Brooklyn-born James Williams is best known to soul music fans as the legendary ‘D-TRAIN,’the gospel-raised powerhouse vocalist who stormed the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s and made such memorable singles as ‘You’re The One For Me,’ ‘Keep On,’ ‘Music,’ and ‘Something’s On Your Mind‘ for indie label Prelude before being signed by major label Columbia in 1986.
As James ‘D-Train’ Williams, he recorded a couple of albums for Columbia (‘Miracles Of The Heart,’ which spawned the US R&B Top 10 single, ‘Misunderstanding,’ and ‘In Your Eyes,’ the latter including the Quiet Storm classic, ‘Shadow Of Another Love’). Though the hits dried up as the ’80s became the ’90s, D-Train continued to work and thrive, and during the next twenty-five years, his projects ranging from creating jingles for TV ads and working as an in-demand session singer (he’s backed up everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Elton John) to being a martial arts expert, hosting his own radio show and performing in front of his eminence, the Pope.
‘D-Train’s’ distinctive set of pipes can be heard fronting ‘When You Feel What Love Has, ‘ the latest single by DJ-turned-producer, LENNY FONTANA, on his Karmic Power label. The two have recorded together before – on Fontana’s floor-mashing jams ‘Invincible’ and ‘Raise Your Hands’ – and seem to have found the perfect chemistry, with D-Train’s explosive vocals riding Fontana’s pumping beats. “We met through a mutual friend of ours,” explains Williams, talking in detail about his long career to SJF’s Charles Waring. “He took me over to his house and we clicked right away. We became fast friends and started writing. ‘Invincible,’ which we wrote a few years ago (in 2011), was the beginning of our writing relationship...”
What’s Lenny like to work with in the studio?
Oh, he’s a lot of fun. It’s not like it was years ago when you went in the studio and everybody was pretty much competing for a spot on the radio. It was a little more serious back then and the competition was Prince, Morris Day and the Time, and Parliament/Funkadelic. Technology was not as prevalent as it is today – you had to hire session musicians and string sections but nowadays it’s just Logic Pro X (laughs) and that’s pretty much it. These kids don’t have to be rocket scientists to record great music.
How did ‘When You Feel What Love Has’ come into being?
Lenny had a track and said “man, I’ve got the next single” and I said, “okay, I’ll come over and give it a listen.” I went over to his house and he played it for me and I started writing it right there. When I work well in the studio with somebody, it just comes boom, boom, boom, boom. And with Lenny, that’s the way it was. It just kept coming. I wrote it in an hour and we recorded it. He did his mix and worked his magic and the rest is what it is. Lenny is a great engineer and has a great ear for what the street wants and what radio wants.
Will you do an album together?
Lenny’s label, Karmic Power, doesn’t really do albums, they do singles. With me, I’m working on the new D-Train CD which is going to go back to where music was music. When you heard the Temptations and when you heard Marvin Gaye, you didn’t say that was white music, black music, purple music, R&B music. They didn’t have a section for it and that was one of the great things about Great Britain that I appreciated when I first did Top of the Pops in 1981 with Sting and the Police. They were there doing ‘Synchronicity’ and I was there doing ‘You’re the One For Me.’ One of the things that I really appreciated about the British pop charts was that it was one chart for all music. It was either good or bad.
Going right back in time, how did you get started in music?
My earliest memories of making music are with my dad in the living room. He bought an eight-track recorder which was the first one of its kind back in 1971. We loved music and music was always in our house. Dad had always bought a lot of Temptations’ albums and loved Nat King Cole, The Ink Spots and people like that who we’d be playing around the house. My dad was a master carpenter so he put speakers in the dining room and he ran wires all the way up to the living room to the television set. Back then you had a television, a record player and radio, all in one piece, and he ran the wires from that to our dining room and his study so that way you could be watching TV in our living room and we could be listening to music in the back room. When he bought an eight-track recorder I was into Michael Jackson and the Jackson five. When they came out in 1969 on the Ed Sullivan show it was like seeing the Beatles to young black kids in America. They sang ‘I Want You Back’ and my world changed right at that moment. We started singing Michael Jackson songs Acappella in the living room. I always wanted to play the bass like Jermaine (Jackson) so my father got me into guitar lessons. I studied the jazz guitar at the age of 10 years-old to 15 and at that point, I stopped and started playing football. But my earliest recollections of music before that would be in the church. I started singing when I was six years old in the choir in the Washington Temple Church of God in Christ in Brooklyn. (Singer) Ronnie Dyson, who did ‘Let Me Make Love To You,’ was our choir director and Al Sharpton, the political activist, was our junior church minister for the young people.
