An inside look at the past, present and future of an R&B scene showing new signs of life
The recipe for a thriving music scene requires several key ingredients: talent, original songs, live shows, audience support and local awareness. When it comes to the Columbus R&B community, there has never been a shortage of talent.
The city's R&B legacy is characterized, in part, by the success of West High School alum and nationally acclaimed artist Nancy Wilson, who won a Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording in 1964. There's also the late Bill Moss' Capsoul Records label, which generated songs that made it to the Billboard charts in the 1970s.
And if you ask any local R&B artist today, he or she will tell you the talent pool is as massive as ever.
“There are lots of wonderful singers,” said Qamil Wright, who released her latest EP, Demo Tape, in March. “The writing, the stage presence — all of it is here.”
As for those other ingredients? It's debatable. Regarding the songs, “You'll find more people doing [covers] than consistently making original music,” Wright said.
Live performances are similarly sporadic. A weekly Friday show at Copious/Notes hosted by Rashad Thomas and Tomi Jones, and Roxie “Soul Butterfly” Wolfe's monthly Eargasm show at Lincoln Cafe are the two best-known, regularly occurring events.
“I started singing here in 2011, and there was always something going on,” Wright said. “Now it's really slow.”
Some artists say R&B shows are confined to a limited number of venues, with no single, dedicated space reserved for the genre. And while many agree there is a demand for the music in the city, the audiences can also be unreliable.
“What I've come to find out is if [people] know that they can see you every Friday, they aren't gonna come and see you every Friday,” said veteran R&B producer and pianist Brandon “B Jazz” Scott, who plays with Thomas and Jones at Copious.
On the flip side, audiences aren't always in the know. Often, they aren't aware of what the city's R&B artists are up to, according to Wright. “I think it's mostly the artists' fault,” she said. “It's our responsibility to make people know who we are.”
One artist determined to address the question of awareness, as well as other challenges in the scene, is Everett “Ev” Jones, who began his singing career in Columbus in 2008. He also manages the Reynoldsburg-area Idle-A-While Bar and venue and co-owns internet radio station WTMH.
“The R&B scene is what it is here because there's no leadership behind it,” Jones said. “Everybody wants their name on the flier. … Nobody wants to put the work in.”
This year, Jones will launch a local record label, Beyond the Present Records, and open a studio in the French Quarter apartments at the Continent on the North Side in June. He also said plans are in the works for a soul festival on the apartment facility grounds featuring Ohio talent.
“The ultimate goal is to formulate this R&B hub where everything is full circle,” Jones said. “You come to the studio, you record your song, you get your song mixed and mastered, take it downstairs to the [WTMH] radio station … [and] come to the Idle-A-While and you do a show.”
Given Jones' and others' endeavors to unify, promote and propel local R&B and soul artists, along with a few anticipated albums to be released this year, a reignited Columbus R&B scene may be on the horizon.
A look at the past
Back in the 1960s, Bill Moss took on the leadership role in the Columbus R&B scene as a popular DJ on WVKO (Voice of Kolumbus Radio) and as a local promoter.
“Being the leading radio DJ in the city, he hosted all the parties [and] all of the concerts,” Moss' son, Daniel, said of his father, who would later become well-known in local politics, serving on the Columbus Board of Education. “He also realized that there was an untapped network of local talent here in Columbus … and they were always prying him for access to the radio. And so he was in the prime position to help facilitate that.”
In 1970, Moss gave local artists an even greater platform for exposure when he founded Capital City Soul (Capsoul) Records and built a small studio at 3504 N. High St. Capsoul recordings featured local acts such as Marion Black; Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum & Durr; and the Four Mints. Notorious Columbus musician Norman Whiteside was hired on as a writer, and Moss also wrote and performed songs, including Civil Rights anthem “Sock It To 'Em Soul Brother.”
“His idea was to be Ohio's answer to Motown,” Daniel said. “Motown essentially was the impetus for starting Capsoul Records here in Columbus and trying to give local artists here some measure of national recognition in support of their talent. And so he began the work of building local acts into his shows, and eventually they gained some level of notoriety.
“And, Dad, being a favorite personality of the city, he had favor with all of the venues [and] he had favor with all of the celebrities who'd come in town.”
Gerald Taylor, who played piano on Capsoul recordings and during the artists' live shows, was especially excited when soul singer Linda Jones visited the city and had a “battle” against Columbus jazz singer Jeanette Williams. Taylor was recruited to play for both women because neither had a band.
