- Smooth Jazz Network
Bobby Lyle: Behind the Beats
Updated: May 4, 2022
Each week we'll take you 'Behind the Beats' to learn more about the artists that play on our airwaves. This week: Bobby Lyle.
We interviewed Bobby in our annual BEATS magazine. Check out the magazine article below but keep scrolling for the extended version of our conversation.
Read the rest of the BEATS magazine here.
Your single “Living In The Flow” immediately caught my ear as a tune that mixes the artistry of jazz and the melodies of ‘smooth’ flawlessly. Talk about walking that line between ‘jazz’ and ‘smooth’.
Well, in smooth jazz there is more emphasis on the melodic content of the song, with additional emphasis on the structure and flow, because remember, you have maybe 4 to 4 and a half minutes to tell your story, keep the listener’s attention, and create a satisfying mood. And this doesn’t mean there is NO improvisation, because there is room for it—just not to the extent of what you find in traditional or straight ahead jazz. And this is not to say that traditional jazz is without melodic content or structure (unless you go total Avant Garde where there are no boundaries) but the emphasis here is more focused on the improvisational skills of the player, which directly challenges the depth of your musicianship. So, those of us who play and compose in both realms have to be prepared for the challenge of being believable in each one, which I love.
“Living In The Flow” was one of the highest charting singles of 2021. Was it expected?
Living In The Flow, my first single was sort of the cornerstone for the project and did extremely well at radio and on the charts. Did I expect it? Well let’s just say that based on all the hours that went into its creation, my team and I did have high expectations. Does it always work out that way? Absolutely not. But you have go into it with positive energy and a belief that you’ve created something worth listening to. It’s both humbling and exhilarating to get that ‘home run’ top of the chart song. That feeling far exceeds the disappointment of having one that doesn’t do so well.
Your new single “Tommy’s Song” is a very personal one for you.
My new single ‘Tommy’s Song’ is a tribute to my late son Thomas Lee Lyle who passed away in 2017 of diabetic complications. It’s hard to understand how wrenching that old phrase ‘parents should never have to bury their kids’ is until you’ve actually experienced it. The entire family was so devastated that I thank God every day for the balm and refuge my music has provided me over the years. Having lost my first wife and both parents, I am no stranger to emotional pain. The music and my faith in God have brought me through each time. So I went to work on creating a musical tribute to my fine and talented son…and this single is the result. I hope when people hear it, they can feel even a fraction of what I was feeling at the time, but also the joy of remembering the good times we shared together.
Let’s go back to your early influences. Tell us about who inspired you to become a jazz musician.
My early musical influences all came from within my family. Mom was a pianist and church organist who loved and appreciated the jazz heroes of her era, from the bandleaders like Duke Ellington and Count Basie, to vocalists like Billy Eckstine , Sarah Vaughn and of course Ella, to the great pianists like Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson. And she became my first piano teacher! Her brother, my uncle whom I named my son Thomas after, would come visit from Memphis in the summer (he was a high school band director in Memphis who also played piano and trombone) and in his luggage would always be the latest and best jazz LPs. Dave Brubeck (Take 5), Miles, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, J.J. Johnson, he had them all. Dad did not play an instrument but along with the jazz he had a profound love for classical music and would pass that along to my 3 brothers, 3 sisters and I. So with all that great music constantly in the house I guess it was inevitable that some of us would try to make a go of it as professionals. My sister Flo would go on to sing background with Marvin Gaye and Lou Rawls, and was also a notable dancer (one of the Solid Gold Dancers on the TV show). My brother Ollie became a bass player who free lanced and also has his own trios in the Twin Cities area. I have been super blessed to have a long and flourishing recording career as a pianist, which was jumpstarted in the late 70’s by my mentor and Hirst producer Wayne Henderson (of Jazz Crusaders Fame) who got me my Hirst deal with a major label, Capitol Records. One of my signature tunes, ‘The Genie” was the title cut of that first album for them.
How was it performing with Sly & The Family Stone?
