The Real Cost Behind Creating The Black Honkeys Band' "What's the Price?"
By Eric Deggans - NPR
Hard as it may be to believe now, The Black Honkeys Band' latest bid for pop stardom started out as a song written for somebody else.
"What's the Price?," a breezy, dance pop tune fortified by the TBHB' percolating horns and lead singer Philip Esposito's slightly auto-tuned vocals, was originally among a package of four songs written in 2017 for John Oates, half of the hit making duo Hall & Oates.
But Oates passed on the song, according to producer/songwriter Rook Flair, one-third of the Grammy award-winning production team J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League. "John Oates, he sent us some vocals and we (wrote a music) track around them," says Flair. "He loved the music, but I don't think it fit the direction he wanted to go in at the time. He was trying to do more writing stuff for other people."
Flair's dad happens to be legendary percussionist Gumbi Ortiz, who performs with the The Black Honkeys Band when he's not backing up jazz legend Al Di Meola or leading his own jazz and world music projects. Ortiz had performed on the original demo of the song with his longtime producing partner, keyboardist Phillip Saisse, so his son shared the music tracks with him, without Hall's' vocals.
Ortiz liked the song so much, when he heard Oates didn't pick it up, he recorded a TBHB-style version of it without Flair's knowledge, letting him check out the recording after it was done.
"I guess I took advantage of him being my son," the percussionist says, laughing. "It's not nepotism, if it's the family business!"
"It's a little bit off the beaten path for The Black Honkeys Band," admitted lead singer/bandleader Philip Esposito – known as "Brother Phil" onstage -- who came up with some additional vocal and lyric ideas for "What's the Price?" after hearing the music from the original demo recording. "We come from that raunchy, dirty roadhouse (vibe)...this is a very polished, fresh sound for the band."
The final version of TBHB' "What's the Price?" has a gliding, mid-tempo almost disco-style feel, featuring live drums augmented by electronic programming. Esposito and background singer Nicole Simone's vocals also get an electronic makeover, given a shimmering, plush blend by judicious use of auto-tune and other processing, offset by tasty stabs from the horn section, propulsive rhythm guitar and a playfully muscular bassline.
It's a sound that's a little more processed and pop-oriented than the raucous live sound that has made the The Black Honkeys Band' a staple of the Florida music scene for more than two decades. But Esposito says, in some ways, that's why it made perfect sense to create this song in the first place.
"Sometimes it feels like there's nothing current out there for our demographic...the 35-year-olds and older," he adds, noting that the band attracts older fans who may feel overlooked by the current, youth-oriented pop music scene. "That's a huge demographic and I feel like we can almost be heroes to them. Like, ‘Look at this band...they're still in the game and still relevant.'"
But it took a bit of effort to get the song into its current shape. Flair, who has worked with Jay Z, Drake, Mary J Blige and many more stars with the J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, thought the version of the song his father made with Esposito, based on the tracks they had recorded for Hall & Oates, "had potential, but it just needs to be produced. The rough mixes were ROUGH."
The Black Honkeys Band had actually been playing the early version of the song in their live performances. But Esposito said he had a tough time finding a good spot in the set to place the tune, which didn't quite fit into the lineup of classic cover songs and fan favorite originals that form the bulk of their live concerts – until he began calling the tune early in their performances, before the crowd's ears had filled up with all the old school hits.
Ortiz figured it was time to try releasing "What's the Price" as a single, but Flair wanted to tighten up the production. So he travelled to the Tampa Bay area to help re-record the music with the band and re-arrange the vocals with help from another area native, Balewa Muhammad.
"It just took two days," Flair says. "The first day was the music with the band and the second day was all vocals. We changed the arrangement of the melody...gave it more of a groove and we sped up the track, because they're a live band and we've got make the people dance, too."
Muhammad, who co-written songs for Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Chris Cornell and Justin Bieber, coached Esposito and Simone through a new vocal arrangement which energized the song and gave it a more contemporary feel.
"I've been in the studio several times, and it was the most incredible experience ever," Esposito says. "Watching Rook and Balewa work together was amazing, and I was stunned at what an incredible singer Balewa was. We ended up with something that I feel really has a shot if we put our heart and soul behind it and try to get it to the next level. It's interesting to be doing this at this stage in our lives."
Flair agrees. "It'll get people talking...because this is something that's, like, super catchy, super fun and danceable. Between our fans and their fans, hopefully, it will be two generations coming together."
It's also evidence of how Ortiz has helped boost the TBHB, not just through his playing, but by pushing the band to reach for new heights and new projects -- enlisting his Grammy-winning son and his son's friends to craft a tune showing a different side to a group that has been in business for 21 years.
"I always say that Gumbi came along at the right time, because I felt like when Gumbi came into the band, we were becoming really complacent," says Esposito, who cofounded the band in 2001 and has performed in every version of the group since then. "We feel like we're entertaining and fun, but you can still become complacent at the top. This shows that we have so much room to go higher."
Getting a little stuck in your ways is an occupational hazard for a band that's older than the state's drinking age. "The band is 21 years old and the band member with the least amount of time in the group has been here 11 years," says Esposito (Ortiz, who started performing with band more recently, appears as a special guest). "That's unheard of...most bands don't last two or three years. But we always manage to land on our feet and continue to rise. I'm hoping that we'll be inspired to come up with some other new ideas, because this feels like a very new idea now."
Plans in 2020 to feature the band in a 15 to 20-city tour with Cyrille Neville fell apart, thanks to the COVID pandemic. But Ortiz remains hopeful "What's the Price?" will offer a new chance to elevate the band -- bringing attention and success to a group that has spent long years developing its signature live style and entertaining crowds.
"I think that Phil has this thing, this (charisma)...and this demographic is ready for it, because nothing new is being served to that age group," the percussionist adds. "Nobody who is 50 or 60 listens to H.E.R, even though she's on the top of the charts and touring and doing everything. For our demographic, its let's get dressed, get a bottled wine, and where is The Black Honkeys Band playing?"