The Blackbyrds, one of the most important and successful black pop groups of the last decade, are ready to enter the second phase of their remarkable career with the release of their new Fantasy album, Better Days.
Produced by George Duke, Better Days is contemporary pop/soul at its very finest, and represents the Blackbyrds’ most sophisticated and assured work to date.
"George is a believer in us,” declares Blackbyrd drummer Keith Killgo. "He wanted us to be portrayed the way we wanted to be. His guidance and participation and opinions were invaluable.”
Duke himself feels that Better Days is "one of the best productions I’ve ever done. The band has shown incredible musical growth, and this album has more punch, more depth, than anything they’ve done before.”
Although the Blackbyrds’ distinctive blend of smooth pop and raucous r&b elements is very much intact, keyboardist Kevin Toney describes their new music as "much more to the point, more cohesive than on our other albums. For instance, there are very few instrumental solos.
"It’s also more reflective of the Blackhyrds’ true identity. Before, even though the material was ours, the sound was largely shaped by Donald [Byrd].”
Late last year, the Blackbyrds parted ways with Byrd, the trumpeter/educator who originally formed the band at Howard University in Washington, D.C. and subsequently served as its musical mentor. Dr. Byrd also produced the group’s previous Fantasy records, including three gold albums—City Life, Unfinished Business, Action—and singles such as "Walking in Rhythm” and "Happy Music.”
Drummer Keith Killgo, keyboardist Kevin Toney, bassist Joe Hall, and guitarist Orville Saunders remain the Blackbyrds’ core members; the band’s lineup has expanded to include vocalist James Garrett and percussionist Dan Stewart.
While in high school in Washington, D.C., Keith, Orville, and Joe had played together in a band called Second Stage. After graduation, Joe went off to study biochemistry at Maryland University, Keith headed for Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, and Orville enrolled as a music major at Howard University, where Dr. Donald Byrd was developing the country’s most innovative jazz studies department.
Killgo and Hall transferred to Howard the following year and met up with Saunders, Byrd, and Kevin Toney, a young pianist who, like Byrd, hailed from Detroit.
Donald Byrd felt strongly that his students should be conversant with the entire spectrum of the music business. It wasn’t always enough to make good music; you also had to make a good living at it, and the best way to learn was by doing. With that end in mind, he handpicked the members of the Blackbyrds from his pool of highly talented students, and for the next six years closely guided the band’s academic and professional careers.
During the Seventies, the individuals in the Blackbyrds were participants in a learning experiment that worked: as full-time music majors at Howard, they had the opportunity to study with a working musician both in the classroom and on the road. While adhering to an impossibly hectic schedule of Blackbyrd recording dates, live performances, and radio and press interviews, they also had to meet the demands of their formal education—classroom assignments, projects, and term papers.
With the 1974 release of their first album, The Blackbyrds, the group rose to immediate prominence as one of the first and finest purveyors of what became known as "crossover” music. Blackbyrd records consistently found their way into the upper reaches of the pop, r&b, jazz, and easy listening charts.
Over the next few years, the Blackbyrds racked up three gold albums and an impressive stack of honors, including an Ebony Image Award and a Grammy nomination for "Walking in Rhythm.” They toured Europe and criss-crossed the numerous times, making countless concert and club appearances.
The band met with wide critical as well as commercial success. One writer described them as "a sophisticated urban dance band [whose] sound is a melting pot of black musical styles, played with technical grace. . . . The Blackbyrds are very much in the heart of the definition of Black Pop, ‘70s style.”
On the academic front, Kevin Toney finally earned his degree in both composition and jazz studies in 1978. The other Blackbyrds have, for the time being, eschewed their formal studies, just a few credits short of completion.
"Everybody places a high emphasis on going to college,” Keith points out, "but college isn’t for everyone. I’ve already spent thousands of dollars to educate myself, and I ended up going to the library on my own time anyway, going right to the source and, say, taking a few lessons with someone who knows exactly what they’re doing. I will always study, but I don’t need to have the degree right now.”
According to Keith, the impact made by Byrd and the Blackbyrds can still very much be felt at Howard, where students now get credit, for instance, for taking time off to perform as part of their education. "The school’s Jazz Ensemble has recorded several albums,” adds Killgo, "and has traveled around the world. We definitely paved the way for that situation.”
The members of the Blackbyrds have hardly been inactive in recent years. They’ve continued to compose music and have produced a number of Washington-area artists in Keith Killgo’s studio, The Basement. In addition, Toney has almost completed a book on improvisation, and Killgo has written a drum manual intended for college use.
"The industry would have you believe that if you don’t have a flow of records out there every eight months or every year that you can’t ever ‘catch up’ with the changes in the music,” says Keith. "That’s ridiculous. All of us have progressed in so many ways, and we’re confident about our abilities.”
Better Days, brimming with that confidence, is a harbinger of good things to come as the Blackbyrds embark on their "second phase.”