Woody Cunningham On January 9th 2010 singer/drummer/producer Woody Cunningham of the group Kleeer died in his sleep in his home of Bowie, Maryland. His group was not very well-known like other R&B groups of the 80’s such as Cameo, Kool & Gang, and Zapp & Roger, just to name a few. But his impact was felt especially among the hip hop artists and producers who sampled his music. He was sampled by DJ Quik, 2pac, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Powerule, MF Doom, JT Money, Montell Jordan, Craig Mack, and Da Brat. I had the honor and pleasure to interview him back in June 2009, probably one of the last interviews he did. Enjoy the interview. Thank you Woody Cunningham for the great music you put out and the countless hip hop classics that you influenced. Rest in Peace Woody Cunningham!
By William Hernandez
WHO?MAG: What have been doing lately? Woody Cunningham: My main thing is kid’s music. I’ve been trying to do some kid’s music with a little girl named Ana Nicholson in the Bowie [MD] area. I’ve been trying to help my son Matt Cunningham, he does some rap. He’s into people like Lupe Fiasco and people like that. He’s been using his Fruity Loops and coming up with beats and stuff, I’ve been putting my 2 cents worth in. There’s a producer here in this area named Kool Aid. He’s been helping me out on some remixes of things I’ve been doing on my own, some Woody Cunningham stuff, what you can find on CD Baby. Other than that just trying to help people out, still doing some drum lessons. One of my students is Katie Nicholson who is Ana’s sister, and Felicia Calger; two females who are really into drumming.
WHO?MAG: How did you get into music? Woody Cunningham: Growing up in Baltimore I was doing sports mostly. I was always singing and trying to sing. I don’t know how I got into drums, but I knew I wanted to do the instrument, play the instrument that made the people move. I saw a parade in Baltimore and I wanted to join this drumming bugle cord called Samson Brooks. I learned to play the snare drum in Samson Brooks, then I went to a falcon drumming bugle cord in Baltimore. But I was always going to the Royal Theater, it’s gone now. It was on Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore. I would see all the acts at that time. All of the Motown acts: Supremes, The Miracles, Curtis Mayfield. People like that would always make me think “I wanted to do that!”. In Baltimore you don’t have the wherewithal to do it. I kept practicing, I got me set of drums when I was 19. Really just taught myself; I kept practicing. One day a couple of band members from a band called Teddy and the Tempos, they came by and said, “Man! We need a drummer for next week. Our drummer quit”. (laughs) The money was good and I started playing with them and I was always practicing, getting better and better. Then there was an audition for a drummer for this band called The Young Vandals in Baltimore. The ironic thing with the Young Vandals is when Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations left the Temptations, the guy who took his place in the Temptations was a member of the Young Vandals; Otis Damon Harron. I always thought, “Wow! The guy I’m playing with in the Young Vandals took Eddie Kendricks place”. The Temptations are an iconic group from Motown and I’m like “Wow! It can’t get any better than this”. The weirdest thing in the world is I went to join another band called The Tempos. The guy Bubby Griffin took the place of Smokey Robinson in the Miracles. This is crazy! Two bands I’ve been in they both have had people in the bands taken the place of giants in the music industry. I played around in Baltimore and got with a guy named Julius Brockington and he was pretty good keyboard player. He played a B3 organ and on a B3 organ you can play the bass with your foot. The bass line is on the bottom of the organ and he had also a Rhodes piano with a wah-wah and stuff. It was just the two of us, and we had this vocalist named Vaunghda Marie. The Choice Four from [Washington] DC came through Baltimore. They saw me playing with Julius Brockington and those were the guys that offered me to play and go on the road with them. Then Norman, myself, Richard, and a guy named Gregory Tallbert, we were their backup. We used to do songs on our own before the affair would come on. we would start stressing it out a little bit further while they would do things like the Delfonics, Temptations, Stylistics, and stuff like that. We would do more like Buddy Miles, War, Mandrill; songs that had more of rock edge. We finally just said, “We’re going to go our way and the singers went their way”. The next thing you know we came up with the name Kleeer. Got a record deal on Atlantic and traveled the world.
WHO?MAG: You guys released seven albums right? Woody Cunningham: Seven albums on Atlantic. Since 1979 was the first release.
