*No doubt you’ve heard the name before, but have you ever really heard them? Naturally 7, a group of 7 vocal acrobats who, utilizing a technique they coined, “Vocal Play,” use their voices to harmonize and replicate instruments such as percussion, guitar, clarinet, trumpet, bass, harmonica and percussion. Picture a vocal cirque du soleil.
There you go!
EURweb publisher Lee Bailey spoke with group member, Roger Thomas via phone recently; and the group is so excited to be performing at the 35th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival on Saturday, June 15th at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Naturally 7 is the only group that has appeared at the festival for 3 consecutive years; and its talented roster is comprised of group members Roger Thomas, Warren Thomas, Ron Eldridge, Napoleon (Polo) Cummings, Dwight Stewart, Garfield Buckley and “Hops” Hutton
“We all met in NYC,” says Thomas, who serves as musical director, arranger, 1st Baritone and Rapper in the group … We started really young. We had a passion for this. Most of us started singing either right at talkin’ or just before we were talkin’, and we’ve had so many great artists to be inspired by. This past November we were on tour…We did a battle with a 70-piece orchestra. But what really blew our minds is that we were on tour with The Jacksons, and they were a big inspiration, to me for sure, in terms of not just bringing a show, but bringing the drama. It’s not until you see them onstage that you’re like ‘Wow, we stole that, we stole that, and we stole that!”
We know readers are now cocking their heads as they wonder how good the performance could have truly been without the groups’ central figure: Michael Jackson. Lee Bailey actually asked this question, to which Roger Thomas replied,
“Well, to be honest with you, I thought that there was no way that they could tour. No way that they could do a show without Michael onstage. I mean, that would’ve been my opinion. But they did a show that was worthy of seeing. There’s no question you’re going to miss Michael, Michael was so dominant on the stage. But…Jermaine, Marlon, Jackie and Tito…were able to do a show that I wanted to see again, and again, and again.”
He continues, “Jermaine has always been a great singer and a lot of the time he was always under the shadow of Michael. It was good, but the key was, it was a show that really looked good and sounded good.”
At this point, Lee recalls the tour about a year or so ago and remembers that The Jacksons only played one date in L.A. and got luke warm reviews. He says that because of this, the public may have gotten the wrong impression; and didn’t give the show a fair chance.
“Yeah, it’s an uphill battle fighting against the naysayers…without Michael alive,” responds Thomas. “Another thing I would say, Lee, is that this wasn’t really [a] part of that tour. This was a special thing in Europe called Night of the Proms where they were backed by a 70-piece orchestra. That changes the game. When you think of The Jacksons music … of [or group’s like] Earth, Wind and Fire…this music was made for an orchestra to play to. The string sections, everything, that’s what you’re hearing on those records so…When I listened to it I said, ‘Now this is how they should be touring. This is what makes sense.’”
But of course reality isn’t far behind this beautiful dream: The Jackson’s today wouldn’t be able to afford it.
As EUR readers will see in the video accompanying this story, Naturally 7 performed at a 75th Birthday Celebration for Quincy Jones in Montreux. At this event, the group inserts a few Michael Jackson musical snippets…a bass line, a few lyrics here and there, etc. Bailey remembers this from watching the video and asks Thomas if the group performed any Jackson songs on the tour, or if that would have been ‘politically incorrect.’
At this, Roger laughs and says, “Well, before we could even decide if it would have been ‘politically incorrect’ we were contracted not to (Bailey and Thomas both laugh).”
Let it be known that the “Off the Wall” snippet they generally perform as part of a larger piece and two other Jackson snippets were cut out altogether. But Thomas says, “…It’s all good.”
Yet this won’t be the case at the Playboy Jazz Fest this weekend. They will do the music as it was originally meant to be done: Jackson snippets and all!
Though Naturally 7 does not consider the Michael Jackson music a “Tribute” in the traditional sense, they have learned that audiences appreciate familiarity; be it a bass line, a rhythm, a lick, or whatever. And being the creative geniuses that they have become, the group uses this to every advantage in their vocal play.
