Garland Jeffreys brings it home in the title track of his new album, 14 Steps To Harlem, the video for which is premiered exclusively below.
“The big story in the album is ’14 Steps To Harlem,’ and what my father gave me,” the veteran New York singer tells Billboard. “This is kind of a dedication to him, to both my folks, this album. But my father, he gave me a life. He provided the money for me to go to Syracuse [University]. He gave my brother and I what he didn’t have. He was a very dutiful guy. I’m sitting here in a nice apartment with my wife, and my daughter when she’s home, and I’m very grateful for what I have, and I know that’s because of what my father gave me.”
As Jeffreys talk-sings verses about his father and mother’s journeys to work — his at a small factory in Harlem, hers to the Domino sugar plant — between doo-wop style choruses, the video streams appropriate black & white period photos, including plenty of street scenes and venues such as the Apollo Theatre and the Rhythm Club. The combination presents a vivid image of Jeffreys’ experience as a youth, with a solemn and reverent but also joyful tone.
“My father would take the train from Sheepshead Bay to Harlem, and when he got to Harlem he’d have to walk to the place where he was working,” Jeffreys remembers. “At one point I would go with him and I’d work part-time, maybe in the summer months back then. I don’t know how he did it, ’cause I didn’t really like that job, but he did, ’cause that’s all he had. He worked wherever he could get a job, but it had to have a certain respectability to it. He had a lot of pride, and he was proud to have his kids rise up to the point that he did.”
Jeffreys’ parents also got to bask in a bit of his success. “They moved to Vegas at one point,” he says. “And I gave my mother and father my gold single for 1973’s ‘Wild In the Streets,’ and that was fantastic. They knew that was valuable, right in front of them, and that their investment in me had paid off.”
14 Steps to Harlem includes other nods to Jeffreys past, including originals such as “When You Call My Name,” “Schoolyard Blues,” “Reggae On Broadway” and “Spanish Heart.” He also covers the Beatles’ “Help” as an homage to John Lennon, who Jeffreys met while recording at the Record Plant, and the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting For the Man” in tribute to his fellow Syracuse Orangeman Lou Reed, who he met during their shared days in college.
“We became friends at Syracuse, and I watched him and felt like, ‘If Lou can get up there and sing, then I certainly can!'” Jeffreys recalls. “Lou has always been a friend to me. He always respected me and treated me with love, to the very end. I would say that’s probably very rare; I know he had certainly other kinds of engagements with other people that weren’t like that, but my experience with him was always positive.”
Jeffreys releases the James Maddock-produced 14 Steps to Harlem — which features guest appearances by his daughter Savannah and by Reed’s widow Laurie Anderson — on April 28, and will be at this year’s South By Southwest during March to build up some advance buzz. A tour starts March 18 in Scotch Plains, N.J. with North American and European dates, and as many more as the 73-year-old artist can muster.
“I’ve got a job to do,” Jeffreys says. “I can’t emphasize how grateful I am, because in my late years now, you might say, I’m fortunate to have my health. I’m at the gym, I take care of myself, I don’t feel like I have any influences. So I’d like to stick around and make new recordings as much as I can and get out on the road. Just shows, shows, shows — that’s the theme right now. That’s what I’m here to do.”