An Interview with Vernon Neilly
I recently had a chance to talk with my friend Vernon Neilly and ask him a few questions about his G-Fire projects, some of the legends he has worked with and his take on the music business. – Chris Juergensen, Recording artist and Director of Education at Tokyo School of Music.
CJ: You have worked with some of the best in the business, names like Johnny Guitar Watson, “Charles Brown and Motown hit producer Norman Whitfield come to mind. What did these experiences leave you with?
VN: Chris needless to say each experience was incredible, not only from the opportunity to play with legendary artists, but to be a part of their musical experience for a moment. Working with Charles Brown was very unique, he gave me a lot of room to express myself creatively on the guitar, as a matter of fact her really appreciated the fact that I took a less is more approach in my playing. He was very humble, and I learned that this quality takes you a long way in the music business. Johnny Watson was more energetic, a more upbeat type of person who loved to joke and have fun, but don’t get me wrong, he was very serious about the music. Johnny also gave me freedom to play, but within the confines of his structure. In other words he did not expect me to play the solos he had recorded, I was free to play, but he was a stickler for playing the other guitar parts as they were written in the recordings. If you listen to his music you will understand why, everything had a place, he loved space in his music. Johnny really taught me how to be expressive playing the Blues and R&B on the guitar, by showing me certain techniques to really make the guitar talk like a human voice. He was very cool, one of a kind! In the case of Norman Whitfield, Whit taught me how to produce, my production skills, how to hear as a producer. Norman did not read or write music, but he had incredible ears, creativity, and a nose for talent, he could hear everything. I remember late night in the studio with him where he would have his head down on the console with his eyes closed, I thought he was sleeping, but the minute that he heard something that he thought was not right, his head shot straight up. He would either tell the engineers to fix something in the mix, or if we were tracking he would give instructions to us of how he wanted something to sound, or what part to play. He could not play be he would hum the parts to us. Whit taught me how to hear every little thing in the mix at once. I have so much to thank him for, I was only 21 when I was writing and producing for him.
CJ: Unlike most musicians, you have one foot on stage and one firmly planted in the music business world. What made you decide to get into the business aspect of the music industry and how do you balance being an artist and businessman?
VN: Chris it’s funny because I never had a yearning to own a label, production company, or anything of that sort until about 1987-88, I always just wanted to play, write, produce music, and have some company or label put the music out. I was part of a major deal with a group in the mid 80’s, and the people that we were working with totally ripped us off, took the money and ran. After years of hard work, we got nothing, I mean, absolutely nothing. Well after that experience I said never again, and slowly but surely I started educating myself about the business of the business. I started attending every conference, seminar, that I could about the music business, and started to learn the ins and outs of how the system runs. I did this from both the major label side, and more importantly for me the independent side. In 1992 I got into a partnership situation as co-owner of a label called Chereese Records, and this situation gave me the hands on training that I needed to understand running a label, and the day to day operations of running a record label. In the 8 years of being in this situation, there was not a function that I did not do for the label, it being a small independent. But this was a very valuable education for me because I understood all of the aspects of what it takes to run a record label, from looking for talent, signing talent, developing talent, marketing and promoting talent, different aspects of writing, publishing, licensing, acquiring licenses, the whole gamut. By the time that my partner and I decided to part ways, I was ready to form and run my own label, which I did. After working with artists in the former situation, I decided first that I would concentrate on my own career first, because I knew that I had the dedication and commitment to see things through. It is a very tough balancing act Chris, very tough because it takes so much from the business side to run the label efficiently, and successfully, it is a huge job, and responsibility. It makes it tough on the creative aspect, because I don’t have as much time anymore to sit down and write like I use too, I am too busy developing business for the label, and making sure that the projects are getting the maximum amount of exposure that they can. I do find time to practice though, and write, not as much as I would like right now, but I do. I have more help in the label now, so I can delegate some responsibilities to others, and I subcontract certain things to other companies that are specialists in certain areas as well. I still work 14-16 hours a day though!
CJ: Your last release, G-Fire was a big success for an independent release and your newest project; G-Fire 2 has just been released. Can you describe the whole G-Fire project?
