BY ALAYA WYNDHAM // One fateful night at a hotel lounge turned Andy Stokes from a once-shy Virginia kit to a Hall of Fame singer
by Alaya Wyndham
Andy Stokes, long time Soul musician, and arguably Portland’s best, is as funky as they come on stage, and he’s also completely down to earth and nearly zen-like in the way he approaches his life and fame. His story is truly incredible — he fell into the music scene as a young man, and is essentially self-taught from a young age. He started singing with his dad every weekend as a kid, and making up new versions of old songs in his bedroom.
Now he possesses a breadth of original work that far surpasses most Portland Soul singers, and his ability to pull new songs out of thin air is remarkable. We caught up with Andy to get more of his story, including some never before talked about details of his early days performing.
We’ve heard you say you fell into music…but we want more details. How old were you, when you got started singing?
My dad was a musical guy. Loved music, loved to dance…he always had records going in our house. We used to spend our Saturdays, he and I, listening to records, and we would start singing. I found out I wasn’t half bad at singing! And so I would learn the words – kids learn quick – I would learn the words to the songs one by one, by singing them. I had my broomstick as my microphone. James Brown was my favorite. And I got into it that way.
At the Waterfront Blues Festival / Photo by Kat Rose
You see, we were athletes, you know? All of us were athletes. I got a football scholarship to Oregon, and that was the direction my life was going in. When I was 22 years old, I was working as a landscaper with Shilo Inn, and there was a place called the Chase Lounge, the owner was Tony Domenici. After work, the guys and I would go over there and have dinner and drinks and what not…the DJ Billy Bump would play music and I would sing along to it. Tony heard me singing along and said, “Why don’t you ad-lib a couple songs a night and I’ll pay you $50?”
I said, “Man, I’m not gonna perform in front of people!”
Then one night, shortly after that, it was around 11 pm, the DJ Billy Bump announced a new singer was going to come up and do a few songs. I was looking around when suddenly the spotlight hit me. And I froze! But there was lots of coaxing and encouragement, and there you have it, my first time singing in front of people, was standing on a chair in a DJ booth, singing “Ring My Bell!”
And you were hooked?
Not really. It was cool…I finally got to sing in front of people, and they liked what they heard. But I didn’t think much of it. I did that for about 2 months. Then Ben Wolfe, who has played with Harry Connick, Jr. and Diana Krall, asked me to be in a band! He said, “I heard you sing, you wanna join the band?”
I said, “Ah, hell…why not?” Just like that. That’s what I said.
My first gig downtown with the band, called Light’s Out, was at O’Connor’s, at 4th and Alder. People heard me, and from there…I just started getting more and more popular and the rest is history.
That’s amazing! Do you model yourself after anyone?
What I did, starting from a young age, and I didn’t even know what I was doing, is I would listen to a song, and then I would try to sing it my way. I’d hear different notes, and start ad-libbing, and do it my own way. I’m influenced by a million people, but I created my own style by seeing what it would sound like if I did it this way, or that way. I always put my own spin on it. It helped me get my name out there, I think, because I had my own style.
What shapes your sound?
Oh! I was heavily influenced by James Brown’s Funk style. I loved his sound. I loved the way he moved. I became a funk-a-teer! With my band and with other bands, that’s where I got my sound from. Soul music — Funk, R&B — goes anywhere from James Brown to George Clinton. Making people dance, to singing songs that touch people’s heart. It’s a melting pot of everything and that’s what it’s all about. I never trained, never sang in choir. I was blessed by God with a voice that never gets hoarse.
I did meet James Heffner, who said, “Let me teach you some technique.” He taught me to train in the Italian operatic style, and I haven’t been hoarse since 1980. I’m pretty blessed I have this gift.
I was also kind of a shy kid growing up, playing music kind of took that away from me. Talking to my brother the other day, he said, “Boy, you’re not the same kid I grew up with, you was all quiet and stuff.”
What’s your favorite record of all time?
Oh, let’s see. Oh God! That’s a hard one! God! Girl, that’s a hard one. I like everything, I can’t say I have a favorite. Something might come out tomorrow, and that might be my favorite, you know? I like everybody because everybody influenced me, that’s how I feel.
Who have you enjoyed playing with the most?
