Interview with “Big Jaye” Nelson
By: Gary Flinn
Sometimes, things are just meant to happen, or as I would later learn, maybe a little divine intervention helps too. Things that we never expect or even thought would or could happen, happen. Recently, I have to say, I had this experience. There I was on the floor of the Center Stage in Atlanta. Like a Storm had just finished their set and I was waiting to return to the photo pit to shoot Trivium when I had a brief conversation with a couple of guys with “All Access” credentials from Sevendust. If I recall correctly, the conversation revolved around where they could go to get to the backstage area (I am often mistaken for security because of my size and age, so I assumed this was happening again). I gave them some generic help and we parted ways. That was my first “encounter” with Big Jaye. A short time later, Jaye came back to where I was standing and struck up a conversation. Initially it revolved around who I was shooting the show for and eventually moved on to Sevendust, who Big Jaye is personal friends with. I had no idea at the time, who I was speaking with. I was however, very intrigued by the “stylish” persona in front of me. As the conversation progressed we began talking about Big Jaye’s music and a little about his history. Jaye proceeded to tell me that he was basically raised, from his teens, by none other than Rock legend Little Richard. My first question led to a response and a story that I have told a couple dozen times since that night and always puts a smile on my face. I asked Big Jaye, so what was it like growing up around Little Richard? Big Jaye leans back, smiles at me from behind his sunglasses and looks down exclaiming “just look at my goddamn shoes!” As I look down, I am met by a solid gold pair of shoes adorned with Swarovski crystals. Yeah, that is not the kind of thing you expect to hear or see at a Sevendust concert. Big Jaye and I talked for a while more and promised a future get together. The following week, I ran into Jaye again outside the Tabernacle while waiting for Megadeth. He treated me like a long lost friend and greeted me with a handshake and a hug.
Flash forward a couple of months and several phone calls and emails later, Big Jaye and I finally made our schedules work and met in a very appropriate setting, the Hard Rock Café in downtown Atlanta. As we sat down to a nice lunch and an extended conversation, it would’ve been very easy for me to have just skipped the interview and kept talking with Jaye. Somewhere on the order of an hour and a half later, we got around to actually doing this interview.
HHM: First things first, the new single, “Wings of My Soul”, that you sent me, I love it.
Big Jaye: Well thank you.
HHM: In fact, I was listening to it this morning as my wife was getting ready for work. She walked into the bedroom and said “let me hear that”. She really liked it too (since the time of this interview, she has appropriated the CD Big Jaye gave me as her own). In fact her actual words were “Wow! I didn’t really expect that kind of sound.” I would almost have to describe it as “Bluesy, Southern Rock”. That is the feel I got from it. Is that were you were going?
Big Jaye: Thank you. That is exactly where I was going. I’ll start in reverse, the engineer from “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Freebird”, Rodney Mills, did the mastering on it. I chose him for that reason. Of course Morgan Rose from Sevendust played drums. Corey Lowery from St Asonia is on bass and he co-wrote with me. Troy McLawhorn from Evanesence played guitar and there was Rusty Cobb, who is a great local producer, he’s done work with Rehab, Butch Walker, Avril Lavigne, Bowling for Soup, and others. He came in and polished it at the end and put that baritone guitar in it. He brought all the things he knew it needed to really be good on the radio and to possibly go platinum or whatever. The sound that I was going for was definitely Southern Rock. A Lynyrd Skynyrd type sound, that’s an honest sound for me. I am from the South. I was raised by Little Richard. I grew up touring in his band from the age of nineteen. The sound that really touched my soul was that natural, not anything clever, or anything “ah ha”, but more of a “who am I” type of sound. If I could make a song “who am I”. It’s not about tuning down to “D”. Everybody is doing that now. In fact that is one of the things I told Corey and Troy. You can play on this record, but play in key. I sing in key. I don’t have “arrrrrrr” vocals, you know. You can go as hard and heavy as you want, but let’s play it honest. I have been called, I think because I am African American, by the likes of Dr Dre, who called me some years back, right before he signed 50 Cent. I knew then that my sound would be maybe too authentically Southern Rock. He (Dr Dre) kept asking me, what are you “Alternative Rock”? They don’t know what to call you if you are African American and play Rock. Are you Urban Rock? What is that? Because I was with Little Richard, being and African American playing Rock and Roll, it wasn’t like I saw it from a distance. I saw it up close. I understood. I saw Uncle Chuck Berry as well; I understood where I fit in Rock and Roll. The only other ingredient that would have any influence other than me being in Rock and Roll was me being from the South. So, Southern Rock was just a natural thing for me to do. I listened to Southern Rock when I was growing up. We went that way with it and I did it honestly.
