Q&A with acclaimed San Francisco-based singer Will Porter - musical director for many R&B and Rock acts

"Dizzy Gillespie said something like “Once you say that only a certain people can do something, the next move is saying that that’s ALL they can do!” The USA is an extremely racist society and has always devalued anything created by people of color, OR poor or rural white people. It has always been Europeans that lift up true American culture."

Will Porter: The Golden Gate of NOLA

One of the most critically-acclaimed – but limited released - albums of the past decade, Tick Tock Tick, the soul-drenched roots disc from San Francisco-based singer Will Porter, will be reissued on the Gramofono Sound label April 16 to audiences throughout North America. Recorded at Esplanade Studios, Tick Tock Tick also showcases stellar work from a host of additional Crescent City titans and SF Bay Area horns. Produced and arranged by the renowned Wardell Quezergue (pronounced “Kah-Zair”), creator of some of the biggest hits on Stax, Malaco, and Red Bird, Tick Tock Tick pairs Will Porter with a dazzling array of special guests, including the legendary Dr. John and Bettye LaVette, as well as New Orleans guitar icon Leo Nocentelli of The Meters, Yellow Jackets bassist Jimmy Haslip, The Womack Brothers (Curtis & Friendly) and the Louisiana Philharmonic Strings. Tick Tock Tick was first released in 2016 with extremely limited distribution in the USA, as the deal Porter signed with the ACE UK label called for hard copy distribution In Europe, Japan and Australia, but NOT the United States. After a problem with a streaming agency, Porter decided to pull down all digital streaming.

(Will Porter / Photo by Michael S. Ray)

Will Porter left his native West Virginia/Appalachia as a teenager, for New York City’s Greenwich Village, singing with his then-wife, a combination of folk, gospel and blues. When the act broke up, he settled in San Francisco, slowly building a band and following in clubs and concert venues, twice closing The San Francisco Blues Festival. Around 1980, he became the musical director and opener for Motown legend Mary Wells, which continued until her death. That relationship led to band-leading for many R&B and rock acts, and musical directing for Percy Sledge, Barbara Lewis, The Shirelles and Billy Preston. On a tour with Preston, he met Wardell Quezergue, who helmed his first album, Happy, which, even with limited distribution was named “Best Produced Album” by the NY Jazz and Blues Society. The album received rave reviews; leading to Wardell’s calling Porter back to New Orleans for Tick Tock Tick.

Interview by Michael Limnios       Special Thanks: Will Porter & Mark Pucci Media

How has the Blues and Folk Counterculture influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Music has been my primary motivation since childhood. I was lucky to have been raised in a home with a mother who was a jazz fan, with a large record collection. She had been a fan of the better big bands: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and I guess my first hearing of blues were the singers from those bands: Jimmy Rushing (who I’ve been compared to), Joe Williams, etc. she also gave me Big Bill Broonzy, and Chet Baker. The first records I called “Mine” were Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson. They are my main influences, both very blues based, and I’m lucky to not have a voice or sound like either of them. the singers that have trouble are the ones that sound too much like their idols. I was in Appalachia and surrounded by mountain music. I found “folk music” on my own: Baez, Dylan and a wonderful singer named Judy Henske, who was (and is) incredibly influential to anyone who heard her. That scene connected me to the “beat “scene, which influenced me far more than the “hippy” scene.

How do you describe your sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does your creative drive come from?

It’s interesting that AMG (all music guide) describes me better than I could have “Will Porter doesn’t pretend to be innovative; he is derivative; in the best, most positive, sense of the word. He is a heavy duty soulster who also handles blues and jazz equally well.” Anyway, I think that’s what they said; I was surprised, thankful, and humbled. An old friend found a news article after I did a show at age 14. I was playing an autoharp and singing folk and gospel songs. The writer said “blues singer”. So, I guess it’s the singer, not the song. I believe I am what was once called” a song stylist.” I choose songs that I can’t get out of my head, whether I wrote them or not. My creative drive? Actually, I’m not very driven. I think because, for decades, I’ve been around artists who have had huge successes and died in poverty or bad circumstances; it curbed my appetite, somewhat, for the business; I constantly had a reality check.

"I listen for the same thing in music of a hundred years ago that I look for today; the feel, the lyric, the delivery. Something that sounds like the truth. It can be found in almost every genre of music. Much of rap seems like it should actually go in the “spoken word” category." (Photo: Will Porter & Percy Sledge)

Which meetings have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

I’ve worked with Chess artists (Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry) Motown artists (Mary Wells, Marvelettes, Temps, Martha Reeves, and others,) Stax /Atlantic artists (Percy Sledge, Sam Moore, Barbara Lewis, etc.), and I learned from all of them, (and dozens more). Many were sad stories. My connections with Wardell Quezergue (my arranger/producer) and my friend Billy Preston were two extremely important relationships for me. As for advice? It came from my mother’s favorite singer (not mine) Joe Williams. I took my mom to a small club where Joe was playing. before his set, he said to me “the bartender told me that you’re a great singer. What kind of stuff are you doing?” I responded. Well, I’m recording some of my own tunes and some covers that I like. Some critics call me a blues singer; some say it’s soul music”.

