Jul 24, 2023
Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed delivers the musical news
The singer, multi-instrumentalist, producer and DJ mines Americana for a fresh look at old sounds on 'Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast'
At just 40, Eli “Paperboy” Reed has lived a life that feels and sounds like it would’ve made more sense 60 or 70 years ago. The singer, songwriter, producer and DJ has been mining the deep vein of Americana, soul, country and gospel music for two decades through his own music and through the acts he has produced.
Born in Boston, Reed immediately decamped after high school to Clarksdale, Mississippi, a mecca for Delta Blues lovers, where he would spend a year playing guitar and singing in juke joints. He went to college in Chicago, where he wound up hosting a radio show and playing organ and piano in the south side church of Mitty Collier. Since then he has put out eight albums of his own, including “Down Every Road,” last year’s funky tribute to Merle Haggard.
He has mentored and produced and released albums by the Harlem Gospel Travelers, and he’s released a long-buried recording by Cleveland Blues musician Fred Davis, which was actually recorded by his father 50 years earlier. This fall, he will be putting out a compilation of his 45s called “Hits and Misses: The Singles.” Eli has teased that release with an unlikely soul cover of Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades,” of all things.
Reed, who lives in Kensington, is in the midst of playing a spate of shows in the area, roughly pegged to his 20th anniversary in the recording business. Over the weekend he headlined Roots Fest at Maker Park in Staten Island. On Wednesday, July 26, he’ll be playing as part of Make Music New York at Hugh Plaza at 56th Street and Lexington Avenue, and on Friday, the 28th, he’ll be playing with the legendary Swamp Dogg at Knockdown Center in Ridgewood. But you can hear him now (or any time you want) in this episode of “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast.”
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.
You have a compilation of your singles coming out called “Hits and Misses,” and you’ve teased it with an unlikely cover, almost a soul revival version of Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades,” this super heavy rock anthem. And you made it funky. I know you as a musically adventurous person, but this one really caught me off guard. How does Motörhead enter your frame?
This compilation is a collection of songs that had been done post album or pre album — things that ended up as 45s or were just sold on the road. Just stuff to fill the gaps and things that I thought were really cool, that I couldn’t have necessarily put on a record. And this was actually, chronologically, the first song. My guitar player at the time, my good friend and collaborator, his name is Ryan Spraker, was a big Motörhead and punk and hardcore fan also. And honestly, he was literally just playing the riff at a sound check, and I didn’t honestly really know the record quite that well. And I was like, “Why don’t we flip it and change the groove and make it into a funk thing?” There’s a great soul funk version of “Sunshine of Your Love” by a singer named Ralph “Soul” Jackson. I sort of was inspired by that reading of it to take the Motörhead thing and flip it. That came out on a 45 only in 2009.
It was new to me and it was delightful. You do a lot of covers. What makes a good cover in your eyes? I like a surprising cover. You take a song that’s really well known and just flip it and put it in an entirely different genre, but it still retains the essence of the song. That, to me, works, and you do that with this. What do you think about when you think of a cover song?
That’s the definition that I’m looking for too, as a performer. I think it’s important that the original song has enough meat on the bone. There are so many incredible soul records that are great performances, but maybe not necessarily great songs. That’s no disrespect to the records, but it’s hard to cover a performance because then you’re sort of just doing what they already did. But a song is something that can be transformed. I just came off this album that I did of all Merle Haggard’s songs, and the idea of doing those songs was that they would stand on their own. So if you put the record on, you would still recognize them as Merle Haggard songs, but recast in this different light. That’s the fun thing about doing covers. If you can’t add something as the artist, it becomes pointless. Just an exercise.
Yeah, a note-for-note cover is definitely less interesting. I think my favorite example that just leaps to mind — I’m sure there are millions of others — is Donny Hathaway’s cover of “Jealous Guy” where he just completely transforms it. Retains, but just murders, in a good way, the original.
Well, Wilson Pickett’s “Hey, Jude.” There’s a lot of records that, especially in the soul era, because those guys had their ears wide open and were listening to country and the Beatles and all this stuff. The genre that was being defined at the time was a big tent.
