Guitarist Lloyd Gregory’s remarkable musical versatility and the fact that he’s an extremely nice guy have kept him in steady demand for more than four decades. Born 62 years ago in Indianapolis and raised in Cleveland, he relocated to Berkeley in 1966 — during the golden age of Oakland soul — and quickly hooked up with the Ballads, then the area’s top vocal group. His rippling Curtis Mayfield-inspired guitar chords can be heard prominently on the Ballads’ 1967 hit “God Bless Our Love” (the version on the local Bay View label, not the later one on Venture). Several years later, while in Chicago with the Natural Four, he had the opportunity to sit down in a studio and talk to his hero Mayfield.
Gigs with such singers as Jesse James, Mary McCreary, Maxine Howard and Sugar Pie DeSanto followed, but for the past quarter century Gregory has focused on leading his own band. “I find that if you want to work, it’s best to be a bandleader,” he says following an engagement at Biscuits & Blues in San Francisco.
The guitarist recalls some valuable advice keyboardist John Turk gave him over breakfast in Switzerland, where they were touring with Howard: “If you want to be good, always hire people who are better than you for your band. They will pull you up and make you a better musician.”
“I’ve lived by that,” Gregory adds, “and I’ve been lucky enough to have some really, really good people around me. I’ve just tried to take care of business so that I can get these people I really respect good-paying gigs.”
His current band is made up of some of the Bay Area’s heaviest players: tenor saxophonist Robert Stewart, keyboardist-vocalist Janice Maxie-Reid, electric bassist Joe Thomas and drummer Billy (Shoes) Johnson. The group, augmented by second keyboardist Glen Pearson and percussionist James Henry, will perform at 8 p.m. Monday, February 1, at Yoshi’s in Oakland. Gregory will also be playing solo guitar from 5 to 7 p.m. Thursday, February 18, at a reception for an exhibit of photos by Jim Dennis and Ted Pontiflet in the Craft & Cultural Arts Gallery of the State of California Office Building in Oakland.
The Gregory band’s command of jazz, blues and funk was evident one recent Sunday evening at Biscuits & Blues. Among the highlights were Stewart’s molten-toned, octave-leaping tenor solo and Gregory’s scorching, fast-fingered flight on a funk-fueled treating of Eddie Harris’s “Freedom Jazz Dance,” Maxie-Reid’s soaring vocals on a samba-driven arrangement of “Summertime” and the leader’s sweetly ringing tone and use of hammer-on trills during a slow blues instrumental.
Gregory is in the process of mixing his fifth CD, scheduled for March release on Stanley Clarke’s Roxboro label. Gregory and the famous jazz bassist met through their mutual interest in Tae Kwon Do. “I school him about martial arts, and he schools me about music,” the guitarist says of Clarke.
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