So gospel music was an important part of your development as a musician?
It was an important part of my development as a human being as well. I lived in a rough neighbourhood and my mother always kept us in the church. We were in church on Friday and all day on Sunday. So if we weren’t in school we were in church. We played in the park sometimes but my parents were very selective about who they let us play and hang out with because the neighbourhood was so bad. So music, by the time I was 10 and playing guitar, was really at the forefront of my life.
How did D-Train come about with you and Hubert Eaves?
When I graduated from Erasmus High School, I was captain of the football team and (singer) Will Downing was my classmate and captain of the bowling team. In his senior year, Will was writing songs for Melba Moore and Freddie Jackson and also started doing his own demos. He had a song called ‘The Real Deal,’ which he was demoing. He said “I want you to sing backgrounds on this” so I went in the studio with him. (Keyboard player and producer) Hubert Eaves, who was writing with Will came into the studio and sat down eating some Chinese food in the control booth. Will said, do some step out vocals so I did some step out lead vocals and as I started singing Hubert put the fork down, stopped eating his food and started looking at me like I was a Martian from another planet (laughs). He didn’t say anything because he was too cool at the time to do it but after I’d left and said my goodbyes, later on that night Will called me up and said “D, he went crazy over you. He loved your vocals.” I went to Hubert’s house the next day and he said “I love the way you sing. I’ve got this track but I don’t have any lyrics. Do you write?” I said sure. So he played it for me and I said give me a pad, and I wrote the lyrics. The energy just filled up the room. We wrote ‘You’re The One For Me’ and ‘Keep On’ that day.
How did you get to sign with Prelude?
Prelude came on the scene after we recorded ‘You’re the One For Me.’ Hubert took the record to the majors – Capitol Records, Columbia, RCA, Atlantic – but all of those labels turned him down and said: “no, we hate the record.” Then someone said “we love the record but we don’t the singer. James is horrible, he sucks, you need to get a girl (laughs).” Someone else said, “he’s too loud, he’ll never make it on the music scene.” Even Hubert’s father said, “you need to tone him down a little bit, he’s just too loud and aggressive.” Finally, Marvin Schlacter and Stan Hoffman at Prelude heard it and they went crazy and signed the record. They did the single and it went to number one on Billboard and they said: “okay, you guys have got to follow this up with an album.” So we got an album budget and I signed to Prelude.
‘You’re The One For Me’ has led a charmed life. What’s the secret to its longevity?
I think the secret to its longevity is what Lionel Richie once told me: “it’s the melody that makes the song.” And Luther Vandross told me, “it’s the silence between the notes that makes the song.” ‘You’re The One For Me’ is one of those songs that came about when we were transferring disco into house music. The music scene was changing with people like Larry Levan and the Paradise Garage in New York City. We were going from Studio 54, which was the disco scene, to the Paradise Garage being king. On the R&B side, everybody was sounding the same like they do today but Hubert broke that formula with his genius – because he is a genius – and he came up with this different style of music that nobody was doing at the time. I think our collaborative efforts, the way I wrote the vamp sections, nobody would sing it because it was like a singing-rap. People were like: “what is that?!” I think the great thing about ‘You’re The One For Me’ is that nobody could put a finger on what it was. I’ve been in different countries like France and Germany, where they don’t speak a word of English, but they hear that song and raise their hands up and those emotions go across the sky. Everybody: white, black, green, blue, lesbian, gay, transgender, they all become one. They all become me and I become them. And I think that’s why I’m still here 35 years later is because it mattered back then.
It’s an uplifting anthem.