You mentioned your Merle Haggard record “Down Every Road,” which came out last year. A whole album of Merle Haggard tunes. Here you have this legend of outlaw country, a fixture of the Bakersfield scene, and you’re doing him like he’s straight out of Muscle Shoals. I went to your record release show at Union Pool and you said something to the effect of, I’m paraphrasing, “If this doesn’t make sense to you, you probably haven’t been paying attention to the music.” If one were to put you in a box, which is hard to do, it’s soul music and it’s church music. What is it about Merle Haggard?
Those songs, they are strong enough in their own way to be reworked. This Merle Haggard album was something that I had been cooking in my brain for forever. I just kept on coming back to these arrangements that were in my head and this was like a post-pandemic wish-list item. I was like, “I want to do this Merle Haggard record now.” I had made seven records of original music at that point, and I just was ready to do it. But I felt like there aren’t a ton of other country artists specifically that have enough of a catalog of songs that I felt like would’ve worked in this context.
Merle really made sense to me. The songs are serious. He kind of, apart from a few examples, stayed away from the more novelty side of country music. Buck Owens, who I love also, has a lot of novelty records though, but there’s also great country soul versions of Buck Owens tunes already, and I just felt like Merle’s catalog hadn’t been mined in that regard. And really, I just love him. He’s my favorite. And that was really what it came down to: I love Merle Haggard. And these songs, these ideas, these arrangements just kept coming back to me, and I couldn’t ignore it anymore.
Big fan as well. I noticed “Okie from Muskogee” didn’t make the cut.
Indeed, that’s true. It’s not like I didn’t think about it. I really did. The first thing I did before I made the record was to go and pull the box sets out and listen to everything to really make sure that there wasn’t anything I was missing that would make sense. So there are some deep cuts. I didn’t want to go and just do the hits. I wanted to do the songs that I thought made the most sense too.
It works and it’s a great album. And if you weren’t familiar with Merle Haggard beforehand, it just sounds like a classic soul record. And it took you to the Opry, right? You actually played the Grand Ole Opry. What was that experience like? The Ryman?
It was really unbelievable to me that the embrace that the Nashville country community, especially the more alt side of things, had for the record and for my treatment. I went to the Opry when I was 10 years old. I went to Nashville with my dad because I was such a huge country fan and I grew up on country music in the ’90s, and that was kind of my first love. So it was really a very full circle experience. My parents got to come, and my wife was there. It was something that I will just absolutely never forget. I was blown away. In fact, they were going to do this birthday tribute to Merle and we had pitched the idea of playing, and they built this birthday tribute to Merle Haggard around my performance there.
Hallowed ground. So let’s go back a bit to your upbringing. You were born in Brookline. Your father was actually instrumental in your musical education. You just said he took you to the Opry, and you guys have recently put out an album that he recorded 50 years ago of a blues musician that he worked with, Fred Davis. Let’s talk about growing up. What is your musical education? Because you’re saying you loved ’90s country, which is not something I wouldn’t have guessed. You’re a great guitarist. Your voice is incredible. It’s powerful. Where does this come from?
My dad was and is a big record collector and music fan, and he was a music journalist in his 20s. He wrote for the Boston Phoenix at the time and was colleagues with somebody like Peter Guralnick who is a big, famous music writer, and he wrote for Creem Magazine.
He was in the thick of music journalism. I have a hilarious review he wrote of the Delfonics where he was like, “Meh, pretty good.” This is very classic. There were just so many records around my house, and as a young kid, country music is what I gravitated to. He listened to country music on the radio. We just had the radio on. And the ’90s is funny because production aside, the new traditionalist movement in country music in the ’90s had a strong effect on me, and I love those records. I still do. I play that music on Sunday morning for my kids.
Who are some of the artists? I sort of missed ’90s country.
Oh man, Travis Tritt and Clint Black and Brooks & Dunn, Alan Jackson, that sort of stuff. As a songwriter, when I go back and listen to those records, a lot of my harmonic concepts and chord movement and stuff like that is filtered through the lens of ’90s country music. I would listen to this, and then my dad said, “Okay, why don’t you go and dig the George Jones records out?” And then as I got into be a teenager, blues really started to hit me. And again, I could just go into the record collection. It was on the floor. It was at my level. I could go and pull out Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson. And I started playing harmonica as a 13, 14 year old, and my dad would play guitar and we would play together.
