The soul of Alvin Garrett

Alvin Garrett is a Birmingham fixture. You may be most familiar with his work with Just a Few Cats, a group that he co-founded with Ruben Studdard. Now, Garrett isn’t just “a part” of Just a Few Cats; he is Just a Few Cats. The 43-year-old Tuscaloosa native has been the group’s only continuous member since its’ inception. A 1996 graduate of Central High School of Tuscaloosa, he continued his education at Samford University, and he has remained in Birmingham since making the move.

He grew up in the church; his father was a minister, and he fell in love with gospel music at an early age. But when he first dove in, it wasn’t singing that attracted him; it was bass guitar. His father gifted his first bass when he was just 11-years-old, an age when Garrett jokes that his hands were too small to play.

Since, he’s written songs for Noel Gourdin, Joe and Kelly Rowland.

Garrett’s new record, Lightness of Love, was released this year, and he was asked to perform during the virtual opening ceremony for the 56th Annual Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee. It’s a joyous record, filled with hope and love and authentic soul.

He and I spoke about his transition from a bass player and songwriter into a singer and about his experience performing in Selma.

How did you first discover your vocal talent?

It was my father, again. It was around 2010, and he was listening to all of my demos that I was sending out as a songwriter. He says, “Why are you giving all these songs away?” [laughs] I said, “I’m a songwriter! That’s what I do!”

He said, “But listen to yourself. Nobody can sing your songs the way that you do.”

Listening to my dad was a major influence in my life. His name is Alvin Garrett as well. I started listening to myself differently. I decided to trust what he was hearing and start searching for my own voice.

The brand of soul music that you do is a bit of a lost art. It’s authentic. It’s a throwback. What do you think the state of soul is now and how do you fit into it?

You have to be a soul person to make soul music. You have to have soul and you have to be in touch with the soul; not only your own, but the soul of society and the soul of people around you. That’s what’s missing. People are just trying to sell music. When soul music became a thing, they were singing from experience. They were singing from pain. They were singing from a movement. There was something behind the music that mattered other than just the song. I am soul. I think about the things that I write about every day. I live it out. I care about mankind. And I use my music to communicate messages to the soul. That is not something that’s easy to translate to people that can simply sing. You can sing! But where’s the soul? Can you reach the soul? Can you speak to the heart of the listener?

With me coming up in church, that’s all about soul; the core of the gospel. Musically, just being a lover of bass guitar, of funk, jazz…that helps me find my own space. It allows me to consider how I want to reach the listener the way that I want to reach them from my own soul with my own voice. The state of soul music may be suffering because people have lost touch with themselves and with the people around them in society.

When you were growing up, did you mostly draw influence from gospel artists or did you listen to mainstream artists, too?

My earlier years, I was mostly around quartet gospel in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. That was the big thing. Mighty Clouds of Joy. The Jackson Southernaires. You can hear a lot of that influence in my vocal arrangements with that quartet background style.

But as I got older, my uncle was a funk drummer. He played in a lot of bands and introduced me to a lot of funk like Earth Wind & Fire, Al Green. He started introducing me to the clean R&B music. Motown. None of this was a stretch. My dad wasn’t against good wholesome music. I was allowed to listen to different genres growing up, just nothing vulgar. Which to this day, I don’t like vulgar music. I don’t make vulgar music.

In my early years, I’d focus more on the bass players than the vocalists. I can tell you who played on the record easier than I can tell you who wrote it. [laughs] That was my focus in my earlier years.

Did your uncle play in bands around Birmingham and Tuscaloosa?

He did, but to this day, I can’t tell you who he played with. I played with him, and he’d teach me a lot about music. He’d say, “Hold it in the pocket, son. You can’t hold no groove if you ain’t got no pocket.”

Those simple lessons from my uncle taught me how to be a sound and fundamental musician.

What has the pandemic looked like for you? What have you gained from it? What have you done to pass the time?

The first thing I have to say when this question is asked is that I want to send condolences to everybody who has been touched by this or lost someone. I can’t talk about any of it without humbling myself to the gratefulness that I’m alive.

This year slowed me down. I was able to hear myself. I recorded two albums. I released two albums. I started working with a worthy project, The Dannon Project, which is a social services re-entry program in Birmingham. I’ve developed a songwriting program and moved into an executive administrative role with this organization that serves young and old people that have been in and out of the justice system. When I couldn’t tour, I was able to find a way to use my talents for good.

And because I have my own studio in my home, I was able to make some of the best music that I have ever made in my career.

Outside of staying cognitive that we are in a pandemic, I’ve been moving forward and preparing for things to get better. When this thing ends, I look to tour and I have great new music that I can get on the road with.

How meaningful was playing the Selma Bridge Crossing event for you?

Six years ago, at the 50th, was a big anniversary and milestone. There were thousands and thousands of people in Selma. I had written a song called “By Myself.” It was the perfect song for Selma. And I as left out. I was on the outside looking in. I thought, “If I could only sing this song in Selma, it would be everything.” But it wasn’t my time. I stayed at it. They played my music in Selma. I built the relationship. And six years later, not only did I have “By Myself,” I had about seven or eight more songs that fit the moment. I offered my music to them to go along with the virtual broadcast. There’s a lot of my music underscoring a lot of the interviews. I had a lot more to offer this year. Although I was disappointed six years ago, this year meant more. Because I stayed in it and I stayed at it. I could sing my music and it was relevant to the experience.

I shot a music video where I was able to walk the path and cross the bridge; just reflect on the position I have as an African American in America – in the South – to cover the sacrifices that they made 56 years ago. That was special to me personally and professionally.

The Lightness of Love is available everywhere now. To learn more about how to help The Dannon Project, visit dannonproject.org.

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