He’s been part of the New York music scene for more than 30 years and is as representative of the city’s multicultural, multi-ethnic mosaic as a subway car at rush hour. Yet despite critically praised albums such as 1975’s Ghost Writer, 1981’s Escape Artist and 1992’s Don’t Call Me Buckwheat, Garland Jeffreys exiled himself from the stage for most of the past decade.
Ground down by the record business and committed to raising his daughter, Savannah, Jeffreys chose to be a stay-at-home dad on the Lower East Side until his long-time friend, guitarist Alan Friedman prodded him into performing again as his 60th birthday loomed.
“Part of me really did want to play again, but I didn’t think anybody would be interested,” he said, sitting in a neighborhood coffee shop. “You really do lose perspective.”
He returned to the stage in August 2001 in East Hampton on Long Island, and after realizing he was “physically all there; the parts were working,” he’s been gathering momentum ever since. A sold-out show at The Village Underground three months later led to a phone call from Bruce Springsteen, asking him if he’d be interested in participating in his Christmas shows in Asbury Park. In 2002 he did benefits, house concerts and shows up and down the East Coast, and 2003 culminated with Jeffreys contributing “I Walk The Line” to a Johnny Cash tribute album, appearing in Martin Scorsese’s The Blues series on PBS and joining Springsteen onstage for a handful of his New York-area stadium shows.
“The performing thing, over the last two years, has been an absolute joy for me,” said Jeffreys, whose club shows with his band, The Coney Island Playboys, are energetic, athletic events in which no counter or tabletop is safe from one of his sudden forays into the crowd.
He’s playing all the songs from his 11-album catalogue, a broad tour of his own as well as popular music’s roots—from the jazz and big-band legends he heard at home as a kid to the a capella, Motown, and R&B he grooved on growing up. Once Jeffreys began forming bands after graduating from Syracuse, he latched onto reggae long before it enjoyed widespread appeal and also fell under the influence of Bob Dylan. Many of Jeffreys’ songs are infused by the personal experience that comes from being a child of mixed-race parents in an urban hothouse. “I knew early, most of my songs were going to be very serious,” he said.
Yet even when the message is serious, his music—full of bold, genre-hopping rhythms and passionate stories of street-corner romance and city life—remains robust, conveying a deep-felt intensity he still expresses on-stage. Jeffreys is already playing new songs for an album scheduled for release later this year, and has plans to follow with an extensive tour through America, Canada and Europe.
“I’ve returned to that ‘anywhere, everywhere’ kind of touring,” he said. “My attitude now is that there’s no reason for me to stop.”