“That was one of the best programs I ever did,” Taylor said. “Because both women came out like they were boxers. … And they did not pull any punches.”
Taylor said Columbus often hosted nationally known artists even as far back as the 1950s in the bustling King-Lincoln District. Though known for being a jazz hub, Taylor noted R&B artists were also present in the neighborhood.
“[On] Mt. Vernon and Long Street, there were so many bars and places to play at that it was almost ridiculous,” Taylor said. “You couldn't walk three or four steps without hearing music, and most of it was live. … You would be bombarded with organs and saxophones and guitars and everything.”
Despite that excitement, the scene had its challenges. “[Columbus] was not the easiest place to perform because there were so many people that were so talented,” Taylor said. “And unfortunately there was more cut-throat stuff going on than there was camaraderie. … It was bothersome.”
By 1974, Capsoul Records had folded. Moss' bank pulled the loan for the label, telling Moss he was too “vested” in the operation, Daniel said.
“This while he's on the Billboard charts,” Daniel continued. “He didn't have money to pay folks, [and] he had to sell all of his music equipment. And he also lost millions of dollars in land to the bank that he put up for collateral. … That was some of the subtext that had Bill Moss fired up in this town.”
To make matters worse, the bank had Moss' studio padlocked, and he was forced to break in to retrieve his master tapes, which were later destroyed in a flood. In recent years, the Capsoul catalog has gained wider attention with reissue compilations by Chicago-based archival label Numero Group and renewed interest from celebrities and industry professionals.
“So many other things have happened, from Super Bowl commercials to Wiz Khalifa, Justin Timberlake [and Black Eyed Peas rapper] Will.i.am … using his music. And so that is now the second or third life of his music,” said Daniel, who plans to re-launch the label with new music and film a documentary about his father.
“[My dad] was the music scene where taking talent to the national charts is concerned,” Daniel said. “After that, I'd be curious to point to some label or movement … that you can say, ‘Hey, that's the Columbus music scene.'”
“It comes in waves”
To date, Bill Moss' success galvanizing the local R&B and soul community has gone unmatched, but there have been brief bursts of excitement and attempts by individuals to take charge in the scene.
“It comes in waves,” said B Jazz Scott, who plays with the Liquid Crystal Project and has produced many of the city's R&B artists. “I have seen the music scene at an all-time high and seen it at an all-time low.”
For Scott, a highlight was Snaps & Taps Lounge Columbus, a former Downtown club on Washington Avenue that he remembers being a hotspot for black artists as far back as the mid-1990s, when he was in high school.
“That was the true artist hub,” Scott recalled. “If you were in any part of the arts as far as visual arts, spoken word, instrumental, jazz [and] R&B, this was the space for you. … You could walk in and hear some of the city's best mixed with some of the nation's best at the moment. A lot of people used to [file] through.”
Scott said the club closed about a decade later, and the building was demolished. A parking lot was built in its place. “I almost cried,” he said.
There was also the Brownstone, a restaurant and club that occupied the location of present-day Sidebar Columbus Downtown on Main Street until 2007.
“In the early 2000s, it was so strong,” Scott said, recalling how he would play R&B and jazz in the basement while hip-hop artist, producer and Liquid Crystal Project member J. Rawls would DJ on the first floor. “It was so glorious, [with] at least 700 people flowing through the building at night.”
“Then, the scene fell off,” said Scott, who also mentioned that many artists have left due to “inconsistency of support.”
Another resurgence of sorts took place more recently, at least according to singer Kenneth “K. Daniel” Eaddy, who returned to the city in 2013.
“Qamil [Wright] had actually come to me and brought an opportunity for 12 or 13 artists, and the idea was to come together to create a song based off of a track, kinda like a unifying song,” Eaddy said. While the song never panned out, Wright created a community around her own record label, Soul Dope Music, and “Soul Dope Sundays,” a competitive open-mic night at the recently-closed Scarlet and Grey Cafe that ran until 2016. Last August, she organized a Soul Dope Music Festival at Lincoln Cafe.
In a sense, Wright had become a uniting force in the scene, which some say has also suffered from undercutting — up-and-coming acts agreeing to take less money for gigs, which pushes out veterans — as well as egoism and other conflicts.
