Nolan Porter Interview
By Michael Greig Thomas
Artwork taken from Nolan Porter’s album ‘Nolan’ (1972)
Nolan Porter was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, and lives there to this day. The following is an excerpt from a long phone conversation on Friday 31st January 2014 ahead of his European tour dates with The Stone Foundation (TBA Soon…)
MT: So, I hear you’re in Madrid this summer?
Nolan Porter: Yeah for the last couple of years Neil (From the Stone Foundation) has been trying to get a dialogue and get us a gig over there and it looks like this year it’s going to happen, I’m really enthused…
MT: That’s great news!
Nolan Porter: I know we’re only going to be there a couple of days – but what I’m hoping is that we’ll put in a really good performance and so have a reason to come back for longer than two days.
MT: There’s a lot of demand over here (UK and Spain from personal experience) for your music and performance, for soul music, I think you’ll always be welcome.
Nolan Porter: Wow, I appreciate that, at this time of my life I’m enjoying singing the old songs and travelling, and it seems to be a really good time in my life to do that.
You know everything has changed so much with the internet, I’m just learning so much I didn’t know for so many years, but I remember when I used to get some statements from ASCAP back in the 70s – Spain would be in the mix – And I thought this is really cool they’re digging some of my old stuff. To finally go there now after all of these years where people are keeping my music alive over there I think that’s very cool, it gives me a chance to say thank you.
MT: Did you know about the Northern Soul scene when it kicked off in the 60s and 70s and whether you knew people were picking up on your music so much?
Nolan Porter: No, I really did not know that people were picking up on my music in the UK until around 1996 – I really didn’t. I was with Lizard records before ABC, and that all broke up around 1974 when I had a hit with If I Could Only be Sure – That was in the Top 100 here – and the record company broke up, I think I was about 23, 24 years old and it was one of those deals where I would have to sue one of my own best friends, Gabriel Meckler, who produced all of that stuff, and I didn’t realise that people-that everybody was trying to sue one another, cover their tracks, Lizard records developed two other names, vulture records being one, they were putting different songs under different labels and it was just a mess. So I got out of the record business in 1974, very discouraged, but I never got away from music, I worked singing from top 40 to singing some of my old songs to joining classical groups because I have a classical back ground also. But I didn’t hear about the Northern Soul scene and the all nighters that were happening until around 1996. It was a friend of mine, a guy named Ryk Stolarz, he said “man you gotta look at this internet” – he embarrassed me into checking out the internet and getting some dialogue going. So it was pretty late but it was around then and it took me about 9 years later things started moving faster. I went to Wales, I went to Prestatyn. I did the big festival there, I did the weekender – there were about 4,000 fans at that gig.
MT: The scene is growing again; the all nighters are being well attended again
Nolan Porter: That’s great; I mean maybe they’ll ask me to come back over. I was blown away; they had about 1,000 people and people were just trading records, dance contests all night, it was just great. They knew more about the old music than I did at that time. It was funny. It was just great to be there.
MT: You know there’s All-Nighters everywhere. There’s All-nighters where I come from (Stoke-On-Trent) and across the UK – that’s how I got into your music. The first time I heard it I was dancing to it and that was kinda the beginning for me, it’s amazing how strong the scene is now, Still!
NP: And here we are talking to each other on the phone and will meet in Spain!
MT: So you didn’t know about the Northern Soul scene until 1996? So how have you found the international reception since? Has it been overwhelming?
Nolan Porter: It’s been blowing my mind. Almost overwhelming when I go not just England; people are listening to me in Scotland, Wales, and now I’m finding out Spain, and now it’s starting to seep over here a little bit. People are getting more interested in the old soul, Motown, before Motown moved to California all the stuff was going on in Detroit and they had that stuff. And they’re starting to listen to that music here. It’s sorta still underground but it’s growing. I’m starting to do some gigs here, just doing my old songs, so it’s just been an incredible experience and I hope that I’m going to be on for awhile.
MT: So we have some questions from the fanpage: What keeps on keepin’ you on?
