Phone interview recorded March 11, 2013
Preston Glass has created an amazing legacy of music through his work as a songwriter and producer. His musical resume is literally filled with superstar names and legends from Aretha Franklin to Earth, Wind & Fire. In recent years, he's also been creating his own albums as a recording artist. His latest project is ELEVATOR SPEECH and he shares with David Nathan (with whom he worked on David's second CD, Wistful Elegance) about the inspiration behind the project and more...
David: In the many years that I’ve been fortunate enough to do interviews with recording artists, producers, songwriters, and musicians, there are occasions when I think to myself, ‘ how are we going to keep this conversation focused and to the point?’ because, inevitably, with certain people, just because of who they are, because of who I am, and because of the kind of association we have, we could talk for a very, very long time and this next gentleman is one of the people who falls into that category. Not only have I been fortunate to know him for a number of years, I’ve also had the privilege and I would say honor to work with him in a recording studio, which is one of the highlights of my career, and certainly in my somewhat limited career as a recording artist, certainly one of the highlights of that time - but also just in my career in genera - has been working with this gentleman who has a really amazing, amazing list of credits. If you type his name into All Music, [Guide], I think it’s like pages and pages and pages and it’s filled with names of some of these superstars, legends of our business: Aretha Franklin, Natalie Cole, Diana Ross, Earth Wind and Fire, I could keep going. He’s distinguished himself as a songwriter, as a producer, and in recent years, he’s begun doing his own albums, and that’s really what a lot of the focus of our conversation’s going to be today, and I’m talking to one of the best guys in the business: Mr. Preston Glass. Hello, Preston!
Preston: Hey, David! How are you?
David: I’m good. You’re in 74 degrees and I’m in minus 3.
Preston: Well, I won’t rub it in, but I’ll try and be empathetic towards you.
David: Maybe send some sunshine through the interview!
Preston: There you go.
David: Okay. Well, what I want to talk to you about initially, Preston is, you have a brand new album called ELEVATOR SPEECH - of course, before we get too deep into it, I have to ask you, what was the inspiration for making an album with that title?
Preston: Well, I had heard that term before and I assumed that everybody, or at least a large number of people had heard that term before, but after getting deep into making the album I came to find out that no, not everybody knows what that means. I was familiar with the term, meaning that once you step on an elevator, let’s say from the first floor to the penthouse suite, however many floors that might be, the doors are closed. So, whoever’s on the elevator with you, they’re a captive audience. If you wanted to, for instance, talk to Donald Trump about your business pitch, well, he’d have to listen because he can’t get off until the doors open again. So, that’s where the term comes from. I guess there’s another way to say it, elevator pitch. So, then I was able to take that term and use it as a metaphor in life. Life is like an elevator ride. When you look back, especially in your old figures, it’s a short ride, so, it’s important to shoot your best shot, make every moment count, and not waste and words or waste any time. You do your best.
David: I gotcha. So, was there a specific thing that happened to you in that respect that really would be the inspiration for the song, or was it just a general observation?
Preston: As far as the song? Well, what I wanted to do is, once I had the concept, is touch on a few different subjects that might be experiences in life, whether it’s my situation or me observing others. Whether it’s a love situation or whether it’s a life- changing situation or things that we encounter, they’re all part of life and each song, - by the way there’s 12 songs, there’s no 13. There’s no 13th floor in apartment buildings or skyscrapers; a lot of times they do that, but every song I tried to touch on a subject that might be an experience in life, or on the elevator ride of life.
David: Now, I need you to correct me, but am I thinking that this is your third or fourth solo album as an artist?
Preston: Yes, this is the fourth one. The first three were like guest artist projects, almost compilations, but they all had some kind of concept or method to the madness to them too. In fact, I would say that one of the reasons that I decided to finally do one that didn’t have any guests was the last one that I did, while a lot of people seemed to like it, COLORS OF LIFE, it took a lot to put that together because we’re not only talking about 19 songs, we’re talking about at least 12 guests and then you have guest producers and cowriters. So, when you’re working deals with them, especially on a shoestring budget, you work out, ‘you’ll get this, we’ll get that.’ Then, it was just so time-consuming putting it together, and then some people wanted more than others. Some people were harder to deal with than others. [I said], ‘You know what? The next one, I’m going to do it all by myself.’ Actually, I kind of said it out of, ‘it probably ain’t going to happen, but it sure would be nice.’ Then, it ended up happening.
