I’ve always been attracted to rock bands that have a solid rhythm section. They have to have a good drummer and a good bass player. Even going back to what I was saying about the blues record and the blues genre, it’s like you can’t just focus on virtuosic guitar playing. You have to have a foundation. So I’ve always liked rock bands or blues bands that have a funk underneath. That Traffic song just grooves so hard. Can’t say it’s not soul. Steve Winwood is great. He played organ and bass on that.
You first came to New York in the ‘90s. Your bio cryptically says you took a break for music for a couple of years. What does that mean? What was happening there?
It goes back to the guitar player thing. I left Milwaukee when I was 22 and I moved to Minneapolis for a few years. They had a better music scene. It was only five hour drive, strong music scene, because of Prince and because I wanted to meet Janet Jackson, I knew that Janet Jackson made her record in Minneapolis. So I went through all that. While I was in Minneapolis, I was playing on the blues rock scene with a man named Willie Murphy. He’s a legend. Definitely a Minneapolis legend, but he deserves mention. Among other things, he produced Bonnie Raitt’s first record.
At that age, I was still into Stevie Ray Vaughan and all that, and just being a guitar player. The vibe or whatever was going on with guitar players at that time was like, yeah, really getting into that virtuosic shit. Part of me wanted to jump in and compete, but then when I do that, bottom line is I just got tired of hearing myself blow solos all the time. I was really good at playing solos and not good at being a rhythm guitar player.
Is that the Eddie Van Halen effect, do you think?
It’s the wannabe effect. Because Eddie Van Halen is actually an incredible rhythm guitar player, but a lot of his wannabes are not. I started to see what I was lacking. I was really feeling what I was lacking, and I was literally bored of hearing myself play. So I took two years off of playing guitar just so that I could forget some things and lose some of my technical facility and just come back with a new attitude. Came back with a new attitude that turned into the Dap-Kings.
That was exactly where I was going. You moved to New York in the ‘90s. At some point you meet Gabe Roth, co-founder of Daptone Records, which really changed the course of the next two decades for you. How did you guys connect?
Through a mutual friend. I met Gabe at a club. There was a DJ, my friend DJ Franco. He had a DJ night called Los Vampyros Lesbos, and it was focused on soul 45’s and go-go dancers. And I was just like, “yeah, okay. I like that.” This would’ve been like ’97, ’98. And then one night while I was there, I saw a former coworker walk by and said hi to her. And then as we’re catching up, she’s like, “oh, you’re a guitar player. Why don’t you come meet my new boyfriend? He’s a bass player.” And then that turned out to be Gabe.
We started talking and he explained to me that he was making these records and just doing funk records in the James Brown style. And he said that they were just having such a problem finding guitar players because either, A) the guitar player was not good, or B) if the guitar player is good, they would want to just play solos all the time. I said to him, “yeah, I’m a good guitar player. I went through the whole solo thing. I’m bored with playing solos. I just want to play rhythm and make people dance and whatever.” So yeah, we were just chatting for that evening and they just found ourselves to be completely on the same page about a lot of things, and then I met up with him and his business and music partner a few days later. We played, everything clicked and everything happened after that.
Was he already linked up with [singer] Lee Fields at that point?
Yeah, he was. That night in the bar, he told me that he was in the middle of making his album for Lee Fields. He was already working with Sharon [Jones]. I think they had already released “The Landlord.”
Oh, wow. And around this time, to the extent you care to talk about it, you adopted your stage name. Talk about the decision. It’s not like your government name isn’t retro or a little bit funky in its own right. Franklin’s cool. But Binky Griptite is an incredible name. Where did it come from? Why the change?
When I met Gabe and he and Philip Lehman were partners in a label called Desco Records. And like I said, they were in the midst of doing the Lee Fields LP, which might have been the third LP for the label. They’d released an LP of their own 45’s.
Yeah, I remember that. And I was like, “who are these guys?” I was living in the Boston area at the time. It blew my mind when it came out because that was exactly the stuff that I was looking for. And then it showed up.