Nolan Porter: It’s primarily the love of music, I would say that. Also, I don’t think in terms of age so much, when you have some something that you love and that you desire that you should try to develop a passion for, you’ll keep working, you’ll keep going if you have a passion. If you don’t have a passion for it, you’re not going to keep moving on. I love these old songs. They’re kinda like my children. They were never dead to me in my heart, in my creative heart. But I didn’t know that halfway across the world that they were alive, that people were digging on them. I know it sounds a little strange but I have a personal feeling for each one of those songs. So that; and the love of old music, the love of interaction with people, like yourself, the opportunity to do music with different people, that all keeps me going.
MT: You collaborated with Paul Weller and he covered your track. How did you find out that he was covering your track?
Nolan Porter: By then, I think, Patrice my wife, I married Frank Zappa’s little sister, she was on the internet and started talking to a guy by the name of Paul Mooney in England and people didn’t know whether I was alive or dead. She started just opening the door by talking to him, and then he sent me the CD and I was blown away. Of course, Paul Weller, I don’t mean to minimize that, Paul also helped really open some doors to me. I tried to thank him when he came to LA, he didn’t know I was here, so I couldn’t get backstage to see him. But I wrote him a nice letter, a kind of 2 page letter to thank him and just wishing him well and now I’m finding that I’m probably gonna meet him when I come to England this time because he’s been in touch with The Stone Foundation. That’s very cool.
MT: So when are you going to be in the UK? What shows do you have lined up for this summer?
Nolan Porter: I got the itinerary sent to me yesterday, every date booked, I’m playing with the Stone Foundation. Looks like I’m gonna be at the Musicians Club in Leicester. I remember being there one year ago and it was the rainiest night of my life. We packed the club and we had a ball. That was a really, really special night in Leicester. I like that club. I’m going to be July 23rd in the 100 club and the Globe Cardiff. So I think I’m just doing 3 or 4 shows, the Cardiff, the 100 Club, Leicester and then I think I’m coming into Spain.
MT: So how did you meet The Stone Foundation?
Nolan Porter: Before we even met, they saved my butt. I was getting some tracks made. A guy by the name of DJ Chalky out of Dudley, in the Midlands, he brought me over and I had tracks, but they were stolen at an airport. So Stone Foundation made recorded tracks for me in England and sent the attachments. Cos’ there was a few gigs where they weren’t going to be able to play with me. There were a couple gigs where they did, but there was a couple where we didn’t. So that’s what we call a solid. They really did me a favour and saved my sweet ass. That’s kinda how we met and then of course we started playing together and we hit it off but I was stuck in Dudley in the Midlands a lot so I didn’t really get the chance to hang out with them. But we stayed in touch by phone, Skype, and then when I went back over in 2012 and did the tour from the north to the south of England, we just hit it off really well and started recording stuff. So basically we did meet during my 2010 show but they bailed me out of a serious spot; one of the hardest working bands in England.
MT: So are there any future records on the horizon with The Stone Foundation?
Nolan Porter: I did a song called “The right Track”, which was featured in a detective show that they showed here from time to time. It was a duet and then “Tracing Paper”, one of the duets with Neil Jones. Then when I was back there in 2012, I did some background vocals and made another CD. I haven’t even heard the finished product yet but these guys are in the studio all the time. Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby, they’re good songwriters, and the guys love recording. It’s amazing the communication that they have with all the guys. It’s amazing that they all keep putting their input. They just keep cranking it out.
Nolan Porter and The Stone FoundationNolan Porter: I’ve been thinking too that I’d love to do another analogue album with some other stuff – perhaps it will never be as popular as it used to be but it seems to me that people want stuff on vinyl because you just can’t reproduce that sound any other way….
… I’ve got some stuff, I’m still writing and I know some other writers – I just like original music and perhaps I’d like to re-release some of the older ones, and of course do it analogue – that would be very interesting.
You heard of Charles Bradley? Didn’t he do an album analogue only on vinyl? I heard his CD; I think he recorded his latest Musical works at Daptone studios in New York (Note: Daptone have an analogue studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn) – they record some analogue stuff.
MT: Neil Sheasby (Stone Foundation) asked if you’re looking forward to sitting on a plane to Madrid with him and also can you feature “The Fifth One” from “No Apologies” at this time?
