There are few D.C. acts more iconic than the Blackbyrds. Formed in 1973, the Blackbyrds had a string of all time dance club classics including “Do It, Fluid,” “Walking In Rhythm,” “Flyin’ High,” “Happy Music” and “Rock Creek Park.” Ahead of their performance at Blisspop Disco Fest this weekend, we talked with Blackbyrds band leader Keith Killgo.
So I wanted to start with that fact that you are a DMV native. Can you tell me about where you grew up and where you first started drumming?
Keith Killgo: Well yeah, I’m from Northwest Washington D.C. very close to Walter Reed / Van Buren Street. I went to Paul Junior High School and Calvin Coolidge High School as well as Howard University. I started playing piano when I was four to six and then I switched to drums when I was nine. My father [Harry Killgo] was a jazz musician. He played in a group in D.C. called the J.F.K. Quintet which featured Andrew White, Ray Codrington, Walter Booker, Mickey Newman and different musicians from D.C. They used to have jam sessions in my basement when I was young, on Saturdays, and I would go down after they left and play on the drummer’s drums and that kind of stuff. They performed at a club here in D.C. called the Bohemian Caverns and that’s where I got a chance to go and sit in once he thought I was good enough to play. I sat in with Miles Davis, with Art Blakey’s band, with Bill Hardman; I was like nine and ten years old. When I was eleven, I played with Stanley Turrentine, Stan Getz, Bobby Timmons, and just a whole host of people – jazz musicians. Back then I really befriended a wonderful saxophone player by the name of Eddie Harris. So I had done all this before I graduated from high school.
Wow, that’s an unbelievable start! Did you meet Donald Byrd at Howard University or had you known him before that?
Keith Killgo: No. I was playing a gig in Baltimore, a Sunday jazz thing called the Left Bank Jazz Society on North Charles Street up by Penn Station. I was playing with a group with my dad and Byrd was there. Byrd knew my father because when Byrd was in college he’d come to D.C. and play on the weekends with my father. When we got to Baltimore, [Byrd] said “Hey man, what are you doing here? Why don’t you come to Howard?” I’m on my way to Bradley University. I went to Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois for two years so I didn’t come right to Howard. I had met Kevin Toney the summer before I left for college. He was from Detroit and attending Howard University to study with Dr. Donald Byrd and I attending Bradley. So he would come up to Bradley and play and I’d come to Howard and play. Eventually, after two years, I got transferred from Bradley University, in the corn belt of America, back to the city of Washington D.C. where I started attending Howard University.
I think people from my generation, the song they are most familiar with is “Rock Creek Park.” It inspired a lot of hip-hop producers and it’s still a dancefloor staple. Does the song’s longevity surprise you? Was there a feeling when you were recording it in the session that this was going to live on for so long?
Keith Killgo: Absolutely not. First of all, when we were in Camden, New Jersey at a soundcheck, I was playing bass, Joe [Hall] was playing drums; we were all fooling around with different instruments. Byrd would make us come to the soundchecks early, man, they hadn’t even swept the floors yet. Chairs and the chicken bones, we called it ‘Chicken Bone Alley.’ Chicken bones, wings, legs were all over the floor. So we were just sitting around there goofing around and we came up with these two grooves. And when we went back out to L.A. to record for Fantasy we laid the tracks down. I sang the hook to “Rock Creek Park,” I wrote the hook to “Rock Creek Park.” We just cut the track and we started signing “Doin’ it the park, doin’ it after dark” and that was how it was going. We had no idea… you know, we didn’t record music for success, that’s not how we did it. We recorded music because we love the music and we never thought about it in terms of success. We just thought about “Man, when can I write another song?” We were very competitive writers, everybody fought, jockeyed, whatever to get their song on the record. That’s what we did. We never thought of it in those terms, still don’t to this day.
For me personally, one of the Blackbyrds albums that I really like is 1980’s Better Days.
Keith Killgo: Thank you.
Yeah! I like it because the album is so vibrant. I think all the songs are really strong from front to back. I was wondering what your mindset was coming into this album because it is a very uplifting album? And also, what was it like working with George Duke?