David: Wow, and I’ve got to ask you - because I’m sure [it] is challenging to produce, write, play the instruments, and be the artist singing…. Obviously, we know other people do that. We can think of many examples. We can think of Prince. We can think of others who have done the same thing, but how easy is it for you to be objective when you’re doing that?
Preston: Like you were saying, it’s a challenge, but I think my years of wearing different hats on different projects has helped me. For instance, on some projects, - like when I worked with Earth, Wind and Fire, they’re a great band, so I don’t need to have to play every instrument. I also have Maurice [White] there to bounce off ideas, and so that’s one hat I wear. There might be a whole other project where I’ll play all the instruments, where I’ll write all the songs. Then there might be another project where I’m just a hired session guy to play keyboards. So, I think what I try to do then, is when I was writing songs, I wore that hat, once I finished all 12, I took off that hat and said, ‘okay, now I’ve got to go into arranging and producing mode, and put on that hat,’ and then it came for the vocals, same thing. I will say that I always had some people to bounce things off of, especially on the vocals. Once I did a rough, maybe I might play it for some musicians here and see what they thought and make some adjustments.
David: Right. Now, in terms of this specific project, did you already have all the songs written or did you write them specifically for this?
Preston: Actually, I wrote every song on this album specifically for the project. They all came out in a pretty rapid fire amount of time. What I spent the most time [on] was actually cutting the tracks and doing the vocals, and mixing and all that, but the writing of the songs, I’m not even going to say how fast they were written because a lot of times people, when you say a quick time, they don’t understand that sometimes that’s the way it happens. They look at it as if ‘oh, you didn’t spend enough time on it. ‘ Some of my biggest hits were written in like an hour’s time.
David: Hey, I think that’s great. I think what that really points to is when you master something, when that’s your craft, when you’re really skilled at it, then I can see no reason why you can’t write a song in 10 minutes!
Preston: Yeah, some of these did come together pretty quick. Like I said, the most time consuming thing was the vocals because I layered the backgrounds. I must have done maybe 20 to 30 tracks of every song.
David: That’s a lot. And, let’s talk about a few of the songs. I want to talk about a couple in particular. I noticed that you had one of your mentors doing the count off. For those of you who don’t know what a count off is - I can’t believe that anyone who’d be listening to this, or reading it at SoulMusic.com won’t know what a count off is - but it is actually what happens at the beginning of any recording, or at least certainly back in the day of live recording, when the producer or arranger was beginning the track, they would count off. That was a really bad explanation, but I think people understand what I mean. That was pretty good wasn’t it, Preston? Was that accurate?
Preston: That was excellent. That was great. I was writing it all down.
David: Fantastic. And you had one of your mentors on the track “Priceless Pearl” doing that. Now, I’ve got to ask you, how did that happen?
Preston: Well, to be honest with you, and there was a reason why, but I’ll get to that in a second, but [with] Thom Bell [on that track] that was not a new count off. It was taken from a remix of an old Spinner’s track, “Ghetto Child”. Somebody had left his count on the remix. So, I just grabbed it off of there, but the reason I did it because a count off is considered a starting point and he was my starting point in my career, so it was more like a little tribute to Thom. If there’s anybody that would be on this album other than me, I’ll let Thom be on there. So, that’s why I did it.
David: One of the songs that really resonated with me, and I’m going to be interested to find out if other people had the same reaction, was the song “Same Tears, Different Pillow”. Would you like to share with us a little bit about that song and the inspiration for it? Obviously you want everybody to listen to it, but prior to listening, maybe you could give us a little clue as to what the song’s about and what inspired it?