WHO?MAG: Why did the members of the group go separate ways? Woody Cunningham: They really didn’t break up. When Atlantic didn’t renew our contract we were still trying to do demos and get on other labels. Norman Durham who was one of the main members of the Kleeer, if you look on a lot that was written it was written by Norman and myself. He had a religious experience and he became what is called born again Christian. He wasn’t feeling (starts to sing) “Keep your body working”. He wasn’t feeling that anymore. (laughs) He was really about the religion, we couldn’t really get back together as Kleeer the way it was. Then my wife, her mother had gotten cancer. Her mother had always stayed down in this area where we are now so we moved from New York, my wife and I in 1990, and came back to the area so she could be close to her mom. It was a long distance thing, we kind of went our separate ways. It wasn’t really a plan or anything, it just kind of happened. In 1996, 2pac sampled Intimate Connection, which we were very lucky for. Before that it was a guy by the name of DJ Quik had done [sampled] “Tonight”. It seemed as if all of a sudden quite a few of the rappers were fans of Kleeer’s stuff; Jay Z on the Dynasty CD, Ice Cube on the Peace CD. He had CD called War and Peace. Snoop, [Dr.] Dre, and I probably forgot a few guys. We were going, “Ok this pretty good. We don’t have to work for the money”. (laughs)
WHO?MAG: Of all your albums which is your favorite and why? Woody Cunningham: My favorite album I would say is “Winners”. Every concert and arena we’d go to you’d always see the same things in the inner city: poverty, people struggling trying to get over. No matter what city we went to the faces would change but it was the same situation, same circumstances. Rather than saying, “Come on baby lets lay together. Kiss and hug” we wanted to give people an inspirational thing. “Winners” was written to a guy, his name was Frankie Crocker, a big DJ in New York. God rest his soul because they put him off the air but he never quit. He came, and came back even stronger. So I would think “Winners” was more of an inspiration. That would be my favorite.
WHO?MAG: Talk about the Intimate Connection album? Woody Cunningham: Certain things we tried to stay away from. The absolute disco we were trying to stay away from. On certain things we would utilize certain beats. Myself being a drummer doing a song called “Open your Mind”, which was more of a Jazz/Funk type of song, I thought we were going to continue in that vein of Jazz/Funk because we were going to get older and wanted to try and bring that audience that fell in love with you with the “Keep that Body Working”. You wanted them to grow with you. Jazz and Funk would carry you into being more mature, but Norman played that bass line of “Intimate Connection”. He just felt the beat being more than just the straight beat. He wanted to get to get it more what we call a fatback beat, which is the basic beat for most hip hop from James Brown. (shows me what the beat sounds like with his mouth) That type of rhythm syncopation but he wanted it to be mellow, not a Mambo rhythm. Norman’s lady at the time, she was a Latina. A lot of the things Marty played had some nice rhythms we wanted to incorporate, like under beat sort of speak. Not like right front in your face, but subtle under the beat. When he played that it seemed like something romantic should go over it. The bass line is so funky. The sound is just so raw. We had the rawness, we didn’t have to go in there with the vocals being raw. Like we do in one song called “Taste the Music” where we do a little German thing. We were always looking for something different. We put the romance on top of it on the Intimate Connection. It got over well. The only thing that got in the way of Intimate Connection being so far ahead of it’s time, the company was afraid of it. They were like, “I don’t know”. We really had a hard time trying to convince them that should’ve been single. They released another single called “Next Time It’s for Real” because they thought it stayed more with the whole Kleeer sound. I was being adventurous and did something new. Everybody didn’t feel the same way about us doing that. Intimate Connection did incorporate a lot of the things that are being done today still.
WHO?MAG: Whose idea was it to use drum machines and drum programming on that album? Woody Cunningham: I would say (more) Norman Durham than anyone always. Norman was more experimental. We had at the time Eumir Deodato who was a great Brazilian musician; he was doing the production. He did a lot of hits for Kool & The Gang: “Celebration”, “Ladies Night”, and stuff like that. Those are all Deodato’s production. He went into the studio with us. He was really into the drum machines and stuff, he and Norman were like, “Ok this is what we want to do” and see how the rest of us took to it. Paul, Richard, myself were like “Ok do it!” It was really between Norman and Deodato.
WHO?MAG: How did the song “Tonight” come about? That was ahead of it’s time. Woody Cunningham: On “Tonight” we kind of let Norman go by himself. Everything on there is played by Norman Durham; keyboards, vocoder. It was just an idea that he had and we just let him go. Every instrument from the beat to what you hear on the vocoder is Norman by himself.
