Photo by Andrew Spear

The Interview: Norman Whiteside

The numbers don’t stack up in Norman Whiteside’s favor. But at 63, with 31 of those incarcerated, he’s as fresh as they come. A fantastic conversationalist. Over a breakfast of turkey sausage and scrambled eggs, Whiteside painted a wild picture of the Columbus soul heydays—his triumphs and his harrowing downfall—with a photographic memory. Names, dates, locations, anecdotes, came with the clarity of a man determined  to make up for lost time.

In between tales of becoming the “neighborhood Robin Hood” scamming the “kings” under the tutelage of Bill Moss in the waning years of Capsoul Records, or the decadence that ensued in late nights at Owl Studios when recording Wee’s 1977 debut, You Can Fly on My Aeroplane, he veered from the narrative to let me know Patti Labelle would gargle Tabasco before performing, how he could make French horns sound like a “bed of clouds,” or how his melodies have been lifted by everyone from John Legend to Toto. Not to gloss over Whiteside’s dark past, but it’s a story of twists and turns that’s  been told twofold. The charge of conspiracy to commit aggravated murder in the 1982 death of 18 year old Laura Carter—a Denison University student who was caught in the crossfire of a gang dispute—is something for which Whiteside maintains innocence to this day. He wasn’t there, he didn’t fire the weapon, he provided critical evidence in the case. Despite his involvement, Whiteside has served his time and more than paid his debt to a labyrinthine criminal justice system. Unfortunately it was “fate smiling down on the well-prepared.” What’s for certain is the lasting impact of Aeroplane. It stands as one of the most singular R&B albums ever recorded in Columbus post-Capsoul. Filled with slick synths, honeyed melodies, sensual orchestration, and Whiteside’s conceptual storytelling, it’s a lost psychedelic soul masterpiece that found an entirely new audience after being reissued in 2008 by Chicago’s lauded Numero Group. Since then the record has been sampled by Kanye West (giving Whiteside a Grammy nomination and royalty checks), coveted by soul collectors, and started an invested interest by fans and supporters to have him released.

Finally freed in September of last year, Whiteside wasted no time un-pausing the “continuation” of his long-dormant career by recording new material with the full support of Numero as well as playing celebrated concerts in October and on New Year’s Eve with the backing of Liquid Crystal Project. Not forgotten, it’s the rare instance in which a musician is suddenly more in demand than he is a relic remembered for nostalgic want. From across the table Whiteside sings falsetto riffs on his past glories, he can expertly mimic the voices of  Al Green and Stevie Wonder,  but seems most excited  to promote his latest creation “Wish.” In his eyes, the future is bright. His star is only now rising. What brought him to this point though, the murky spots on his timeline, are best spoken in his own words.

You came up when Capsoul was starting to shutter. Did you feel like what you were doing musically was a new beginning?

Bill and Capsoul were trying to pattern themselves after Stax and Motown. They wanted that Southern sound, with plain, clear lyrics. I was listening more to Sly Stone, Isaac Hayes, and Stevie Wonder. I loved the story concept. Sly was a genius, he was subliminal. I understood it. Stevie said when you’re writing music you have to have another way to say, “I love you.” That’s how I came up with my fairy tale concept of Tom Thumb and Thumbelina. Instead of “I love you” it’s “you can fly on my aeroplane.” Whenever I would present a song, with those departures, they didn’t get it. They thought what I was doing was way into the future.

So when it finally came time to release your first album, did you have high hopes that it would eclipse what came before it in Columbus?

Being with Bill I minimized ego. He taught me the power of radio and the power of a studio. When I heard my first song on the radio I would call in about 25 times and make a request in different voices. In the beginning I did have a lot of ego, but by the time I had access to a studio, there wasn’t any of that. I was focused and ready to make the music I was hearing in my head.

You recorded Aeroplane at Owl Studios. Again that was a different direction than your peers. How did that influence the final product?

It was by mistake. I had first asked Jackie Hogg, from the group Timeless Legend, about where to record. He had recorded at King’s Mill Recordings, but wanted to throw me off and sent me to Owl out on Sunbury Road. Now, that Sagittarius had an ego. He used to carry around briefcases that I think didn’t have anything in them. But anyway, fortunately, I had a lot of production experience from Bill. Owl wanted $25 an hour and I only had $75. I said I just need three hours and I can do everything now. I didn’t have a bass player, so I used the bass Moog in the studio. It was Sterling Smith, who went on to play with the Beach Boys. He also did the synth strings on a track. Tom Murphy (one of Owl’s founders) came down and listened to what we were working on and immediately said the session was free. It was all white guys, and they thought they could do something with what I was doing. All of the sudden I had a new round of all white friends. I’ve never been around that many white people. What I quickly noticed was that none of those guys had any prejudice or treated me as inferior. I said “let’s do this.” Next thing I know I had a MiniKorg, a string ensemble, the Wurlitzer, and a Hohner clavinet. Sterling was showing me how to set the oscillators on the Moog. I had everything I needed. It was a real education at Owl.

