Rick Strickland Melds Musicianship in New 7-piece Band
Rick Strickland is a prolific, sometimes obsessed songwriter. He tells me he writes a song most every day. In fact, when he and wife, Gail, sat down to document his total tally of tunes, it came to some 2,500.
“And some of them are pretty good,” he laughs, “so I shouldn’t ever run out of pieces to record.”
Good thing, because in August 2008, the award-winning musician decided to bring to life a long-time dream and form a totally new band. A seven-piece band.
A sessions player for more than 20 years, Strickland has recorded with and opened for some of the country’s top acts, including Carl Perkins, Todd Rundgren and B.B. King. He has also produced over 50 albums in a wide range of musical styles. His work has made it to the silver screen (Modern Love/1990) He has composed two productions for the Columbia City Ballet. He has performed at the Georgia Music Awards, backing Tommy Roe, Joe South and Ray Stevens. He was Billy Joe Royale’s musical director for three national tours.
In 2007, he received a CBMA award for Solo Album of the Year for ” Something Smooth, and in 2005, he took home Songwriter of the Year. Also in 2005, “Something Smooth,” the single was No. 1 on the beach charts for the entire year.
Rick had been so successful with his three-piece group, I wanted to know what motivated this major change.
“I had a great response to the trio,” agreed Rick, “But I started thinking about what else I could do. My attention span isn’t all that long! My wife got tired of listening to me talk about it and finally said, ‘Hey, you have access to some great players. Let’s make an A list.’ So we did. And they all said yes!”
The newly incarnated Rick Strickland Band includes Rick, of course, on lead vocals and – on occasion – guitar, bass and drums, (but he is best known for his four-octave vocal range). Lesa Hudson is on keyboards and vocals; Debbie Anderson, vocals and guitar; master of the B3, Art Benton on keyboard and vocals; Gary Bruce on guitar and vocals; Chris Grant, playing bass guitar; and Ken Lancaster on the drum kit.
The successful singer/songwriter isn’t looking to reinvent the wheel, however. His new band continues to nurture its R&B roots, building on Strickland’s 20-year history as a singer, musician, composer and producer.
“We’re really leaning toward the soul side of the genre, all of us. But what’s different for me, in particular, about the new band,” explains Strickland, “is the interaction between human beings … instead of overdubbing.
“When we perform tunes from Island Soul [Rick’s 2007 CD], there’s more air around them now. The harmonies are perfect, but there’s more ‘give.’ We’re still going to deliver my ‘signature’ vocal harmony, but we’ll be showing off a little more in instrumentation.
“I love the collaboration among the players; they’re not just executing what I say. You know, when I first heard Lesa and Debbie at a music festival, it was their vocals that struck me … and why I called them.
“Well, turns out Lesa is also a songwriter AND she’s classically trained on the piano. She’s got a solo CD out with a single that’s currently No. 15 on the Christian-Country charts. And Debbie, besides being one of the best harmony singers around is a very solid rhythm guitarist.”
What about Art Benton, I wanted to know. I knew from an earlier interview that Art played keyboard on Island Soul and I knew he had played with a group called the Pallbearers, who had two national hits on Fontana and Delphi Records.
“Art is the best keyboardist I’ve ever worked with. He’s equally at home in the studio or on stage. He is an incredibly tasteful and sensitive player who has a knack for fining the sweet spot in any arrangement.
I used to play a solo gig at Brinsen’s in Charleston, near Folly Beach,” Rick went on to tell me. “Art kept showing up and leaving me business cards. He was repairing dialysis equipment next door (We call him MacGyver, by the way). He kept giving me his card, but I was kind of cynical. When the Something Smooth CD came out, I was with 120inc and Mike Farver kept telling me we needed to do some live gigs. I needed a keyboard player. I had Art’s latest card, but before I called him, I happened to ask Steve Wiggins [five-time Grammy nominee, lyricist and lead singer for Big Tent Revival] if Art was any good. ‘Hell yeah,’ came the response. Art Benton is the B3 player from Heaven.’ Well, that was three years ago, and we’ve been working together ever since.”
Guitarist Gary Bruce is known regionally for his work in bands like Second Nature, Mama’s Home Cookin’, The Blue Chip Band and Fresh Air.
The guitarist said, “I’ve known Rick since about 1975. We always had a good chemistry going and talked about playing together, but sometimes these things don’t work out right away. Other commitments get in the way. We’ve been able to work together over the past couple years, and, when he called about the new band, the time was right. I was still playing with Fresh Air, but ready to make a move.”
Says Rick, “I was working with White Witch, fresh from playing bass on tour when I met Gary, so we’ve known each other a long time now. Gary, like Art, is great on stage and in the studio. That’s Gary doing the acoustic guitar solo for “Best Love” on Island Soul. He’s also one of the most sought after guitar teachers in the southeast. He perpetually has a waiting list of 50 to 100 potential students.”
Drummer Ken Lancaster has played with R&B group, North Tower, the Okaysions and Nashville’s Clifford Curry. Strickland says, “Ken has an incredible sense of meter, sort of like a human metronome. Playing with him and Chris [bassist Chris Grant] is like sitting down in a big easy chair.
“I first met him the year I won the solo album award. He was working with the PA company doing the awards show.”
Ken adds, “I was a stagehand. I wanted to get in with a band, so I was listening to all of them, and I gave Rick my card.
“‘You’ve got good timing,’ Rick told me. Well, a year or so went by, and I saw him again. ‘You’ve got good timing, ‘ Rick told me again, only this time I auditioned. Rick is awesome. I’ve been in the Charlotte area, but I’m moving to Charleston next month. I love what we’re doing.
“I love eighties metal and beach music.”
Did I just hear right? Isn’t that an oxymoron?
Ken is laughing on the other end of the telephone, “I can’t help it. I’ve always loved the metal stuff but I relate to beach music. It reminds me of family times at the outer Banks when I was a kid. I’m infatuated with the whole beach scene. I even shag a little”
The latest addition to the group is bass player Chris Grant, who Rick says is “smooth and solid, but has chops when the song calls for it.” Chris toured and recorded for several years with N.C. blues legend Skeeter Brandon, who passed away just over a year ago. He’s also worked with Big Bill Morgenfield, son of Muddy Waters, and blues guitarist Jimmy Thackery.
The new Rick Strickland Band is making its debut on Saturday night, April 25, at the Spanish Galleon in North Myrtle Beach during S.O.S. Spring Safari, the annual ten-day celebration of shag dancing and beach music, the regional sub-category of the R&B genre.
“We’ll be going into the studio almost immediately after that,” said Strickland. “We are excited about putting a band album out. It’s gonna be great.”
I have to agree.