HHM: I think that is what makes it easy for you. It is part of who you are and I think it comes through in the music. It’s like what you said earlier, that is you. You hear artists all the time who try to force a style or a sound into their music to be trendy and it just isn’t genuine.
Big Jaye: People can hear honesty. One of the privileges and perks of touring with Little Richard was being at the very tip top of the music industry. The people you get to play for because of that. I mean, I did the presidential inauguration for Bill Clinton. I’ve done parties for Bill Gates. I did New Year’s Eve for Prince Albert at the Monte Carlo Yacht Club. You are at the very top of the game and you get to meet a lot of interesting people who are at the top of their field and from all different avenues of life. I met Michael Jordan and I once asked him, I always ask people for advice and pointers. Give me something to take away from this opportunity to make me better. He said “always be honest. Always be you”.
HHM: That is a pretty good Segway into the album, Concrete Mine. I know you have been working on it for about 10 years.
Big Jaye: Yeah, I have
HHM: Was that the plan going in? To take your time with it and be honest with it, or was that just the way things turned out?
Big Jaye: It was a blend of both. When I started on it, I had an intention. At the time I had a band going. Well, I have to go back. I did a record when I first started, back in the 90’s; it was called Jaye Swift and Company. I played it for Little Richard and he said “that’s pretty good. It’s going to get you some respect, but you know what, your second record is really going to get you where you want to go”. This is my second record. I haven’t had another record in between all that time. It wasn’t planned out that way, but life and business, change ups in the band just happened. I had a partner who had a calling from God and he’s doing his work in the church. For me it was an interesting time. I lived in Budapest and in Denmark for 8 months when I first retired from Little Richard’s band. This was just all part of it. I didn’t want to rush it. I wanted to build myself as an artist. I said it will be complete when it is complete because I wanted it to live up to what Little Richard said, but secondly I didn’t know what it was supposed to be. It is supposed to be me. So, what am I? Part of that process was finding myself. When I started recording, it was ten years ago and when I stopped recording, here we are. Now I have a schedule for it. It was my life’s work. You know what I mean?
HHM: Yes, you are telling your story
Big Jaye: I am telling my story.
HHM: Let me ask you this, has the sound of the album morphed over those ten years. I mean, did you have something when you started back in 2005 or 2006 that was cool then, but now in 2016 you listened to it and were like, anngh, and you went a different direction with it? I know the album has something like twenty songs, is it a variety of sounds or is it all Bluesy Southern Rock? Has it ebbed and flowed over the years?
Big Jaye: It has. In ten years, you find yourself going through different things and as a song writer. I got married. I was named as one the top 20 song writers in America in around 2000 or 2001. I went to Nashville and worked at a symposium with people who had worked with David Foster. I didn’t even know who the hell David Foster was. Ignorant me. (laughing). I had, even then, started writing parts of this album. During those years technology changed, I had a baby, band changes, my mood, I was younger, you name it. The thing was the sound was always honest. I have never been faddish. I have never been one to say, this is what everyone is doing now. I won’t do that. The song “Wings of My Soul”, that just debuted last week thanks to Rock Rage Radio. I wrote and recorded it 5 years ago. The song that just came out now, the one that your wife likes, that is getting great feedback on the radio play, it’s 5 years old, why isn’t it “old”. It’s timeless; it’s not about a day or a time.
