While Boney James has visited Milwaukee nearly a once a year, playing sold-out shows at Potawatomi’s Northern Lights Theater, it’s been quite a while since his last Summerfest gig.
"We did play there – can’t remember what year – in the late '90s." James recalls. "The thing I remember about the show was my then-tour manager was to put the second saxophone on stage when I got there. I get up on stage and start to play the first song and then look for the second saxophone. He hits his head like, 'I forgot it,' and ran to the dressing room and banged it on a shelf when he grabbed it. When I went to put it in my mouth, it wouldn’t play in front of the crowd."
For James, it was a rare miss on what’s been a great run for any contemporary jazz performer. He started his career as a sideman for Morris Day, Teena Marie and the Isley Brothers. After seven years supporting a variety of acts, he decided to give it a go on his own as a frontman.
"I was so lucky to get my start when there was a functioning record business," James says. "I was able to connect with my fanbase at a really opportune time and got four gold records in a row. A lot of those guys still buy records. I appreciate and take seriously the responsibility to put a record out, to have it be great – it's part of my M.O."
As the business has evolved, James still has been able to produce successful and relevant albums. Chalking up more than three million in sales over his career, he’s back on Concord with 2017’s "Honestly." The release quickly topped the Billboard Jazz charts, making it his 11th number one.
Often concert-goers expect a performer to mirror their recorded music; however, with James, the live shows tend to sway towards the more traditional jazz approach. The pop feel of layered sound and guest appearances on the albums is difficult to replicate.
"My guitar player sings, we really only do one lead vocal, we leave out a lot of the crossover R&B material when we play live," James says. "Avery Sunshine will come out with us a little later this summer and she will do a lot of the material live."
But by no means will he stand like a statue with his sax and belt it out. His live shows are very active. In fact, James picked up a few moves along the way from his touring mentors.
"It’s difficult for me to be objective about how my show and persona has evolved over the years," James says. "I always loved being on stage, and even as a sideman, I always danced around a lot of stage. Being on stage and playing music makes me happy, so that’s something that comes through. I learned a lot about being a showman and how to relate to the audience from working with people like Morris (Day) and Ronny Isley who were so great at captivating a crowd."
James does have a few hometown links to Milwaukee through his associations with Al Jarreau and Eric Benet. James produced a few Jarreau cuts on the critically acclaimed George Duke tribute "My Old Friend."
"Al had guested on my records before; we worked and toured together," James remembers. "We knew each other pretty well, but it was definitely my first time as an outside producer. It was an interesting experience."
For Benet, it’s also a George Duke connection.
"With Eric, it was the 'Suite Things' CD we first collaborated and then we did something that George Duke produced. We’ve done a shows together as well."
When asked if a Summerfest surprise hometown guest was a possibility, James squashed it.
"Would have been nice but not in the cards," he says. "I played the Hollywood Bowl a few years back, and they arranged to have him come out and do a guest spot in my show, which was thrilling – but not going to happen this time."
The Boney name was bestowed upon him by Randy Crawford early in his career. His signature hat, however, was more of his own convention.
"It started out as something to keep my hair out of my mouth when we were playing festivals," he recalls. "I gravitated to this porkpie hat in the mid '90s and soon I put it on, everyone told me how cool I looked, so kept it going. Around my 'Rise' CD, I cut my hair, took the hat off, and the fans were like, 'Where’s the hat?' and we responded to that and put it back on and haven’t looked back since.
"Now I’m sporting a fedora style hat and it's almost like a character when I put it one. I do these jazz cruises (with Rick Braun) and when I walk around the boat without it and sunglasses on people don’t even recognize me."
In a brief conversation, I was able to glean what a positive, genuine and grateful soul James has, so I asked him one final question: Is there anything on your musical bucket list you still would like to scratch off?
"That’s a tough one, maybe not," he says. "I’m a huge Stevie Wonder fan and we’ve able to play on stage together before, but I’ve never been able to get him to play on one of my records. He’s my idol. I’ve had so many of my dreams come true – be on 'The Tonight Show,' work with these great artists, produce Al Jarreau, Grammy nominations, gold records. Wow, my career has succeeded my expectations from when I first started.
"This is my 26th year as a (solo) artist – and I want to keep it going at a high level till I can’t do it anymore."
Boney James will play at 3 p.m. at the Uline Warehouse on Saturday, July 7.