Gabe and Philippe [Lehman], they’re basically just young, smart-asses at this point. They’re in their early twenties, maybe middle twenties, and they had also released a couple kind of fake records. One of them called “The Revenge of Mr. Mopoji.” It was the soundtrack to a film, but the film didn’t exist, and this is before anybody was doing retro things or whatever. These guys are record collectors and they know how to appeal to record collectors. So they just totally made this bogus record, and they put it in old style covers and old style art. And it got to the point where they actually had people say, “oh, yeah, yeah, I’ve seen that movie.”
Just full of shit.
Yeah. So that record is full of fake names. It’s a bunch of white kids from the NYU that are playing on it. It just had all these cool names that looked like it was from some place in the ‘70s. They did the same thing with, they did an Afrobeat record, an Afrofunk record, by a group called The Daktaris. Everything on the record claims that it comes from Nigeria and there’s all these names on it, but it’s just, like I said, it’s like the same white kids from NYU.
Did it ever bug you at all that — I guess you’re a little older than them — you show up and there are these white kids cosplaying soul music? Or were you like, “no, they get it; it’s authentic for them?”
Not at all, honestly, because first of all, even growing up, all my favorite bands, they were always integrated on some level. Sly [Stone] always had white drummers. P-Funk always had at least one or two white dudes in the horn section. That wasn’t a thing for me. And it’s just like I already knew because I already saw it with the Blues and whatnot. They get to a point where Black Americans, I would say, have a tendency to abandon music once it becomes popular in the mainstream. I just found people that love the music and they’re doing their best to play it properly, and so I just follow that.
And adopting Nigerian names?
As far as the name thing, it’s like, no, it was never offensive because nobody was going out presenting themselves in a costume, or they weren’t even using those names live. Those records were never meant to be presented live, and they’re just like, it’s just a record with music on it. And then there’s a bunch of fake information on it.
So, yeah, the precedent had been sent of using fake names. Just I never felt like my legal name was worthy of marquees or whatever, so I just always had it in my mind that like, “yeah, someday I would have to have something flashy.” One day, on the way into rehearsal, I talked to the doorman that took on that building, and he was a friendly guy. He tells me this story about what’s on his mind. Said he had an invention of his that had been stolen. He says he submitted it to this company who said that they weren’t interested, but then he found out they were making it anyway and not paying him. And I said, “oh, really? Who did this to you? What’s the name of this company?” He’s like, “this company called Binky Griptite.” As soon as he said “Binky Griptite,” I was just, “really? Really? Binky Griptite you said?” I was just like, “That sounds stupid. I like that.”
It’s stupid, but it’s also kind of dope. It’s great.
Well, yeah, exactly. So it just totally picked me. I was just like, boom. Just clouds [parting] and “Simpsons” music. I went straight down the stairs. I’m just like, “guys, guys, I got to play.” And I’ve been Binky Griptite ever since. And I would’ve bet money that the band would never succeed. So I never dreamed this, people would still be calling me Binky Griptite 20 years later. I’m not hung up about … well, actually I’m a little bit hung up about it.
What do you prefer to go by in your day-to-day?
Well, honestly, I’ve got probably three different names on the street. It helps me remember how I know a person. So if a new person decides to call me by an old name, it’s disorienting and not cool. It’s really just easier to be Binky most of the time.
You’re the emcee. I’ve seen a bunch of both Lee Fields and Sharon Jones shows back in the day, and the way you introduce a band, it’s a callback to the James Brown days. You get the hype-man emcee to come out and really sort of blow up the band and the singer before they come on. How did that become a thing with the band?
Like you said, just following the James Brown template. And not even just all of James Brown since the ‘50s. But James Brown from ’68 to ’74. Yes, everybody likes other types of music, everybody likes this, that, and the other thing. But this band does that.
