The Paperboy delivers as the Jewish James Brown
Eli Reed may be tipped as America's next big pop act - but he's staying true to his scholarly roots.
Eli Reed with his band, The True Loves. “The academic way I approach music is a reflection of a ‘Jewish’ way of thinking,” says Reed, who has been compared to soul legend James Brown
The all-time soul-man greats - James Brown, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett - may now be dead, but their spirit lives on in, of all people, a young, white Jewish boy called Eli "Paperboy" Reed.
After a year in which British female singers such as Amy Winehouse, Adele and Duffy have dominated the new-soul scene, Reed, a 24-year-old from Brookline, Massachusetts, now living in Boston, is bringing it all back home to the States, the birthplace of gritty, sweaty, horn-enhanced R&B.
"What Amy Winehouse and [producer] Mark Ronson do is somewhat similar," he says, used to comparing and contrasting what he and Winehouse do. "But I'm coming from a different place. We have a different set of influences. Ronson comes more from a hip hop/funk standpoint, whereas I'm more classically pop - pop as a broad term meaning ‘created for a popular audience'. I write pop songs, or love songs."
Reed, who got the "Eli" bit of his name from a Jewish tuba player called Eli Newberger and the "Paperboy" part from the "newsboy" hat belonging to his grandfather that he used to wear as a child, has spent his young lifetime immersed in blues and soul.
He grew up in a Reform Jewish household, exposed to his father's gospel, blues, soul and R&B records, and taught himself to play guitar, piano and harmonica.
When he was 18, he was schooled first-hand when he moved to Clarksdale, one of the birthplaces of the blues, in the North Mississippi Delta. There, he sang and played guitar with various soul, R&B and blues bands at local clubs and received informal lessons in performing from legendary blues drummer Sam Carr.
No wonder, then, that he's somewhat suspicious of what he sees as the dilettante, karaoke careerists on the X-Factor and American Idol who sing cover versions of original soul and R&B without any real empathy for the music he loves.
"What bothers me most is that the singers on those shows have spent no time listening or thinking critically about the music," says Reed, a veritable walking encyclopaedia of roots music - he even, when asked whether there is a tradition of bluesy Jews, reels off a list of Jewish musicians, songwriters and record label owners who devoted their lives to the form, from the 1930s onwards.
"You've got to have a scholarly understanding of music to be really listening. So many singers and musicians skip that step."
Reed's new album of self-penned material, Roll With You, is as authentic a distillation of those classic tracks from the Chess, Motown and Stax labels as you could imagine. He's used to thinking about the music - his father is a sometime music critic who works at Harvard, while Reed himself majored in sociology and cultural anthropology at the University of Chicago - but he doesn't accept that his academic background or liberal arts upbringing (his mother is a sculptor) are at odds with penning and performing music that is meant to be intuitive, not learned, a gush of passion and untrammelled emotion.
"I'm pretty academic and my parents always pushed me to consider things in an academic way, to examine what's good and bad. But there's a misconception that soul and blues were somehow primitive and ‘unthinking'. Those soul guys were very conscious of their art-form, of how it was created, performed and arranged. They were serious professional musicians who thought very critically about their art and their music would not have been as good if they had not been so diligent in their process.
"The improvisation of emotion is important, but even in gospel music the perfect harmonies of, say, the Davis Sisters didn't just come out of thin air. They practised all the time."
He smiles when asked whether he sang his barmitzvah portion - of course he did - although he didn't at that point have full access to his repertoire of yelps, screeches, bellows and wails. And he believes the Jewish mindset may be naturally critical and questioning - many of the leading academic US rock writers, from Greil Marcus to Peter Guralnick, are Jewish - even if he's not sure why.
"It doesn't come out sonically in my songs, but the way that I consider music and the way I approach it - in an academic way - is a reflection of a ‘Jewish' way of thinking about music," he says. "I'm very keen to understand culture and niches. I was raised in a very culturally Jewish way. But I'm not certain what that means or why it is."
He admits that many of his songs were born of classic soul-man torment - "They come from a particular failed relationship" - but doesn't accept that a life of sorrow and a tragic untimely demise are essential. "I hope not!" he laughs. "It doesn't have to be."
Nor does he believe that great soul only comes out of turbulent times. He isn't worried that, with Obama as President, there will be less grist to the American soul-man mill.
"I don't agree with that," he says. "Great soul music comes from the person creating it, not his or her political surroundings. [Sam Cooke's] A Change Is Gonna Come is a great song but it's not my favourite of his. Great art is not inherently political. It's emotional."
Roll With You is out now on Q Division