The album didn’t exactly take flight, but you continued to record. The street life became a priority, so did that feed into the music, or was the music something that became an escape from that, a departure?

The music was an expression of all of the things that I felt I wasn’t allowed to say. Back then it was all about the pimps and players and the big hats and the Mack. I wanted to prove that there was more than that. I was a monogamous soul. The music was the only thing the woman I was with at the time had to compete with. Each relationship I had ended because of music. The only jealousy a woman felt was because of that Wurlitzer piano. So much so, the mother of my daughters went out to Rickenbacker Airport, where I was doing a USO show, and told them she was there to take the piano for repair. She took the Wurlitzer and hid it so that I lost the contract. That piano was how we ate. I quickly understood why musicians didn’t have families.

How did you come to find out that people were rediscovering your music?

Even as I was in prison in 2008, Tom Murphy never stopped promoting me. Eventually I got a letter from Rob Sevier [from the Numero Group] asking to put out the record. I thought it was a hoax. Soon I was learning that the original record was going for $800 and the R&B Hall of Fame called it the “unknown gem” of 1977, so I agreed to give Rob an interview. The story that’s in the liner notes of the reissue, that was told over the phone 15 minutes at a time, but Rob pieced together over a few hours. I’ve never had a formal contract with Rob, but he and Ken Shipley has done everything they said they were going to do for the record. That really started to get people in my corner.

How do you mean?

The following year, right before I was to go to the parole board, [Columbus Monthly writer] Dave Ghose comes in and does a five-page spread on me and instead of writing what is usually written about an inmate and life in prison, he called me the “talented Mr. Whiteside.” I mean it did make me sound like I was Stevie Wonder meets Lex Luthor, but I was starting to be in the news more than most superstars. I was getting mail from Japan and Germany and the U.K. One guy in England wrote me a letter that started by saying, “Dear Mr. Whiteside, I hope you never get out.” I read down a little farther and he says it’s because his wife was in love with me. Come to find out they were both big fans of the record.

You’re right about the press that you received. It almost always focuses on the tales of your criminal record. Do you think that over time that has overshadowed the music?

Some people wanted to believe that just because the woman who kidnapped me was a prostitute and after that I decided to stay with her that I had become one of those guys. You can’t beat perception. We were in a relationship while she was still a prostitute, and I learned that life from all of these women around her. There was the perception that I was this criminal mastermind. When I was convicted there was this perception that I was like Al Capone or John Gotti, that I had people protecting me. But it was never like that. Now if you wanted a new face? (from there Whiteside goes into a detailed tangent about how he would draft bogus checks and phony credit cards to take from the ‘kings’) That became my ultimate fascination. That’s where the overshadowing came in. I got so absorbed, this became as musical as music itself. I was very vindictive. That went on until music left my whole scene.

Once you got inside, when did the desire to play music return?

Immediately. As soon as I got into Lucasville I found out they needed a piano player for the church. There was a sign, “No Inmates Allowed on the Piano,” but I sat down and played anyway. The preacher stopped the service and asked me to keep on playing. Pretty soon the Christians offered me protection because God had sent them a keyboard player. After that the warden got wind of the piano player and asked me to start a music program in a maximum security prison. I was the entertainment guy. The whole negativity attached to my name in the prison system changed and I became very well-loved.

Did you have any freedom to write and record your music?

There were strict rules about recording there, but every once and awhile a staff member would smuggle in a tape recorder and I would work quickly. I would send them out to people but they didn’t know what to do with them. The two songs that I just recorded, “Wish” and “I Be F**ked Up” are both over a decade old. But somebody heard it recently and said that they sounded like “right now.”

And Kanye? Have you spoken to the man?

No. Not at all. But let me put it this way. If he wants to call himself a creative genius, then that makes Norman Whiteside a super genius. You don’t create something that’s already made. It’s the one who creates it who gets the level of genius.

Since you’ve been out you’ve been busy. Is this a comeback?

I don’t want to call it a comeback. I want to call it a continuation. Comeback means you went somewhere, second chance means you did something wrong, continuation is undefined. This is a continuation.

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