I was a fan of Sly Stone’s unique brand of electric funk long before I moved to L.A. in 1974 and became a member of his band. The opportunity came about when drummer Bill Lordan (also from Minneapolis) who was already in the band, arranged to have me audition for Sly on the Hammond organ. After a brief 3 minute performance he invited me to join the band and go on a major tour which was due to start in a couple of weeks. Since I had moved (with my family) from Minnesota to California with NO work lined up, it was a godsend and a blessing. Yes there was sometimes drama and craziness, but being in the midst of and contributing to that hard
core authentic Funk on stage and in the studio, (with pay) was definitely a great experience.
Other collaborative highlights?
One of the first collaborations I had after moving to L.A. was with singer/songwriter Gary Wright. I did all the keyboard work on his Dream Weaver album which went through the
roof in sales and for which I received my very first gold record (from Warner Brothers). Then I was introduced to Ronnie Laws by Wayne Henderson. That collaboration resulted in two studio recordings (he actually recorded my tune ‘Night Breeze’ before I did) and a couple of
tours. In the ’80s, after a stint with the George Benson band, I was launched into a musical director career that included some pretty high profile singers. The late great Phyllis Hyman, Anita Baker, the late Al Jarreau with whom I received another gold record for co-writing the title cut to his very popular “High Crime” album (he put catchy lyrics to my music) and of course the Divine One, Bette Midler, with whom I did several tours over an 18 year stretch, and received an Emmy nomination for Best Musical Direction for her special “Diva Las Vegas” which aired on HBO in 1997.
You have been signed with some major labels. How has the industry and recording process changed for you?
After watching the demise of so many record companies and retail record stores, I was determined that my next move would be to go independent. So in 2013 I started my New Warrior Music label and released my tribute to Jimmy Smith album, “The Way I Feel” which is my only Hammond B-3 project to date. “Ivory Flow” my latest, is my first smooth jazz product in years and so far is doing very well. For the first time I did most of it at home and sent files out (partly because of covid and partly because we’re all spread out in different cities) to my roster of illustrious guest artists for their participation They were all super wonderful! I just signed with Distrokid for distribution and it will be available (in digital download form) in all platforms. For physical copies you still have to come to my live shows, or my website: bobbylylethegenie.com.
I went back and relistened to some tracks from your first album, Bobby Lyle Plays Electone GX707 initially released in Japan. There are some amazing tracks on that album. How did that Japanese release come about for you?
Wow—I didn’t know anyone knew about that GX707 album! That came about when I participated in Yamaha’s International Electone organ contest which started at a local and regional level with national finals held in Chicago in front of a panel of judges that included Sarah Vaughn, Steve Allen and Jimmy Smith (my organ hero). Haha, no pressure right? Anyway they chose me to represent the U.S.A. at the world finals in Tokyo Japan. I overcame an early sound error in my performance to win the trophy. I was so excited and grateful! By winning I was invited back to Japan to do seminars in the Yamaha music schools in all the major cities, and finally to record an album using the same instrument I won the contest on. This instrument, the futuristic, three keyboard GX707, was the forerunner of the scaled down DX7 which became very popular in the studio sessions of the ’70s on into the ’80s, as well as in live performances. Including the “Theme From Shaft” track was a natural reaction to my being a huge fan of the late Isaac Hayes.
“Paradise Cove” is an all-time smooth jazz classic. You released it back in the early days of ‘smooth jazz’. How has your song writing process changed since then, or has it changed?
My songwriting is still inspired by the rhythms of contemporary life, love, and the general flow of things. If a melody suddenly appears in your head and you can’t shake it until you capture it, you know that it’s divinely inspired. The common thread running through all my ‘mood’ pieces like Night Breeze, Paradise Cove, Aruban Nights, Midnight, Living In The Flow etc. is the thing I fight for the most while composing: strong melodic content. As time goes by, the rhythmic and harmonic ‘packaging’ may change, but that melodic thing will always be there.
What are your plans for 2022?
I am filled with excitement as 2022 approaches. My plans are to continue teaching and mentoring up and coming jazz pianists, and to maximize the momentum being created by ‘Ivory Flow’ with more festivals, cruises, theaters and club dates being pursued. So far there’s a UK date with Norman Connors in March, the Berks jazz festival in April and The Mallorca jazz fest in Spain Oct. 31st thru Nov. 4th 2022. To all promoters who happen to be reading this: I am back, with new product, and Hotter Than Ever!! Have keys-Will Travel. Thank you Allen Kepler for the platform!