So after I joined up with them, I played on a couple of songs on the Lee Fields record, and then after the record was completed and released, then it was time to do a show. And the band just was not a live entity at that point. This was our first show ever. So we did rehearse for whatever amount of time to get it ready, and then just right before showtime occurred to me, I said to Gabe, “well, somebody’s got to announce them,” and then it just quickly, obviously fell to me. It’s not hard for me, like my father was a preacher, so I mean, I didn’t grow up in a church or anything, but you got to figure there’s some kind of hereditary, whatever. I’m from a family of preachers. The singer can’t just walk out on stage to tepid applause. Somebody needs to tell the audience to get ready. It builds up the audience, and it builds up the performer too, because then they have something that they have to deliver on.
And you do it well. The voice is great.
Thanks. Well, that’s the other thing. All my life people have been telling me like, “oh, you should be a DJ.” You have a nice voice or whatever.
Your announcer voice is different. It’s more…
It is, yeah. It’s like I put more circus on it. It’s like a combination of circus, ringleader, preacher, and just Danny Ray.
Do you remember the first time you met Sharon Jones?
So what had happened was, while they were making that Lee Fields record — this all happened before my time — I just know the story. They needed backing vocals on one of the teams. The sax player that they were working with at the time said, “hey, my girlfriend’s a singer. I can call her.” And then actually they wanted three singers. And then he brings in his girlfriend, who happens to be Sharon Jones, and she’s like, “Hey, you don’t have to three girls. I can just do overdub three parts and just give me more money.”
By the time I met Sharon, probably would’ve been maybe just a few months after that. Once the Soul Providers started doing a few gigs with Lee Fields, we went to England. But Lee Fields was unavailable to tour because Lee Fields had his own career. So he was making much more money just being on his own, doing his own thing. He enjoyed the music of playing with us, but it was a bit of a lark for him. So with Lee being unavailable, Sharon was very available and that was basically it.
What did you learn from her? I mean, a 20-year collaboration … What of her lives in you today?
Well, as a singer, because I’ve become a vocalist, she always has to know the song, and understand the song, and understand what she’s saying. Sharon actually had acting classes, so she has a little bit of a drama background, and she brings that into her vocal performances by knowing the song. You’re actually saying something. So you have to feel it. That really sticks with me.
That makes total sense. One of my favorite songs from that era is her duet with Lee, “Stranded.” And it’s a play, and it’s amazing. So it totally makes sense.
And Sharon has a great voice and great control. And the other thing is it’s just always got to be real. Just never really phoning it in.
I’ve become friendly with your saxophonist, Paula Henderson. “Moist” Paula. So I texted her, asked what would she ask you if she were interviewing you. She wants to know: What do you miss about ‘90s New York City and what might you do if money were no object to bring it back to Brooklyn today? I guess start with what do you miss about ’90s New York City?
Nineties, New York City? So many things. Smoking in bars. You could still hail cabs. Yeah, you could hail unmarked cabs. I mean, there’s a lot of things I don’t miss just because of where I was in my life at that time. Hadn’t figured out a bunch of things about myself yet. The prices. The people stayed out later.
What was your first concert that you went to?
The Jackson Five. Like ’71.
So, they were hot.
Yeah. So I’m, I’m 5 years old, ’71 at Milwaukee Summer Fest. The show started late. Mom got mad. We left. As soon as we walked out the gate. It’s like “ladies and gentlemen!” Goddammit. So we stood by the gate and listened because it was just like a chain like fence we could see. But we were so far back. But yes, I saw the Jackson Five.
I follow you on Instagram. You’re working stuff out on guitar. And I remember a while back you were doing a Meters riff that I always thought, oh, that’s probably an easy riff. But you were like, no, it’s pretty tricky. And then you’ve been sort of publicly working on Sister Rosetta Tharpe too.
For me, it’s good to play it in front of something, even if it’s just like people on the other side of my phone, so that I’m not just playing it for the first time in front of a crowd of however many thousands of people are going to be at [SXSW]. Gives people a little teaser so they know what to expect.
Check out this episode of “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast” for more. Subscribe and listen wherever you get your podcasts.
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