Oh, that’s so cool.
I just started going back and back and back and finding the things that I was gravitating to, but really it was blues that was the first thing that inspired me rather than soul music. And I was playing blues and started playing guitar and harmonica and singing from 15 years old. Blues really took me from being just a casually music-interested teenager to being an obsessive.
Howard, your dad, used to work at a factory in Cleveland and learned to play guitar from this guy Fred Davis. Fred Davis has tragically passed since then, but your dad recorded Fred in your grandparents’ house and has had this recording for 50 years. Last year, you produced it and put it out. Can you talk about this experience and this story?
Fred Davis is, in a funny way, he is part of my origin story too, because when I started playing the guitar, my dad, he played, and he would say, “I learned to play guitar from my friend Fred Davis.” So when my dad was a teenager, he was 19, it was the summer after he was finished high school, he went to work for my grandfather. My grandfather was in the front office of this chemical factory, and my dad was loading in the warehouse, and he worked alongside this guy, Fred Davis, who was a blues singer and guitar player and probably a few years older than my dad at the time. He was probably in his late 20s, early 30s. And he took my dad under his wing and taught him the rudiments of blues guitar, and he had a particular style.
And my dad had this 19-year-old half-baked idea to record Fred Davis and pitch it to the budding college blues scene. This was 1969. He made this tape, he got these musicians, literally in my grandparents’ living room, and recorded Fred Davis. And at the time, nothing ever really came of it. And then my dad moved to Boston and went to college. He held onto this tape the whole time and they had some correspondence. We got the tape digitally transferred in a low-quality way, and it just blew my mind that this existed, and I heard the way that I played the guitar had been channeled, obviously, through my dad, who had learned from this guy Fred Davis. It influenced my style in a way that I didn’t even realize was happening. So I’ve been partnering a little bit with this label Colemine Records, which is a great independent soul and funk label based in Ohio.
I love Colemine. Anything by Colemine, go check it out. C-O-L-E.
I’ve gotten to be quite good friends with the brass, which is really just Terry Cole, who’s the founder of Colemine, and they put out some other records that I’ve produced. I got the record, the Fred Davis tape, remastered. I did audio restoration on it personally with my friend’s studio here in Brooklyn and sent it to Colemine. I said, “Hey, let’s put this out, man.” They were down. We put it out this past spring and for Record Store Day. And people loved it and I was stoked, and we went to Cleveland and did a record release show with the last remaining Fred Davis bandmates. I’ve been able to share a lot of amazing musical moments with my dad, and this was really one of the most amazing moments. It was part of going back to where I started, in a way, and I was able to do that and I’m super proud of the way that record came out.
It’s interesting how you said it influenced you without you having necessarily even realized it because I was listening it to the other day. “Wine Hop” is the bop.
It’s such a jam.
It’s such a jam, but the guitar sounds like you. I was kind of like, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.” It all trickles down, I guess.
It really does, in ways you can’t even imagine. Your DNA gets altered.
It’s such a cool story. You grow up in the Boston area. This is a part of your life that I would love to know more about. You moved to Clarksdale, Mississippi. What is the story there? You go to help start a radio station, but you end up gigging. A local guitarist was needed at your first day there. How do you get to Mississippi and what happens once you’re there?
I was basically on blues Yahoo News groups in high school, and I met this guy on this Yahoo News group who was like, “I’m going to restart WROX Radio in Clarksdale, Mississippi, as a live all-blues radio station.” It’s a famous radio station. Ike Turner was a DJ in the ’50s, and it was one of the first all-blues R&B programmed radio stations in the South. I was about to graduate from high school. I didn’t really want to go to college. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with my life and I had this opportunity, so I talked to my parents. I was like, “What if I go to Mississippi and work with this guy on this project?” And they said, “Yes.”