It’s a transference of energy and melody and song and it made people feel like “I belong, I really do belong.” And it took music to a place where I think the hopeless people became people of hope and the people that didn’t have any faith, had faith. When I was on Serious Radio, I had people write me from prison: “I’m never getting out. I’m doing 35 years to life, could you please play your song ‘Keep On’ because it gets me through the day. I know I’m never going to see my kids again, I’m never going to walk the streets again, I’m in here for a double homicide and I’m never going home, but your music lets me know from day-to-day there’s hope even though I’m never getting out of here and I got something to believe in.” And that blew me away. I also got letters from people in Africa where warlords would raid their village and they told me my songs gave them hope.
In 1986 you signed to Columbia Records and remarketed yourself as James ‘D-Train’ Williams. What was the thinking behind that?
When we went to Columbia, so many people knew both of us as D-Train when D-Train was actually just me. It wasn’t Hubert and me, but at the time I was 300 lbs and I was the fat boy. They wanted a good-looking guy on the album cover and Hubert was the slim guy with green eyes and really light (skinned), so they wanted something for the girls to be attracted to us and they felt it wasn’t me. So they put me on the album front cover and Hubert on the back of the ‘Music’ album and ‘Something’s On Your Mind,’ but he was only the producer: he wasn’t the artist.
So how did it feel being on a big major label at that time?
It was very exciting. I thought things would change. Prelude wasn’t able to take us to the next level. We’d crossed over to the pop charts with ‘Something’s On Your Mind,’ Top Five in Billboard 1985, and they did not know how to push it to number one. They didn’t have any promotional staff. They had one guy for promotion for the whole country and Europe – Joey Bonner, and one person can’t cover two nations. It’s just impossible. They sold a lot of records based off of the music but Prelude was one of those labels that if you sold a million copies, they’d hide the cheque in the back room and hand you 20 cents. That’s what they were. It was one of those labels so when we got to Columbia, we got a better budget for our albums and I had a new manager who said “listen, you need to produce your own records in the studio with Hubert. And when you learn how to produce, you learn where the money is going, you learn how to budget and know what’s being spent and what’s not being spent.” So you learn how to be a producer and be a whole artist in this business and it taught me a lot of things. But it also taught me about the music business at a major level, which is probably worse than the independent labels. When I got to Columbia we did ‘Miracles Of The Heart,’ and we put so much time and effort into the album. My song ‘Misunderstanding’ was Top Five on the playlists around the country right behind Bobby Brown’s ‘Don’t Be Cruel.’ But instead of pushing it to number-one, they dropped the ball and let Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam go to number one with ‘Head to Toe.’ I didn’t realise what that was about. Then they dropped Lisa Lisa to push Michael Jackson. So we became a tax write-off for him. It happened with both albums and after the second time, we were pretty much done. When we did ‘In Your Eyes’ and were out in LA doing Soul Train, they weren’t even playing the music out there, so that means the staff (Columbia) weren’t doing their jobs and once again, the people at Columbia, Ruben Rodriguez & company, didn’t want to push the record. What the major labels do is they take a dozen eggs, which are records, and they throw them up against a wall. Whichever one sticks, that’s the one that gets promoted. Whichever one slides down the wall, that’s the one they just drop in the box and forget about.
Just going back to ‘In Your Eyes,’ I thought that was a fabulous record. It’s a shame that it didn’t do as well as you’d hoped for. There’s a wonderful song on there, ‘Shadow of Another Love.’
I wrote that song for my ex-wife. We were having marital problems. When you’re on the road you have all these beautiful women chasing you and you go mmm and then (in the song) I synced back to high school when you were dating that special girl and that’s the shadow of another love hanging over you and the shadow of another love setting you free. And there are times when you think of that person, but that was the love that got away – and that’s what ‘Shadow Of Another Love’ is about.
After that, what happened to you and Hubert? Did you go your separate ways?