Preston: Yeah, I had this title sitting around for a while, but I never wrote anything to it. Those that know me - you know me - a lot of times I’ll have titles or I might get a title from something you say. So, that was a title that I had laying around for a little while, but once I started to think about what it could be within the lyrics, the subject, I wanted to make a song about a person that had a relationship that didn’t work out, and they were heartbroken, but rather than sit around and try and get that person back, they went on the another one, and then went on to another one. Every time they would go onto the next relationship, they would keep looking back to that first one, a longing for that first relationship. So, it would be a new pillow, a new place, a new person, but they would have the same tears that they were crying about that first relationship.
David: That’s how the song [came about]and that’s a great track, really great track. And then there was a couple more that I would like to ask you about, “Just Because The Camera’s On”. I’m laughing because I’ve heard the song. Can you elaborate?
Preston: Yeah. In this situation, it’s a love song, but the guy singing the song is saying this lady is just doing him a job, privately she’s treating him bad, but when they’re out in public or in front of his friends, or her friends, it’s like, ‘oh he’s wonderful.’ That whole game. So, camera’s being [on], just because people are watching really. ‘The truth is you don’t really love me. ‘ The side story is, I guess what made me think of it, is because in Hollywood, a lot of people are that way.
David: Yeah, I know of which you speak!
Preston: It doesn’t have to be a love situation or whatever, just ‘hey, how are you doing?’ Like at the BMI Awards,’ hey, what a beautiful night! It’s so good to see you! I’ll call you tomorrow. ‘ And then of course, when nobody’s watching. That’s where the inspiration came and I made it into a relationship thing.
David: So, that’s an LA in particular, or Hollywood-inspired song in some ways.
Preston: Hollyweird as they call it.
David: Yes, I could break into a chorus of amen’s, but I won’t. But I do know absolutely what you’re talking about. Those who have never lived in Hollyweird or LA, they probably don’t quite know what we mean, but I think people are aware that many people operate, particularly in the entertainment industry, with that kind of premise that it’s all show and no tell.
Preston: I think now with the reality show thing being so popular, people can relate. They can maybe even see that. They’re over there acting like their family is so cool, or they might be a little dysfunctional. Of course, then you hear about it in the news, they broke up, or they’re fighting. So, just because the camera’s on.
David: So, tell me, how do you feel this album measures up against the previous albums that you’ve done? I know there’s MUSIC AS MEDICINE, there’s STREET CORNER PROPHECY, there’s COLORS OF LOVE, I think I got all three.
Preston: Yeah, those are the three. Well, there’s different kinds of measuring up. In the vocal category, or artist category, some of my favorite people and artists are on those past albums, probably my favorite singers like Ollie Woodson and George Benson, Larry Graham. …you can’t outdo those people as far as vocals, so I’m not trying to measure up on that level….but material-wise and maybe concept [-wise], having a continuity in the flow of the songs, I think it’s been getting a lot of positive response.… and we had a listening party. There were a lot of not only friends and family, but some other noted writers and artists there attending, who all pretty much enjoyed the material and walked away and have since then even told me they really liked the album. So, it seems to be getting off to a good start comparatively speaking to the other albums. So, it’s always hard to say. I know it’s way different. If you had asked me ten years ago if I had ever thought of even doing something like this, I would think, ‘hey no way. ‘
David: So, what you said there is perfect because it really leads to my next question. Obviously, as I referenced in the introduction, you have built up an amazing legacy of music as a songwriter and as a producer, so I guess you could have continued doing that. So, what prompted you to even think about making albums of your own?
Preston: A lot of encouragement, believe it or not, from fellow industry people, musicians that I respect, writers that I respect, artists that I respect, even some executives, saying on some of those past albums, there was at least maybe four or five cuts that I would sing. They were more or less fillers to me, but people would comment, ‘man, you should do more. Why don’t you try doing a whole project?’ That was one of the reasons. The other reasons, again, as time goes by, when I first started my career, it was a lot easier to get an artist, especially a new artist, to do a song because they had that respect. They were out there doing what their forte was, which was singing. The producer was respected for producing and also maybe providing the songs. These days, I don’t care if you’re an established artist or even a new artist that ain’t done nothing, it’s increasingly hard to convince these young artists that you have some great material. One, it’s because they don’t understand it. Two, it might be because they’re trying to write and because they’ve learned that publishing is the way to go. So, what I’ve said to myself is, ‘you know what? These little albums that I do, the one opportunity that I get to do whatever I want song- wise.’ What’s interesting is, I might have an idea, and some of the artists that I’m working with on the other projects will hear these songs and go, ‘man, I want that one!’ Because, for instance…. a lot of the ELEVATOR SPEECH album had to be done on, I won’t call it ‘off time’, but time that I wasn’t doing “pay the rent” projects. So, I might be playing or finishing up a mix and the artist that I’m working with will come in a little early and they’ll catch a little bit of the song and say, ‘what’s that? Hey, I like that!’ So, it was hard for me to actually hold on to some of these because my main thing is being a songwriter and getting my songs out there, but it’s funny. Like, I was just explaining, it’s increasingly hard to get the material out there, and now when I’m doing something where I say, ‘I’m going to do anything that I want on these,’ these are the ones that people seem to want.