I was 18. Two weeks after high school graduation, beginning of July, drove to Clarksdale, Mississippi, and they dropped me off and left me there. Clarksdale, especially then, was still really ripe with guys who had been playing blues in little clubs around the Mississippi Delta for years, if not decades. And I just slotted myself into the rotation. I was willing and able to play and learn. I mean, I got my share of licks, that’s for sure.
You’re this white kid from Boston. Was that ever an issue, or was it just like, “If you can play, you can play”?
I couldn’t really play at the time, but I was enthusiastic and willing and I could sing. Then and more now, tourists from all over the world that came to the Mississippi Delta to pay pilgrimage or whatever and could run circles on the guitar. But I was willing and able to sing, especially soul music. And I realized pretty quickly at the clubs, especially at the time, there were still predominantly Black American, middle-aged people who wanted to hear Otis Clay and Tyrone Davis and Latimore and O.V. Wright, and I love that music too. I could sing and was willing to do it, and that was what set me apart. I wasn’t just another guy playing blues on a guitar. I was young, and I was stoked to just be there. My rent was $200 a month. I was able to work odd jobs, doing unskilled construction, and then four nights a week, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, sometimes Monday, I would go and play.
You’re a little younger than me, but you’ve lived a life that feels like it could have happened 60 or 70 years ago. Talk about juke joint culture of the Delta when you were there. Is it still there or is it just sort of a facsimile of itself?
Is it still there? I think the answer is: Sometimes, on the right night in the right place. Then, it was way easier to find. Red’s Juke Joint in Clarksdale, it’s still there and people go, but it’s definitely in the guidebooks now. When I went, I would play there most weekends, Friday, Saturday with the Wesley Jefferson Southern Soul Band. That was my band that I was in, and there’d be a jukebox and before we would play, people would come and put on Howlin’ Wolf records and dance. I just didn’t think that that place existed in the world. The idea of the context of the music was brought to life to me vividly, immediately. Literally the first weekend I was there, I went to Como, Mississippi, in the hill country and I went to the Othar Turner Fife & Drum picnic, and they were barbecuing goat and serving corn liquor. That was the first weekend that was there. I had met somebody the day before and I was walking down the street and she just pulled up in her car and said, “Hey, I’m going up to Como. You want to go to Otha’s?” And I just got in the car and went.
It’s a combination of balls and stupidity, I guess.
Stupidity. Oh yeah, 100 percent. But don’t get me wrong, I was scared to death. I had never lived on my own. I was just graduated from high school. It’s funny to think about it and look back now, which I don’t often do in a real actual reflective sort of way, but thinking about how I actually felt, I was definitely scared to death.
Well, that’s smart, I guess. You end up at University of Chicago, which is no slouch of a school, which sounds like a normal kid thing to do. But then you end up playing piano and organ with Mitty Collier, which is not a normal college kid thing to do. Who is Mitty Collier, for folks who don’t know?
She was the soul singer and recorded for the legendary Chess Records starting in the early ’60s. Had a couple of big hits, including a song called, “I Had a Talk With My Man Last Night.” And basically when I was in Clarksdale, I applied to colleges and I got accepted to the University of Chicago and moved to Chicago that fall, 2004 or something like that.
Was there in your mind, “Chicago’s a blues town,” or was that just accidental luck?
I certainly thought about it. The crazy thing is in Clarksdale, nobody cared how old you were, but in Chicago, I couldn’t get into any of the bars because I was still not 21. So church was the next best thing. But a friend who was a record collector had told me, “You’re going to Chicago. Mitty Collier works at the University of Chicago. She works in hospital administration.” I searched the directory, I found a phone number, I called her up. As soon as I got to Chicago, I reached out to the radio station about doing a soul show on the radio station, and they gave me a slot immediately, which was amazing. I called Mitty basically just to ask her to come on the show. But at that point she had just or was just about to start her church. She had just become ordained or whatever, and said she was looking for musicians for a church. I told her I was a musician. So the following week, she came to my dorm room and there was a piano there and we sat and played songs and she sang and I sang and I got the job. And so I would go farther into the recesses of the south side of Chicago to play in church with her on Sunday mornings.
And you hadn’t played church music necessarily before that, had you?
