Eli Paperboy Reed Lifts Young Voices in the Gospel Spirit


There was a moment in Eli Paperboy Reed’s gospel quartet class recently, at the end of Blind Willie Johnson’s plaintive “Let Your Light Shine on Me,” when Asher Bethune, a reserved 19-year-old, hit a note so low, so unexpectedly, that the other students jumped and shouted. No one had heard Mr. Bethune sing like that before.

Luke Waldron, 17, declared the presence of the supernatural.

“He’s in this room!” he shouted.

Mr. Reed, the teacher, beamed and shook his head. Quartet singing will do that to a person, he knew. It had done things to him.

Mr. Reed’s journey to the Harlem townhouse where the group meets includes some familiar chapters of America’s musical narrative: a start in the juke joints around Clarksdale, Miss., where he got the nickname Paperboy because of a cap he wore; then up north to Chicago, where he played piano and sang in a church on the South Side; then east to New York. But some twists along the way are distinctly Mr. Reed’s: a Reform Jewish upbringing and bar mitzvah in Brookline, Mass.; studies at the University of Chicago; a couple of Nike and Toyota commercials; and the divine intervention of a free-market think tank.

In the classroom, Mr. Reed, 32, exhorted the students to cut loose. “I want you to get out of your comfort zone on this,” he said, growling a line to demonstrate.

“I want a sense of urgency. If you can fake it, you can do it for real.”

The words could serve as a motto for his own sojourn.

In 2013, Mr. Reed, whose real name is Eli Husock, received a call from his father, Howard Husock, about a free after-school program called Gospel for Teens, held inside a renovated brownstone on West 126th Street. Like his son, Howard Husock has had a varied career journey, writing about blues and soul music for The Boston Phoenix and Creem magazine in the 1970s, then becoming a vice president at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, which promotes free-market capitalist principles. The institute was considering Gospel for Teens for a social entrepreneurship award; did Eli want to join his father for a visit?

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At the time, Mr. Reed’s career seemed about to take off. He had finished recording an album of pop soul songs for Warner Bros. Records; even before release, songs were being licensed for use in commercials for Nike and Toyota, as well as in movie and television soundtracks. Of course he wanted to join his father, he said.

His timing was fortuitous, said Vy Higginsen, executive director of the Mama Foundation for the Arts, which runs the Gospel for Teens program.

“We needed something special for the young men,” she said. “We thought young black men were in danger, and we wanted to give them some extra attention.”

Mr. Reed had a proposition: How about a class in gospel quartet singing, the music that produced stars like Wilson Pickett and Sam Cooke? The school had strong choir programs, but quartet singing is something different — flashier and looser, with more male sex appeal. “I said, I’ll do it, I’ll be around, let’s make it happen,” Mr. Reed said. “So now it’s three years.”

As Mr. Husock remembered the meeting, his son sat at the piano and belted out an old Alex Bradford song. “I’ve seen him in a lot of black churches, and the reaction is always the same,” Mr. Husock, 65, said. “First, people are dumbfounded. Then they’re blown away by his voice. In that instant, he formed a bond with Vy Higginsen.”

Mr. Reed placed the students — just a few that first year, gradually growing to eight — on the front stoop and on street corners to sing songs from a tradition their parents may be too young to remember.

Luke Waldron, now in his third year, said he was “kind of skeptical” the first time he met Mr. Reed. “I stayed quiet and shy,” he said. “I had to feel him out. But our relationship over time has become extremely close. He’s increased my confidence.”

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In contrast to the choir teachers, who expected Luke to hit the notes as written, Mr. Reed encouraged him to use his full range and bend the song to his emotions.

“He will take risks,” Luke said of his teacher. “He says in quartet music, there’s no reason for holding back. Have confidence in your voices. Don’t be afraid of messing up.”

Mr. Reed did not anticipate what happened next. Turnover at Warner Bros. left his album orphaned. The label dropped him. The weekly gospel quartet class, which he had expected to squeeze between tours — and for which he refused compensation, Ms. Higginsen said — was suddenly his only musical outlet.

“I was really down,” he said. “I’d be at home, not touring, not recording, not really writing. And then on Fridays I would come here and I would leave just completely energized by the kids and the music we were making. I would definitely think, ‘Man, I don’t want to go all the way up there, it takes me an hour and a half to get there from Brooklyn.’ Then I’d say, ‘No, I’m gonna do it, these kids are depending on me.’ And by the end of it I was just so stoked about all of it, and stoked about music.”

If he was discouraged, he did not show the students, said Stephen Pedley, 17. “He had this swagger about him,” Stephen said. “From the first class, he’s the same Eli.”

Last year, Mr. Reed started writing songs again, this time in an explicitly gospel vein, and recorded them using his own money, for an album, “My Way Home,” scheduled to come out in June.

For Mr. Reed, the evolution has felt natural.

“I don’t think you have to necessarily embrace every particular word of the song or the scripture to enjoy the beauty and joy that the music creates,” he said. “In the other churches I’ve played in and the gospel groups I’ve been in, people have been very accepting of me. It hasn’t been an issue. I find that the black church is one of the most open and accepting places that I’ve ever encountered in my whole life.”

One of his mentors, the gospel and soul singer Roscoe Robinson, 87, said he was not surprised by the overtly Christian messages in Mr. Reed’s new songs. “I think he’s a Christian person,” Mr. Robinson said, from his home in Birmingham, Ala. “I really think he knows the Lord.”

In the weeks after Asher Bethune hit his low note, he was still marveling at the sound that had come from his body. For Asher, a freshman at Concordia College in Bronxville, the religious content was the heart of the music. Something bigger than him must have guided that note, he said.

“I was taught that we should let the spirit lead you when you’re singing,” Asher said. “When I hit that note, that came from my soul and my heart. I didn’t know it was there.”

Ms. Higginsen said she hears the same spirit in Mr. Reed’s music and tutelage. “The common thread is the dedication and joy in good music,” she said, “and to serve as real role models and say, O.K., we understand that making music is more than making a record or making money, that somehow the music is therapeutic.”

“It’s an end to itself,” Mr. Reed said.

“So whether you decide to pursue a music career or be a veterinarian, it really doesn’t matter,” Ms. Higginsen said. “When you take the music with you, you’re taking your own therapy with you.”

The class finished with a slinky gospel song called “Don’t Let the Devil Ride,” with Mr. Reed taking lead on the last verse, pushing it as hard as he could, until the students raced through the final vamp. Class was over; needs had been met.

Mr. Reed packed up his guitar and headed home, spirits high.


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