HHM: It’s not “trendy”
Big Jaye: It’s about writing good music. And good music is just that, good music. You can write a hit and it would be a hit back then and it would be a hit now. That is one of the things I learned in the symposium in Nashville from all these guys in the “number 1” club, those who have had number 1 hit songs, you can be a one hit wonder or you can have a timeless classic. I try to write music that doesn’t reflect a time, but reflects a period in my life. My song “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”, which you need to listen to because of what we were talking about before the interview of where the world is today (this was the morning after the shooting of the Dallas Police officers and Jaye and I had a very deep, very meaningful conversation about our lives and our world before we did this interview). It’s almost a “what’s going on” kind of song, but it was accepted on Country radio. I was very surprised. I submitted it as Rock, but it is getting play as Country. They even introduce me as “Rock Royalty”. They did a little soliloquy about me and my time with Little Richard and introduced me as “Atlanta’s Rock Royalty Big Jaye Nelson” before they played “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright”. I think that message is really needed today more than it was even on that day, which was last Friday. So last week, on Tuesday, I debuted a song on Rock radio and then on Friday, to my surprise, they had chosen it to be debuted on “New Music Friday” on Country radio.
HHM: It doesn’t matter where it plays. If it is you, who cares what genre it becomes popular in.
Big Jaye: You’re right
HHM: I’ll give you a classic example. Kid Rock. He can be anything, from Rap, to Rock, to Country and all points in between. He covers it all, and they are all hits.
Big Jaye: Yes, he does and they are all hits. Puffy messed up. He had a chance to sign Kid Rock and he didn’t. He admits that was one of his biggest mistakes. “I passed on Kid Rock”. Like Little Richard passed on the Beatles. Don’t pass on Big Jaye!
HHM: Don’t pass on Big Jaye. You always give me something good like that. (laughing)
HHM: I know you had Morgan Rose and Corey Lowery and the others on the album, when the time comes, are you looking at touring and who are you going to have as your band?
Big Jaye: I’ve had the same drummer for over 20 years, Omar Colon. I have a new bass player with me. He is a phenomenon. He actually used to tour with the motivational speaker, Tony Robbins. Shaun Andree, he is an impeccable bassist. Then my guitarist, he’s a young man by the name of Tanner Tobias. He’s up in Pennsylvania. I always fly him in. I just picked up a new guy, Hollywood St James. He can sing and play, so he kind of fills the void of my partner that left. Actually my bass player can too, so we have this singing togetherness that is really going to be honest. We are going to start touring in the late winter, so around January or February, it is going to get exciting. We are going to be going out and doing some dates with Bonz from Stuck Mojo. I have been talking to a lot of other great artists as well. But you know what, when I tour, I like to do a lot of general admission shows. I like an open floor show. Shows with everybody from Van Halen, to Morris Day and the Time, the B52’s to Hootie and the Blowfish, Wet Willy to Mother’s Finest. It’s not about some “genre”. I am just an artist. I can Rap, I can sing, in can do R&B. I don’t, but I can. I have some songs with some R&B feel to them. I have a song called “Do You Remember”, which is about 9-11. I think the tour is going to be exciting. I could be with Metal bands some night and some nights I could be on with a Reggae act. What other artist gets to do that. It is just so much fun.
Big Jaye: Going back a little, we were talking about who is on the album. That lineup only did three songs together. Two of them are the singles that are out right now. Zac Brown is on one song with me, singing back up. He brought in a keyboard that was weighted because on a couple of songs I play piano. I wrote them at home on my baby grand piano and when I got to the studio I was trying to play it on a keyboard and the keys were too light. So Zac Brown, being the great guy he is, ran home and got this keyboard he had that had the right kind of piano weights. Then we had the problem that I had only played these songs while singing them. I couldn’t just play the song and then go record the vocals. So they had to bring a microphone in so I could play and sing the vocals. It was the only way I could get it done.
HHM: Let’s go back in time a little bit
Big Jaye: Ok. Oh, my band is going to kill me. The band is going to be called The Poetry Thieves
HHM: Going back to the time before you were with Little Richard, because I know you were already musically inclined. What would you say was your greatest influence prior to that time period in your life?