David: So, it’s almost like your album, or albums, are almost like a showcase for songs that other people could possibly record….
Preston: That’s very accurate. In fact, I think when you get down to the heart of it and ask me, ‘why are you doing it?’ I think it’s just another way to keep my songs exposed to the public, to the industry, and let people know that. ‘he’s still doing it. He’s still writing.’ It keeps a steady flow of stuff out. And I’m a little freer as opposed to, you know, let’s say if Usher says ‘okay, I want you to write me something for the new album. It has to be like this.’ You’re a little more constrained. There’s nothing wrong with that because that’s been the focus of my career anyway, but these little CDs give me a little freedom to do something that I maybe wouldn’t do on another artist.
David: I gotcha. So, in other words, they almost are like a showcase for some of the songs you’ve written, and so I’m assuming therefore, you don’t have any problem when someone hears any of these albums that you’ve done and says, ‘I want to record that song. ‘ You don’t mind people covering them at all.
Preston: [Not] at all. That’s kind of what they’re there for, but rather than just sending them out as demos, I said, ‘well, let me just put them out as CDs.’
David: That’s great. They serve a double purpose. Firstly, they’re music that reflects you, and showcases your talents as a songwriter, as a producer, and singer, and musician, and they also are a showcase of songs. I think that’s a pretty brilliant strategy actually.
Preston: Well, thank you.
David: Now, actually, I know we don’t have a lot more time left, but I do want to talk to you about something that I became really conscious of. I mentioned in the introduction, and I referenced it again just now, and you said yourself, that many people relate to you as a songwriter even though of course I know, and those who know you, know that you wear many different hats as well. What’s interesting is, as you know, we have Soul Music Records in the UK as our reissue label and it’s quite fascinating how every now and again, I’ll be working on a reissue and I’ll see your name in the songwriting credits. A primary example is an album that will be out by the time this interview’s on SoulMusic.com. It will be about to be out, and that is the Phyllis Hyman album GODDESS OF LOVE, and of course one of the songs on there is “Let Somebody Love You”. So, are you also surprised when you find that songs that you may have even forgotten about come back to life through reissues, through compilations? Does it come as a surprise to you too?
Preston: These days, no, I’m not really surprised. When, I guess you would say a few years back when that stuff started happening, I might have been surprised because, as a writer or creative person, we’re always in the moment, looking forward, trying to do new stuff. Knowing how there was an era when some of the best soul music or R&B pop, that music that was made in those years, it seemed to be coming back around for all ages, even youngsters that weren’t even born then, seem to like it. So, now, it’s not a surprise anymore. In fact, that’s one of the reasons that I said when I do my new CD, ELEVATOR SPEECH, or maybe I might do a new one, I’m not going to be ashamed of gravitating toward that style. I’m not going to try and be the year 2020 as far as all these sounds. I’ll just write great songs, because people really have the same emotions that they’ve always had. They might be dealing with some new slang, new words, or new situations, but people are still people and they gravitate toward the same things. If you can put it with some cool new rhythms and new melodies, that’s cool too. But, I’m not ashamed when someone says, ‘that song or that album has an old school flavor.’ I go, ‘thank you.’ To me, that’s the best music.
David: I’m right there with you, of course as you know, so you don’t have to-
Preston: I’m preaching to the choir.