Nolan Porter: I’d love to do that if they want to do it that too. I never thought anybody would ask me to do that. I would love to do that song.
MT: Do you play “Groovin’” in that set?
Nolan Porter: “Groovin (Out On Life)”? No, I like “Keep on Keepin’ On”, “If I Could Only Be Sure”, “I Like What You Give” and then I did one of the crowd-pleasers “Give Me Some Kind Of Sign Girl”.
MT: To give you some background I’m working here in Barcelona currently, but from Stoke-on-Trent in the Midlands, and when I picked up the guitar many years ago and that riff on “If I Could Only Be Sure” was one of the moments that pulled me into playing – so thank you!
Nolan Porter: Well thank you for that man! I’ve finally lived long enough for younger people to call up and say ‘man, I started playing guitar listening to your music’ and I find that really inspirational to me and me thank you for that.
MT: So the guitar riff on “If I Could Only Be Sure”, did you write that?
NP: I wrote that with Gabriel Mekler, who used to produce Steppenwolf and Three Dog Night in their hay day.
MT: He produced “Keep On Keepin’ On” right?
Nolan Porter: Gabriel was really something; he was a really talented person. I wrote the lyrics and I thought I wrote the music but then I saw “written by Nolan Porter and Gabriel Mekler” and I was like OK. This is so long ago, he did produce it and we collaborated on it. I believe that his name is on the record anyway.
MT: Do you remember what kind of guitar it was recorded on?
Nolan Porter: I don’t remember the type of guitar, but I remember the guitar flair. You might know. That was Johnny “Guitar” Watson. That’s probably what got Paul Weller about the song more, was that guitar lick. And that’s Johnny singing with me on the background in some parts. He was really, Johnny Guitar Watson was something else, he spent the last few years of his life in England. He’s got one of his last few CDs he writes about is very cool. I remember he was one of the best R&B guitar players. I used to see him at the blues club a couple times in LA before I even met him and he was just so multi-talented. Him and Frank Zappa became really tight friends at the end, in the last few years of Frank’s life. And he recorded Johnny on a few tunes and it’s just wild. He was with Lizard Records for awhile and he liked Gabriel Mekler a lot.
MT: So did you meet Frank Zappa at Lizard Records?
Nolan Porter: No. I never met Frank. It was really interesting how I ended up with his sister so many years later. I was recording with The Mothers of Invention. They came to Lizard Records and they recorded my first album, “Nolan, No Apologies”, that was The Mothers of Invention. So that was that and they used to talk about Frank sometimes and if they never said anything negative, they worked together well and they went their separate ways because Frank just started going his different way with music. But I never met Frank. When I met Patrice, Patrice and I met in 1999, there was a mutual friend of mine who was trying to pull us together just to meet, because she knew that we both sang, and we were both very busy. It was nice to meet Frank Zappa’s sister but ain’t no big thing. Finally we did meet and we started singing together and that’s all she wrote and we’ve been together since 1999. So I never met Frank but I feel like I know him. It’s a family of musicians and we’ve become a real family. And now it’s like I’m a part of the family. It’s become a real family and a real surprise in my life that I didn’t see.
MT: How does it feel to be able to actually play and sing and do something you love with your wife as well? That’s the full set right?
Nolan Porter: I love it. I love it. Patrice, she’s more of an R&B singer than I am. I mean, she can wail. Frank (Zappa) thought that she was really good also but he said this business will make you sick. Frank got sick. Frank used to tell the record companies to take a hike; he kinda did things his own way, on his own label. He was really successful in one way but it took a toll on his health and so he and his dad were always trying to protect his little sisters. Patrice, they called her Candy at the time. But Patrice, after her children were born, she started singing around LA and she started picking up some steam. So I know a lot about him, I’ve read a lot about him and I’m intimate with a lot of his family. You know, you get to know somebody posthumously and I feel like family. One of my cousins played in his group, Napoleon, Frank actually hired him and he still plays Frank’s music today. It’s really a family. That’s the real legacy of Frank Zappa: almost everybody that worked with him, their careers went well for them. They became better players than they would have become without their association with Frank. They did things that they didn’t think they could do and it’s a real family and they still earn loyalty and even then you had them in the desert at a place called “Lancaster” when he was 14, there’s still a family. It’s pretty amazing. I hope somebody does a documentary about them.
