“I might look like a macho man, but I’m not”
The Grammy Award-winning jazzman has gone from playing American football to singing about vulnerable men
The first thing you notice about Gregory Porter is his sizeable frame. At 6ft in with broad shoulders, he looks more like an NFL linebacker than a jazz singer, which seemed a more likely career during his college days. Then there’s the hat, a trademark peaked cap with earflaps that complements his ever-present smile. But the 43-year-old’s most valuable asset is his singing voice, a rich baritone that defies his genre, winning him legions of fans worldwide and helping him sell out auditoria that usually play host to established pop acts. The Californian crooner took time out of his globetrotting tour schedule to talk about Miley Cyrus, the Civil Rights Movement and his new adrenalin fix.
THE RED BULLETIN: You’ve been heralded as the next big breakout star in jazz. But you started out as an American football player.
GREGORY PORTER: I was the outside linebacker for the San Diego Aztecs college team.
Why did you give up the sport just before taking the plunge into the NFL?
Because my right shoulder was screwed from tackling, which I had to do even when I was in pain. It was the same type of impact for years. When I was 22, a doctor told me, ‘Gregory, you’ll never play football again.’ That devastated me. I was meant to be a sportsman. There went my whole dream, ruined in a few minutes.
How did you deal with that?
Through music. Ever since I was small, I’d grown up with my mother’s gospel songs. She was a minister. After that injury, singing became my therapy. I thought, ‘OK, your career as a football player is over. So you’ll stand on the field right before the game and sing the national anthem.’
People don’t expect to see a former linebacker singing the national anthem. How did they react?
People came up to me after the game and told me they had goosebumps. Some people even cried because they were so moved by my voice.
Your debut album, “Water”, came out 17 years later and went on to receive a Grammy nomination. Why the wait?
I just didn’t give it any thought. I didn’t perform in clubs. For two years I sang as part of the ensembles on Broadway. That’s how I got by.
Why did you choose jazz?
Because it asks life’s big questions. Where are we from? Why are we here? Why is there injustice in the world? Songs like Mississippi Goddam by Nina Simone contributed just as much to equal rights for black people as the Civil Rights Movement. Jazz is a spirited protest.
What’s your opinion of modern pop music?
I think every type of music has its purpose. Even mainstream pop. Take that girl who’s always showing her ass…
Yes. That’s the entertainment industry. And if I’m on the dancefloor, I want to be entertained, too. But if that’s all there is, we have a problem.
Where is the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album you won last year for your most recent LP, “Liquid Spirit”?
It’s on a shelf in my apartment in Brooklyn. I didn’t unpack it for months after moving in. The case looked so smart.
You wrote most of the songs on your album. They cover everything from nursing an injured bird back to health to love gone wrong.
I might look like a macho man, but I’m not. I also sing about how vulnerable men can be. Songs have got to be true. That’s all that matters.
So which song tells the truth about the real you?
Real Good Hands from the “Be Good” album. It’s about asking your future father-in-law for his daughter’s hand in marriage. I’ve been through that. I was nervous and it took me three days to come up with a strategy. And then I said what would later become a line in the song: “Papa… don’t forget that one day you was in my shoes.”
Did it work?
I’m happily married.
And what about your football career? Don’t you miss the adrenalin, the pain?
No. My right shoulder still hurts. My son gives me all the adrenalin I need. He’s two years old and he already wants to play football. I’m having to learn how to throw with my left hand.