VN: The success of G-Fire was amazing in that I got more out of it than what I expected when I conceptualized the project. The whole idea behind G-Fire was to give some very talented friends of mine the opportunity to be heard and seen as artists instead of top industry sidemen in the session, and touring vein. I knew that we had some very good material on the project because everyone brought their A game to the table, but what I did not know is that we had a commercial radio song that was going to factor in heavily for the project getting massive exposure internationally. I sent a few copies out to different radio promoters, and I was referred to a longtime radio promoter in the smooth jazz genre, Roger Lifeset. From the very start Roger believed in our project because it was different than the normal smooth jazz stuff you hear everyday, and that’s because it’s not really a smooth jazz project, it’s more of a jazz-fusion project. It’s very diverse musically with a lot of different styles of music contained on the project, and some great guitar playing. Anyway Kevin Chokan, who is the musical director for Diana Ross, and guitarist for R&B superstar Jeffery Osborne submitted a tune for the project called Passin Thru, and that song immediately took off. We were getting most added at commercial stations for about a month and a half. The song did so well at radio that it opened the door for my label to sign a multi-year national retail distribution deal for the US territory. The CD ultimately ended up being one of the most played independent songs at commercial radio, and won us a Smoothie Award, along with folks like George Benson, Michael McDonald, Hall and Oats, Peter White, Mindi Abair, and other top artists of the genre.
With the success of G-Fire I knew that I had to come right back with something even stronger, that’s the way it works in the music industry, because you are only as good as your last effort. I made one change in the lineup, and that was to bring on a talent who had already had prior radio success with his Warner Brothers and Verve Records recordings, and is one of the top Jazz guitar talents in the world today, that person being Mark Whitfield. So we all started recording for G-Fire II, and in the meantime G-Fire was still out getting radio airplay around the world and creating sales. After getting all of the material in for G-Fire II, I sent out some test samples to Dj’s in the genre, and radio promoters to get a consensus on what they felt that the first single should be, and the choice came back overwhelmingly for a song called LFO, which was written and composed by Mark Whitfield. The song actually charted in the top 40 on the smooth jazz charts, and recently we just won our second consecutive Smoothie Award! We just released a new single Don’t You Cry about a month ago to radio that is doing well, but really kicking at internet radio.
CJ: Can you describe some of the other guitarists appearing on both G-Fire and G-Fire II CDs?
VN: It would be an honor, they are all world class players in their own right. I will start with Kevin Chokan because I have known him the longest, we used to swap gigs, or fill in for each other on gigs back in the 80’s on the local Los Angeles club scene. Kevin is originally from Canada, but grew up in Sacramento California. I met Kevin at a famous nightclub in L.A. called the Pied Piper where we both use to play. This club is where all of the L.A. touring musicians would either gig or hangout when they were not out on tour. We just hit it off immediately and have been good friend ever since. Kevin is the current musical director for Diana Ross, a position that he has held now for many, many years, and at the same time is R&B superstar Jeffery Osborne’s first call guitarist. He has also been with Jeffrey for many, many years. Kevin has also worked with Chaka Khan, Phillip Bailey (Earth Wind&Fire), George Howard, The Crusaders, Stephanie Mills, and a host of other folks. Morris and I call him White Chocolate because he is a super funky rhythm player.
Next will be Morris O’Connor, who is just a tremendously gifted musician period. Out of all of the very talented gentlemen who have participated in the G-Fire projects, he is the most talented. Like myself, he plays keys, bass, sings, and guitar, but on a very high level. Morris is from Chicago, Illinois, and like myself grew up in a musical family. I met Morris at a Namm Show in 1996 where we hung out, and we became very close friends after that. Morris attended GIT with Frank Gambale, they were classmates, and band mates. Morris O’Connor currently works with Stevie Wonder, and has for many years now. He has played at the Super Bowl, Olympics, been on every major television talk show in the US with Stevie. He has also worked with The Crusaders, Booker T, Jody Whatley, EnVogue, Rick Braun, Gladys Knight, Ellis Hall, Teena Marie, and many more artists.
Next is the Brazilian guitar wiz Miguel Mega. It is very interesting but very true how I met Miguel. I was turned on to him by a good friend of mine, who also has one of the biggest guitar sites in the world called, The Shred Zone, Nick Martinelli. Nick suggested that I check out Miguel’s music, which I did, and was very impressed, so Miguel and I started e-mailing each other. This eventually grew into a very close friendship, and we started making plans to do something together, well that something turned out to be an award winning CD called G-Fire, and a Brazilian tour. One of the most gratifying things for me with Miguel is, that I was able to help him become a more recognized artist in his own country, to help him gain a level of respect for his incredible talents among the guitar industry in Brazil. Since G-Fire, he has been able to get many product endorsements, tv commercials, and a much wider fan base, not only in Brazil but around the world. I have to also tell you what his association with me has brought about for me too, a business relationship with the largest guitar manufacturer in Brazil called Tagima. Tagima manufactures my signature series guitar called the VN1, which was designed by me. All of Tagima’s instruments are handmade from beginning to end from Brazilian woods, no mass production of any kind, they are incredible instruments to play. Also my business association with Brazil’s largest amplifier company called Meteoro (The Meteor in Portuguese). Meteoro builds amplifiers like Fender and Gibson use to build in the US years ago. Their tube amps are some of the warmest, and musical I have ever played, and very much comparable to the top of the line Mesa, and Marshall amps. When I perform soundmen are always asking where I get my amps from, they are incredible, Andreas Kisser from Sepultura also uses Meteoro amps. Lastly my business association with Giannini, who is one of the worlds top makers of acoustic/acoustic electric instruments in the world, once again all hand made. They have an acoustic guitar called the Craviola that is to die for. My whole point for bringing all of this up is that Miguel and I have created incredible opportunities for each other, starting with just e-mails.
