THE INSIDE SCOOP ON ELI “PAPERBOY” REED & THE TRUE LOVES
by Andrew Leader
Eli “Paperboy” Reed seems out of place at the 2007 Boston Music Awards. The event, held at the Orpheum Theatre in December last year, is mostly dominated by pop-punk, metal, and hip-hop acts. Reed and his blues buddies, including the likes of James Montgomery, David Hull, Johnny A, Barrence Whitfield, and George Leh, share the stage midway through the evening. Reed sticks out like a sore thumb; he must be one of the only guys on stage below the age of forty. He takes his place downstage, waits for his cue, and lets it rip. A voice one would never expect from this conservatively dressed, clean-cut kid. He’s got a cry straight from the analog days of James Brown or Little Richard. Steadily leading the crowd through his growing intensity, it’s not long until every head in the crowd is turned and focused on his every move.
Unfortunately, Reed’s performance was an exception in his genre in this town. While Reed highlighted the blues portion of the show, the theater seemed half-empty throughout fellow soul/ R&B singer Bobby Brown’s set, which seemed to take up half the night. Having grown up in Boston, birthplace of such blues-based acts as the J. Geils Band and Aerosmith, a city with a rich R&B tradition but shrinking modern blues scene, Reed found that in order to gain his voice as a performer, he had to search abroad.
Born Eli Husack, the Brookline native’s source of music was his father’s record collection. His favorites included gospel and blues groups the Swanee Quintet, Dixie Hummingbirds, and Swan Silvertones, singers such as Bobby Bland and Johnny Adams, and Robert Johnson’s blues guitar.
“In high school,” said Reed in an April interview, “I was really into a lot of soul, some R&B, blues and gospel. Of my friends, I was the most into music, and I exposed my friends to that kind of stuff.” In high school during the early-’90s, Reed had less interest in the styles that were popular at the time.
By the end of high school, Reed had not yet decided that his future would be in show business. After relocating to the Mississippi Delta region, Reed looked forward to a career in radio. “I went down to Mississippi for an opportunity to work at a radio station. The opportunity fell through, but even then, I still didn’t think about being a frontman or songwriter. I didn’t go to Mississippi to be a performer.” In Mississippi for a total of nine months, Reed spent his time soaking in the rich music culture of the Mississippi Delta. Having only the experience of Harvard Square street performances under his belt, Reed received mentoring from blues drummer Sam Carr and strengthened his vocal performance, learning to please a crowd night after night, performing multiple sets each evening. There, he was nicknamed by the other musicians “Paperboy” for the old-fashioned paperboy-style hat that he wore.
The following year, Reed found himself enrolled in college in Chicago where he continued to build his gospel and blues performance foundation. In addition to disc jockeying for his college radio station, Reed was the musical director at a new black Baptist church, working closely with singer-turned-preacher Mitty Collier. A Jewish kid from Brookline found that he was very comfortable in this new setting.
“You have to separate your religion from the cultural experience,” said Reed. “The black church was a very welcoming and open place. It was a very small congregation, no more than one hundred people at a time.” Returning to Boston after only one year in Chicago, Reed continued to play in gospel quartets and in churches in Dorchester while spinning soul records at local clubs.
Upon his return, Reed began to assemble the True Loves. “As soon as I got back to Boston, I called up Emeen Zerookian (the Sterns, Mass Hysteria) and some other friends. The band took shape around that.” Reed said that the key to maintaining his back-up band is that “every member of the band is as important as I am. Initially, [I constructed the group with] people who I thought were better musicians than me. They would take my ideas and make them a little bit more polished.” This was approximately four years ago. Since then, twelve different True Loves have backed up Reed. The band now includes Ryan Spraker on guitar, Mike Montgomery on bass, Andy Bauer on drums, Paul Jones and Ben Jaffe on saxophones, Patriq Moody on trumpet, and Zerookian on guitar. Only in the last year, however, have “Paperboy” and his band acquired national attention, appearing at the 2007 South by Southwest festival and rising ever since. The band also recently signed on with Q Division Records.
Reed told the story of how his relationship with Q Division began: “I knew Noah Rubin who was in Furvis [now called the Dead Trees]. They had worked with Q Division, so Noah brought me to the Q Division barbecue where I got up and sang a song. Then, Ed Valauskas [The Gentlemen, Graham Parker, Juliana Hatfield] invited me to work with him and do some recording”
The product, Roll With You, came out on April 29. “This was the first album we put a lot of time into… Q Division has been very helpful. We were able to use a good amount of studio time. We recorded in analog.” Also, “Q Division has been very supportive with good publicity.” Reed’s favorite track off the 11-song all-original record is the ballad “(Am I Just) Fooling Myself.” The record was hailed by Rolling Stone as “your favorite Motown and Stax Records livened up for the Winehouse era” and won “Best Local Blues/R&B” in the 2008 WFNX/Boston Phoenix Best Music Poll, winning Reed and his band a slot at the Best Music Poll concert at the Bank of America Pavilion, opening for Death Cab for Cutie. “The guy from Death Cab (Ben Gibbard, lead singer) is a big fan [of my band]” Eli let me know. “He likes us a lot.”
This past spring, Reed and his band embarked on a U.S. tour, criss-crossing the nation for a number of months. The itinerary included dates with Bonnie Raitt, Nicole Atkins, and Nick Lowe, to name a few. “This is my first real long tour. It’s not that bad, but we do have some long-ass drives,” said Reed over the phone while driving in the middle of Colorado. “It’s hard, but [my band mates and I are] close that it’s easier than I expected. Also, getting great responses from the different audiences really helps.” Reed said that his favorite thing about performing “is that I get to express myself…. When you do it right, you have this command over the audience; they want to hear what you have to say.” Reed’s favorite song to play live is the early-Temptations-esque “Take My Love with You,” another cut off his new album.
Reed explained that although based in Boston, he tries to avoid being labeled a “Boston artist” as much as possible. When he plays in other areas of the country, he said, people can’t tell where he’s from. “I don’t want to have a regional identity. I just want to sound like me. Where you grow up doesn’t necessarily make you who you are.” Reed finds, instead, that his varying experiences and the different skills he has learned over the years have all helped him in different ways to express what he tries to get across to the audience in his performance.
The tour included a number of dates with the emo/punk group Say Anything. Reed explained that, “we have the same booking agent… I guess he played them our stuff and they liked it. They’re really really sweet guys.” As one might expect, this combination made for an interesting show dynamic. “The crowd usually liked us. They had no idea who we are or anything about the kind of music we play. It kind of set us apart.”
As for other contemporary music and the future of popular music, Reed looks to find more honesty in music as opposed to any specific change in the popularities of different genres. “I want to avoid genre distinction. More live, pure, emotional, rhythm… I’ve noticed the trend of irony in music. A lot of music is very detached emotionally, and it’s like a big joke. Make music that’s true to where you’re coming from. Play music that’s honest. It doesn’t matter what style. No bullshit.” Some of Reed’s favorite contemporary artists include Knarles Barkley, Amy Winehouse, and Dr. Dog. Reed also finds himself listening to a lot of country. “I like Alan Jackson a lot. I think [contemporary country] is emotionally direct and expressive.”
While some may look at Eli “Paperboy” Reed & the True Loves and consider them old-fashioned, a mere throwback to the early days of rock ’n’ roll, Reed doesn’t see his band in this way at all. He plays what he likes and what he feels, and believes that so long as musicians and performers incorporate their true emotions into their art, what results will always be something new and exciting.