Joe said, “Let me tell you something. My first big hit was ‘Everyday, I Have the Blues’ (my biggest hit), Backed by Count Basie and his orchestra. So, the “blues guys” would say “he’s a jazz singer”, and the jazz-bos would say “he’s just a blues singer!” it was a problem for a while. Now, fuck ‘em; I headline jazz festivals and blues festivals! Sing what the fuck you want to!” (laughs) so… I’m taking his advice.

Do you have any interesting stories about the making of "Tick Tock Tick"? What touched you from NOLA music?

It was KISMET. As a kid, I had a stack of rock and R&B records in the attic that must have been from an older relative. Fats Domino, Frankie Ford, BAREFOOTIN’ by Robert Parker (the first record I heard from Wardell, my producer). It was mostly New Orleans stuff, somehow in the West Virginia hills! I first went to play a gig in NOLA with The Drifters and The Coasters, and the backup band was unbelievably great. It turned out to be Wardell Quezergue’s band, he heard about my singing, and asked to produce me. Out of dozens of artists he arranged or produced for, he cut more tracks on me, (and Dr. John), than any other artists.  One of my early backup bands were METERS freaks, and years later, I was on the road with Leo Nocentelli, when we were doing shows with BOBBY SHEEN (BOBB B SOXX). So, we were in touch, and Leo had been in Wardell’s band from his mid-teens. Dr. John was Wardell’s best friend, and Mac suggested cutting WHEN THE BATTLE IS OVER with me. The musicians are always great with me there. Plus, Esplanade is an incredible studio and Misha is a great engineer.

"If you are determined to live by making music, make plans to be happy when there’s no money. Try to have a vision and compromise as little as possible." (Photo: Will Porter & Dr. John, New Orleans 2011)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I listen for the same thing in music of a hundred years ago that I look for today; the feel, the lyric, the delivery. Something that sounds like the truth. It can be found in almost every genre of music. Much of rap seems like it should actually go in the “spoken word” category.

What would you say characterizes San Francisco blues scene in comparison to other local US scenes and circuits?

Truthfully, much of my connection to the San Francisco scene is through my many sidemen. I was on the road and touring so much, I wasn’t in the club scene except, early on. I closed the day twice at the san Francisco blues festival, mostly on the strength of my guests, Percy Sledge, and Billy Preston. San Francisco city government has made it very difficult for live music. The main “entertainment district” is almost all strip clubs. The major blues club, “Biscuits & Blues,” a great club, has been closed over a legal issue with another building tenant, and, when it’s open, depends on tourists to keep it open. Strangely, some surrounding small cities have better live music venues. Many of my sidemen work venues where they play for the door, or “pass the hat.” It’s rough, and the pandemic has made it worse. Greaseland Studio, in the south bay, is great, with great musicians, and they are doing lots of great recording. LET’S BE HONEST.

The San Francisco blues scene is very white (as is the city). It is a city of “culture vultures”… ’old timey bands” (with ivy league educations), “second line” bands (who have never been to New Orleans), “soul music” fans (who don’t have black friends), etc. Someone who is actually from a culture is sometimes “suspect.” I have never felt like I was performing something out of my own culture; I’m pretty much doing what I was doing at age 14. I guess I’m lucky.  San Francisco has been a great place to live, but, remember, this is a place that thought that THE KNACK was important, and that NEW WAVE was REALLY important. The city appreciates culture but, in general, only the communities of color have any historical culture.   (Will Porter / Photo by Tina Abbaszadeh)

"They are my main influences, both very blues based, and I’m lucky to not have a voice or sound like either of them. the singers that have trouble are the ones that sound too much like their idols.  I was in Appalachia and surrounded by mountain music. I found “folk music” on my own: Baez, Dylan and a wonderful singer named Judy Henske, who was (and is) incredibly influential to anyone who heard her. That scene connected me to the “beat “scene, which influenced me far more than the “hippy” scene."

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

If you are determined to live by making music, make plans to be happy when there’s no money. Try to have a vision and compromise as little as possible.

What is the impact of music on the racial and socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

Most of American popular music came from black people ORIGINALLY, but everyone was influenced as soon as they heard something that appealed to them. BB KING and BOBBY BLUE BLAND both claimed to have been influenced by The Grand Old Opry. Some of the greatest Soul singers have been, or are, white.  There are black artists working the Blues circuit, who aren’t soulful at all.

Dizzy Gillespie said something like “Once you say that only a certain people can do something, the next move is saying that that’s ALL they can do!” The USA is an extremely racist society and has always devalued anything created by people of color, OR poor or rural white people. It has always been Europeans that lift up true American culture.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I’d like a quick trip through my actual life but take MORE and BETTER PICTURES! (Laughs)

Will Porter Music - Home

(Photo: Will Porter)

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