Last but certainly not least is Mark Whtifield, who is and has been recognized as one of the Jazz genres top young guitarist to come along. Mark is an incredible talent who has worked with Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Dizzy Gillispie, Nicolas Peyton, Jimmy Smith, Joey DeFrancesco, and so many top jazz and R&B artists. Mark also is the the personal protégé of none other than the amazing, legendary George Benson, and you can really hear George’s influence when he is playing. Mark is an award-winning guitarist as well winning several Gavin and R&R awards for his CD on Warner Bro’s and Verve Records labels, and now a “Smoothie Award for G-Fire II. Mark had the first single on the G-Fire II CD called LFO which is still playing in re-current rotation at commercial jazz station throughout the US. It’s groove is infectious, and Mark’s playing is brilliant in the solo sections. Mark is a fun guy to hang with, but very, very serious about the music, and music business.
CJ: What are the shapes of things to come regarding the music business?
VN: The music business will survive, there is too much money in it not for it too, but there are some major changes that have come about, and that are coming about. The music industry of even 2 years ago no longer is, and never will be, and this is because of the tremendous amount of independent labels and companies, like mine that are laying claims to some market share in the business. It is a great time for independent companies and musicians/artists if they are wiling to work their butts off to establish themselves in the industry. Never has there been a time such as now where the resources and opportunities to independents in the music business been so plentiful. What has spiked this independent growth is access to technology, and information that was not accessible before, and taking advantage of these things before the big labels did! The mere fact that anyone can get their hands on a portable recording device, computer recording software that allows them to record master quality products, a digital camcorder with high pixel resolution, that they can produce their own music videos, and DVD’s is revolutionary within itself. Do you think that if the major labels and music corporations saw this coming it would have happened? No way, but it’s too late! Most of major label talent these days, has been acquired from independent labels in every genre, think about that. The major labels are taking on the role of brokers, another words if you have a hot talent that has proven itself, they will sign it and put it in the big machine and grow what that Indie label already started. Now lets discuss media, in a few years most physical music media with the exception of DVD will be put out to pasture. As technology continues improve the transferring of digital files through downloading, and streaming protocols will become more and more the norm. You can already see it happening with the portable pod and mp3 devices, and you are seeing it because it just makes sense, you can even download current box office movies. Why carry around 5 CD cases of music when you can carry 1 pod or mp3 player with thousands of songs loaded in it, and it is portable. You can stick these devices in your pocket, on a belt loop, and by all means lets not forget the cell phones who already have media players in them, games, etc! Terrestrial radio is also in big trouble, more and more people are listening to Internet and satellite radio than ever before. Listeners of regular radio stations dropped 33% over last year, because satellite radio can be accessed from anywhere in the world via your laptop or desktop computers. You will see more and more vehicles in the future with XM and Sirius satellite radios in them, why because it just makes sense. If you are traveling across the country by car, bus, train, you can lock into your favorite program and listen for the duration of your travels without changing the station, plus 135 stations of choice is going to beat 30-40 on your regular radio playing the same ole stuff any day! I just want to mention that sites like Abstractlogix.com, and Boosweet.com are going to be the wave of the future for releasing your music to the world, I want to congratulate Souvik and his staff at Abstractlogix.com on a incredible job with their business model. The revolution has already begun!
VN: Chris if I may, I would just like to thank my sponsors who have been so helpful and supportive to me through the years. Seymour Duncan, Tagima Guitars, Cakewalk, Digitech, Morely, Sony Media, Xotic Effects, Levy’s Leathers, Meteoro Amplifiers, Giannini Strings and Acoustic Guitars, Samson Technologies, Aphex, Jim Dunlop, and Antares.