“The one tribute song that we do, and will do [at the upcoming festival] is to Herbie Hancock. We do a medley of Herbie Hancock tunes because 2 years ago we did BET Honors and we were asked to do the song before he came up to get his award…To see his face while we were doing ‘Watermelon Man,’ ‘Chameleon,’ and then…‘Rocket’ was priceless,” says Thomas.
Hancock, by the way, will be the “special guest” of Naturally 7 (which blows their mind!!!) at the Hollywood Bowl performance. Thomas was apprehensive to mention this surprise at first, but no worries dude, I researched it and it’s clearly posted on the Official Playboy Jazz Festival website!
Some may wonder if there is a level of frustration for this crew of such undeniable talent; and the fact that they have not received the level of acclaim many feel they deserve but have been denied. Roger says he personally does not feel frustrated, but recognizes this as a doubled-edged sword.
“In a way yes, and in a way [we understand that] everything has its time. We have slowly but surely just gone up the mountain little by little. And you want to have that ‘overnight thing’ but that has never happened for us.” Roger says it is particularly frustrating when people suggest shows they should be on [you know how the ‘peanut gallery’ wants to give advice right?] because each show they name is one that the group has been on: The Today Show…Done!…The Tonight Show….Ditto!…. Ellen, Tavis Smiley…Yep, check those off too. These guys have joined voices with Michael Bublé; kicked it in the studio with Coldplay; was summoned to meet with His Royal Highness Prince Charles following a knock-out performance on their renowned Royal Variety Television Show. And that just covers the last 3 years.
But then again, Roger believes all of this will change once Naturally 7, who has enjoyed a significant following overseas, where they have been releasing music since 2003, debuts their first official album release in the U.S. come September 2013.
“Yeah, it can be a little frustrating knowing all the things that we’ve done,” Thomas admits, “but we’ve got a feeling that things are going to continue to happen…‘better late than never,’” he contends.
Roger says that it was equally difficult when it came to the record labels.
Citing a metaphor he says, “If you’re selling hundreds of thousands of CDs out of your trunk, and you’re on YouTube and you’ve got fifteen to twenty million views, you’d think that you would have labels running your way, knocking your door down and everything like that; but it just hasn’t been the case for us…I guess we consider it a blessing to have been slow but sure, moving in the right direction,” Thomas concludes.
Bailey, Thomas, and in this case even Pryor, all know that the reality is that most “overnight sensations” have been working their butts off for at least 15 years.
Now signed with Hidden Beach, which is distributed by Universal it seems appropriate that the group is throwing around CD titles such as “Hidden in Plain Sight” for the upcoming album. After all, the group just finished an overseas tour that had audiences of two to three thousand at each venue. And then there is that metaphor that was mentioned earlier. Hidden? Plain Sight!
I tell you, from the descriptions Thomas threw out in categorizing the theme of their anticipated masterpiece, and the echoes from his producer, who is now so excited he is calling out from the background, this album is going to be something like we’ve never heard before. And seeing as this writer loves the element of surprise, and doesn’t want to give EVERYTHING we were told away (don’t hate the messenger), she’ll just repeat the words “Hip hop” and “Medieval.” We’ll just have to wait and hear the finished product!
Come to the Hollywood Bowl on Saturday, when Naturally 7 performs, and they say we will get a taste of the upcoming joint. Yet they advise us to listen closely, because Thomas says, “The average person won’t even know its happening. They will just know that it feels good.”
The PLAYBOY JAZZ FESTIVAL, hosted by George Lopez, takes place on Saturday, June 15 from 3-11p.m. and Sunday, June 16 from 3-10:30p.m. Order tickets here.
DeBorah B. Pryor is a Los Angeles based writer and Adjunct Communications Instructor at UCLA Extension. Visit her website at http://[email protected]