Keith Killgo: Well, it was expensive, that’s for sure [laughs]. That was my first production of the Blackbyrds; Nevar Productions is my company. We co-produced that with George Duke. This was the first time the Blackbyrds had a lead singer; James Garrett was the lead singer. I sang on “I Need You” and “Do It Fluid,” but this is the first time we had a lead singer. We were independent, we had broken away from Donald [Byrd], we had our own producer. Fantasy was sort-of-kind-of treating us okay. When we left, we got into a legal thing about the royalties and all that kind of stuff, so my company sued Blackbyrd Publishing. So we got out of the contract and signed a separate deal with Fantasy and in that deal my company went out to hire producers to produce us. We started out with [Eumir] Deodato and ended up with George Duke. George was in the middle of recording “Sweet Baby,” producing A Taste Of Honey, Jeffrey Osborne, all those bands. So we were kind of squeezed in the middle of that, it made it a little difficult. He came to D.C., we sat down and listened to the tunes, he said “Cool, meet us in California,” so I had to rent two apartments, get cars, per diems, budget, blah blah blah, the whole business thing. We had to live for almost three months in Berkley. When [Duke] came, finally, he got here and Tommy Vicari was one of his engineers, you know, they had to get a suite and ba-ba-ba-ba-ba. So we get to rehearsal, we rehearse for a week and [Duke] says “Hey man, we’re gonna start recording but I gotta go to Brazil. I’ll be back in three weeks.” Boom, he’s gone. He’s in Brazil, we’re sitting in California spending up our money. He comes back, we record for a week or so. “Oh, hey man, I’m getting ready to go to Japan with Stanley Clarke.” Gone for two weeks, three weeks, whatever. We’re sitting there. It just drew the whole thing out. I’ll never forget when he finally came back and we were getting to the final stages because we had been very good friends, and Donald had been very good friends, with Quincy Jones. Quincy Jones and Harvey Fuqua came into the studio because I was running the sessions and all that. So I get in and everybody is sitting upright, standing still, quiet and I’m like “What the hell’s going on here? Somebody drop a bomb in here, what?” It’s Quincy Jones and Harvey Fuqua! Well, okay, hey man, this is my session. So [Duke] didn’t want to play any of the music for them. It was an awkward but funny situation. And then, when we finally got to mix the record, we kind of mixed the record in the middle of [Duke] doing “Sweet Baby” with Stanley Clarke which was a great, great record with Johnny Robinson and all. So I’m walking down the hallway and in the studio I see Stanley Clarke and I’m like “What? I thought we’re supposed to be mixing a record.” So, we mixed the record and… you know at that time, the style of the Blackbyrds was not really evident on that record in a lot of ways because we had more of a pedestrian sound (as my father would call it, a basement garage sound). It was very polished, we cut the tracks over and over and over and over again, did the vocals over and over and over and over. It paid off because it still sounds good, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t particularly our style. The record really didn’t do well. It kind of came out and sold about six to seven thousand copies and it just kind of sat there. But, unbeknownst to Murphy’s Law or whatever you want to call it, it grew on its own. Songs like “Don’t Know What To Say,” “Love Don’t Strike Twice,” “Do You Wanna Dance,” all that kind of stuff are still strong and wonderful songs. It was a departure from the normalities of the Blackbyrds and it was a challenge for us as musicians trying to blend in with a new producer.
What’s coming up for the Blackbyrds? Are there any performances happening after Blisspop Disco Fest?
Keith Killgo: We’re headed to England; we’re playing at the Jazz Cafe. We’re also going on tour with War next year, it’s their fiftieth anniversary. We were scheduled to do it this year but they postponed it to next year. So we’ll be doing it in May in London, Manchester and Bristol. This Saturday we will have Marshall Keys on reeds, Thaddeus Wilson on trumpet, Paul Spires on vocals, Dave Robbins on keys, Orville Saunders on guitar, Joe Hall on bass and, yours truly, Keith Killgo leader on drums and vocals.
The Blackbyrds will be performing at the Blisspop Disco Fest on Saturday, September 28 at U Street Music Hall, appearing alongside Cerrone, Jellybean Benitez, DJ Boring, Honey Soundsystem, Sam “The Man” Burns, Andy Grant and Discoholic. Tickets for this show can be purchased here.