Big Jaye: Back to the very beginning
HHM: Yes, was this a family thing that you grew up with?
Big Jaye: Yes. I had a lot of Gospel music. I grew up with preachers. My great grandfather was a preacher. My great uncles were preachers. I grew up in the church. It was one of those fire baptized, Holiness churches where the music was really, really moving. In fact, if there wasn’t good music, we called it a bad day at church. (laughs) There was a lot of shouting and dancing, and good music. So that would be my very first influence. Then at home, my mother was playing Marvin Gay, Stevie Wonder, Natalie Cole, and Denise Williams. As I got older, I found myself gravitating towards music like Rod Stewart. I was very open minded, I liked Blondie, Queen, New Edition, Michael Jackson, Prince, Rick James, and others like that.
HHM: So you really listened to a spectrum of music. You didn’t just gravitate to one type of music.
Big Jaye: Yeah, and it was real. I remember we used to go to the county fair and there was this one ride, I don’t remember what it was called, but it went around and around, and they always played the best music. I wouldn’t be riding it but I would stay there for two or three hours just listening to the music.
HHM: I know exactly what you are talking about.
Big Jaye: Then I started a little group imitating New Edition. They were the boy band of the time. We started winning all these talent shows and I said now that we have this little local celebrity thing going for us, we need to write our own music. I wrote a song about the band called “Dynasty”. We won this big talent show in my hometown with a radio station involved and everything. That was the first time I ever got played on the radio. I guess that is when I realized that I had a gift for writing songs. It just seemed to come naturally to me, like it took no effort for me to write songs.
HHM: That is truly a rare gift. I mean there are all kinds of talented artists out there, but the talented song writer seems to be a lot harder to find.
HHM: Now let’s jump forward. How did you land in the Little Richard world?
Big Jaye: That group I was telling you about, we felt like we had outgrown the little town in Tennessee where I am from, Knoxville. So I was talking to a friend and he said “what’s your dream?” I said “to make it big”. He said “where do you have to be to make it big?” I said “Hollywood”. He said “well you can’t see Hollywood from Knoxville”. So we started saving up money. We were doing car washes. My cousin ran a Burger King and he would let us use the parking lot for car washes. We saved up money all summer then we caught a bus to Hollywood. We went to a travel agent and tried to find a safe area, we knew all about the gangs and stuff going on out there in the 80’s. We wanted to go to a safe area and eyeball it and try to find something cheap. We got this $135 dollar a night room. It was the cheapest we could find. The first day we were there we walked outside and we went to the left. Like three blocks later I am looking at the Beverly Hills sign. I’m walking and seeing houses that are as big as the buildings downtown where I am from. Their “alleys” looked like the streets; their trash cans looked like dumpsters. Everything was big. It just blew my mind. I went back to the hotel and I told one of the other guys, “This thing is too big for us. We have got to pray. God is going to have to intervene.” The next day, we woke up and I was like, yesterday we went left, let’s walk to the right today. I kid you not, we had gone about three blocks, we were at this intersection at a red light when we heard “hello down there” (Big Jaye does a great Little Richard impersonation each time he says something that Little Richard said). I looked up, I’m seventeen years old, I’m from Tennessee, out in California all alone, and I see Little Richard standing on the balcony. We go “it’s Little Richard”. I said “oh man, my mother loves you, can we take a picture?” So we took a picture and I was like, could we get an autograph. Little Richard says hold on a minute and he went back inside. I said to myself, well that’s it, he’s gone, but at least we saw him. Before the light could change, he came back out and said “Hello”. We looked up and he was back out on the balcony. He said come in and get on the house phone and dial his room number. So we did. I dialed his room and he answered the phone in this voice that is my father’s voice to me now. At that time it was a very new and elegant and rich to me. He said “you want an autograph, but my room is so dirty”. Gary, I said, we’re just kids from Knoxville, that’s ok, we are used to dirty. (laughing) Your dirt has got to be better than my dirt. (still laughing) He said get on the elevator and come on up. We got off the elevator and walked down the hall. I knocked on the door. I heard that sound that I’ve now heard a thousand times, “Just a minute”. That made me remember what we were there for. I said when he opens that damn door we will do our routine. We were really going to just get autographs at first.
