Frankie Beverly and Maze is the only act that has performed at Essence Festival since day one. Not only that, the old school R&B/soul/funk faves close the event each year energizing the now-expectant Superdome crowd into a massive line dance that clearly might qualify for a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. This appearance has become such a tradition that it’s like the proverbial “fat lady”—the festival isn’t over until Frankie Beverly sings. In recognition of Maze’s ten years of consecutive performances, festival founder Ed Lewis will honor the group with a special presentation at this year’s 10th anniversary event.
Beverly was born Howard Beverly on December 6, 1946 but changed his named to Frankie in honor of his idol Frankie Lymon. He credits New Orleans for much of his band’s huge and sustained welcome at Essence Festival. But then the Philadelphia-born, California transplant lauds accolades on New Orleans for many aspects of Maze’s success and longevity. The group, which has enjoyed strings of chart-topping, gold and platinum records and packed houses, has been together since 1975.
The leader can’t put his finger on exactly why New Orleans embraced him as it did. Maybe it heard Beverly’s roots in gospel and the doo-wop groups he performed with like the Blenders and the Butlers. Perhaps it’s the influences of Sly & the Family Stone that struck a chord or the soul of Marvin Gaye with whom he traveled. It just might be that the New Orleans and Philly sounds share a certain down-to-earth groove that reaches out to local audiences. Whatever the case, New Orleans has had a long, rewarding and mutually happy relationship with Frankie Beverly & Maze that is rejuvenated and rejoiced in each year at Essence Festival.
Do you remember your first performance at Essence Festival?
Oh, yeah, very clearly. I can’t remember who was on the show.
Aretha Franklin was.
Was she? I know it was a big show. It was either the first time or the second time that we didn’t get on until 1 o’clock or 1:30 in the morning. I was scared that the people would never wait around—and wow. Man, I just got my mind blown and I’ve been in love ever since.
Your closing sets have become such a phenomenon—they are so highly anticipated and the audience’s energy is tremendous. Is that response normal for you? I have nothing to compare it with—the size of the crowd and so forth.
No, it’s not something we’re used to or something. [He laughs.] But then New Orleans has always been that way for us. It’s as if we’re from there. They treat us with the same respect there that they do their artists that come from there. I don’t know if a lot of acts can say that about that town. I don’t know what it is. I’ve even asked my mother, “Mom, are you sure we don’t have no people that come from out of that area?” It’s a special thing that happened with Maze and the city of New Orleans from 1977. I would like to think that yeah, we could do a fine job no matter where the Essence was held. But the fact that they hold it in New Orleans puts that right in our pocket—oh, yeah.
You know, we haven’t gotten the awards—you never see us on none of the music awards. And it really doesn’t matter to me. But this one does. Anything that comes out of the city of New Orleans for Maze, I’m as proud as I can be. It ranks up there with any gold record or platinum record I ever had. I know those people don’t play; anybody can’t just come in there and move those folks.
When did this love affair between Maze and New Orleans begin?
The first album came out [Happy Feelings] in 1977 and it became like a disease in that town. Our first tour—it was a promotional tour—was Mobile, Baton Rouge and New Orleans because that’s where the album was selling the most. So we went down there and played a club and the guy that owned it promoted us at the Municipal Auditorium. And wow—it was like we were already there. It was our first record and you would have never known that. Those people knew every song and just loved us. We wound up staying there maybe two or three weeks just playing every place in the state but mostly in New Orleans—we played the ILA hall, we played things in the park.
Pre-Essence we would come once or twice a year maybe at the university. Of course, we used to do the Saenger Theatre, which is where we did the Live in New Orleans album. And they gave us a classic album again—New Orleans. Like the James Brown’s Live at the Apollo album, I think our Live in New Orleans is a classic and that’s not just because of us. That’s where you do it, what the crowd is like—a live album is a mixture of everything.
Back to the Essence closing set… What’s going on with the line dance thing? I mean does line dancing come into play to that degree at other shows? It’s one of my favorite parts— it makes me smile to see the whole Dome dancing.
It’s mine too. You know, it [line dancing] does now. I think it started there though. I think the magnitude of it, when you see all them people doing it… From the point of view of the stage, I can’t even look at it because it looks like water. It almost makes me sick because there are different movements at different places. It’s a sea of this movement going on. Since maybe five years ago, on Joy and Pain we see that [line dancing] everywhere we play now. So I think it’s probably the people that have come to the Essence and it’s carried over. New Orleans has given us something that we’re noted for. I look at these things as super, super blessings in the mix. This is more than just selling records and a good act. This is special stuff that has gone on in our lives. That city is synonymous with us and vice versa.
Why do you think that is, musically speaking?
If somebody could help me answer that… I have not figured it out. I had never been to the South outside of going to Virginia to visit my grandparents during the summer. I didn’t think we’d sell a lot of records in the South as a matter of fact because we sound so smooth. I have no idea what this is except that we don’t play; we don’t mess around with our music. Maybe that’s it. We don’t fly from the stages and bombs going off and all that kind of stuff. We get up there and we come to just jump all over you. And I think maybe that’s what New Orleans is—it’s down and dirty. I think that’s a lot of the attraction that we have. We never, and will never, play games with our music—never.
As we speak, I haven’t had a new album out in 11 years and the band is bigger than we’ve ever been. So it’s not just the music business, this is the artistic world. The music business is separate from what we do. I’ve never really been a part of the music business except I make albums. But I’ve always been about making music. I think about the art of music rather than the music business and I think that’s kind of sustained us over these years.