I had not. I loved gospel music. Gospel music was around the house with my dad and I knew it and I was aware of it and I had played, but she basically took me under her wing. Even if I had played gospel music, playing in church and responding to the preacher and listening to the congregation is a whole … You have to be on the job to learn. She would sing and preach and I would have to listen and catch her when she wanted to start singing, and then people would get up in the congregation and just start singing, kind of freeform, and I’d have to figure out where they were and what the song was and follow. It was a real crash course in paying attention, improvisation.
Did you ever blow it in a big way?
Oh, constantly. All the time, yes. But I got pretty good at it pretty quickly. I had this keyboard that had a transpose button on it. The transpose button was real helpful. I’d hit the button if it was in a key that I couldn’t really play in. I just hit the button and bring it back to where I knew how to play.
That’s amazing. I need a transpose button in several aspects of my life.
It’s very important. The transpose button is clutch.
Speaking of gospel, we can jump ahead a bit. You signed to major labels, you record a couple records, but you ultimately have a breakup with Warner Brothers. And in 2014, you’re working with these disadvantaged kids in Harlem, which gets us to your other recent project, and I’ve seen these guys a couple times. The Harlem Gospel Travelers. You’ve put out two albums now, working on a third. You opened for Taj Mahal at Celebrate Brooklyn! opening night. That was in the rain.
Oh my God, it was pouring. Yeah.
It was pouring. I love those kids. I’ve seen them really up close at Union Pool. They’re so bursting with life and energy. And first of all, it’s amazing that you’re working with kids who probably need the attention or want the attention. Where does that start? The working with kids, and then how does that transform or translate into the Harlem Gospel Travelers, which is just such a fun sound.
I put out a bunch of records and was touring a lot and did the major label thing. And while I was on Warner Brothers actually, I was off the road. I learned about this program in Harlem called Gospel for Teens. I went up there to check it out, and it had been exclusively choir music, big groups. And I like choir music fine, but the gospel music that I really gravitate to is small group gospel music quartets. So I asked the woman who was the founder of the program, her name is Vy Higginsen, she’s a legendary New York radio DJ, if they had ever done a small group program. And she said, “I’d love to do one, but we don’t have anybody to teach it,” I basically just volunteered.
The first time we did it was summer of 2013, 10 years ago actually, this summer. From then on, it basically became an after-school program. So if I was not on the road, I would do a semester in the spring and do a semester in the fall. And there were a couple of kids, young men now, kids, who kept coming back. Thomas Gatling, started bringing in original ideas for songs. And that just wasn’t something I was ever expecting. I was like, “Let’s arrange some Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers or whatever.” And he started bringing in these ideas, and, of course, as a songwriter, I was game. So I said, “At the very least, let’s record these two original songs that Thomas had brought and we had arranged for the group,” and again, reached out to my buddies at Colemine and said, “Hey, I have this thing that I’m doing. How about we cut a 45?” And thankfully, a label like that, they can cut a 45 and essentially make their money back immediately because they have enough people who can cover the cost.
People are such fans of the label, they’re like, “Oh, Colemine put it out. I’ll listen to it.”
It’s exactly right. So we cut this 45 and my good friend Aaron Frazer, who’s now blown up in his own right and as a member of Durand Jones & The Indications, played drums on it and the 45 got a lot of attention. And I said to the label, “Why don’t we cut an album? All the songs that we’ve been working on throughout the course of this program and all the kids who have been the mainstay, let’s get them in the studio.” And so that was the first album we cut. Aaron Frazer played the whole album. That’s the album “He’s On Time.” That album came out in the fall of 2019, and the guys who were in the group, the idea was they were going to play shows and all this, and then pandemic happened, and because of that, the lineup kind of shifted around. But the core guys, George Marage and Thomas Gatling stuck with it. I mean, through the depths of Covid, they wanted to stay with it and Colemine was willing, and Thomas kept writing. As soon as the law would allow, we got back in the studio and made the next record. And now those guys, since then, they’ve toured in Europe three times now.
Oh wow. Yeah.
They’re about to play Newport Folk at the end of this month, which is amazing. The group started out as something that was under my auspices, and now it’s become its own thing, and those guys are masters of their own destiny and making their own music, and I couldn’t be more proud.