HHM: This is our chance
Big Jaye: Yeah, I mean, it’s Little Richard, we almost forgot.
Big Jaye: So he opens the door and we go “1, 2, 3, Are you ready” (singing) and pop dancing. He laughed and said “oh that’s beautiful, come on in here”. He brought us in and sat us down and asked us what we were doing in California. We told him and he was asking us our names. That is when he gave me my name. He looked at me and said “what is your name?” I said “Jaye”. He said “Big Jaye” and from that day on I have been Big Jaye. He named me that, but I grew into it. So that night we went back to our hotel and he had given us his number. He called us the next morning and asked if we would like to come up for breakfast and go with him on an errand. We said “sure”. I don’t want to drag this out, but two days later, on my third day in California I was in a limousine riding down that same street I had walked two days before. Only this time, I am in a limo with Little Richard. He is pointing out all the celebrities’ houses to us. We went to the bank him, like I would do with him many times after that day. We didn’t want to leave, of course, but he said no, trust me. That was the beginning and he hired me on to be a background dancer and singer.
HHM: Earlier you said you always like to take something away from everyone. What would you say was the best thing or the best advice you ever got from him?
Big Jaye: Little Richard was the Yale of Rock and Roll. When you ask that question you are talking to someone who has a degree, who had to learn a lot of different things, but if I would have to say the biggest lesson I learned was to trust God and to have faith. He is in control and on the throne. No matter what we do as men, we are just mites on the back of a junkyard dog. Putting your trust there is better than money, or the lottery, or Vegas. It has delivered for me many, many times. Even you, when I met you and I walked up and shook your hand and I was thinking I’d like to have you interview me one day. I prayed about that Gary, when I left you. I didn’t leave it to chance. You didn’t know it back then, but you didn’t have a choice. (laughing)
HHM: Never stood a chance huh.. (laughing)
HHM: Some things are just meant to happen. I mean, if you think about how many people were in that room that night at Sevendust.
Big Jaye: A couple thousand
HHM: Me and you are standing right next to each other.
Big Jaye: And you do what you do and I do what I do. And not only that, the time when you said, you know what, I will meet with you. Again, I prayed about it, so I don’t really think you had a choice. I prayed and kept the faith.
HHM: I had no clue what I was up against (laughing)
Big Jaye: (laughing) You didn’t know who you were dealing with
Big Jaye: You know, last week was my biggest week with the music, as far as my own music. Two songs debut on the radio in two different genres. So this interview is just perfect because I have even more to talk about than when I met you.
HHM: It’s going to take me forever to dictate this.
Big Jaye: It’s been a pleasure.
HHM: I love being in the position I am in right now. Not saying you are “starting”, but seeing it taking off
Big Jaye: It’s the beginning
HHM: I don’t think it’s the beginning. This is a new chapter in an amazing journey.
Big Jaye: I like it. A new chapter
HHM: Seeing where you are now, like you were just saying, the things that have happened for you just since I have met you, I love being a part of that. When the time comes, I would love to be there.
Big Jaye: You will. You are a part of the story. Just like Cindy Howell who took a chance to play me on Rock Rage Radio. Just her taking that chance, made somebody else take a chance too. Now I have about ten other radio stations out there. People started calling and emailing almost right away. Now it’s on in 81 countries and 40 states. That’s just in one week.
HHM: Is there anything else that you want to put out there?
Big Jaye: I want to say thank you to all the people, and you know who you are, that ever took a time or a moment out of your life to help me with my dream and keep me on course. I am an African American man. I have had to make choices and I didn’t always make all good ones, but for some reason people saw something in me and they allowed me to do things and gave me favor. I am thankful for every piece of this puzzle.
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