David: You are preaching to the choir, indeed. But, I mentioned that particular song, the Phyllis Hyman song, since we were talking about that for a second, do you have any thoughts about that particular song since that kind of came up, and it came up because I was working on that reissue today. So, do you have any memories of that in particular?
Preston: “Let Somebody Love You” by Phyllis? Yeah, that was co-written with my brother Alan, and we were both staff writers for Thom Bell, Bellboy Music, which at that time, Thom had relocated from Philly to Seattle. So, it was a great time because not only did we get that direction from Thom, but there were a bunch of other talented writers and writing teams, like Bell and James and George Merrill and Shannon Rubicam, Frankie Blue, there was a young man named Joe Erikson. So, we all would bounce ideas off each other, listen to each other’s music. It was like a mini- Motown there, and a very creative environment. So, that song, if I remember correctly, was written with The Jones Girls in mind because Thom was I think going to do some things for them and so on the musical side, it was a little more jazzy because I think we were conscious of trying to think of The Jones Girls. Thom chose Phyllis and Phyllis loved it so. The ironic thing was that by that time, I had started working with Narada Michael Walden and doing some session work with him and turned out that Thom had did half of that album and Narada did three cuts. It was through three cuts that Narada did, I was cutting the background vocals on the other half of the album. That’s when I actually got a chance to meet Phyllis and spend some time with her. That was a very cool project.
David: One thing that did occur to me, and I want to kind of wrap up, but this is one of the things that occurred to me, to ask you, when you first started, in the very beginning of your musical journey, which as I remember did actually begin in Philadelphia and it did begin with Thom Bell, did you have any clue at that point that songwriting and that aspects of songwriting such as publishing, could actually be the way to generate an entire career and actually generate an income? Did you have an idea about that at the very beginning?
Preston: At the very beginning? No. To be honest with you. It was just something that I knew, I knew very specifically that it was something I wanted to do. I never really had a desire to be an artist back then, and never really wanted to be rich and famous and a big star. I just loved music, and I loved songs, that part of it, that whole thing. My favorite artists seemed to be writer/artists and my favorite music seemed to be songs that were written by those great songwriters of the day. But, I think by kind of relating to the songwriters, a little later on I started finding out that these people make a living and were able to do it on an ongoing basis. Looking at people like Carole King and Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach and Gamble and Huff. I was like, ‘well, wow, they’re doing it. Let me see if I can do it.’ Then, that’s when you start learning this is how you do it. But to answer your question, no, I had no idea.
David: I guess writing songs hasn’t been too bad for you, right?
Preston: Nope. It hasn’t been too shabby and it’s kept me out of trouble!
David: Well, that’s a good thing. That’s a good thing, Preston. Well, really, as I said at the beginning of this interview, we could rap and chat for a long time because there’s many things [we could talk about]….I think maybe the next time we do an interview, we’ll really explore in depth a little bit more about some of the aspects of your career. We’ve done that at different times in interviews, but really to track some of the amazing people that you’ve worked with. I referenced some of them at the beginning as an introduction, but really it’s a really amazing list. I mentioned the ones I mentioned, but there are people I left out, like Kenny G and George Benson, and as they say, a truckload of others….. I’m sure you must feel sometimes proud of the fact that you’ve had the opportunity to work with so many great people.
Preston: Yeah, I’ve been fortunate. It’s been a blessing. At the same time, I look at it like, ‘wow, I’m old!’ I’ll tell you, it’s humbling too. A little story, when I met Berry Gordy, three years ago, it wasn’t because he knew really who I was, but he had heard some music that I did for a Broadway artist that he met overseas, that he is now using in the new Motown Broadway musical. So, he heard some of the stuff and he contacted her and said, ‘well, who wrote these songs?’ She contacted me and said, ‘Mr. Gordy would like to meet with you at [his] house.’ So, I went over to his house. This kind of shows you, anyway, you’ll see what I’m talking about when I get to the final part of the story. So, I met with him under those circumstances. He was just particularly liking two or three of the songs on her album that I did. And, we talked about that and I brought out some new things. We talked about those songs and as we finished up our little two-hour meeting, I handed him my bio, which basically, I handed him at the bottom, and said ‘this is my email and Facebook page and phone numbers if you need to get a hold of me. ‘Then, at the top of the list, of course it has like 60 of those artists. He looks at the list and goes, ‘okay, so that’s your email.’ Then he said, ‘now, what is this? Your wish list? What are these artists up here? What is this? People you want to work with?’ And, I said, ‘no, these are people that I have worked with.’ He kind of looked at me and said, ‘who ARE you? ‘ That’s exactly what he said, and I was laughing. But, it was interesting. I think he probably prides himself on knowing a little bit about everybody. So, there I was in his living room and he’s like, ‘wait a minute.’ Because he saw Brenda Holloway, and he was like, ‘well, I discovered her. ‘
David: So, I guess in his world, you were one of the best kept secrets.