I saw you at a block party in Fort Greene.
Oh man, you were there. That was our first post pandemic show. God, it felt so good.
It was so fun. It was such a joyful—
People were lost their minds because nobody had seen live music — I think it was the fall of 2020, October, something like that — and, God, we were just stoked to be out of the house and playing.
I remember that, and it felt a little risky, but it was like, “We’re doing this.” That was fun. You don’t always play with them now, is what I’m getting at. They’re doing their own thing.
I produce the records and I love being in the band, but I also realize that I need to let them take their own steps and have their own band. If I’m on the stage, the feeling is different. I don’t want the focus to be on me. I want the focus to be on them, and they deserve it. They don’t need me anymore.
Where do you discover new music these days? You’re an omnivorous listener. Do you actively seek out new stuff? Does it come to you? How do you go about finding new stuff, if you even think about finding new stuff?
I do. I’m still a big 45 collector. Gospel music is an unending well of amazing inspiration for me, and there’s just so much. It’s just unbelievable to me how much music that I can continue to find that I never knew about, or regionally, whatever. But I love what’s going on in country music and Americana these days. I love this guy Josh Hedley from Nashville, the great new traditional country guys. I made some records a little while back with a female singer named Sabine McCalla from New Orleans. Great folk, bluesy, Americana singer. Blues singers like Buffalo Nichols I think is great. There’s just a lot of great stuff that’s happening these days.
It’s your 20th year in the business. You got a singles comp coming out. Your work with Harlem Gospel Travelers. What’s next? What do the next 20 months or what do the next 20 years look like?
I think we’re going to do a 20th anniversary of the first record. My label that I’m on now, Yep Roc, has actually licensed or purchased a lot of my back catalog, so they actually have everything of mine except for the major label records, which is cool. I love it. They’re great and they’re in it for the long haul with me. I’m going to make a new record in the fall. I’m excited about it. I’ve been writing a lot. I have to say, this is the Brooklyn Magazine podcast and I think that there is no shortage of amazing collaborators and amazing musicians and writers in the borough these days, and I’m very thankful for that. My good buddy Vince Chiarito has an amazing studio, Hive Mind, in Bushwick, where I made the Merle Haggard record and where we cut the Harlem Gospel records. Just a lot of really talented and thoughtful musicians out there that I’m very happy to be able to collaborate with.
What’s a typical day for you if you’re not recording? Maybe you’re out with the kids, maybe you’re just on your own. Do you have a rotation, a go-to restaurant, coffee shop, bar, park? What’s a day like?
I have two little kids, so it’s important to say that my kids are about to be 4 and about to be 7. So on a typical day, if it’s a school or camp day, you might see me riding around South Brooklyn on my cargo bike with two kids, sometimes three. This morning I had three. I picked up another kid, just one that was on the street. [Laughs.] I live in Kensington. My neighborhood is kind of an embarrassment of riches for cool food. Little Bangladesh is where I live. There’s a great little Bangladeshi snack spot called Sonia Cafe that’s on Church Avenue that I love. There’s a great Afghan spot, Dunya Kebab House on Coney Island Avenue, that’s nearby.
Oh man, I’m glad to hear it. So good. Thai Farm Kitchen is around the corner from where I live, great Thai restaurant. I love Windsor Coffee, which is my go-to coffee spot. They have Oslo beans. Fancy coffee is something that is a requirement where I live. It’s the law. I love living in South Brooklyn. I love Prospect Park. My neighborhood feels like a small town. If I’m out on the bike or even walking, I will see people I know every half a block. My kids go to PS 130, and we have a really amazing school and parent community there. It feels great to be part of that small community within the big city.
So you are Eli “Paperboy” Reed. Where’s that nickname come from?
The “Paperboy” comes from Mississippi. At the time and in high school, I wore one of those newsboy scally caps, you would call it if you’re a boss. That belonged to my grandfather actually, that he gave to me. And when I would be playing in Mississippi, they would say, “Oh, it’s the Paperboy again. Let’s let him get up and do a few songs or whatever.” Because everybody has the nickname. Literally everyone. So that was what they gave to me.
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