NOLAN PORTER AND PATRICE ZAPPA-PORTER playing together on the occasion of Patrice’s 60th birthday to raise money for Achievable. Courtesy of Achievable.org
MT: So you’ve been to the Weekenders, and you’ve seen the dancing, what do you think of the Northern Soul dance scene?
Nolan Porter: It’s so cool but you know what’s so funny? It’s becoming popular over here in some of the underground clubs and everybody has their own version of it, but they don’t know how to do it. It’s like if there’s some Northern Soul dance instructors that came over here from England, they could make some money. They love the music, they dance, but it’s not the same thing. But the whole psychology of the Northern Soul scene, I tell them, they don’t dance together like we do here. Here it’s a dance of the peacock, trying to get somebody in bed. But over there, people express their own form of movement and I know that in the Northern Soul scene there’s a certain type of step that’s similar to every other step but they’re being creative with their own thing. And a lot of other people over here are starting to pick up on that. You find it gratifying and kind of humorous; people trying to imitate the Northern Soul dancing.
MT: Do you have any other recorded material that I should put out there to readers that have only heard “If I Could Only Be Sure” or “Keep on Keepin’ On” and want to hear more, where would you direct them?
Nolan Porter: You know I did some stuff in the early 80’s, one called “Bird Without A Song” It’s RnB but it’s kind of different kind of lyric, not exactly a love song. There’s one called “Only A Thought Away”, you should listen to those and tell me what you think. I’ve been hoping to push those songs.
MT: What got you into writing music in the first place, were you from a Gospel background, did you study music in school?
Nolan Porter: I guess it mainly came from my mother. My mother auditioned for a the Count Basie Orchestra, while she was pregnant with me! She said no, but my mother is actually where I got my voice. Coming up into school I start singing in choirs, old English music, classical music, and then of course when the beach boys were playing surf music and Motown moved out here in 1963 I started listening to Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight, I just had such a living in Los Angeles – I mean you’ve been to London, there’s so many influences, and even though LA didn’t have a term for world music, I was exposed to so much music. That was also a way for me to get to know different communities. I got close to the Latin community because I worked with a guy from Mexico City, he showed me some songs, I got close to members from the Jewish community and started singing Yiddish songs joining the Yiddish chorus. I just love language. I started singing a bit of Italian. I don’t speak those languages but I thought that music would bring me into my own music. My early tunes had that classical influence like in “If I Could Only Be Sure”. It wasn’t obvious, I wasn’t a classical rock musician, but those early influences and living in LA, a melting pot of so many cultures, I’d like to think some of it has come into my music.
MT: Do you find yourself listening to much contemporary music? If you put the record player on and listened to a track now what would it be?
Nolan Porter: Well you know, me and Patrice were a little late when we discovered Amy Winehouse, you guys have known about her forever, we were listening to her every day for about four months. Patrice is so critical of singers sometimes but she fell in love with Amy and so did I. I’ve been falling in love with soul music all over again through English musicians. She’s one of them. I’m not into the top 40 anymore but there’s a group called Alabama Shakes, there’s some really fine singers. Sometimes I even listen to some hard rock, some grunge, just to keep abreast of what’s going on and I find the artistic quality. I don’t listen much to rap but I realise that some rap, especially in the early days, was really good, really and art form, and when you put it to music, it can be really effective – I try to keep my mind open.
MT: Well would you collaborate again? Are there any other artists that you’d like to work with?
Nolan Porter: If there was a rapport, as a matter of fact, did you hear of a group called “Wild Child”, they’re a Doors tribute band for the last 30 years, I’m collaborating with the guitar player for that group, who plays with Robby Krieger (Guitarist – The Doors) and the original Doors, one of them just died (Ray Manzarek) but we collaborated on a couple of tunes, he wrote the music and I write the lyrics and we’re doing some good things – I’m open to collaboration. I do that with Stone Foundation when I do vocals with them.
END OF INTERVIEWI would like to personally thank Nolan for his time that day, as a long time fan of Northern Soul, and more over of Nolan’s, it was a fulfilling moment and one I’ll long remember. What a guy.