I’ve had fun times with Linda Hornbuckle. I used to love singing with her, doing duets with her. She was like a sister to me. Who else…Lisa Mann, oh my god, I love singing with her! She and I together? It’s a must see. She just did a tribute to Marvin Gaye at Jimmy Mak’s that was sold out. We did duets together and whoo, boy. Nothing like it.
Also, Louis Pain, Andy Stokes Band…gotta give the boys some credit, girl! I’m blessed to have had those guys behind me for so long.
Also, the Arnold Brothers — Richard and Allen — they were from back in the day, you remember them? Those 6’7” Motown guys, those were my brothers. When I first started singing, they saw me at Rodeo Club. Now, back then, I didn’t move around, I just stood on stage like statue. Shortly after they saw me, they came to my house knocking on my door at 7 am! Pulled me out of my house, into their car and took me back to their house. We had breakfast and they taught me how to entertain. They were the ones that got me out of my little shyness. They told me go out and sing to the girls, move around and dance on stage…I’ve never told anyone that story in an interview.
Also, I have to mention Randy Smith, aka Randy Star. He helped me a lot when I was first coming up. He really helped me get my name out there. I didn’t do it by myself, I had a lot of help. I’m very blessed. A lot of people helped me get to where I am now, and I like to talk about them too and give credit where credit is due.
You and Cool’R were inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame in 2009. What was that like?
Oh god, girl. Who’d a thought?! Who’d a thought this guy? This country boy from Virginia would come to Oregon, get signed to the same record label with Janet Jackson (A & M)…it’s like…there’s no words! There’s no words. I couldn’t even talk when I got up on stage that night. I never could’ve imagined it. My whole family freaked out!
My mama said, “Whaaaaat?!” And my dad said (gets quiet) “Wow, look at you. Look at you.”
So they made a big deal about it in my hometown — Danville, VA — just a little tobacco town in the country, and a few of us made it over the years. My dad was already The Man in Danville. So they made a big deal. They named a street after us.
What a great story! How do you go about writing new songs? What’s that process like?
This is how I write: since I don’t know how to write music or play an instrument or anything… It’ll just come into my head, the baseline always comes in first — I can be watching TV or doing anything — and I just sing it over and over in my head, and then I’ll bring it to the band and sing it and have them help me out. I’ve made up songs right on the spot at gigs!
What? That’s crazy! You’re like a musical genius!
(Laughs.) I’ve always had that knack. I used to just sit in my room with my bongos, just make up baseline, and make up words…didn’t even make sense half the time. I was just having fun…but I guess I was developing my musical style, and I didn’t even know it.
That’s so cool. So what’s your process before a show, how do you get yourself ready to perform? Do you have a ritual?
I think most people do. My thing is I’m quiet before. The first thing I always think about before I hit the stage is the first note coming out of my mouth. If I have a bad day, I don’t take that to the stage. It’s hard for me to do sound check and spend like 2-3 hours before the show sitting there. I like to come in an hour before, make sure everything’s all right, then take some quiet time to myself. I like to be quiet, that’s my thing.
Come to a show. When you come, you’ll feel the funk! You’ll know what’s up! Come on and get a dose!
Yes, please! What do you like to do in your free time?
I’m a water guy. If I have any chance to go to the beach, I’m going. Beaches, lakes…I like to just go and sit. The main thing for me is…driving down Marine Drive, and being around the water. Sit for hours. Growing up I used to sit by the creek for hours. I like parks, long drives, and I DO like going to the movies. I do like going to the movies. I like quiet time at home. I don’t really do too much, just try to stay as normal as possible. It’s easy to get popular, get yourself too busy. But I need to keep the normal in my life, and need to keep some quiet in there.
One last question, where’s your favorite place to eat in Portland?
(Erupts in laughter.) I’ve never been asked that! Joy Teriyaki. Oh, God, girl. See I like the Caesar salad at Jimmy Mak’s. And I like the Cobb salad at Clyde. Oh, girl, I gotta pick one? You have me all twisted.
You can say all of them!
All of them, those three! Joy Teriaki, Jimmy Mak’s and Clyde. And Frack Burger, if I want a burger. It’s up on Barbur. Take your behind over there and go get that burger! Hoo-wee, you better go and do it! And the chili cheese fries, oh my.
There you have it. Portland, go get a Frack burger, and go get a dose of Andy Stokes!