Taking some time out from tickling the ivories, keyboardist and music director to the stars Charles Matthews Jr. sat down with the staff of The No Fly Zone Magazine to talk about “Interpretations”, his current album on the market.
NFZ: Where were you were born and where do you reside these days?
I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. I lived briefly in New York, but returned to my roots in Chicago. I love living in the vibrant energetic city of Chicago because of its diversity and the fact that you can always find something entertaining to do in Chicago.
NFZ: How’d you get into the music business and who have you worked with over the years?
I was raised in a home where music was prevalent. My mother was a gospel singer, and she travelled with a group called the Argo Singers, so that was my basic exposure to music. I never really wanted to be a musician; rather I wanted to be a baseball player. I was a very good shortstop/second baseman. However, when I was in high school, by chance, I was put in a four-year music program. At that time, after never playing an instrument, I was unsure whether I would enjoy being in the music program. I started in the orchestra where I played violin, and then in my sophomore year of high school, I started playing keyboards. This is where I found my true passion for music. It was long hours of practicing, but through my dedication and love for the keyboard and piano I was able to expand on my creativity and really develop a deep passion for music.
Over the years, I have performed with a lot of artists; notably, Jerry Butler. I was Jerry’s musical director for many, many years. I’ve also worked with Gene Chandler, Curtis Mayfield, Billy Paul, the Chi-Lites, and the Impressions. I also arranged and produced an album with Shirley Jones of the Jones Girls. My late wife and I also had our own band Angela Charles and Windsong. In addition, I have also been a backup keyboardist for numerous artists.
NFZ: Tell us a bit about your favorite work experience. Who was it with and what made it so special?
This is a difficult question to answer because I have had many great experiences over the years; so if I have to pick a favorite, I would say that my experience with Jerry Butler has been an incredible experience, especially with Jerry being such a distinct entertainer and pronounced artist. With Jerry I gained so much knowledge about the entertainment business. I learned a lot about how to walk on stage, how to put a show together, how to keep a show moving forward, and how to keep your audience engaged. We did a lot of travelling, and I was able to learn how the music industry operated as a result of my time with Jerry. So those were some incredible times for me as Jerry’s musical director.
NFZ: Your work as a keyboardist and musical director has certainly involved quite a bit of traveling. What are some of your favorite places that you’ve visited and why?
I really enjoyed being in London, but taking a train ride to Paris proved to be a very unique experience. I had purchased a cross here in the U.S. for a chain that I would wear around my neck. It was a very unique cross because it was made in a very exclusive way. I bought this cross because of its uniqueness. And, unbelievably, the gentleman I sat next to on the train had the same identical cross. You can imagine my shock that someone in another country would have the same cross as I did. As some would say, this may have been some sort of sign that I was in the right place doing what I was meant to be doing.
NFZ: Every performing artist has a crazy story about being on the road. What’s your way-out road tale?
Being on the road for days on end provided many tales that I could share. One particular time, we were playing behind Gene Chandler, who is an outstanding vocalist. He’s one of the most exceptional vocalists that I’ve played behind. But with Gene, you had to be on top of your game because Gene would always change things up in an instant. Sometimes the musicians playing, myself included, would sometimes get a little frustrated by the turns each performance would take. So one evening after playing his show, the bass player and I were backstage; and we were talking amongst ourselves saying things like, “Man, this guy is a trip to work with. Why are we here?” In our immaturity and frustration, we talked about him like a dog; but to our surprise, he was standing in the doorway listening to everything we were saying. So he listened and he came in the room and he said, “Hey, man, here.” Not only did he pay us, but he gave us each a $300 tip and never said a word about what he heard. You can imagine our embarrassment in Gene hearing what we were saying. Gene was a great man, and I have some very memorable times working with him.
NFZ: Now, let’s get down to discussing your music. Could you tell our readers about your current release, “Interpretations”?
“Interpretations” has been a great journey for me. A lot of these songs are songs that tell the story of my life. In this particular project, I wanted to keep the same sophisticated harmonies and melodies of the classic recognizable songs, but wanted to put my own jazz flair by changing some of the arrangements and tempos to give my interpretation of the songs. Each one of these songs, if you listen to the originals, has powerful lyrics. What I wanted to do was utilize my creativity and arrange these songs in such a way to generate music that would reach my audience with the same command of the original songs so that people from all genres and ages could feel these songs instrumentally just as they would if the lyrics were being sung. So these 12 tracks are my interpretations of these songs that have meant so much to me over the years. My intention in this project was to provide music that would be identifiable to so many by keeping true to the melodies while adding my flair to bring the music to a crossover/fusion type of jazz.
NFZ: What motivated you in the musical arrangements and recording process of this record?
My motivation in this project was being able to take these well-known classic songs, update them, and put a fresh flavor on songs that certainly have a place in music. What I tried to do was get inside of the songs and to play it from a jazzier tradition. It’s something I’m bringing to the table that’s a little different than the typical cover songs you may hear.
NFZ: How do you manage to fuse jazz and R&B music so seamlessly?
I have trusted the journey. I think it’s so important to leave room for the song to breathe where as an artist, as you let the song itself come alive, it’s like you’re going for the ride inside of the song. You’re expounding on what’s there. A good example is: How many different ways can you sing Happy Birthday? Anyone who has had that song sung to them feels the sincerity in which the person is singing it or playing it or exploring it; but no matter how the song is sung, you will always know the melody of the song. And I think that’s what I tried to do, blend these particular songs and stylizing them as a pianist. I think the key is that my roots are in both R&B and jazz and it is extremely natural for me to tie these two genres together.
NFZ: Have you planned a follow up release yet?
NFZ: Are you involved with any political issues, activist causes or charities you feel passionate about or participate in?
There are many charities that I am passionate about, including the American Cancer Society, Domestic Violence charities, and the Me Too Movement.
NFZ: Any thoughts regarding the current state of the entertainment industry and are there any things you’d like to change?
The entertainment industry has changed so much since I first came on the scene. I think that the capable outreach of a musician is boundless because of social media, Internet, etc. I mean, just by a tap of your finger, someone in China can be grooving on your music as easily as someone in Chicago in an instantaneous fashion. I believe it is easier to get exposure as a new artist than it was years ago due to all of our technological advances. This makes it easier for many artists to reach audiences that may have been more difficult to reach in the past.
I think one of the negative things about the technological advances is that, along with that great exposure, it has provided some discomfort for musicians in collecting royalties for their work. There are also a lot of fraudulent ways to download, which is unfair to the artists. I think there needs to be advances, and changes made, for compensating artists.
NFZ: How can people follow and stay in touch with you?
People can find me on the Internet at the following locations:
NFZ: To wrap things up could you share something about yourself that your fans don’t know and would probably surprise them?
I think something that would surprise some people is my sense of humor. A lot of people think that I am a very serious man. I think if I wasn’t a musician, I would be comedic writer, writing comedy shows and short stories from various aspects of my real-life experiences.