LEON BRIDGES-A SOUL COMES HOME By Sandra Castillo
The anticipation is slowly mounting as the performer readies himself for the big event. The air is filled with the kind of electrical charge reserved only for those who know as soon as he steps out on that stage into the white-hot spotlight, he’s got to be ready to hit the ground running. Tonight, he has an obligation to fulfill and that is to convince himself and the world that he is the sole reason there are those in attendance at the Fedex Forum in Memphis, Tennessee, who have paid some serious cash to see him perform in concert. As the well-coifed entertainer, looking very suave, debonair in his starched shirt, exquisitely-stitched, tailored suit and trousers, stares back at his reflection in the mirror of his dressing room, the viewer must remind himself that this moment, for all gracious intents and purposes, is not a chapter torn from the pages of a history book of a certain bygone era that witnessed this nation gather at the crossroads of the Civil Rights movement or when it was there to greet four, young, mop-top lads from Liverpool, who had traversed the Atlantic to invade America in 1964.
Welcome to the 21st-century, where everything of yore, musically speaking, is made relevant, fashionable again. Or so it seems to be the case, when one settles down to groove to the sounds of the phenomenal Leon Bridges. It may have taken a little over one year before the man, with the voice as smooth as his vintage moves, went from entertaining beer-chugging patrons mingling in dive bars around Fort Worth, Texas to eventually selling out well-known music palaces around the country. It must be said that the verdict’s in about this amazing talent. Even though his reputation as a standout draw guaranteed him a solid booking no matter where he played, the golden-throated crooner with a penchant for ‘60s R & B still needed to establish a formidable following to kick start his career as a successful musician in a cutthroat business wrought with many challenges and competition. Of course, when destiny finally had its way and persuaded the necessary powers-that-be to come together and discover Bridges performing at open-mic nights at various pubs around town, it took no time at all before he was yanked out of the bowels of obscurity to eventually land a recording deal with Columbia Records.
In early 2016, the critically acclaimed film, THIS IS HOME, premiered at the Squarespace in New York City. Filmmaker Danny Clinch travelled along with Bridges, where he spent more than a year on the road touring non-stop. Accompanying the director and singer were saxophonist Jeff Dazey, bassist Andrew Skates and Bridges’ hired gun/photographer, Rambo. The entourage were interviewed as they took to the open highway in a large tour bus. Afterwards, Bridges returned to his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, revisiting many of the old stomping grounds he frequented before he became a breakout star. One of the places he also decided to return to was the White Water Tavern, in Little Rock, Arkansas, where Clinch captured Bridges ruminating in the shadows and illumination of the venue’s pool table area. When the singer was juxtaposed against the back wall of the bar, its facade covered in ripped decals and graffiti etched from those who had passed through the beer-stained portal to perform, it served as a bittersweet reminder of just how far Bridges has come, as a virtual unknown, to his well-deserved place in this universe as an international superstar.
Born in 1989, Leon Bridges hails from Fort Worth, Texas. Before he had even stepped in behind a microphone to sing, he was allowing his ears to bend to the sounds and refrains of certain musical artists, namely Usher and Ginuwine, both who would be significant influences for the impressionable, young lad. When he began to pursue music on a more serious level, Bridges found his heart leaning mostly in the artistic direction of retro-soul and eventually composed like-minded songs influenced by the genre of music. As he found himself drawn to the likes of soul legends Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and early Marvin Gaye, his creative persuasions gave way to the music of an era unrivalled, that is, until the Beatles landed at JFK in ‘64 . Once the direction of his artistic choices was confirmed, Bridges was then able to breathe life into his compositions by structuring simple, jazzy guitar chords around their lyrical foundations. As time passed on, he decided that he needed to branch out and reach a wider audience by sharing and promoting his music outside the four walls of his bedroom.
By performing at open-mic nights around the Fort Worth area, Bridges eventually developed a solid, loyal following with his music steeped in the aural persuasions of ‘50s and ‘60s straight-up R & B and Soul. His first, big break came when he was introduced to guitarist Austin Jenkins and drummer Joshua Block of the indie-garage rock group White Denim, both of whom were very impressed after seeing Bridges perform his song, “Coming Home,” onstage. He was invited to record a few tracks with the two men, where they produced several of his songs on vintage recording equipment to give it an analog feel. In late 2014, two of the songs Bridges recorded with Jenkins and Block were released on Sound Cloud. The one that received substantial airplay was “Coming Home,” which found its way into regular rotation on several radio stations, including KKXT out of Dallas, Texas. From there, it caught the attention of the heads of several, major record labels. When Columbia Records came a-knocking on Bridges’ door, the young singer heeded the call and was eventually signed to the powerhouse conglomerate in December of 2014.
From his creative alliance with Team Jenkins-Block, Bridges recorded, released his debut album, Coming Home, to much critical and public acclaim. The record seemed to resonate with so many who found his music a most welcome breath of fresh air, amidst the influx of contemporary artists constantly relying on auto tune and studio wizardry to support their sophomoric efforts. From the launch of Coming Home arrived the official single and title track, “Coming Home.” Based on the strength of its popularity, the song became a “Top 10 Most Viral Track” on Spotify. In support of his album, Bridges went on tour with Jenkins and Block, until the musicians resumed their own obligational duties with White Denim. As the singer’s popularity flourished, he would eventually be summoned to play larger music events, including the Sundance Film Festival and the motherlode of all music forums, South By Southwest (SXSW), which takes place every year in Austin, Texas.
The long-running Saturday Night Live, which made its debut on NBC in 1975, generously boosted Bridges’ career and exposure to a national audience, when he was asked to be a musical guest on the show in December of 2015. Along with his band, the singer delivered two standout songs, “Smooth Sailin’” and “River,” off Coming Home for the audience over in Studio 8H and, subsequently, for those television viewers tuning in to the program that evening.
When Bridges appeared on Austin City Limits in February of 2016, it was another first milestone for him as he made his debut on the PBS-aired program. He performed his hit, “Twistin’ & Groovin,’” much to the delight of the audience. Once again, the artist was back in the national spotlight as he continued to reached the masses and an ever-growing contingency of new fans. As wonderful as that opportunity was for Bridges to appear on Austin City Limits, his cache and reputation, as one of the music industry’s most notable artists of today, suddenly quadrupled upon receiving a very important phone call from the White House.
The invitation for Bridges to perform in concert for President Obama, in a musical salute and tribute to Ray Charles, was the one event that he would certainly not pass up. The showcase, “Smithsonian Salutes Ray Charles: In Performance at the White House,” celebrated the life and music of the late singer, who died in 2004, and had entertained fans for nearly sixty years. Along with Bridges, such renowned artists as gospel singer Yolanda Adams, Sam Moore, Usher and local sensation Andra Day-who hails from Chula Vista, California and just recently returned from a world tour with Bridges-performed music dedicated to the memory and legacy of the legendary “Genius of Soul,” who gave the world such musical diamonds as “Georgia,” “Hit The Road Jack” and, perhaps, his most famous of all, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” which remained at the top of the charts for five, straight weeks in 1962.
Even though Leon Bridges could let all this good fortune go straight to his head, he remains very humble and respectful of the fact that he’s certainly walking in the shadows of musical giants, who have moved and influenced him enough to want to do so. He once said-
“I’m not saying I can hold a candle to any soul musician from the ‘50s and ‘60s, but I want to carry the torch.”