Preston: Yeah. And it kind of helped me to see, ‘yeah, who am I?’ Because I forget about that and kind of move on.
David: Fantastic. That’s a great story, Preston. That was a really great story. Wow. Well. I’m going to complete our interview by just asking you what are some of the other projects. The first thing is to let everybody know that you have a brand new CD out, ELEVATOR SPEECH, which I’m assuming is available now on Amazon and iTunes and everywhere that people buy music these days?
Preston: Yes, it is. iTunes, Amazon, and then I have a special website for it too, which is PrestonGlassElevatorSpeech.com.
David: Fantastic, and that’s all one word?
Preston: Yes. There’s some other interesting things, including videos of the listening party as well as a little video portrait that a few friends of mine participated in, including you.
David: What we’ll do is we’ll make sure that there’s a link to that that goes along with this article so people can actually just click it on and go there. That’s great. So, to finish off, what are some of the other things that you’re working on right now?
Preston: Um, actually Dawn Robinson from En Vogue contacted me about doing some things for her solo project. I’m still doing some things with Narada Michael Walden, doing two little projects with a couple new artists. And, actually, I did a tribute album to Thom Bell with Bob Baldwin last year. So, now, we’re going to do another Bob Baldwin project, this time a tribute to Stevie. And, we’re just kind of starting that, but that’s going to prove to be pretty interesting.
David: Have you already picked all your Stevie songs?
Preston: Nope, not yet. So, we’re open to ideas.
David: Okay, well, I’m only going to throw one at you because it’s one of my favorites. I have a particular favorite Stevie Wonder song, which probably other people may have as their favorite, but it’s not the most obvious. It was not a hit; it’s an album track, but it’s always been, always been one of my absolute favorite Stevie Wonder songs. It’s from the album TALKING BOOK, and it’s “Tuesday Heartbreak”.
Preston: That’s funny; I love that song.
David: If you want to put that in the pot, that’s fine. Great!
Preston: You never know. And, I’m actually starting…it’s way early a lot of people would say, but not really…I’m starting a new solo album, as far as writing material.
David: Well, Preston, it’s always great, as I said at the beginning, on a personal level it’s always great to talk to you. What I really love, and I’ve always admired, even before we worked together, was that you are someone who stayed active. You keep your hand in, you keep working, you keep producing, you keep creating projects and that’s really quite something, especially in the musical environment that we live in now. To be able to continue to work and produce great work is something that everyone doesn’t do. So, I tip my proverbial - but not probably wearing - hat off to you.
Preston: I love my hats.
David: I know you wear lots of hats. So, not only musically, but actually in real life. So, we’ll pretend that I took one of your hats. I take my hat off to you for the fact that you do continue and there’s no time that I can remember speaking to you in a long time, many, many years that you haven’t been always doing some project or another, and that really takes something.
Preston: Well, thank you, and like I said, it keeps me out of trouble, but I could say the same thing about you. I admire you, your ability to keep it going, as I said, keep it moving.
David: That’s right. Alright, well this is great. The last thing for me to say is everybody go check out ELEVATOR SPEECH. There will be links on this interview to go do that. It’s a really good album. If you like old school music, as you said earlier, this is definitely the record for you. Go check it out. Alright, Preston. Well, thanks for a great conversation, as always. Go back to the lovely 74 degrees while I go back to the minus 3, and we’ll catch up again soon.
Preston: Okay, thanks so much, David.
David: Okay, thanks, bye.