It’s a particularly humid Friday night at an outdoor plaza at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center. Despite the weather, some 200 people have gathered to hear live gospel music.
The singers, seven African-American teenagers, are dressed in plaid button-downs and polos, and appear a bit timid as they stand onstage, waiting for their cue.
Standing nearby is a white man with slicked-back hair wearing a dark suit and holding a cherry red electric guitar. He starts to pick and strum the instrument, and the teens loosen up. They launch into an array of gospel tunes like “Shine On Me” and “Don’t Let The Devil Ride,” rotating solo verses and clapping their hands.
“I’m just happy to be their teacher,” the guitarist, Eli “Paperboy” Reed, says after a round of loud applause.
Reed, 32, who has released four studio albums of bluesy, soulful pop rock, is the main attraction this evening. His own songs, which he played with a full band following his students’ set, brought dozens of audience members out of their chairs and into a dancing frenzy.
While Reed kept the Christian themes going with his commanding Motown-style voice (“This one is about your sins!” he yelled before one tune), he’s actually Jewish — and hails from the very Jewish Boston suburb of Brookline, Mass.
A couple of weeks after the Lincoln Center gig, Reed chatted at a cafe near his current home base of Kensington in Brooklyn.
Reed’s latest album, “My Way Home,” released in June through the independent Yep Roc Records label, sounds like the product of a grizzled veteran crooner. The record mines a variety of classic African-American genres, from blues rock to gospel, and stays meticulously true to them.
Reed, whose real name is Eli Husock, admits that teaching gospel music to teens, which he has done for three years through the Harlem-based Gospel for Teens program, led to that genre’s seeping into “My Way Home.” But it turned out that teaching gospel became a savior of sorts for him, too — and not in a Christian way.
In 2013, Reed’s father, a former music writer, first introduced him to the program. At the time, Reed was gearing up to release his second album on a major label (“Nights Like This” on Warner Bros.) and had seen a few of his songs featured in commercials for Nike and Toyota.
He agreed to volunteer for the program, and set out to teach some teenage boys the gospel quartet style, which allows singers to take turns soloing and helps them develop vocal confidence.
Then Reed was struck with unfortunate news: a series of layoffs at Warner Bros. depleted the resources behind his album. Eventually he was dropped from the label, and suddenly the Gospel for Teens class was his main gig. (Notably, Reed still refused payment for the work, even though his fellow teachers were paid.)
“In the post-Amy Winehouse era, there were a lot of major labels that wanted to sign soul singers, so I had a lot of people competing for me at that time,” he said. “But when the company was sold, the bottom fell out of the whole thing.”
After a difficult period last year, Reed decided to record an album on his own. The result, “My Way Home,” has jump-started his career.
“When you teach something, you kind of have to dissect it and think about it in a different way,” Reed said. “[The class] made me think more and more about how that music has influenced me as a writer.”
Reed said he loves teaching gospel. However, he firmly identifies as Jewish, and to him gospel is more “inspirational” than religious.
“Obviously, there’s language you can’t avoid, but I’m hoping that the understanding of that language has been that people can interpret the lyrics in their own way,” he said. “If someone is a Christian and hears this record and it affirms their faith, that’s fine with me. I would rather make music for everybody.”
Reed said he’s always been comfortable working in the world of African-American music. Offstage, Reed is a walking soul music encyclopedia who name-drops influences like Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. His No. 1 idol — as a “singer, guitarist, songwriter and performer” — is the late Bobby Womack, who wrote several hits in the ’70s.
Reed also can effortlessly explain the rich history of Jews involved in the history of soul and blues music — such as Phil and Leonard Chess, the immigrants behind Chess Records, along with “literally every single independent record label,” he said.
Being Jewish, he said, undoubtedly impacts his understanding of music “from a cultural point of view.”
“My grandfather, for instance, loved Handel, so you can appreciate the artistry of something separated from the religious elements,” Reed said. “It’s all about trying to get to the heart of what’s important musically.”
Gabe Friedman writes for the JTA international news agency and wire service.
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