WHO?MAG: I thought that was you? Woody Cunningham: Nah that was all Norman. I can say that we always did, if it felt good to all of us, we’d go ahead with it. It was never like, “No man I want to go ahead and sing this song”. There were a few songs that we both wanted to sing, they would be a coin toss to see who was singing because Norman and myself always wanted to sing stuff. And some songs I was just arranging, everybody was singing on it like “Open your Mind”, “Get Tough”, “Keep your body Working”. That wasn’t me on “Tonight” that was all Norman Durham.
WHO?MAG: How do you feel about your music being sampled? Woody Cunningham: I love it! As long as they come correct with the business like 2pac. When 2pac did California Love he came correct. We did business. When Jay Z did the intro on the Dynasty album he came straight ahead. We did business. Same with Ice Cube, Montell Jordan. We had to search for DJ Quik, he denied using. He finally owned up to it or his people did. Maybe it wasn’t him, maybe it was his people, but a few people used the stuff without permission. I don’t like that because we sweated to create this, now you’re using it to make money. We’re supposed to share. Say for instance you write the lyrics and the music was written by Kleeer. You dig! We share it like that. I’m glad the people want to sample the stuff. I like the idea that people like sampling the stuff and hope they continue, even to the new things I’m hoping we create in the future. You know come straight with the business. Let’s do the business. Let’s take care of the business.
WHO?MAG: How did you find out that DJ Quik sampled Tonight? Woody Cunningham: Well I was flipping the channel on the TV and I wasn’t really paying attention because I was on the phone. My wife Vicky said, “Woody hold up! Isn’t that Tonight?” I told the person I was speaking to hold on a sec. I was like, “Oh my goodness!” It was a video and he was getting 40s [oz beers] out of the refrigerator. I called my publisher in New York and asked, “When did we give DJ Quik permission?” He said, “We haven’t”. It went on for a few months of him saying that all he sampled Betty Wright’s voice on it. [Writer’s note DJ Quik sampled Betty Wright’s “Tonight is the Night”] We finally went on and did the business. It was really by accident that I found out, my wife actually heard it. I liked it. There’s a song by DJ Kurupt who sampled one of our songs called “Running Back to You”.
We kept on trying to tell him, “Hey lets come on and do the business” and he kept like, “Sure sure!” and we never did business. We just let him go and left him alone. It was like them guys don’t want to do right. There are a few people that sneak under. There’s a group in England called Cool Million, they blatantly play “Intimate Connection” and they put another song on top of it, but it’s like it’s “Intimate Connection”. We lived with that song forever we know the song. Jermaine Dupri used “Intimate Connection”. He covered it up a bit on a group called Kriss Kross. The album was called Young, Rich & Dangerous. He tried to disguise it and it was like, “Come on man! What are you doing?” We did business. A lot of times you like what you hear. There’s a song of Mario’s on his first CD called “Put Me On” he used a little bit of “Intimate Connection” on there. I liked the way they used. 2pac used a bit of “Tonight”, not on All Eyez On Me but the CD before that. On Me Against the World. He gave us props and we did business. [The song was If I should die Tonight] The bigger guys, they came straight ahead and we did business. The other people who did the “we want to be gangster and sneak and stuff”, they still do it the old fashion way. When you think back to us going to New York and us trying to get our ideas together, some of the people who we ran into. Jocelyn Brown was a very good friend of the band. She’s the one responsible for us backing Luther [Vandross]. Being Luther’s first band; myself on drums and Paul on percussion along with Nile Rodgers on Guitar and Carlos Alomar of David Bowie on the other guitar, you think about meeting all these people and where it goes and what it does.
WHO?MAG: How did you find out that 2pac sampled you for “California Love”? Woody Cunningham: They called us up. They called our publisher, his producer, I think it was [Dr.] Dre. But their people got in touch with our people, at the time it was Peter Marin. They worked out a deal; 60/40 split.
WHO?MAG: Did you ever meet any of the artists who sampled your music? Woody Cunningham: Never meet any of them. Never meet 2pac, Dr. Dre. Still looking forward to meeting Dr. Dre, Jay Z. I know I’ll get to see 2pac one day. (laughs)
Never met them.
WHO?MAG: What song did Montell Jordan sample? Woody Cunningham: I can’t even say the name of the song anymore. It was the bass line to “Tonight” and replayed it. I can’t even say the name William.