“Qamil is such a beacon of togetherness,” said singer Renee Dion, who has been recording and performing in the city since about 2010. “I know that she does a lot of things trying to include everyone. I've gotten many calls from her. … She's always thinking about collaboration.”
“[Wright]'s definitely been a great advocate for trying to find the venues and creating stages for us to perform,” Eaddy said.
These days, those stages are few. “People are kind of circulating around the same venues,” said Roxie Wolfe. She and others have cited the King-Lincoln District's Lincoln Cafe and Lincoln Theatre, as well as Linden's New Harvest Cafe & Urban Arts Center, as the go-to venues for booking R&B shows. And while some artists have played venues outside of that circle — like Skully's Music-Diner — there isn't much infiltration into the city's traditionally rock or even hip-hop spaces.
“I think it's part of a larger problem in Columbus,” said Stephanie Ewen, a former artist manager who founded Tiny House Music Collective, an organization that provides informational resources for musicians and encourages more connectivity in the music scene. “You have certain venues who stick to certain genres, and they tend to stick around one another in certain areas of town.”
“I think R&B is one of those genres that's pretty well-liked, but for whatever reason, in Columbus, there isn't a big demand from bookers and promoters for [it],” continued Ewen, who is also one of five organizers behind the Melanincholy Festival, which will showcase artists of color at the Milo-Grogan Community Center on May 26.
“I think there needs to be more venues that promote R&B [and] blues … so maybe we can start that in Linden,” said New Harvest Cafe owner Kwodwo Ababio.
“There are a lot of R&B artists who stick to doing covers … and a lot of the venues in town prefer original music,” Ewen said. “So when you have an R&B artist who reaches out, the assumption may be that they only do covers, even if that's not necessarily true.”
The artists who do sing covers make that choice for myriad reasons.
“The audience wants to feel comfortable and not just sitting there trying to figure out where you're going,” Ev Jones said. “So they want to hear some things that they already know. The artist wants to do what they're good at, which is, more times than not, something that somebody else sings.”
“[And] we drop the ball because of money,” Jones continued. “Cover bands make good money.”
But there are artists who focus on original music, and some have plans for new material in 2017. One such artist is Renee Dion, who will release her third full-length album, Haven, at the Columbus Museum of Art in September.
“The Columbus crowd is heavy about covers, but … if you believe and if you go as hard as you possibly can, and if you take yourself seriously, you will get the reaction and the love and crowd participation that you're seeking,” she said.
There's also a lot of buzz around soul artist Stefan “T. Wong” Thomas, who will release his sophomore album, The Upside Down, on May 19. Co-produced by Parker Louis of Forest and the Evergreens, the project is a model for cross-genre collaboration, which is rare in the Columbus urban music scene.
“I think it's an exposure thing, being out there in different environments,” Thomas said. “I'm not just at an R&B set. When there's artistry, I find out about it.”
Since getting his start performing at New Harvest Cafe, Thomas has been able to perform in places somewhat uncommon for local R&B artists — including the Garden Theater, ComFest and opening for Tweet at Cincinnati's OTR Live. And he recently appeared on 10TV and CD102.5, an impressive feat considering most local R&B artists feel disconnected from the city's terrestrial radio stations.
“I think a lot of people are saying that about me, like, ‘You're doing rare things,'” Thomas said, laughing. “A large part of it is attributed to Suzan Bradford at Lincoln Theatre.”
Bradford, the theater's general manager, recommended Thomas for the Greater Columbus Arts Council's Art Makes Columbus campaign, which has proved to be another recent boost in exposure for black artists in Columbus.
In addition to projects from Thomas and Dion, other forthcoming R&B releases include a debut album by duo the Tryangles — produced by B Jazz Scott. Newcomer Danyelle “DiMarie” Glason, who released single “Things Aren't the Same” in April, is also working on an EP. In September, Ev Jones will release a new album, Civil Rights Music 2017 AD, which has a spirit similar to Bill Moss' “Sock It To ‘Em Soul Brother.”
“We are the soundtrack of everything,” Jones said of R&B artists, and he expressed his disappointment at the lack of modern “battle songs” in the current political climate.
“I'm just trying to do my part in helping us get back to that,” he said of his new leadership role. “There's so much talent here. I don't know that there's a fault to be placed as to why it isn't more [known]. … If R&B dies off like they say it is, it's gonna be a sad time. You can't live without it. It's like the heartbeat.”