We did. Hubert started writing with Luther Vandross in ’86 and he wrote ‘She Won’t Talk to Me’ for Luther which blew up as a big hit and together they wrote for Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston. When I came off the road, I fired my manager and said to myself, I’ve got to find another way because I had been on the road for the first four or five albums of my career and my kids were getting big and they were growing up without me. One day I was coming home from a tour with Parliament/Funkadelic and saw my ex-wife running to the airport. She was coming to pick me up at LaGuardia. There’s this guy with her and he is as tall as she is and they’re holding hands. And I thought: oh my God, what the hell? She’s left me for another man while I was gone? She let go of the man’s hand and he starts running towards me. Now I’m dropping my luggage, going oh crap man, this dude wants to fight me in the baggage lane? Is this really happening? It was so surreal. It’s 9 o’clock in the morning. And the closer he got to me, he opened up his arms and said “Daddy.” It was my son, who was 10 years old. And he had sprouted up like a root and was taller than his mum. We both started crying. He was just so glad I was home and he held me and I held him. It gets me misty now just thinking about it…
Did that change your life?
Yes, I came off the road that day and I decided that I’m never going to go back on the road full-time. Music was changing with New Jack swing and Teddy Riley and my music was being weaned out like disco was in the ’70s. I said to myself I’ve got to find a different career. In my life when one door closes another door opens. I was walking down 43rd Street & Broadway in Manhattan and this guy walks up to me, (songwriter/producer) Bill Eaton. He said “D train?” I said, “yes, sir.” He said, “man, I’ve been looking for you for a long time. Listen, I’ve got a Budweiser commercial that I’m producing and I’d love for you to come in and sing on it.” I never knew anything about radios, jingles and advertising but my first Budweiser commercial here in America became a national spot. I started getting checks in the mail and didn’t even have to work hard and chase people down for my money. So I went into the world of jingles and advertising for the next nineteen years. The cheques were fabulous and it was a good living but then the recession hit and the union in America went on strike at the same time and I had three kids in college. It was like somebody stuck a hole in the bottom of your boat and your money started running out (laughs). It changed the course of everything. But again, as one door was closing, another one opened. B.J. Stone called me and said “James, there’s a new start-up company here in Manhattan, we’re a new satellite radio station. Would you like your own radio show?” I’d never done radio a day in my life but I said yes. I never say no to the universe. You never say no to fate. I walked in and he trained me for three months and I had the D-Train Show on Sirius satellite radio from 2001 to 2008. I was on there every day from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock and had a wonderful career. I interviewed the likes of Lionel Ritchie, Jet Li – the kung fu artist – Roberta Flack, Toni Braxton, Babyface, Earth, Wind and Fire – they all came and did my show. So I learned how to ask questions.
What did you do when that finished?
I had also been doing work at the station called United Stations Comedy Network for the last 22 years and I’ve always fashioned myself as a session musician and as a working musician aside from D-Train. I was doing people’s albums like Cher, Bette Midler, Elton John, Meatloaf and Roxette. So it was a lot of different artists and groups that I was working with at the time and what happened was, as fate would have it, another door opened and they made me the musical director at a comedy station I was working at, United Stations Comedy Network, which is owned by the late Dick Clark, who did American Bandstand. So now I’m still a musical director at the United Stations Comedy Network, which is my mainstay, and I also work as a musician. I just sang for the Pope in October of last year, when he visited New York. The Catholic Church requested me to come and solo for the Pope. He wanted me to sing ‘On Eagles Wings’ in front of 40,000 people in Madison Square Garden. And I did it. Before that, I’ve sung at the Whitehouse for the last three years singing background behind Bruce Springsteen, Garth Brooks, Sheila E and Snoop Dogg. So my career is actually growing. At present, I’m working on my own television show, a variety show, but I can’t talk a lot about it because of the disclosure agreement. It’s really going to be exciting for me. I want to do a variety show where it’s comedy and singing, almost like Carol Burnett, or The Benny Hill Show. People need to laugh. We have so much reality that people need to laugh. But I’m grateful at this point in life to have lived the life that I’ve lived and had the career that I’ve had. It’s been a stellar career. But then again there’s so much left in me. There’s a lot left in the tank and I’m excited. I’ve lost 30 lbs and I’m in fighting shape.
D-TRAIN’S NEW SINGLE WITH LENNY FONTANA IS OUT NOW VIA KARMIC POWER