Darryl Tookes may not be the first name that comes to mind when discussing important singers of the 20th century. But his work as a background singer, vocal arranger and pianist with numerous musicians (Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, Roberta Flack, Sting, etc.) over a decades-long career has helped make the case. While he was touring with superstars and recording his own albums (including 1989’s Lifeguard), Tookes quietly teamed up with the late, famed jazz guitarist Joe Beck to record songs dedicated to the love and devotion to their children. After nearly 20 years, the results of those sessions were finally released in the form of the lush, sincere Precious Child: Love Songs and Lullabies. Sitting with EBONY.com, Tookes explains the inspiration behind the album’s material, as well as how he came to collaborate with legends.
EBONY: I understand this album was 18 years in the making for you and Joe Beck.
Darryl Tookes: This was the music we were doing just as a labor of love, and we didn’t have any master plan for getting it released. And whenever there were record companies or agents that were interested in the music, we never could figure out a way to move forward. Because when they were trying to commodify it or commercialize it, it wasn’t our idea. We were just doing heartfelt music for our children.
EBONY: Did it start out being songs about children?
DT: I think the first song that we did was “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” which was really a hip version of the song, different mood. It was just Joe and me having a good time and then realizing what we were on to once that [song] came together. We were like “Wow, we gotta keep doing this.”
EBONY: Joe passed in 2008. Did you ever have any doubt that anybody would hear the songs after that?
DT: You know, that’s a great question. I can’t say I had any doubt, but I was not on a mission to get it heard. After we did all these recordings, Joe said he was going back on the road. So he went back on the road to Europe. Around the same I took on a tour with Sting. I’d recorded and arranged background vocals for his album Brand New Day. So we were both really busy doing other things. But I never stopped believing, because I would play it for somebody, they would say, “Oh, my goodness! I love this, my children love this, as a family we love this.” We knew we had something special.
EBONY: Tell me about the difference in approaching songs that deal with parental love vs. romantic love—both as a vocalist and as a songwriter.
DT: As a singer, it’s always about contextualizing what you are talking about in a very real way. It wasn’t at all challenging to sing about the love for my children, because I have that kind of love for my children. “Little One” had to be so delicate, without getting cutesy precious; it had to be richly precious. So for me, my whole reason for singing has to do with trying to share a sense of authentic love, and I can never really tell if it’s coming from one specific experience or it’s more general.
What I try to do is something I do with my teaching method—I also teach voice at New York University—is try to make sure that every student can contextualize every line and find their own personalization of lines in singing. You’re not just trying to show that you can sing high or loud or riff, but that’s there’s something richly connecting you as a human being in your performance. Whether singing for romantic love or love of God, patriotic love, love of family, love of friendship, love is love and that’s that.
And as a writer, the one thing [my manager] said was, “People don’t write for their sons. Can you write for your sons?” I said, “sure.” In fact, I’ve seen my feelings for my sons show up in my other writings. On “I Love You Too Much,” it was right there. It’s one of the delicate things about raising boys and raising young men. I’ve seen it as a father, as an uncle, as a teacher.
It’s particularly challenging to raise young men because the whole idea of manhood is to be independent, not to need anybody and all that kind of stuff. Then how do you get people past that “no man is an island?” How do you mentor, encourage, protect them but let them have their experiences? It is demanding and it’s particularly demanding in the African-American experience.
So that was really me at my most pure, and that’s always been true. I tell my composition students that when you’re writing, you’re writing because you have something to say. Now, if you’re writing because somebody’s giving you a big budget to make money, that’s fine. That’s a job. But you as a writer for a magazine, you’re writing because it inspires you and you have something to say. That’s what it is. If I didn’t feel that I had something to say about it, I wouldn’t write it.
EBONY: Did you actively try to fill that void on behalf of Black artists?
DT: It’s just my nature, really. I happen to be Black, and I said that because it is a fact about our existence in the country. Let’s fact it: this country was based on slave labor and the intention of keeping us separated from our families. So being aware of that is a part of who I am. But it’s not intentional to fill that void in our community. It’s just who I am, to write about love, sing about love and express that any chance I get. We followed what seemed true and authentic to us.
EBONY: How did you first get started in the music business, and how did you get to work with so many prominent musicians?
DT: So for me, it was not difficult at all to say, “well, compile a list of people who you want to meet and start meeting them.” And I did. That’s why I can tell my students kind of lovingly with a giggle that I’ve forgotten more gigs than they’re ever going to have. [chuckles] So, I just made a list of people I wanted to meet and tried to meet people and one thing led to another. One of my good friends from childhood would get me gigs with Creed Taylor’s record label CTI, which was my first exposure to working with George Benson, Hubert Laws, Carmen McCrae. Then I had met Todd Rundgren will I was still in high school. I got in touch with a lot of people through him.
EBONY: Who are some of today’s young voices that you enjoy?
DT: I would be less than honest if would tell you that there’s any young voices right now who’s really pulled me in. It’s hard because in today’s world, you’re hearing so much duplication. I don’t fault the young people. I fault greed out of control in terms of not encouraging people to develop their own individual sounds.
Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based broadcast professional and music journalist whose work can be found in The Village Voice, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. Follow Allen on Twitter @headphoneaddict, and visit his music blog, The Well-Dressed Headphone Addict.