That’s refreshing to hear.
Yeah. That’s the reason the music sounds like it does now. That’s why rhythm and blues music sounds like it does today because there’s too much business got in the mix. They’re making music with machines. How you gonna do that? Music isn’t sound; music is feeling. I almost get upset when I think about the black music of today. There’s been such a drastic change. We’ve had people before us who would rather die than play games with their music.
“Joy and Pain” has become an anthem of the Essence Festival. Tell me about the song. When did you write it? What inspired it?
What inspired it was Kahlil Gibran’s book The Prophet. In one of the sections he speaks of joy and sorrow. I love that whole book and the joy and sorrow particularly jumped out at me. It was 1980 or ’81 and I was, well, into a funny space and I was into yoga and all that stuff.
Well, you were living in the Bay Area.
Yeah. Well, it so inspired me; it’s such a truth. There is no such thing as mountains without valleys. There’s no such thing as joy without pain. How do you know joy if you don’t know pain? People want to avoid the pain of life, but you can’t grow that way. And wow, I was right and this guy was right. People listen to the truth. People want to hear the truth. They don’t want you being clever. They’d rather know the real deal. And they love artists that come at them that way. That’s why the jazz artists, people like Dizzy, Miles—people who didn’t play games—they love these people. So I aspire to be just like that. And I’m proof that that works too. I have a measure of talent but I’m not a Stevie [Wonder]. It’s not that. It’s something else that I have. I like to think that I’m proof that people want the real deal.
Many of your other writings speak to the theme of truth and often relate peaceful messages.
Yes, oh, yes—“We Are One,” “Happy Feelings,” “Feel That You’re Feeling,” that was a big song in New Orleans, and “Southern Girl,” which was, again, inspired by our times in New Orleans.
For our first album, I was 34-years-old or something. It wasn’t like I was an overnight success or something. So in the latter part of my life it was like I was born and raised there [in New Orleans].
So would you call yourself an optimist?
I am absolutely an optimist. Love will always find a way. They can drop bombs; they can wipe most of it out, but they can’t stop the world. Love will always rise back up. Lord knows man can be cruel and it’s hard to make that case at times but I believe that in my heart. Nothing is more powerful than love.
Philadelphia had a strong musical presence in the time you were growing up and playing there. It’s always had it’s own sound. What do you think you bring with you from Philly?
To me, underneath it all, Philly is written all over us. Philly is a tough town and we’re a tough act. It’s a gritty city and that’s very much a part of us. Over time we have learned to smooth the rough edges out and give the impression that California has had a big impact on us. But if you look at us and what we are and how we perform, we’re not a California act at all. We’re from Philadelphia.
At Essence Festival there’s a lot of glamour going on and you come out in your baseball cap. Is that part of the real deal, the gritty?
That’s part of it. I don’t even know what people are wearing out there. It’s just what I’ve done all my life; I’m just being me, the band is just being the band. When we put out The Golden Time of Day album—Earth, Wind and Fire was big then—we got outfits kind of like them just for that tour. Boy, we threw that stuff away right quick—it just wasn’t us at all. We’re not trying to win any fashion awards.
Let’s talk about your band. Who has been with you the longest?
Bugs—that’s McKinley Williams, he’s been there the longest. Me and Bugs went to high school together—we had little groups together. We’ve been together maybe 45 years. Roame [percussionist] has been with us from 35 to 40 years. The band has been intact as Maze since 1975. It’s a family that believes in that concept—the loyalty thing. I don’t think there’s anybody with the band or the organization that hasn’t been there 12 to 15 years.
What’s the best thing about having them behind you?
I just love them—we’ve made it through. I guess marriages go through it too—I’ve never been married—but I hear about this seven-year itch. And if you make it through the first seven or eight years, you can get through. That makes sense to me because I think if anybody stays together long enough you have to make it through these things. You get over the egos and all of that that comes into play. We have left that so far behind; that never comes up. It’s just a wonderful thing to have friends and be in love like that with other people.
You know, I don’t even want to do a solo record. I don’t want people to ever get that impression; I don’t want them even thinking that. Other people have asked me to sing on their records and the only way I would do that is if they sang on a Maze record. I’m very steadfast about that. I don’t ever want people to get the impression that I’m not my band and my band is not me.
What do you think is the biggest change in you and your band over the years?
The things that come with age—you mellow, you learn. Life is the great teacher. If you hang around long enough, you’re going to learn things. You’re gonna get better at it. I think the same thing applies to art too. I’ve seen Tony Bennett and that cat is still bad. I long for that. I want to be that. And this band is the kind of band that can do that too if we play our cards right. We’ve mellowed and gotten better, older and wiser.
And how about your audience? How has it changed?
They have too. I mean we have a sophisticated audience. We draw upper-middle class black folk. We draw people who aren’t stupid; they want to have a good time and they really get loose. They’re good people; they’re smart.
I read that when you first went to Europe it was new thing for you to encounter white audiences. Do you draw crossover audiences in the States now?
Not like blacks. We go to Europe and it’s like 97 percent white—that was shocking to us. That was very shocking to this day. As an artist, I wonder, “God, how come we can’t translate that? After all, we’re trying to change the world. Why can’t we get everybody involved?”
Yes, like Essence Festival has presented giant artists like Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder with huge crossover appeal yet only a sprinkling of white people attend. I can hardly believe it.
That’s true. Now, you know, this year they’re going to open with Prince. It will be interesting to see what happens on that note because when he tours around the country the audiences are mostly white. I’m anxious to see what happens there.