My interview with Grammy Award-winning songwriter, producer and singer Gordon Chambers, notable for writing “I Apologize” (Anita Baker), “If You Love Me” (Brownstone), “No More Rain” (Angie Stone), “Missing You” (Brandy, Tamia, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan), amongst others. Surrender, his fourth album is available everywhere music can be purchased online. https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/surrender/id1183116923
Terrance - When did you get your first real big break in the entertainment business?
Gordon Chambers - Meeting producer Dave Hall via an executive named Cheryl Butler who worked at Eddie F's production company really took things to a different level in 1993. Dave was a super-hot in-demand producer who needed a new dependable lyricist in his camp. Phyllis Hyman was our first assignment and "If You Love Me" for Brownstone was our first big hit. I was scared as hell to work with both of them but it went well and Phyllis introduced me to Barry Eastmond who had me work with him on Anita Baker’s "I Apologize" and "Missing You" from the film "Set It Off" by Brandy, Tamia, Gladys Knight and Chaka Khan. Both of those men were legends and I was a newbie but they treated me like an equal and empowered me a lot at age 22.
Terrance - Who were your greatest influences coming along?
Gordon Chambers - Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Bob Marley, Simon & Garfunkel and all the early heydey Motown and Stax catalogues were in heavy rotation in my household growing up in Teaneck, NJ, where Kool and The Gang, Millie Jackson and The Isley Brothers were neighbors. I was always soaking up music.
Terrance - You mentioned “If You Love Me” being your first big hit and speaking on that whole 90’s era of R&B, do you think that type of success can be recreated or was the timing just right for that type of music?
Gordon Chambers - That was an amazing era of music. It was the best of Hip-Hop and the best of R&B in an amazing conversation. You could go to the club and party-hearty to some dope hot beats then get in your car and mellow out to amazing melodies with substantive lyrics. Don't think that time will come again. A lot of that era had to do with the Black music executives like L.A. Reid, Diddy and Andre Harrell who had a lot of power at labels. Right now a lot of independent soul music is rising up. Eric Roberson, Avery Sunshine, Foreign Exchange and The Internet are selling out shows. And indie Black futuristic acts are packing the AfroPunk festivals around the world. Indies are rising up.
Terrance - More recently Tory Lanez sample “If You Love Me” for his song “Say It”, what were your thoughts, initial reaction to the impact it made?
Gordon Chambers - I was shocked, honored, humbled and elated. Forever grateful and hope to meet him one day. The usage of the song was beautiful and now a classic in it’s own right.
Terrance - Introduce us to your fourth album, Surrender, and it’s significance.
Gordon Chambers - Surrender is a 12-song cycle of songs about my heartbreak-to-hope. It's an inspirational R&B album with songs about the search for love and inner healing. Lots of live instruments and features with Lalah Hathaway, Eric Roberson, Carol Riddick, Steff Reed and Ayana George. It's a lush, poetic, emotional suite of music. By far, my most heartfelt and transparent album. There's also an acoustic tribute specifically to Whitney Houston called "My Way" and an R&B remake of "It Might Be You" (the theme from Tootsie) and the gospel standard "I Surrender All" with organ and live strings.
Terrance - What was the creative process like for this album?
Gordon Chambers - I produced half of it myself with Shedrick Mitchell -- an amazing keyboardist, also my arranger and co-producer. He struck up an amazing all-star NYC band for the sessions. It felt like the FUNK Brothers. The other half are songs produced by Darien Dorsey and Steff Reed (who worked on my 3rd album "Sincere"), Troy Taylor (who worked on my first two albums "Introducing" and "Love Stories") and new songwriter-producers that I met Jamal Brookins and Ken Pen. It was a family reunion and a meeting of new musical minds. Steff was the A&R for the whole album--helping me pick studios, graphic designers, mixes, etc. He introduced me to Blue at Lounge Studios who mixed and oversaw the mastering. Blue is red-hot right now. He also just mixed Solange's new album and the Hamilton Mixtape album. We worked on this album off-and-on for almost 5 years. But when it finally came out of the oven it was just perfect. It was teamwork in every way.
Terrance - Talk about the inspiration behind the touching single, “I Made It” which features Eric Roberson and Steff Reed.
Gordon Chambers - Steff Reed and Phoenix Smith wrote that song. I loved it the minute I heard it. I changed a few lines to personalize it and give a shout-out to Whitney and other family members that had recently died at the time I recorded it. It was originally titled "Dead and Gone" but I wanted a more uplifting title to make it fit this album's tone. When I had recorded it I had recently came close to drowning in a Florida beach where there was an unexpected riptide. I later shot the video in the shell of my brownstone in Fort Greene which burned badly in a 3-alarm fire on Valentine's Day of 2016. The song is truly art imitating life, and anthem to thank God for sparing my life twice. Grateful to being in the land of the living. People are so moved and inspired by the song and the video. I am so glad. It's my "lemonade" song so to speak. There is great power in vulnerability.
Terrance - There’s a collaboration with Lalah Hathaway on the song “Back to Love”, what was it like working with her and thoughts on her overall as a vocalist?
Gordon Chambers - Lalah is the most humble songbird. She has perfect pitch, amazing ideas for harmonies, and was so low maintenance in the studio. It was a dream come true to record with her. I am a huge pupil of her Dad's entire catalogue and I consider her to be the most unique and gifted voice of our generation. But she was so down-to-earth and warm and just sweet in the studio and a total professional.
Terrance - Speaking of Whitney, this year marks the fifth anniversary of her untimely passing, what’s the most fond memory, advice or incentive from her you will always treasure?
Gordon Chambers - My Whitney memories are so real, warm and vivid they could fill up a novella. For the uber-celebrity she was, she was also the most down-to-earth and nicest one of the bunch. She treated me like family. We had deep long conversations about music--from Gladys to Chaka to Abbey Lincoln to Betty Carter to Tramaine Hawkins. We were fellow music junkies. She loved to laugh, sing and be silly. I remember her in the studio singing the theme from the TV show Alice and she, Bobby and I just hollering. I remember her asking me if she could send her daughter to New York for me to vocal coach her. I remember her holding my hand in prayer on a day in the studio in Atlanta when I was feeling overwhelmed by a problem with my tenant back home. I remember her calling my parents and kicking me out of the room so she could chat freely with them. I remember her asking me to teach her how to write songs. I remember her calling my hotel voicemail and leaving a hilarious voicemail message on my machine. I remember her wanting to know lots about how Phyllis Hyman mentored me early in my career. I remember her coming into the studio and shaking every assistant's hand. I could go on and on, but the moment I'll treasure that changed my life, was when I sang her the high note I wanted her to hit in the bridge on the Christmas song "One Wish" and she looked me deep in the eye and told me, "I think you wanna sing baby, not just write, and if you wanna do what I do then you should go for it." Four albums later, I haven't stopped singing yet. I hope she hears me, and I hope she's proud.
Terrance - Are there any artists out now you’re inspired by or feel we should be listening to?
Gordon Chambers - Ledisi recently introduced me musically and personally to Leslie Odum Jr. He won a Tony from the original cast of "Hamilton" on Broadway and left to promote his jazz standard album and the follow-up Christmas album as a solo artist. He is like Nat King Cole meets Maxwell. Angelic smooth voice. The production reminds of Gregory Porter's album--stripped down, acoustic with upright bass. He's a beast! And the nicest guy ever.
Terrance - For the aspiring songwriter what makes a song great?
Gordon Chambers - The melody is king. People don't remember words but they love to sing or hum along. It's also saying something we've heard before in a new refreshing way. I truly loved "Up All Night" and "Freedom" for Beyonce's Lemonade album. Very stylish but substantive songs with killer melodies. And Solange's "Cranes In The Sky" floored me. Perfect melody, dreamy swagger and brilliant use of a metaphor. The R&B song of the year if not the decade.
Terrance - As a male who has written for everyone from Anita Baker to Patti LaBelle, Brandy, Faith Evans, Angie Stone, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin to Beyonce, how do you write from a female perspective?
Gordon Chambers - I've also tried to write more sensually than sexually. I was never the "Bump and Grind" guy. Hats off to R. Kelly and Jodeci, my 90's counterparts who did it better than me. Babyface was my hero when I first started getting my songs placed. I've always written to the hearts, minds and souls of women--rather than just their loins and limbs.
Terrance - “Fallin’ In Love” is one of my personal favorite gems from Faith Evans debut album, what was it like creating that song?
Gordon Chambers - We had a ball. Diddy and Dave Hall were there. Faith had much of the song done. But Mary J. and I helped her add some things. We were all friends and up-and-coming collaborators helping each other out. It was a family vibe in the studios of New York then.
Terrance - What are your thoughts on Anita Baker’s recent retirement announcement?
Gordon Chambers - I've never known La Baker well personally so I have no idea what she may be going through or what she needs most in her life at this moment. But if she's happy and at a peace out of the spotlight, I'm happy and at peace with it for her. I truly miss her voice. I play her last single "Lately" obsessively. But I'll say this with all my heart--she has stayed true to her brand of musical excellence and high integrity from her Chapter 8 days to her final Grammy-nominated single, a remake of Tyrese's minor hit which she turned into a melancholy melodic masterpiece. If she never does another record or concert, she has truly "given us the best that she's got." I am eternally grateful that she took a chance on a then unknown songwriter and recorded my lyrics to "I Apologize". It won a Grammy and changed my life. Her legacy lives on in Lalah Hathaway, Chrisette Michelle, Chante Moore, Toni and Tamar Braxton. Even Queen Bey sings "Sweet Love" sometimes in a medley in her concerts. She made her mark and her music plays nightly on quiet storms around the world. She did what God put her here on Earth to do.
Terrance - Are there any artists you haven’t worked with that you’re anxious to get in the studio with?
Gordon Chambers - Rihanna, Celine Dion, John Legend and many more!
Terrance - Lastly, what is it you would like listeners to take from the Surrender experience?
Gordon Chambers - R&B will never die. It came from the pains and moans and wails from slaves brought here long ago. We've also sung through our pain to free our souls. This album was made during the most painful years of my life. But God saw me through and brought me amazing young geniuses to work with. These songs saved me. It was therapy for me. I pray that it's therapy for you.